The Dwarves Has A Good Opening

In the RPG The Dwarves, the dwarven people are defenders of a legendary fortress against forces of darkness: Orcs, ogres, dark elves (here called “alfar”), and so on. The fortress guards the entrance to a land unironically called “Girdlegard,” so that’s about the level of writing we’re dealing with here.

But despite the stilted dialogue, the Dwarves has a mechanically sound opening. The premise of the game is that you are Tungdil, a dwarf raised by humans, which means you have a stereotyped idea of what dwarves are, which you nevertheless try to embody. As a result of some orcs causing a ruckus, you venture out on a quest in which you meet more dwarves. Perfectly solid character idea, don’t know if they’ll stick the landing but there’s definitely good ideas in here. Just one problem: The opening conceit necessitates you do a lot of wandering around a human settlement trading barbs with bullies, talking to old mentor figures, and musing on how weird it is that someone you’ve known since she was a baby is now the human equivalent to about your age, and will die before you’re even middle aged. Then you spend a lot of time trekking across the countryside, confronting bigotry against dwarves and finding signs that orcs have begun invading the lands and watching from a hidden spot nearby as armies of them marshal. Then, finally, you get attacked by an orc patrol, bailed out by two dwarven warriors, and the regular RPG stuff of gallivanting around the countryside fighitng monsters and completing quests can begin.

That slow build up is good for the story, but it has the Yes, Your Grace problem that I want to play your damn video game. Now, the Dwarves has the advantage of being an RPG, so wandering around a settlement talking to people actually is one of the primary gameplay loops, but also there’s combat, and we won’t be getting to that for like thirty minutes.

So the Dwarves starts you off with a prologue where you’re playing as a pair of legendary dwarves defending Girdlegard (snicker) against orcs and stuff. They’re overpowered, so you can tear through dozens of the suckers even without having any idea what you’re doing, and at the end they both get stabbed to death by a dark elf who reveals that he can use their reanimated corpses to open up the gates and seize the fortress. The line-by-line problems with the writing aside, this is a really good opening: It gives us control of people who’re already good at what the game is about and lets us go to town for a while, while also establishing the threat that our protagonist doesn’t yet know about, thus giving the plot immediate stakes even though our hero is being sent on what looks like a long distance milk run.

Traveler’s Guide to the Goblin Fells Post-Mortem

The Traveler’s Guide to the Goblin Fells finished crowdfunding on August 16th. It had 268 backers and raised $4,415.

It’s not a particularly inspired panik-kalm-panik. A bad thing happened, then it went away, then it came back.

I’m going to try and give the Kickstarters more generic sounding names going forward, to see if that’s the secret sauce that made Elemental Chaos more successful than the rest. I’ve only got two books left before the series either lives or dies, and it’s starting to look like “dies” is just about locked in. It’s not over until October, when the final book of the first six Kickstarts, but it’d need to be a pretty dramatic turnaround at this point.

Marketing-wise, running ads on PodCastle is slightly profitable, so that was cool, although unfortunately there’s not really any way to make it scale. I learned about PodCastle by happenstance, there isn’t a larger network of podcasts I can branch out into (the PodCastle people do have several other podcasts, but they’re on other genres, which means my fantasy D&D book probably won’t get the attention there that it did on PodCastle, and the margins on this are already pretty slim). I also had a commissioned class from Alex Bobrow, the Caltrop Core person, and while that doesn’t seem to have brought in more than it cost, it did bring in some new backers, and might plausibly grow over time if I keep at it. Hopefully the time it takes is three months or less, because that is the amount of time that I have.

Iron Harvest

Iron Harvest is an RTS about dieselpunk mechs in the 1920s, which means the tech level (particularly military tech) is at basically the same place as it was at the end of WW1. My guess is that the reason for doing this rather than just doing an alternate universe dieselpunk WW1 is because that would mean that the mechs (loosely equivalent to tanks) don’t show up until halfway through the war.

