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Rob Zacny

Episode 436: To Infinity Engine and Beyond

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Three Moves Ahead 436:

Three Moves Ahead 436


To Infinity Engine and Beyond
Games like Baldur's Gate cast a long shadow but, like a racist grandparent, come along with too many caveats of being a product of their time. There have been many attempts to capture the magic of early CRPGS while adding modern accoutrements, and the financial success of games like Pillars of Eternity and Dragon Age: Origins are clear indicators that the public is looking for such a product. But have any of these attempts actually nailed the CRPG formula? Is a modern CRPG truly worth pursuing, and were the originals as good as we remember? Join our host T.J. Hafer, Rowan Kaiser, and Cameron Kunzelman as they travel from the Gold Box to the most recent iteration of Pillars of Eternity in search of the perfect CRPG.

Gold Box games, Baldur's Gate, Pillars of Eternity, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Suikoden, Dragon Age, Planescape Torment, Icewind Dale... you know, all those games.

 

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I'm hoping for more episodes like this. Sure, these games might not be certified strategy games but all the discussion was totally strategy related.

 

The problem of solving RPG combat is still ongoing and I think just making the game turn-based in some fashion would help many of these games including PoE, which I have bounced off of more times than Europa Universalis. I don't agree with Rowan in that the way the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy tried to mesh real-time action with menu-based control is a failure, but rather an idea that should have been tempered out but never got the chance to.

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Interesting discussion!

 

You're quite spot on with Pillars of Eternity 1 handling complexity in a strange way. Devs had a clear vision for a game and it looks like the case where publisher control would benefit the game. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for hardcore combat and all that, but PoE1 would benefit from someone coming along and saying "can you make it more like that game my daughter plays, Dragon Age Inquisition?" Devs wanted to make Baldur's Gate but bigger and more complex instead, and why would you enable party AI if you're hardcore microcontrolling player? I myself never used AI in Dragon Age telling everyone what to do all the time. Because it's not just warriors getting number of abilities on par with D&D wizards. PoE priests and druids and other classes have a lot of possible casts starting with level 1. When you're level 3 (still early in the game) you can cast 19 spells, plus you'll have per-combat healing ability, plus you may have abilities from perks, plus story progression gives you new active abilities, plus there are a lot of items that give you active abilties, plus there are a lot more consumables. It's not as complex if you start as a fighter or a rogue but you'll have to use something every battle.

 

The other thing was that initial release was all about optimization with no hard counters. You know how in Final Fantasy games you see a fire monster and strike it fire but it does nothing. So you use ice against it and it's super effective, you feel like a genius really deserving love and respect your father never showed you. In PoE1 release version there was nothing like that, it was all very granular. When you use wrong approach like trying to hit someone fast and agile with slow inaccurate weapons (or use stiletto against rock elemental, or use poison against the undead) - you will still probably graze instead of missing all the time as you'd do in Baldur's Gate or Dragon Age. So you have to read combat log and read enemy description to see what's wrong. There was a lot of trash combat against weaklings and you could just tell your party to attack and they'll win, no need to optimize. Meanwhile games like Final Fantasy always give you a nice reason to fight weaklings in a conscious way: you can use supereffective spell against them, or steal something from them etc. Later they added more of hard counters to PoE and with expansions it's much better. Good encounters became more like puzzles and less like optimizing tasks - you either do right and prevail or do wrong and fail instead of previous approach of prevailing just enough so that you can continue. PoE on hardest difficulty became very enjoyable to play after two expansions - you still get a lot of straightforward boring combat but there were a lot of memorable encounters requiring you to rework your party equipment and tactics.

 

Tyranny, sadly, didn't get updates like that. I adore Tyranny for what it tries to do: make shorter but more varied RPG fashionable, it's like a Fallout New Vegas, but isometric. Even micromanage is handled better: every character can cast spells but at the start you won't have more than couple and by the end you won't be able cast as many spells as 1st level PoE character can. It also has a lot of small genius details like a lot of skills enhancing your initial hero ability which is basically a stronger punch. So you can have very few powerful abilities and a lot of passive skills. The sad thing is that even though hard difficulty starts strong and requires you to use everything available to you it becomes a joke by the end, you don't even have to use those fancy things you get through a story. Enemies feel homogeneous as you can always deal with them whatever you use, even if you do something bad it still does *some* damage and usually it's enough. Sad that Tyranny didn't catch on, it was more interesting and innovative game in many regards. Paradox DLC policy didn't help either, there was an expansion that adds some quests and no one is really sure what exactly is added, and another one that adds some big sidequest of minor importance and impact.

 

Also I don't understand how Cameron can say that BG1 system is good on lower levels. Because early level D&D is horrible. First few levels anything can oneshot you, it feels not like you're managing probability but everything is about random rolls. When you start as a wizard in BG2 it's somewhat balanced, enemy needs several hits to kill you, so it's not like whoever strikes first wins.

