Thursday, December 24, 2015

Game Review - Lifeless Planet (Xbox One, 2015)

Video games can provide experiences that no other medium can because of player interaction.  The best books and movies can tap into the audience's emotions, but the mere act of guiding a character generates enough investment in the narrative to drive deeper than a film ever could.  Lifeless Planet is a prime example of this sort of game.

In fact, it is one of the best storytelling games I've ever played.  While some games let you overcome complex challenges or beat your friends in a head-to-head match, Lifeless Planet provides a brilliant stage for exploring the world its developers created.  Therein lies both the strongest and weakest features of the game, but I'll get to that in a bit.

The Basics

Lifeless Planet opens with an astronaut making the first trip to a planet 30 light years away.  Unmanned probes have indicated is full of plant life with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, but when the astronaut crash lands, he discovers it is actually barren and hostile.

Yep. Chock full of life.
From there, he desperately searches for answers and a way home.  The path ahead is riddled with small puzzles and platforming sections, but for the most part, the emphasis is on exploration - looking for clues and finding minerals and other objects that suggest something about the planet's history.  Each discovery brings new questions, leading to a more complex narrative than you might initially expect.

The Good

And that narrative is amazing.

As I played, I kept thinking that the story was ripped straight from a Twilight Zone episode.  The desolate world provides the perfect backdrop for that kind of reality-questioning vibe.

More impressively, that tone persists throughout the entire game.  After one piece of the story fell into place, my focus shifted seamlessly to another part of it - "ok, so that's how that happened, but I still don't know about this other thing.  Maybe it's this."  This process continued for the 9 hours or so that it took for me to complete the game.

Large structures make an appearance, too. Hmm.
And at the end, I still had questions.  That lingering uncertainty about key story elements often makes for an unsatisfying conclusion, but for Lifeless Planet, it still felt like all the necessary bits were wrapped up.  The story was told, but it gave brief insight into a fascinating world, which left me digging for more answers.

In short, Lifeless Planet succeeds in telling the kind of story that is usually reserved for the best science fiction.  It's awesome.

The soundtrack also plays a crucial role in setting the tone.  While the game is usually quiet, some bits of music will occasionally pop up to enhance the tension of a particular scene.  It's done really well, and it further complements that Twilight Zone feel.

And... desks?

The Not-So-Good

For Lifeless Planet, I don't think it's quite fair to list "bad" features, as nothing is overly negative.  There are, however, a few things that could be a lot better.

An obvious one is the graphics.  While they did a great job of conveying the isolation of a lifeless world, there are some places where simple textures undermine what could have been breathtaking structures or objects.  Similarly, there are a few cutscenes featuring human beings, and they look pretty bad.

These graphical issues aren't enough to detract from the overall experience in a significant way, but there's some lost potential in making the game even more engrossing.

Time to jump!
The real frustrations come with the gameplay mechanics, though.  Unlike most games I've played, your character actually conserves momentum when jumping - once you're in the air, you can't change your direction or speed.  While nice from the perspective of presenting some realism, this is definitely a place where I think realism should be sacrificed for good gameplay.

The reason?  It can be really easy to misjudge jumps, and I often found myself having difficulty getting up to speed on small platforms.  It led to me failing a number of platforming sequences where it felt more like the game was screwing me than a lack of skill on my part.

Another problem lies in some of the dark sections of the game.  When night falls, you'll understandably need to use a flashlight to get around.  The issue is that your flashlight isn't very powerful, so your sight is limited enough that the platforming can be nearly impossible.  Finding the next platform is a big challenge, and it's far more frustrating that fun.  I spent well over 10 minutes stuck in one area, jumping every way I could (and dying) in a desperate attempt to find the next platform.

I'm just saying that the few dark sections are either poorly designed or should be a lot shorter - or both.

Despite these criticisms, Lifeless Planet provides an unparalleled experience.  If you're a fan of classic science fiction or you're looking for a fantastic story of isolation and confusion, you should absolutely check out this game.  If you're more likely to get invested in the gameplay, you might be better served elsewhere.  I still highly recommend it, though.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Game Review - Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians (Xbox One, 2015)

Despite developers' best intentions, a lot of games lean very heavily on one of their major features: a fun mechanic, a compelling story, or a beautiful setting.  Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians falls solidly into that last category, with amazing aesthetics but lackluster gameplay.  Let's just get into it:

The Basics

In Beatbuddy, you play the titular character as he works to save his aquatic world, Symphonia, from... something.  Honestly, the plot wasn't very clear to me until near the end of the game.  All you know at the start is that somebody is trying to "take the temple" and "control the music," which is apparently a terrifying proposition.

A gate, a submarine, and a little blue dude.
To accomplish this goal, Beatbuddy will have to navigate strong currents, break down barriers, and activate switches.  It's essentially a puzzle game, where figuring out how to get from A to B is usually more challenging than actually doing it.  As the game progresses, there is an increasing emphasis on fairly simple combat (you can punch and dash and that's it), but it is relatively minor even in the final stages.

The Good

This game is absolutely gorgeous.  Each of the game's six levels has a unique feel to it, and every detail is fantastic.  The art style and implementation are amazing, and it's generally a pleasure to look at.

Look at that big, dumb fish!
The soundtrack is similarly fabulous.  Each stage features a single prominent theme woven throughout it, and that music is integrated into the gameplay itself.  While this integration isn't terribly clever, as it's mostly just objects pulsing with the beat and a few rhythmic punch combos, some on-screen features affect the music.  For example, when certain types of creatures are on display, bass drums or hi-hat cymbals may be emphasized.  It's kind of a minor feature, but it makes for a surprisingly dynamic experience.

And that's the best thing I can say about this game: it's a great audiovisual experience.  Fantastic music paired with a charming world does a lot of work.

But that's it.

The Bad

Everything else is mediocre at best.

I don't think it's entirely fair to criticize the tissue paper thin storyline, as that's obviously not the focus of the game, but they put enough into it for the plot to be disappointing.  There are many brief bits of dialogue, but they don't do anything except distract from your exploration.  It doesn't quite reach the point of being frustrating, but the game would be better without such a feeble attempt at a narrative.
Because a game can't exist without some attempt at story these days.
The biggest problem, though, is that the gameplay is incredibly shallow.  For what seems to be a puzzle game, just about every obstacle you encounter is pretty straightforward, so it's pretty mindless.  The biggest exception is a puzzle that involves switches opening and closing various gates, but this puzzle spans several screen-lengths.  It's "challenging" because you can't see which gates each switch opens without swimming around the whole area, so it feels like a terrible design more than anything else.

To be fair, little to no challenge is not necessarily a problem.  With such fantastic aesthetics, the simple act of exploring the world could be reason enough to play the game.

Except that there's very little to explore.  I completed the full game in about 3 hours, and I don't feel any drive to play through it again because there's absolutely nothing to look for off the main path.  There are some collectibles, "beat points" that unlock concept art and the like, but they're mostly in little caches here and there.  There are never multiple pathways or side areas; everything in the game is a piece of normal progression.

The pipe organ of the sea.
The combination of linear worlds with few challenges but awesome presentation makes the game feel almost like a glorified slideshow.

And I think that summarizes the experience quite nicely - shallow but pretty.  With more entertaining gameplay, Beatbuddy could have been one of the best games of the last few years.  As it stands, though, it's probably not worth the investment, but you're not setting your money on fire if you decide to give it a shot.

