Thursday, 28 February 2013

Movie Appraisal: Hidden (Skjult) (2009)

Well, here's a movie that had a lot of promise, but ultimately gave up very little. Movies like this suck to review mostly because they have the POTENTIAL to be very fun rides, but end up being less than they should be. And it's not like they're terrible either. They're just okay. Mediocre. In some crazy middle ground between amazing and awful. Sometimes it's a bad script, sometimes it's a bad plot, a bad actor, a poorly thought-out character, a director who has no idea what they're doing, and sometimes it's simply how things work out. Hidden (or Skjult for Norwegian readers) is exactly a movie that should be more. It has so much going for it: a very well-done premise, good actors, a compelling story, and a plot heavily hovering in the realm of psychological horror. It's a movie I should LOVE, but instead I find it incredibly mediocre. Maybe it's simply that I've seen this all before and have become cynical. The movie feels lazy. And that's the problem.

Hidden begins with a car accident. A boy's parents are killed in the cold open. The boy survives (maybe), but the reason for the deaths of his parents is another boy running across the road and causing a semi truck to crash into the parents' car. You get the feeling that the first boy (who seems to be Peter) is going to be our lead character, but that turns out to not be the case (I think). The protagonist of our story is KK (Kai Koss), the boy who had run across the road and caused the accident. Apparently Peter disappeared after the accident and was called dead after shoes were found near the scene and underneath a waterfall long after.

The problem is that KK looks EXACTLY like what Peter would look like when he grew up. The boy has long blond locks. KK has the same. While the young KK has a shaved head. The older Peter (if he is Peter at all) has a shaved head as well. It's weird. I feel like it was probably done on purpose, but I can't say for sure it was. It's a movie that explains very little, which I like a lot, but the things it does explain turn out to have really idiotic explanations (I think). And that's the problem. The movie did do a lot very good, but other parts were baffling. I personally think that the original KK was killed by the abusive and disturbed mother after he escaped. Eventually Peter, who later became KK, in this case the second KK, after the mother caught him, came back to the town after his "mother" died. I mean, that's what I think, but I can't say anything for sure. The movie doesn't hit you over the head with it, so it's really up to what you want to think.

You can see my confusion here. I'm sorry. Parts of this movie made little sense. There is a dark-haired woman who I'm pretty sure isn't real. I don't know if she's a random singer or something? I'm told she speaks in Swedish, but I have no idea what that means. Maybe she was the original mother of Peter? Or just an actress? Or maybe she was just an imaginary friend he made up for company in the darkened hole he lived in for years. Again, I don't know.

The funny thing is, while I wasn't happy with the ending of the movie when I first saw it, it's something I'm liking more and more as time goes by. I actually like the movie more now (a few days later) than when I had originally watched it. Maybe I'm the crazy one. I still don't like how KK and Peter are somehow the same person and the murderer, but I'll probably get over it someday. (Read: I will never get over it. It's really dumb. I disliked it, and it should have been better.)

I found parts of the movie interesting. Why was KK looked at with such scorn by basically everybody? Only Sara seemed to like him and give him any benefit of the doubt. And she seemed to like him a lot. All of the men in town hated his guts. Why? Did I miss something? Was there some kind of history there? I have no idea. It was weird. I have no reference for anything and have no idea how to interpret it.

I mean, KK is the killer. It's obvious. Maybe that's why nobody likes him.

Sorry, did I say that too abruptly? It was abrupt in the movie too. KK is said to be the killer. Some kind of weird fugue state probably. Maybe he dissociates? Maybe he knows he's doing it? I have no idea. It's probably brought on by his old house. But man, it makes no sense. Maybe it's not supposed to make any sense. I would've preferred if he weren't the killer... but maybe it makes the movie better if he's both Peter and the killer. I don't know. I just don't know. I don't so, but maybe I'm not who this movie was made for.

The best part of the movie are the psychological scenes though. They're not scary, but their simple weirdness is enough to enjoy by themselves. The phone calls, the odd scenes of KK just by himself and thinking or whatever, and the weird interactions between characters- these are all reasons to see the movie. Just expect to find yourself baffled if you do watch it. I mean, I put a halfhearted recommendation out there. If you REALLY live for psychological horror/thriller, then watch this. Otherwise... it's not required watching, but it's not bad either. I enjoyed most of it. Just remember, it's not scary. There's very little gore. In general, I would think of this flick as much more of a suspense or thriller with psychological elements than anything else. And those always seem a little "eh," I guess.

Pål Øie directs, and does a pretty decent job. I think the long periods without dialogue are some of the best pieces of the film. They work incredibly well. They add to the confusion, but those long moments of suspense and confusion could be small beautiful movies on their own. The dialogue and the writing are mostly not as good. And this being an indie horror film from the After Dark Horrorfest 2010, I was expecting good things. I usually enjoy them, although they usually have some issues. See my review of Autopsy for details. 

Honestly, I liked the film, didn't love it. Kristoffer Joner as KK, Karin Park as Miriaim, and Cecilie A. Mosli as Sara are the breakouts here. I tend to like these Eurpoean horror movies. They do a good job at hitting what I like. This one wasn't quite as great as some, but I was okay with it. I wish I could say more, but I don't really have anything else to say.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Cosmoids Early Alpha is out! Funding Phase 3! PTD 2 updates!

to get the Shiny Starters? Shiny Zorua? Shiny legendary dogs? Shiny Mew? or any other
shiny pokemon in the game? Adopt them today using
SnD coins! Click here for more info.

the PTD: Pokemon Center - a place to trade pokemon,
get your Daily Code, adopt Pokemon, view your items
and change your avatar!

Welcome to the Sam & Dan Games Developer Blog! Let's begin!

Blog updates

I want to apologize for not having blog updates the last few weeks. As my wedding get near things start to get hectic and I have less and less time to sit down and work and so by not doing blog post I saved those precious hours, however things seemed to have calmed down a bit and so I plan to continue with blog updates every week like before. There is much to talk about.

Fundraiser lives on!

The fundraiser is alive and kicking. The last few weeks I made it a point to add new ways for you to donate and the fundraiser has gained dramatically from this. If you haven't heard about the fundraiser basically we are asking you guys to help us keep making PTD2 and Cosmoids while giving out great prizes. Some of the prizes include access to the Cosmoids Early Alpha, Shiny Rayquaza and Cosmoids Starters for your PTD2 account. Instead of going over every detail here on the blog we have made a page exclusively for the funding. You can find it here. Check it out, if you feel like we deserve to stay alive making games then give us a little help.

Phase 3 of the Fundraiser

Today we start Phase 3 of the fundraiser. What does it mean? NEW PRIZES! For funding $10 or more you will receive in the near future your choice of one of the 3 starters from Cosmoids (you can check them out in the Early Alpha). You will get to pick your favorite and they will stats and move set similar to other starters in pokemon. They won't however evolve right away since we don't have the graphics done for the evolutions. You will also receive 2 of the one that you choose so that you can trade it with somebody. Lastly if you are wondering they will not be able to breed with each other or with any other pokemon.

Cosmoids Early Alpha Released

I'm super excited to announce that for those who funded us any amount now have access to the Cosmoids Early Alpha. If you don't have access and would like to check it out it is very simple. Go to the Pokemon Center's Funding Rewards page and watch a video ad to fund a few cents to us and get access.

Okay so now that you checked it out I wanted to talk about a couple of things that you might have noticed. First of a lot of the graphics are not final and some are close to final. Mostly everything is not final except for the creature units. Those are pretty close to the final graphic besides a few tweaks on size and some minor details. Another huge thing is that there is a lot missing. The UI which is always important is not set up yet.

