Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Room

Do you know what? Sometimes this procession of roguelikes can get a bit wearing, even for me. Sometimes it can seem that every man and his dog are making a 'procedurally generated dungeon-crawler with a twist' and so recently I have been making a conscious effort to find something new to keep me occupied. This hasn't always been successful (badger-simulator Shelter springs to mind) but when you try new things then sometimes you strike gold, and when you find something like this then all of that endless panhandling suddenly seems worthwhile.

The Room is a beautiful puzzle game in which players are tasked with gaining access to a series of ornate safes and complicated puzzle boxes. There is some kind of story to explain why you are doing this, which involves investigating a friend’s disappearance, but this doesn’t really distract from the main activity of poring over beautifully constructed objects in order to find clues on how to get into the damn things. Your friend leaves you a few notes dotted around the place to guide you, and your first task is to reconstruct an amazing eyepiece which will help you to follow his progress, but in the main you are given a device to examine and then left to get on with it.

The boxes themselves are lovely to look at; all brass plates and clockwork gears they seem like they could jump right out of the screen and into your hand. There is a real sense of being given something physical to manipulate and unlock, which is quite an achievement for a game that you play on your phone or tablet, and this is reinforced even further by the excellent touch controls. You can rotate the view through 360° and pull handles or turn dials simply by making the appropriate movements. Puzzles are tricky, without ever feeling unfair, and are satisfying to solve (even getting a couple of 'ahs' from me when something particularly nice happened). The game will also give you hints if you can't see how to progress and these point you in the right direction without laying the solution on a plate. The difficulty level is extremely well-judged and, even though the whole thing is over in a few hours, I found that I needed to take regular breaks in order to refresh my concentration.

The Room is wonderful to look at, challenging without being impossible and genuinely spooky in parts (yes Mr Scratched-out-face Victorian man I'm looking at you). What's more you can get this well-designed little piece of loveliness for just £1.49. If you don't already own it then I would rush out to your local platform-specific internet store and get it now. It's wonderful.

The Room is available on iOS or Android.  I played it on a Nexus 7.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Darkest Dungeon - Shit gets real.

"Darkest Dungeon focuses on the humanity and psychological vulnerability of the heroes and asks: What emotional toll does a life of adventure take?"

As we all know, dungeons are nasty places.  They're smelly, dirty, pestilence-filled shitholes infested with traps and slobbering monsters; full of horror and danger and fear.  So why do most games portray them as consequence-free playgrounds for their cast of shiny heroes to beat up and destroy?  And, more to the point, why does all this death, destruction and unadulterated terror have absolutely no long term effect on anybody involved?  Dark Souls is the only game that springs to mind where the actual environments themselves are thoroughly unpleasant and where all the characters show clear signs of impending insanity but, in general, heroes prance in, slaughter whole communities of monsters and then retire to some tavern somewhere to swap stories and carry on like nothing has happened.

Well.  It appears that this is about to change.

Darkest Dungeon is an upcoming game from Red Hook studios and it promises to make its heroes fallible human beings; subject to all the same anxieties and neuroses as the rest of us but just a bit more willing to leave the house. This is a world where your brave warrior has turned to drink, your priest bolts at the first sign of skeletons and the bard is still sat in the tavern muttering to himself and rocking back and forth.  Events will affect your characters, they'll develop paranoias and phobias and end up not being able to work with other party members or, conversely, they could get more determined, more fanatical and more confident.  Your job is to work out how best to cope with the bad stuff and magnify the good, which adds another dimension to the usual process of allocating points to skills and ruthlessly killing endless hordes of monsters.

It also makes you wonder why this hasn't been done before.  Call of Cthulhu does it, but even that took the easy way out when trying to translate insanity into a videogame.  The aforementioned Dark Souls does it to the player, rather than the character, and there was also the rather excellent Eternal Darkness, but really the mental effects of a character's experiences are very rarely tackled.

It's still extremely early stages as the game was only announced a few days ago but signs are good.  I like the art style, especially the plague mask on the doctor, and it looks like it could be a gritty take on a rather tired genre, if done right.  Red Hook are planning on a release in Autumn next year but will almost definitely have a Kickstarter before then.  You can find the website here and sign up to the mailing list to get updates on their progress, or you can follow them on twitter @darkestdungeon

Be careful out there.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Back to the future with Chainsaw Warrior

Chainsaw warrior was originally released as a board game in 1987 by Games Workshop. The rules were pretty simple, players had 60 minutes to fight their way through a New York building in order to defeat uber-villain Darkness, but this was a very difficult task to achieve and if the Meat Machine didn't get you then the endless traps would. I played this game a lot as a 14 year old and now, 26 years later, you can die repeatedly whilst travelling to work or sitting on the toilet as Auroch Digital have brought all of the frustration of the original to your phone or tablet. Isn't technology wonderful?

The player starts by rolling some dice in order to create their very own version of our plucky, taciturn hero. Attributes are pretty basic and cover things like overall health, the amount of radiation or venom you can withstand and your skill with guns or stabby things. They are set by rolling dice (on the computer, not actual dice, this is 2013) and the number used depends on the difficulty level that you have chosen. I was actually thinking about picking easy or medium as I remember this game being particularly tricky to complete but it says that hard is the same as the original game, so that really only left me with one option. You can play on easy if you like, nobody's judging.

It is at this point that you also determine how much equipment you can take with you and get to choose the categories that it comes from. This bit is a little like Countdown "I'll have one hand to hand weapon, a heavy weapon and two from the clothing pile please Rachel." In fact the whole equipment thing is a bit weird. You are humanity's last hope, the fate of the world rests upon your broad, broad shoulders and if you're unlucky you can be sent to almost certain death with a small knife, some wire cutters and a pair of glasses. You'd think that the shadowy general who guilt trips you into this whole mess would at least give you the bloody chainsaw that you're named after but no, apparently that’s not part of the deal.

Anyway you are soon equipped with your pitiful collection and sent off into a huge building containing the living embodiment of pure evil. I imagine everybody else gives you a hearty slap on the back and wishes you well, but nobody comes with you, which might have helped to be honest. The way the game works is that you have 108 cards split into 2 decks. Darkness, the baddie, is always in the 2nd deck and so you have to get through to that in order to fight him. Cards contain various things; zombies and other monsters to fight, traps to avoid and the very rare supply drop (which makes you to fall to your knees and thank the Lord above for His great mercy). Combat is commonplace and uses dice rolls to determine who wins and enemies range from the ever-present zombies to the fearsome and pretty gruesome Meat Machine. Your equipment helps you to overcome obstacles and kill monsters but you will never be able to get past everything and you are sometimes even forced to backtrack out of the building in order to find another way forward, which is particularly galling.

