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An Autumn Steam Sale Thanksgiving

Steam's 2013 Autumn Sale has devastated my plans to be saving up much this paycheck, but I do think my regimen of purchases has improved a bit.

I basically have such a craven backlog of games that I've upgraded my purchase requirements from, "It looks like something I might want to play" to, "It looks like something I'll definitely play."

As picky as I am, this subtle change in phrasing now means that most of the games sitting on my wish list are little more than dead weight, but I did pick up a few interesting titles nonetheless.

Now Playing: Euro Truck Simulator 2

I've watched a great deal of Nerd Cubes'  "Lets Play" videos and noticed that most games with "simulator" in the title are kind of silly.  They might be simulating something, but that doesn't make them worthwhile games.  They're mostly a batch of poorly-wrought gimmick concepts to sell to gullible casual gamers.

However, Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a surprising exception to this norm.  It is a game that has impressed professional game reviewers and Metacritic visitors alike.
(Source: Nerd Cubed)

If I had to nail down the exact reason why I like Euro Truck Simulator 2, I would say that it's a combination of a number of factors:
  • First and foremost, because virtual driving through Europe is surprisingly relaxing because there's none of that bothersome real life danger of dying in a car wreck which leaves me free to admire the sights.  It's Europe re-imagined if it were about 1/20th of the length it is now.  There's little in the way of national landmarks here, the major cities have been shrunk to single neighborhoods, and takes about 2 hours to drive the entire length of Europe.  Nevertheless, the unique roadways carry a sense of charm of visiting a foreign country.
  • Second, because there's still a feeling of low-level excitement at all times, because maneuvering a big rig is naturally a bit more challenging than driving your car.  When you mess up, it carries consequences you have to live with: damage to your truck and/or cargo, which means a loss of money.  In addition, running red lights or not having your headlights turned on at night will result in fines, more money down the drain.  (I have yet to be fined for speeding...)
  • Third, because the achievement mechanic adds a touch of addiction. Money you earn can be spent buying more big rigs, upgrading your company headquarters, or hiring drivers to work for you.  You also earn experience points, which can be spent unlocking better fuel mileage, longer trips, or permission to haul higher-paying cargo that often has a drawback (such as being hazardous or carrying a time limit).
My only real critique of the game is that occasionally you'll end up in situations where the traffic is completely gridlocked.  I've found driving around them on the side of the road to be a decent workaround.  It's also possible to wedge your truck in such a way as to become completely stuck, but I'm not sure this is a flaw because I imagine real big rigs get in that situation once in awhile too.  The solution to being stuck is just to call roadside assistance, which tows you back to a nearby city for a minor cost of time and money.

These flaws are minor compared to the overall sense of craftsmanship in this game.  It's worth noting that Euro Truck Simulator 2 utilizes an excellent graphic engine that has advanced features such as god rays, scales well with hardware, and even supports true 3D quite well.  The modeling of the objects in the game is quite good, too.  Overall, this is a great game that I wish I had more time to play, but this sudden deluge of excellent Holiday titles prevents! 

Now Playing: Prison Architect

Introversion's Prison Architect is one of the greater success stories to come out of making a profit on a game before it is released.   It made $1M in crowd funding from Introversion's own website.  Then they moved on to sell over 250,000 copies of the game while it was in Alpha, mostly over Steam.  Those numbers are ridiculous if you consider that most indy games are lucky to sell 10,000 copies, but Introversion is an established company with an international fanbase.

As you might have gathered from my Craft The World entry, I rather like Dwarf Fortress-like management sims (provided they don't suck) and Prison Architect has been getting slowly built up to be a quality example of the genre... perhaps a little too slowly, considering the game I'm playing on Steam now (in November 2013) look pretty much identical to the screenshots I see in an August 2013 PC Gamer.

(Source: Nerd Cubed)

In any case, I think right now turns out to be a pretty solid time to buy into the early access.  Prison Architect is quite stable (at least on my computer) and there's enough features implemented that there is plenty of prison-building magic to be had.

The core idea is quite solid: imagine if most of your dwarves from Dwarf Fortress really don't want to be there.  So now you're tasked with trapping the little bastards in a cage and keeping them reasonably content until they've done their time.  Of course, because the "dwarves" in Prison Architect are all criminals of varying levels of malfunction, they're often up to mischief to undermine the workings of your jail, even if you can keep most of them reasonably placated by meeting their needs.

Aside from its plethora of minor bugs, my lead critique of the current version of Prison Architect is that the game is at its most boring when the player is successful.  If you can meet all your prisoners' needs, they're going to behave reasonably well, and then every day just falls into a peaceful routine where you wait around for more money to come in.  Why even bother searching them for drugs and weapons?  It just annoys them and you get no benefit of recovering contraband.

A secondary critique is that your only goal seems to be to build bigger and better prisons.  A set of scenarios, like presented in the tutorial, would do much to spice things up.  Particularly if those scenarios had fixed technology built in, thus building the experience up one scenario at a time.  I'm getting a vaguely Tropico vibe just thinking about it; this is not a new idea I am suggesting.

Of course, Prison Architect is lacking in general documentation, too... but these critiques and others can be relatively hand-waved so long as the game is still in beta, let alone the "alpha" that Steam is currently listing it under.

