Wednesday, November 25, 2015

PC Game Review: Invisible, Inc.

Invisible, Inc is a PC game designed by Klei Entertainment, the same company that brought us Don't Starve.

I don't do a whole lot of video game reviews, simply because most of the stuff I buy is stuff that's been around for like a decade and I'm picking it up for five bucks in a discount bin (or, more realistically, a Steam Sale.) But I'm making an exception, here, because this game is relatively new.

The game takes place well into the future in 2074. Corporations have taken over from international governing agencies, and Invisible, Inc is an independent espionage agency to run missions for the Corporations. However, at the start of this game the entire enterprise is compromised, rendering them without resources and forcing them to go rogue against the major Corporations.

All that backstory is to justify the main thrust of the game: you will travel across the globe and carry out a series of missions with only a handful of agents. You'll have limited resources and even less time.  In your favor, you have Incognita, a powerful computer system that can easily crack through the (tech-based) defenses of the Corporations, Central, the head of the agency helping to direct you, and you also have Monster, a rogue trader who can provide you with much-needed goods for a price.

Missions are carried out in a turn-based manner, where agents have a set amount of action points they can use to move and do other tasks. They can sneak past guards, crack open safes, hide being obstructions, and drag prone bodies around to prevent detection. Guards can be knocked out for (usually) three turns by zapping them with a close-range device, although there are plenty of opportunities for ranged weapons and lethal weapons (both of which make missions easier, but are costly and can cause additional problems.) The core of the game is this tactical element of evading detection, carrying out the mission, and--most importantly--balancing getting out alive with getting more stuff to help in later missions.

An "alarm" system that steadily increases each turn--and increases if you are sighted or cause other issues--will also create increasingly difficult challenges for you, so the longer you bum around the harder things are going to get.

Each mission has a specific goal in mind, and they're gloriously varied. Some missions are simply stealing credits from a vault. Sometimes it is to get a highly valuable weapon. Sometimes it is to rescue another captured agent. And sometimes it's to upgrade Incognita with more powerful programs. There are eight different missions in total, each with their own difficulties and rewards.

You also have ten Agents to choose from. When you first start playing the game, you only get two, but as you play more games you unlock new characters. Each one has their own strengths and weaknesses. Internationale can see certain electronic items in a radius, even through walls. Dr. Xu has a handy tool that can disable traps and electronics for a turn. Banks can unlock most locked doors without a key. And so on. Each character has stats that can be upgrades--Strength, for example, allows that character to carry more and can drag bodies quicker, while their Anarchy allows them to steal from guards without alarming them and using items more efficiently.

Characters can also get augments, which are (more or less) permanent advantages that don't use up an inventory slot. This might mean making weapons more effective, or sprinting after a successful attack, and so on. There's a limited number of augment slots per character, although you can get more.

Items can be purchased, stolen, or otherwise found during the missions. Items cover a wide range of effects, from more efficient melee weapons and guns to lock decoders and portable servers. You'll need a variety of items and choose them carefully since Agents have a limited amount of space to carry stuff.

Finally, Incognita operates in sort of a mini-game during each level. Incognita can break through "firewalls" to take control of cameras, break open safes, redirect power sources, and a host of other items. Breaking these firewalls costs Power, and there's only so much Power per mission--thankfully, Agents can drain power from consoles found on each level (as well as other sources). As the game progresses you can upgrade the programs she has to be more efficient with her Power and to provide additional abilities, like causing disruptions to divert guards.

You only have 72 hours to accomplish all this; Incognita can only run on reserve power for a short time. Part of the game is managing the clock--every flight you take subtracts more hours.

Ultimately, each of these missions is really just preparing you for a final mission, where you take control of a base to install Incognita, who can presumably help stabilize everything. This mission is really, really, difficult, and jumps up several levels in difficulty from any of the previous missions. You have to have top-level Agents filled with useful gadgets and augments to even have a chance at this last mission.