My Rating: 4/10 - mediocre.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Game Review - Fallout 4 (Xbox One, 2015)

Fallout is easily one of my favorite game franchises.  Its setting in a post-apocalyptic retro-future is perfect for a unique and exciting world to explore, and the lore behind its nuclear wasteland is just bizarre and creepy enough to make every discovery fascinating.  Plus the games are built upon a solid RPG foundation, so the series is tons of fun in many respects.

Five years after New Vegas, Fallout 4 is finally here, and it brings the biggest world of the series.  It isn't without flaws, but it certainly gives a better exploration experience than any of its predecessors.

The Basics

Fallout 4 opens a bit differently than the previous entries of the Fallout series - the protagonist and his or her spouse prepare for an evening at a veteran's hall before the nuclear war that gives the franchise its name.  Shortly after settling on your character's appearance, their small family (infant included) are ushered to nearby Vault 111 just before the bombs hit.

Plus you get to see the bombs hit. It sets a somber tone in a way that no other Fallout game has.
Once inside, they're cryogenically frozen to be reawakened once the surface is safe again.

Of course, that doesn't happen as intended.  Instead, your character is abruptly awoken long enough for their spouse to be murdered and son to be kidnapped.  You unfreeze permanently some time later (roughly 200 years after the nuclear war), with only one obvious objective: find your son.

The core of what follows is very similar to the previous 3D Fallout games - lots of characters to meet and locations to discover, with first-person shooter combat supplemented by the statistics-driven VATS system, which allows you to pause the action and target specific enemies and body parts for a more strategic experience.

If you've played either Fallout 3 or New Vegas, you know how the basic mechanics feel.

The Good

The absolute best feature of Fallout 4 is that the world is huge.  There are well over 250 distinct locations to discover.  While some of these locations are just major landmarks without much to explore or discover, it's still a whole lot to see and do.  To give some perspective, I had logged 70 hours on one character by the time I finished the story, and there were still a handful of side quests and unexplored areas I hadn't visited.

Even better: this post-apocalyptic wasteland is surprisingly gorgeous.  Yeah, the dilapidated buildings and urban debris are aesthetically very repetitive, but the world outside is just stunning.  I think a lot of it comes down to diversity - instead of being a bunch of washed out browns and grays, there's quite a bit of color scattered around.  The weather is also fairly dynamic, with fog and rain occasionally breaking the monotony, and the sky makes the game feel impressively open.

Seriously, look at that!
The size and beauty of the world make for an amazingly fun and inviting world to explore.

In terms of mechanics, not a lot has changed from previous titles in the franchise, though that's not a bad thing.  VATS still lets you play the game essentially as a turn-based RPG if you wish, or you can run and gun like a first-person shooter, and both options are reasonably well done.  Nothing groundbreaking on the combat front, but it's good enough to keep things interesting.

There are, however, a couple noticeable mechanical changes, and I think they're both for the better.

First, the perk/leveling system is a bit more streamlined.  In previous games, you would begin the game by assigning your starting attribute points, choosing primary skills from among a dozen or so options, and then obtaining special perks every couple of level ups.  It's a good system to be sure, as it allows a lot of customization and nuance.  At the same time, though, this system puts a lot of emphasis on knowing the game - some skills are just less useful than others due to what's actually in the game, and choosing perks could be tricky for similar reasons.

Fallout 4 removes those skills entirely, integrating their functionality into the perk system instead.  This time around, you get a new perk each and every level, and perks do everything from increasing your damage with certain types of weapons to unlocking new crafting options.  Yes, you lose some of the game's complexity, which will be a disappointing change for some, but I think the gain in more accessibility (and fewer feel bads if you invest skill points into something borderline worthless) is worth it.

Plus perks are now in a handy dandy table, making it easy to see your options.
Speaking of crafting, the second major change is that the system for using resources to make new goodies is substantially more robust.  A lot of that change has to do with the new build mode, which allows you to make structures and defenses in some friendly encampments and recruit new allies.  But on top of that, there are tons of recipes for consumable items and gear modifications to let you become exactly the kind of killing machine you've always wanted to be.

The biggest benefit of these expanded crafting options is that all the random crap you find is actually useful.  Every "junk" item in the game can be scrapped for raw materials, so you might actually find yourself scrounging for hot plates and oil cans as you clear buildings and bunkers.

There are, of course, other good features of the game as well (like the fact that you can loot containers without having to "open" them), but that covers the biggest ones.  As much as I want to continue singing the game's praises (I am a big Fallout fan after all), there are a number of disappointing features as well.

The Bad

The biggest problem is one that seems to plague a lot of games these days: loading screens are atrocious.  Each individual load screen may take 10-20 seconds.  That's not oppressive in the abstract, but when you're trying to quickly travel from, say, one town to another, there could be three or four of these loading screens in your way.  The fast travel system doesn't feel so fast when it takes a minute of waiting or more to reach your destination.

Loading screens aren't much of an issue when you're in full exploration mode, but it can get awfully frustrating when you're trying to buy ammo or turn in a quest or something of the sort.


The other big disappointment is embedded in the main storyline missions.  As is typical of a Fallout game, there are several factions with a vested interest in the game's major events.  Unsurprisingly, these factions are at odds with one another, all fighting over the same resources to push their own agendas.  Even better, there's no obvious "good guy" in this particular conflict; each organization brings their unique biases and whatnot.  That moral ambiguity is great!

Unfortunately, as far as I could tell, there's really only one way to progress through the story - with brute force.  There's no sneaking around and sabotaging, there's no convincing a faction to lay down their arms.  You can't talk faction leaders out of using violence as an answer to their problems, so the only way to influence the story is in the faction you choose to join.

And that is really disappointing and frustrating.  A pure intelligence/persuasion build is impossible to pull off, as you are forced to deal with big firefights throughout the game.

For a lesser complaint, given the sheer size of the game, it's a little disappointing that there aren't many new species to discover (and brutally murder).  It's basically the same menagerie as before - humans, supermutants, ghouls, mirelurks, and bugs.  There are a few new strains of mirelurks, but that's it for new and unusual fauna.  A missed opportunity in my mind.

Including the intimidating Mirelurk Queen.
Sadly, the in-game music falls in the "bad" category as well.  You have a couple radio stations to entertain you in the wastes, but many of the songs were included in previous games.  I guess it fits with the world building a bit because radio stations around the country have the same pre-war popular music, but it has definitely gotten old.

Ambient music, on the other hand, is actually pretty good, so I guess it's not all bad.

One more complaint: the town-building aspects of the game, while cool, have some problems.  The first is just that moving and placing items can be a huge pain given the perspective of the game and the lack of a strict grid (or something similar) for guiding placement.  That process can get quite awkward and frustrating.

The second is a bit more significant.  There are mechanics for measuring the happiness of people in each of your allied settlements.  Unfortunately, those mechanics are either glitched or unintelligible, as it seems impossible to make people happy for an extended period of time.  I'm not sure if their dissatisfaction affects anything else in the game, but it's annoying nonetheless.

(Full disclosure: the base-building in the game isn't really my thing, so I spent an hour or two on it and moved on.  Despite those flaws, there's a fairly impressive system in place, so you may find it to be a ton of fun, if you're into that sort of thing.)