And I'm not casting aspersions here, but you should probably prepare yourself for frequent failure as there are lots of ways to die in Chainsaw Warrior. For a start there's a time limit because, obviously, Ultimate Evil runs on a schedule. You have 60 minutes to save the world and each turn of a card uses up 30 seconds. This means that it will take at least 27 minutes to get through the first deck even if everything goes great (it won't) and once the 60 minutes are up then the world is destroyed.  Of course there are also more traditional ways to die - too much chomping from zombies, too much venom from zombies and too much radiation from everything else - and then, of course,there are the traps. Some just delay you, some hurt you and some hurt you, delay you and then destroy your precious equipment. Being a Chainsaw Warrior is no life.

It's got to be said that Auroch digital have done a great job of transferring this old board game to modern equipment. The cards are exactly the same as they were back in the day, with 80s gems like the Laser Lance all still there and effects have also been added for when you are infected with venom or use items like the flash bombs. The interface can be a little bit clunky sometimes, especially when you are asked to choose the same weapon over and over again for every round of combat but I'm not sure how else this could have been done. The game itself works in exactly the same way as it always did and, as far as I can see, this hasn't been changed at all. I'm not sure whether that is a testament to the original or to Auroch digital but whatever, more power to them.
This game is harsh and hugely random, with the initial rolls essentially determining whether you have any chance of success. You might be able to get by if you have one decent attribute, but if you roll low for everything then you have no chance at all. The temptation to bin a rubbish character and try again is always there but high scores are still no guarantee of victory and it only takes a few traps to ruin even the best character's play through. However, I should probably say now that I did manage to destroy Darkness with a suicide vest on my 2nd go (which technically counts as a draw) but that's obviously down to my l33t gamer skillz (and a large dose of luck). So be prepared for repeated frustration, victory does not come easy.  In fact it could be argued that Chainsaw Warrior is an early example of that now trendy genre, the roguelike. It has perma-death, it's very explicitly turn-based and the cards create a new random building every game. Just goes to show that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Chainsaw Warrior is a great recreation of a cult classic. It works really well on mobile devices, is perfectly suited to being played in short bursts and offers a range of difficulty levels for the easily discouraged. What's more it only costs £2.99 and there are no in-app purchases of any kind, which is good for my blood pressure. You should remember that I did play this a lot in my room as a 14 year old (probably whilst listening to Janet Jackson) so my views are always going to be tinged with a certain amount of nostalgia, but I would heartily recommend this to anybody who fancies something a bit different. It may be very difficult and very random but it is also a highly polished version of a great game and, most of all, it's fun.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Dungeon Hunter 4 and the Death of Innocence

When I was a young child my dad brought home a games console. This was before the days of the Atari 2600 and, to be honest he'd probably picked it up at a market, knowing him, but it played different varieties of pong and I loved it. My brother and I would spend hours laid out in front of our black and white telly, with rhythmic beeping and shouts of triumph providing a backdrop to many a Saturday afternoon. 

Fast forward 30+ years and, yes, I may have kids of my own and more responsibilities than I ever thought possible but I still play games whenever I can. I've championed them to my friends, defended them against their detractors and encouraged others to play them.  Games are joyous things in my opinion.  So much more involving than TV or film; they encourage participation, lay down challenges for their players to overcome
 and the best ones draw you in and make you a part of their story in a way that no other medium can achieve. 

And this, really, is why I get so supremely pissed off with things like Dungeon Hunter 4.

Dungeon Hunter 4 is an example of a genre which seems to occur in mobile gaming most of all - free to play. I have no idea why this is the case (although examples do appear on PC at times) but if I had to guess I would say that this payment model is seen as the perfect fit for an audience which tends to play in short bursts over extended periods, whilst travelling or during breaks at work. Free to play, as the name implies, means that you can play the game for free, usually with optional upgrades or equipment available to buy from an in-game shop for real life cash. This means that you can try it and then invest money in it later if you like - that's your choice. Sounds good, doesn't it?

The game itself is a top down action RPG. It reminds me a bit of Gauntlet, if you remember that. There are 4 classes - heavy warrior, light bouncy martial artist “son of the east” type warrior, a mage warrior and an archer... warrior. You are some kind of chosen one, obviously, and it's your job to fight the demons and save the world and all that usual stuff. You do this by travelling about killing things and getting gold and occasionally going to towns and having conversations with a series of stock fantasy game type characters. You can buy new equipment from local shopkeepers, as well as from a kind of over-arching ever-present cosmic uber shop which we'll talk about later; and you can craft new items or improve the ones you have by embedding charms in them. Similarly you can improve your character by gaining experience, levelling up and allocating points to skills in pretty standard RPG fashion.

And this, really, is my first problem with this game. It's like the designers had a checklist. "Crafting? Yeah, yeah, we got the crafting. Gems? Yeah man, gems are there. OK then, basic RPG mechanics? Don't insult me man! Who the hell doesn't have basic RPG mechanics these days? Sheesh! Basic RPG mechanics! What do you think I am, some kind of idiot?” To be honest my attitude to this may be coloured by my feelings about other parts of the game but it comes across as fantasy by numbers, as if they could just change a few variables and it would be set in the future, or any other milieu.

There are also some basic control issues. I played as a Sentinel (which is the archer warrior type) and my arrows would often fly out in exactly the opposite direction to what I intended. The game gives you two virtual thumbsticks with which to control your character and the movement works fine but attacking didn't for me - especially when things got a bit frantic.

However, my main problem with Dungeon Hunter 4 is the free to pay model that it uses. There are 2 types of currency in the game - gold and gems. You get gold in the usual way, by killing monsters and looting chests but gems must be bought with actual real money, or earned by completing challenges or advertising the game on social media.

Now I fully understand that people want to be paid for their work and I have absolutely no problem with that, but I find the free to pay (or freemium) thing problematic in lots of ways. I mean, it may be there as a response to piracy (in which case maybe think about this horror of a game the next time you look at your favourite torrent site), but it's quite obvious that lots of horrible people have done lots of horrible research and decided that this is the best way to market their horrible game. They wouldn't do it otherwise. People have said that gamers who object to freemium are being snobby, that 'casual gamers' (which is a pretty depressing term) are seen as mindless sheep being led to the next credit card transaction while the hardcore remain gloriously aloof. My mum plays Candy Crush and all I will say is that you have obviously never met her if you think that this model rings true. Anyway, it's not about 'casual' and 'hardcore', it's about a game being built entirely around advertising, it's about a game being bare-facedly after your cash, it's about the end of that glorious childhood obsession with fun and the sad realisation that this is what's left.