What I like about the game:
  • The tactical gameplay is amazing. Figuring out how to navigate through each room and corridor, pushing your luck to gain more credits, trying to search the entire level looking for your objective (and the exit!) is incredibly rewarding.
  • Strategically, it's fun as well. Trying to plan your missions to eat up the least amount of hours while also making sure that each mission is worth doing is a huge part of the game.
  • The characters are very well fleshed out and interesting. Their benefits and drawbacks make perfect sense given their personalities. In many ways, it's easy to identify with these agents as you navigate.
  • The opportunities for customization are staggering. Not only do you have each Agent's stats, you can also upgrade them with augments and equipment them with various weapons. You can try upgrading your Agents with the best weapons and the highest stats, or you can go for cloaking and subterfuge. 
  • The Agents are all very well balanced. No one agent is more or less than another. The exception might be Internationale (who is probably the best agent overall) and Sharp (his ability is very, very weak at the start and very, very strong at the end, so long as the augments you install make sense) but even these aren't terribly out of whack.
  • The varied missions are incredibly creative. Each mission has a clear benefit, and it's a genuinely interesting puzzle to figure out what missions make the most sense to attempt. About the only drawback are the missions that get your a Vault Card, which gains you access to more credits on a heist mission--while it's nice to have, it's impractical to waste an entire mission just to make another mission slightly more profitable (especially since it's possible to just buy a Vault Card from Monster if it comes up, and especially since it's not guaranteed that a heist mission comes up again.) You do get to steal from the executive, which is a nice profit in and of itself, so it's not a total loss.

What I didn't like about the game:

  • It is short. For many new players, it feels like everything is just getting started and then you're on the final mission. I understand you can't extend it too much further or else some of the missions become unbalanced, but it would be nice if it were extended a little more. (Thankfully, you can customize it to be longer than the standard 72 hours.)
  • It is way too difficult. I'm not saying "it's just hard," I mean it is difficult in an unreasonable, unfair way. It's clear that the developers went out of their way to make sure all of the missions were solvable, but that's not saying much. If you get to your sixth missions and you realize that the only way to win is if you had a specific item, well, there's absolutely nothing you can do. more than one mission started off with three guards right outside the door, making it impossible in all but the slimmest of theories.  It goes from challenging to straight-up unfun very quickly.
  • Beating the Intermediate and Expert levels means that your mission is one-and-done--so if you fail a mission, the entire game up to that point is scrapped. There's no retries. You could literally play for three or four hours only to find a mission practically unwinnable, and everything is lost. The game is just too unforgiving given the fact that it's very easy to be placed in practically unwinnable situations. 
While I find the game too difficult to the point of sad frustration, that doesn't mean I don't like the game. Even failed missions tend to be fun. The price point is just about right for the amount of fun you have with it, so I find it hard not to recommend it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Board Game Review: Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative game from Plaid Hat Games about the impending zombie apocalypse.

Each player directs a group of survivors trying out outlast a series of crises. Food, fuel, tools, shelter--maintaining the standards of simply staying alive is part of the challenge, but so is blasting away at the hordes of zombies that are knocking politely at the door.

First off, the game is highly customizable: the objective in each game is slightly different, so there's no one way to play. You may be trying to collect samples to find a cure, for example. In addition, players can play fully cooperatively or play with a traitor. Finally, each player has their own secret mission they have to fulfill in order to win the game.

However, some things are constant. Each turn, players are trying to resolve an immediate crisis. There are Crossroads cards (which we'll get to in a minute) that can be triggered. Players can stay (relatively) safe in the Colony, but will eventually have to go to the outlying buildings (like the library or the police station) for supplies, risking getting attacked.

During each turn, the current Crisis is turned over. This requires a certain amount of resources to be devoted to it--one Food per person, perhaps. Each player then rolls dice equal to the number of Survivors they have, plus one. Then each player takes an action.

Actions are varied; players can attack zombies, attack another survivor, search a location for supplies, build a barricade, clean up waste, move zombies around, playing cards, moving survivors, and a few other options. Some of these actions require dice of a certain value to be spent; some require any die, regardless of value; and some don't require dice at all. These dice are pulled from the original die rolls at the beginning of the turn.

At some point, players should be placing cards face down to resolve the crisis; however, the card does not have to resolve the crisis (hence why they are face down). Perhaps that player is the traitor, or perhaps their personal objective isn't furthered by helping out with the crisis.
After all players have taken their turns, the Colony Phase begins.