The Great War is referenced as having happened in the past, and yet it didn’t have the earthshattering consequences it did here in Earth One. Rasputin is still alive, Russia still has a Tsar (despite their official faction name being Rusviet – if that’s not a portmanteau of “Russia” and “Soviet” then what the fuck is it?), Germany still has a Kaiser, Poland is not an independent country (except it sort of is, but not really) but a resistance movement is trying to change that, there is a Great Arab Revolt against an occupying empire, and so on. The Great War definitely happened, but the political situation is remarkably similar to it having not, though it’s simplified in a couple of ways – Poland is occupied exclusively by Russia, rather than being partitioned between Germany, Russia, and a little bit into Austro-Hungary, and the Great Arab Revolt is against Germany rather than the Ottoman Empire, which I’m guessing was done mainly because they can’t just toss out a whole extra Ottoman Empire faction (they’re already letting America play Lawrence of Arabia so that their faction can be used as the Arab side, which I’m guessing is because they decided America was going to be their first expansion faction before they started writing the expansion’s plot, since we know from Scythe that this timeline does have a UK expy). As I get into further down, the factions are pretty same-y in mechanics, but they still require a lot of unique assets and from the pace of release it’s clear that adding a new one is a big deal.

The main plot has an Ace Combat 5 style plot where the factions all get into fullscale war with each other so that we can see them deploying their most impressive weapons against one another, but then at the end it turns out it was all the doing of a secret multinational conspiracy so that we can have a dramatic confrontation between good and evil at the end, but no one’s actual real world country has to be at fault by proxy. I realize that this is basically the only way to serve the twin goals of having a dramatic finale where good triumphs over evil while also avoiding nationalist flag-waving, but seeing as how this game is kinda-sorta about WW1, maybe we could just not have a finale where good triumphs over evil, and instead have a story where joining the war was a mistake but now we’re playing the game of thrones so we have to win even if the prize can’t possibly be worth what we lost by playing. The villains of WW1 were everyone who joined the war voluntarily, and if you want a WW1-adjacent plot, you should emphasize that. If you really need heroes, the obvious choice is Poland, who can be dragged into the war purely by virtue of being between Germany and Russia and now they’re just fighting to survive.

The game kinda flirts with both of these, with the start of the Polish campaign about a Polish resistance fending off Russian invaders (Germans are nowhere to be seen in the Polish campaign, and if you wanted to commit to this, you’d have Russia and Germany going at each other full tilt and occupying Poland incidentally, because it’s in the way). Then later it turns out the Polish resistance are bloody-minded nationalists trying to set up a city to revolt and be massacred because they think that will inspire the rest of the nation to rise up, which is a pretty compelling conclusion to the first act of a story about the costs of war and nationalism, but then the third act of the story is about all three nations coming together to fight a secret conspiracy who was playing all sides from the beginning. This turns the first act’s setup into a Space Whale Aesop. Instead of being about the costs and justifications of war, it’s about how war is caused by a secret conspiracy and world peace immediately follows their defeat in battle. And the transition cut scenes from the Polish to Russian campaigns completely ditch the relatively grounded themes of the Polish campaign to instead have a pulp plot of insidious conspiracies and counterconspiracies all centered around Anna Kos and her family.

The Russian campaign takes forever to get to the bottom of the exposition and let you play a normal mission, too – the first, second, and fourth missions give you a limited number of units with no base and you have to achieve objectives with that, which is perfectly doable and an interesting break from regular base-building now and then, but that third mission isn’t a regular RTS mission, either. It’s an interminable stealth mission where being detected by any unit means starting the whole mission over again, even if you’re twenty minutes deep. Fortunately, there is a “skip mission” option. It’s not until mission five of seven that I finally built some Russian buildings and units. Worse, you spend nearly the entire Russian campaign working undercover for the evil Russian colonel who’s part of the secret warmongering conspiracy, and the main viewpoint character of the Russian campaign is a Polish guy who’s undercover (and who just so happens to be Anna’s brother, something which has nothing to do with Anna’s involvement in the rest of the plot – it’s pure coincidence).

So they spend three missions on exposition to establish the multinational conspiracy, which wreaks havoc with the pace of the Russian campaign and gives us the single worst mission in the entire game, and then the villains are 80% Russian anyway. The Russian campaign in particular goes out of its way to portray the Russian rank-and-file as decent people, and there’s a civil WarCraft mission near the end where the Russian good guys fight the Colonel Zubov, the pawn of the warmongering international conspiracy, so clearly they wanted the Ace Combat 5 thing where no specific nation is the bad guys, but they, uh, did not stick the landing on that.