So you might ask what is the point then? Well there are plenty of points. What I want you to check out is that you can put units in any spot on the map, units have different ranges depending on the attack they are doing. Also unit's attack speed will be based around the base speed of the creature. In PTD I always wanted to do that so that electric pokemon would attack very fast and slow pokemon like slowpoke etc would have a long time between attacks. The problem with pokemon is that attack stats are not balanced around speed since speed in pokemon only means who gets to go first. For cosmoids I do want the base speed to affect attack speed and so we will be balancing around that. In the alpha you can see that the chameleon has a high attack speed but doesn't inflict as much damage. While the koala has a lower attack speed but does more damage per hit. All the numbers still need to be tweaked so the balance is not there yet but it should show a little of what I want to accomplish for this game which is...

Cosmoid Creatures should feel different from one another

I think long and hard about the games that I'm making. On one hand I have PTD a game that I have already established so I don't want to add too much or remove things. Then on the other hand I have Cosmoids which is something new. I don't have anything that tells me how the stats should work or what levels and creatures I need to have. This is both a curse and a blessing. Mostly a blessing in my eyes. So I started to think about what Cosmoids is about and in the same thought what is PTD about. Is the whole point of the game to just capture all your favorite creatures? Do you just set a unit down and watch it all unfold? I thought a lot about it and came to some conclusions, but most importantly I came to the conclusions as to what I wanted the game to be about. I want the game to be about you discovering new creatures, trying them out in battle and picking the ones that suit your playstyle and taste and using them to beat the challenges that I lay in front of you. Using the combination of attack speed, attack ranges, defense, hp and attack stats to create very unique creatures that all play a little differently. I hope that the alpha can give you a little sense of how I want to make each creature feel a little different.

Pokemon Tower Defense 2 updates!

Many of you know that I've always wanted to make a Pokemon MMO but obviously I would need the copyright to make it happen. Cosmoids is a way to creature my own original creatures so that I can still make a creature MMO in my lifetime. Cosmoids is very important to the future of Sam & Dan Games cause it make it our first truly original game that we distribute to any place we want. Steam, Android, Appstore etc. So in many ways Cosmoids is going to get a lot of my attention from here on out. That doesn't mean that I'm not going to be working on PTD2. I will continue to do updates for PTD2 but with a slight change in focus.

My focus now is more on getting more attacks and more creatures into the game each week. You might have noticed I'm doing giveaways the last few weeks starting with Luvdisc and then Litwick. These particular giveaways are a sort of experiment. I'm curious to see if eventually these 2 will be common among users as more and more are breed. Luvdisc will take longer in my opinion because right now it can only breed with itself. Another way I'm adding more pokemon is by starting to allow PTD1 transfers over to PTD2. Each week I want to add at least 3 new families that will be able to transfer. Also I want to reach the mighty level 100 soft cap so that most of the attacks are added in the game and will make transferring from PTD1 and adding new creatures faster as more attacks are added. Also this week I'm adding the Dusk Stone and the Reaper's Cloth so that you can evolve your recently new Ghost Pokemon. The story mode is still very important to me and even 1v1 is important. But these take a lot of time to create, this week I won't be doing a story mode level but next week I will.

So let's look at what I will be working on this week.

Weekly Progess

PTD2 Alpha v1.36.1 Released!

  • Mystery Gift (100%) 

 PTD2 Alpha v1.36.1 Released!

  • Testing! (100%) - Super Important to test out things before I hand it over to you guys. 

  • Bug Fixes (100%)

    • Rough Skin Fix (100%)

    • Flame Burst AOE Fix (100%)

    • New Evolution Items (100%)

      • Reaper's Cloth (100%)

      • Dusk Stone (100%)

    •  PTD1 to PTD2 Transfers (100%) - Pikachu, Sandshrew, Nidoran Female and Nidoran Male Families

    • Soft Level Cap Increase to 25 (100%) - 37 New Moves!

      • Mirror Move (100%)

      • Roar (100%)

      • Mega Punch (100%)

      • Stockpile (100%)

      • Swallow (100%)

      • Spit Up (100%)

      • Sweet Scent (100%)

      • Horn Attack (100%)

      • Thunder Fang (100%)

      • Fire Fang (100%)

      • Rock Blast (100%)

      • Baton Pass (100%)

      • Cross Poison (100%)

      • Water Pulse (100%)

      • Protect (100%)

      • Crush Claw (100%)

      • Amnesia (100%)

      • Chip Away (100%)

      • Assurance (100%)

      • Psybeam (100%)

      • Metal Sound (100%)

      • Dual Chop (100%)

      • Imprison (100%)

      • Toxic Spikes (100%)

      • Silver Wind (100%)

      • FeatherDance (100%)

      • Air Cutter (100%)

      • Smack Down (100%)

      • Bulldoze (100%)

      • Steamroller (100%)

      • Echoed Voice (100%)

      • Refresh (100%)

      • Torment (100%)

      • Swagger (100%)

      • Revenge (100%)

      • False Swipe (100%)

      • Slash (100%)

    • New Pokemon (100%) - Pichu, Dusknoir, Chandelure, Aron, Beldum

      • Graphics (100%)

      • Stats (100%)

      • New Attacks (100%)

        • Electro Ball (100%)

        • Nasty Plot (100%)

        • ThunderBolt (100%)

        • Magnet Rise (100%)

      • New Abilities (100%)

        • Heavy Metal (100%)

        • Light Metal (100%)

        • Clear Body (100%)

      •  Evolutions (100%)

      • Add to Breeding Center (100%)

      • Add to Trading Center (100%)

    That was a lot to read! Thanks for sticking with us and let's make Cosmoids the best that it can be! As always let me know what you think!

    Thursday, 21 February 2013

    Movie Appraisal: Brick (2005)

    Here I go away from horror movies again, and this time I'm into something a little different for me. I guess you could say I've been in a different phase of late, trying new things and having a good time all around. Now, I know Brick is a relatively obscure movie. I certainly had never heard of Brick before, or of Rian Johnson, the film's director. Now, if you recognize that name at all, you probably recognize it from Looper, a  recent movie I haven't seen but have heard excellent things about. The problem is that Brick was Rian Johnson's directorial debut, and what a debut it was. I say "the problem" because I will never remember Rian Johnson for Looper, no matter how good it may or may not be. I will instead remember him for Brick, forever and always.

    Brick is an incredibly interesting film, basically a high school drama/thriller with some comedic elements done in the style of 1940s era film noir movies. That's not saying the movie looks or acts like a film noir, not exactly. Instead the movie is a little inconsistent (This is not a bad thing.), with dialogue and characters very reminiscent of film noir, but situations and settings consistent with an entirely different movie, something more like a teenage drama, comedy, or thriller (if the teenage thriller genre even exists, which I'm pretty sure it doesn't). I love early film noir, stuff like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and basically anything and everything that starred either Humphrey Bogart or John Garfield in that era of film. These movies defined that era, defined an entire age, and became the centerpiece of what a male, a hardboiled male, really was. I know it's a gender role and whatnot, but man, how can you not like to watch Humphrey Bogart being snappy with dialogue and cool with women? And how can a man not want to emulate that? I know I did/do. It's hard to see a more masculine man, to me at least.

