Category Archives: RPGs

Meet me in the Dark Zone in Tom Clancy’s The Division

gd impressions TOM CLANCY THE DIVISION BETA

You can’t see my face, but my eyes are both blurry and extra droopy today, and that’s because I put about four hours straight into Tom Clancy’s The Division last night, only stopping once to grab a glass of water. Specifically, it’s free, open beta thingy, happening from February 18 through the weekend. Xbox One owners got to get in a day early, which is better for me, since I’ll be traveling and visiting family over the weekend. Either way, this is actually my first experience with a beta/early access kind of game, and I’m coming away from it with a better understanding of what The Division is about, and maybe what it might become down the line. All in all, I think I’m in.

Story details are not the focus of the open beta, but here’s what I know so far about The Division. A smallpox pandemic, transmitted by a virus planted onto banknotes, spreads on Black Friday, throwing the United States into mayhem and panic. The U.S. government swiftly collapses in five days, and basic services follow after that. Without access to food or water, the country quickly descends into chaos. You play as an agent of the Strategic Homeland Division (SHD), or “The Division” for short, which is a classified stay-behind force of self-supported tactical agents under direct orders from POTUS to prevent the fall of society.

The Division‘s core mechanics are similar to other action-based third person-shooters of the last generation or so, like Gears of War and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, in which the player character can carry multiple firearms, grenades, and equippable skills that create effects on the playing field, like dropping a mini turret or pinging the area to highlight enemies from allies. Players can take cover behind objects during firefights, like cars and barriers, to avoid taking damage from enemies and provide a tactical advantage when attacking. Or you can do what I do often, which is forget to hide behind cover and stand right in the lines of enemy fire, taking shot after shot to the chest and wondering why I’m bleeding out so fast.

There’s also loot, which is where this begins to be more of an RPG like Diablo than a straightforward corridor crawl of just shooting fleshbags and moving on without a care to their corpse. First, there’s customizeable gear for your person, like new coats, shoes, breathing masks, and such, which are cosmetic only. Then there’s actually new pieces of armor and backpacks, as well as different types of weapons. You can carry two larger weapons, as well as a pistol-sized gun, switching between them with the press of a button. Naturally, there’s also a ton of mods to loot or purchase, which provide new grips, scopes, and muzzles. I’ve been focusing on using the pistol and Ballistic Shield ability, hanging back to heal myself and others via the First Aid ability.

Lastly, let me talk about the Dark Zone, since there were only two story-based missions in The Division‘s open beta, one of which was a surprising amount of fun, but they are over rather quickly. Basically, the Dark Zone, besides being the name of my forthcoming new wave death-metal band, is a player-versus-player competitive multiplayer mode, where a lot of high-end weapons are left behind when the military retreats in the game. It is separate from the main campaign and even has its own progression system, represented as a purple experience bar that fills up as you do stuff. Basically, players can discover contaminated loot inside a Dark Zone area, and these valuable items can be stolen by other players in the zone; the only way to permanently add this gear to your inventory is to extract them via a helicopter, which arrives after a timer countdowns. Other players can join you in hopes of extracting their loot, but both A.I.-controlled enemies and agents gone rogue will attack in hopes of performing a successful robbery. This means that every new non-lethal agent that pops up in the area has the potential to be a threat, which raises the tension of extracting higher.

Visually, The Division is extremely sharp, with dynamic weather effects and time of day changing somewhat unnoticeable…until you notice it is dark out. I’ve only been in NYC a few times, but the recognizable areas are there, and the map seems to correlate directly to real life, which is both cool and staggering. I played with a buddy of mine, and that definitely made for a more enjoyable–and learned–experience as he taught me some of the systems and lead the way. I do worry that if I can’t team up with people that The Division will be less fun to grind through solo, and even more tough to survive out in the Dark Zone.

Either way, I’m looking forward to playing a bit more during the open beta, and then we’ll see if I’m committed or not to The Division next month when it actually releases to all. This could be addicting, or it could be like Diablo III: Reaper of Souls was for me, addicting for sure, but only for a little bit.

Final Fantasy IX’s Earth Guardian says slow down

ff9 Earth Guardian gd progress halt

Here’s some unsolicited advice: if you’re going to boast and hold high your mighty conquests, the very least you can do is acknowledge when you fail. You don’t need to linger on it and live your life around such defeats with a gray rain cloud hanging overhead, but coming to terms with where things went wrong will, in time, help you come to terms. That said, despite giving it a good-not-great effort, I did not complete Final Fantasy IX in 2015, which was a goal of mine after, yup, failing to not complete it the year prior. As well as the year prior to the year prior. Grr.