It’s from the Scythe guys, so if you’ve seen artwork of a giant mech walking past some early 20th century Polish peasants, it’s them. The functional top-down perspective of the RTS really doesn’t capture the very human perspective of the art, but it’s all rendered very well given the limitation that the camera needs to be a somewhat distant bird’s eye view. I really want to see some kind of human-scale perspective video game in this setting to really bring that art to life, a first-person shooter or third-person RPG or something, but the aesthetic definitely survives in bird eye view, even if it gets downgraded from breathtaking to just pretty cool.

The gameplay is solid, but unexceptional. It’s one of those RTS’s where you capture resource points and they give you resources automatically, although it has iron and oil as separate resources rather than a generic “influence” resource like most resource-point games have. You can upgrade resource extraction buildings after you capture them, and they remain upgraded if the enemy captures them from you (and vice-versa).

Continue reading “Iron Harvest”

A Better Necromunda: Hired Gun

Necromunda: Hired Gun is probably the best game it could’ve been on the budget that it had. I don’t know anything about its budget or development, but the game shines with love for the setting and everything I’m about to suggest is something that would’ve cost more money.

But just to fantasize about how cool this game could’ve been with gobs of extra cash thrown at it, here’s how I would make a better Necromunda: Hired Gun. Firstly, I’d take the game’s thirteen levels and stitch them together into a single unified underhive. We don’t just want to bolt the different areas directly onto each other in most cases. Thorian’s Dome, the ruined zone surrounding the main hub town of Martyr’s End, is already kind of a transitional area and can be near-directly adjacent to a couple of areas like the giant factory of Kaerus, the train station for the giant train Koloss 44, or the Generatorum power plant and surrounding trash cube skyscrapers under attack from a giant sump beast (there’s lots of giant things in 40k).

The Tempus Dedra map – site of a massive gang war in the main plot – is also pretty useful as a potential connecting area, that can lead directly to things like the shores of the acid lake across which lies the corpse recycling plant of Araneus Ventri, Geister Station at the top of a mineshaft that drills down, down, down into the planet, or the ruined underground train tunnels of the Orlocks called Steel Way. Although Tempus Dedra can connect to most of these locations with basically just a corridor or two, we should add in another station for Koloss 44 here, so that the train can actually connect different locations together.

Other maps are supposed to be at least a little bit remote, which means they’ll need small transitional areas to connect them to the rest of the map. The Hypogean Citadel is the stronghold of an upper hive noble you’re bodyguarding at one point in the plot, and seems like it should be pretty far out of the way, probably down the way from Kaerus. The Escher Lab seems like it’s at least partly secret, and I’d connect it to Araneus Ventri.

Other areas are pretty explicitly hard to get to or far in a certain direction. Avarus is either close to or actually in the lower hive (which is above the underhive), and the only zone it might be attached to is the Generatorum, which generally pushes upwards, although a significant new section would have to be added to transition from the Generatorum to Avarus. The Goliaths’ stronghold Goibniu Pit is definitely out of the way and implicitly very far down, since you get taken there from the bottom of the Geister Station mineshafts, probably accessible only by going through Geister Station. The Cold Black is a recently rediscovered dome, and to be only recently rediscovered means it must be far enough out of the way that no one stumbled across it by accident. I’d put it at the other end of Steel Way.

Continue reading “A Better Necromunda: Hired Gun”

Syndicate Might Be The Second Best Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is in contention for the second best Assassin’s Creed game ever. Black Flag is the first best and isn’t going to have its throne toppled by the minor improvements Syndicate made to the usual formula, but those minor improvements make Syndicate stand out compared to other games like the Ezio trilogy, III, and especially Unity.

Syndicate’s story is still more gonzo yet less character-driven than the original Assassin’s Creed, and the more gonzo you go, the more you want to rely on characters to keep the story grounded (alternatively, go full gonzo and make Kung Fury). Still, Syndicate is coming out ahead of most Assassin’s Creed games for its story. The tale of two siblings who become estranged from one another but then reconcile is delivered poorly, but most Assassin’s Creed stories are delivered poorly and this one is at least an interesting concept. Anyway, the first Assassin’s Creed game was the only one with an even passable story, the rest are divided between bland filler (the Ezio trilogy, Black Flag) and a cavalcade of opportunities missed out of corporate terror at the idea of having something to say (III, Unity).

