I once again find myself in the archer’s dilemma. This is my pet name for when I want to move my archers into harm’s way to ensure they deal maximum damage, and hopefully kill their target. Of course, if my archers don’t kill their target, they might be torn asunder on the next turn. I could move my archers back to safety behind my other troops, but then they would incur a hefty firing penalty since something is blocking their line of sight. Do I risk the all-out attack, or play it safe?
The fantastical battlefields of Age of Wonders III are filled with such dilemmas. These tiny dramas spawn naturally from the carefully calculated combination of dozens of different systems all working together. From flanking bonuses and line of sight to magical research and the industrial infrastructure of your empire, every detail in this turn-based strategy game contributes toward making the battlefield as complex and rewarding as possible. And because its managerial aspects are kept to a minimum, Age of Wonders III is easy to pick up, moves at a fast clip, and frees you up to focus your attention on the action.
Each game of Age of Wonders III begins with you taking up the mantle of a mighty hero–such as an elven sorcerer or a dwarven theocrat–and guiding your people through conflict to prosperity, assuming all goes well. Before you can get to the conflict, however, you’re going to need an army, which means you’re also going to need cities to produce your army. Cities are the backbone of your empire, and they factor heavily into the games main objectives. Victory in Age of Wonders III means protecting your capital city, while defeating the enemy’s hero and capturing his or her capital.
Because its managerial aspects are kept to a minimum, Age of Wonders III is easy to pick up, moves at a fast clip, and frees you up to focus your attention on the action.
Cities are largely self-sufficient, requiring little more than your input on which buildings to construct. Your recommendations determine which units a city can produce, and whether those units come with free upgrades from specialized structures. Sometimes a city’s populace will become unhappy with their living conditions, but this issue is easily remedied with a magical enchantment or the ever-popular bathhouse structure. Happiness aside, the game doesn’t demand much more of your time for empire maintenance. Age of Wonders III is all about its tactical combat; all other duties are in service to this feature.
Once your army has been trained and is on the field, it’s time to explore your kingdom. Each of the game’s procedurally generated maps comes packed with treasure sites, such as caves and abandoned temples, for you to stumble upon. These sites are usually protected by roving packs of bandits or low-level monsters, both of which are great for testing your new army before challenging one of the main players.
Regardless of who, or what, you’re fighting, your army is always gaining experience and leveling up. Basic units, such as archers or knights, move up in rank as they gain experience, which awards them a flat bonus to their abilities. When a hero unit levels up, it’s a bit more involved. Hero units earn skill points, which you can redeem to either increase the hero’s stats or unlock new skills. There are a multitude of skills to unlock, and they can benefit either the unit or the army that unit leads. Deciding whether you want your hero to be a highly skilled frontline brawler or a leader of men who sits in the back is a way to give your army some extra personality.
A band of orc warriors prepare to drive these heathens from their magical high ground.
When you feel your army is ready–or you get ambushed–it’s time to wage war. Open warfare against equally capable opponents is where Age of Wonders III really shines. The rest of the game builds towards these sorts of encounters, and they require a satisfying amount of tactical finesse. When you engage another army in battle, you are transported to a more intimate arena that’s separate from the world map. The fighting takes place on a hex-based grid, which is usually filled with trees, boulders, or, in the case of urban assaults, city walls. Using the terrain, your skills, and every other tool at your disposal is paramount to victory. Rushing headlong into the fight only gets you slaughtered.
Open warfare against equally capable opponents is where Age of Wonders III really shines. The rest of the game builds towards these sorts of encounters, and they require a satisfying amount of tactical finesse.
Similar to the XCOM series, Age of Wonders III gives you plenty of opportunities to screw up in battle. Flanking attacks from teleporting foes, shield-bearing enemies who can defect arrows, and a wide variety of harmful spells are just some of the dozens of possibilities you must juggle in a given encounter. The key to victory lies in internalizing all these different factors and working out a solution that forces your opponent to make a mistake. There’s a lot to keep up with, but the game does a good job of presenting all this information in an easily accessible way. And when you emerge victorious, it’s because you outmaneuvered your opponent and successfully capitalized on his or her mistakes.
Woven between the combat and empire building is your empire’s research tree, where you research new spells and technologies for your people. It’s one of your most powerful assets, but also one of the most unpredictable. Depending on your class and race, there are always a few staples on the tree–such as basic seafaring or the ability to cast more spells per turn–but the rest are randomly selected and can be unlocked in any order. If you start out with a few direct-damage spells, you may wish to press that advantage by being extra aggressive, while on the flip side, if you have a magical ward for your city, you may wish to stick close to home. While they may be unpredictable, your available research options are always balanced in such a way that you never feel at a loss or underpowered. Adaptation is the mark of a good leader.