First, players have to pay food. If there isn't enough food to feed everyone, morale decreases. Waste is then checked; waste is simply the discard pile, and if it starts accumulating, it causes morale to decrease.

Then, the crisis is resolved. The face down cards are shuffled and revealed. If the crisis is resolved, good; play continues. If not, that's bad--something bad happens, such as people dying morale going down.

New zombies are then added, which may cause further deaths and heartache.

There's a lot more to it--people bitten can spread the zombie disease, searching for more stuff than normal in the outlaying buildings may attract additional zombies, etc.--but I won't go into all of the details. Two highlights, though: one is the Exile concept. If players believe that someone is a traitor, they can be voted out of the colony. They are restricted in certain actions then and must stay out of the Colony proper. However, they also get a new goal card which they can use to win the game.

The second is the Crossroads cards. During each player's turn, the player on their right draws a Crossroads card from the deck and reads it without indicating to the current player what it is. If a certain trigger is met (unknown to the current player) then the Crossroads card is revealed and read out loud, usually giving the player a choice between two options. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is bad.

Play continues until the game ends. This can be in a victory (the original objective is met) or defeat. Defeat happens if either morale hits zero or the turn track hits zero.

What I liked about the game:

  • This game just drips theme. Not only is the artwork fantastic, but all the details--from how the different components of the game interact to the storytelling in the Crossroads cards--fit into exactly what you expect. With a few minor examples everything is intuitive. 
  • The many different options for playing are fantastic and integrated well. Fully co-op, traitor, personal goals, exiled goals--they all make things varied and interesting and don't gum up the works like other semi-coops tend to do.
  • Each survivor has their own ability. While it seems like this might be overwhelming, it's really implemented quite well. It helps that actions are based off of dice and not actual individual players.
  • A hallmark of a good game is that you make interesting decisions with proportionate results. Dead of Winter does this in a way that I have not seen before.
What I don't like about the game:
  • As much as the theme is awesome, it seems like it could be cleaned up a little. The entire "waste" mechanism just seems to be needless bookkeeping, while the starvation mechanics seem like they could have been reduced down to a more manageable mechanic. None of this is major, but it seems like someone could have taken a comb through it.
  • Related: there are a lot of parts to this game. That in and of itself isn't bad, but it makes setup times difficult and it's easy to lose track of what you are trying to do. It doesn't help that the card backs to the items all have to be identical. A few tweaks to the rules and it seems like this could have been reduced a bit.
Dead of Winter won all sorts of awards, including Game of the Year, for various places, and I tend to agree--it's clearly worth the hype. I understand that it is not to  everyone's taste, however. My point above about interesting decisions is a point of contention for many who would disagree--a lot of people feel the multiple singular goals ultimately make the game's decisions meaningless. (I also think the "innovation" of the Crossroads cards isn't all that great; I think it's a neat mechanic but not a game-changer in the world of design.) While I can understand that, I don't fully agree--and I'd have to rate this game a solid A.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Candy Review: Awkwardly Flavored Jelly Beans

Jelly Belly sure does have a corner on the Flavors No One Really Asked For department, eh?

Let's take a look at two flavors that are fancy enough to be in their own bottles:

That's right, today we are going to try out Tabasco flavored jelly beans and champagne flavored jelly beans.

Tabasco first: I thought maybe, just maybe, there was an outside chance that this might simply be cinnamon with a little spice added to it, but nope: you get the full-on, mashed-red-pepper-based, spicy aftertaste experience. Which is gross. Even if you like Tabasco sauce, it's just not fun to, um, chew it.

The champagne bottle was...different. It certainly tasted like champagne, so it was at least in the realm of something that a jellybean should taste like. But it also had a weird aftertaste, almost like a fake alcoholic taste, as if somehow we're going to be fooled into thinking that we can get drunk off of this stuff. (Sadly, you can't, although that won't stop me from trying later.)

You can probably skip the Tabasco one unless you're the sort of person who receives plush bottles of Tabasco sauce for your birthday. The champagne one actually isn't bad, although i can't imagine eating more than a few on occasion, so a small bottle you can share is about right.

I didn't have the nerve to mix the two at once. Feel free to let me know how that goes.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Caged Awkwardness

Pets are weird.