    But Brick is different, very different, WHOLLY different, from those kinds of films. It fits a little bit better as a neo-noir, but even that is a tough place to define it. It takes the genre apart certainly, but it also stands absolutely brilliantly on its own, simultaneously showing the hardships of high school life and the relative ease and childishness of it as well. It nearly compares a high school kid's problems to that of a tough no-nonsense detective, and the results are... interesting to say the least. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition between those two very different kinds of people. I enjoyed how Brendan, our protagonist, went about solving his problems in both a straightforward and highly convoluted manner. He simultaneously made things more difficult for himself while also doing the very best he could to determine the best outcome available to him. The movie had all the regular tropes of a film noir: the femme fatale, the antihero detective, the intelligent and informed friend, the boss of some kind of shady organization, a wrongly accused person, being set up, and manipulation all over the place. All of these things help make this movie more enjoyable with every moment you watch it.

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt shines as the main character Brendan Frye. I've always liked the man as an actor, and he doesn't disappoint here, bringing full life to this character and to the situations of the story. He is believable and works well as a person both resourceful and intelligent. I don't know if I've ever seen another performance by him that I've liked anywhere near as much. And I've liked him in a fair few roles. The fact that he states the dialogue, often very noir-ish dialogue, with such conviction is a point in his (and this movie's) favor. The humorous, and often unsettling, thing about this movie is that despite the dialogue, the characters act very much like high school kids. Despite what they do, what they say, and everything else, there is a constant reminder that they are young, with Brendan telling his friend "Brain" important information all while dancing around and balancing on top of a wall. Or an important meeting happening over a drug kingpin's mother making cookies and giving Brendan something to drink.

    It's almost surreal in a way, certainly comparable to The Third Man, which I often cite as one of the oddest movies of this type from the film noir era. Brick moves at such an odd pace, but never feels bad. You never question the quality, even if the situations are almost ridiculous- or are certainly ridiculous.

    I have to mention Zora Zehetner's performance as Laura Dannon, the classic film-noir woman, as being one of the highlights of this film. She simulteously makes you hate her and love her with her performance. There was never a moment I didn't enjoy her on screen. Her acting was brilliant from beginning to end. The last few scenes she's in with Brendan are some of the very best, if not the very best, of this movie, if not almost all other neo-noir films in general. I don't think I've ever felt so sorry for a high school girl character before while despising her in the same breath. Noah Fleiss as Tug is amazing as well, really showing a performance worthy of praise. He has a look in his eyes the entire movie that shrieks DANGER to me as the viewer. There was never a single moment I trusted his character, but I loved the way that character was portrayed. He was sympathetic even if he was also despicable and terrifying. I also very much enjoyed the performances by Meagan Good as Kara and Noah Segan as Dode. Both characters added a great deal to the movie and character motivations. Kara, especially, becomes one of the best nearly sociopathic characters I have ever seen in a movie. And the sad thing is, when I was in drama club back in high school, I knew girls just like her, girls who would do nearly anything to get ahead. Dode is also a wonderful character, showing yet another social clique in the high school environment and representing that very well.

    And that's one of the best things about this movie, while a film noir, it shows high school cliques and groups as well as any movie I've ever watched before. The accuracy of that depiction, despite the dialogue, is astounding. Honestly, the characters, social moments, dialogue, and settings are really the high points of the movie. The plot is pretty well done also, but never quite reaches the upper pinnacle of storytelling. It is well done, sometimes predicable, but also has elements of surprise to it. I kind of wish Emily, Brendan's ex-girlfriend, wasn't shown to be dead in the opening of the movie, which occurs in medias res. I think it would have been more surprising to see her show up dead without pre-knowledge of her death and more impacting besides. That being said, the way the movie is structured is clearly referential to earlier film noir, so it's not something I can complain about all that much.

    This movie is literally brilliant from beginning to end. It's a movie for somebody who's looking for something different: great acting, an obviously indie film, and mostly a really good juxtaposition between ideas that don't usually go together. I can't really say much else. I recommend that everybody check this out. I also have to say that I wouldn't have ever even heard about this movie if not for seeing a fantastic preview trailer for this film before I watched Doom. It's pretty rare that a trailer makes me want to watch a movie, but Brick's trailer was so amazingly well done, I had no choice but to find this film at any cost and watch it. I suggest that anybody can watch this film an enjoy it. It doesn't have a lot of gore, no nudity, a few blood stains and such, but nothing really all that terrible. The dialogue alone is worth the price of the movie, and the performances are worth even more. While it's a bit of an oddball movie, it's one that really needs to be watched. It's deconstruction of both high school and noir is a pleasure to behold.

    I also get the feeling that the movie might leave a few confused. Don't be. It's relatively easy to understand. A girl, Emily, is seeking help from her loner of an ex-boyfriend. She trusts him to look after her even if she doesn't love him anymore. She asks for help, and he does what he can even after she tells him to leave her alone. He is committed to helping her in anyway he can because he still cares about her despite himself. She shows up dead at a meeting place, and Brendan, our protagonist, hides the body and starts investigating anybody Emily could have been involved with, eventually leading him to a drug lord called "The Pin," a gang leader called "Tug," and a high school girl who has her own motives by the name of Laura. The central point of the film is for Brendan to find who killed Emily and to get even. He eventually learns that she was set up, being implicated in stealing a brick (of the title) of heroin from "The Pin." He also learns that Emily was with a bunch of different guys, Tug and Dode included, and that she was more than likely pregnant, which was the reason, on top of other things, why she was killed. The last moments of the film are spent on Brendan getting even with the person who ultimately set Emily up in the first place, and it is an amazing scene. I'm not giving spoilers out. Go watch the movie if it sounds interesting and you haven't seen it yet. It's good enough to not be spoiled.

    And... yeah. That's about it. It was a wonderful movie, far outside my expertise in reviewing, but also really a great watch. It is probably one of the very best films I've seen in quite a long time, and easily the best non-horror/non-franchise film I've seen in quite a while.

    Check it out. Seriously.

    Wednesday, 20 February 2013

    Puzzles, what are they good for?

    I recently came a across this article from AdventureGamers about puzzles, and it got me thinking. The article covers the different ways in which puzzles have been swapped for other activities over the years, something that I am very interested in. There is so much great about adventure games that just seem to be held back by their puzzles. It always seem that they break the flow of the experience. I find that many adventure games are more engaging to play when you have a walkthrough close at hand. Of course, consulting a guide has it own share of problems, and is far from an optimal way to play. Some other solution must exist.

    Ever since we started Frictional Games, a big goal has been to try and fix this somehow. With each game we have incorporated new ideas in order to deliver a more streamlined experience; to try and minimize the problems that puzzles tend to cause.

    When we started our Super Secret Project our initial idea was to get rid of traditional puzzles entirely. A focus from the start was to have levels where the goal was very clear. We wanted to create "scenes of drama" where the player would be free to role play without worrying about solving puzzles. But as the project has progressed, more and more traditional puzzle design have slipped in. I have been aware of this for quite a while, but the AdventureGamers article slapped me in the face with it. Despite all our efforts to the contrary, we seem unable to remove the puzzles entirely. There is just something that makes them a crucial ingredient.

