Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Zeno Clash 1 & 2, revisited

[I recently a got a new computer, so now I can run ZC2 properly. This is an update to my previous reviews.]

Zeno Clash 1

Weird game. Weird art style, weird characters, off the wall gameplay. Think Final Fight or Streets of Rage in 3D from the first person. Every level is basically a boss fight, and you get to use your hands to beat the crap out of everybody.

Every level is fight, fight, fight, run, dodge. Little else, and your companion character is totally useless. (What NPC tagalong isn't?)

As frustrating and repetitive as Zeno Clash is, it sure gets the blood pumping, and there is just enough story to keep things interesting. The world it shows us is fascinating and bizarre, and it has the audacity not to explain anything. I got that rare feeling there is a consistent story hidden under the surface, and that made me want to see it through to the end.

The revelation at the end is more than enough to make the game epic as hell. I was disappointed the game is so short, but the sequel makes up for that. The story that is only implied in this game is revealed in all its detailed glory in Zeno Clash 2. Think of this game as a prologue to its sequel.

Both games are overlooked gems. They deserve more attention.

Zeno Clash 2

The first Zeno Clash is a quirky, surreal, boss-brawling game. It's like Street Fighter 2 in 3D. It has just enough story to keep it interesting, the fighting is solid and satisfying, and the world it creates is bizarre and cool in its own way.

My only complaints with the first game were how repetitive it got, and the difficulty of fighting multiple foes at once. The development team must have listened to feedback like that because Zeno Clash 2 corrects those issues. Game 1 was boss fight after boss fight after boss fight, and it became tiresome (though it made for a delightfully intense experience). Game two takes a more open-world approach. Instead of being on a single path and stopping to fight everyone on it, now you have a whole world in which to wander.

But I can't call it "open world" gameplay. An open world has other places to visit, other people to meet and talk to, other stories to find. Zeno Clash 2 doesn't have as much of that as it should for how large the game world is. That is a little disappointing, but it is still a much needed break from the constant boss fighting of the first game. Now those fights are spaced out with some exploration.

There are other things to find in the world, though, and they are worth the effort to look around and explore every nook and cranny. Once I figured out what the cubes were for, it gave me something else to accomplish, and I wasn't disappointed when I found out what happened when I had all eight cubes.

Zeno Clash 2 has something the first game only implied: a story! The story is a little tricky to get into at first. Character motivation is a problem because it's not obvious why Ghat is breaking Father-Mother out of jail. After all that fuss in the first game discovering what Father-Mother really is, now they want him/her back?!

It does become clearer as the game progresses, and it all ties to who these people are, what Zenozoik is, and why everyone in it is fighting all the time. Yes, the game's core mechanic (brawling) is part of the story, and it's a clever way to justify it. It may be lost on a lot of players because it does require understanding events from an unusual point of view. For example, the Golem is trying to bring law and order to the world, so players who aren't into this world will wonder why the people of Zenozoik would be against it. It requires you to think about it from their point of view: law and order makes no sense when you can just fight out your troubles yourself. These are primitive, uncivilized people. To them, law and fairness is the chaos they must resist. Making the story take place from that point of view is refreshing, and it takes effort to understand.

When I first played the game, I foolishly didn't think to check the system requirements before buying it. I figured Zeno Clash 1 ran perfectly, so the sequel would also run! Wrong. New game engine, and my computer wasn't strong enough to handle it. I had to run the game on the lowest possible settings, and even then it barely ran. Now I have an appropriate computer, and playing it again is like playing it for the first time. The environment is gorgeous, and it is much easier to string combos together now that my computer is fast enough to render the game properly.

Zeno Clash 2 doesn't rely so heavily on brawling. In the first game, it's all you did. This time the guns do more damage, you have secondary weapons, and you can run and turn at the same time! Plus, it's open world, so you can run away from the fights to find health and weapons, and sometimes leave the area entirely. Finally, you can have up to two allies fighting with you! There are more options for how to play the game, which gives it more appeal than the first.