Here's an example. When you start up Dungeon Hunter 4 you see an advert for an item to buy which will 'make your life easier'. Skip past that and choose 'continue' from the map and you see a loading screen, with another advert for another item. When that has finished loading the game tells you to 'touch the screen to continue' and THE ADVERT STARTS TO FLASH. As if that is the icon you need to press. Hours and hours of playing games, all of your conditioning, tells you that you need to press the flashing icon but you don't, it's just an advert. In fact you need to press anywhere else and this continues throughout. Every time you see a loading screen there's an advert. Every time you try to buy anything there are massively powerful items there on sale in exchange for real money and you can access the shop at any time, it has its own button. It's like trying to play Monopoly while a weird dog who has been fully trained in "closing out opportunities" and "maintaining his pipeline" is dry humping your leg. It even tells you you're missing out if you don't take it up on its fabulous offers. It's your loss! Buy this shit you fucking loser! Jesus Christ, I don’t play games to get told off.

I just want to be your friend.  And sell you stuff.
And it's not just the advertising. This need to get money from you even permeates the game's structure itself. This ranges from the incidental (taking charms out of equipment or merging them takes time and this can be skipped by paying some cash) through the important (healing potions replenish over time but can also, of course, be bought) to the absolutely fundamental (how can you, as a developer, optimise the difficulty of your game when half of your players will be using normal equipment and the other half will have spent money in order to get the best stuff?). A game shouldn't be designed like this, the way it actually works shouldn't be aimed specifically at parting the player from their cash and this is why freemium is so annoying. Games like this are not real. They're just a framework on which to hang a generic, formulaic skin with the sole target of making as much money as possible. Fun isn't the most important thing anymore; achievement, story, emotional engagement... all of these things aren't the prime focus of creating this game, this is all about taking your money from you as efficiently as possible.

And I find this so depressing. When my dad brought home that console this is not how I wanted things to turn out. I wanted endless Saturday afternoons laid in front of the telly, stretching away to infinity. Instead I've got this abomination masquerading as a game, thrusting its unmentionables at my leg whilst imploring me to take it up on its amazing deals. This isn’t gaming, this isn’t even a game – this is purely a marketing opportunity, a sales pitch, a soulless imitation of the real thing. And that is something pretty sad.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Knights of Pen and Paper +1

 Knights of Pen and Paper + 1 is a game about a game.  A traditional pen and paper role playing game more specifically, with a dungeon master (or games master or whatever you want to call him) and 5 players exploring a fantasy world.  You control the players (and to some extent the DM) and move through a story full of in-jokes and knowing references, doing battle with lots of monsters and completing lots of quests.  It has a very set format but is also quite innovative in its structure - but is this enough to keep your interest to the end?

In KOPAP you choose your characters from 6 initial classes and these are all pretty standard fare.  There's a warrior, a druid, a cleric, a rogue, a mage and a paladin.  Nothing too remarkable.  However, each character also has an associated player, and these choices are a bit more unusual.  You can pick a rocker, a local school teacher or your little brother; your dad, your sister or even a wolfman and the neighbourhood alien.  All of these players come with different bonuses, and combining them with the various classes vastly increases the number of options available to you.  I guess that they fulfil the same role as races in a more traditional RPG.  You start by being able to only add a couple of characters, but this increases to 5 as you get more gold, and you can also unlock more classes during your adventures.  Unfortunately your party will probably already be full when you do this, but you can swap your characters at a tavern if you want to.

 Each character has 4 skills which they can use during combat, and these usually consist of a passive skill (so the rogue can poison his dagger to increase damage, for example) and 3 that can be used in a fight, and their weapons and armour can be upgraded along a linear path by a blacksmith found in towns and villages.  This adds various bonuses as it is improved such as increasing the health of a character or the amount of hit points they regenerate in a turn.  Your options are quite limited as there is only one possible upgrade, but each character can also equip up to 4 other items such as rings or clothing - which gives you a few more possibilities.

So, once you've created your party you are ready to begin the game.  You can see the room in which you are playing, but also the world that the DM is describing and different monsters will appear in different settings as you proceed.  And you can also use the gold you earn in the game (or buy with real cash) to get things like furniture for the “real world” room or pets, snacks and drinks which all confer different bonuses to your characters in the actual game.  This is kind of central to the whole thing, you are playing 5 people playing a game, so there are 2 levels of reality which can both be influenced by you.  It's all a bit “meta” and this is referenced throughout - with the lines between the different worlds often being blurred or crossed by the story.

The world of pen and paper itself is made up of a series of locations, each containing a number of quests for the party to complete.  Travelling between locations costs gold and takes time and also opens the party up to that eternal favourite of old school RPGs - the random encounter.  Every time the party moves the game rolls a dice and, if the result is too low, then monsters appear and attack.  Combat is pretty simple - initiative is assigned and then characters and monsters take turns to attack, heal or use their different abilities.  You can pick which enemy to target, but there's no positioning or other tactics.  There's not even a chance to miss - every attack and spell hits - so it's very much a numbers game.

And, in fact, combat is one of the game's main problems, which is unfortunate as it is also one of its main activities.  It's just too simple.  I found that I was using the same abilities over and over again as it didn't make sense to do it any other way, and this made fights very boring very quickly.  I mean, yes, occasionally I might have to heal somebody and I found some stuff useful that I initially disregarded but, 9 times out of 10, I would work my way through my opponents one at a time until they were all gone.  It became a process, almost work and certainly a grind, which wasn't helped by how similar all the enemies were.  They might look different, they might even have different resistances to various attacks, but the process of actually defeating them was pretty much always exactly the same.  Oh and, while we're here, you can kill a phoenix with fire in this game.  Uhuh, a magical bird made entirely out of fire, who makes its nest in an effing volcano can be hurt by fire.  Go figure.

So, combat is annoying, and this is made worse by how often the game forces you to fight.  I'm going to give it the benefit of the doubt and say that the quests are an ironic nod to the inanity of traditional RPGs but there's a lot of fetching, escorting and killing x number of monsters.  And, quite apart from this, every time you travel whilst escorting or protecting you fight an encounter at each stage of the journey.  Every. Time.  And any fight cancels your selected quest, so you have to re-select your destination from the map (until it is cancelled again on the next move).  AND it does this even if you're massively overpowered for that area.  So you can be taking somebody back to their village or whatever and be constantly confronted by packs of 2 giant rats which you kill by breathing heavily on them.  It's ridiculous and annoying and unnecessary.

