Month: May 2017

Dark Souls: The Board Game

I was very excitedly contacted by my friend Carl the other day to let me know that his copy of the Dark Souls board game had shipped. I’d rather forgotten it even existed, with it having been backed on Kickstarter about 2 years ago, but it handily arrived just in time for our monthly games night so our usual evening of party games became an evening of getting rekt.

I’ve not really spent much time with the Dark Souls series, I have a couple of them from Humble Bundles and the like but I haven’t made it down to D yet. What little experience I do have has taught me that they’re punishingly difficult and that you die. A lot. We were rather curious how this would translate to a board game with multiple players. On first opening the box we got our first hint to what we would experience.

With that reassuring message, we began dismantling the many, many components of the game. Dark Souls can be played with up to 4 players, with each player choosing one of the starter characters. There are four at present, with more to be added Through ‘DLC’ later. Each character has a main board with many holes that need to be pushed out as well as a detailed miniature and a number of equipment cards. There are counters for health and stamina, a massive number of tokens and cards. The enemies in the game also have their own miniatures and cards, with the bosses also having loot cards and health dials.

After a good while spent assembling the various card decks, we were ready to start properly setting up. A lengthy manual accompanies the board game that details everything required for setup, and we were about 25 pages and an hour in before we began the game proper.

You first assemble the boards that make up the dungeon layout. There are tiles for the bonfire area, which is the starting point of the game, as well as two for the boss encounter which will all be used in each game. The rest of the dungeon is then assembled from any four of the remaining six tiles, with the other two put aside. This creates a different dungeon layout for each game. The bonfire tile contains the spark counter, which effectively counts the number of lives the party has. If a single party member dies during a fight, you all die and return to the bonfire and deduct one spark from the counter. When you run out of sparks, it’s game over.

Next, you prepare the loot deck ready for any enemy encounters and choose which bosses you want to fight. The enemies available are all from different Dark Souls game, I believe a mix of Dark Souls 1 and 3 with presumably Dark Souls 2 ones coming in an expansion down the line. We picked the Frost Knight for the miniboss, and the Dancer of the Boreal Valley for the final boss. The boss cards each list encounter difficulties at the bottom. These tell you how many cards to pick from each encounter deck which are used to populate each room with enemies. The encounters come in three tiers of difficulty, with the Frost Knight having two each from the tier 1 and tier 2 decks.

With the tiles laid out and a randomly selected card from our selection placed on each, we were ready to begin. Each tile contains a number of coloured nodes that represent movement within the tile. Yellow nodes are clear movement spaces, while purple ones indicate locations for obstructions and red ones enemy spawn points. The encounter cards tell you which enemies and items to place on the tile, and the enemies themselves then have cards that list their strength, attacks etc. You also choose at this point which player has instigated the attack as they will become the focal point of most enemy attacks.

Enemies set up, you then begin combat. The enemies go first – all of them. With their goes out of the way, assuming no-one died during the attack, the first player gets to take their turn. Much like the enemies, each player character has stats indicated on their card. You can move towards enemies up to your character’s maximum range but can push further at the expense of stamina should you need to reach a far off enemy. At the bottom of each player’s character board are a row of slots that you can fit small cubes into. The cubes come in two colours, red and black. Black represents stamina, and you count them in from the left each time you expend stamina. Red is health, and this counts back from the right depending on how much damage you’ve taken, and you can see I’ve taken quite a battering here. If the two meet and there are no empty slots left, you die. Each player begins the game with a flask that can be used to replenish your health – it can only be used on your turn however so if you’re taking a beating from enemies and have a couple of enemy rounds before your turn you can very easily die without getting a chance to use it if the other players can’t thin out the enemy on their turns. Characters each have standard attacks as well as a special move that is more effective the more sparks you have, meaning dying can actually weaken you.

Once the first player has had their turn then the enemy go again. All of them. The next player then goes and so on around the table until you either kill everything or die and go back to the bonfire. Should you survive the fight, all health and stamina is reset and you’re automatically fully healed for the next fight. Each room has a treasure chest, so on completion you get to share the loot between you to increase your power. Any items you can’t yet equip go to the bonfire tile and can be used later if you then meet the requirements. There’s no penalty for going to the bonfire, and it doesn’t cost you anything unless you choose to rest there and reset the dungeon.

Defeating enemies also gives the party souls, which again can be spent at the bonfire. Souls are used to increase player levels, which is primarily used to equip higher level gear.

Despite the gameplay area not looking all that physically large compared to some games, it takes quite a while to work through the various rooms of the dungeon (especially if you die and reset, or choose to rest and tackle the rooms again for the chance at some better loot) and as such it was nearing one in the morning by the time we reached the miniboss room – with no sparks remaining.