While Age of Wonders III does a good job of providing variety in most aspects of the game, there is one area that is underrealized: the classes and races. In the end, your class and race selections simply apply subtle variations on the same core set of units, and as a result, encounters can start to feel similar in spite of the game’s elements of randomness. Sure, the orc archer may have a -1 penalty to damage while the elven archer has a +1, but in the end, they both behave largely the same. This isn’t to say that the core set is not fun to command; however, it would have been nice to see the differences between these different factions pushed a little further to open up even more diverse strategies and tactics in battle.
You can put a personal touch on your hero by tweaking his or her clothing and appearance.
Regardless of the class or race you choose to lead, your rise to glory will likely begin in one of the game’s offline modes. Two campaigns serve as a good introduction to the game’s mechanics and its mythos, while the scenario and randomized map modes are great for just whaling on the AI. However, when you’re ready to take the fight online, you may experience some hiccups. On two different machines, I encountered connection errors with the developer’s servers, which prompted me to seek aid outside of the game through the developer’s website. If you’re not already well versed in firewall port forwarding, you may find their solutions woefully underdeveloped.
Online foibles aside, with its tactically rewarding battles and streamlined empire management, Age of Wonders III is a well-crafted strategy game that doesn’t let itself get bogged down in needless busywork. It pushes your focus onto its strongest suit, the battlefield, while keeping everything else in the background. Some smart elements of randomness help keep you on your toes after multiple sessions, though you will find several go-to strategies still apply regardless of the sort of army you lead. Age of Wonders III is the welcome return of a long-absent strategy series and a tactically rewarding game.
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In life, we make connections with others. We protect the ones we love as they protect us, creating ties that bind us for life. We can’t forcibly create those bonds, and once created, they are not easily broken.
Burial at Sea – Episode 2 is about those kinds of personal connections. Like the disappointing first episode, this concluding chapter ties the Columbia of BioShock Infinite to the Rapture of BioShock and BioShock 2–yet it begins in neither city. Instead, you are in Paris, though it is not a Paris that ever was, but rather a Paris so perfect, so ideal, that even the most imaginative daydreamers could not have thought up a place of such sunny beauty. And no longer are you Infinite protagonist Booker DeWitt, but instead his talented ward Elizabeth, who had long dreamed of visiting La Ville-Lumière. Your initial stroll along the city’s sublime terraces takes you past smiling couples and friendly onlookers, many of whom know you by name. This glorious opening recalls your initial stroll in Columbia, but when a sweet songbird lands on your finger and chirps along with the ambient music, it becomes clear that this utopia is too impeccable to be real. This is Paris by way of Disney, a place where Elizabeth’s resemblance to Beauty and the Beast’s heroine Belle is rendered even sharper by the numerous calls of “Bonjour!” from her many admirers.
Dreams never last. Elizabeth awakens from her reverie in Frank Fontaine’s sunken department store with a gun pointed at her head and a game of Russian roulette under way. She is at the mercy of Frank Fontaine, aka Atlas, whose massive department store has sunk far below Rapture. Booker is there too, or at least an apparition of him, helping Elizabeth respond properly to Fontaine’s interrogation so that she might stay alive and follow through on her promise to protect the little girl known as Sally. Where Episode 1 relegated Rapture’s well-known citizens to a series of cameos, Fontaine has a major role to play in Elizabeth’s adventure. He’s a menacing presence, inherently untrustworthy, and a late-game scene in which he demonstrates his chilly inhumanity is so wildly disturbing and effective that for a moment, I was Elizabeth. I shared her dread, her contempt, and her resignation.
Some people can rework their fates. Some, unfortunately, cannot.
Some of Episode 2’s attempts to create narrative and metaphorical relationships between Columbia and Rapture are too obvious, as if the game is leaping around shouting “look at me” (I knew what ammo to toss you because I read a lot about guns!), and tricky timey-wimey issues are glossed over with familiar fictional platitudes (I know this won’t happen because it didn’t!). Overall, however, Episode 2 leaves behind the first episode’s uncomfortable meshing of incompatible game mechanics, and creates a coherence between narrative and action that even BioShock Infinite’s main campaign never fully established. Elizabeth is not a natural murderer, and Burial at Sea, Episode 2 doesn’t force you to play her as one.