    The three main reasons seem to the be following:
    • Goal. They give the player a goal. When a situation is set up in the form a of a puzzle it is so much easier for the player to understand what to do next. It sets up a framework on how to behave, act and what outcomes to strive for. Actually, it is more accurate to say that setting up situation in a comprehensive manner gives you a puzzle. So the puzzle-element is simply a sort of side effect. (For those interested, here is an entire blog post dedicated to this subject).
    • Structure. It is an excellent way to set up a structural framework and provide flow. It is impossible, and story-telling wise unwanted, to allow the player to go in whichever way or do whatever they please. It is necessary to set up scenes in such a way that it confides the player to a certain path (or paths). Puzzles provide bottlenecks that are implicit and goes along with the narrative. If you want the player to visit rooms A, B and C before going to room D, you can set up a puzzles that achieves this. This system also lets the player drive the story forward. Instead of it the game telling the player when it is time to move on, the player is the ones in control. It also sets up a nice way to control the flow of the narrative. For instance, if the player is required to slow down and remain in an area for a while, you can have them searching for clues or engage in other puzzle related activities.
    • Immersion. Puzzles are a great way for the player to become part of the story. When solving a puzzle players use their knowledge of the game's world in a way that has an effect on the narrative. Players become one with the story and base their decisions on that. The puzzle is not there to test the player's wits and/or hinder progress, but to increase the sense of presence. By having something that requires the player to connect the dots often makes it much more engaging. Like how a description in a book can be more compelling if written in an indirect and/or metaphorical fashion.
    I find all of these strong arguments for having puzzles. But at the same time the problems of puzzles remain. The AdventureGamers article point a few ways in which games have worked around puzzles; but the problem is that this mostly also removes what is so good about puzzles. For instance, The Walking Dead uses important dialog options to make the player part of the story. But in order to this, the game needs to have long cut scenes and reduce its scope of interaction. Players no longer push the story forward or get implicit goals. The game simply tells them what to do and when it is time to move on. For all its accomplishments, The Walking Dead fail to deliver a game where you play all the way through. This is not the kind of experiences we want to make at Frictional Games.

    Instead of thinking about what to replace puzzles with, it is more rewarding to consider how to evolve them. How to improve them in a way that keeps the good traits and removes the bad. The first step towards this is to consider why we have puzzles at all. I think a major reason many adventure games gets problems with puzzles is because they are never justified. Every puzzle is seen as a "fun challenge", a feature with intrinsic value that should not be questioned.  I think that simply asking the question: "how does this puzzle serve the overall experience" is bound to be a good start.

    Once it has been decided that a puzzle is really needed, the next question is what kind of complexity it should have. If you want a game that is about engaging the player in a narrative, you really want the puzzle to be as simple as possible without losing any of the benefits  So what is simple enough? My current gold standard is:

    "A puzzle should make players to do something in such a way that they feel they came up it themselves."

    This means that the puzzle must give the player some kind of "revelation" and must not feel spoon fed. The path from encountering the obstacle to performing the solution should not be too obvious or simple. However, this often means puzzles become too complex and/or difficult. The solving problems then devolves into "guess the designer" which ruins the intended effect. The player should be kept inside the game's world and never be forced to think outside of that. What follows are some of the ways we try and solve this:
    • Locality. All ingredients for solving a puzzle should be in close proximity to one another. This makes sure the player does not get stuck because of missing a clue or an item at a now distant location.
    • Multiple Solutions. Having many ways to solve a puzzle is often used as a replayability feature. In our games, it is instead used to make sure that the solution feels natural and intuitive to a wide range of players. In many cases we have actually implemented whatever fitting approaches that testers have tried (to the point of even allowing button mashing as a way to progress). 
    • Low Item Density. By making sure there are not too many locations, objects, characters, etc, one can avoid confusing the player and leading them on stray paths. Too few items can also be a problem of course, so one has o have a bit finesse.
    • Coherent Simulation. This means that mechanics work globally and are consistent throughout the game. For instance, a pickax is able to break any object made of ice. Most of the recent great puzzle games like Braid and World of Goo use this approach; however all these games are set in fantastic realms where the mechanics come before the story. In a narrative driven game aimed to have a sense of "reality", it is much harder to be 100% consistent. We have tried it with physics and it comes with all sort of trouble. More info here.
    • See it as an Activity. When possible it is often rewarding to think of puzzles as an activity. This push you out of mindset of just thinking about having clever solutions. If you want to have puzzles that are there to enhance our storytelling, they need to stop being seen as challenges. 
    • Part of the World. The most obvious, and also hardest one: puzzles should always stay consistent with the story. If not, it will be painfully obvious when one is encountered. Resident Evil is a poster child of this; very few of its puzzles make sense in the game's world.
    • Story Coherent Hints. I think the best way to make sure that the player is not stuck is to have protagonist comments, notes, or whatever auxiliary means, show the puzzle from different angles. This in order to make sure that the player has not misunderstood some concept and is seeing the puzzle in the "right way". If players get stuck, the most common cause is that there is some step in the logic that they failed to catch. By having subtle hints it is possible to minimize this from happening
    The above tips are meant to facility a smoother experience for the player while trying to solve the puzzle. Another important issue is how to make it clear that there is a goal at all. Player often get stuck in games because they do not realize what their objective is, what puzzle it is that they are supposed to solve.  Here are three ways that can help overcome this problem:
    • A Clear Goal. This is probably what we have tried to use in most of our games. It basically means that you make sure players know where to go next. In Amnesia we always tried to have some obvious obstacle or let some kind of note/vision give a hint. As a back-up we also employed a somewhat immersion consistent todo-list, where further hints where given. 
    • Hidden, but guided. Sometimes it is possible to never tell the player exactly what to do, but guide and/or confine them in such a way that they will stumble upon it eventually. A simple, but effective, example is in Silent Hill 2 where you need to escape a well by finding a loose rock. It is a great way to create a sense of panic, and since the solution is so easily found it never becomes frustrating.
    • Spelled out Solution. This is when you just tell the player front up exactly what they are supposed to be doing. This might seem kind of of boring, but can work really well in some situations. A perfect example is the food rationing in The Walking Dead. Here it is obviously clear what you need to be doing, but a quite hard to decide who to give food.
    Despite following all these rules, it is not sure that you come up with a puzzles. It is vital to not see them as stumbling blocks along the players's journey. You want something that enhances the player's time in the game's virtual world. Not something that reduce it.

    A very bad example of this is in the remake of Broken Sword. When encountering a locked door, a sliding puzzle pops suddenly pops up. Disregarding that I loath sliding puzzles, this is really bad. It has nothing to do with the game's narrative. I gain nothing in terms of a connection with the story by solving this. It is simply there to hinder my path. What makes it worse is that the obstacle itself, a locked door, is not really interesting. The designer has taken an uninspiring set up and made it worse. This is a bad usage of puzzles.

    A good example is found in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, where you need to open a passage to a priest's secret hideout. Upon arriving at the church you are not aware of there even being a hide-out and need to read this in a note. Here is also a clue on how to access it; the church bell must be rung in a certain order and opening up a secret passage way downstairs. I think this sort of puzzle is great; it requires a combination of lore, exploration and force the player to make narrative connections. It also lets you interact with the environment in an interesting fashion. By both discovering and opening the secret passageway the player has an active role in the progression of the story. 

    There is a catch though. The mechanism for opening the hideout makes little sense. The whole town would notice whenever the priest wants to go to his lair. But in the end, it does not matter. It satisfy enough criteria to still be a good puzzle. This is a really important aspect of the craft.

    Coming up with puzzles is hard. Coming up with puzzles that are coherent, engaging and fit with the flow of the narrative is extremely hard. If you want to make an engaging and varied adventure, it is impossible to make every puzzle perfect. Above all else, the puzzle must fit with the experience that you want to create. Players can see past strange mechanics (like the above bell puzzle), live with simplified inventory system (like in The Walking Dead) and other sub-optimal solutions as long as it serves to enhance the experience. This is very important to remember when creating a puzzle. 

