Thursday, June 27, 2013

Returning to Point-and-Click: A Look at Machinarium

I was very excited to find a PlayStation Plus deal for Machinarium, as I had heard great things about this standout indie game by Amanita Design. My weekend was well spent on the game, which is a refreshingly unique, challenging and charming point-and-click adventure designed to appeal to players of all ages. 

The game begins by showing our hero, a little robot, being discarded in the junkyard outside of the city.  The little robot's story is slowly revealed throughout the game in the form of a series of "thought bubbles" that show flashbacks of the robot's past.  These "thought bubbles" are also used to illustrate hints and dialogue with other characters, although there is not actually any dialogue in the strict sense--everything is conveyed through short animations and pictures.

As our robot hero makes his way back to the city to save it and his lady-robot love, he encounters a number of puzzles of varying format and complexity which must be completed to advance the story.  For example, the little robot encounters a problematic gate guard at the drawbridge to enter the city, so you must find a way to trick the guard and get the drawbridge lowered.

Later in the game, there are more complex tasks which require seeking out other robots, completing tasks for them, and in turn using the items they give you to solve another problem. Brain teaser type puzzles are interspersed with scavenger hunt type missions, so you may find yourself facing a game of checkers or a pattern-matching puzzle to move the adventure forward.  Many of the puzzles are quite challenging and require some persistence, but not to the point of being completely discouraging.  I must admit that it took me an embarrassingly long time to beat a robot at checkers.  But what a triumph when I did!

The gameplay is easy enough to learn, since you navigate through the game simply using a cursor with one-click actions to interact with the world.  There are no extra action-wheel menus or shooting/fighting modes to fuss with. The little robot has an inventory pop-up bar at the top of the screen, but it is fairly low maintenance since your robot will discard items once they no longer have a use.  I don't think there were any more than 3-4 items in my inventory at any point.

If you are easily discouraged by puzzles, don't be scared away from giving this game a try: each scene has one freebie hint to help you with the current puzzle, and if you're really in a bind, Amanita provides a complete in-game walkthrough guide. In keeping with the game style, even the walkthrough guide is depicted in comic strip artwork, so be prepared to interpret drawings if you want that extra hint!

Perhaps one of the most memorable aspects of Machinarium is the unique and intriguing artistry used to create this whimsical robot-world in which our hero lives.  There are many cute aspects to the characters and their mannerisms, but there is also a distinct melancholy and industrial feel to the whole world.  It was truly compelling and left me wanting to see more content, since the game is fairly short (though well done and satisfying in its own right).

Earlier I alluded to the fact that there's no shooting or fighting in the game.  In fact, there's not any violence in the game and your robot hero is simply regenerated if you do something harmful to him.  For that reason, this game is suitable as a family title to engage younger gamers but still challenging enough for adults....not to mention, it's a somewhat refreshing shift from the mainstream big-dog FPSs and RPGs on the market.

I really cannot find fault with Machinarium, other than the occasional tedium of trying to find the actionable items in the environment, but this is a flaw intrinsic to point-and-click adventures.  Overall, Machinarium is a solid choice for gamers of all ages, a good workout for the brain and a fun feast for the eyes.  I hope that we'll be seeing more good things from Amanita on the next gen consoles.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Getting in Shape for Comic Con, Part 3: Crunch Time for Costumes

Since today marks the 1-month countdown for our trip out to San Diego Comic Con, I thought it an appropriate time to provide an update on our progress.  So here goes...

Captain Marvel.  Done and DONE!  I put the finishing touches on the accessories yesterday and did a trial run of everything this weekend.  It's looking great!  I thought this could be my one preview costume prior to the event since the other two are still in progress, so I've included some photos here.  I really need to work on staying in character in being serious...kept cracking up the whole time!

 Madame Hydra/Viper.  What can I say, the spandex is at the tailor.  I have the boots and holster ready, but the main feature of my costume will be her back tattoo (pictured below).

If anyone has any tips on the best method for doing a large (5x5") temp tattoo that won't rub off for a few days, let me know.  I'd really rather not use that much permanent marker on my back and, moreover, do not trust my husband or brothers to doodle with marker on my back.


Spats in progress, made from white leg
warmers...I learned to sew buttons!!
Mad Moxxi.  Almost complete!!  Here's some photos of the latest accessories to be finished up.  In keeping with my budget-savvy tendencies, I bought some $5 leg warmers on Amazon which I crafted into spats.  I also made Moxxi's belt buckle with some cheap items from the craft store and a little bit of painting skills.   Still fixing buttons on the jacket, but otherwise ready to go.
Moxxi spats, hat, and belt buckle, all handmade.

One of three versions of Wolverine that Jon will cosplay
at SDCC.
Wolverine.  Jon's cosplay is still coming along, but I think he has the beard part handled...
No beard? No problem!
Grown in three weeks.
Most recently I have been working on Wolverine's blades, which I finished up today. I used some sturdy foam board which I painted silver, and are secured together with aluminum wire.  I molded them to fit his hands and wrapped the aluminum wire with floral wire for comfort and extra support.  They're not retractable or anything high-speed, but easy to don and doff and I think they look realistic enough!
Step 1, cutting the blades
out of foam board

Step 2, threading aluminum wire
through the foam blades

Step 3, molding wire and covering
in floral wire.
Step 4, painting foam blades
and floral wire. Done!