The Summary

If you're a fan of the lore and atmosphere of the Fallout franchise, Fallout 4 is amazing because it gives you a huge world to explore.  The game does a decent job of letting you develop a character and use him or her to dominate your enemies, if you're into that sort of thing instead.  But if you loved the open-endedness of the interactions in previous Fallout games, you'll probably be disappointed by this one.

Still, it's definitely worth playing if you're RPG fan.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Game Review - Whispering Willows (Xbox One, 2015)

I love adventure games, but they're hard to get right.  The quality of such a game comes down to its storytelling.  Adventure games can focus on developing an exciting universe to explore because that's all they do - the gameplay focuses on learning about the world, so an adventure game thrives or dies on the back of its world building.

Whispering Willows comes so close to presenting a truly enthralling world, with a beautiful art style and a decent hook, but it just misses because the story isn't quite up to snuff and the puzzles aren't very puzzling.  Here's what you can expect:

The Basics
Whispering Willows opens with one of the most rapid-fire cinematics I've ever seen.  Elena, the game's protagonist, wakes from a nightmare showing her father in danger and runs to a dilapidated mansion looking for him.  She quickly learns that her father's amulet, which she was naturally carrying with her, grants a unique power - with it, her spirit can leave her body and explore the nearby area, able to speak with other spirits along the way.

From there, Elena must uncover the history of the mansion and its occupants to find her father and, well, save the day.

The Good
That's probably one of the less enjoyable ways to go...
First off, the game looks fantastic.  The animation and art style are both nearly perfect, giving a great level of detail to the areas you'll explore and the spirits you'll meet.  In fact, one of the coolest features is that you can see how people died by examining their disembodied spirits - mangled bodies and severed limbs tell stories on their own.

The "changing forms" mechanic is also pretty cool, as it gives each area two layers of possible exploration.  It isn't exploited very much, but it was neat to have both options.

The Bad
Unfortunately, the list of the game's misses is quite a bit longer.

The biggest flaw?  Your first playthrough can easily be completed within 3 hours, and that includes a fair amount of wasted time fumbling around while looking for the next piece of a puzzle. On top of that, there is absolutely no replay value (once you've figured everything out, there's nothing left to do), so you're looking at a game worth only a couple hours of entertainment.

To be fair, a short game can still be mindblowingly good (the original Portal comes to mind), but the story doesn't have nearly the depth necessary to pass that threshold.

Yep, those are nasty, zombified arms. I'd imagine it smells pretty bad, too.
Another big problem is that there aren't really any true puzzles.  With three exceptions, every task in the game is essentially a fetch quest - you only need to find the next relevant item (which is always just sitting somewhere) to keep going.  You don't have to dive into the lore to figure out where something is hidden or piece together multiple characters' stories to find the solution to a riddle.  Of the three challenges I'd consider puzzles, two are almost trivial, and the third is frustrating in that it doesn't work quite the way I expected (though it's still very simple).

Basically, the gameplay lacks that integration into world building that makes the greatest adventure games good.

Finally, the story leaves quite a bit to be desired.  It's told almost exclusively through diary pages you find scattered throughout the game.  There's nothing wrong with that particular format, but it's pretty poorly written - probably 80% of the text is written using simple sentences, so it feels very dry and monotonous.  That simplicity in writing also means that none of the characters have different voices, so there's nothing distinguishing about the way various characters speak or write.

Suiting up.
The plot itself is fine, and I had fun trying to figure out what was going on along the way.  I think some of the major points were a little more obvious than the developers intended, but it was still decently interesting.  With better writing, though, it could have been so much better.

One final complaint: the game is riddled with unusually long loading screens.  Given that it's not graphically complex, it is downright shocking that it can take up to 10 seconds to transition from one small area to the next, and there are so many of these transitions that loading screens make up a decent chunk of the 3-hour game time.

The Neutral
Sound quality is really the only thing I haven't mentioned, and it's... fine.  The opening theme is appropriately eerie and evokes a nice supernatural feel, but nothing beyond that really stands out.  It's good enough not to detract from the experience, but it doesn't enhance it, either.

And I don't have much else to say about Whispering Willows.  If you can get the game on a dramatic sale, it might be a decent introduction to adventure games for novices of the genre.  Otherwise, it's probably best to avoid it.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Game Review - Final Fantasy Type-0 HD (Xbox One, 2015)

Every longtime gamer has ample experience with the ever-growing list of cardinal sins of game design.  The most recent addition may be invasive microtransactions, but the classics are still a problem: awkward escort missions, forced level or item grinding, unskippable cutscenes, and the like.

It seems like the developers of Final Fantasy Type-0 randomly picked some of these terrible design elements and built them into their game.  Type-0 is rife with such moments, with tedious segments outnumbering the admittedly fun action RPG missions.

In short, Type-0 is baffling and frustrating.

If you're interested in hearing why it's such an annoying game, read on.

The Basics
Type-0 is absolutely not what I would have expected from a game bearing the "Final Fantasy" name.

It opens in the midst of a full-scale invasion - the Militesi Empire bears down on the Dominion of Rubrum, and the fight appears to futile.  This cinematic sets a somber tone, as corpses litter the streets and the first character to speak slowly dies in a pool of blood.  I can't remember any other Final Fantasy cutscenes that even approach this level of intensity.

You then take control of a few members of "Class Zero," an elite group of 15 Dominion cadets tasked with precision missions - the Dominion's "Special Forces," if you will.  As you repel Imperial forces, you learn that the Empire's initial dominance was due in part to magic-inhibiting crystals that bizarrely didn't affect your party.

Oh look, most of the characters are named after playing cards. Cute.
As with most games, this introductory mission sets the stage for both the story and the gameplay.

What follows is a game broken into three basic categories - action missions, real-time strategy missions, and exploration and side quests.  It is unlike typical RPGs in that these three elements are completely distinct; you cannot blend objectives together, as you can only take on one side quest at a time, and you must complete side quests before tackling the next mission.  In this sense, Type-0 feels much more like a series of levels than a real RPG experience.

The action missions make up the bulk of the game.  Before each one, you will choose which of your cadets will join the "reserve" forces, and then you'll pick three to be your primary party.  As characters fall in combat, you can call in reinforcements from your reserves, making for dynamic battles.  Like many games these days, pulling up the menu doesn't pause the action, so you have to be quick with item usage in the midst of battle.

That Trooper is screwed.
During these action missions, you control one of your active characters (though you can switch between them at will), running around the battlefield and executing up to four unique abilities, each of which are bound to a face button on the controller.  While this setup restricts your in-game abilities somewhat (no complex combat system here), there is a fair amount of customization that goes into your preparation for battle - you can unlock a ton of skills for each character, and you get to choose which four they'll take on each mission.

RTS missions are sprinkled in occasionally, though they are usually skippable, which is kind of nice.  Similar to action missions, you'll select a group of cadets for your reserves, but this time, you'll choose one active character to run around the world map.  While there, allied and enemy towns and encampments will spawn units and send them towards another outpost.  When opposing units meet, they'll fight to the death, and units approaching towns will attack to lower stationary defenses.

Using your character, you can fight enemy units to open windows for allied units to invade an outpost, or you can issue orders to a friendly encampment instructing them to make different units or send those units to a different destination (sometimes. I couldn't quite figure out what circumstances would allow me to issue these orders).  Once your units deal with a major city's defenses, you can then invade that city, transitioning to a brief action mission sequence.