Look, I’m still on disc three. The last time I wrote about Final Fantasy IX, I was dealing with the consequences of sending an all-magic team to a place where no magic could be used. Since then, I’ve hit a wall, and I was hoping it wouldn’t happen, but seeing as the same thing happened to my party of heroes and heroines in Final Fantasy VIII way back in the day…I should have expected it. They always do this. Basically, to better search for the Elemental Shrines, which I believe will offer further clues on Kuja and how to take him down to the ground, your group is divided up into small parties of two: Dagger and Eiko, Freya and Amarant, Steiner and Vivi, and Zidane and Quina. Yes, Quina–that strange foodporn fanatic who battles with forks and surprise surprise I’ve barely used in my 40+ hours chipping away at Final Fantasy IX. Your party will be investigating–and battling–each shrine’s boss simultaneously, but you are only actually involved in the fight against the Earth Guardian using Zidane and Quina. Grr.

Going into this boss battle with only a party of two is scary enough to begin with, but things become dire when you realize that Zidane is around level 43 and Quina is far behind at level 28. That means Quina dies in one hit from the boss, which results in burning a turn with Zidane to revive him only to have Quina die right away from another hit. Basically, it’s not doable. You need two strong party members that can at least take a few hits before having to heal up one another–otherwise, you might as well as be swinging a sword against the base of a tall building that hits back. I have to wonder if I’d be at all successful if the other duos actually asked you to command their actions in their respective Elemental Shrine fights; certainly Steiner and Vivi are a deadly combination not to be messed with.

Unfortunately, I already saved the game on my one save slot right before entering the Earth Guardian’s shrine, with some 34 hours logged in total. Thankfully, you can retreat and either get back on the airship or wander around the area, but even grinding random battles with a party of two is a slower affair because you can’t dish out as much damage each turn, which means every fight takes longer than with a strong party of four. Alas, this is my only solution–Quina needs to be a much higher level to survive this fight and help Zidane deal out the big damage.

Knowing this fact is keeping me at bay because, at this stage of Final Fantasy IX, grinding is not as enjoyable as it was when I was permanently learning abilities for multiple characters. There are no more Active Time Events to witness either until I hit the next series of story beats. I am stuck in this one spot, with the only way out being burning several hours and items/MP-restoring items on fighting monster after monster after monster in hopes of getting one character to a decent starting place. So far, I’ve gotten Quina up to LV 36 now and taught him/her/it permanently Auto-Float and Auto-Haste, which is still not good enough. Grr.

Trust me, I’m not giving up. Final Fantasy IX‘s credits will roll, eventually. Strangely, in 2016, it’s also coming to PC and phones, but that’s not where I want to see this adventure end. Ideally, it would’ve ended where it started, on the bedroom floor of the house I grew up in, some 15 years back, on an original PlayStation 1, which featured a PSM smiley face sticker on its tray lid. At least I’m still using my PSM sticker-adorned memory card to save my slowly increasing progress. I’ll let you know when I’ve crossed this hump.

Unsure of where to call home in Fallout 4

where to call home Fallout 4

Fallout 4‘s tagline is “Welcome home,” but I’m not exactly sure where that is. At this stage, I’ve put in about 40 hours or so, and home, for most of that, was in Sanctuary, one of the earliest settlements you can come across and begin filling with people and reconstructing. However, I never felt one hundred percent certain that this is where I’d hang my proverbial hat–in reality, my Silver Shroud hat–and thus never stored anything anywhere there and only did the minimal amount of work to make it appear like I was one of the group. You know, built some turrets and a fancy chair for that drug-loving Mama Murphy.

In previous Bethesda open-world games, having a home was either something to figure out on your own or work towards via downloadable content as some non-essential side activity, though when I did the latter in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim‘s Hearthfire DLC it was after I had finished the main plot missions and completed the majority of things a Dragonborn dreams of doing, thus feeling ultimately unrewarding; plus, it was beyond repetitive. I remember finding “unowned safe spots” in Fallout: New Vegas, like Victor’s shack in Goodsprings, to store some of my heavier gear without fear of losing it permanently. I was, more or less, squatting and creating my own set of secret caches for somebody else to find.