Most of you know of Dexter and Chloe, our two dachshunds, but we also have a cat names Nora. Nora is a cat and so is not the most personable of sorts (or felinable, I guess) and does not get along with anyone but my wife. (Nora predates me, for what it is worth.) She most certainly doesn't get along with the dogs, and both sets of species have wages a low-level war of annoyance between each other for years.

Well, I don't know if it's the weather or what, but things have...changed recently. Oh, they still hiss and bark and bat at each other like no one's business. But they've also engaged in mutual gatherings of relatively tranquility.

This all came to an awkward head about a week ago. The normal ritual is for the dogs to sleep in our bed for as long as they possibly can milk the sympathy, and then get taken downstairs so they can sleep in their creates where they can wrap themselves up in a blanket burrito.

Well, last week I did exactly that, and then went to bed. An hour later my wife wakes me up and tells me to come downstairs. As I stumbled downstairs and followed my wife, she pointed to the crate. Apparently, Nora had decided to sneak in a few winks in Dexter's crate. Nora is a black cat, so apparently in the middle of the night I didn't realize it and locked Nora and Dexter in the same crate.

Oddly, neither of them made too much of a fuss. It was Chloe, no doubt possessed by the green-eyed monster, who eventually barked enough to wake us up. In my mind, I'm pretty sure neither Nora nor Dexter really minded all that much.

Pets are weird.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Candy Review: Box of Miscellany

Here's a review for some random candy I happen to have come across*:

Cold Stone Creamery Candy Cone Creations: I enjoyed this one. It is exactly what it says on the wrapper: it's a huge chunk of decent milk chocolate crammed into a cone. It's like the very bottom of a Nutty Buddy (the good kind, not the knockoffs) where there's a cold chunk of solid chocolate at the bottom. Only this is the whole cone and it's not cold (although, I guess, it could be if you planned). As someone who will eat 90% of a Nutty Buddy just for that little chunk at the end, this gets a thumbs up for me.

Hubba Bubba Hot Cocoa gum: First off, I was unaware Hubba Bubba still was in business. I assume it was purchased by Nestle decades ago and queity buried in the back yard after I turned, like 12. Anyway, hot cocoa bubble gum is pretty good. Too good, in fact, because I kept wanting to swallow it. It tastes too much like actual chocolate to be gum, which is a weird thing to say and even weird to chew. So give it a try but be forwarned: you don't want that wad of gum in your stomach for the next seventeen years!

*i.e., my wife bought for me

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Board Game Review: What's Yours Like?

What's Yours Like? is a party game by Patch Products.  

Each turn, one player is trying to guess a word or phrase that relates to people--for example, "my house" or "my pet." A card is drawn and passed to all players except the guesser, and the guesser goes around asking each player "What's yours like?" The other players then have to make a truthful statement about their object, but not so revealing as to give it away immediately. The guesser has to piece together all of the clues until they can accurately guess the word. Scores are based on the number of guesses, so the lower the better.

That's it--it's a pretty simple concept.  It's almost like a reverse Password, where everyone has their own "answer."

What I like about the game:
  • The rules are fairly simple, and it's easy to get people into the game. While the instructions for giving answers is a little awkward (they emphasize that the hints can't be too strong or too general multiple times in a two-page instructions) it doesn't take long to get people into it.
  • It is a nice mix of party game and deduction puzzle. It's actually quite fun to sit there and go over the list of things people have told you, trying to puzzle out what on earth would apply to all of them.
  • The answers are varied and interesting, and since everyone's "answer" is different (your pet will elicit a different answer than my pet, for example) it has almost infinite replayability. 

What I don't like about the game:
  • Probably the biggest issue I have with the game is that, from a game perspective, there's no way to prevent people from giving "bad" answers. The instructions go to great lengths to tell people that the clues can't be too vague nor too specific, but there's nothing besides the rules to enforce that. It's a party game, so people should get into the spirit of things, but if you are playing with people who definitely want to win at all costs they can easily sabotage the game and make it not fun for anyone. I'm not sure if there's an elegant fix for this, but I just wanted to point it out. 
  • It's pretty clear they've repackaged this to capitalize off of games like Cards Against Humanity. Despite the provocative labeling on the box, the game itself is mercifully tame.