Issuing orders for global domination.
All things considered, Type-0 has some interesting mechanics, but the execution is questionable at best.  Let's start by looking at some of the game's problems.

The Bad
I think the biggest and most consistent problem with Type-0 is the storyline.  Like most Final Fantasy games, it leans heavily on exposition in various cinematics, but the story is much too convoluted to be truly gripping.

Here's the problem: you have 15 main characters right from the start.  Fifteen.  This means that there is virtually no opportunity for character development, so it's hard to get invested in the conflict.

On top of that, there are dozens of secondary characters, most of which are also not given substantial screen time.  In addition to the Dominion and the Empire mentioned above (and to be honest, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out which was which), there's an Alliance and a Kingdom, and it's rarely clear who comes from which organization.

To give a more concrete idea of the problems here, I had no idea who was friend or foe for at least half the game.  The brief appearances by generals and politicians all set off my "bad guy" detection, and they throw proper nouns around all the time.  There are dozens of relevant characters, locations, and stories, but it's all dumped on you so rapidly and with so little explanation that it's damn near impossible to keep up.

And to top it all off, the final chapter comes completely out of nowhere.  The first 30 or so hours of the game all lead up to a climax that fizzles out in favor of something else entirely.

If I had to summarize the plot in one word: baffling.  It's just terrible storytelling.

The gameplay is a bit better but still has significant flaws.

The RTS segments are miserable.  You move uncomfortably slowly on the world map, so the entire thing feels sluggish.  It can also get frustrating as quick movements could often allow for clean sweeps of enemy bases, but you instead fall behind because you couldn't bolster allied units on the other side of the conflict.  Add the previously-mentioned unapparent conditions for issuing orders, and you end up with a frustrating mess of what could have been a cool minigame.

Why allied units are tinted red is beyond me...
Exploration and side quests are another great source of frustration.  I mentioned above that you can only take on one side quest at a time (seriously?), but the worst part of these inter-mission sequences is that they are timed: you're only allowed a certain number of interactions (including little conersations with NPCs and leaving the main town).  Putting that kind of restriction on exploration really dampens it; you have an incentive not to thoroughly explore the game's world.  Neutering exploration and discovery that way killed my desire to investigate the world.

Another problem with the intermissions is that many of the side quests are way harder than the main missions.  Yeah, some of them are called "Expert Trials," but they sometimes come with recommended levels 20 or so higher than the following story mission.  Perhaps those missions are intended to be challenges for your New Game+ playthrough, but their presence in your first go is offputting - it either feels like you're not able to access a decent chunk of the content, or it pressures you to power level.  Neither of those scenarios feels particularly good.

In fact, if you don't spend time grinding out levels between story missions, you may find yourself woefully underleveled.  The game features a particularly nice way of leveling up, which I'll get to in the "good" section of the review, but feeling like you have to grind to continue is always miserable.

I took about 35 hours to complete the game; roughly 10 of those were dedicated to grinding levels so I could progress.  I imagine you can see the problem.

For the record, Mog is only moderately less annoying than Navi.
For all the other problems, the action missions are pretty solid.  The lock-on mechanic and controlling the camera can be tricky to master, but that's pretty standard with third-person action games.  Battles can also start to get somewhat repetitive, but it's not the worst thing in the world.

Unfortunately, the list of good elements of Type-0 is quite a bit shorter.

The Good (Or Good Enough)
Camera issues aside, the action missions are decent fun. While overwhelming from a story perspective, the abundance of characters makes for a fair amount of diversity in gameplay.  Each of the 15 protagonists wields a different type of weapon and has different magical capabilities, so you get some customization by choosing the character that best fits your playstyle.  It can be exceptionally frustrating when your preferred character dies on a mission, but it's a nice angle nonetheless.

Another cool mechanic is the "killsight."  Sometimes, while locked onto an enemy, they will have an icon appear on top of them, usually during or just after they execute an attack.  If you manage to land a hit while that icon is on screen, you will immediately dispatch weaker enemies or deal massive damage to larger ones.

These killsights add a bit of ebb and flow to combat; instead of wailing indiscriminately, you are often better suited to time strikes to maximize damage.  The timing windows are often fairly narrow, which can be tricky with some of the slower characters, so there's a bit of a learning curve to get it all right, but it gives the fights a fun vibe overall.

To mitigate some of the misery of the repetitive grinding, you can replay missions from the main menu at any time.  Any items or experience you accumulate on those replays will persist in your save file, so you're not trapped balancing the between-mission timer with your attempts to avoid unspeakable defeat in the next mission.  It's annoying that such a leveling system is necessary, but it's better than any alternative.

And honestly, that's it when it comes to gameplay.  Lots of other ideas are kinda neat (like the RTS missions), but they're so poorly executed that I'm not sure if anything beyond the concept is worthwhile.

Mid-cinematic. Look at those textures!
On the superficial end of things, the audiovisuals are... ok.  The HD version of Type-0 is a remastering of a PSP game, so it's not surprising that the graphics aren't groundbreaking, but they aren't particularly chunky or garish, either.  The soundtrack is pretty good, with a few sweet tunes along the way, but nothing overly memorable.  And the voice acting is acceptable.  Each of the main characters has a fair amount of, well, character, but again, they're so poorly developed that there's not much of an opportunity for an awesome performance.

And that's it.  Type-0 doesn't even feel like a bunch of failed potential, it just seems like a ton of design mistakes that distract from otherwise decent primary gameplay.  I can't really recommend it because it requires a huge time investment for only minor returns in entertainment.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Game Review - Quest of Dungeons (Xbox One, 2015)

Games are amazing in that they can uniquely appeal to a couple innate human desires.  The constant sense of progression through growing your character or even just beating levels is nearly unmatched in daily life, and the ability to explore fantastic locales is something most of us can only dream of doing in the real world.  I think that all games touch on both of these features to some degree, though the emphasis obviously shifts dramatically from genre to genre.

Roguelike games likely give the most repeatable opportunity to explore both of these elements, as procedurally-generated areas mean that there is always a new dungeon you could explore, and the risk of permanent death means that character development has higher stakes and can be easily reset to start again.

I've always enjoyed roguelikes, especially because they are often great for filling small bits of free time in ways that other, more narrative-based RPGs usually cannot.

Though it doesn't do anything particularly innovative, Quest of Dungeons scratches that itch.  There are sadly some unfortunate design deficiencies preventing it from being a truly stand-out title.  Here's what you can expect:

The Basics
Quest of Dungeons successfully hits all the major roguelike tropes: each time you start a new game, you're dropped into a new, random dungeon.  All the action takes place on a grid populated by monsters, traps, and treasures.  You can only move in one of four directions (up, down, left, right) and attacks, spells, and item use are executed with a single command.  Enemies only move or attack whenever you take an action, so the gameplay is about planning and developing your character instead of mastering a complex combat system.

Your basic game in Quest will consist of choosing from one of four character classes (with a fifth unlockable class) and trying to pilot that character to victory.  Each class approaches combat in a slightly different way with access to different skills and different weaponry, but the basic gameplay is much the same: you clear out rooms searching for the stairs to the next level down, all while building up to a boss battle on the bottom-most floor.

Our heroic warrior facing down a ghost, with the blood splatters of previous victories visible to the right.
While each floor is procedurally generated, some features remain constant - each level has a merchant, with whom you can trade random treasures for new gear, keys (useful for opening some doors and chests), or restorative items.  In the "preset" dungeons (which are essentially the game's version of a campaign, as there are little introductory cutscenes to each), the tileset for each floor is always the same.  And with each tileset comes a particular group of monsters; you'll always see the same handful of baddies anytime you see the same visual aesthetic.