However, this is not to say that the game is devoid of challenge, some of the dungeons in particular can be quite tricky until you (sob) grind for a bit to increase your level, but that the challenge is so uneven that it makes the Himalayas look like the Norfolk Broads.  Well, I say "challenge".  What I mean is "loads more hit points and a bit more damage" because this is the other really standard trap that this game falls into.  To be fair to the developers combat is so simple that I'm not sure what other options are available to them but the amount of damage that monsters can absorb increases exponentially throughout.  This is not an uncommon problem, it is even a bit understandable within the restrictions of this game but it makes an already tedious encounter system almost unbearable.

KOPAP manages to combine bad things from old style games (like random encounters) with bad things from the new (like an aggro system and rogues who have had all of their subtlety removed and are there purely as a damage outputter).  It limits your  characters to 4 set abilities and their armour and weapon choices to a purely linear upgrade path.  It sets you inane tasks and makes you jump through needless hoops to complete them and it made me question, seriously, what I was doing with my life as I sat there tapping a touchscreen repeatedly in order to kill a monster; knowing that I was going to have to do exactly the same thing again as soon as this one was dead.  There's not even any decent loot.

So why did I finish it?  I'm a grown man, I'm able to make my own decisions.. what happened?  To be honest I don't know.  The graphics are quite nice if, you know, you're not totally sick of that whole "retro 8 bit" thing by now.  It doesn't take itself very seriously, which is good.  The story is OK and there are lots of references to things which are important to geeks - they’re not especially funny but it's something I suppose.  I think that maybe it just appeals to the lizard part of your brain that appreciates repetitive tasks, or maybe I just wanted to see what happened at the end.  Whatever, I did finish it, but that isn't something I'm especially proud of.  It’s not a total disaster, and it has a certain charm, but it’s a pretty sad indictment that I just want to get this review done so I never have to think about it again. 

Knights of Pen & Paper is definitely available on PC and Android.  Probably on iOS too, but I can’t be bothered to check.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land

I got very excited when I heard about Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, which is a game set firmly in the world of  HP Lovecraft - an American writer from the 1920s and 30s who wrote short stories about Old Gods, unspeakable horrors and lands beyond dreams.  He was obsessed with madness, with things living in the shadows of our perception which hate humanity with an intensity that is inconceivable to our mortal minds; powerful, ancient, horrific things determined to destroy our world and everything in it.  You can see why I was excited.

The game itself is a turn-based strategy game; much like Xcom (or, indeed, X-Com), Fire Emblem or Advance Wars.  Each side take turns moving all of their "pieces", and action points determine how much each character can do during those turns.  Moving, attacking or using items all costs a specified number of points and once your characters have used all of these up then it's time for the other side to have a go.  There are no time limits on how long you can take to plan out your moves, you can think for as long as you like, and so this kind of game is well suited to playing on the go.

You control a team of up to 6 characters, some of whom have to survive each mission whilst others are a bit more expendable, and they all have varied skills and attributes.  There are different weapon skills which determine how effective you are with the different weapon types (handguns, shotguns, rifles, machine guns and stabby things), there are skills which govern healing or being able to put a gas mask on properly and there's even a "psychotherapy" skill - because first world war trenches are apparently an ideal place for a bit of person-centred counselling.

In addition to this characters can also use different equipment such as weapons, armour or the ubiquitous first aid boxes.  All of these can also be upgraded later in the game, although there is only one stronger variant for each type of weapon which is a little bit disappointing.  On the other hand there are four different types of armour, various spells and the Sapper can even call in artillery – so there’s a fair amount of options available to you. 

The Wasted Land is split into 11 different tactical missions, with some basic exposition in between, and pits the player against an evil German cult determined to bring the Old Gods back to Earth so that they can destroy humanity and enable a new world to rise from the ashes (Mwuahaha!).  Not the greatest or wisest plan I've ever heard but you know, cultists gonna cult.  Your team, on the other hand, are a nice mix of down to earth Tommies "Crikey! That chap's already dead!" and more mysterious blighters like the extravagantly turbaned Professor Brightmeer.  The action is set across the trenches, no man's land and destroyed churches of First World War France but with Lovecraftian elements added in.  So your characters can cast spells, encounter nasty slobbering monsters or be driven stark raving mad by the horrors they experience.  Lovecraft was an amazingly creative writer and the story and setting is one of the best things about this game.  It uses this very well and it fits perfectly with the gritty realities of trench warfare.  If I wanted to be pretentious I could talk about how the lines of reality are already blurred when man can be so brutal to his fellow man - but it certainly allows for the supernatural to gradually take over the story in a way that might seem jarring elsewhere.  The difficulty level is reasonable, I didn't have many problems in completing it apart from one particular issue which I'll talk about later and money isn't plentiful to the point of being meaningless but still allows you to buy upgrades for your stuff.

It's a strong fashion statement

However it's not all ballgowns, tiaras and the reawakening of primordial forces who should have been left to their eternal slumber.  The game did, admittedly, stand up to some of my basic "is this a rubbish game?" tests (you can't call in artillery underground) but it also suffers from a number of actually quite important problems. To start with, let's look at the whole insanity thing.  In the original pen and paper RPG "Call of Cthulhu" your character had a Sanity attribute and every time they met up with something slimy they lost points from this until, eventually, they went irredeemably insane.  However, in Wasted Land madness is sometimes a good thing and while this may be striking a blow for mental health advocacy it also comes across as pretty contrived.  Here lots of things affect sanity - casting spells, attacking monsters, monsters attacking you etc. and once this gets to 0 you are either paralysed or go into a frenzy – during which you actually get lots more action points for a few turns before you collapse.  This is explained by Prof. Brightmeer teaching you some yoga or something which at least fits in with the milieu but still means that madness is just a temporary state of mind.  And, not only this, but you can be cured at any time by somebody psychoanalysing you - even in the middle of a gas-filled trench surrounded by the shambling dead.  Sanity is treated as just another health bar and it says a lot that in a game full of evil cultists, opponents from beyond the grave and indescribable horror this was the bit which stood out as unrealistic.