    The goal is not to make players think you are clever or to do the most complex set up. The goal is to make sure all parts serve the experience as a whole. It is very easy to forget this (I have done so many times myself) and it does not help that puzzles are fiendishly hard to evaluate. But I think that with the right mindset, it should not be an insurmountable challenge.

    As mentioned in the start, over the years puzzles have been pushed aside for other mechanics. Games with more progressive design either push the puzzle elements into the background (eg Uncharted) or base all around a specific mechanic (eg Portal). I do not think it is time to give up on the more classical adventure game puzzles yet though. By this I do mean that we should go back to the interconnected puzzle design of old days (as explained here). Instead we should try and look at puzzles in a different light and see how we might change them and reinterpret their role. This post has been an attempt to do just that, but I think there is a lot more to explore. It would be very bad to abandon the quest to combine storytelling and puzzles just yet.

    Those interested in more puzzle discussion might want to take a look at series of articles on puzzle that I wrote a few years back while working on Amnesia. They can be found here. The posts go through some other aspects of puzzles design that should be of interest..

    I am also interested in getting your input and/or links to other articles on this subject. It is not easy to come by good writing on puzzles, and even harder to find something that discuss narrative-serving puzzles, so I am very grateful for any feedback and tips!

    Unboxing videos and posts from around the web

    I have a few things to cover in this post.

    1)      The Forums are up Yay! The old forum suffered catastrophic failure due to my ISP changing database format without warning Boo! I suppose if I look on the bright side it means I will have a fresh start with the KS backers (I will send out invites to the private section of the forum when I have time to dedicate to game development)

    2)      Updated instructions are now available in PDF format on the main product page of the website. This includes the updated Crusader instructions. You will also find them here in the bolg in the INSTRUCTIONS page (right hand column)

    3)      If you are a retailer that is stocking DreamForge product, I would like to add you to my links. Please post a comment here and I will add your information. You don’t need a web presence, I am happy to add the address and phone numbers of brick and mortar locations.

    I took a moment to use a little Google-fu and search for unboxing videos and builds. Here are a few that I was able to come up with so far, displayed in no particular order. I know I am missing some, I apologize if I overlooked your post; if you would like to be added, just post a comment to this story and I will update the links. And a BIG thank you for all those posting these!

    Mordian 7th   Part1   Part 2   Part3
    Reobeast    Part1  Part2   Part3

    Games and life   Link

    Between the Bolter and me   Link

    Pick a damn army  Part1  Part2  Part3

    Moon tank   Link

    Warpstone pile  Link

    Tabletop Online (German)   Link

    A Gentalman's War   Link

    Photos  Link

     And now for some YouTube action ;)



     The Second Founding

    Spikey Bits


    Silver Skull Gamer


    Tuesday, 19 February 2013


    All changes have been made in bold red type and noted with a red circle. Without the CAD files I was unable to add in missing component renders but I did make notations as needed.

    For PDF copy click here

    Secret Citation

    More details of one of the games from the Leeds workshop - thanks David Porter and team :-D

    Secret Citation
    *or refin’ hell*

    are a variety of ways in which this card game can be played, including
    ones based on the card games Happy Families and Go Fish! The following
    rules describe the basic version of the Referencing Card game derived
    play wise from the card game Rummy.


    Sunday, 17 February 2013

    Joining the Stories

    This encourages students to explore a wider range of reading material and to enjoy it! Students must take the first paragraph from one book, a middle paragraph from another book and a final paragraph from a third book (chosen at random by picking cards). They must then write text to link these paragraphs together, with the aid of "Action" and "Situation" cards (e.g. "Accidently Farting" and "

    Saturday, 16 February 2013

    SVO... the game.

    A game to improve literacy of college students, around the use of Subject Verb and Object (SVO) to make simple sentences. Students draw a card from each deck (Subject, Verb, Object) and must say if they form a grammatically correct sentence. If they do, they win a point. If not, the next turn they choose which of the cards they would like to swap. Game continues until one person has 5 points

    What word?

    What Word is a game to encourage understanding of and use of a wider range of English vocabulary for students whose first language is not English. Involves drawing, guessing the words, and finding the theme that connects them!


    A mythology themed prototype board game from the workshop at Sir George Monoux College to help students understand tenses. Players have to fill in the blanks in a sentence with the correct tense to work their way past wizzards and monsters to get to the end of the board.

    Friday, 15 February 2013

    My first build of the plastic Leviathan Crusader

    I have built several resin kits but this is my first plastic Leviathan. I had a small hiccup with the instructions; one of the components was listed with the wrong part number… I emailed all the backers and posted an update for this step on my INSTRUCTIONS page.


    The build was what I call a service grade, I cleaned up all the major tabs but did not go into spending time filling small seams or scraping every tiny parting line. It took about eight hours to complete… You do not want to approach this kit when you are short on time or having a bad day.

    You will need:

    A sharp Exacto knife to deal with the tab leftovers
    A sprue cutter to remove the parts, but do not cut too close as the plastic will shrink back slightly; far better to trim it with the knife once it is off the sprue.
    A small file will be helpful but is not required.

    Model Cement; I prefer Testors orange tube (Please do not use superglue, the bond will be inferior)

     Some notes and thoughts:

    The Capacitor Cooler and Excalibur sword options are permanent modifications to the base kit… You should choose what you want before gluing. You could get tricky by magnetizing for the capacitor coolers but that will take some work.
    The screwdriver that comes with the kit is good for some of the areas, but the major joints, where you need a lot of tension created, you will need a larger screwdriver for better leverage.

    Be careful about stripping the screw, if you over tighten you will strip the plastic part and end up with no way to add tension. Unfortunately there is no way to tell when this will happen… So use caution. I think the screws in the sword arm will be the easiest to strip, as they have the smallest teeth (threads).
    Step 39: where you lock the legs into the ball joints: It is easier if you slide the cup over the ball joint and then insert the cup/ball into the leg socket. If you try to put the cup in the leg and then insert the hip ball joint you will need to use A LOT of force to get it to work ;) I tried it and decided to fish the cup out of the leg rather than attempt to force it.

    As I stated earlier, there are some issues with the instructions. I will post an update ASAP but the worst of the issue is already noted on the instructions page in the link above.
    Having built a few resin kits, this model was still a major departure, sure it looks the same but from an engineering and part design standpoint it is a very different kit. I spent twenty minutes just playing with poses and having fun… No way to do that with the resin kits. I was smiling ear to ear :)

    Take your time, enjoy the build and I think you are going to love this kit.


    Wednesday, 13 February 2013

    Event at Sir George Monoux College

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    Looking forward to running an event at Sir George Monoux College this Friday. It's the first I've run at one institution rather than for a range of people, so it'll be interesting to see how the dynamics change!

    Hopefully they'll allow me to share any protoypes they produce, just like at the Leeds event, so I'll post those up here if they do...

    Monday, 11 February 2013

    DreamForge-Games Talent Search

    DreamForge-Games is a small company located in California, we produce plastic miniatures for the tabletop gaming industry.

    I started DreamForge-Games about twelve years ago with an eye to do something I enjoy and break my ties to the corporate grind. It has been a slow and sometimes tumultuous process but I have always approached this career choice with a passion. It is important to me to find individuals that share the same passion for what they do. In my humble opinion, you must enjoy what you are doing or the end result will not be equal to your potential.

    As we step out into the gaming community with a larger number of products and begin to fully develop Iron Core the game, it becomes essential to form new relationships and contacts with other talented individuals.