That isn’t to say that you don’t have guns to shoot if you want to use them, though Elizabeth is so vulnerable that she can’t participate in the straightforward shootouts that characterized BioShock Infinite. Instead, the episode prioritizes sneaking and subterfuge, equipping you with a miniature crossbow that shoots tranquilizing projectiles and darts tipped with knockout gas, and gifting you with a plasmid that allows you to become temporarily invisible and to see through walls. The result of this shift in approach is that big daddies are more ominous than ever. You cannot destroy them, only avoid or distract them. That hollow, soul-crushing groan that warns of a big daddy’s presence caused my heart to sink into my stomach multiple times, knowing that I could never go toe-to-toe with the monstrosity that emitted it. Splicers, too, provide a fresh fear factor, given that you cannot damage them with a melee attack if they are aware of your presence; you can only momentarily stun them that way.
Lockpicking is no longer an automated process.
And thus Episode 2 rocks to a different rhythm than Infinite’s previous adventures. The pace is methodical but not slothful, and while the sneaking isn’t a crushing challenge, it requires some forethought. Occasionally, I would slink up to a splicer from behind and knock him out with a swift melee blow. Other times, I would take aim at a fiend from a balcony above and fire a tranquilizer dart into his neck. Every so often, I set icy traps using the winter blast plasmid, and then tricked splicers into crossing them by firing noisemakers in their general direction. And when I was cornered, a blast from a shotgun could cure my ills, though this was typically a last-resort option. I sought every nook and cranny, gathering lockpicks and performing a simple but enjoyable minigame to access locked areas or neuter pesky turrets. What a pleasure to explore Rapture not as a gun-toting maniac, but as a survivor seeking answers.
And yes, Elizabeth is a survivor here, incapable of opening tears and observing the endless versions of power-hungry men and the lighthouses that lead to them. You discover the circumstances that led to her loss of omniscience as you follow the game’s natural trail, and the episode does a creditable job of giving narrative context to its own mechanics. Elizabeth’s vulnerability in combat is echoed in her emotional vulnerability; she is merely human now, reliant mainly on her wits and her intelligence, and at the mercy of the sociopaths she must manipulate.
Meet your new best friend, the diminutive crossbow.
BioShock Infinite’s conclusion left my mouth agape, but its narrative puzzles weren’t impenetrable. Burial at Sea’s finale, however, isn’t so up front about its meaning. And so I have begun another playthrough, seeking clarity while muddling through on a difficulty setting that allows me access only to nonlethal weapons. My glee in doing so says a lot about the new episode’s quality, especially in relation to the opening episode. Some strained metaphors and connections aside, the cities of Rapture and Columbia make for strange but comfortable bedfellows in BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea – Episode 2. More importantly, Elizabeth’s journey is tense and rewarding on its own terms, and is one that makes Rapture as mysterious as it was the first time you ventured inside.
In spite of its post-release backlash, Kevin VanOrd still loves BioShock Infinite, even though he was gravely disappointed by Burial at Sea’s first episode. He’s on his second playthrough of the new episode, which took him about three and a half hours the first time through.
What motivates the heroes of Sanctuary to battle the forces that threaten humanity? Is it an unwavering desire to do what’s right? Or is it a thirst for more power, more riches, and more stuff? Whatever it is, Reaper of Souls has it. This expansion adds a decent new character class, a great new campaign act, and most significantly, Adventure mode, a devious Blizzard concoction calculated to make Diablo III’s existing content more rewarding–and more addictive–than it has been in the past.
The angel of death, Malthael, is the force threatening humanity in the new campaign chapter, and the impressive opening cutscene establishes him as a fearsome adversary indeed, showing us why he’s called the reaper of souls. In a bid to end the conflict between angels and demons once and for all, Malthael is slaughtering humankind and adding the dead to his ever-growing armies. He’s a terrific and terrifying villain, and it’s just too bad that he doesn’t show up a bit more between his show-stopping entrance and the challenging boss battle that concludes the act.
Your journey to confront Malthael takes you through the most grim and beautiful locations Diablo III has yet featured. Absent here is any hint of the life and color that sometimes clawed their way into the settings for the first four acts. Instead, you explore the gloomy city of Westmarch on one of the worst nights in its history. Later, in an impressive moment, you stand atop a massive battering ram as it smashes open the gates of the fortress of Pandemonium, and then venture into the eerie ethereal realm that lies beyond. If you like your Diablo dark, you’ll be pleased to find that act five starts that way and stays that way. It’s also noticeably a bit tougher than the acts that precede it, throwing more swarms of monsters at you more frequently. Malthael is determined to give your clicking finger a workout.
Urzael, one of act five’s new bosses, is a fierce and fiery foe.