Everything else is random, though.  The floor layouts use the same room shapes repeatedly, but each floor is usually big and complex enough that it doesn't feel overly repetitive.  Random items spawn, too, so there's no guarantee that you'll get any particular gear or skills (because you can only learn skills from skill books).

On top of all that, you have the option to generate a custom dungeon.  The options are rather limited, as you can only adjust the size of each floor and the number of floors, but even tilesets are randomized in these dungeons, so they offer the promise of near-infinite replayability.

Perhaps the most important roguelike feature shows up in Quest, too: permadeath.  If your character dies, that's it.  There are no save files to reload, no checkpoints for respawning.  When you die, you have to start all over with a new character.  You can reasonably complete most dungeons in about an hour, with the biggest possible custom dungeon still only take about two, so you're never losing tons of investment upon the death of your character.

The Good
Now that we've covered the basics, let's talk about what the game does particularly well.

The biggest plus is the overall aesthetic.  The soundtrack is fantastic, with a handful of upbeat tunes used effectively to enhance the gameplay.  For instance, there's a nice, peaceful song that plays while you're in the same room as a merchant, while an intense song amplifies the tension of boss fights.

Similarly, the game looks great.  It takes the 2D pixellated perspective and runs with it, making great use of low-res character and item sprites.  There are a handful of items that don't really look like what they're really supposed to be, but for the most part, the sprites are pretty well done.  There's also a surprising amount of detail, everything from bosses to blood splatters look great.

The game definitely has a great vibe from the moment you jump into it.

To be honest, I really want there to be more good things I can say about the game, but as we'll see in a moment, there were so many disappointments that it's kind of hard to talk it up.  Maybe the only other great feature is actually the relatively short length of most dungeons.  In many games these days, especially games with RPG elements, it's hard to play for only 45 minutes or so because you'll barely progress at all.  With Quest of Dungeons, however, you can completely explore a full dungeon in that time, so having bite-sized gaming experiences is something of a boon.

The Bad
During the 20 hours or so that I've played Quest of Dungeons, my opinion of it has fluctuated wildly.  Initially, I thought it was excellent because of the beautiful atmosphere and simple execution of roguelike elements.  A bit into my third or fourth dungeon dive, I started to become frustrated with some aspects of the combat and character growth systems.  As I developed a deeper understanding of the game's mechanics, it started growing on me again, as I realized I had greater control over the outcome of various scenarios than I originally thought.

Time to do some shoppin'!
Sadly, that positive outlook waned yet again as I learned that the game can really screw you with bad RNG, and it does so often.

So that's the biggest strike against the game: there are times where you might open a door and die, without ever having the opportunity to defend yourself or run away.  It's something you have absolutely no control over, and no amount of cunning can save you in those situations.

And it happens a lot.  The big problem is that there's a huge disparity between regular monsters and bosses.  Bosses, like everything else, spawn randomly, and I've seen up to two on a single floor.  These guys hit much harder than normal enemies, in some cases killing me faster than healing items could save me, and they take at least twice as many hits to defeat.

That by itself wouldn't be such a big deal if not for one other problem: every character in the game moves at the same speed of one tile-per-action.  This means that it is impossible to run from a monster because you'll never gain any ground during a chase.  The closest solution to running is moving to a different floor, but they'll be sitting right by the stairs when you come back, so you have to find another way around.

It's incredibly frustrating to engage a boss and discover that you stand no chance and then be stuck because you can't run away.

This formula is particularly problematic with 4 of the 5 classes, as only one (the archer character) can fight at range with no restrictions.  Every other class either must fight in close quarters or relies on MP to cast spells, both of which can leave you vulnerable to one-hit-kills.

It's worth noting that this kind of nonsense happens even on the easiest difficulty setting.

On top of those "oops, you died" frustrations, there are some other mechanics that just aren't balanced.  For instance, some spells have a chance to inflict a status condition, like freezing you in place for several turns or doing continuous damage over several turns.  The power level of these status effects seems completely disconnected from the power level of the source.

As an example, it's pretty easy to get strong enough that regular enemies deal less than 5% of your max HP in each hit.  I've ended up in many situations where a damage-over-time effect from those rather weak enemies straight up kills me in 5 steps.

It's a worm boss. Bonus cameo from the Necrodancer unlockable class.
Basically, all these complaints come together to say one major thing: the game is not well balanced, and as a result, sometimes you'll just die to randomness.

I have a few other comparatively minor complaints (like most monsters function identically and you have no real control over your character's development), but I don't feel it's worth belaboring the point.

However, I'll say this: Quest of Dungeons, while a cute game with a charming feel, is a disappointing and frustrating roguelike.  It's certainly not the worst game I've played, but I would have a hard time recommending this game to anyone, whether they are roguelike veterans or newcomers to the genre.  It's definitely not worth your money, and it's probably not worth your time.

My Rating: 4/10 - mediocre.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Game Review - The Deer God (Xbox One, 2015)

The Deer God.  To sum it up in one word: bad.

Dear God...
The Good
Let's start with our best foot forward, though.  The soundtrack is fantastic.  Boasting a surprisingly diverse score, the Deer God has a number of mellow ambient tracks that create a generally relaxing atmosphere.  It's very well done in that respect.

And the graphics aren't bad.  It's all done as an interesting hybrid of stylized pixels and 3D back- and foregrounds, which kind of makes it feel like it's trying to capitalize on Minecraft's popularity.  With that said, there's nothing particularly stunning about the environments and characters.  It's all sort of blocky, low resolution stuff.

The beauty comes in some of the visual effects.  Many areas have various particles in the air, like snow or leaves, and their movement is fabulous.  My favorite effect, though, is the way that light shines through the background.  Objects behind the game's two-dimensional play area will block visible sunbeams and cast shadows when appropriate.  It's a really cool effect.

It's hard to show these effects with still images, but this one demonstrates the sunbeams.
The Bad
And that's where the praise ends.

Actually, it ends a little before we get off the topic of graphics.  The pixelated style has one significant casualty - it's incredibly hard to identify things in your inventory, especially how many of each item you have.
How many of these things do I have? It's impossible to tell at a glance.
Knowing what's in your inventory fortunately (or unfortunately, if you like good game design) doesn't matter because the gameplay is miserable.

Here's the basic premise: on a night of (presumably) drunken deer hunting, out hero is aiming to snipe a young deer-ling when he's fatally wounded in an attack from behind (by a wolf, maybe?).  Upon his death, this hunter is reincarnated as the very animal he sought to destroy.

Of course, it's not as simple as all that, because the Deer God explains that he must redeem himself of his crimes against deer-kind.  Our hero sets out to accomplish this goal (as a trans-human deer, mind you).

You then get control of the protagonist, and that's where the world stops making sense.  There's absolutely nothing to go on except classic video game logic that suggests, "go right."

As you venture into the great unknown of the right, you'll encounter Deer Elders and humans with various quests for you.  All of these favors amount to "go do this thing that's within 20 feet of here," so calling them "quests" is generous.

And the quests are pretty nonsensical from a story perspective because there's no explanation for what's going on.  I finished the game, and I can see what they were trying to accomplish in retrospect.  It seems like one of those things where the developers were trying to be subtle and insightful, but instead, they made something confusing, pretentious, and shallow.

