Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Almost Had A Good Opening

When I was discussing Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s four prologues, I mentioned that the first game was the only one with a good opening, and even that one was debatable. Since then, I have replayed the opening to Syndicate and also remembered that there is more prologue in the first AC than I remembered. Tackling that second one because it’s faster, I totally forgot how much heavier handed the modern day segments were in the first Assassin’s Creed, and that part of the prologue involved one of these modern day sections where they just dump conspiracy exposition on you before letting you get to the part where you parkour around Damascus. I was thinking that the only setup was the botched assassination against the head Templar, the return to Masyaf, and then the Masyaf tutorial, which is still getting a bit long in the tooth by the time you reach that tutorial, but nope, there’s more that I had completely forgotten about.

But I’d also been remembering Syndicate’s opening as being worse than it was, or maybe better, because it’s so damn close to finally getting it right. The game opens up and says “you are an Assassin, that guy is a Templar, stab his eyes out!” And the first mission is a tutorial-y setpiece that probably could’ve been a bit less heavy-handed, but it’s a set piece in which you are an Assassin and that guy is a Templar, which makes it way better than the usual bullshit that feels the need to explain how our protagonist learned about and joined the Assassins at all.

But then after that they feel the need for a “welcome to London” mission that’s the usual interminable Assassin’s Creed intro mission, where it forces you to go talk to Jayadeep Mir nee Henry Green and you have to chase an orphan and do a carriage battle and sync up one very specific viewpoint and otherwise have all the game’s systems explained to you before you’re allowed to just explore the open world. After they already had a big setpiece opening that explains most of the game’s systems to you! Does someone at Ubisoft really like their boring prologue tutorials? While they were planning out the opening, did some executive raise his hand at the end and ask “wait, but where’s the boring prologue tutorial in all this?” and then demand they add one in when it was explained that they didn’t have one? Everything the meeting with Jayadeep Mir accomplishes (including the introduction of the character Jayadeep Mir) could’ve been done just as well by sticking the players in a London openworld fresh out of the opening, stamping a story mission down on Jayadeep’s shop, and possibly locking some content behind completion of that mission (for example, depending on how the plotline with the street gang the Frye twins are using for muscle needs to be written, you might want to lock the gang war missions until after you’ve hit up Jayadeep and he’s explained how the Templars control the city).

The Syndicate opening was nearly good, and then they tripped at the finish line. And this has certainly impacted how I remember the game. Four years after having played the first hour-ish, once the story had devolved (as stories in my memory tend to once I’m four or five years past when I first consumed them) into a soup of vignettes, my brain had rearranged the very first opening scene of the game to the climax of the first proper chapter, and the horrible intro with Jayadeep Mir had taken over my recollection of the game’s introduction.

Probably I’m on the wrong end of this bell curve’s peak in terms of remembering Assassin’s Creed stories properly, because Assassin’s Creed games are games I play so I can listen to a podcast and I’m never more than half-paying attention to what’s actually going on, but other games I play in this way manage to stick with me better than AC games do. The Half-Life games have reached the vignette soup stage, but my brain isn’t editing Ravenholm into the game’s opening as a terrible gravity gun tutorial, and even the Half-Life 2 episodes are mostly just gone from my memory, but not much interfering with Half-Life 2 itself the way the Syndicate vignettes actually rearranged themselves in my mind. Undertale is well past the point where it should be vignette soup, but I still have a solid and reliable memory of how that game’s plot went.

You’re Playing Going Under Wrong

Going Under is hard. It’s got options to do things like give yourself extra HP, lower the health of enemies, or increase the durability of weapons, but they’re labeled “accessibility options” which makes me worry that if I, a perfectly able-bodied person, take too many extra heart containers, there might not be enough left over for someone who’s actually disabled. I’m finally closing in on the endgame, though. There’s three dungeons in the game, then a crossover dungeon, then hardmode versions of the first three dungeons, which I assume is followed by a finale in a hardmode version of the crossover dungeon. I’ve been two of the three hardmode dungeons, so I’ll probably have this game finished soon (maybe even by the time this post goes live – I’m writing it like a week in advance).