The boss characters have the largest models in the game and also some new gameplay mechanics. The base indicates directions, and unlike the smaller enemies in the game players attack from specific angles of the boss, and can even move around the base as if it was movement spaces on the tiles. The boss is controlled by the boss deck of cards that effectively acts as the enemy AI. When you start the encounter you shuffle the boss deck, and then turn over the top card for the boss’ move. This will say what kind of attack it does, how much it moves or turns etc. It will also indicate a weak side which is where the next player should attack it from. On the next boss turn you play the next card and so on, flipping the deck back over when you reach the last card so you can begin to predict the pattern the boss will attack in (as long as you haven’t drank too many beers by this point and can’t keep track!)

This all changes once you get the boss down to half health and it enrages. A new attack card is added into the deck and it gets shuffled, breaking the previous pattern and making the boss more unpredictable. The extra attack is also incredibly dangerous, of course.

Had we managed to beat the Frost Knight we would than have set the game up again from the bonfire, this time drawing enemy cards based on the Dancer of the Boreal Valley’s card and fight through the dungeon again, beat the Frost Knight again and then finally fight the Dancer. However..

Yes, Mike, yes we did.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Whew, two massive new RPGs coming out close together really become time consuming huh? As you can probably guess, a substantial portion of my time over the past months has been spent with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I actually finished Zelda a couple of weeks ago, but almost the next day went straight into Mass Effect: Andromeda (and a week in Birmingham) and I’ve struggled to find time that doesn’t immediately get swallowed by one of them to put some words together.

Originally slated for a release back in 2015, development stretched on longer than expected with the eventual release in March this year coinciding with the release of the Nintendo Switch. Thankfully, it was also released on the WiiU (in a move rather reminiscent of Twilight Princess’ dual launch on the Gamecube and Wii) meaning I didn’t have to spend hundreds on new hardware just to play Zelda.

The game opens with Link waking up in a mysterious chamber and finding a small tablet device which is quickly announced to be a Shiekah Slate – long time Zelda fans will likely recognise the name and the symbol on the Slate and elsewhere from the Shiekah clan who’ve appeared in a number of past games. This Link, it turns out, fought against Calamity Ganon (a silly name, and I’ll just be referring to him as Ganon from now on) a hundred years ago alongside Princess Zelda and lost. The Hylians had discovered an ancient mechanical army called the Guardians, which had fought against Ganon 10,000 years in the past alongside the mighty Divine Beasts Link was placed in the Shrine of Restoration to recover, while Zelda disappeared into Hyrule Castle to try and hold Ganon at bay and then their battle faded mostly into memory only to be known as the Calamity.

Link awakens to a changed Hyrule. Ganon still controls Hyrule Castle, which lurks on the horizon visible from most of the map and encased in a sickly slowing cloud of evil, and the ruins of the Guardians still litter the landscape in many places and there are even a number of them that are still functional. Classic Zelda monsters, such as Moblins and Lizalfos, are common with monsters having over-run much of Hyrule after the Calamity.

Without spoiling the plot, there are four major dungeons (though even these are quite slight compared to the epic dungeons of old) that all end with a boss battle. The remainder of the puzzles can be found in the Shiekah Shrines dotted around Hyrule, of which there are 120 in total. While some have a quest or some difficulty in getting into them the majority can simply be found by approaching them, with the Shiekah Slate notifying you when one is close. The shrines cover a number of different themes, from simply making your way through them to the exit, combat trials, and more complicated puzzles that test your skills, timing and use of the Shiekah Runes.

Breath of the Wild is quite an oddity when compared to other Zelda games, as so many of the series typical trappings have been stripped away. There’s little in the way of new gear to collect and use, aside from weapons but more on those in a moment, so there’s no more finding hookshots and hammers and the like to open new pathways. There are no heart pieces to collect, though you do add extra hearts to give Link more health as you progress. There’s little in the way of traditional dungeons, you can jump freely and climb up sheer cliffs and so on. You don’t even get a traditional Zelda title screen and choice of three save slots, and Link is explicitly named in text and dialogue, meaning you don’t get the choice to rename him when you create your save. And yet somehow it still feels enough like Zelda by keeping the most important parts and themes.

Most of the powers Link gets this time around are given basically right at the start. Before leaving the starting area, the Great Plateau (which may possibly be Hyrule Castle Town from Ocarina of Time) you go through a short quest chain the results in gaining most of the powers of the Shiekah Slate, called Runes. The Slate is able to create bombs, both round and square to stop them rolling away, freeze water to make platforms, magnetically move metal objects or to freeze movable objects in time – these frozen objects can then be hit and will react by moving relative to the force they’ve received while frozen once they’re released. The Slate can also take photos and, if activated, recognise compatible Amiibo figures.

The other main item Link gets given early on is the glider, which coupled with his climbing ability means you’re able to scale and move around tall structures fairly easily. Initially your range on doing this is limited as both actions use up stamina, but as you upgrade Link the distance you can travel this way increases substantially and there’s very little that can stop you exploring wherever you like. The amount of freedom this grants, compared to the rather restrained movement of past Zelda games, really changes the way it feels and plays more than anything else.