For once, this comment isn't speculation about the designers' goals: the marketplace description of the game includes "asks deep questions about reincarnation, karma, life, death..."  If it asks those questions, it does so in a soft whisper in the corner of the room.

But hey, who cares if the story feels scatterbrained, the key to a good game is the gameplay!

Igloos. Yep.
Yeah... About that...

The gameplay is pretty weak.  It's a 2D platformer at heart with a few little puzzles scattered throughout.  But there aren't any tricky platforming sections, and the puzzles are all pretty easy to figure out.  You can collect various skills and items along the way, but the game is already pretty easy even if you're only using story-related skills.  You don't really need any items, either.  There's basically no real use for any of the various trinkets you'll acquire throughout the game.

But the biggest flaw, oh boy, the biggest flaw is the procedurally generated world.  In principle, it sounds like a great idea: a platformer that's different every time you play it.

While technically true, this procedural generation runs by grabbing chunks of landscape from some relatively small pool of possibilities.  As a result, the world repeating itself is noticeable early on.  Even if a second playthrough was substantially different, allowing for a genuinely new gaming experience, it's all so easy that I still wouldn't see the point.

The really bad part is how much useless filler there is.  Between quests, you'll just have to keep moving.  And moving.  And moving.  Yeah, the game procedurally generates the path ahead of you, but the paths are so full of little nooks that serve no purpose and enemies that you can always dispatch in the same repetitive way.  The game is mostly about running through the same sections over and over on your way to your next objective.

An adventurous inventor is stuck at the bottom of a lake. He'll die without the help of a certain deer.
Did I mention the game is extremely, painfully repetitive?

To be totally fair, the Deer God does one particularly nice thing with its procedural generation.  If you miss a quest giver or some other special event, they will keep appearing as tiles are added to the path in front of you.  You may have to run half of forever to get to them, but they will always come back.  It takes the "go right" philosophy to an absurd extreme, but it also means that nothing is missable.

I could keep ranting about the poor features of the game, but I think you get the point.  The Deer God makes an amazing transition from confusing as hell to boring as hell, neither of which is a good reaction to a game.  Honestly, I feel that getting this one for free is too high of a price.

My Rating: 2/10 - terrible.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Game Review - Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin (Xbox One, 2015)

I only played Dark Souls for only a few hours when it was released before getting distracted, and I've only recently gotten back into the franchise.  I reviewed Dark Souls, calling it one of the best games I've ever played, and I stand by that claim.

After I'd gotten my fill of the first game, I decided to jump straight into the sequel.  While initially off-putting, some of the changes to the Dark Souls formula grew on me in time, leading me to thoroughly enjoy the sequel, too.  It's still a lesser game in most respects, but given the astronomically high bar set by its predecessor, that's not entirely surprising.  Here's what the second Dark Souls game has to offer:

(As a brief aside, a lot of my comments will compare this game to the original Dark Souls.  That's partly because I played them in quick succession, but partly also because it's natural to criticize a sequel for its divergences.  I know Dark Souls II has gotten some hate, but I think a lot of that hate is undeserved, so I'm inclined to address the bad reputation by drawing those comparisons explicitly.)

The Good
Dark Souls II (hereafter abbreviated "DS2") thrusts the player into a hostile, unknown world with very little explanation or setup.  There's a brief introductory cutscene that is cryptic and virtually useless for setting the stage, so you're left to your own devices right from the start.

You will find that the basic gameplay mechanics are the same as in Dark Souls.  There is heavy emphasis on learning the game, adapting to its challenges, and executing maneuvers precisely, with hefty penalties for mistakes.  You'll use bonfires as both small bastions of safety and respawn points.  Dying causes you to drop all your accumulated souls (which function as the game's experience points and currency), but you can retrieve them if you can get back to the place you died.  Most of the control scheme is even the same, too.

That's a big dude with a nasty hammer coming towards me...
From a broad perspective, it would seem that DS2 is more of what made the original so fantastic.  But as you play, you start to notice small differences that leave a rotten aftertaste.

I had gotten pretty proficient with combat in Dark Souls, after sinking around 80 hours into it, and from the start, DS2 felt wrong.  As I continued, I realized that some of the timings were a bit off - there was a slightly longer delay after an attack before you could dodge, and you have to dodge at slightly different times to avoid damage from incoming attacks.

Coming off the tail of Dark Souls, this situation was incredibly frustrating.  The combat in the original was damn near perfect, so tinkering with it had to result in a less ideal setup.

In retrospect, this subtle difference was actually a powerful feature because it forces Dark Souls veterans to relearn how to play.  That trial and error and slow accumulation of skill was one of the reasons Dark Souls was so engrossing, and the small variations in DS2 come close to emulating it.

I don't know if that was intended, but that's definitely the effect it had on me - I had to go through a similar (albeit quicker) process of trial and error to get comfortable with DS2.

Another great modification to the Dark Souls formula is the inclusion of interesting ways to interact with bosses.  In a handful of areas, you can do something outside of the boss fight that will change the dynamics of that fight.  For example, one of the early bosses resides in a dark chamber.  If you access a couple side rooms and ignite some flammable oil, you can light the arena and make the fight considerably easier.  This feature rewards thorough exploration of the game's areas, which I think is fantastic.

The Bad
There are, of course, some other changes that I don't see quite so favorably:  from the very beginning, you can warp from any bonfire to any other bonfire, making a return trip to, say, a blacksmith a much less dangerous affair than in Dark Souls.  You also have to return to the main town in order to level up.  Combined, these features are effectively the same as being able to level up at any bonfire, but in practice, it can get annoying as you have to pass through additional loading screens in DS2.

In fact, there are lots of loading screens across the game, which gets to feel tedious pretty quickly.  The Xbox One version in particular also has terrible servers for online play.  It takes a couple minutes to connect to the servers upon booting up the game, and even then, the connection failed a few of the times that I tried.

There are a bunch of nasty, nasty bugs in this game, too.
Then there's the baffling decision to stop spawning enemies eventually.  After defeating the same mob a dozen or so times, they will not appear again until New Game+.  As such, the game is a hell of a lot more forgiving than Dark Souls, because you can grind through areas by slowly exhausting all the enemy spawns.

On the bright side, there's also a way to increase the difficulty of an area without completing the game and starting New Game+.  It's a cool mechanic that will reset any depleted spawns and allow you to farm souls or items, if that's your thing, but I don't think it excuses the decreased difficulty overall.

And I do think that DS2 is quite a bit easier than the original.  Some of that is certainly because I didn't have to start from scratch in terms of how to play the game, and I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.  Still, most bosses were disappointingly simple to figure out, and very few areas required more than a couple attempts to pass.

Another big flaw is the overall structure of the game.  Dark Souls was beautiful in that it felt like a sprawling world to explore, with all of the areas connected to each other in complex ways.  DS2 feels much more like a series of levels - you run through a few areas and defeat the corresponding bosses, then you head back to the hub and pick a new branch.  I'm not quite sure how the sizes of the worlds compare, but as a result of this more linear nature, DS2 feels a lot smaller.

To be fair, I had a ton of fun playing DS2 despite these complaints.  Yeah, the game is far from perfect, but it's still an excellent Dark Souls-style adventure.