There’s an achievement for each of the hardmode dungeons, and after getting the second one, I decided to check what percentage of other players had gotten that achievement. Only 10.9%. Nice! You know you’re getting into an elite group of people who play this one obscure indie game a lot when your achievements are nearing sub-10%.

Except it turns out I’ve already got a bunch of sub-10% achievements. There’s a collection of NPCs who hand out side quests, you see, seven or eight each. Each of them can be your “mentor,” and you can have one mentor equipped at a time, who give out bonuses. Each mentor’s bonuses are unique, and get better the more of their side quests you’ve beaten. So, obviously, if beating the main quests is getting difficult, you focus on mentor quests for a bit to power those up. I had all the mentor quests maxed out by the time I took on the co-working space dungeon at the game’s midpoint.

Each mentor questline has a separate achievement for maxing it out, and the one with the most completion was 9.2%. The least completed mentor was 7.1%. You guys are playing Going Under wrong! Why would you try and tackle the hardmode dungeons before getting the bonuses from the much easier mentor quests? Some of the mentor quests are definitely very tricky, but they’re easier than the hardmode dungeons in the game’s second half. If I’m guessing the meaning of some of these achievements correctly, completing some of the mentorships – including the one for Swomp, who is probably the strongest mentor in the game – is less common than beating the whole game!

Makes me wonder how many people are beating the game by just turning all the accessibility options to maximum and facerolling. You damn kids! Those extra heart containers are for people with Parkinson’s!

Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos Post-Mortem

The Kickstarter for the Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos ran from July 1st to July 16th. It had 326 backers and raised $5,900 on the dot.

Of course, I’m not out of the woods yet. For starters, I’m setting myself up for the third beat in a panik-kalm-panik meme, which I probably should’ve realized ahead of time when I used the panik face in the last one. Oh, well, too late now.

It’s possible that my guess from last time was correct: Darkwood benefitted from being the first book in the new series and getting pitched in updates directly to the entire Chamomile’s Guide to Everything audience. Drachzee picked up some momentum, but updates for it were only pushed to Darkwood backers rather than all thirteen Chamomile’s Guide books, resulting in a massive contraction. Now Elemental Chaos is picking up momentum again, with a 20% increase in backer count comparable to the 30% increase I saw fairly regularly during the ramp-up period of the early books of the first series. Comparing Elemental Chaos (the third book of the new series) to Bianca’s Guide to Golems (the third book of the old), Elemental Chaos is doing a lot better. It’s possible that the new series got a stronger start due to the success of the old, and is now rising up towards the old 400-450 plateau, with the rate of the rise being slightly slower only because the starting point was higher.

However, it’s also possbile that Elemental Chaos was a much stronger topic (the name, to begin with, is immediately familiar, as opposed to “the Darkwood” or “the rogue city of Drachzee,” which are designed to be evocative but which are not existing generic D&D locations). The old series stabilized at 400-450 for most topics, and it’s possible that the new series is going to stabilize at 275-325. That’s an average of 300 which is exactly sustainable (assuming other variables also stay consistent), which is probably not actually sustainable in practice. It’s much more likely that an unexpected event costs money than saves money, and without any extra profits to tuck away each month to absorb those expenses, my savings will dwindle away with each unexpected obstacle until there’s none left and the whole house comes down.

The good news is that it looks like I’ve found a replacement for the $25 tier that’s actually going to work. The first series used signed copies, which worked well until I hit the cap of 100 copies for the first book in the series, which I’d established to make sure I never had a project bottlenecked on a massive signing and shipping process. This proved to be wise, because addressing the signed copies proved to be extremely time consuming, but also popularity of the signed copies noticeably declined (and completely collapsed for back copies) after the complete set was no longer available. I tried to replace it with low-tier vanity content, a mention of a character in a vignette, but these have been very unpopular.

But serendipity struck when I realized that if I reprinted everything from Caspar’s Guide to Elementals that’s relevant to the Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos – what I usually do to make sure new backers get a complete experience – I would be reprinting nearly the entire book. So instead, I offered both books for $10 in .pdf and $25 in print. It was a very popular option, and the average pledge increased from about $14.50 in the first two books to $18.10, slightly higher than the $17.50 that the first series usually got. So I’m definitely using future books to spotlight a specific earlier book from Chamomile’s Guide to Everything in the future, to hopefully keep that average back high.