There are easier party games out there to play, but this one is unique and interesting. I like the fact that it plays off of a common party game concept without overly complicating it. I'll give it a B.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

CLASSIFIED AZ 7554-98233

CLASSIFIED AZ 7554-98233

BACKGROUND: Subject is  a tertiary acquaintance of the agent, and did not communicate with her for over two decades. Subject recently received a communication to get back in touch with no apparent reason observed

Subject is one Kaylie Terman, previously of East Woodlands High School and currently employed by 31 Gifts Consultancy. Last known contact was nearly eighteen years ago, six weeks after graduation but before she entered Westlake Community College for culinary studies. At that time, subject had run into agent at the Quik Pass Gas Station picking up a rotisserie chicken for her and her then boyfriend's dinner, where subject inquired about college and how it felt working at Target the previous summer.

In June of this year, contact was again established via Facebook as a friend request. Agent accepted said request to gather more information and view current statuses. During said time, subject has provided the agency with the following information:
 1. Subject did not complete a culinary degree. Subject dropped out and spent approximately eighteen months as a server, and eventually hostess, at Kickback's, a local restaurant that specializes in fried mozzarella sticks and having Journey on the jukebox.
2. Subject met, and was immediately impregnated by, Don Decker, who was in her senior class and worked as a HVAC repairman until his "stupid boss unjustifiably fired him" when he showed up to work high "only ten or twelve times" over the course of three months. Decker then got a job doing "this and that."
3. Subject recently liked a video featuring a small toddler dancing to a song. Despite the song being highly inappropriate for the child's age and the child's ability to dance was rudimentary at best, said video was shared several times.  Further investigation requested.
4. Subject apparently didn't believe what this clerk did next, because she shared said article for viewing by her friends.
5. Subject had a very negative customer experience at Molly's Hair Salon, where not only was a bad coloring job received, but the standard of gossip had dropped dramatically and included disparaging remarks towards people who failed to go to the previous week's church potluck.
6. Subject recently posted a photograph of money with instructions indicating that this would generation additional revenue. As of the date of this report, such money does not appear to have been transferred.
7. Based on subject's communications, she has accomplished being "a country girl," the "baddest bitch you'll ever meet" and a "proud mama." Oddly. most of these feature Daffy Duck behind a watermark despite the fact that research indicates that Mr. Duck is not a mama, a bitch, or a country girl, and so lacks the authority to make such judgments. 
8. Subject's daughter frequently posts photographs of her and her friends puckering their lips at the camera in a ridiculous manner.
9. Frequently comments concerning various individuals who are tagged as "real housewives." Agent has been unable to identify any of the names with any sense of location, marital status, or continuation of efforts. Although apparently Meghan is a total bitch.
10. Frequently posts graphical representations concerning various national restaurant chains that do not do enough to promote and honor our nation's veterans. Research indicates that subject still frequents said chains.
11. Subject's daughter joined a cheering squad, which after extensive research apparently has to attend approximately thirty-six competitions each summer, the trips costing around 100 two dollar chocolate candy bars each, plain or crispy or, as of last year, peanut butter meltaway.
12. Subject has sent 34 requests to join Alphabet Blast over the course of a six week period. All have been declined to protect the integrity of the agency. 

NOTABLE CONCERN: Another agency may also be monitoring the subject, as subject has been publicly tested and, so far, has been identified as "Should Be Living In Hawaii," "Totally a 90's Kid," and "Is Ella From Frozen." Additional research is recommended.
RECOMMENDED ACTION: Wait to see if subject posts any pictures of their daughter's birthday party, then block.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Board Game Review: Time's Up! Title Recall

Time's Up! Title Recall is a party game published by R&R Games.

Players are divided into teams: teams of two work best. Forty cards are dealt out face down.These forty cards represent titles of books, movies, TV shows, music, etc. One team is selected to go first.

Play is similar to Password: the cluegiver is trying to get their teammate to guess the title. Players can say or do anything to get their teammate to answer correctly. (There are a few obvious restrictions, like not using part of the title in the clues given.) Each team has thirty seconds to go through as many cards as possible. After thirty seconds the unguessed cards are passed to the next team. Repeat this process until all the cards have been guessed.

