This is a thoroughly charming game, and it’s just $10… if you haven’t picked it up yet, why not?


Valeting: Unsurpassed

It’s based of course on Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours, first published in 1873. It’s not technically sf, but it’s in the ballpark– it’s like a 19C Wired, besotted with the transformative power of technology. Phileas Fogg is able to make his tour thanks to three recent events: the opening of the Suez Canal and the completion of railroad routes across India and America.  (I just re-read the first few chapters of Le Tour, which are amusing in an arch 19C way.  Passepartout signs up with Fogg because he is the most dependable, boring rentier in London… and only a few hours later Fogg returns with the news that they are departing that very night for Dover.)

Anyway, the game!  I’ve been marveling at the cleverness of its gameplay. It’s literally an open world– you can get to every part of the globe– but most of the cities and routes start out hidden. Knowledge becomes the hidden treasure of the game: as you explore and talk and buy and sell, you discover new routes, as well as new reasons to go to the places mentioned.

I’ve played the game through twice– each playthrough taking about 2.5 hours– and each was entirely different, as I took different routes.  Which is another enormously clever bit!  I’ll play a really good game several times, but usually it’s almost exactly the same experience.  Here, nothing at all need be the same, and it makes sense… of course a trip through Europe and Russia will be different from one through Africa and Oceania. There are 169 cities total, and it’s hard to visit more than about 30 in one trip, so the game is highly replayable.

At heart, the game is a text adventure.  Wait, come back!  This is actually a good thing.  It allows far more imagination and variety than could be done in 3-d models or even drawings.  In form, you get short descriptions (rarely more than a screenful), and choose the continuation. You can choose to be adventurous or fearful, friendly or disdainful; often you can stay out of trouble if you wish, sometimes you can’t. (You are Passepartout, not Fogg; Fogg will offer clues but he’s generally barely functional as a companion.)   I should also add that the game makes good use of the map and illustrations of your inventory, conveyances, cities, and traveling companions, so there is plenty of visual interest.

You get ‎£4000 to start with, but fares and hotels cost money, and you’ll need more. There’s a nice mechanism for this: you can buy items in various cities, and sell them for a profit later on, usually in a specific city.  Items may also be acquired to make the journey easier, to make negotiations on departure time easier, or to reveal routes.

Fogg is delicate and suffers through travel, so another mechanic is keeping him healthy.

My first playthrough went swimmingly: I got back to London in 66 days, and made enough money to afford a £5000 steamship ride back home. Highlights of the trip included getting engaged and delivering a baby (not to the same woman).  My second playthrough was a much closer shave: 76 days, and I almost ran out of money in Portugal, tantalizingly close to the final destination.  The trading had not worked out well on my route; I had to sell everything I had and do some extra work in the hotels, and we made it back with £31 in pocket.  (It’s possible to get emergency funds from banks, but this takes extra days. I also learned afterwards that you don’t have to sleep in a hotel.)

The writer,  Meg Jayanth, deserves a lot of credit for making every route interesting. You are of course not restricted to the route from the book. You’re also not restricted, well, to our reality. Realizing that the frazzled citizens of 2015 are not as enthused as those of 1872 by steamships and railroads, the developers have gone full steampunk… plus it’s a revisionist steampunk where Zulus, Haitians, and Maoris are as likely as Europeans to be building massive steam contraptions, walking cities, automata, and so on.  And why not?  If you’re going to upgrade the technology, you’d might as well downgrade the colonialism.

There’s reams of adventure created for the game, but there are also nods to Verne’s other novels… on my second playthrough, where I tried to keep to the southern hemisphere, I ended up being abducted by Captain Nemo.

I can’t even think of anything to complain about. There are times I didn’t end up where I expected to go, but that’s fine– it wouldn’t be true to Verne if the unexpected never happened. The game is just challenging enough (as my almost-failed 2nd playthrough showed), but it’s also not very punishing, so you can take chances and explore.