Ongoing advertising adventures are pretty inconclusive this time. I reached out to several people on Twitter in hopes of commissioning work from them, which they could then drop a tweet or two about. One of them was too busy, three of them never responded at all, and one of them was too busy to have anything ready in July, although they will be contributing to a stretch goal in August, so we’ll be hearing more about them in the next post-mortem (hopefully in a good way). I guess this month the advertising takeaway is that if you do not spend $200 on advertising, you will have an extra $200 at the end of your campaign. Also, possibly people were seeing the ad campaigns I was paying for in the first two books and actively deciding not to support me, but that seems unlikely.

It remains unclear whether this series can sustain itself, but I have a roadmap out to book six and should be able to get at least that far, and cap things off on a reasonably satisfying note if I do have to shut down there. Plus, the latest campaign is only weak evidence in favor of a sustainable series, but it is evidence in favor of a sustainable series.

Where Do You Start Your Video Game?

One of the problems with Yes, Your Grace’s beginning has been percolating in my head for a while. The game starts in media res with a decision concerning a major battle that you fight at the end, then flashes back to show how you got there. You’re able to re-do the decision when you catch up with the climax, which is good, because you don’t really have enough information to make a good decision there, but the opening still feels like you’re totally unprepared for the decision.

I have three suspicions about why this opening was added. First, it might’ve just been that the developer thought that it was cool. With games made by small teams or one guy, it’s always possible that a specific decision boiled down to “I thought it was neat.” It’s also possible that the creator was worried that the first major battle in the game would come across as climactic enough that the game would feel like it should be over now, when in fact there is an entire second half of the game preparing for a second battle to get to. The in media res opening of the game is explicitly one full year after the game’s true start, and the current week is tracked as part of the game mechanics, so you know when the first major battle is coming up about six months after the beginning that this is only the midpoint.

The third possibility is the one I want to talk about in detail, though: The opening of the game might have been intended to give the game some energy and momentum to hopefully get players over the slow beginning. Because the beginning is slow, and if the opening was supposed to fix this, it failed. The only reason I got as deep into Yes, Your Grace as I did is because I’ve recently assembled a huge list of games I’d like to play more thoroughly than I have, and now all new games (like Yes, Your Grace, which was part of a Humble Choice) go on that list unless I have no intention of playing them (for example, if they’re packaged with a Humble Bundle that I bought only for other games). Then all games go from that list to either the “Complete” list when I’ve beaten (or, in some cases, 100%’d) them, or they go onto the “Regrets” list if I decide that actually they are bad. This means that Yes, Your Grace didn’t have to convince me to play it instead of any of the other ~180 games on my Incomplete list, because that kind of aimless nibbling is exactly the kind of gameplaying I’ve decided I’m not satisfied with and want to do less of. Yes, Your Grace only had to convince me it wasn’t bad enough to go into Regrets.

Most people, of course, aren’t playing games like this, so I expect a lot of people bounced off the slow start of Yes, Your Grace, and I probably would’ve been one of them if not for the way I’m now playing games. The opening didn’t help with this. The problem with the start isn’t that it wasn’t explosive enough. The problem with the start is that I want to answer some goddamn petitions, and instead I keep getting dragged off to talk to my oldest daughter about how she doesn’t like having been betrothed to a neighboring prince. This plotline ends up being really compelling, but at the beginning I just want to play the game, and instead I am constantly having tons of plot dumped on me.

Which leads me to the answer to the question in the post title: When do you start your video game? Because the answer is very different from when you start your book or movie! Yes, Your Grace’s problem is that it starts where a book or movie would want to start, on the cusp of the marriage that serves as the inciting incident to the game’s events.

Continue reading “Where Do You Start Your Video Game?”

What Is Assassin’s Creed: Unity Bad At?

Everything. Assassin’s Creed: Unity is bad at everything.