The tactics side of things also feels a bit light.  To start with, there are LOADS of enemies.  On some missions I was killing upwards of 60 opponents and this means that it all becomes a bit of a grind.  Most of them have to close to clawing range before doing any damage and so it can feel like you're shooting ducks at the fairground on occasion.  They shuffle towards you, you shoot the closest one, some more appear and repeat to fade.  That's not to say that it lacks challenge, you often have to think about how to manage the situation, but the endless array of attackers that pop up only to be quickly knocked back down can be wearing.  The enemy AI is also not great, and they will often walk straight through a gas cloud - killing themselves before you even get the chance to plunge a sharpened entrenching tool into their rotten chest. 

However the biggest, and almost game-breaking, problem I had with the Wasted Land was how enemies spawn.  There seem to be a number of trigger points on the map and once you reach those points then opponents appear.  The problem is that they appear at the start of their own turn, sometimes right next to you, and will often kill your characters without you being able to do anything about it.  This directly lead to me failing a couple of missions and was an immensely frustrating part of the game.  Eventually you come to expect it, and leave all your characters on opportunity fire to try and combat it, but it's still just really shoddy game design and shouldn't happen. 

So it's strange that, even though all of these problems undoubtedly exist and even though they were definitely really annoying I still quite enjoyed playing this game.   Now this may be because I was on public transport for a lot of it and the game's cast of shambling horrors and reanimated corpses were more enticing than what was actually around me.  It may also be that its turn-based, strategy-lite approach fitted perfectly with what I wanted from a game at that time but I admit that I had no strings attached, uncomplicated fun with it and that is something you should never, ever turn your nose up at.  I mean, the game costs £2.99 or something, the Professor's magnificent turban is worth that on its own.

The Wasted Land is available on iOS, Android and PC.  I played it on a Nexus 7.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Wisdom Tooth Extraction or Better Living Through Chemistry

A bit of one of my wisdom teeth cracked off a while ago and I went to see my dentist. She said I'd have to go to hospital to have it removed, which was a bit of a shock because I was expecting her to make a crown or something. But no, she was insistent.

I was shitting it.

This went on for a couple of months. I had to have a pre-assessment. They warned me that I might lose all the feeling in my jaw, they made me sign a waiver absolving them of blame if they accidentally drilled right through into my quivering brain. They (quite diplomatically) refused my abject, repeated and teary pleas to "just be knocked the fuck out" and said that they recommended "sedation". When I asked what, exactly, this meant they said that I would be aware and awake whilst they extracted the tooth but just very relaxed about it. I doubted this.

My family were great. My wife cheerily informed me that "you're going to look a right mess after this". And my 3 1/2 year old son loudly exclaimed "you're not even going to be able to eat BREAD!".

In a panic I called the person that every manly man would call in this situation, his mum. My mum, listened, she sympathised and then, glory of glories, she agreed to bring up 120 codeine tablets. Halle-fuckin-luia.

The big day arrived. I picked out a t-shirt that I didn't mind getting covered in blood. I removed all the loose coins from my pockets and i got on to the train with my responsible adult. I was not happy, I wondered if blood in your mouth is arterial, would there be a spurt as they yanked out the offending tooth? I wondered if the doctor would look like Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors. That train journey was horrible.

Welcome to my nightmares
Anyway, we arrived at King's and went up to the Oral Surgery department. It was like a scene from the Walking Dead. We saw a man being led out by his mum. He was shambling, there is no other word for it. Dead eyes, shuffleshuffle - I waved at him but there was no response.

They called my name. I left my escort outside and went in. My doctor introduced himself. I asked lots of questions. He said the sedative would feel like being really drunk, aware but unable to do anything. He said I would lose my memory of everything, possibly even that chat. He sat me down and said he was going to start the sedatives. I could hear the Fresh Prince over the radio "I walked up to the house about 7 or 8 and i yelled to the cabbie, yo homie, smell ya later!". I thought I could see everything going hazy, I could feel myself drifting off, I felt good, maybe this was going to be alright.

Nope, he hadn't even found a vein yet.

He apologised and tried again.  I could feel him sticking a plaster on to my hand to hold the needle in and so I knew this time he had been successful.  He asked me what I did for a living.... I have a vague memory of asking him if that was it and him saying yes. I was apparently loudly proclaiming the merits of benzos to the nurse as she wheeled me out and saying I might fuck up another tooth just to do it again. I kept taking the heart monitor off and repeated everything about 30 times. I have a big hole in my gum and a big tooth in a tissue but I remember nothing else.

When I got home I went to bed and slept for four hours. Yes I might not be able to eat an apple at the moment and I can't sign a legal document until 1pm this afternoon but it was actually almost a pleasant experience.

So.. what I am trying to say to you is that having a wisdom tooth out isn't as bad as all that, and that prescription drugs are the effing bomb. I don't know if some of you out there are like I was yesterday; shaking, sweating and embarrassing yourselves in public - you don't need to be.

It'll all be fine.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Rogue Legacy

On the face of it Rogue Legacy is nothing unusual.  It uses 8 bit graphics and sound to create a Castlevania-like platformer - not exactly revolutionary.  However, where this game differs from the norm is in the way it treats the player's family after their (almost) inevitable demise.  Yeah.  I said family.  Because in Rogue Legacy you don't just control one character, you control a dynasty.  A really messed-up dynasty (of hypochondriacs), at that.
There are two quite distinct parts to the game.  The first is a randomly generated platformer set in a castle (or forest or whatever). You jump about, kill monsters, open chests and meet a good selection of grisly ends.  However, what determines your abilities in this bit is how much of the other part you have unlocked.  And this, in turn, is determined by how much gold you earn with your dungeon-crawling exploits.  Each part feeds off, whilst also sustaining, the other - they're symbiotic, if you want to be all technical about it.
It's like Zen.... man...
However, none of this fancy stuff really matters if the game itself is rubbish.  It's all very well having an appreciation of novel structure but that isn't going to make things fun on its own.  So it's lucky that the action is pretty solid.  You explore a randomly generated castle (initially, with other areas coming later), and try to get as much gold as you can before dying.  You can run (sword held aloft and probably screaming "charge!"), jump, cast a spell or use a class-specific power (like negating damage or issuing a Skyrim-inspired shout), and there are, of course, the usual selection of nasty monsters arrayed against you.  There are chests to open, which contain a fair amount of loot, challenges to complete (to get even more loot) and bosses to kill (to get... well you can probably guess).  There's a good variety of rooms and obstacles to overcome and plenty of snap decisions have to be made on just what exactly is the best way of clearing a path.  Action is often quite frenetic, with the screen sometimes resembling a bullet-hell shooter and, certainly at the start, you will not last long.  It's all extremely reminiscent of Castlevania or Ghosts and Goblins, but this is no bad thing.