The Neutral
Dark Souls had another major strength: the story.  Unfortunately, DS2's world building isn't nearly as strong as its predecessor's.  To be honest, I can't quite tell if the underlying mythology in DS2 is just weaker than in Dark Souls or if the storytelling is a lot subtler.  I'm leaning towards the former, but either way, I picked up a lot less along the way.

Fortunately, a weak story doesn't detract from the experience, it just means that there one layer of depth is missing.

The one place where DS2 is a clear step up is in aesthetics.  Visually, the game is stunning, with some incredible vistas and beautiful reveals along the way.  There's nothing quite as dramatic as some of the best scenes in Dark Souls, but it looks damn good the whole way through.

And dragons!
The audio quality, on the other hand, is just decent.  The music is mostly forgettable (with one notable exception), though it generally fits the tone of the action pretty well.  The voice acting is less awkward than in Dark Souls, but that's surprisingly disappointing, as it means that the characters you encounter are significantly less unsettling than the NPCs in Dark Souls.  It's objectively better but much less immersive, as weird as that is.

As a final tally of entertainment value, it's worth noting that my in-game time was around 30 hours when I defeated the final boss.  I suspect that it would have taken longer if I hadn't played Dark Souls recently, but I feel like 30 hours is still a good amount of content, even excluding New Game+ shenanigans (which actually adds a ton of replay value, as New Game+ adds new enemy spawns and makes the game quite a bit harder).

Everything I've written up to this point applies to the base game, so it should be true for any version of DS2.  The Scholar of the First Sin edition is bundled with what were originally the DLC packages for the game.  Those sections are of an entirely different caliber, so they're worth discussing on their own.

The DLC areas are hard.  They're really, really hard.  Enemies hit a lot harder, bosses are absolute monsters, and the areas are much less linear, with more to explore and more chances to get lost.  In short, they're much closer to what fans of the first game likely expect.

And that's fantastic.

It's a shame that you can't get this level of challenge in the base game, but I'm glad that it's in there somewhere.  These sections are welcome end-game content because they can easily add 20+ hours to your DS2 experience.

And that's really it.  If you enjoyed Dark Souls, you'll probably enjoy this game, as long as you give it a shot.  Loading screens may get a bit tedious, and you probably won't find yourself intrigued by the story, but it's still a fun action RPG.

If you haven't played a Souls game, this isn't the one to start with.  It's good for a few dozen hours of entertainment, but Dark Souls is still the better game.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.

UPDATE: I've played the original version of DS2 now, and I think it's worth noting that there are some significant changes in the Scholar of the First Sin edition.  Those changes are mostly enemy spawns, and many areas have completely different enemy compositions in the two versions.  As a result, it may actually be worth playing this version even if you've already played the original release, because a lot of areas feel different.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Magic Monday - Zombie Tribal EDH

Yeah, it's Tuesday morning.  I know.  I just didn't get this done in time to make Monday, and I didn't want to wait nearly a full week to post it.  Hopefully future Magic posts will fall on Mondays so that the title doesn't lose all meaning...

Until recently, I hobbled all of my commander decks together with cards already in my collection.  Doing so is a fun, challenging exercise, and it keeps me from getting overwhelmed by the entire catalog of Magic's history, but it also limits my decks' overall power level.  For my first "built from scratch" EDH deck, I decided to expand a casual constructed deck I'd played off and on for years - zombie tribal.

The basic idea is simple: stuff the deck full of as many quality zombies and zombie-related cards as possible.  There are lots of zombie lords in Magic's history, so it is pretty easy (and fun!) to assemble a massive zombie horde to overwhelm your opponents.

Choosing a Leader for the Horde
Before getting to all those juicy zombie lords, we need to decide on a commander.  With the amount of zombie support in Magic, it's a little surprising that there are only 17 eligible zombie commanders.  Most of those creatures don't support a tribal theme very well (though many are obviously strong commanders), so I think we're really down to 6:

Balthor the Defiled - awesome if you can consistently fill your graveyard with zombies.
Geth, Lord of the Vault - fits nicely into a reanimation-themed zombie deck.
Grimgrin, Corpse-Born - a scary dude with nice synergy with both dying and reanimating zombies.
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord - another dude with good synergy with dying zombies and filling your yard.
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed - makes the rest of your team really frightening.
Sedris, the Traitor King - yet more synergy with graveyard shenanigans and reanimation.

 A zombie tribal deck is undoubtedly going to be heavily black, so what can blue, red, and green get me?

Green is a pretty weak addition to the tribal theme.  Jarad gives us 13 more zombies, though only a couple of those are exciting (Ghoultree and Lotleth Troll are the only ones that really impress me).  It also gives access to enchantment and artifact hate that you can't get in black.  Is it really worth watering down the zombie theme to play Back to Nature?  Pssh, of course not.  Jarad's out.

Sedris brings a few more friends to the game (18, in fact), but I'm even less impressed with these, and his unearthing ability probably doesn't play terribly well with all the zombie lords.  He does fill one of the holes in black's gameplan with artifact destruction, but I'm not convinced that widening the mana base is really worth all that.

Blue comes with the normal suite of counterspells and bounce effects (Cyclonic Rift is an excellent board wipe), which is nice.  Plus there are 29 more zombies to accompany Grimgrin, and many of those fit the tribal theme well - Diregraf Captain is almost enough to make me want to run blue by itself.

However, there are two big features that push blue over the top - Rooftop Storm is just stupid in a zombie deck, and clones to copy your lords (or your opponents' scariest creatures) seem like excellent value in this sort of deck.

There are obviously good arguments for each of the other commander candidates, but Grimgrin is going to allow me to accomplish my goals (armies of huge zombies) more effectively than the others.

Looks like I've settled on Grimgrin, Corpse-Born.  Now to fill out the deck.

Flesh to Fuel the Apocalypse - Creature Selection
I keep ranting about zombie lords, so let's start with those.

Anything that buffs zombie power and toughness is an easy pick:

While not specifically zombie lords, Adaptive Automaton, Coat of Arms, and Mikaeus, the Unhallowed slot quite nicely into this deck as well.

(As a side note, Risen Executioner fills this role very well, too, I just don't have a copy of it yet).

There are some other cards that synergize with an army of the undead.  Things like:

We're already committed to blue, so why not add some clone effects to double some of those lords' effects?  There's always the potential upside of copying one of your opponents' problem creatures, so a handful of clones can give us some extra reach:

  • Clever Impersonator - copying a planeswalker or Coat of Arms gives this one even greater upside
  • Clone - the classic
  • Evil Twin - copy a lord or use it as removal against an opponent's problematic creature
  • Phantasmal Image - a cheap, albeit not very resilient, clone effect
  • Phyrexian Metamorph - like Clever Impersonator, cloning an artifact could be a serious gain
  • Rite of Replication - the big daddy of clone effects, target Undead Warchief to give your team 10 extra power, or hit a Vengeful Dead and start saccing zombies to your commander

Filling out the rest of the creature suite comes down to getting strong effects on decent bodies.  This goal is doubly important because we may have some trouble dealing with certain types of opposition if we stick to the theme, so getting removal along with our creatures is important.  Also remember that effects that hit all opponents are amplified in multiplayer commander games, so those may be worth a bit more than they otherwise would.