I exaggerate. If you can get it for $5 and you want to parkour around revolutionary Paris, there’s no better option than Assassin’s Creed: Unity. But that’s because no one else is really trying. Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a major step back in basically everything the series is trying to be compared to both Syndicate afterwards and especially Black Flag before.

Unity’s first sin is either its greatest or one of its more forgivable, depending on how you view it: It’s worse at presenting the atmosphere of its setting than other Assassin’s Creed games, but only a little. On the one hand, nothing is more important to an Assassin’s Creed game than its historical tourism. There is nothing else these games do that other games aren’t doing better. On the other hand, Unity is mostly keeping up with other games in the series in this regard. Persistent bugs with things like draw distance, terrible optimization, and NPCs adopting bizarre poses or having jarringly unrealistic reactions all weaken the atmosphere despite the series meeting its usual standards for accuracy in things like architecture (as far as I can tell – maybe someone interested in specifically architectural history would notice similar small flaws that I’ve missed). Example: Occasionally you’ll see two people dragging a third person down the street, just standard French Revolution stuff, but if you bump into them all three of them get jostled and then start walking in random directions, the two having apparently lost interest in dragging the third to whatever fate they’d had planned for him. These things aren’t common, but they’re pretty noticeable when they happen and they impact the series’ major selling point.

Of its three core systems of combat, parkour, and stealth, the first two are noticeably worse compared to earlier games. The varying length of the finisher moves, the fact that you perform such a finisher automatically when striking a dying foe, and the fact that you can be hit from behind while performing a finisher all combine to demand a lot of awareness of exactly how much health is remaining on an enemy bar so you don’t lock yourself into a finisher while his mates line up an attack, something made possible by pushing the attack button one more time than you’d meant to. It’s hard to tell how much of this was intentional and how much is input lag from the game’s terrible optimization, but the combat is annoying either way (lowering resolution helps with the input lag, so particularly if you’re stuck on the button-mashing bit of the midpoint boss fight, it can help to turn the resolution down to 4:3 and play the 8-bit version of Assassin’s Creed).

Health runs out faster (although with enough upgrades piled on you can still be extremely tanky), further discouraging fights against crowds. Enemies have little star ratings, so even common mooks can be health sponges if you happen to be in a five-diamond neighborhood of the city. Your gear can always get ahead of the mooks if you can buy sufficiently advanced stuff, but that means choosing between struggling through the sub-par combat or putting in a ton of grind to get the weapons and armor needed to crush enemies with relatively little effort.

Probably the idea here is that you’re an assassin, and if you’re fighitng more than two or three guys, you shouldn’t be stabbing your way straight through them all, you should be sneaking around, picking them off one by one if necessary and preferably avoiding them all. The game’s stealth system retains its usual acceptable-but-not-great quality, so this is perfectly doable and entertaining, but Assassin’s Creed was never and still isn’t a game about challenge. The crowd combats are significantly harder, yes, but that doesn’t demand greater mastery of the combat. It just demands you skip certain combats altogether (particularly since, while it’s hard to tell for sure without investing more time in getting good at AC:U’s combat than it deserves, it seems like once a crowd reaches a certain size it becomes basically impossible to stay on top of all their attacks no matter how well you fight). But, y’know, sometimes I want to “assassinate” someone by kicking their front door down and sword fighting their thirty guards, and Assassin’s Creed: Unity isn’t actually a stealth game and shouldn’t let its delusions to the contrary get in the way of letting me Errol Flynn my way through Notre Dame and the Bastille.

I might be more forgiving of this turn towards harder combat to incentivize stealth if they hadn’t also fucked up the parkour, which not only makes it less fun to free run around the city (the highlight of the game for many people!), it also makes it far more unreliable and annoying to escape from combat. Previous Asssasin’s Creed games were very good at figuring out where you wanted to go next and going there. The new system in Unity is very bad at gluing me to railings I wanted to hop over, refusing to climb into windows unless I tilt the stick in exactly the right direction (you’re supposed to be able to climb into windows with the left trigger, but as far as I can tell the only part of that feature to get implemented was the pop-up box explaining how it was supposed to work), and occasionally perching on a step in a staircase as though it were a ledge instead of running up them, which is particularly annoying when there’s seven baddies directly behind me. The Bastille is almost innavigable because the windows in and out of the interior (the only way in, since the gate’s locked up tight) are glitchfests that cause Arno to hover a foot away from the wall, from whence the dynamic parkour system is unable to find any new ledges for him to grab above or below, all the while his fingers are smashed at odd angles and one of his arms has grown an extra foot long but no thicker.