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Say a prayer for me, I played Pillars of Eternity 1 at release without Party AI, and had to micromanage my way through the game. Probably why it took me 100 hours. Learned my lesson and am not going to pick up PoE2 until it's cheap.

 

Some good ideas in this podcast towards the end. Particularly like TJ's idea of having some of your party members be "off-map" for battle. You could have a Thief and Cleric that don't directly participate in the battle, but could debuff your enemies or heal your party on certain conditions. Then you could just focus on your 3-4 dudes.. Mr. STR, DEX, and INT.

 

I feel like Strategy and RPG games are natural allies and am glad to see this topic on the show. 90% of my game time is devoted to these genres.

 

What I love about these Infinity style games are the characters. I'm playing through Wasteland 2 now, and a bit disappointed that you have 4 voiceless PC's.. would rather them have condensed that into 1 voiceless PC and rounded out the skill system and available NPC's to compensate. Probably why I'll likely never play Icewind Dale, despite the shoutout from Rowan.

 

One thing I'd like to see changed in these modern cRPG's is the crappy loot system. They should learn from Dark Souls 1, where you can find a simple Estoc or Zweihander in the first 10 minutes that you can use throughout the game. Just need to upgrade it. As is in these cRPG's you get hundreds of drops, but eventually your Sabres become "Fine/Exceptional Sabres". Dumb.

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Bioware has played with an idea of non-combat party members for a while. In Jade Empire you can tell your companion to help in battle (they'll be useless) or stand in the corner and cast some buff on you. Many companions can't fight but do something special: allow you to trade, unlock a special fighting style (there's a guy who throws bottles at you enabling drunken master style). In Dragon Age Inquisition many characters do not fight but are considered your friends or romantic interests, like 3 commanders you can assign to out of map tasks, also your scout.

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Posted (edited)

We already fixed Bioware to have the most generic plot (seriously, they're terrible) and action game possible, we already fixed RTS to be Lords Managements with the same generic repetitive grind over and over again, we already fixed Fallout so that stats don't matter and you don't have to think too much about what's happening...

Can't we just keep some nice, niche things in the age of 57 games a day for those who don't like the same meaningless twitch-based grind? 

Now, get off my lawn!

 

EDIT: Took me a couple more days to listen to the last 5 minutes. Either I was misunderstanding at first, or you were more thoughtful at the end, as some of those ideas to cut down on the number of options are not bad at all and wouldn't fundamentally change the idea of the game.

Edited by Perky_Goth

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Was thinking about what Cameron said about, how BG1 feels better that the second game, I think one reason has to do with balance, enemies, party combinations and chance play up different between higher and lower levels. But even before that, on thing, that BG end sharing with the early SSI games and other early CRPGs, is that the curve of difficult, kind play inverse to what we believe, it should work - instead of begin easier and them getting hard, what happens is phenomenon where, in truth, the game start harder and them get easier, the reason, specially for those early games, was simple because they where often 1 to 1 translation of tabletop rules, and in this game, the level where you are mostly going do die early one was the first one. But once you reach a certain threshold (which might chance for game to game), you start to getting more and more powerful and so going faster and faster in the game (this is more true for other early Rpgs that BG however, the reason is that BG tend to have a higher control when you level up, while in old gold box game you might reach max level very early on)

 

That said, specially for AD&D, lower level adventures, often play in a slight better rhythm due often enemies begin melee only (very few early monster might be magic user of have special abilities), average Thaco and CA aren´t very high, so any small modifier for player might play a huge role (an early +2 weapon, might pace a lot easier, when you are just fighting enemies with at best have CA from 7 to 5), lower HP means the combat don´t last that much and by last, specially in BG case, this all allow you to mix and match party members more easily.

 

Now, skip forward to BG2, higher level encounter are by default more slow and require a lot more plan ahead, now party composition plays a much higher role and in fact, some character can became a lot less useful despite begin cool or having anything interesting, monsters are more likely to have specially abilities and magic user might have one hit kill spells*, which might require you to have spell or abilities to cancel them. This all, sometimes make me wonder, how much BG 2 kind requires you to almost plan so much stuff ahead, that you might need read a whole faq even before you play, to just avoid ending in a dead end impossible combat or have a key character in your party leave you with no replacement.

 

* I often found that battle with magic user in the second game to be annoying, due all those different protection spells that often require lots of different kind of dispel magic spells you need have....

 

Party composition is a lot harder, since between the limitations of alignment and and scripts where X character might not like Y character (which again might thing you might need to know before even playing) added with the party composition need to fill certain roles, leave you with little room to maneuver (and also might need you to plan your main character based on your party, which requires you to know all possible characters and when and where you can find them).