I think I may be done with League of Legends.  I haven’t picked it up in a couple of months. Part of this is that Arkham Knight and Fallout 4 have louder voices. Part of it is that, due to schedule changes, my friend Ash is no longer available for late-night games.

But the biggest reason is just that I’m not very good at it. I’ve put more than a year into it, I know the basics, I’ve played a ton of ARAM so I’ve played most of the champions.  I do well sometimes, and a few times I do really well. But I still have trouble staying alive, I lose more games than I win, and the learning curve seems as steep as ever.  I never even got into Ranked; the one game I played with friends was a disaster.

Millions of people love League, so I can’t really criticize it, but I think it has a few design problems.

  • You’ll enjoy it best if you play with friends, preferably over voice chat. But if you’re low level, you basically can’t play with high-level friends. They may mentor you a bit, but the game is too different at different levels. If you play with them, you’ll get a higher class of opponents and it’ll be worse for you, not better.

    (This is mitigated in ARAM, which is why I could play with Ash at all.)

  • The game could use a fourth level of tutorial bots.  It’s still too much of a leap to go from the bots to humans.
  • The game avoids voice chat for good reasons… jerks can be bad enough in text. But it means that mentoring usually doesn’t happen. (I appreciate it when it does occur, but it’s easiest to do in voice chat.)
  • The games are long. A bad TF2 round ends in five minutes, and then you can start over.  A bad SR match can take 45 minutes (even if your team surrenders, it’s 20).  If the problem was a bad team comp, a player who messes up, or a bad laning phase, that’s a long punishment for a short mistake.
  •  All the items and champs and strategies that make it a great e-sport make it, well, a grind to learn, except for you teenage and college whippersnappers. And it just keeps getting worse as they add more champs and items.

I think I could maybe go for a League Lite.  Something more complicated than TF2, but far less than pro LOL.  Maybe something with 30 champs instead of 128, no items, and start each game at level 3.  Maybe even an option to switch out champs.

(ARAM is almost a League Lite, but the problem I have with it is that it doesn’t prepare you for SR.  You do learn the champions, but they play differently in SR, and ARAM doesn’t teach you the teamwork, the laning, or the overall strategy.)

If you’re considering League, I don’t mean to put you off.  I’m not sorry I tried it, and you might do better at it than I did.  I might even go back for ARAM once I’ve put down the Institute. Though I hear the new Tomb Raider game is next month…

I mostly finished Arkham Knight.  (See the first part of the review here.) That is, I defeated Scarecrow.  I’ve locked up a bunch of supervillains, but there’s a few more to go, and approximately one gazillion Riddler trophies.

Let's test your graphics card with particle effects

Let’s test your graphics card with particle effects

Overall: I have some major reservations, but it’s mostly good.  There’s a conceptual unity to the story that I have to respect.  The other Arkham games were dark but comic-bookish: a really long and difficult night for the Bat, with not much indication that his career choices ever get him down.  He’s dour and a he’s a bit of a dick to Robin, but that’s as far as it goes.  In AK piling on Batman’s weak points isn’t a joke or a side issue, it’s the main thing. It’s a relentless exploration of the idea that Bats needs his friends, pushes them away because of the danger, and gets them in trouble anyway.  And it all comes back on him in one night.

You can quibble with this story or its resolution, but it’s clearly the story Rocksteady wanted to tell… it’s not really useful to say you wanted a different story. There’s a million Batman stories out there, take your pick.

There may be spoilers from here on out; run away screaming if that’s what you need to do.

Storywise, I wasn’t sure I liked the reappearance of the Joker, but in retrospect I see what they were doing. He may be a delusion caused by Joker blood, but the idea that he could take over under the influence of Scarecrow toxin is clever, and pays off very well at the end. Plus, heck, it’s fun to hear Mark Hamill again, and way more fun than the other two villains’ taunting. (I guess you have to have a lot of self-confidence to be a supervillain, but don’t they ever learn that boasting about how dead Batman is going to be starts to sound hollow as the night goes on?)