Stealth still works, though, except to the extent that the buggy parkour sometimes tears you out of it when you didn’t mean to. Air assassinations, ledge assassinations, cover assassinations, the gang’s all here, and the NPCs retain their thirty degree field of vision and inability to distinguish the official Assassin uniform from 18th century Parisians without a full five seconds of squinting.

In terms of exploring history, Assassin’s Creed: Unity represents massive missed opportunities. I’m not the first one to point out how weird it is that the Assassins favored the Ancien Regime, one of Europe’s most totalitarian regimes of the era, while the Templars backed the French Revolution. And it’s not just that the Assassins backed the Ancien Regime as an alternative to the Jacobins, since we see them aligned with the French as early as 1752 in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, a game that Unity was developed alongside (to the degree that this game’s prologue is playable as an actually fun level in that game’s epilogue). If you wanted to portray the Assassins as villains, the French Revolution was the perfect place to do it: They overthrow the Ancien Regime to try and install a new order, and it results in a Reign of Terror. With the perspective of history we know that while the First Republic got taken over by Napoleon and the Second Republic burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp, the Third Republic stayed up and the modern people of France are much better off than if we decided to just keep the Ancien Regime around forever, but it’s easy to make a story about how the Assassins tried to murder their way into good governance, lost control of their revolution, and the Templars are backing Napoleon to come in and clean up the Assassins’ mess and push Enlightenment ideals with an iron-fisted dictatorship run by a gifted narcissist, which is, like, peak Templar.

Instead, national heroes like Napoleon are sided with the Assassins, national mistakes like the Reign of Terror are cast as the fault of the Templars, and our hero Arno has a paint-by-numbers personal stake in the plot. Arno’s personal plot arc is even that his crush from before everything went to Hell and he became an Assassin is herself a Templar, that he got taken in by her family after the Templars killed his Assassin father and the inciting incident of the plot is that the Assassins killed her Templar father, except I lied, her Templar father was killed by rival Templars who didn’t approve of a truce the Parisian Templars had with the Assassins. God forbid we use one of our four prologues to establish the cyclically destructive nature of the conflict and the human cost of the Assassin/Templar war. The tale of lovers on opposite sides of a war usually works better when one of the lovers doesn’t have a personal grievance against her own team.

The gameplay innovation – following the same trend as Black Flag’s sailing and ship combat or Revelations’ tower defense – is partly the mysteries, which are actually very good. You use your detective vision to gather a bunch of clues, and while the culprit is usually pretty straightforward, that’s good. That’s Unity focusing on what an Assassin’s Creed game should be good at, which is not challenge. The mysteries take you to a couple of locations around Revolutionary Paris, ask you to examine those locations carefully, and tell a little story of infidelity, business rivalry, and/or inheritance dispute.

But the main gameplay innovation is the PvE multiplayer, which could’ve been good, but isn’t. You might’ve heard that a bunch of Assassin’s Creed multiplayer bits are being shut down, but Unity has escaped that, at least for now. If you’re lucky, you might even occasionally get matched with another player. Unfortunately, I found the system for doing so to be pretty interminable. The way the mission badges on the map work makes it hard to distinguish which ones you’ve completed from which ones you haven’t, you have to totally stop doing singleplayer content while you wait for a multiplayer team to be gathered because the game can’t handle yanking you out of an ongoing singleplayer mission (not even a sidequest that takes place in the open world without bookending cut scenes or anything) and then dumping you back in where you left off when you’re done. This means that if you’re queuing for a multiplayer mission, you can’t do anything else but queue. This is fine when assembling a team only takes thirty seconds, but if the population is too thin to assemble a team quickly, you can’t leave the teamfinder running in the background while you do other things – which means you stop looking for a team, thus reducing the population of people searching.