Reaper of Souls raises the level cap to 70, giving each class new active and passive skills to unlock. Playing through act five using my demon hunter, I made frequent use of her new vengeance skill, which tremendously increases the amount of damage you deal for 15 seconds. And the expansion introduces a new class, the crusader, a holy warrior who employs a mix of melee and ranged attacks. Crusaders feel weighty and formidable, able to bash foes with shields and cut a swath through enemies with flails, while also making use of defensive skills to manage the danger, like the ability to temporarily blind nearby enemies. They’re a fine addition to Diablo III’s existing pantheon of powerful heroes.
But the most significant addition Reaper of Souls brings to Diablo III is Adventure mode. Unlocked once you’ve defeated Malthael, Adventure mode gives you bite-size bounties to tackle in every region across Diablo III’s five acts, making it a great way to accomplish something meaningful even if you can play for only 15 minutes or so. Bounties have goals like killing a specific boss or clearing a certain dungeon of monsters, and they reward you with gold, experience, and a new item called blood shards, usable at specific merchants. Completing all five bounties in an act earns you a Horadric cache, which might contain some sweet gear.
The best rewards, however, come once you collect five rift keystone fragments from doing bounties, and can then open a nephalem rift. These randomized dungeons are visually striking for the ways in which they combine tilesets from familiar locations with different lighting effects, and conquering one of these dungeons earns you some quality loot. Diablo III is, at its core, a game about addiction. It tries to keep you coming back by tempting you with increasingly alluring rewards. With Adventure mode, Diablo III now has a way to get bigger, better rewards to you faster than it has before.
Death maidens are maidens who come bearing death. Also, they’re really tall.
And if you’re not happy with a particular piece of loot you earn, there’s now a new artisan, the mystic, who can replace one randomly generated property on a piece of gear for you; it’s a bit of a gamble, but you might end up with something better. She can also change the appearance of your items, turning your armor into something that looks more stylish or making your helm look like a hood.
If you’ve played Diablo III before and found that it wasn’t for you, the changes Reaper of Souls makes to the game won’t be far-reaching enough to change your mind. Reaper gives those who already liked Diablo III more of what they already liked about it. Adventure mode leverages Diablo III’s existing content in a clever way, and with its haunting settings and memorable villain, act five is the best chapter in the game’s campaign. If you’re looking for reasons to keep on clicking, Reaper of Souls has plenty.
In many ways, The Witch and the Hundred Knight represents a distinct departure from NIS’s norm. Instead of following the company’s usual strategy role-playing game formula, Witch is a loot-collecting, combat-heavy action RPG. Rather than 2D sprites, the game is populated with 3D character models. And where most NIS offerings feature a lighthearted, humor-infused story, The Witch and the Hundred Knight features a dark story beneath its charming anime illustrations. The result is an interesting, ambitious game that, unfortunately, takes its sweet time in becoming enjoyable.
The Witch and the Hundred Knight is a tale about the titular duo, the swamp witch Metallia and a squat, humanoid magical creature called the Hundred Knight, which she has summoned from another realm. Metallia has been confined to her swamp for years, and during that time, she has developed a fierce hatred of, well, just about everything. She aims to destroy the other witches of the world and expand her marshland territory. When the hidden Pillars of Temperance scattered throughout the land are released, Metallia’s murky swamp waters can flow more freely across the world, augmenting her power and giving her more freedom to move about, but since she is confined to her swamplands, the task is up to you, playing as the Hundred Knight. There are some interesting nuances to the plot introduced from the get-go–such as Metallia’s impending death and the mysterious origins and hidden power of the feeble-looking Hundred Knight–but the majority of the early story is spent releasing the power of the pillars and destroying the other witches that stand in Metallia’s way.
Get used to a lot of dialogue like this.
The setup sounds fairly straightforward, but the gameplay is anything but. A (too) lengthy introductory tutorial teaches you the most basic elements of moving, running, dodging, and attacking, but once you’re in Metallia’s house, the game stops holding your hand and leaves the Hundred Knight to fend for himself, save for some brief pop-ups and scattered explanations during loading times. And is it ever a tough learning curve.
The most important gameplay element in Witch–and one that isn’t explained well–is the GigaCals, or GCals. Metallia can’t leave her swamplands, so she sends the Hundred Knight to do her bidding, but he needs GCals to make use of her magic power. Much like a hunger meter in a roguelike game, the Hundred Knight’s GCals are constantly draining, and certain factors–such as the area being explored or damage taken from enemies–cause GCals to deplete faster. As long as the Hundred Knight has GCals, he can be killed and revived (at a massive GCal cost), but once the GCals run out, he takes a huge reduction in power and is ejected from the dungeon upon knockout. There are ways to refill GCals within the dungeons: using grade points earned from defeating enemies, partaking in healing items from your stash, or even eating foes that are on the verge of death (at the cost of filling up the Hundred Knight’s loot-storing stomach with garbage).