Syndicate touches up the mechanics in a couple of important areas. The parkour is still not as good as it was in the Ezio trilogy (I’m still baffled as to why they didn’t just keep that parkour engine), but it’s a much more functional version of what they used in Unity. The left shoulder button will actually pull you into a window, as opposed to Unity, which promised that pressing left trigger would pull you in a window, but was lying. For the first time ever the combat system has been noticeably improved with the addition of a guard-break, so now you don’t just attack and counter but also break. One additional button to press does not drastically deepen the game’s combat, but it’s something. I talked about the Dreadful Crimes DLC in another post, which takes the mysteries from Unity (already a good idea) and gives them some quality of life improvements that remove a lot of minor annoyances from the experience.

New gameplay mechanics are minor, but mostly fun and easy to ignore when they’re not. The grapple hook is mostly a gimmick. Zipline assassinations are fun, but other than that it just lets you skip a bit of parkour, but, like, parkour is the gameplay. That’s part of what makes Assassin’s Creed fun. I don’t want to skip it. The new carriage riding mechanics are pretty fun. You can ram Templar carriages off the road, or climb on top to jump to an adjacent carriage and kill the guy driving it to steal his carriage if you like it better. The trains circling about London are put to good use, with open world activities to rob them, thus giving you an excuse to climb all over them while having a shootout/brawl with bad guys.

Speaking of shooting, the existence of revolvers brings a welcome expansion to the game’s ranged combat. Now that you can go as many as eight shots before reloading (assuming you’re using the best pistol in the game), ranged combat can be used not just to take out one guy before a melee, but to actually win an entire fight. Syndicate is heavy on melee, but having six cylinders to chew through means ranged combat is a real option unto itself in a way it never really was in earlier games.

I’m a little bit sad they stopped advancing towards present day with Assassin’s Creed games, because I think they had all the elements they needed to make that work in Syndicate. The carriage mechanics are close enough to car mechanics, and the revolver provides a foundation for effective ranged weapons despite the melee-focused mechanics of the series, which could’ve been expanded to cover modern automatic weapons. I think WW2 is the most overdone historical period in all of video games and while you could say some very interesting things about how the Assassins and Templars supported or opposed fascism, communism, and liberalism in the 20th century, Ubisoft would never actually say those things, so better to just leave that whole time period alone. WW1 has also gotten kinda played out lately, but there’s theaters of that conflict that could make for a great Assassin’s Creed game, like the Middle-East. You can have your trench warfare in Gallipolli while getting up to classic Assassin shenanigans in the Great Arab Revolt, meeting with historical figures like Lawrence of Arabia and stabbing Templars.

There’s no headline feature like the ship combat in Black Flag, but Syndicate has a lot of minor improvements on the Assassin’s Creed formula that makes it one of the best of the series, and it makes me sad that it got overlooked because it came out in the aftermath of Unity, which had such an infamously terrible release that everyone wrote off Assassin’s Creed until Ubisoft promised to spend a year in timeout thinking about what they’d done.

AC: Syndicate’s Dreadful Crimes DLC Is Better At Being BBC’s Sherlock Than BBC’s Sherlock

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate takes place in Victorian London. Unfortunately, it gives itself a very specific year, that being 1868. Most Assassin’s Creed games give themselves a few years, sometimes more than a full decade, in order to give themselves some wiggle room as to what kind of historical figures can be involved, but Syndicate is glued to the specific year of 1868. So when it wants to have crime-solving stories, it is unfortunately saddled with the reality that Arthur Conan Doyle was a maximum of 8 years old. If they’d run themselves, say, from 1868 to 1873, they could’ve at least gotten as far as 13. Alas.

So the Dreadful Crimes DLC gives our main contact as Henry Raymond, a fictitious author of penny dreadfuls. Little Artie is his biggest fan, and it’s honestly kind of annoying having this eight year-old drag you by the nose through the first mystery. You cannot solve the first one by yourself, your only option is to falsely accuse Artie’s child laborer friend of having stuck his foreman, when in truth it was one of the adult workers. After you make the false accusation, Artie steps in and is all “what if instead of going with the most blindingly obvious culprit after looking at two clues, we did some actual detective work?” and only then do the additional investigation sites open up such that you can find enough clues to solve the mystery for real.