Naturally, most of this searching and scouring for safe containers to hold all your Nuka Quantum and Daedric artifacts would be unnecessary if it wasn’t for…encumbrance. The dictionary defines the term as “a burden or impediment,” but we all know it as that age-old Bethesda staple, an annoyance that caps the amount of crap you can carry while still functioning like a solid warrior in terms of running and fast-traveling. From a logical perspective, sure, it kind of makes sense, though when you begin to scroll through the lists and lists of items in your Pip-Boy in Fallout 4, reality starts to crack in at the edges. There are ways around encumbrance, but the easiest is building a place of residency so you can swing by between missions to dump gear–or, in my case, dozens of coffee mugs–and restock before heading out once more…for more.

As mentioned before, previous games from Bethesda lightly sprinkled in bits of housing, letting those playing on PCs add more options via mods. With Fallout 4, it’s a full downpour of potential abodes from the get-go, some of which are actual entire settlements, sizable areas comprised of multiple homes for refurbishing. This is where deciding becomes important, because all the potential areas require an investment, both in time and resources. I’ve already dumped a decent amount of stuff into Sanctuary, seeing as that’s where this all began, but have now decided that a full-blown settlement is too much for my little heart to nurture. Instead, I’ve taken up base at…Home Base, which is a small, three-floored house for 2,000 caps in Diamond City, where the first floor offers the most room to plop down furniture and get creative.

You can see a glimpse of what my Home Base looks like in the picture at the top of this post. The first thing I built was the Bobblehead stand, which, for me, really cements that this is where I want to put my feet up at and decorate with as many cat paintings as possible. I like the addition of magazine racks, though the ability to spin them in-game would go a long way to making me smile. Other than that, I’ve hung a few flags, created a nicer bed, and placed all my Nuka Cherry on a shelf because that’s what cool people do. Haven’t decided yet what to do with the rest of the living space, but it’ll surely get filled in over time.

Still, there are some problems. I can’t send any of my companions to Home Base to hang out when not traveling with me; they only like settlements, I guess. Second, unlike the early promotional art for Fallout 4, which showed your weapons hanging against the wall on some kind of pin board, that sort of shelf is not available to build. Or I’ve not found it yet. This means that if I want to display any cool weapons I find, like the Fat Man, I have to simply dump them on the ground and then try to maneuver them just so on top of a table or desk. It’d be easier asking a Deathclaw for five bucks. You can switch to “building mode” to pick up and move items around, but that can be just as problematic, with some clipping through walls or vanishing the moment you drop them. Also, I found a really nice vase with a flower in it while exploring the Commonwealth, brought it to Home Base, placed it on the table next to my bed, and discovered it missing the next time I returned. Boo.

This is my first playthrough of Fallout 4, and knowing what I know now, I don’t imagine myself placing a lot of effort on having a place to call home the second time around, when I play as an evil, red-headed woman who likes to punch people and animals into smithereens. Maybe I’ll just abuse my companions to the point of weighing them down entirely with my full stash of weapons, mods, medicine, and coffee mugs. Maybe I’ll never pick up another single thing again and have no need for a place to store stuff. Yeah, right.

Where do you call home, my fellow Vault dwellers?

Fallout 4 opens up faster than expected

gd impressions Fallout 4 Sanctuary Hills

Welcome home, Fallout 4. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m super glad you’re here, as you helped push me into the next generation with the purchase of an Xbox One. Feel free to imagine the sound of an Achievement popping right here, right now. Sorry, PlayStation 4, but you’ll have to sit the next few years out on the bench, and I am saddened to know that I won’t get to explore an alien planet and colonize it under my nomenclature before anyone else in No Man’s Sky, but that’s okay. I assume I’ll still be romping around a ruined Boston in Fallout 4 looking for adhesive by the time that game comes out, with plenty still to accomplish.

Fallout 4 is the story, as far as I can tell because I’m not looking anything up to confirm or noodle out more details, of a ruined family. I’m playing as a good-hearted man named Paul that favors a scruffy beard and cool metal armor, but before we get to all that we need to know how we got to all that. Nuclear war is the short answer. As the bombs begin to fall, you take shelter in the nearby vault along with your wife and son Shaun. Unfortunately, as with all things Vault-Tec, this shelter is more of a social experiment than safehouse, with everybody being cryo-frozen the minute you arrive. You awake from this chilly slumber years later only to watch your wife get murdered by some mysterious folk. Oh, they also kidnap your child, which is the fuel driving your mission to leave Vault 111 and explore a post-apocalyptic Boston.

