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21 June 2010 @ 01:05 pm
Weekend media stuff  
I opted for being lazy this weekend. As a part of which, i finished both Infinite Space (DS game) and "A Taint in the Blood" (book by S.M. Stirling.)


Infinite Space is a space RPG/sim game, pretty heavily influenced by anime in the whatever-you-call-Macross/Space Battleship Yamato/etc-genre.

====Infinite Space gameplay====

There are three main parts to the gameplay in Infinite Space. Well, aside from the standard RPG wandering around and having conversations with people and occasionally having to make a choice about stuff. First, you buy spaceships and equip them with modules (which affect all kinds of stats) weapons and fighters (or in the New Game+ mode, mecha. (Or so i've been told.)) Then you assign crew to various positions (1st officer, chief navigator, assistant navigator, chief artillerist, assistant artillerist, etc.) Then you get in battles.

First there are ship battles, or rather fleet battles. Each side controls their entire fleet (up to five ships, so more of a squadron really) as a single unit. You can move forward and backwards, and each weapon has a minimum and maximum range, so you need to maneuver to the point where most or all of your weapons can hit the enemy. You have a command gauge that has three segments and fills up over time. A normal "attack" takes one segment and fires all your weapons once. A "barrage" takes two segments and fires all your weapons three times each. However, a "dodge" takes one segment and lasts until you enter another command. While dodging any barrages fired at you have a very high probability of missing (90% or more for each shot) but a normal attack not only has the regular chance to hit you, each hit has better than usual odds of being critical. (I'm not sure if critical hits actually do more base damage, but they definitely ignore armor, which is a big factor later in the game.)

So often battles evolve into this game of dodging and bluffing. Get out of enemy range to let your command gauge build up all the way, then dodge, move into range, and try to see if you can get the enemy to unload a barrage (and use up most of their gauge) so you can then unload your barrage when you know they're no longer dodging. Or just fire off three normal attacks first in the hope that they _are_ dodging and hope the extra criticals make up for getting fewer attacks.

There are a dozen or so special attacks that take up two or three segments to fire. Which ones you have access to depends on who you have assigned as your first officer and what flagship you have. However although they're sometimes splashy, they don't factor heavily into most normal battles.

The only other factor you have to worry about is that ships in the rear rows of the enemy formation are much harder to hit, so you usually have to take the enemies in front out first. The game tells you this, but doesn't tell you that the enemy at the front of the list of ships is not necessarily in front (in fact it usually isn't.) There's a little indicator underneath the ship icon that shows you where they are in the formation. I had some tough times in the first chapter until i figured that one out.

There's also occasionally a melee combat, which works even simpler. It's even more of a rock-paper-scissors affair than regular battles. Each side picks a type, if one side picks a winning type and the other a losing type the winner does lots of damage to the loser, if they both pick the same type they each do a moderate amount of damage to each other. The amount of damage is modulated by the melee strength of each side (which in turn is based on what crew you have assigned as security,) and possibly the total number of soldiers involved.

That is all there is to combat, and if it sounds simple, well yeah, it pretty much is. The strategic part of the game is in arranging the ships in your fleet, arranging the modules in your ships, and arranging your crew in their assignments. There could be some real strategic depth to this process, but you're hindered by a lack of information. Each ship has some basic stats, and modules tell you which stats they affect, however not all stats are visible and it's not always clear what affect stats have. Each ship has a visible "Anti-Ship" stat. If you add a Fire Control module it will add to that stat, and you'll actually see the value go up in the ship's stat screen. I think it increases the accuracy of shots fired, since weapons have separate damage listing, but i'm not sure the exact effect any given value has, although clearly larger is better. The only numbers that were easy to figure out were durability (HP) crew count (number of soldiers in melee combat) and damage (about how much damage a weapon would do before armor.)

Then there are the invisible stats. There's a Gauge Speed stat, which determines how fast the command gauge rises in combat. I know it exists because it's (sometimes) one of the stats i can raise when leveling up a ship. I have no idea what the base stat on any ship is, though i can keep track of the number of points i've raised it by if i take notes. It seems that each ship in the fleet contributes to this value, but i have no idea by how much, or what the total is.