The multiplayer missions themselves are okay, but given that they’re just regular old Assassin’s Creed missions but with more people, I don’t know why they bothered having dedicated multiplayer missions at all. Why not just make it possible to call on reinforcements in any of the non-story missions? Or even the story missions, the multiplayer missions the game has already come with cut scenes, so clearly asking people to wait unless everyone unanimously agrees to skip cut scenes isn’t a bridge too far. Obviously the missions designed for a party will be very hard to do alone, but you can already try it anyway if you like, and the missions designed for a single player will be very easy with a party, but this isn’t Dark Souls and even if it was bringing a friend to help is the kind of easy mode that even FromSoftware endorses. Just make sure to label the missions intended for a party as such, maybe with a pop up saying “hey, chief, this mission’s meant for 4 people, would you like us to find you a team?” when you accept the mission.

Instead, the multiplayer feels like an entirely separate game mode, just like the PvP multiplayer of every game since ACII, to the point where I totally ignore the multiplayer mission badges unless I specifically want to play multiplayer, in which case I trigger the missions from the menu rather than walking up to the quest ATMs in the game world. They may as well not be in the game world at all.

Plus, it turns out the game wasn’t even made in the Unity engine, so, false advertising.

What Is Assassin’s Creed Good At?

Having spent a bunch of time complaining about Assassin’s Creed: Unity (an infamously weak title of the series), it kind of raises the question: Why bother playing these games at all? It’s not like I’m trying to finish every game in my Steam library. I’ve left a lot of games off the list of incomplete games I’m trying to get through right now. So why didn’t I leave Unity or Syndicate off, especially since I’ve played both of them in the past (just never to completion)?

The answer is because they’re really good for historical tourism and making me feel like I’m in a place. The Far Cry games are also good at this. Really, it seems like it’s the only thing Ubisoft still knows how to do anymore. They made Renaissance Florence and Venice in Assassin’s Creed II and then Far Cry 3 had the whole “murder vacation in a tropical paradise” thing and then they made those two games but in new locations for ten years. And, honestly, I think the biggest problem with their method is that they kept listening to people who wished they were making different video games and making feeble, half-hearted attempts to do that. People complained that the Assassin’s Creed series was too easy, so they made it noticeably harder in Unity, but they didn’t spontaneously transform into FromSoftware or Rocksteady, so it’s really just the same old shallow combat they’ve always had but less forgiving. It’s not super creatively fulfilling to stumble across a formula that can work with minimal alteration across a massive variety of different settings, but it works, and I really don’t think there’s anything noble about turning your nose up to the sure thing.

Pokemon had the same gig going, and the bloom did finally come off that rose in Sword and Shield, but I would argue that a major reason for this is precisely because they weren’t willing to remain a 2D sprite-based game, one which could keep making use of all the assets they’d created for extant Pokemon in gens III-V. Instead, not only did they go 3D, they escalated to consoles, and their ever-expanding monster roster has now gotten ahead of their ability to design new sprites from scratch. Since their graphical arms race prevents them from using any of their old work, more and more of their focus is put into updating mons instead of making the new games good, and it shows. Not only that, but their ability to update the mons has finally been exceeded by the number of mons and scale of graphics, and now I can’t have Houndoom in Galar.

(It doesn’t help that Pokemon is unwilling to hold onto improvements like Z-evolutions, swarm battles, or contests, but that’s a different issue)

There are some game franchises which really do work just fine by just plunking the existing game mechanics down into a new setting, and the main focus for those game franchises should be a combination of making sure the new setting is properly evoked (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations’ Istanbul felt almost identical to Brotherhood’s Rome, and that was a problem) and in not fucking up the core gameplay the way Assassin’s Creed games are constantly, fruitlessly being harmed by tweaks to the combat and parkour systems that already worked fine in Assassin’s Creed II and didn’t need to be meddled with or burdened with dumb gimmicks that were obviously not going to be worthwhile additions even at the concept stage, like the hooked blade from Revelations that lets you grab ledges one foot higher than before or the zipline thing from Syndicate (major additional gameplay elements like the tower defense game from Revelations get to stay, because even though that one didn’t work, sometimes it results in things like the naval travel/combat in Black Flag).