    With this in mind, I wanted to reach out to those who may be interested in working with me on a wide variety of subjects and disciplines.

    Miniature - Model painters: Immediate need!

    Creative and Technical writers:

    Game designers:

    Graphics designers:

    Web designers - Flash animators.

    2D Artists:

    3D Artist:


    If you like our vision or products and would like to be considered, please send your contact information to

    In your email, please take a moment to introduce yourself or your company.

    What experience do you have that you feel would be applicable.

    Examples or links to your work.

    Expected compensation; your hourly or per piece or project rate.

    I would ask for your understanding and patience in regards to our vetting and response to your submissions, my plate is full with current responsibilities but I look forward to discussing the current and future projects with you at the earliest possible convenience.

    All the best!
    Mark Mondragon

    Sunday, 10 February 2013

    Movie Appraisal: Doom (2005)

    While I can see exactly why Doom, directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, has gone down in history as a pretty bad video game movie (and a pretty disregarded movie in general), I'm going to express my disapproval with that assessment. Yes, this movie has mostly negative thoughts thrown around about it (with good reason). Yes, the acting is never really all that good. Yes, the story is fairly terrible to say the least. And yes, the music is downright awful. There are many more negatives I could say, and will say, about this film, but those are the starters before the main course. The visuals never really look right, seeming very much like an action film trying very hard to be a horror film in both visuals and tone. The problem is that the film never elevates itself. It never grows to a better level of movie. While there is a lot to enjoy about this film, there is very little to objectively like. It had its heart in the right place: no CGI monsters, prosthetics, practical effects, and some decent actors. But the movie just wasn't all that well done anyway. See, I still enjoyed it even with its obvious flaws, but I do not begrudge anybody who thinks that this film is garbage.

    None of those things, those problems, make it a bad movie. It's simple. It's quick. And for some unknown reason it is one hell of an entertaining flick. I was engrossed by it, taken in by the simple story, the simple characters, and the simple premise. Sure, I (admittedly) have a soft spot for movies like this. I can't say I don't. But whatever my feelings about movies like this are, I still found this one compelling enough to enjoy and halfheartedly recommend for enjoyment purposes.

    There are many more things wrong with this movie than right with it. The characters are one-dimensional, all introduced quickly, without fanfare. The audience is just expected to know the characters and like them. The story moves at a breakneck speed, never slowing down for a moment, even if parts of the story make no sense whatsoever. Maybe that's why it moves so quickly, so it can lose the audience to intense scenes, flashes of light, and blood. I was taken in. I can't say I wasn't. So, I guess it might have worked for me at least if that was the intent. While it is a terrible adaptation of the video game Doom, a terrible horror movie (if it was ever trying to be one at all), and too fast -paced for itself, it still is a good action film with some genuinely thrilling moments, and some wonderful expressions from The Rock.

    Karl Urban and Raz Adoti, playing John "Reaper" and "Duke" respectively, are the only good actors here. They both do such a great job in their roles that their performances really helped make this movie an enjoyable experience for me. Karl Urban especially has always been one of my favorite relatively unknown actors. He gets great parts and always seems to give every role his all. I really hope he goes somewhere. He seems to be getting somewhere slowly and surely. I hope it continues. He really is a gem of an actor. His performance in this movie was excellent, probably the only truly genuinely "good" thing about this movie. Raz Adoti as "Duke" was just fun to watch. I was hoping he wouldn't die in the end. Obviously, he did. He had a truly excellent personality, and his scenes were genuinely thrilling and suspenseful.

    The other actors were pretty bad. No, they weren't historically bad, but none of them were good. Most of them were simply mediocre. I enjoyed Richard Brake as Portman and Dexter Fletcher as Pinky, though neither of them precisely "acted" in a traditional sense. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson should have been good, even could have been good, but his hammy performance, although fun, was probably the worst of the entire movie. His eyebrows helped make the movie memorable, at least. That's saying something.

    I have no idea what else to even say. There is a lot wrong with this movie. The first-person sequence towards the end of the film, although kind of fun, was also so very cheesy. The whole plot about how the "demons" came to be was also pretty stupid. Genetic research? Really? Why make the plot so complicated when all the filmmakers had to say was that these were demons from hell? Why bring pseudoscience into this? It's absolutely bizarre, but in the movie the science and discovery are treated like something the audience should already know everything about. It's such an odd thing, the pacing, the way the story is told. I can't for the life of me think of any other standalone movie that has the same strange breakneck pace in introducing its own characters and premises. Maybe Aliens? No. Even that movie had a pretty lengthy prologue. This film literally expects you to know these characters before they're introduced, to sympathize with them before you have a chance to know them.  It's weird, almost as if this movie were a sequel to another that had introduced them first. It's the only way I can explain it.

    Anyway, I kind of wish they had ditched the story about the genetic research. That was truly very stupid. As a person who has more than a cursory knowledge about genetics (I went to school for it as a matter-of-fact.) they really should have stuck with hell and demons. Those are very simple to understand.

    But, for all the many negatives, I still enjoyed this movie. It was a fun "turn-your-brain-off" kind of flick. It was as entertaining as I made it. And that's really what it all comes down to. I liked many of the sequences after the lightspeed introduction, and that's about all there is to it. The main monster was well done, the dark scenes in the sewers were actually harrowing. I loved the medical autopsy scenes as well. They actually gave the film some character of its own beyond the mindless space marine plot. The actors seemed like they were having fun for the most part too- well, all of them but Rosamund Pike playing John's sister Samantha. She had an expression of surprise on her face the entire movie, and her acting was literally painful to watch most of the time. As one of the few females in the movie, and the only one with significant screen time, her performance was pretty pitiful and rarely enjoyable at all. While she did get better the longer the movie went on, her first few scenes made me wince every time she was onscreen. She looked like she was not having a good time at all in the first half of this movie.

    So, yeah, I'll recommend this movie for a good time. Don't expect anything, and it will probably surprise you. Expect a lot, and you'll be incredibly disappointed. Have fun with it. Don't take it seriously. I know I didn't, and it was a truly fun experience, even though the movie was not great.

    Saturday, 9 February 2013

    What our customers think of the new DreamForge kits

    This project is far from over and not without oversights and mistakes. There are a few things I wish we would have done differently and a few processes that I need to implement before we move to the next stage. Such are the realities for a small company building a relationship and process with another company a world away.

    The Kickstarter orders are starting to make it into the hands of the backers, and the question is what do our customers have to say?

    (Quotes pulled from Dakka Dakka, Facebook and the DreamForge Kickstarter page).

     “They are without a doubt the best plastic miniatures I have ever looked at or handled in my entire life of 32 years.
    The level of detail is crazy. The level of customization is insane. The Leviathan just is absurdly amazing. A marvelous feat of engineering. Also retail is $120 on it. They will be available for preorder soon but only will ship after all KS backers have received theirs.

    Dreamforge and Wargames Factory have absolutely conquered the plastic miniatures market. Renedra and Citadel look like crap compared to these kits.”
    “As for future kickstarters, as long as Mark makes pretty models he will continue to receive my paychecks.”
     “Just some first impressions when opening up the boxes:
    1) The box is awesome. Great printing and high quality cardboard. Not cheap and flimsy.
    2) All the sprues were stacked then sealed in a plastic bag. I liked that touch as nothing is flying around.
    3) holy crap that detail. I may have to buy a new sprue cutter because I feel dirty if I touch these models with my tainted pair (used to cut GW)
    4) The instructions for the stormtroopers is kind of difficult to understand at first.” (Note: The revised instruction insert did not make it in time for the Kickstarter orders)

     “Braved the snows of Eastern PA to pick up my package of plastic goodness this morning, and I had high hopes for thing, almost too high. But there were the kits, nestled under a crumpled copy of the Deseret News, and all I can say is my hopes were not too high, and Judgedoug  (the first feedback posted) was not overselling things at all.