Will you like the big reveal of the Arkham Knight’s identity? I dunno; I have to confess that I don’t know enough Batman lore to have guessed, or to be bothered or impressed.

In terms of gameplay, there are a number of What Were They Thinking? problems.

First: the goddamn car. There was one sequence I could barely get through– Arkham Knight and his excavator. You have to get the excavator’s attention, then drive like a maniac down a tunnel, avoiding various obstacles, and if you screw up by a microsecond you’re toast. It’s not fun and it doesn’t fit with either the combat (which rewards careful, non-panicked attacking) or the predator bits (which reward patience and opportunity-seeking). It’s like a twitchy Mario level snuck into the game.

One of the Riddler challenges is just as bad; I haven’t beaten it and I don’t know if I will. It involves driving on the wall with precise positioning and split-second button presses, and it pisses me off. It doesn’t help that the Batmobile handles terribly, and the wall-driving thing is incredibly sensitive to the path you start on, so if you almost get it on one try, your next try is likely to be way off.

Edit: I did get this one, and freed Catwoman.  Still, my feeling is “I’m glad I don’t have to do that again” rather than “That was fun, let me see if I can shave 5 seconds off my time.”

There are also endless tank battles, and they just pile on the tanks and missiles to make them harder. The only ones I ended up liking are the Cobra battles, where you have to drive up behind the tanks to take them out. It’s tricky but it at least rhymes with the predator challenges.

Second: why did they mess up the best part of the previous games, the challenge maps? In Arkham City you could take them on four times, for four playable characters, and sometimes I’d play ’em all night, ignoring the main game. In AK you get just four combat and four predator maps, compared to 12 each for the previous games.  You get just a few more if you spring for DLC.  And then you can only play each of them with one character. It’s just a stupid decision– “hey, let’s totally get rid of the most addictive and replayable part of our game!”

Edit: The latest patch adds the ability to play the combat and predator maps with multiple characters, which alone is enough to get me to put aside Fallout 4 for a bit.

And some of them are locked till you figure out the weird things that unlock them. E.g. there’s one where you are supposed to run off a roof and go immediately into a dive. I’ve tried it a dozen times, so far as I’m concerned I did just that, and no unlock, nor any indication of what I did wrong. I hate when games hide what they want you to do.

Third: the treatment of Catwoman and Oracle. There are a few bits of AK where you can switch to a different character, and it’s always fun. And again, it’s like Rocksteady decided, to hell with fun, let’s limit those elements. Why can’t we wander the city as Catwoman or Robin or Oracle?

Finally: you have to do all the side missions to get the full ending, yet they make it incredibly tedious to do so. Sometimes you can follow a marked route to get somewhere, which is fine. But often you have to just wait till you run into the element, and the city is big enough that scouring it in this way, for a dozen side missions, is no fun. Once I wanted to get all the militia watchtowers on one island. I’d gotten some, but there were 2 left. I found a walkthrough with maps, made a diagram, and checked out every watchtower location. And didn’t find anything. From playing later, it seems that some towers are added later in the game. Ugh.

I understand, I guess, developers’ resistance to providing map locations for everything right off. They want us to explore. But not knowing where things are is really not the gameplay funapalooza that developers seem to think it is. I’d be happy enough if there was a discovery mechanism that unlocks at some point, like the Collectible Finder in Saints Row 3, or even the Riddler informants in AC. (They’re back in AK, but of course they’re no help with finding the next militia point or whatever.)

Edit: Eventually you get ‘intel’ on missions, which gives you waypoints; Still can’t find two checkpoints, at 91% game completion.

A more minor complaint: you start with pretty much the same skills as in the earlier games, but then they add about a dozen new tricks and keystrokes on top of them. Honestly, I can’t even remember them all. On the plus side, I didn’t need most of them either.