That's a wrap on the costume update...coming soon on Getting in Shape for Comic Con: our adventures in juice cleanses from Khepra's and some more previews of our cosplays!   Plus a Comic-Con warm up at Annapolis Comic Con later this month!



Monday, June 10, 2013

Telltale Games Poker Night 2: All In!

"Winning streaks are like dating beautiful women. Enjoy them while you can, because it's only a matter of time before they dump you for being weird and clingy."

I have to admit that I was sold on Telltale Games' Poker Night 2 as soon as I saw the teasers on YouTube and Twitter.  I'm a long-time fan of the Sam and Max adventures since the days of Hit the Road, so I will pretty much play anything involving them.  And they didn't fail to deliver this time, either.  Poker Night 2 is good fun: an interactive poker game with great dialogue, entertaining characters and many unlockable features both inside and outside of the game.  There's a few features which could be improved to make the game even better, but overall it's a solid bet for any gamer out there looking for a short-term diversion from the more involved RPGs and FPSs out there.

Poker Night 2 features the following characters as players:
Brock Samson, The Venture Bros.
Claptrap, Borderlands / Borderlands 2
Ash Williams, The Evil Dead franchise
Sam (and Max), from the Sam & Max Freelance Police adventure games series and comic

The fifth player is you, portrayed as a mute (eliminating the need to provide dialogue options for you).  When you begin the game, you are given the option to play Omaha or Texas Hold 'Em style poker.  Instructional prompts are provided during your first hand, so even if you are not an avid poker player, you should be able to muddle your way through the first game until you get the hang of it (like I did).  Every game starts with a $20,000 buy-in, which is regenerated for you every game whether or not you win.  However, the system will still track how much money you've lost over time, so you could conceivably continue going  further and further into debt if you continue losing.  Even $180,000 in debt.  Like I did...

The backdrop of your poker game is an old-timey bar presided over by a very sad-looking, gray version of Mad Moxxi from Borderlands.  You are able to buy drinks for the other players from Moxxi once you begin earning tokens.  Tokens are awarded at the end of each game, and the amount you receive depends on what place you finish during that game.  The perk of buying drinks for your opponents is that it will cause them to show their "tells" more easily--a finger tap here, an ear scratch there, indicating whether or not your opponent is bluffing.  Unfortunately, you can only purchase one drink per player per game...I was really hoping that getting the other players utterly hammered would be an option.  Can you imagine things that Brock Samson and Ash Williams would say if they were obliterated?!  Oh well. 

Also joining this cast of colorful characters is GLaDOS from Portal.  She acts as the dealer and delivers many excellent deadpan lines, including some witty banter with her male AI counterpart, Claptrap. 

As I mentioned at the start of this review, the dialogue between your opponents is one of the highlights of Poker Night 2.  Nearly every word that comes out of Claptrap's mouth is a gem.  I started noticing that the dialogue was getting recycled until I actually started winning, which allowed me to unlock more table themes which, in turn, unlocks more dialogue for the players.  So if nothing else, use that as your incentive to win some tournaments!
I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to mention just a few of my favorite quotes:

"This hand was brought to you by the letters W, T, and F!"

"If you guys keep indulging my transparent dishonesty, I'm going to have to run for Congress."

Claptrap:  "That's what you get when you screw with the clap!"
Brock:  "There was probably a better way of phrasing that."

"I think I just got kicked in the statisticals!"

Sam:  "You know, I'm still not really sure what a 'Deadite' actually is."
Ash:  "It all starts with an evil book that must never be read."
Sam:  "Battlefield Earth?"

I also mentioned the unlocks outside of the game. For every tournament, there are three random tasks or missions that you can complete (e.g., win a hand in a showdown with a pair) and, when completed, you will be offered a "bounty challenge" in the next tournament. One of your fellow players will offer up a trophy which you receive if you win that tournament. With the trophy win comes an unlock of something outside the game. So far, we have been unlocking exclusive themes for Borderlands 2. I understand that later on, other PSN exclusives are offered as rewards as well.
You're probably thinking the whole game can't be without fault, and you're right. The game saves quite often and there are significant delays in dialogue or skipping of the soundtrack when the saves are occurring, which is disruptive to gameplay. There have also been several instances where the game has completely frozen up in the middle of a hand that I was winning, which is equally frustrating. It sounds like this might be a common error and is probably the most significant flaw of Poker Night 2.
I would also say that the inability to engage directly in dialogue with the other characters is a downside to the game and potential area for improvement in future sequels. It would be interesting to explore options that would allow a human player to verbally react to opponents' actions, or to try to elicit responses or tells from opponents through conversation. 
Bottom line? Poker Night 2 is worth the $10 price tag on PSN given the opportunities for external game unlocks, entertaining witty banter amongst NPCs, and enough variety in the scenery to entice even novice poker players to come back again and again. Check it out!