I was disappointed in how little you actually get to explore the pre-war setting, how quickly you are rushed through it. From Bethesda’s E3 reveal, I was hoping for a longer stay in this environment, but the world quickly falls apart after doing the needful in terms of creating your character and assigning your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. points. I wanted to stroll down the street and speak to my neighbors, scrounge through their trashcans and eavesdrop on private conversations. I wanted to collect some things to take with me into Vault 111. Remember the Tranquility Lane quest from Fallout 3? I wanted that, extended, and not as creepy.

But it’s 2015, and I’m guessing people expect gun-shooting action sooner than later, especially if one was to target, say, the Destiny and Halo 5: Guardians fanbase. Fallout 4 hands it out really fast, so long as you stick to the main story quests for the early portion. In the first hour or so, I got hold of a suit of Power Armor and defeated a Deathclaw, things that were commonly late-game events in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. You also immediately get access to several different companions and the ability to build settlements, though the game does not do a great job explaining both how to do this and why it ultimately matters. I’m mostly decorating my house with coffee mugs and paintings of kitty cats.

All that said, this is an open-world game from Bethesda, which means there’s glitches and jank abound, and, unfortunately, I’m in the camp that, while still grumbling audibly about them, have come to accept this as the price to pay to play something so full of possibility. Here’s some of the things that have already gone wrong in my first few hours in Fallout 4:

  • Game froze within the first fifteen minutes, when prompted by my wife to spin my son’s mobile
  • Subtitles didn’t switch over when speaking with Preston for the first time, leaving up Sturges’ three words of dialogue for the entire conversation
  • No Achievement popped when hitting level 5
  • Paladin Danse climbed on top of a table and couldn’t get down in the background while I was having a conversation with someone else
  • Paladin Danse also had some trouble getting in an elevator, of which I have recorded proof and will eventually show y’all
  • Sent Dogmeat “home” to Sanctuary so I could try out a new companion, cannot locate him now
  • A single Raider Scum got trapped behind an open door and the wall, constantly switching between detected and hidden in terms of aggressiveness

Yup. It’s still janky.

I began writing this post after an hour or two with Fallout 4, but since then I’ve dropped another nineteen hours into my first playthrough. I’m mostly sticking to the main story quests, which I won’t talk about yet to keep this spoiler-free, but also am doing a few side things here and there, such as crafting a special chair for the local drug lady to sit in and do drugs. I don’t know why any of this is important, but maybe it will matter down the road. You can expect me back soon to talk more about some of the changes in Fallout 4 that I still don’t have a great handle on, like skill perks, V.A.T.S., and radiation.

Never want to go back to Final Fantasy IX’s Oeilvert

ff9 oeilvert maxresdefault 2

Last time I wrote about Final Fantasy IX, I expressed my concern over the fact that I just couldn’t help myself wasting hours and hours on grinding for permanent abilities for all potential party members. The siren’s call to fight Zemzelett over and over simply so both Garnet and Eiko had all potential summons at their disposal was too hard to resit. Well, all I can say is that, despite wanting to do more ability grinding, I moved the plot forward after my summoners stocked up on epic, screen-defying magical beings from beyond. I mean, it’s scary–2015 is nearly over, and I simply cannot let another year go by where I don’t see this adventure through.

Unfortunately, I was watching Giant Bomb‘s Drew and Alexis Extra Life 2015 stream–for the kids!–while playing, and missed an important piece of dialogue before selecting which party of members I wanted to bring to Oeilvert. Other than the name of a place that is deviously tough to spell, it’s also home to some mystical maguffin called the Gulug Stone that Kuja wants, but is afraid to gather for himself. So he kidnaps Zidane and his friends, and in order to save some of them from dropping to their death, tasks Zidane and three other people with traveling there and obtaining the thingy for him. The important part of dialogue I missed though was that Oeilvert is a no magic zone; naturally, because I missed this, I brought Vivi, Eiko, and Garnet with me, all three of which are heavy on magic casting and not so much on hitting enemies with sticks. This made Oeilvert much harder than it needed to be, but by then I had already committed to the task, plus saved my progress.

After you complete Oeilvert, you switch back over to Cid, now a frog instead of a oglop, as he helps free the other party members. How? Through a time-based stealth puzzle section where you have to also place certain weights on scales…naturally. It’s goofy and tricky, and I’m not going to hide the fact that I looked up a solution to the weights puzzle as I was running low on time and worried about losing a good chunk of progress. It’s certainly not the best part of Final Fantasy IX, that’s for sure. With everyone else freed, you get to search the Desert Palace, light candles, and fight monsters. However, now my party was made up of Freya, Steiner, Quina, and Amarant, none of which I look to for magic stuff.