Now Reading: Negima! Omnibus 1

I rather enjoyed the TV animes based on this manga, Negima! and especially Negima?!, and so I thought I might enjoy reading the first few issues of the manga in this omnibus and see how the series got its start.
Negima! is the story of Negi, a 10-year-old boy genius wizard from Wales, who becomes a teacher in a junior high class of an all girls school as part of his training to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a master magician.  All the girls in the class fall into over-the-top tropes, such as:
  • Physically powerful tomboy (who is somewhat the leading lady in this manga).
  • Shy bookworm.
  • Lesbian couple made of a charming cute girl and a defensive samurai girl.
  • Laid-back ninja girl.
  • Chinese martial artist girl.
  • Robot girl.
  • Ghost girl.
  • Techhead gadget girl.
  • Vampire girl. 
  • Lolita twins (who are the same age as the other girls but have unusually youthful looks). 
  • Shinto shrine maiden.
  • Rhythmic gymnastic girl.
  • And so on... and on, and on.
Let me just get this out of the way: this class has 31 girls in it, and they all like Negi. They're slightly more complicated than I'm making them out to be here, but I could still see the author essentially combining 2 or 3 overpowering traits in a single character.

Many of them even develop massive crushes on Negi, which (being only 10 years old) he's really not able to reciprocate.  It's pretty clear that "Ultimate Harem Anime" was what the creator was going for: he throws so many cute girls of varying types at the reader that just about any otaku reading this series is virtually guaranteed to find one or more 2D waifu of their dreams. 

Fortunately, this scattershot approach to universal appeal is greatly redeemed by marvelous artwork and pretty good storytelling.  Even most of the jokes are on the mark.  It's clear to me that this mangaka is an expert as his craft.
I'm not even kidding about those sneezes.
Unfortunately, I was surprised to discover that the Negima! manga is massively sexualized compared to the anime.  Some girl is going to end up buck naked every few pages, albeit with no visible genitalia or nipples.  Sometimes, they're naked because of a gratuitous bath scene.  Other times, it's because Negi accidentally sneezes, or miscasts his magic, and his wizardly abilities means this is going to flip up skirts or sometimes disintegrate clothing on the spot!

In the end, Negima! thinly averts being outright perverted because nobody is actually having sex, Negi himself is way too young for hanky panky, but he does end up getting kissed by just about every girl on account of a magical plot point that mandates this as a necessity.  It's not exactly a healthy student body relationship, but it's okay because Negi is truly innocent, the girls are somewhat innocent by proxy of their youthful nativity, and the final excuse... magic!

What we actually have here is a manga that, were I to flat out call it sort porn, I would be missing the joke.  The actual point of this plot setup is create humor by lampooning the frequent sexual situations.  Circuitously, it's actually a parody, making fun of the viewer who reads it for the sexual situations but getting jokes instead.  That's sort of genius... but I still think Hayate The Combat Butler's more wholesome approach leaves me with less of a sleazy mental aftertaste.

Soon: RPG Maker XV Ace

I know Steam "flash sales" are created with an intention to rush some people into their purchase decision.  Even so, as I sat there at the end of an extended Prison Architect session to find RPG Maker XV Ace on a flash sale that would expire in less than an hour, I caved in after only brief cognitive dissonance as to whether or not I will ever use this software.

RPG Maker is a game creation software with a very specific pedigree: you can use it to create Japanese-style RPGs.   The fact that RPG Maker was actually created by Japanese hobbyists and is currently being developed by a Japanese company, Enterbrain.

So why get RPG Maker when I already own GameMaker, which can potentially do nearly everything RPG Maker can do and a whole lot more?   Actually, that's exactly the reason why I decided to get it: it might be a good idea to narrow my creative aperture.

A large part of the reason why I'm having a hard time getting started on creating a game in GameMaker is because I'm paralyzed by indecision: there's too many kinds of games I would like to make, and I simply can't make up my mind.  Thus, in theory, RPG Maker is actually doing me a favor by starting with a type of game already decided while still allowing me some flexibility to adjust it as creative expression requires.

That said, I'm sort of glad I made this decision because some of the features of RPG Maker are right up my alley:
  • It works in tiles?  Great, I love working in tiles.
  • It has an integrated RPG database with an established, modifiable combat engine model?  Great, all the faster for me to get creating content.
  • The default combat engine utilizes a turn-based combat model?  You know, I find that to be more mentally satisfying than the real time ones.
  • It has a working dialogue delivery system?  That's one of the things I found I would need to manually script for games in GameMaker!
Still, if RPG Maker is focused mostly on making just Japanese-style RPGs, what's to stop it from stifling my difficult-to-focus creativity?

My thinking is that, if I focus on developing the story and characters, my creativity may be content.  This is something I learned a long time ago about RPGs: the stats and achievement mechanics are hollow unless you have a good story.  I've proven my chops at writing decent stories in the past, I think I could potentially make good use of this software if I utilize it specifically as a storytelling device.

Besides, RPG Maker engine does have some flexibility, people have actually made Shoot Em Ups in it, even though that's really something they should use GameMaker for.

Will I actually be able to bring myself to use RPG Maker?  Time will tell.  I was planning on dabbling with it a bit today, if I could, but instead I ended up writing this damn big blog entry.  Fortunately, thanks to this development software being on sale, it only set me back $19, so it's a decent enough gamble.

Looking Ahead: Starbound

I understand that the Starbound beta may very well be available on the first week on December, barring delays.  Since I've thought for some time that the holy grail in gaming might be a game involving space travel and getting out and walking on planets, I've been reasonably excited to give it a try.

As for now, I really don't know; honestly, I wonder if Starbound will be all that worth playing.  If it's just Terraria in space, then I bet I would enjoy Craft The World more, because it's sort of like Terraria if you have the power to control several characters at once.  But it's possible that Chucklefish has added a lot of cool features that make this game much more than that.

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