On top of that, the help menu (which i didn't realize was underneath the "CTA" menu for several chapters) tells you that assigning a crew member to a certain position will effect certain fleetwide abilities, but you are given no clue by how much. You're told what stat is important for each position, but not how much benefit you'll gain by assigning different people there. I'm not sure if it's more frustrating when it's a stat you can see (Artillerists raise Anti-Ship values) or ones you can't (Control officers raise Gauge Speed.) On the other hand, you know which stat is important, so it's relatively easy to assign each crew member to the spot where they'll do the most good, and after you've done so you'll notice that things will have gotten easier in combat, even if you can't quantify by how much exactly.

The most interesting part of the game, strategy-wise at least, is collecting blueprints for various ships, modules and fighters, deciding which ship to buy, and then assigning the components to it. Each ship has a cross section view with one or more areas of space where modules can be installed. Those spaces are divided into a grid, and the modules come in various shapes, frequently referred to as tetris pieces, though they're actually more varied than that. (Although it should also be noted that there are no upside down or sideways L's, and no Z's of any kind. I really could have used some of those.) There are approximately two dozen kinds of modules, each affecting different stats, and just about all of them have multiple levels you can find. Higher level versions are generally either more powerful or more space efficient than previous levels, and of course occasionally, when you're really lucky, both.

As for the plot of the game, it's fairly interesting. Certainly it includes a lot of the usual JRPG cliches, but it does have some refreshing elements as well. Neither the writers nor the characters themselves feel very restrained from killing people off for one thing. Likewise the individual characters were often cliches or stereotypes, but also often amusing or interesting.

However i feel i should give the warning, as unspoilery as possible, that right at the end the plot does become both rushed and grim. I'm not sure if the rushed part is because they ran out of time of if it was an attempt to make things seem more urgent. The grim part is just pretty darn grim though.

The game did suffer from a rather flat difficulty curve. There are a few tricks to learn to combat (particularly the few cases where they set up a fight to require one of the special abilities or some other trickery) but not a lot. And somewhere about halfway or two-thirds of the way through you'll reach a point where your ships will pretty much match anything you're going to run into for the rest of the game. And if you've done even a moderate amount of grinding you'll probably find yourself completely outclassing everything. Instead of the back and forth maneuvering you just end up diving in and firing everything you've got and blowing the enemy away. At least as a side effect the battles are over pretty quickly that way, like fifteen or twenty seconds max for most random encounters. At least if you skip the animations anyways. (And i suppose it should be noted that you can run away from about 4/5ths of all random encounters right from the start.)

Part of the "problem" may have been that i was following the FAQ (which it should be noted is written pretty well to avoid anything but the most general of spoilers, such as the easily inferred "there are only four more events listed in this chapter, so even though i don't know what's going to happen i know it's going to be wrapping up soon.") There are a lot of characters and blueprints to find (more so than can be found in a single playthrough in fact) and a lot of them are easily missable. If i'd had to go through the game with only half the module and crew options i might have found things more difficult. Maybe. On the other hand i ended the game with more crew than i had slots for, and for most of the game i actually opted for mostly cargo holds on my ships to increase revenue rather than mostly stat boosting modules.

I'm glad that there's a New Game+, but a little disappointed with the specifics. The only things that carry over are crew member levels and however much money you finished the game with. You have to collect blueprints all over again, and since there's multiple paths through the game, each giving you different rewards, that means you'll never be able to collect everything at one time in the regular game. And since the best blueprints require a lot of Fame Points to unlock you'll probably end up doing a lot of battles anyways, so the extra cash doesn't help as much as it might otherwise. I'd actually rather that they increased the difficulty of the enemies and gave you access to all the blueprints you collected before but made you collect the cash again.

That actually is kinda what the Extra mode is, harder enemies and all the blueprints you collected before. But along with making you start over on cash all the crew members are back to their starting level as well (although you have access to every crew member you've ever acquired in the regular game right from the start.) However extra mode doesn't follow the story or let you collect stuff you missed the first time, which is what i really want. (You know, Disgaea really hit on something with the New Game+ that lets you keep everything, but also lets you adjust the difficulty level however you wanted to keep up the challenge.)