Bad enough that we’re stuck with babby Sherlock because of the timeline, but they go out of their way to make him come across as less “plucky sidekick” and more “snot-nosed brat” in his first appearance. If it were some other adult that Artie was showing up, I wouldn’t mind, nor would I be bothered (except with myself) if Artie just showed up to explain why the person you’re accusing can’t have been the culprit every time you organically got it wrong. That’s not even something he actually does, if you falsely accuse someone they just profess their innocence and you have to guess again. That’s a perfectly good mechanic, but here was the perfect opportunity for Artie to demonstrate his sleuthing skills without being an irritating little shit about it, and they walked right past it. I imagine some players would get annoyed with Artie anyway, but that’s on them. If you didn’t want the eight-year old out-detecting you, you shouldn’t have fucked up your detective work!

Despite the rocky start, the Dreadful Crimes is fantastic overall. It takes the crime-solving from Unity, already that game’s best idea, and makes a ton of improvements to quality of life and storytelling. Syndicate’s main story is plagued by stilted dialogue where the idea is good but it’s marred by execution so lacking that I sometimes can’t tell what they were trying to set up until it’s being paid off, not in a “shocking twist” kind of way, but in a “oh, I guess Jacob and Evie’s conflict was supposed to be reaching the point of estrangement from one another and not just siblings joshing each other” kind of way. Not the Dreadful Crimes, though. Perhaps because the dialogue is much more functional, focused around interrogating witnesses, so there’s less pressure to try and communicate an emotional arc through casual conversation and instead it comes out in clues and contradictions.

Continue reading “AC: Syndicate’s Dreadful Crimes DLC Is Better At Being BBC’s Sherlock Than BBC’s Sherlock”

Mind Scanners

Mind Scanners is to Papers, Please as Katana Zero is to Hotline, Miami: A game with noticeably different style and mechanics whose underlying theme and pace nevertheless make it feel like it’s a clone. In Mind Scanners, you are in a dystopian cyberpunk city and your daughter has the mutant power to blow up electronics, which makes her both a threat and potential asset to the government. They take her to a special institute for research. At the same time, there’s a new Mind Scanners initiative for using cyberpunk tech to scan and alter people’s psychology for mental health purposes, and level 3 mind scanners are allowed into the institute where your daughter is being held.

As you work your way up the mind scanner ranks, you come across disruptors – other mutants with the same powers your daughter has – and can turn them in or experiment on them to try and find a way to exploit or eliminate their powers. Rebels and the government alike will sometimes ask you to use mind scanning tech to erase the personality of certain patients completely, something you can also do by accident (or on purpose – there’s no penalty for erasing a personality besides being an evil bastard, and it’s faster and easier to cure people if you ignore the personality meter completely).

Like Papers, Please, you’re playing a little minigame on a timer to try and stay ahead of your rent. Unlike Papers, Please, it comes with difficulty levels, and the easy difficulty level mostly lives up to its name. I played the tertiary gameplay loop of the game – picking which patients to treat and when to set aside time to invent new mind scanning/altering devices and so forth – pretty sloppy on my first time through, because I found it very hard to resist scanning as many patients as possible even when there were more important plot things to be doing. On easy mode, though, treating patients went quickly enough that I was able to stay on top of things anyway.

I got a “the rebels are also authoritarians” vibe from the game, so I mostly snubbed them, but also ignored anytime the government asked me to mindwipe someone for being robosexual and declared a bunch of dissidents sane despite their weird tics (one claimed to see the future in a way that wasn’t clear whether she was speaking metaphorically or not but I suspected the main reason the government wanted her examined is because she was cryptically implying the government would cause catastrophe, one was an anti-government artist really obsessed with water which is weird, but we do need that stuff to live so I don’t really see how it’s a problem). There was a mad science project I botched purely out of incompetence, but that turned out to be for the best because (the internet tells me) its ultimate effect is to erase everyone’s personalities to create a world of perfectly homogenous bliss.

Two things I really appreciate about Mind Scanners is that 1) easy difficulty hits that sweet spot where I still have to learn the mechanics of the game and can’t just completely faceroll, but it’s also easy rather than demanding a ton of effort from a game I really want to get out of the way in one playthrough, and 2) generally trying to be a good person gets you a generally good ending on your first time through, rather than having the default ending be your puppy getting ground up into viscera and force-fed to other puppies and the only way to avoid that is to either play multiple times and experiment with what changes the ending or else use a walkthrough. Mind Scanners is a fun game, but not so fun that I want to replay it, and it seems like the endings get this. There is a perfect ending you can strive for if you want, but getting a generally positive outcome just requires that you not be overly gullible or murder your own daughter for the glory of the Supreme Leader.