    I literally said "wow" when I opened up my accessory kit: the number of bits is staggering, I mean, I knew on some level the number of items, but to actually see them, as opposed to just numbers, almost incredible! The detail on the models is better than I have ever seen on plastic models, better then I even thought possible.”

     “Mark, just want to give you and WGF kudos for these models and how excellent they fit together! Damn nice miniatures indeed - can't wait to get my Morty.”

     “This afternoon, I received my Leviathan Crusader model kit with Kickstarter bonuses. Very high quality kit with very crisp moldings and sharp detail - easily superior to GW's Gargant. I'm very impressed with DFG's design and WGF's execution & production.”

    "I just got my Eisenkern Troopers in today, and I must say; WOW!! These are some of the best molded figures Ive seen in a long, long, time! Clean, crisp detail, flawless join edges, absolutely no warping at all! Just terrific! I had some concern about mold quality, since my Greatcoat Troopers from Wargames Factory were quite disappointing, but these are just stellar! I should have pledged for more sets!!!"

    All very high praise; I am more than aware that these are the first glance reviews and that there is a certain amount of excitement in holding something new. I will take the compliment and say thank you again to all the backers who made these kits a reality.
    All the best!
    Mark Mondragon

    Note on assembly:
    Please don't use any kind of Superglue... You will simply frustrate yourself on a multi part mini and end up with an inferior build. It does not bond well and it dries too fast to allow you to tweak the pose.

    Use Testors model cement, the stuff in the orange tube. Trust me.... You will thank me for it.


    Tuesday, 5 February 2013

    Video Game Assessment: Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (2013)

    Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an interesting game. While game reviewers and critics alike have mostly been giving it a pass as a wonderful and beautiful game in the style of classic and hardcore JRPGs, I'm going to have to disagree. Just slightly. Ever so slightly. This game is beautiful, gorgeous, and any other synonym that you can think of in that vein. It has wonderful gameplay, a great story, and great characters... but, look, I'm NOT a fan of JRPGs. I really don't like them very much. Sure, I can see the influence on this game from older JRPGs and newer ones, I suppose, but calling it only a game for hardcore JRPG-lovers is belittling this game so much. Honestly, any reviewer that says that this game is only good for those who love or are nostalgic for JRPGs should be ashamed of themselves and give up their reviewer status.

    I can't even believe that people would overlook this game, this wonderful, unique, and beautiful game because critics and reviewers go and say stupid and inane crap that is LITERALLY UNTRUE like this game is only built for hardcore JRPG fans or that this game is a GRINDFEST or that it relies too much on the POWER OF FRIENDSHIP TROPES.

    You know what? I'm going to go off script a little here and say something I don't usually say in my reviews: Screw you, you pieces of garbage, for going and belittling one of the best new IP games to come out in a good few years. Screw you for calling this a game only for hardcore JRPG gamers. While, yes, those JRPG game players would probably enjoy this game very much, this is a game for basically anybody. Any person who likes any genre can pick this game up and enjoy it. Oh, you like games because of story? Well, this is the game for you. Oh, you like games for tight gameplay? This is the game for you. Oh, you just want something intelligent to pass the time? Play this game. Seriously, if you have the ability to play this game and you pass it up because some piece of crap game reviewer went and said it isn't the game for you, then shame on you for listening to those idiots, shame on them for saying it in the first place, and shame on you AGAIN for not giving this game the chance it deserves.

    It is a rare game that will give out FREE DLC, and an even rarer one that OFFERS to give out free DLC without people complaining. The people involved in this game, and the decision of offering the free DLC should be commended to the fullest. So, thank your lucky stars for Studio Ghibli, Level-5, and Namco Bandai for actually having the gonads to stand up to current gaming market politics and greed and do something that actual makes the cynical gamer within me smile. I don't care if the DLC is basically nothing or if it's just a simple thing. It is the thought that counts in the case. You don't see Electronic Arts offering that kind of free DLC without being prodded to do so by an angry public, nor do you see Activision, Square Enix, or any of the other big publishers even thinking about it. So, yes, this needs to be mentioned, and all of those involved with making this wonderful game should be thanked for being able to take the risk. Thank you, all of you, for doing this, and for making this game in the first place. I really hope that this game both sells well and does well. It deserves it, and it is also one of the few games that I truly do think deserves that honor. If more games like this existed the world, and the gaming community as a whole, would be a better place. I have no idea how games could be blamed for violence when this is one of the games that people are looking at.

    I know a lot of my comments up there were probably unnecessary in reviewing this game, but I needed to air out my opinions. I get that there are a lot of people who will probably dislike this game because it is a JRPG in their minds, but seriously, if a person is going to be that close-minded, then just stop. Stop playing games. Stop reading this review. Just stop, because you are not making anything better with that kind of attitude. I had that kind of attitude once, and it shut me off from a great deal of things I could have enjoyed, and did enjoy much later. So, seriously, stop with the annoyed stubborn hatred, and just play a wonderful game. You'll thank me if you read this and listen to me... which I doubt many people will, but I guess I'll never know until I post this, huh?

    So, anyway, let's get started. Ni no Kuni is, simply stated, an amazing and wonderful game from start to finish. The plot is nearly pitch-perfect. If you've ever watched a Studio Ghibli anime you already know what to expect. It definitely takes pages out of the books of almost all of their different anime, but reminded me the most of Spirited Away. The stories, although both are very different, seem to hit similar notes, even if this game is about thirty times longer than that anime. Ni no Kuni finds a perfect tone throughout the story, evoking both laughter and tears as the plot progresses. It might not seem like much, but the cute world that Ni no Kuni resides in makes those tragic moments even harder to bear. And the funny thing is how those tragic moments can turn into sweet moments so easily... and how one second you can be wondering how such a cute game can make you cry, then the next moment you can be laughing at a clever pun that the game makes. There is a mood dissonance there, but it works, and it works so well that it is amazing to behold.

    There is also something else I have to compare this game to. Have you ever heard of The Talisman (and Black House) by Stephen King and Peter Straub? The Talisman is VERY similar to Ni no Kuni, especially at the beginning of both stories. They both share similar elements with each other, like the idea of shared souls between two worlds and a story about a boy trying desperately to save his mother. Honestly, the stories were so close that I have to wonder if The Talisman has any influence at all on Ni no Kuni. Probably not, but still, the similarities at the beginning of both stories are difficult to ignore.