After all cards are guessed, they are reshuffled into a deck again. The process is repeated, only this time the cluegiver can only say one word. Again, play continues as normal: after thirty seconds, the unguessed cards are passed to the next team, and play continues until all cards are guessed.

On the third round, the cards are shuffled again. This time, the cluegiver can only use gestures, similar to charades.

Teams score each round based on the number of cards they guessed. Highest team wins!

What I liked about this game:
  • It's a hilarious game. I have yet to play a game that didn't devolve into laughter and inside jokes and talking about it later in the week. 
  • Because the deck is reshuffled twice and the same answers come up again and again, there emerges a kind of meta-game. Describing Mad Men in round one devolves to simply saying "drinking" or "smoking" in round two, which devolves into mimicking someone drinking, smoking, and being a degenerate in round three.Reducing complex pieces of culture into a few words and eventually just a gesture is fantastic, and it's amusing to see how people's brains make those connections.
  • The thirty seconds is just about perfect. It's enough to run through a handful of cards, but it levels the playing field for those who are struggling.  It also keeps the game moving quickly, and since people are trying to pay attention to the clues other players give, everyone is always engaged.
  •  You don't need to know all the works of culture represented. (Nearly all of them are recognizable, even if people aren't familiar with the work itself.) There's nothing wrong with acting things out phonetically--in fact, that makes the game even more enjoyable, as people latch on to the literal word. Twelfth Night by Shakespeare might become a dozen donuts delivered after sundown by round three.
What I didn't like about this game:
  • Not much. It's an almost perfect party game. The only issue I have is that there is almost always one or two cards at the end of rounds 2 and 3 that no one can guess--guessers can't remember that one card, and it's just not clicking. After a certain point we will just open it up and all cluegivers are working at the same time and all players are guessing until someone gets it right. Since it's only one or two cards, and it rarely makes a difference in who "wins" this has never been an issue.
I grade this an A-. If there are people who aren't into pop culture, they're going to have a tough time with this, and people who are clearly uncomfortable with charades will probably hate it, so it's not a game for everyone. But this game is probably tied with Say Anything as the best party game I've had the most success with. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Candy Review: Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans

Are you over the age of 10? Do you enjoy learning about witchcraft? Did you live in a house that didn't keep sweet? Do you enjoy movie franchises that start off weak and piddling and then get incredibly awesome? Then you've heard of Harry Potter and the signature candy* Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans.

I have no idea what marketing wizard** came up with this idea, because it's disgusting. In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, apparently when you hit the age of 11 you want to cram horrible flavors into your mouth like you have some sort of vomit-pica. No, seriously, there's a bean flavored like vomit. That's not a joke.

As some of you may remember, I did a video review of Bean Boozled, which is more or less the same concept: a mixture of delicious jelly beans mixed with gross ones.

To Bernie's credit, this little box of nightmares didn't try and trick you. In Bean Boozled, there were two different flavors of the same color; if you picked up a green one, it could have been apple or it could have been boogers. (I don't remember, exactly, what the flavors are because I've been trying to forget that it ever happened.) In this product, there's no such tomfoolery: you know if you're popping some earwax into your mouth or not.

For the interest of full disclosure, I didn't try all of the gross ones in this box because I've already done this horrible, horrible thing already. (I didn't try any of the tasty ones, either, because I'm not taking any chances). I only tried the ones that weren't in the previous box, which were mercifully few: sausage, dirt, and black pepper. They tasted exactly how you would think, although I will admit that black pepper wasn't nearly as bad as it sounds. The sausage was disgusting, to the point where I truly believe that this piece of candy I just ate is more disgusting than the actual making of real sausage itself. Dirt is just gross. (For the record, the other gross ones I haven't mentioned yet are booger, earthworm, rotten egg, and soap.)

Do I recommend this? Only to say that you have done it, or to win a bet.

I don't want to know the depraved things that happens at Hogwarts that would make Bertie Bott's beans a sweet, actively-sought-out release. Voldemort must be harrowing, indeed.

*The signature candy is chocolate frogs, because chocolate frogs actually make sense.
**Ha! Get it?