August Humble Choice

For a bit, I tried to do reviews of the monthly Humble Bundle, largely in an effort to write off video game expenditures as a business expense. Ultimately, I gave up on the plan, because it turns out I really dislike playing a half-dozen new video games for an hour or two each in order to squeeze out a sloppy first impression of them. These days I’m doing exactly the opposite: Assembling a list of video games that I want to play all the way through (or in some cases, get 100% completion on). Once something goes on the Incomplete list, it has only two possible destinations: The Complete list once finished, or the Regrets list once I determine that actually this game is bad and I never want to finish it.

But this means I am now once again analyzing the Humble Choice (successor to the Humble Bundle) more closely, just for different reasons. So what are the games in August’s haul, and after a quick glance at them, are they going on the Incomplete list? I mostly haven’t played any of these, I’m going purely on advertising and reviews.

The Ascent is a solo or co-op action-shooter RPG about fighting through a cyberpunk arcology somehow. The details are a bit scarce, but it’s definitely a cyberpunk top-down shooter/RPG of some description, which sounds cool. This is going on the Incomplete list.

Hot Wheels Unleashed is a racing game for people who are nostalgic for Hot Wheels, I guess. Pass.

A Plague Tale: Innocence is one of those artsy story-focused indie games. This one in particular seems like it’s trying and failing to be a Sad Game like This War Of Mine and Frostpunk. I like Sad Games, but that doesn’t mean I’m interested in watching A Plague Tale go “look, a puppy! Now the puppy is starving! Please clap.”

Gas Station Simulator is one of those work simulation games that seem like they shouldn’t exist and yet here we are. I sometimes like to zone out to podcasts to these, so this is going on Incomplete, but once I get around to actually playing the damn thing there’s decent odds it’ll get kicked to Regrets if it doesn’t manage to hit that zen groove for me.

In Sound Mind is some kind of puzzle-y adventure game-y type thing. Cool concepts are involved, but I hate everything about that gameplay.

Mind Scanners is one of those “the future as envisioned by the 80s” retro-futuristic dealies, this one about a psychiatrist in a dystopia. Basically what if Papers, Please had arcade mini-games that let you erase someone’s traumatic memories instead of stamping passports. This might be one of those indie games that never really developed their ideas past the point necessary to make them sound good for Kickstarter, but since it’s in the Humble Choice either way, I’ll toss it on the Incomplete list and see for myself.

I’ve talked about Emily Is Away ❤ already. I tried the first installment in the series, which is free, and found it both failed to hit my nostalgia and wasn’t very fun to play, and Emily ❤ is unlikely to fix either problem. It’s closer to my nostalgia window, but also my teenage years were kind of weird and Emily ❤ will probably be bad at reminding me of them, plus I don’t think they fixed the thing where you have to bang randomly on your keyboard for a few seconds to “type” the message you’ve already selected.

Omno basically just looks like Journey but worse. It’s a puzzle platformer-y type thing, but there’s no multiplayer and the world looks slightly less interesting to explore than Journey’s.

So that’s three new games for the Incomplete list, although two of them are only getting in on the grace of “eh, I may as well double check to see for sure whether they suck.”

Emily Is Away Has A Fatal Flaw

One of the games from the August Humble Choice is Emily Is Away <3, the third game in the Emily Is Away series of nostalgic chat-based visual novels. The first Emily Is Away focuses on the internet of 2002-2006 and takes place through AIM Messenger. You play as a high school and subsequently college student with a crush on Emily, who is never away, because the gameplay is about talking to her through AIM. The first game is free, so I decided to give it a whirl before picking Emily Is Away <3, so that I can maybe give Emily ❤ away if someone else wants it.

As a nostalgia vehicle, Emily Is Away fails for me in particular for two reasons. First, I was ten in 2002 and fourteen in 2006, so the game’s initial hook of talking about Coldplay in AIM chat just doesn’t land for me. I used AIM as a teenager, but it was on the way out, and I never knew anyone who cared about Coldplay. Emily ❤ takes place on off-brand Facebook in 2008, when I was 16, and would line up much better.

Second, the game (at least in its first few interactions) relies heavily on a romantic entanglement between the protagonist and Emily, and I am an aromantic with a mind of metal and wheels who never cared who a girl I was interested in might be dating. There was more than one attractive girl in my circles, I was aware teenage relationships were fragile and temporary so a girl dating someone else didn’t really present a long term obstacle anyway, and my interests in relationships was pretty limited to begin with, especially for the amount of effort a relationship with a high school relationship usually requires.