Now I'm sure that some of you are thinking "Hang on.  This game has 'Rogue' in its title and the levels are randomly generated.  This is (yet another) roguelike isn't it? And, correct me if I'm wrong, but death is usually permanent in a roguelike - so what's all this nonsense about families and loot?".  Right, well I'm glad you asked because you've led me perfectly into the next bit of the game.  The clever thing about Rogue Legacy is that, when you die, your son or daughter takes over your quest.  They get all of your earnings and all of your equipment and then they charge back into the fray.  And when they die the process continues with their offspring.  God, that's quite depressing actually isn't it?  Endless generations sent off to their inevitable destruction, all for an ultimately pointless goal.  Like the First World War, but with flying jawas.
Look!  A flying jawa!
Anyway, this is how it works.   Every time your character is killed you are presented with a choice of three different successors.  Each of these will be randomly given one of the classes you have unlocked and up to two of the game's extremely varied traits.  These range from the useful (ADHD, which means you move faster) through the mediocre (dwarfism, harder to hit but also less range with your sword) to the game-breakingly awful (vertigo, everything is upside down and back to front).  There are plenty in there just for laughs (IBS turns your character into a walking whoopee cushion) but the selection is wide enough to make each play through feel unique.

And the different classes also feel quite distinct, at least once the first few have been unlocked.  The early options are a bit uninspired, simply varying the attack power or the amount of hit points available, but later on they start to introduce different abilities which really influence how the player approaches the game.  Some character types are also clearly more powerful than others and the different combinations of class and trait can force you to make some difficult decisions about who to pick.  Is it better to have a miner with ADHD?  Or a Lich King with vertigo?  

Once you've chosen your character you are taken to the mansion, which you can now improve with the gold from your previous sortie into the castle.  The first person you employ is a blacksmith who uses blueprints found in the dungeon to create new equipment.  Once he has been installed then you can hire an Enchantress, who uses runes (again found in the dungeon) to add different powers to that equipment, or an Architect who can stop the castle regenerating - for a price.  Employing either of these opens up further options, new and improved classes or better stats and abilities, and paying for these creates new opportunities and so on and so forth.  Eventually the whole mansion has been unlocked and your characters are sufficiently strong to complete the game.
Now a lot of recent roguelikes have addressed the issue of progress in a genre where, traditionally, the player is forced to completely restart when they die. FTL had unlockable ships and ToME goes down a similar route with unlockable classes, races and everything else.  However, Rogue Legacy builds the entire game around this.  There is absolutely no chance of completing your quest with the starting character.  So, realistically, you will just be collecting gold in order to improve your manor for a long while.  On the other hand each character you create will have a better chance of getting further, which means it is almost impossible to resist having just one more go.  This is the kind of game where you think about going to bed at midnight and then suddenly it's 2am.

It isn't a roguelike in a traditional sense, death is a way of improving your chances not an end to them, but changing the structure of the game in this way is a really interesting twist.  You are now levelling up outside of any progress towards your stated goal.  In fact progress in the game only affects your character once they die and it passes on to their progeny.  This influences how you approach each run and can make you almost welcome death as it allows you to unlock another round of goodies.  I'm not sure I can think of another game that makes 'failure' as integral as this does and so it is laudable just for that alone.
There are, of course, things that could be done better.  To start with, some of the classes seem a bit redundant.  I'm yet to find a use for the mage, who doesn't do enough damage or have enough hit points to make them viable, or the miner, who gets a great bonus to the amount of gold they find but never lasts long enough to really use it.  And I have also noticed that because you lose (most) of your money when you go back into the castle and because the cost of most improvements go up exponentially, it is difficult to pursue a coherent build strategy.  You end up increasing most attributes by a small amount, rather than concentrating on one particular style - and this results in a pretty generalised bunch of heroes.

However, probably my main worry is that as you progress through the game the rewards become further and further apart.  The player has to spend longer in the castle in order to get enough gold to pay for the increasingly expensive improvements and so dying becomes more and more of a pain - despite the chance of actually completing anything remaining almost as remote as ever.  I suppose that this is unavoidable and the regular discovery of new classes does keep the player interested in progressing, but it is certainly something to be aware of.
So, bearing this in mind, does it all work?  Well, yes it does.  It's not massively complicated, and the action is solid, rather than spectacular, but the way that each part of the game depends on the other is a great idea and very well done.  It's original, it's quirky and it can be frustrating, but it's also a lot of fun; and, as I said above, it's the kind of game where the urge to have "just one more go" is really difficult to resist.   I'm not sure it will change your life - but it might just improve it a little bit.

Rogue Legacy is available on Steam and Good Old Games for about £12.

Monday, 22 April 2013

In Absentia


Sorry there haven't been any new and exciting rogue-like based updates for a while.  My writing circuits have been de-commissioned by a combination of real life (huge disruption in our house due to quite major building works) and virtual life (I spend all the time when I'm not trying to make toast in a microwave obsessively playing Tales of Maj'Eyal) but I promise that I will power up the batteries again soon.

In the meantime... here is the test card....

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Tales of Maj'Eyal

Gamers could be forgiven for being slightly world-weary at the moment, as they are forced to sit and watch their once-beloved hobby become an industry.  An industry in which publishers think it's OK to charge their customers £60 for something that doesn't work (and then lie to them by insisting that they have to connect to non-existent servers whilst doing it), or to release a game for £35 and then immediately ask for more money for different weapons (which should have been included anyway). It's enough to make a man turn to drink.

For example, look at Battlefield 3.  The game was released in November 2011 and cost £40-50 to buy.  After some time EA announced a load of downloadable content, and gave players the "chance" to gain access to it by paying another £40 up front for the "premium" version of the game.  What's more lots of people did this and there are now 2.9 million premium members - earning EA another $108 million in revenue.  Let's just go through that again. 3 million people happily paid twice for the game.  Well done EA.

In fact EA are the common factor in all of these examples (they publish Sim City 5, Dead Space 3 and Battlefield 3) but it would be a mistake to think that they are wholly responsible for this precipitous decline into micro-transactions, always-online DRM and money-grasping cynicism.  I mean, they are largely responsible and they're certainly the worst offenders, but they're not the only company who have come along to feast on your wallets.  Gaming is a big money thing these days and it attracts the same kind of shiny-suited and shiny-haired shysters who infest the rest of the known world, vacant soul-less incubi who look at something beautiful and can only see ways of milking every last drop of filthy lucre from it.