    The biggest complaints I've seen are about the JRPG aspects of the game and the level grinding, both of which I'll talk about here. First, while this game is a JRPG and shares similarities to early Final Fantasy games and other early JRPG games, it is also fairly different from them. I have played a fair few JRPGs, and if you don't include some of the early Pokemon games as JRPGs, I have never actually finished a single one of them. My favorite TRUE JRPG had been Final Fantasy IX, a game that shares many similarities with Ni no Kuni. There are some pretty deep similarities, for instance how the map is traveled (although this is probably pretty standard for games of this type). The characters are also pretty similar and hit similar points, and the world is not too far off between the two games. But there are discrepancies. While Final  Fantasy IX is a wonderful game with stellar characters, it does have some pretty cruddy plot moments. Even some of the characters are not amazing, with certain party characters being much less there than others. Freya springs to mind in this case. Or Amarant for most of the game. Or Quina. What the hell did Quina ever even do? I know they all have their moments, and I am by no means dissing this aspect of Final Fantasy IX, rather I am elevating Ni no Kuni past that. There are NO BAD CHARACTERS in Ni no Kuni. None of the main characters are badly done, with each having their moments, and each having a reason to continue on. None of the antagonists are one-dimensional cackling evil-dudes either. Each has a story, a character, and a reason. And that's a huge reason why I find this game so alluring. There is depth here that is lacking from many JRPGs (in my opinion), and for that reason alone it should not simply be thrown into the bargain bin JRPG label.

    I also have to say that the two main antagonists of the game: the White Witch of the title and Shadar, the Dark Djinn, are both brilliant characters with a lot to offer. Their stories as well as the stories that surround them are some of the high points of the game for me.

    The second complaint is level-grinding and I'm simply going to say one word: "Toko." Seek out the Toko genus of enemy familiars. If you do that (and it's not that hard to find them) you can level up incredibly quickly. In about fifteen minutes of "grinding" I leveled up about fifteen levels. And just a bit more "grinding" brought me all the way to far beyond a level I could easy dominate the rest of the game. Look, I usually hate grinding. I hate it in Pokemon, and hated it in Final Fantasy IX. I hated it so much in that game that I'm literally stuck right before the final boss because I refuse to go and grind twenty levels so I can be ready to fight. It shouldn't have to be like that. A game should never be designed to where if I want to progress in the plot I have to grind for hours to get to that "level." Ni no Kuni bypasses this, offering an easy way to level your character and familiars up without the need of heavy grinding. It is simple, quick, and without any real downsides. Usually you have to fight the enemies anyway, specifically if you want to catch them (like Pokemon, and since Familiars are basically Pokemon anyway the comparison stands), so what's so bad about looking around for a fairly easy to find enemy to level up quickly? It seems that anybody who mentions what a "grind" this game is never mentions how easy it actually is to level up. Maybe they never found the little enemies that level you up quickly. I found one simply by exploring the world. The first time it ran out of battle I was intrigued, then started pursuing them until I finally gained its mighty experience. It was as easy as that. And the experience surprised and thrilled me enough that it convinced me this was the easiest way of leveling up. AND IT WAS. How a reviewer can review a game without exploring the world and finding as much as possible is beyond me. I will never understand it. I love that most of them gave this game wonderful scores, but I HATE HATE HATE how many of the reviews I read through also seemed to have to mention grinding and JRPGs, both of which belittle this game to no end and turn off customers who might have bought this if not for those labels.

    Look, reviewers who probably will never read this blog or this review, let's get something straight. Your JOB is not to go and review a game as quickly as possible, hitting the plot notes but forgetting the game. Your JOB is to give a thorough and well done review, a review for people who MAY be interested in the game, a review for those who ARE interested in the game, and a review for people who HAVE NO IDEA what the game even is. But you can't cut corners. Yes, there are time limits, but a good reviewer learns everything about a game, learns that there are ways to level up quickly, learns to not just label a game as a JRPG without realizing what an implication that is to game players like myself who largely dislike that genre of game. See, I took a chance with this game, despite the reviews I read. I was turned off by those reviews. I was willing to wait, willing to not pick this game up because it didn't seem like something I would enjoy. Then I thought something to myself. My thought was as follows: "I took a chance on watching Spirited Away back in the time period where I absolutely hated everything to do with anime. I took a chance to watch it because the story sounded interesting, and I was interested in trying something new. I wasn't expecting to like it. Hell, people were basically telling me I wouldn't like it because I don't enjoy anime. But you know what? It blew me away, becoming one of my favorite movies of all time. It was brilliant and beautiful, and I was almost so close-minded that I could have missed out on something that literally changed my life. I took a chance on Studio Ghibli, and they didn't let me down. They've never let me down, from Castle in the Sky to Ponyo I have fallen in love with every movie I've seen by them. Each has left a mark on me that I cannot remove. They've proven to me time and again that they can make quality, and I have to have faith that this game will be the same."

    I bought the game, not because of any reviews, not because of anything I had heard about the game. Yes, I had been interested in it for a while, but there was never a guarantee I would buy it, certainly not at a $60 price tag. But Studio Ghibli had proven to me how amazing they were. And I bought it because of that. And it was one of the best games I've ever played. It gave me everything I could have wanted: wonderful characters like Mr. Drippy, a Welsh Lord High Lord of the Fairies, and Oliver, the main character with an absolute heart of gold who never deserved the rough hand he was dealt. It had a plot that was literally tragic and beautiful all at the same time, with the antagonists being so much more than I could have ever hoped for. No, I won't spoil anything, but I never expected such brilliant and beautiful stories from faceless antagonists... but then again I should have remembered No-Face and what he meant in Spirited Away. And then there's the gorgeous world, a world that looks more beautiful than almost any other game I have ever seen or played. It's rivaled only by the best of the best in Skyrim, Mass Effect, Half-Life, and Silent Hill. Other than those series (or games) nothing else comes close to the beauty and wonder of the visual of Ni no Kuni. The sound is also fantastic, with music by Joe Hisaishi, a long-time collaborator with Studio Ghibli. He has made such memorable and beautiful music for this game. I have to give special mention for the music while riding the dragon, the main theme, and some of the background music when certain late plot points are happening. They are integrated beautifully into the game, and  they work to make it have one of the best all around soundtracks in a game since Nier.

    And you want to know something? This game compares favorably to Nier. Keep in mind that Nier is one of my all-time favorite games and you might just be starting to think how much I truly fell in love with Ni no Kuni. I'm glad it has gotten a lot of love so far. I only wish the reviewers hadn't stuck it in a genre without any thought or foresight. I also wish they wouldn't say such terrible things about a leveling system that works quite well and never needs to be "grind-heavy."

    I want to say so much more. I want to spoil the game wide open and scream to the world why I think this is one of the best games ever made. I want to say how it improves upon the Pokemon formula (for it indeed does essentially have the gameplay of a 3D Pokemon game, although that is also simplifying things quite a bit). I want to say how much I love all of the characters, all of the plot, all of the everything about this game. I want to say how one twist in the game legitimately brought me to tears, me a manly bearded man, tearing up at a game that could easily be played by any given child. I can't even remember the last game I truly was brought to tears by. Maybe it's never even happened before. I have no idea. I can't remember. But this game did it. The happy moments made those tragic ones all the more biting. And those tragic moments made the happy and carefree ones all the more poignant. It's a world I could live in for the rest of my days, playing and playing until I lose myself in that other world forever. But sadly, while Oliver's adventures with Esther, Swaine, Mr. Drippy, and the rest continue in the story that I feel has no real end, my days of playing it are over for now. I only wish I had the time to relive the experience all over again... but the real world calls, and I have to be off.

    My final words about Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch are that it should be played by everyone. It deserves that much. It's very sad that this game is only available to PS3 owners, but I also have to hope that EVERY PS3 owner will go and buy this game, and maybe the game will even convince people who don't have the system to go buy it for this game. It's worth it, let me tell you. This is a game that (while worth $60) has no real monetary value when it comes to what it's TRULY worth. It's priceless in its storytelling and characters. And it is priceless in what it now means to me. Do yourself a favor and either go play this game right now or go watch a Let's Play of it at the very least. It deserves to be known if only because it is that good.