For me, the story is what saves Zeno Clash 1 and 2. We get to know who the people of Zenozoik are in the sequel, and why they're here. We finally learn who the Golem is, who those shadow things are, and what their purpose is. All the stuff missing from the first game is here, and it's a very well-done story told in an interesting and surreal way.

(Side note: I noticed the resemblance to the Wizard of Oz in the mountains level, and just minutes later, the game makes a self-conscious joke about it. Perfect timing.)

I can understand people's issues with the story, since it does require a stretch to understand. It could have been told in a much stronger way, but it's a game, so development is always geared towards gameplay. I would have liked more places to visit besides the objectives, too. What we have here could have been better, but it's still good and fun, the story makes sense, and it fleshes out the world into a fascinating and unique place.

If you haven't played the first Zeno Clash game, you're not going to understand the second. It tries to bring new players up to speed in the tutorial, but it's not enough; you must play the first game to enjoy the second. Zeno Clash and Zeno Clash 2 are underrated gems showing what a relatively small team can do with story and gameplay. I hope we revisit this world someday because I want to see more of it.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

New story: TV-P

TV-P is now live.

I like how this one turned out. A rare thing for me, when I write something humorous...

Full story published here.

By James L. Steele

Lisa shouldered the door open and walked inside, clutching three bags of groceries on two arms. The elderly woman closed the door with one foot and looked around the living room.

"Babies! Mommy's home! Babies, where are you?"

Lisa stood at the door for a moment. Uncertainty quickly changed to bewilderment. This wasn't normal. They always came to the door and welcomed her home, but her three dogs and four cats were nowhere in sight. She glanced at the fish tank against the far wall. She didn't see the fish in it, just empty water bubbling away. Next to the fish tank was Larry's tank. The plastic roof and sunlamp had fallen on the floor, and the gecko was gone.

The fish tank and the muffled drone of the refrigerator were the only sounds in the house. It was quiet. It even smelled different.

Lisa looked around one more time. She didn't see or hear any movement through the whole house. Shrugging off a slight chill, she stepped into the living room, grocery bags carefully balanced between both arms.

Suddenly a lone howl came from the bedroom. The howl was joined by two others and rose in pitch through the back hallway. Lisa's three shiba inus stormed into the living room and surrounded her on three sides. The ankle-high dogs snarled at her, teeth bared, curled tails held as high as they could be.

"Babies?" Lisa said, taking a step back.

She walked right into the jaws of the little dog behind her.


Read the whole thing here!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Night in the Woods

Night in the Woods. Wow... This is quite an experience in an indie game.

Mae has just dropped out of college, and she returns home to Possum Springs, an old mining town that has fallen on hard times.

Unlike most adventure games, Mae--the player--doesn't have amnesia. She knows everyone in town, and she wants to reconnect with them. She's only been away 2 years, but she discovers everything is different.

Nothing is quite as she remembers. The people are depressed, and everyone walks around with a chip on their shoulder because Possum Springs is drying up. Jobs are fleeing, people are out of work, and those who have a job can't make a decent living.

All Mae's old school friends are working crap jobs, and they seem to have grown up, and bitter. Everyone has matured except Mae. She is trapped between childhood and adulthood, and she doesn't know how to cross from one to the other.

Something strange is going on in Possum Springs. Something strange is happening to Mae...

The game is incredibly well-written. You get to know these people and their extensive histories so well you really do care about them. Even when they're doing mundane things, somehow they're interesting. Everyone has a defined personality, and their dialogue reads so fluid and natural.

Night in the Woods is pretty much an interactive cutscene. Think "To The Moon." Very little gaming to do, but the story it tells is so interesting, and the characters are so much fun to get to know, that I didn't care.

(There's always Demon Tower to satisfy the bloodlust after reading all that dialogue.)

The story thoroughly engrossed me, and I did not expect it to. It's engaging, funny, and more mature than I expected. Two of Mae's friends are openly gay! Mae was apparently a little criminal as a kid, and slipping into that role now was a strange experience. There are even political undertones in the story.