I don’t know how many Riddler trophies I have, and I really doubt I’ll find them all.

Still, I ended the game feeling much better about it. What’s right with the game?

For one, there’s some really neat and gorgeous bits. When the Cloudburst appears, for one: it changes the look of the whole city, it looks awful and apocalyptic and yet somehow beautiful. The final confrontation with Scarecrow is also really well done. It has a nice callout back to Arkham Asylum, and it combines both the Scarecrow surrealism and the Joker crazy-murder into one package.

And despite my complaints, I appreciate that AK tried some new things– unlike Arkham Origins which was too much of a retread of the previous game. Some don’t work, but some do: having a place to accumulate arrested enemies; the remote hacking device; silent takedowns from a more forgiving angle; the medics; the fear takedown; quite a few neat levels and puzzles. Even the car, though I didn’t like it very much, represents an attempt to shake up the formula and try new things. And there are many missions that are genuinely fun, like the Nightwing ones, and stopping bank heists.  There’s also a couple of Chekhov’s gun moments I admire.

Arkham Knight tells me that I’m 42% done, so it’s time for an in-progress review.  By now you’ve probably heard about the overall setup: the Big Bad is Scarecrow, assisted by a very cocky Batmanlike named the Arkham Knight. You play as Batman.

I have to bring Robin along?

I have to bring Robin along?

Before we get any further you probably want to know: is it fixed? Mostly. It only crashes for me once an hour or two. Crazily, I have to play at high resolution but low everything else in order to avoid the AMD grappling gun crash. But it’s playable.

Overall: it’s good, and I’m enjoying it, with some complaints. It’s the most gorgeous Arkham game yet, and it’s got Kevin Controy and Mark Hamill back. It definitely shows Arkham Origins as an inferior copy of Arkham City. Rocksteady isn’t afraid to mess with its own formula, adding new combat moves, new puzzle types, and of course the Batmobile.

I have mixed feelings about the wheels. Mostly, it doesn’t quite fit with Batman– playing it feels much more like Grand Theft Auto IV. You can run over pedestrians, destroy cars, blow up tanks, knock down just about anything that’s not a building… it seems way too careless for the Bat. (They put in handwaves to explain that he’s not actually killing anyone, but still.) It’s hard to steer, and even the expanded maps feel too small for the car. But, eh, it does add variety and it’s certainly not terrible.

Curiously, the combat feels mostly easier than Arkham Origins, and there seems to be less emphasis on boss fights, which is fine by me. Unaccountably, they’ve messed strangely with the challenge maps. One, it takes forever to unlock them– I bought some of the DLC packs just to have something to play. Two, you can only play them with the character they’re designed for, which immediately removes a lot of the replay value. Three, the combat maps come in just one round, and with most maps it seems extremely hard to get three stars. The one plus is that you can win special red icons for extra effort (e.g. surviving longer in the infinite-thugs maps).

There are a couple hundred Riddler trophies, of course. They seem strangely hidden though… in Arkham City you’d at least see them all over. There are a number of side missions. of course… my least favorite is chasing APCs, since I haven’t figured out how to reliably hit them.  (Ctrl key, but it’s not at all clear when you can fire it and if not, why not.)

Cute bit: you can’t see into (but can’t access) what was once Arkham City:

Look at the little courthouse!

Look at the little courthouse!

The first screenshot above is from DLC, the Batgirl + Robin adventure.  It’s a good meaty adventure, and I like their version of Batgirl; it’s a pity that you can’t play more Batgirl, even in the challenge maps.

Minor spoilers ahead, though nothing important.

The plot is a frenetic mess, but who cares, it’s what we expect from an Arkham game. One big misstep: the villains kidnap Oracle and Catwoman.  So, their best two female characters become damsels in distress, ugh.  I know it’s an old trope to have Batman’s allies attacked, but why the two women over, say, the five men among his close allies?  It’s particularly annoying in that there’s a model close to hand where both characters were used splendidly: Arkham City.