Assassin’s Creed Unity Has Four Prologues

Assassin’s Creed Unity being bad was a cold take in the Obama years, but I never did finish it all the way through and I’ve decided to do that, just to finally scratch the completionist itch.

Most Assassin’s Creed games have bad openings. The only one with an opening that didn’t suck at least a little was maybe the first one, and even that one’s tutorial section in Masyaf was pretty egregious. The rest throw at least one hour of story setup at you before they let you parkour around Florence/Havana/Paris/Wherever and assassinate people. Somehow it has never occurred to Ubisoft in like fifteen games that they should start in media res and explain how Ezio’s family was killed/Edward Kenway found a dead assassin and stole his pajamas/Arno met his Templar girlfriend/whatever after they’ve got you stuck in doing some assassinations.

Assassin’s Creed Unity is possibly the prologuiest Assassin’s Creed game yet made, though. It starts with a prologue about the Templars being persecuted in France and hiding a technomagical laser sword, then moves on to a prologue about Arno as a child that as far as I can tell exists exclusively so it can cross over with the epilogue of Assassin’s Creed Rogue where you get to play this section as a Templar and assassinate someone instead of a small child who steals an apple, then continues into a prologue where a young adult Arno is established as being a very tiresome sort of rapscallion who has an illicit(?) romance with a noblewoman named Elise and is framed for the murder of Elise’s father, which leads to a prologue where the wrongly imprisoned Arno must escape the Bastille whilst it is being stormed by revolutionaries, and at that point you are in the proper open world map of Paris that the main game takes place in, although you do still have to complete one more mission to join the assassins, getting you a proper assassin outfit instead of your Bastille rags and a hidden blade so you can assassinate people instead of having to sword fight every guard right in the face.

Depending on whether or not you count the last one, that’s either four or five prologues, one of which exists purely because the idea of Unity’s prologue being Rogue’s epilogue probably sounded cool in a pitch meeting. You could’ve started in the Bastille, established Arno’s relationship to Elise and that he was falsely accused of assassinating her father when he turns up at her house after his escape, and just cut the 14th century prologue establishing the laser sword entirely, leaving you with one and a half prologues, which is positively restrained by Assassin’s Creed standards.

Yes, Your Grace

Yes, Your Grace is one of those games where you sit in a throne room choosing option X, Y, or Z in response to petitioners, with the goal being to keep various resources above the negative. Unlike Ur-example Reigns, which seems more like a prototype for the concept than an actual game, Yes, Your Grace has a plot about assorted royal intrigues and all of the petitioners have specific stories rather than just being generic “oh, no, bandits!” (although one of the specific stories is “oh, no, bandits!”). You’re being invaded by a bandit who held you up thirteen years ago and demanded your first-born daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for letting you go, and since then this random bandit has found his way into a barbarian army and is invading the kingdom. Hilarity ensues.

In addition to the petitioners having unique dialogue and stories instead of just a randomly shuffled deck of problems, the game also has a map that you can dispatch royal agents on (specifically a general, witch, and hunter) and you can invite nobles and fellow kings to come visit you, causing them to show up in the petitioner queue in the next turn. These are both really good additions.

Unfortunately, there’s also a paper-thin mass combat system and some adventure game bullshit, which are really bad additions. The mass combat system is ultimately just a bunch of set dressing around a question of whether or not you’ve stockpiled enough resources to win. The two battles in the game are pivotal moments, so having them last longer than just “we did indeed pay for enough improvements to win” is a good idea. It’s a video game, so having that longer battle sequence be driven by player decisions instead of just playing out with no interactivity is also a good idea. The problem is that, with only two battles, the game doesn’t really have time to establish any real mechanics for the battles, which means you basically just guess what the right decision to make it whenever you’re asked to send a unit into battle. That, in turn, means there’s basically two kinds of decisions: The blindingly obvious, and the totally arbitrary.