It's easy to get lost in this town for hours at a time. Not because the town is massive and interesting to explore. (It's actually quite small, and while there are some things to do apart from the current "mission," I wouldn't call it open-world. These side-tasks do affect the narrative in subtle ways though.) Rather, Mae's childhood friends are so much fun! I wanted to spend time with all of them! I even felt bad when I went with one and not the others because I wanted to get to know all of them!

My only complaints are... sprite slowdown?! Really?! More than a dozen polygons on screen at once, and the game slows down?! No excuse for that. And... loading screens... Lots of them... And some events are quicktime, but the buttons on screen do not match my controller. It told me to press button 8, or 9, or 6, but my gamepad is labeled A, B, X, Y. Never did fully memorize which was which. These are hardly game-breaking issues though.

It tells the story of this generation. Kids who aren't allowed to grow up as their parents did, and they don't know how. An economy that no longer seems to be working for anyone has made socialists out of an entire generation of young people, and even some of the older fellows. Surprising to see this in a game story, and it very clearly captures the times.

This is quite a story. Smart, nuanced, and even profound. It pulled me in and never let me go. If you can enjoy a novel disguised as a game, this is a must-play.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Thus after eight years...

Thus after eight years of calling Obama a megalomaniac and a dictator, the Republican party has chosen a megalomaniac and a dictator as its leader.

After eight years of calling Obama unfit to govern and ignorant of the constitution, it has chosen a man who is unfit to govern and ignorant of the constitution as its leader.

In just a couple weeks, the Obama years will officially become nostalgic. Trump has stuffed his cabinet with crony business billionaires who want to destroy the very departments they head, and Republicans are poised to privatize and deregulate under the guise of giving businesses more freedom to create jobs so they will become more competitive. All of it so their rich benefactors can access new markets to make money... off us.

I miss Obama. I don't approve of everything he did, but at least he was mostly on our side while sucking corporate dick.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Five Nights at Freddy's

Five Nights at Freddy's 1: you're a security guard of a kid's pizza restaurant, and the animatronic performers on stage start moving around at night. If they make it into your office, you're dead.

Why do the doors require power to stay CLOSED? Why does the security system run on a battery?! What are you guarding???

Illogical as the setup is, it's entertaining and creepy. The gameplay is intuitive, and it's a fun challenge to find the rhythm needed to survive the final nights. Understanding how each creature behaves is crucial to managing your resources, and as limited as the graphics and gameplay are, they are well-executed.

Five Nights at Freddy's is an experience as memorable as it is creative. It creates a real sense of dread, helplessness, and panic, all from still images in poorly lit rooms.

Five Nights at Freddy's 2 isn't as good as the first. You're a security guard again at a new and bigger restaurant location. No doors to close this time. Now the creatures can get into your office, and you can't stop them.

We're expecting the jump scares, so it isn't a surprise this time, and now you have a flashlight, so getting such a good look at the animatronics kills their scare value.

In game 1, all the creatures move about in observable ways, and you can and must track them on camera, and you know when to close the doors and when it's safe to open them.

Not so with 2; creatures sometimes just appear in your office for no reason, and you only have a fraction of a second to put on the mask or the game is over. Closing doors to keep the creatures out is intuitive in game 1. Game 2 has fuzzy rules.

Looking at the cameras is pointless because it affects nothing, unlike game 1, in which it is the only way to keep a couple monsters from moving. The monsters don't always have consistent paths through the building, so keeping track of them wastes too much time. Winding the damn music box is the only reason to open the cameras now, and it means your eyes are permanently glued to camera 11, and the player doesn't get to see the building or observe the creatures at all.

Checking up on Freddy's and Foxy's locations in the first game makes the cameras part of the game because doing so prevents them from moving. In game 2, the cameras don't serve a purpose at all. Being able to shine light in the dark rooms affects nothing, and it takes away from the subtlety.