Here are the "filler" zombies I've chosen to include in my deck:

  • Coffin Queen - reanimation on a stick; it's slow, but it can be a big deal once it gets going
  • Eastern Paladin - the textbox is blank against some decks, but a 3/3 for 4 isn't the worst thing in the world (especially with some lords in play); repeatable removal is worth the downside, I think
  • Empty the Pits - not a creature exactly, but it makes them, and it can make a ton of them late in the game; great for sealing the deal or recovering from a wrath
  • Entrails Feaster - also a bit slow, but this little kitty can help purge troublesome creatures from your opponents' graveyards
  • Fleshbag Marauder - an edict effect that is occasionally a powerful creature and is a zombie for all your cards that care; yep, this goes right in the deck
  • Forlorn Pseudamma - one of the weaker choices, this one can (slowly) let you build up an army from nothing, so I think it's worth a card slot just as extra wrath insurance
  • Ghoulraiser - recur a zombie card from your graveyard; the fact that you don't choose it kind of stinks, but the upside is still there
  • Gloomdrifter - if you have Threshold, this guy could clear some nonsense off the board; it won't kill anything truly terrifying (unless you hit it with Rite of Replication), but it's a great answer to token decks
  • Gravecrawler - pure, aggressive value; the added bonus of an infinite combo with Grimgrin and Rooftop Storm can sometimes end games you had no business winning
  • Gravedigger - digging a lord out of the yard is easily worth the slot
  • Gray Merchant of Asphodel - did you know this guy's a zombie? An amazing win condition on his own, clone effects make him truly miserable for your opponents
  • Gurmag Angler - a 5/5 is worth almost any cost in this deck, and casting him on the cheap with Delve seems downright rude
  • Lifebane Zombie - a 3/1 ain't bad, but his ETB effect can strip a vital card from an opponent's hand
  • Liliana's Reaver - if you can connect, that effect can ravage your opponents' hands and build an army at the same time; pure value
  • Moan of the Unhallowed - making a couple zombies is already nice, but flashback makes it that much sweeter
  • Plaguebearer - it gets prohibitively expensive fast, but repeatable removal is always valuable in Commander
  • Possessed Skaab - it's Eternal Witness for zombies! a solid addition all around
  • Servant of Tymaret - this little guy's Inspired ability drains all opponents, and natural regeneration can hold the fort if needed; he's probably one of the weakest cards in the deck, but he certainly plays a role
  • Siren of the Silent Song - this Inspired ability also hits all opponents, and it's a lot easier to trigger this one; landing this siren on turn 3 can quickly leave everyone else at the table Hellbent
  • Skaab Ruinator - you can't always cast this monstrosity, but when you can, it's immediately a serious threat
  • Skinrender - another source of removal, and sometimes weakening a problematic creature can mean the difference between winning and losing
  • Vengeful Pharaoh - conditional removal, but when he's in your yard, other players are dissuaded from attacking you
  • Western Paladin - like his Eastern counterpart, a vanilla 3/3 in some matchups, but a serious threat in others

Growing a Healthy Horde - Support Cards and Manabase
Given our creatures, we're playing a pretty aggressive game, and we have a few ways to deal with roadblocks as they arise.  However, we could use some more ways of dealing with the most problematic threats our opponents could present.  Let's start with some removal:

  • Call to the Grave - a repeated edict for everyone not playing mono-zombies; definitely one of the most powerful cards in this deck
  • Cruel Revival - I'm not usually a fan of targeted once-off removal in EDH, but getting a key creature back to your hand seems worth the more limited effect
  • Cyclonic Rift - aside from clones, this is the only card that isn't death or zombie themed, but it's important to have another safety valve to keep other decks in check
  • Dictate of Erebos - Grimgin lets you sacrifice creatures at will, so paired with your commander, you can usually clean up a lot of the problems on the table
  • Life's Finale - the added upside of pulling scary creatures from someone's deck (and lower relative real-world cost) make this my preferred black wrath for EDH over Damnation
  • Necromantic Selection - kill everything but choose one creature to come back as a zombie on your side of the battlefield; stellar in this deck
  • Syphon Flesh - another edict effect, but this one grows the horde, so I like it here

At this point, one thing we're missing is card advantage.  We have a couple of useful effects between Gravedigger and Grave Defiler, but it could be easy to run out of gas in the face of repeated board wipes or otherwise powerful removal.  There aren't a whole lot of options on-theme, by trying my best to stick to the flavor of death and decay, here are my card advantage choices:
  • Grave Betrayal - come out way ahead in the face of traditional board wipes, and make any creature's death terrifying for your opponents
  • Necromancer's Stockpile - ditch a zombie that's not too useful for current circumstances (like one of the Paladins, for example), get a creature, and draw a card? Sign me up!
  • Reprocess - turn late-game lands or useless creatures into more cards, or use it as a sac outlet to ping opponents with Diregraf Captain or Vengeful Dead
Finally, we need to be able to cast all our spells.  This is a particularly rough task, as we are primarily black, but we want to be able to cast our commander consistently, and we have a few double-blue costing spells.  As such, I've gone pretty hard on the fixing (maybe too hard, so it's definitely worth tweaking).  Here's the manabase of my current iteration of this deck.

First, lands (and an artifact) that generate both colors:
Then, I looked into utility lands, but I only found three that were really compelling:
  • Bojuka Bog - emptying someone's graveyard can be important in many Commander games
  • Unholy Grotto - while this one doesn't tap for colored mana, the ability to recur creatures is a massive boon
  • Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth - making all lands tap for black isn't all that important, as we're black-heavy anyway; the real benefit of Urborg is the occasional upside of making your opponents' lands swamps, so Zombie Master makes all your dudes unblockable

Finally, we need to fill in the rest with basics:
  • 5 Islands
  • 20 Swamps
And there you have it, the most entertaining Commander deck I've ever built and/or played.  It often ends up playing like an aggro deck, looking to land early creatures and attack often.

Thoughts on Optimization
There were three important decision points in the process of building this deck that are worth briefly discussing.

First, I tried to keep the deck relatively cheap - that's why things like Damnation aren't included.  The manabase is easily the most costly part, but I built it mostly out of lands I already owned, so it didn't cost me anything extra.  If you're looking to build the deck, though, you can certainly skimp on some of the more expensive lands in favor of more basics; I've never had serious color issues with this deck, so I was probably too careful with it anyway.

Second, I opted to stay away from the Innistrad zombie theme of self-mill because there is a good deal of graveyard hate in my playgroup.  It scares me to go too heavily in the direction of using my yard as a resource because things like Rest in Peace completely shut that gameplan down.  If you're not worried about that sort of thing in your playgroup, you may be able to get a more powerful deck by throwing in a Skaab Goliath and an Armored Skaab or other things to stock your graveyard.

Third, I avoided tutor effects entirely.  Demonic Tutor and Sidisi, Undead Vizier would both be terrifying additions to this deck.  This decision is a result of my philosophy on EDH - one of the reasons I like the format is that each game feels totally different (as opposed to competitive formats, where decks are designed to be consistent).  Tutor effects make Commander games feel the same, as players often search for the same two or three cards each game.  As a result, I like to stay away from those kinds of things unless absolutely necessary, and I think this deck has enough punch to not need any tutor effects.  If you're looking to build the most powerful, consistent deck you can, you should definitely add some, though.

Take this list, customize it, and crush your friends under the rotting flesh of a zombie apocalypse.  I hope my thoughts can inspire someone out there to think about building a crazy tribal EDH deck!