Where is the Atom Smasher?

Sometimes, it takes days and days to play through a game and get a feel for its strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, however, it takes hours. Usually, as in the case of Atom Zombie Smasher, this is a bad sign.

In this middle of an alternate history version of last century, zombies have sprung up. As the leader of a society, you must try to save as many people as possible while fighting off the zombie threat.

The “meat” of Atom Zombie Smasher is the rescue/attack portion of the game. In it, you are given a handful of “squads” with which to repel increasing hordes of zombies. While you’re trying to kill the zombies, you must also try to evacuate civilians. If zombies (represented by purple dots) run into the civilians (represented by yellow dots) then there are suddenly more zombies and fewer civilians. This is, obviously, not a good thing.

There are a fair number of different kinds of squads which allows for somewhat interesting interactions. Squads themselves level up in various ways, becoming more useful as the game goes on. Although the zombies are the primary enemy, the game also has a constant ticking clock in the form of a day-night cycle. During a mission, whenever a day ends, a huge wave of zombies inundates the map. This is usually a tactically intractable situation making the day-night changeover a hard cutoff for missions.The game also has a strategic component to go along with the tactical one. This part of the game allows you to choose which territories to attack. As the game progresses, more and more zombies spawn on to the strategic map. This forces you to choose your battles to try to mitigate the spread before any particular area becomes overrun.Although AZS has lots of interesting ideas, the game itself seems to suffer from cripplingly bad balance. In the basic gameplay mode, squads are assigned (seemingly) randomly. This might lead to you having to try to carry out a mission using only barriers, a couple of landmines and maybe an artillery piece. Worse, while the game does allow squads to level up and become more useful (and thus make the higher level missions more possible), the speed of leveling up in incredibly slow and the progression doesn’t carry over from one game to the next. Of course, since the squads are assigned randomly, you might not even be able to use them once you’ve leveled them up.

The biggest problem though seems to be the strategic map. The whole progression of the game is based on a scoring track. Evacuating civilians and capturing towns get you bonuses. The issue is that, every turn, the zombie faction gets more free units than you can reasonably be expected to deal with. This gives them more points which makes it harder and harder to keep up.

Now, it may be that extended practice and experience might help mitigate these problems. It might also be the case that I might just not be a solid enough tactician to make the game tractable. I’m willing to accept that either of these might be the case. Unfortunately, the frustration that the perceived (if not actual) balance issues cause mean that I have no interest at all in exploring these possibilities.

Atom Zombie Smasher: 0

Capitalism, ho!

Some time ago, I decided to pick a game at random from my Steam games list to play. In a moment of ennui and with a desire for something different, I decided to play Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale. I had picked up the game long ago during a Steam sale, but like so many other items picked up at Steam sales, it had been forgotten.

There is a term, defined on TV Tropes, called the “widget series” — the Weird Japanese Thing (WJT). If ever a game qualified, I believe Recettear is the exemplar. In Recettear you take on the role of Recette, an air-headed, happy young girl who has suddenly been saddled with the debt taken out by her missing father. In order to save her home, you must earn a great deal of money to repay the debt which is coming due in less than a month. On the urging of her fairy companion/creditor, she decides to open an RPG-style item shop to provide equipment to the local town as well as the burgeoning adventurer community who search through nearby ruins.

Just a bitThe core of the gameplay is straightforward. You buy items from wholesalers and then display them in your shop where people will come in and buy them from you. The selling of items is itself a haggling mini-game wherein you attempt to ascertain what each particular customer is willing to pay. As customers become regulars, they start carrying larger amounts of cash and can buy more expensive items. Buying and selling items levels up Recette as a merchant and allows access to better items, bigger shops, and new interactions such as taking orders. The main weakness of this system, however, is that once you’ve figured out what people are willing to pay for items, the process of buying and selling becomes uninteresting. For instance, the character called “Man” will always buy an item at 125% of its value. Once you know this, there is no real reason to haggle. Finding these sort of statistics for every character (which other people have already thoughtfully done in FAQs and wikis) removes most of the mystery and suspense from the shop.

She shoots 8 arrows at once.

In addition to running the shop, Recette can also try to cut out the middle man by diving into the nearby ruins with an adventurer and finding items for free on monsters or in treasure chests. In this part of the game, it is more of a Zelda or Dark Cloud endeavor. Dungeons are randomly generated and come in five level chunks with bosses at the end of each set of five levels. Unfortunately, this is one area where Recette’s Japanese RPG origins shine through. Most of the bosses qualify as Nintendo Hard and the penalty for failure is quite steep–the forfeiture of all items found in that particular dive save one or two.  Of course, level grinding is a necessity for success in these ruins as well.

Kill the ones in front and behind, simultaneously, with our special bows.

Even with the ultimately robotic merchant experience and the frustratingly difficult dungeon bosses, I still feel compelled to recommend this game for one reason which counterbalances all of those problems: the writing. The translation of the game is brilliant, hilarious–sometimes intentionally, sometimes not–and clever. Dialog is almost universally witty and the characters’ quirkiness gives it a charm that many games lack.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale: 1

Oh Crap

The Uncharted series has always been about a few things: beautiful graphics, crazy treasure hunting, and Nolan North saying the phrase “oh crap”. The third entry in the series–Drake’s Deception–keeps each of these, but still manages to be somehow less than its predecessors.

This iteration of Uncharted focuses primarily on Nathan Drake’s past. Up until now, his existence and history had largely gone unquestioned. He claimed to be a descendant of Sir Francis Drake and nothing in particular conflicted with that narrative–it was ahistorical, but that was an acceptable break from realityDrake’s Deception seems focused on pulling the strands of his backstory and teasing out who Nathan really is.

The game opens by revealing that Nathan spent some portion of his youth as a thief and met his father figure Sully while stealing the ring that he had in previous games used to prove his identity from a Museum. This opening completely subverts his long-standing back story. It also opens the way to the main plot of the game: finding the treasure that this ring supposedly leads to.

Unfortunately, the way the plot is structured is somewhat difficult to believe. In essence, Nathan steals everything necessary for him to find some treasure, then sits on the information for 20+ years. Although Nathan is characterized in many ways, patient is rarely one of them. Furthermore, when the first game is added to consideration, it raises yet more questions about why he would have pursued an alternative lead (the plot of Drake’s Fortune) when he already had these other leads to follow.

The plot is also strange in a few other ways. Although every sequence of interactions makes some sense when considered from Nathan’s perspective, when the same interactions are considered from the antagonists perspective, things make far less sense. Motivations are unclear. Plans seem nonsensical or pointless. It almost feels like Nathan’s foes are just doing thing to screw with him rather than doing things to further their own interests. Taken together, this severely undermines the flow of the game.

From a gameplay standpoint, however, it is very difficult to fault the game. It keeps the very solid mechanics that were developed in the second game largely unchanged. This means that the cover-based shooting is solid and the platforming is tight.

I’ve said before that games can’t stand on gameplay alone. Drake’s Deception is an exemplar of that stance. If I only considered the gameplay, this game would get as good a score as its predecessor. However, the nagging issues with the plot just don’t sit well with me and become so bright and apparent with a second pass through the game that I can’t possibly recommend it.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception: 0