In FNAF1, the animatronics move in subtle ways, and because you can't see them clearly until they are right in front of you, at first you wonder if they are moving at all. FNAF2 lets you see them clearly at all times, and yes, now they are obviously moving.

The sound effects are subtle and creepy in the first game. Some could be mistaken for ambient noise. In the second game, they're pretty blatant and loud. Foxy even has a theme song that plays when he's nearby. Doesn't add to the creep-factor.

This game feels like the cartoonish knock-off an imitator would make, not a sequel.

As for Five Nights at Freddy's 3... The pizza restaurant is closed, and now you're a security guard for a haunted house based on Freddy Fazbear's restaurant. I beat the game in less than 90 minutes, and I don't know how or why. The rules are so unclear the game is more confusing than frightening. I couldn't find the damn creature on camera! Despite clicking on every view a dozen times per night, I never saw it apart from a couple sightings in the vents, so how was I supposed to play?!

If there is a place where you're told to use audio to lure it away from the office, I didn't hear it. I read that's what you're supposed to do in a community guide. I figured since I had made it to night 4 without taking any action, I should find out what I'm actually supposed to do. So I hit the audio in random places throughout each night, and eventually I beat nights 4 and 5. Did it have any effect? It must have, but I didn't see a result, and that's the big problem with this game. Game 1: close door, prevent death. Game two: put on mask, prevent death. In game 3, there is no connection between an action and preventing your demise.

I've read you must complete the minigames in cryptic, unintuitive ways to get the true ending. I will not bother.


I enjoyed the first game. The scenario is illogical, but the gameplay makes perfect sense, it is genuinely creepy, it is intuitive, and the experience is memorable. I'm guessing the success of the first game killed this as a franchise as the creator cranked out the sequels too fast to think them through. I have no faith the other games in the series will be any better.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Seek the Original: The Dakota Access Pipeline

I am so tired of hearing bits and pieces of reporting with no one getting to the heart of the matter. Some people blame the Standing Rock tribe for objecting to progress; others accuse protestors of inciting violence; some accuse law enforcement of provoking violence. What's this all about?

Well, recently I found out a court document has been released that tells a more-complete version of events. I encourage everyone to read it. It's a dry document, but readable.

The Dakota Access Pipeline
starring The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, The Army Corps of Engineers, and Energy Transfer Partners

I have read the court document. It includes a timeline of events from the pipe's early planning phase up through the present day.

The tribe alleges it was not consulted about the pipeline, but the court document states the company did try for almost 2 years to consult Standing Rock. Time and again from 2014 through the end of 2015 representatives attempted to get in touch with the Standing Rock tribe, but did not receive a response.

I wouldn't call it "stonewalling" on part of the Tribe, as some heavily-editorialized news sites claim, rather mismanagement. From 2014 to the end of 2015, the name Young is mentioned as the primary contact, and then in 2016, there seems to have been a change in leadership, and Young's name is nowhere to be found. Finally, the Tribe got someone in charge who actually responded to the company about the proposed pipeline and was willing to negotiate and work with the company.

Publicly, the Tribe's main objection to the pipe is the integrity of its water supply, but that apparently is not enough of a concern to halt construction, as the water supply in question is not actually on the Tribe's land, and the evaluation thereof is not in the Army Corps of Engineers' jurisdiction.

Much of the DAPL follows an already-excavated utility line, including the section that crosses the tribal land, so the company argues that there is no basis for objection, as the land had already been disturbed before. To be fair, a natural gas pipe is not the same as an oil pipe, so just because permission was granted in the past does not automatically grant permission for the DAPL. An oil pipe leaking will cause far more harm in the long term than a gas pipe breaking.

The only way the Standing Rock tribe can legally block the pipeline is for potential harm it may do to its sacred sites. Only a very small part of the pipe's path crosses tribal land, so this objection does not hold much weight. The company responsible for the pipe did consult with the Tribe multiple times in 2015 and 2016 and alter the course to avoid places of importance to Standing Rock.