See, in this area, you fight Grimlocks, which have different strengths and weaknesses based on what colored head is on the top. The red head deals out high physical damage dealer, but has a low defense to magic. On the flip, the blue head casts status-inducing spells and has low physical defense. Basically, it boils down to this–when the red head is on top, cast magic, and when the blue is on top, attack with weapons. Basically, I had to constantly wait for these beasts to don their blue heads and then attack with everyone, though Quina did have a water spell in his/her/its inventory. This made these fights extra long, and when you get into a random encounter every few steps, it can begin to feel a bit maddening.

Somehow, I got through it all and am now on my way to the Last Continent. It might not have been the clearest cut path–and that’s my fault for not selecting better balanced parties–but I’m right behind Kuja and his army of questioning black mages as they cross through Esto Gaza. Progress, people. Progress.

Look, I don’t know how Final Fantasy IX concludes, nor do I want to just yet, so please refrain from spoilers in the comments section. Somehow, I’ve remained blissfully ignorant when it comes to plot details for the end of this story, as well as Final Fantasy VIII, but I really do feel like we’re dragging our feet now. The conclusion to disc two felt more like a finale than anything else, but I guess then that would be too short for a JRPG from the mammoth Squaresoft. I’m not as invested in Kuja as a villain as I was with Garnet’s mother, and so I am simply following after the effeminate man because the game is telling me to. Also, I hope I get an airship like soon.

The Mirror Lied is an experiment intentionally too vague

gd final impressions the mirror lied maxresdefault

Earlier this year, I finally got with the times and played To the Moon, which I quickly followed up with its holiday mini-episode. I ate both up quickly, excitedly, and then immediately went to Freebird Games’ website to see if there was anything else to play. Turns out, yes, seeing as I had a copy of The Mirror Lied in my videogames folder for some months now. I’m guessing I never grabbed a copy of Quintessence: The Blighted Venom because I saw that it was incomplete and currently on hiatus. Too bad. Regardless, I finally got around to playing The Mirror Lied a few nights ago, and I have no idea what went down by the time credits rolled, which seems intentional, if not entirely successful.

I’m going to now give you my interpretation of The Mirror Lied‘s plot, but this could be entirely wrong. You play as Leah, a young, faceless girl living in a house all by herself. She has a friend–a bird called Birdy. Somebody keeps calling her house’s landline, telling her what to do, when all she really cares about is watering her plants, choosing the right dress to wear, and exploring the house for secrets. Eventually, she’ll escape, to the roof. Or maybe it’s all a metaphor for depression slash nuclear war slash coming of age slash menstruation. Really, I’ve got no idea, so tell me your take below in the comments.

Similar to To the Moon, this is an adventure game, where you explore your surroundings, gather items, and advance the plot. One strange mechanic here though is that you have a limited amount of time to reach the ringing phone, which makes sense from a logic standpoint, but gameplay-wise it’s just annoying. I’d be watering the magically growing plant only to suddenly learn I had five seconds to get to the phone; figuring out how to trigger the ringing a second time after missing it was hit or miss, with me forcing Leah to wander aimlessly until it happened again. It might have seemed neat on paper, but not in function. There’s also a single scenario where you have to use the inventory menu to load an empty gun full of bullets, which was clunky. Otherwise, just have Leah walk up to stuff, examine the items, and move on.

Interpretation certainly has its place in art, such as with the ending to LOST or that couple of dressed up lovers in The Shining who are clearly into some raunchy things, and videogames occasionally let you determine for yourself what you just went through. The Stanley Parable, despite having a narrator tell you every little detail, leaves plenty of room for your own take on events. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP says a lot through very little. I still occasionally ponder what LIMBO was trying to get across years later.

However, here, in The Mirror Lied, it all felt like an exercise in simply trying out mechanics and puzzles–nothing more, nothing less. A half-hearted attempt at a narrative to connect everything was provided with Leah, Birdy, and the phone calls, but the rest is left on the back-burner, because it doesn’t matter if you understand what is happening by the end, only that you got there, by figuring out how to unlock drawers, access a computer’s email network, and fill up a bucket with reddish liquid to water your ladder to freedom.

The Mirror Lied‘s developer Kan Gao stresses that it is not a horror game, that nothing will jump out at you. Can’t argue with that.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #55 – The Mirror Lied

2015 games completed the mirror lied gd 1-Room

Birdy gonna fly
Right over your house, kill it
Interpret yourself

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.