I think there’s only two real solutions to this problem: Drastically overhaul the game to make the combats less important to its plot, then reduce the combats to “did you prepare enough resources y/n” and get them out of the way very quickly, or revise the combat system completely so that it’s a real system and not just a series of “pick X, Y, or Z” questions with no consistency to which might be the correct answer. That’s not to say that a series of “pick X, Y, or Z” can’t be the primary mechanic, just that, like the rest of the game, those questions need to be part of a system you can understand rather than trying to guess what the developer is hinting at. The simplest example would be to have three troop types in a rock-paper-scissors relationship, you can see what troops the enemy still has in reserve, and you have to pick a troop type to deploy next in hopes of guessing one that beats what your enemy has picked. I’m not going to go into another twelve paragraphs of detail, but you’d also want to add further complications like deploying an initial frontline versus keeping troops in reserve and having your agents able to modify the outcome and so forth. Pure RPS would also just be guesswork, but you can use it as a foundation for a system where you can make informed choices about what your enemy is most likely to do next and how you can counter that.

But this would require a whole lot of extra development time and resources, and I never feel good about proposing a solution to a problem in a game that requires more resources than the game as it is. The majority of games can be improved with more time and money poured into them, but those things are finite.

The adventure game bullshit, though, that could’ve and should’ve just been left out completely. You can get up off of your throne and go talk to other characters around the castle, which is a good way of delivering the story without having your daughter queue up with petitioners to have an argument over marriage right in front of the royal court. This system of walking around talking to people also gets used for a couple of “use needle on flagstone” style adventure game puzzles, though, and they’re abysmal. The best you can say for them is that at least they’re fairly straightforward and they make up a small fragment of the overall game, but the game would be better off not having them at all.

Going Under Is Corporate Memphis But Ironically

The title is both the bottom line summary of the game and also literal: Going Under is a roguelite dungeon crawler about being an intern at a tech start up who, in the way of internships, gets all the unpleasant chores foisted upon you, like going into dungeons and killing all the goblins. It’s made in a 3D version of that Corporate Memphis art style with the purple-and-orange skin tones that exclude everyone equally and the weird proportions. You know the one.

And “Corporate Memphis, but ironically” is the bottom-line summary of Going Under. It’s using this godawful art style to its fullest, packing as much personality as possible into the characters made with it, and it’s using the art style because it’s about how corporate startup culture is just the worst. It’s a weird combination of brick-like unsubtlety and restraint, where the entire game is made with this hideous art style, making the joke totally unavoidable, yet they never feel the need (at least, not as deep in as I’ve gotten, which is half-ish of the way through) to state the joke directly. The writing is clever, the satire mostly lands, the gameplay is at that workmanlike level where it’s good at everything it does but isn’t doing anything particularly exceptional or new.

And that makes it kinda hard to talk about, because, like, yeah, it basically works. If you really like roguelike dungeon crawlers, to the point where you’ve already gotten through Darkest Dungeon and Enter the Gungeon and Rogue Legacy and Binding of Isaac and stuff, and if you can get past Corporate Memphis, you should probably play it. That’s two pretty big qualifiers, but hey, a niche is a niche.

I Guess I Got The Bad Ending In Minoria

I appear to have gotten the bad ending in Minoria. The violently deranged princess is still full of self-loathing from the horns she’s been cursed with, even though they don’t seem to have any impact on her life except a purely symbolic association with witchcraft. She’s burning the witch forest of Minoria down over and over again, but it never stays burned.

Apparently, to get the good ending, when she said not to kill the end boss witch so she could do it herself, I’m supposed to refuse – which is actually refusing to kill the end boss witch entirely, rather than insisting on doing it personally, which is how it scanned to me. Having looked it up on YouTube, the additional end boss against the princess seems pretty easy and straightforward, so I’m guessing that the reason for this is because the more obvious way to offer the choice – picking whether to support the princess or the witch before you’ve beat the witch into submission, rather than being asked to about-face after you’ve seemingly already been railroaded into picking a side – would’ve left the good ending with a really lackluster final boss.

They could’ve at least made the final choice less ambiguous. As it is, the princess says “let me kill the witch myself” and your responses are “as you wish, Your Highness” and “I refuse.” Changing the second one to “I won’t let you kill her” would’ve at least signalled your very suddenly switching sides after just barely beat the witch down.