So it is with a profound sense of relief that I can report to you, dear reader, that there are still some good people out there, making games.  Tales of Maj'Eyal is a graphical roguelike (similar to Dungeons of Dredmor but without the facial hair), which has spent the last 15 years evolving into its current state and (whisper it) it's free.  In fact, not only is it free but the engine used to create the game is also available for other developers to use, as the whole project is open-source (so anybody can modify it or update it or play with it).  Now obviously a man has to eat so donations are encouraged, but they are strictly optional and left to the player's own integrity and honesty.   Donators are given extra things, like a unique character class or access to a vault in which to store items, but people who play for free are still able to access the whole game without any restrictions.  So there's a carrot but no stick, which makes a nice change from being treated like a pirate or an idiot or both.  How refreshing.

The game itself is pretty interesting.  Roguelikes seem to be all the rage at the moment (or maybe that's just in my little world) and TOME is a fine example.  It has its origins in ASCII based games such as Angband but it uses a tileset to make everything a bit more graphically pleasing and accessible and this commitment to accessibility is something which recurs  throughout the game.  If there's a part of you which has always wanted to try out something like this but you've been put off by the unrelenting difficulty and impenetrable interfaces then this may well be the roguelike for you.

Part of the reason for this, as already mentioned, is that the game doesn't rely on using ASCII symbols to portray its world (although the purists amongst you can still do that if you wish).  Instead things are presented clearly (if plainly) with pictures for different types of monsters - and trees, dungeons, mountains and so on.  Anything important (like an area's entrance) is usually marked with a sparkly effect until you use it and tooltips come up when you put your cursor over things to tell you what they are.  It may not be especially visually amazing but it gets the required information across and there is never any confusion about what is around you - a clarity which also extends to the interface.  Unlike some other, earlier, roguelike games most actions can be completed with just the mouse - no more trying to remember that q is for quaff and :s20 will search an area twenty times.  You can click anywhere on the screen and your character will move there automatically, you click on a monster to attack it and you select which skills to use and spells to cast by selecting graphical icons from a bar on the bottom of the screen.  You can even auto-explore an area, just press "z" and your character will happily delve away until they find something you need to know about.  It's all extremely user-friendly.

And TOME also softens some of a roguelike's traditional difficulty by giving the player more than the customary single life. Here your character gets extra chances as they increase in level and there are also items which can be used to resurrect them.  Again, if you are a purist you can choose for this not to happen - but for the rest of us it gives the ability to experiment a little with some of the more optional areas (which are clearly marked with warnings, so that the inexperienced player has nobody but themselves to blame when a foray inevitably ends in their character's gruesome demise.)  Death still comes often in TOME but at least the player gets the option of being able to learn from their mistakes without restarting the whole thing.

However, the game's greatest strength lies in its character creation and progression.  There are 25 classes and 10 races - but most of these are locked when you start and can be unlocked during play.  Each class and race has access to different skill and talent trees, and gain points to allocate to these as they increase in level.  These can range from making it easier to hit things with your sword or shield, to summoning creatures, to creating a rift in the fabric of reality.  I could pretend to sit here and tell you how many different combinations of class and race and talents and skills and spells there are but it's probably too large a number for my brain to cope with - suffice to say that it's a LOT.  Players really do have a remarkable amount of freedom in how to sculpt their ideal character and, as most races and classes (and some skills) are unlocked by completing objectives in the game even a "failed" playthrough can mean that the player achieves some kind of tangible progress.

There also needs to be a special mention for the sheer amount of work that has gone into the game's world. It is HUGE, with different factions (which the player can join or oppose), loads of dungeons, masses of monsters and thousands of different items. It has a persistent back story, with an over-arching plot, and there are many, many documents and books to be found which give background and detail to it all. This is a world with a history and it is there to be discovered by the player as they gradually progress through the game. For it to be offered up on a "pay what you want" basis really is quite extraordinary and to be applauded.

Now, of course, nothing is perfect and this otherwise excellent game does have a couple of small flaws.  Firstly it can feel a little bit pointless to be killing the standard monsters that litter the dungeons. There are usually a lot of these and it can sometimes seem that you are "ploughing" through them, rather than having to think about tactics or how to survive (the bosses are another matter entirely though).  They don't give much experience to the player, so they don't feel especially important, and it can be a chore to slaughter endless hordes of low-level monsters in order to get to the next exciting boss fight.

And the other problem TOME has is that its areas and bosses are persistent and carry over from game to game - so, for example, Bill the Troll is always to be found in the "secret" area at the end of the Trollmire.  The layout of the dungeons, the loot and the normal monsters are all randomly generated but the actual plot and layout of the game is the same every time - and this can make it a pain to repeat stuff you've already done when you (inevitably) have to restart.

However, these problems are ameliorated by the sheer variety of choices that the player can make with their character and the vast number of different approaches that can be used.  An Archmage, for example, plays completely differently to a Berserker - in fact an Archmage who uses fire plays completely differently to one who uses cold spells.  The game may keep the same objectives in place but it allows you almost total freedom in how to achieve them.  There really is an option for everybody and that can make repeating the same areas and fighting the same bosses much more bearable. 

So, there you go.  A whole new world for free, hundreds of hours of gameplay with nobody telling you to connect to a non-functioning server or treating you like you're a criminal.  Why not give it a go?  And, if you like it, then give the developer some cash.  After all you're an adult, it really is entirely up to you.

TOME is available from its own website, or from Desura (for $10) and it is also on Steam Greenlight, so go and vote for it.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Grimoire - Demo Released

Sit yourself down somewhere quiet.  Turn the TV & radio off, ask the kids to pipe down, and LISTEN.

Can you hear that distant thrumming?  A noise so faint, yet so insistent, that it's really more of a vibration in the earth?  In fact, now you've noticed it, it's not even really a vibration; more a portent, a suggestion of powerful forces massing beyond the horizon.

Because the horsemen of the Apocalypse are gathering my friend, the end of times is approaching and there is going to be a reckoning.  One of the great prophecies has come true. 

The Grimoire demo has finally been released, and history is trembling.

Regular readers of this blog will know which game I am talking about as I've already written about it twice.  I'm not going to go through the history again, (read the previous entries here, and here) but the latest news is that the much-promised demo has finally been released (link at bottom of page).  I'm going to be honest with you, there were times in the past few months when I doubted this would happen, but happen it has and the world is a richer place for it.