The Corps did survey the land owned by the Tribe and identify places where the pipe would impact cultural sites, and when the pipe was rerouted, the Corps approved. According to the court document, the company has been accommodating and flexible, but that's not the point the Tribe is making. The real danger is off Tribal land, to the water supply, and the Tribe wanted the Corp to evaluate the environmental impact along the entire pipe, which it does not have authority to do.

Legally, the Tribe has no grounds to object to the pipeline, as almost all of it crosses private land, and the Corps does not have jurisdiction there. Only a few water crossings off tribal land fell under federal jurisdiction and needed Corps approval, which they received, and no evidence can be presented that harm may befall the water system by a potential leak at sites where permits were granted.


Though the court document does tell the legal side of the story, it hardly condemns the Tribe for objecting to a pipe that is already 90% complete. I think it shows what the real point of the battle is: Standing Rock does not want an oil pipeline going through its land, or anywhere near its water supply, but apparently that option is not on the table.

A reading of the court document makes it obvious that harm to sacred sites is only the legal objection to the pipe. The real objection is potential harm to their water supply, but it cannot object to that because it is not on the tribe's land, and most of it is not federally regulated anyway.

Pipes break. It's inevitable. Sooner or later, the pipe will leak, and oil will contaminate the water and soil for years. The land may never recover. The environmental concerns are still real, even if the legality of the claims is flimsy.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

About Last Week

We've had a week to process this. A horrific, terrible week in which half the country went through the stages of grief.

Everyone is obsessing over Donald Trump. Trump is coming for the gays!--Trump is gonna deport ya!--Trump is gonna tear Washington down and build it back up right!

The President is a powerful person, but not the only thing we must watch.

What happened on November 8? The Republicans took control of congress and most state governments. That's it.

Republicans stand for the following:

  • defunding government services and privatizing them, claiming that running them like a business and letting competition and the free market regulate them will make the services more efficient and benefit everyone, but really it's just to open a new market for their rich friends to make a profit. Costs go up, quality of service goes down
  • cutting taxes on business, claiming it will create jobs, but really just lines the pockets of their campaign donors
  • deregulation of industry, claiming it frees corporations from the burden of big government so they will create more jobs, but really just increases corporate profit at the expense of workers
  • gutting workers' rights to make us more competitive on the world stage, they say, but just gives business more freedom to outsource and squeeze the American workforce

...and so forth down the neoliberal path. Democrats do many of these same things, too, but to a lesser extent. (I have not forgotten Obama has been pushing the TPP.)

Trump will no doubt throw some of his own agenda into it, and some of those things may actually gain traction. He may be serious about congressional term limits. He may be serious about the Trump Wall/Fence. But all of that has to go through congress, and the old guard is still in office, and they have their own agenda.

America didn't just give power to Trump. It gave power to the Republicans. Don't lose sight of that.

We don't know what Trump will do now, and that depends on the answer to the following question: why did he run for president? It took him sixteen years of trying to run for office to be taken seriously and get elected, but why did he bother? Does his heart really ache for the working class, or did he have another goal? We'll find out whose side he's really on when we see which bills he supports and which he does not, and what his subordinates do.

His recent 60 Minutes interview has calmed some people's nerves, thinking that now he will behave--all that racism and sexism and incompetence was the liberal media taking him out of context and people should listen to him. Keep in mind in this interview he proposed the people protesting his election may be "professional protestors," i.e. people hired by liberal groups to stir the population against him, as if there simply can't be people out there who don't want him to be president. And he only half-assed told his supporters to stop being violent against Muslims and Latinos, as if he didn't believe it could be happening. Between that interview, and others, I am not comfortable.

Maybe we'll get a presidency full of crazy antics just like his campaign, maybe we won't. Maybe he'll be a hands-off president and the real governing force will be the people to whom he delegates power, maybe not. Maybe he will be in way over his head, suffer a nervous breakdown, and resign, maybe not.

Forget about Trump. Stop obsessing over him and speculating on what he will do. His promises are irrelevant. The man himself is irrelevant. Republicans are in power again, and we already know what they will do.