Plus, the girl the protagonist is interested in is one they know in real life, and regularly see in person. The only reason they’re using AIM chat to stay in touch is because using the phone requires slightly more effort. Emily is exclusively the character you interact with early on (maybe for the whole game?), and it’s jarring to me that a 00s-era AIM conversation would end with a promise to meet up in real physical space at a party later that evening. When I was a teenager, the internet was another world with almost totally distinct inhabitants, and the friends I had online and used things like AIM chat to talk to were completely different people from who I saw at school.

None of this is a fatal flaw, though, because they’re obviously pretty specific to me. No, Emily Is Away’s fatal flaw is that after you pick a dialogue option, you have to hit keys on your keyboard to type it out. It doesn’t matter what keys you press, it’ll always match (more or less) the dialogue option you selected, so this is just a bit of friction between making a choice and seeing results. There is occasionally some characterization of the protagonist as they start to write one thing, then delete it and use a different phrasing (usually going from something very strong to something more restrained), but it’s really not worth the bit of friction introduced into every single player input. I keep thinking to myself “maybe it’ll be more relatable if I muscle through the opening conversations with Emily and find some side characters to talk to” or “maybe Emily ❤ will work better for me since it takes place in 2008 when I was 16,” but ultimately, I don’t want to struggle through fake-typing out all my responses when I still have over 170 games in my backlog.

You Win But Actually You Lose

In Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Evie Frye is an Assassin chasing after the Shroud of Eden to prevent the Templar Lucy Thorne from using it to take over the world somehow. At the point in the story we’re talking about today, Sequence 5, Evie doesn’t know the Templars’ exact plan, just that they need a new piece of Eden after they accidentally blew up the Apple of Eden (I say “the” but at this point in the continuity there’s at least a couple floating around – this one can’t be the same one the Assassins and Templars were fighting over in the Ezio trilogy, because that was still around in 2012).

Evie solves some puzzles and tracks down some puzzle key thing in a hidden room in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and that’s when Lucy Thorne pops out of nowhere. You have a quick mini-boss fight, and then in a cut scene Lucy takes the puzzle key from around Evie’s neck where Evie had been wearing it like a necklace (for all of five minutes) and runs away. After reducing the bosses’ health to zero, you win, but actually, you lose. It’s at least framed as Lucy grabbing it on the way to being tossed out a window and then using her parkour skillz to escape, but if they needed Lucy to win at this point, why not cut the (fairly dull) boss fight and just have Lucy be there ahead of Evie?

What makes it particularly aggravating is the premise of the Assassin’s Creed series: The frame story is that you’re a modern day Assassin reliving the genetic memories of an ancient Assassin master, usually to learn where some Precursor artifact wound up 200 years ago in the hopes that it’s still there to be recovered today (this hope turns out to be accurate a shockingly high percentage of the time, particularly since the modern-day frame plot is often vestigial to the point where you can go ahead and give it an anti-climactic “yeah, the vault’s empty” ending and it would be fine, because the storyline we care about is the one with the pirates/French revolutionaries/Industrial Age gang wars/whatever). The memories are fuzzy, which is why you can run around locations freely instead of repeating exactly the dead Assassin’s movements step for step, and you can do side quests in any order, and so on. This is necessary enough for gameplay that it would have to be handwaved even if it didn’t make sense, but it does: Memory is imperfect, and the genetic memories you’re accessing haven’t properly stored what order events occurred in, so the Animus has to be able to handle the ambiguity. I mean, genetic memories don’t work that way at all, but once you’ve accepted that a DNA sample can remember specific events, the rest is pretty plausible both in comparison and generally.

What makes this aggravating is that there are bonus objectives for full synchronization: Things your ancestor specifically remembers doing and which will help synchronize you (giving you new abilities) with the memories if you do them as well. For example, in the fight with Lucy Thorne, apparently Evie Frye specifically remembers countering every one of Lucy Thorne’s attacks. Which is the only way Lucy can do any damage. So the canonical outcome of this fight is not that it was a desperate struggle between evenly matched foes that could’ve suddenly tilted towards either side at any second, and Lucy seized an opportunity to grab the key and escape. It’s that Evie was completely dominating and then Lucy got phenomenally lucky.