Grimoire is something quite unique, in that it is the product of one man's imagination and has taken him, at last count, 17 years to develop.  The game itself is a dungeon crawler, much like Wizardry 6 or 7, and it is, as you might expect, distinctly old-school in its presentation and mechanics.  It is never going to be a million-selling blockbuster, times have changed too much for that during its extended development cycle, but it's something that certainly scratches an itch for many people.  Having it appear here, now, feels like somebody has just been up into their attic and discovered a lost Beatles recording, or an unfinished Dickens novel.  It's a snapshot of another period in game development, it's something from another time, and it comes with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails.

To start with, Grimoire is acting a little bit like an old man who's been asleep for a few years and cannot deal with the world that he finds outside.  The demo crashes.  A lot.  It seems to do this more frequently on more modern systems and this is something that will obviously need to be sorted out before the game can be released.  Cleve assures us that he will do this, and there are ways the player can work around it, but it does still happen, so you should be aware of that.  In Grimoire's defence the game appears to run pretty smoothly within itself, it's just that it's having trouble dealing with the excesses of modern life and wants to go back into its cave every now and again.

The other main drawback I can see with it is that the user interface can be a bit awkward.  Each character has a button next to their portrait which determines the action they will carry out - healing, unlocking, examining an item, searching etc. - and this can be a bit cumbersome at times.  For example, if you want to identify an item then you need to select the spellbook icon to cast a spell, choose "identify" and the spell level, wait for a second, select the item, change the icon to a magnifying glass and then hold the item over the icon to see what it is.  It would have been easier to just cast the spell and then select the item you wanted to examine.  Similarly the inventory system is also a bit cumbersome.  You have a "banner" of boxes under the viewport which contain all the items not equipped by the party.  There isn't any way to sort these into any order (which makes it difficult to keep track of your loot) and I had filled all the available slots by the end of the demo anyway, which doesn't bode well for the full game.  However, these are small niggles and things that could be improved, they're not game breakers in any way or form and sometimes you just need to accept that if you want to play something different then you have to take the rough with the smooth.

Because Grimoire is, if the demo is in any way representative of the final game, something that is quite special and something that really does feel like the next instalment in the Wizardry series (and I do not say things like that lightly).  In fact it actually seems to improve on those games.  It does this in a variety of little ways - players are given three chances when rolling a new character, for example, instead of the famously frustrating "one strike" system in Wizardry 6.  The game will remember the commands used in your previous battle, so you don't have to enter them again, and you can also review those orders before starting any combat.  Similarly there is an "end battle" button which means you can duck out of any encounter which is too tough, at the price of having to load an earlier save, and you can even make the party walk automatically to a chosen point on the map.  These are little things, sure, but they make everything much more fluid and smooth than would otherwise be the case and they show the amount of thought that has gone into crafting the game's systems.

The game uses its own role playing system, which is hard to analyse without a manual, but which appears to be suitably deep and complicated.  Characters are defined by many attributes, ranging from the commonplace, such as Wisdom and Intelligence, to the more unusual like Fellowship and Devotion.  It is unclear yet how these affect the character's performance but the demo gives the impression that there are a lot of calculations going on under the surface.  This system also seems to have been designed entirely from scratch by its creator so, in and of itself, it provides the player with something new to get to grips with and try to understand.

And this attention to detail and creativity also extends to the races and classes that the player can choose from.  There are 14 races in Grimoire and 15 possible classes and although these include the usual suspects (humans, warriors, clerics, thieves and wizards) there are also some more interesting and unusual options available.  An Aeorb, for example, is a weird one-eyed alien thing or the player could choose a Naga (a kind of Hindu snake man) or a giant or a vampire or a camp-looking lion.  Similarly the classes include Necromancers (yay), Pirates, Templars and Jesters.  The whole selection re-inforces the feeling that this is something different that is being offered here, that this is something that hasn't been focus grouped or sanitised - that this is a game which has been developed outside of the normal boundaries and which, as a result, is not content with just offering up the same old choices.

However, where Grimoire really comes into its own is in the world that is presented to the player.  Graphically charming, it is full of little details and asides which clearly show the amount of effort and love that have gone into it.  The writing is of an extremely high standard and the world's lore is present throughout the environment.  In fact, in one dungeon one of the discoverable secrets is a room full of inscripted poetry about (presumably) future adversaries - which is lovely to see at a time when any other game developer would have just filled it with loot.  There are also plenty of these secret areas to find, and the game manages to make this difficult enough to be satisfying without making it impossible.  In other games in this genre they would show that there was a secret area behind a wall by drawing the wall slightly differently.  This was hard to find at first but once you knew what you were looking for you could spot them from a distance.  Here the walls (from what I can see) look exactly the same and have to be manually searched with the cursor.  The "trigger" points also differ from place to place - at the top of the wall in one location, in the middle in another - so the player has to be thorough, and some walls don't even have a trigger, they're just an illusion the party can walk through.  However, the player can use spells to help them detect such things and the game will also keep an account of how much of an area has been explored, so those of us with low level OCD can sleep at night.

Grimoire is a labour of love and, if you're interested in this kind of thing, then I would recommend that you give the demo a go.  The Indiegogo campaign has also restarted, so you can pre-order the game from there if you like what you see, and Cleve is still insistent that the full game will be released in May (even though the demo came out three months after his original deadline).  I think that will be tight, to say the least, and if previous history has shown us anything it is that this date will almost definitely be revised(!)  However, he has got the demo out and it does appear that he is working hard towards getting the full game released at some point in the (relatively) near future.  Personally I am really excited to see what happens next.

Update 04/04/13 - Cleve has just released a much more stable version of the demo (1.31), which seems to have resolved all of the previous issues. Get it here. (Remember to still run as admin.)

If you want to keep abreast of current developments then check this thread out

If you just read this article and were very confused then read...

Grimoire : Heralds of the Winged Exemplar

The Grimoire Thing Just Gets Weirder

And Wizardry 6 : Bane of the Cosmic Forge

If you have downloaded the demo and cannot get it to work then..
1. Install it directly into your C Drive (i.e. C:\Grimoire) not into the "programs" directory
2. Ensure you are running it as admin (the 1.2 installer should do this automatically.)
3. Run in compatibility mode with Windows XP.
4. Check the thread linked to above to see if anybody else has had any bright ideas.
5. Pray to whichever god you hold dear.