 

Now why some rpgs avoided of this kind, try to avoid turns (or similar systems) is a very good question, I guess a lot have to do with some people arbitrarily decided suddenly that turns are bad for a vague to no reason or sense (mostly to bash jrpgs, despite wrpgs using them) and this might lead to a false necessity, which lead to the paradox of having a game with lot of options but no time to deal with any of them.

 

Fun thing is, I have been playing some of the goldbox games and despite them begin in turns, I did find them kind more faster that would be if in real time and a lot I suspect have do to with the fact, that in turn base, area spells can be used to maximum effect, where in real time, where you often stumble in to combat, you often can´t use them, to everything begin to close or moving too fast.

 

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Posted (edited)

I'm astonished you got through that entire podcast moaning about the Infinity Engine combat system and not once - not once - mentioned Larian's Divinity: Original Sin series. It's got turn based combat. It's got lots of massive areas chock full of stories and interactions and choices and decisions - that matter to the overarching story all the while. Sure, they have their short comings, but they address just about everything commented on the limitations of the Infinity/Unity clone engine and then some. I'd thoroughly recommend everyone in the discussion goes and plays them and comes back to this conversation afterwards, because clearly none of you ever have. I'd hope that Obsidian take a great long look at those games before PoE3 rolls around and thinks a lot harder about how they might want to shake their approach up even more. 

 

I also feel the podcast failed to really address why Pillars of Eternity was the way it was - it was kickstarted by a legion of misty eyed, middle aged men (admittedly I presume ) longing with rose tinted glasses to the games of their youth. certainly did it for me! PoE was consciously designed to be exactly what it was, down to all those hand painted backing screens. Sure it did and does have it problems, only partially addressed by PoE2 - which to me so far is an better mechanical game, but one that feels like it's lost it soul - but it was exactly what it was kickstarted to be, and did it very well indeed. 

 

Great discussion though - there is a lot to be said for the tactical RPG area that sometimes I feel 3MA shies away from. A discussion on the tactical combat system of the Divinity: Original Sin series could probably fill a show by itself. 

Edited by Sorbicol

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I played and enjoyed Divinity: Original Sin. But I couldn't finish it. I got partway into Act 2 and lost the plot. The music, art, and combat was good.. but there was no real story and the characters (both yours and the shallow NPCs) had no personality at all. Contrast that with Infinity Engine games, where I'm driven forward because of the story and the cool characters. That's really what an RPG is about. Minsc is a legend. And despite Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny's shortcomings I could finish them easily.

 

Maybe someday I'll get back to Divinity: Original Sin, or its sequel when it receives a deep discount or is bundled. From what I've seen, perhaps there's some more personality in the Original Sin 2 characters.. the Red Prince and the Undead dude look pretty cool.

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On 11/06/2018 at 6:49 PM, Argonaut said:

I played and enjoyed Divinity: Original Sin. But I couldn't finish it. I got partway into Act 2 and lost the plot. The music, art, and combat was good.. but there was no real story and the characters (both yours and the shallow NPCs) had no personality at all. Contrast that with Infinity Engine games, where I'm driven forward because of the story and the cool characters. That's really what an RPG is about. Minsc is a legend. And despite Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny's shortcomings I could finish them easily.

 

Maybe someday I'll get back to Divinity: Original Sin, or its sequel when it receives a deep discount or is bundled. From what I've seen, perhaps there's some more personality in the Original Sin 2 characters.. the Red Prince and the Undead dude look pretty cool.

 

The Enhanced Edition did a lot for me to make Divinity: Original Sin (the first game) more enjoyable. It clarified it's mission structure (in terms of - go to this area first and then this area etc) made significant improvements to the combat system and inventory system (which is not the game's moment of crowing glory to be sure) and also generally improved the story as well. to be sure that first game was a little limited in charisma/characterisation for the two source hunters, but a lot of the NPCs were fun and really weren't anything too far off the types of characters that Black Isle / Obsidian came up with for PoE or earlier games.

 

Original Sin 2 made massive in roads of that though by having 6 very distinct characters to play all with conflicting aims, opinions and goals that play out as the game goes on. They will fight you if you stray too far from what they want, and during one of the lynchpin moments of the game you have to actively persuade them to stick with you - previous events and treatment of your party will count for or against you. Fane (the undead guy), The Red Prince (exiled Lizard royalty who assumes everyone is his slave) and Loshe (possessed songstress) are all brilliant characters who can stand side by side with the likes of Minsc, Durance and anyone else you might care to mention from Baldur's Gate/PoE.  The combat is a little more messy I think (they take the concept of blessed and cursed environmental effects way too far) while at the same time delivering some fantastic set piece battles that need some serious tactical decision making to get through.  They also have a co-operative system that nothing Black Isle/Obsidian have ever done have come close to matching. 

 

In the framework of this podcast I just found it disappointing that they weren't discussed. It's combat system is superior to the Baldur's gate and PoE games, and is something that deserved to discussed. 

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