Weapons also play a huge role in exploring Hyrule. As with so many other elements of the game, the traditional progression from standard sword to Master Sword (with sometimes another one in the middle) is gone and instead Link must use whatever weapons he finds on his travels. These weapons have very limited durability, so you’ll often find yourself needing to replace anything you’re using after a couple of fights. This does get a little better later on in the game as the higher end weaponry you find will tend to have higher durability and, no real spoiler here since it’s on the cover of the game, you do eventually find the Master Sword which is indestructible – it does however hold limited energy and needs to recharge between fights.

Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is absolutely enormous. I’ve managed to put over 90 hours and still have plenty of things left to find and explore, with huge chunks of the world barely even touched. Most towns will feature a number of side quests, as well as potentially some shrine quests and in yet another element new to the series these are all tracked in a quest log like you’d expect to find in any other large RPG. Larger towns will also typically contain several shops and an inn, allowing you to rest until specific times of day and heal as well as purchasing items and clothing.

There are also a ridiculous number of collectables, in the form of Korok seeds. Returning from Wind Waker, there are over 900 Koroks hidden around Hyrule to find. While that’s far far too many for me to spend the time finding them all, collecting a number of them is definitely worth while as you can redeem the seeds to expand your inventory space.

As you’ve likely noticed from any screenshots and promotional images, this Link doesn’t dress like his predecessors with his signature outfit being a blue shirt. There are many other outfits available, with some hidden away as loot in Shrines and others simply available for purchase. Some are just cosmetic items, but there are others that take the place of the traditional swimming and fire resistance gear. Through the Amiibo support you can also get outfits from the various Links that there are figures for, and I’m rather partial to running around in the Twilight Princess outfit – if nothing else, because he’s the only Link Amiibo I have and the prices of them have skyrocketed.

Unlike Twilight Princess (which was famously flipped horizontally to make Link right handed and included motion controls for the Wii release) the two versions of the game are basically identical. In fact, a number of features such as using the WiiU gamepads’ screen for more direct control over the map and inventory have been removed altogether to ensure parity with the Switch release, with the gamepad screen now functioning simply as a button to toggle between displaying on it or the TV which is a little disappointing but I understand that Nintendo wouldn’t want the previous generation version of the game to have more features than the one that’s supposed to be selling Switch units.

The art style is, as you can see, absolutely gorgeous. Nintendo are known for experimenting with the look of Zelda games, from the very cartoony cel shaded style of Wind Waker to the lovely painted art in Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild somewhat combines these to create something special. The characters, weapons, monsters – everything just looks great and one of the best examples of the final work staying true to the concept art to the point that playing the game feels like those images have come to life. And it’s not just the characters, so much attention has been spent on the world itself that I’ve often found myself just wandering around looking at it. Individual blades of grass and leaves on trees all blow and sway in the wind, water ripples and flows..

Considering the size of the game world and the internal spec of the WiiU it’s very impressive that Breath of the Wild runs as well as it does. I was very worried, especially in light of the complete lack of reporting on it pre-release, that the WiiU version of the game would be drastically cut down or suffer terrible performance but neither of these came to pass. Running at 720p and around 30fps compared to the Switch running at 900p when docked, there’s otherwise very little difference. Both versions of the game are known to have moments of slowdown. The worst I saw was in a forest at night during a thunderstorm, and there was an awful lot going on and moving then, but it never became unplayable and didn’t happen all the time.

Zelda games almost always have great music, and Breath of the Wild is no exception. The soundtrack is of course all available (with dubious legality) on YouTube and it’s been in my rotation over the last week or so. There are some spoilers for the story in the track titles so I’d probably avoid if you’re currently playing or planning to play any time soon so as not to ruin anything but in my opinion it’s possibly the best score that a Zelda game has had. Many classic pieces from past games are revisited in new versions, while the heavy use of piano makes it all sound rather different to any Zelda before it.

One thing that really surprised me was the use of voice acting. Several of the cutscenes throughout the game are fully voiced, something that we’ve only seen in the non-canon Hyrule Warriors. The English voice acting is.. not the best with Zelda in particular sounding a bit stiff (and older than her intended 17 years, too) but some of the other characters are fine. Link, thankfully does not speak and remains mute as always throughout.

The controls are generally tight and well thought out, with one exception being that the jump and drop buttons felt like they were the wrong way round – clearly someone at Nintendo thought this too, as there’s an option to swap them over. Playing on the WiiU gamepad or Pro pad gives the exact same experience as the layouts are the same, and this is also true for the Switch version which uses the same control scheme. One problem though is found in a few Shrines when playing on the Pro pad, as you have to switch to the gamepad to use the motion controls which can be a bit of a pain if you’re sat on the sofa say and the pad is over by the TV. The Switch version for the record doesn’t have this problem, as it’s Pro controller has motion controls built in.

Breath of the Wild is no doubt going to be remembered fondly as a game changer in the Zelda series – while I definitely would like some more traditional Zelda games in future, this is definitely a shot of new that the series really needed. It’s an incredibly well thought out and passionately designed game and, while there are a couple of slight niggles mostly due to the hardware it runs on, these don’t really hold it back (plus, if Nintendo hold to their current pattern, no doubt a ‘HD’ remaster will come out a console or two from now) and it was an absolute joy from beginning to end.

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