Part of the story is exploring some of Batman’s neuroses… however, so far they seem to be saying contradictory things: first, that people too close to Batman are endangered… second, that Batman foolishly keeps people from helping him.  Um, maybe #2 is in order to avoid #1?  But I dunno, the “Batman being a dick” thing made a great joke in Arkham City, but the comics usually make him a rather more empathetic (and talkative) character.  It makes no sense either in terms of character or gameplay that he trains Robin and then doesn’t use him.

Edit: Thoughts on finishing the game.

Finally got to this one.  It’s the second DLC for Dishonored, finishing the story of The Knife of Dunwall.

Not steampunk at all!

Not steampunk at all!

My one complaint about Knife was that it felt incomplete; well, Knife + Witches is nearly as long as the original game, and in many ways it’s far more interesting.  Daud is a better and darker protagonist; the witches make for an accelerating threat (unlike the end of the main game which just offers a shitload of guards), and there’s no attempt to whitewash the corrupt, nasty place that is Dunwall.

I played it all Low Chaos, a path which annoys the Outsider.  This game, I finally made use of the stop time ability… it’s often the best way to deal with the witches, who are far more formidable opponents than the guards. I clumsily used every one of my sleep darts on the final mission, but hey, nobody died.

The story is a little convoluted, as there are a couple missions devoted to finding a way to get to the Witches. But the missions themselves are good stealthy fun.

One weird thing: the last mission has coins and valuables scattered about… why?  You can’t buy anything…

Anyway, if you liked Dishonored and weren’t sure about this, go get it.  Then we wait for Dishonored 2

So, after a mere 4 months, I can play Arkham Knight. I had to upgrade the power supply and graphics card for my computer even to start the game.  (I have an AMD Radeon R9 380 now.)  Then, even with the re-release, I could start the story, and then the game would hang and crash as soon as I tried the grapple hook.  This seems to be a common unfixed problem for people with AMD cards.

Gotta admit it's pretty

Gotta admit it’s pretty

I found a fix that works for me, crazy as it sounds:

  1. Open the AMD Catalyst Control Center.
  2. Select My Digital Flat Panels.
  3. Turn on “Enable virtual super resolution”.
  4. Select Desktop Management, then Desktop Properties.
  5. Select 2560 x 1440 resolution.  Exit the app.
  6. Now run Arkham Knight, and change the resolution to 2560×1440.

Weirdly, turning down the resolution, even as low as possible, didn’t fix it, but turning it up to a higher resolution than the monitor actually supports does.

Anyway, so I can play now.  I’m about six hours in; I’ll have more of a review later.  It’s very pretty, and it’s fun as usual to beat up thugs and flit among the high points.

The biggest new thing is the Batmobile. I’m undecided on this.  The Batmobile sections feel a little like Grand Theft Auto, which is a weird stylistic shift: you can knock into things, smash down streetlights, make the pedestrian thugs run for cover.  And blow up tanks and planes, which we are helpfully informed are unmanned drones, but it’s still a bit weird for Batman to be shooting up the place.

Plus I miss Catwoman.  I understand she turns up later, so judgment reserved.  I played the short Harley Quinn challenge– kind of fun, but I dislike the way the game makes its low opinion of Harley known.

We actually get to meet and see Oracle this game.  What’s more baffling is that even as the situation escalates into a paramilitary uprising, Batman refuses to let Nightwing help.  Dude has issues.

Edit: What also has issues, still, is the game.  It crashed about four times tonight, in as many hours.

Plus… there’s a lot of annoying bits.  Riddler’s Batmobile challenges are really fiddly, and force you to replay long swatches if you fail them. Batmobile chases are about as horrid as GTAIV chases.  It’s dispiriting that the plot can’t think of what to do with its female characters except to kidnap them. Plus, I dunno, does Bats have to be such a complete dick to his helpers?  Arkham City’s Batman had a hint of a dry sense of humor, at least.