The visuals are pleasant, though they grow tiresome in time.
Since the dungeons are large, and enemies can be dangerous, it’s important not to act frivolously; every movement, strike, or misstep can have a serious cost. The slow, weighty strikes of the Hundred Knight’s weapon combos and dodge moves add to this feeling, plus a stamina bar prevents you from going hog wild with combo attacks and running. The design of dungeon exploration and combat lends a satisfying risk/reward element to your actions, and while it’s more forgiving than in a typical roguelike–every stage has numerous pillar checkpoints that allow you to return to base and refill GCals–it still challenges you to try to stick it out as long as you can in a stage with the ever-tantalizing prospect of more experience, better stat boosts, and high-level bonus loot. (Of course, if you get knocked out, you can kiss some of these hard-earned rewards goodbye.)
In addition to the GCals are numerous other gameplay elements that make Witch unique. The Hundred Knight can equip up to five weapons at once, and carefully leveling them up and balancing their attributes creates fantastic, incredibly damaging combos. Tochkas are magical skills you earn throughout the game that create varied and interesting effects, from simple projectile attacks to traps and damaging decoys. Enemies have emotions that can be manipulated through certain attacks, with certain attacks scaring them to death or making them fall in love with you (and thus becoming temporary aides). Homes in villages can be raided for valuable treasures and key items. The Hundred Knight can equip and swap between various “facets,” each with its own experience levels, proficiencies, and special augmentations.
Much of the dialogue during this particular story sequence wouldn’t be appropriate on a family-friendly website.
There are a lot of interesting gameplay ideas to experiment with, which makes the fact that so many of them are barely explained in-game incredibly frustrating. At the five-hour mark, I finally learned about consuming enemies after checking my control scheme and seeing what the button combination was; the hint screens I’d seen so far had only mentioned the act without explaining how to do it. At the 15-hour mark, I felt like I was still learning some of the basics of using tochkas. It wasn’t until about 25 hours in that I finally felt comfortable with everything I could do in the game, and most of what I had learned had been through harsh trial and error. (Getting killed rapidly in the beginning of the game’s third dungeon forces you to learn pretty quickly, I must say.) Once you do have a handle on everything, seeing the way the various gameplay elements flow together is fun and satisfying, but getting to that point is extremely rough. Some overly long and repetitive dungeons and lengthy story sequences certainly don’t help endear the game to you early on, either, but at least the fantastic soundtrack makes those drawn-out stretches of learning experiences more bearable.
Even beyond the harsh learning curve, however, there’s one big thing that could turn you off to The Witch and the Hundred Knight early on, and that’s Metallia’s outright deplorable personality and behavior. Unlike the mischievous demon protagonists of Disgaea, who went about their dastardly deeds with an air of cartoonish camp, Metallia’s actions toward others are outright abusive and vile, with little hint of humor. She frequently degrades her foes in both words and actions, cussing up a storm and delighting in torturing her fallen enemies while they’re down. A good example of her awfulness comes after beating the first major foe of the game: after defeating her foe, Metallia kicks her until she throws up, refers to her as a “vomiting whore” (which sticks for the rest of the game), transforms her into a mouse, and sends male mice after her with the heavy implication that they will sexually assault her. This one scene alone might have you wondering if it’s best to shut the game off and walk away.
There are a lot of interesting gameplay ideas to experiment with, which makes the fact that so many of them are barely explained in-game incredibly frustrating.
Metallia’s not alone in being a horrible person–many of the game’s other characters are distinctly awful in their own ways–but it still feels very uncomfortable doing the bidding of such a nasty character. Equally distressing is seeing many of the game’s more relatable characters develop a weird case of Stockholm syndrome-like affection toward her despite suffering her terrible abuse. While there is some redemption for Metallia as the story progresses, it doesn’t occur until late in the game, which is far longer than is tolerable. The Witch and the Hundred Knight isn’t the first time NIS has dealt with darker stories–the post-game Demon Path in Soul Nomad and a few Disgaea series endings come to mind–but it is the first where you feel forced down such a demoralizing path.
Witch certainly has its merits, and it rewards you for the time you’re willing to invest in learning its nuances. But between the badly designed learning curve and the utterly unappealing lead, it’s quite the challenge to get to that point. It’s nice to see NIS applying its unique and complex approach to game design to different genres, but I hope that its next effort will be a bit more welcoming from the outset. (And, hopefully, involve less mouse molestation.)
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