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So overall, Infinite Space has a simple battle mechanism that's a challenge at first, gets pretty easy later on, but at least individual battles are very short by that point. The plot is entertaining and probably the main draw for the game, especially if you like space anime. The CG is of the simple DS kind, but the space battle cutscenes are still kind of cool, and the music is pretty good as well.

A Taint in the Blood is kind of an urban fantasy series, but more in the Masquerade model (vampires/"shadowspawn" are hidden from society, and are generally nasty) and there's a strong SF emphasis on trying to explain their powers. The shadowspawn are a single sub-species of humanity that supposedly are behind every supernatural legend in existence (or at least all the ones that can be traced back to anything real.) They evolved sometime more than 10,000 years ago, and their primary (though certainly not only) power is the ability to influence reality at a quantum/probability level, making them supernaturally "lucky."

====A Taint in the Blood====

So the general background is that sometime back in one of the ice ages or some such, a small human tribe of humans got isolated from everyone else for a period of a few thousand(?) years. One or two of the original members of the tribe had some genes for being lucky, and through a combination of the founder effect and a lot of inbreeding the Shadowspawn evolved.

They're still cross-fertile with humans, so once they were in contact with everyone else again the genes started spreading. By modern times a lot of people have a few of the genes, which just makes them a little bit luckier than average, in a totally unconscious way. Once you get over about 20% of the shadowspawn genes you start developing more power, or you become psychotic. Or both of course.

Pretty much any power strong than simple unconscious luck requires the consumption of human blood, though it hasn't been made clear exactly why. The original shadowspawn evolved to be predators on regular humans, and modern shadowspawn still view normal humans as prey. And on top of that supposedly some of the shadowspawn genes just happen to be inextricably linked to other genes that preclude you towards psychosis. It's certainly clear that being high percentage shadowspawn doesn't dictate that you will become insane or evil or both, but a natural desire to feed on humans combined with a culture to treat humans humans like herd animals doesn't really encourage the alternative.

Along with just being lucky, people with more than the usual allotment of shadowspawn genes can actively manipulate the world, although it's still usually in terms of probabilities. It helps a lot to be well educated since what you can affect depends on what you know about. If you know how guns works you can create a "high probability" (really more a certainty) that a gun will misfire. If you know how metal fatigue works you can create a high probability that some needed tool will break. You can ward an area by creating spots with a high probability that someone will step in a hole and break their ankle. For reasons that aren't understood by the shadowspawn silver isn't affected by their power, so the more silver you can put in something the less likely a shadowspawn will be able to screw with it. (Unfortunately it's kind of hard to make a gun entirely out of silver.)

The one power they have that isn't explained very well is their ability to project themselves out of their bodies. I'd say "astral projection," except that while doing so they can create a body that interacts fully with the physical world. They can also change the shape of this body to just about any form they desire (with the caveat that they have to have ingested some DNA of the species/being in particular) which supposedly explains all the stories about werewolves and other shapeshifters.

This same ability also allows shadowspawn who are "pure" enough to survive after the death of their original bodies. Their astral (or whatever you want to call it) form is destroyed by sunlight, so after their first death they have to find some kind of sanctuary during the day (thus explaining more vampire myth.) They can be killed a second time, permanently, if you can somehow manage to damage their astral body before they manage to go insubstantial. Obviously that makes daytime the easiest time to hunt them down. Silver is still the preferred weapon, though for reasons that are again not explained particularly well so far radioactive waste works well too.

========

So the "scientific" explanations are definitely stretching things at a lot of points, but it's nice that someone is at least making the attempt. (The last such case that i can recall offhand was C. S. Friedman's "The Madness Season" =) It's certainly far better than glittery mormon vampires anyways.

Actually, in retrospect the plot of both A Taint in the Blood and Infinite Space have one or two rather striking features in common, but i won't say what so as to avoid spoilers :)