No, not to my actual apartment.  Burned structure next door that could collapse; no gas or power; basement flooded.  But I was able to go back to rescue the PC, so I can write a review of the last game I played, Gone Home.

Maybe the next drawer will have a wicked laser rifle

Maybe the next drawer will have a wicked laser rifle

Let’s get this bit over with quickly: Gone Home is not a shooter. It’s also not a platformer, not a MOBA, not a puzzle game, not a simulator, not an RPG. It can loosely be called a point-and-click adventure game. It’s mostly an unusual vehicle for telling a story, a story about a single family.

The setup is that you are Katie, a college-age woman returning to her family home in Oregon after a year’s trip to Europe. Only it’s a new home (the family moved while you were away), and nobody’s home. There are no overt quests, but figuring out why no one’s home is part of the game.

The game mechanic is that you move around the house, finding documents and objects that tell the story of the family and the house. You can pick up many things and examine them; other things are short documents to read; a few trigger voiced memories (though, thankfully, you are not prevented from doing other things while these play). The main story has to do with your younger sister Sam. I think the story is best experienced in-game, so I won’t describe it further, except to mention that part of the theme is that being a teenager sucks. It has awesome parts but the sucky bits seem to be in a conspiracy to prevent them.

Does it work? I think so, though I like attempts to do new things in games. The main story is interesting, though not earth-shattering. In some ways the half-stories you get about other characters are more intriguing. Dad and Mom have their own stories and problems, plus there may be a ghost.

The setup of exploring your own family’s home is clever. As Katie, you’ll see references to yourself, or have reactions to certain items; and then there’s your own room– completely packed up in boxes. They didn’t even make the bed for you.

The mechanic is nicely done. You can move, crouch to get a better look at things lower down, and interact with a wide variety of things. You can decide which rooms to check first and what to look at, though obviously you’ll only experience the story if you pretty much look at everything. (It’s surprising the family keeps as many secrets from each other as it does, given everyone’s propensity for dropping revealing documents all over the house.) There are some minor puzzles to solve that unlock parts of the house; on the meta level these are really there to enforce some order to the story.

Overall it’s much like Sunset, though I think many things are better handled here. More things are interactive; you aren’t locked in place while you read Sam’s journal; they just don’t have you do things they don’t have the animation budget for. Plus it’s far shorter, so the wander-and-touch-things mechanic doesn’t wear out its welcome. Also, I think the limited venue is more of a virtue in Gone Home. On the other hand, Sunset at least made a model of the player character, so you don’t entirely feel like a disembodied being, and it offered alternative actions.

It has a neat mechanic that I’d like to see in other games, such as Bethesda’s: when you’re holding an object there’s a “Put back” action so you can place it where it came from rather than dropping it on the floor.

Just a few things to criticize. One, I think the story cried out for a “Two years later…” endcard. I guess I’d say that the story provides an emotional closure, but not a practical one. The final events would have produced more repercussions that we don’t get to see.

Second, we learn a bit about Katie, but not enough, I think. I’m not sure we even learn her major. Maybe this is a vestige of the notion that PCs ought to be underdetermined, so we can identify with them. But very precise PCs work great; we’re not bothered if we can’t mold our own Lara Croft. They’ve already provided Katie with a face, a voice, a close relationship with her sister; it would have been nice to get to know her at least as well as we know the parents.

Finally, and related to the last two points: Katie can’t influence the story in any way. Which isn’t essential for a game, but for a very intimate story like this, it feels like a lack. (If they didn’t want to get into Katie getting involved in the denouement, there’s at least one relevant action she could take: hide certain documents from the parents!)

Will you like it? If you only like shooters, no. If you like point-and-click adventure games, maybe, but be aware that it’s not a puzzle-solving game and there are no real choices to make. Also, it’s short (it took me two hours) and the list price is $20, which is maybe steep; I got it on sale. But it’s different, and well put together.

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