Professor Layton and the Curious Offline Experience

Tesh wrote this week about how losing internet access for three weeks nudged him into playing more offline games and breaking the online umbilical cord.

I enjoy feeling connected when I’m playing games. I’m the kind of nethead who thinks it’s great that connectivity is becoming more ubiquitous, but it can’t be denied that there is something very relaxing about just cutting the silver cord and immersing yourself into stand alone media.

So in the spirit of being unconnected, here are four cool offline things I’ve played, seen, or read this week.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Having Galactrixed out for the moment, Professor Layton is my current DS game of choice. It follows in the footsteps of handheld RPGs with a puzzle mechanic thrown in – so it’s not a million miles away in concept from Puzzlequest, or Phoenix Wright (another set of games I enjoyed very much). Like Puzzlequest, Professor Layton tells its story between bouts of puzzle solving. Like Phoenix Wright you get to explore areas, pixel bitch to find clues, and talk to suspects before coming to your conclusions.

Where the game really stands out is firstly that the story itself is convincing and utterly charming. It’s a bit offbeat but I liked it very much. Imagine a standard English/Agatha Christie style murder mystery with JRPG conventions thrown in and you’ll be on the right tracks.

But the reason the game has been so popular comes from the sheer variety of puzzles to solve. There’s everything from maths problems, logic problems, geometric puzzles, puzzles with a gotcha where you have to read the question very carefully, puzzles where you have to move blocks around on the screen, and just about anything else that you can imagine. The difficulty is not high, but I tend to welcome that in a game which you might want to play without a pen and paper handy to help. i.e. if you are expected to do most of the puzzle solving in your head. I certainly felt as though I was being given a good workout without being stuck for ages on any of the puzzles.

Some of the issues I had with the game are:

  • No verbal puzzles. This makes sense in a game that needs to be easily translated, but actually does bias the game very slightly towards male players. (Women are usually better at verbal puzzles, men excel at maths and spacial types puzzles.) I thought that was an oddity in this genre.
  • Some puzzles will need you to have a pen and paper handy. I don’t think all the maths ones could easily be done via mental arithmetic. And that’s probably not great design for a handheld game.
  • Not all the puzzles really used the power of the DS. The more interactive puzzles were definitely more fun. I enjoyed moving blocks around on the screen, for example.

Speaking of the internet connection, the game does allow for downloading further puzzles via the DS wifi connection. There are also extra puzzles which you can unlock as you make your way through the game. However, if you were to go straight to an internet walkthrough every single time you got stuck on a puzzle, you would lose a lot of your gameplay here.

I really think it benefits from being played on a train, or somewhere where you have no net access. It forces you to actually think, and get frustrated because a solution doesn’t work, and then try again, then finally solve the puzzle. And if you keep trying and then look it up, at least you feel you made a good attempt first.

I’m not quite at the end – saving it for train journeys this week –- but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Professor Layton and I’m looking forwards to playing the next installment in the series. I think they are onto a winner with this format.

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is in the running for this year’s Booker Prize, and I was so keen to read it that I bought it in hardback (it’s very cheap on Amazon at the moment).

Hilary Mantel is one of my favourite living authors, and one of her previous historical novels, “A Place of Greater Safety” is in the running for being my favourite book of all time (if you are at all interested in the French Revolution, read it, she brings the era to life like no one I have ever read.)

This time, she’s writing about the Tudor era, and in particular about Henry VIII and his chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell (and his cut throat rise to power).  The timing is perfect. We’ve had TV series recently about the Tudors, to tie in with the 500th anniversary of Henry VIIIs death. And C J Sansom’s amazing historical murder mysteries, set in precisely this era, have been huge best sellers in the UK.  (Also highly recommended if you are a fan of the genre.)

Mantel is a fantastic writer and I can’t wait to see how she’s treated the subject matter. I’m planning to work my way through the book this month and see how it goes. She made the Booker shortlist last year also but maybe this is going to be her year to shine.

In the Loop

The DVD of choice this week was a film I missed when it was in the cinemas. In the Loop is a smart political comedy about incompetent ministers, sweary scottish spin doctors, Anglo-American politics and war in Asia.

The Guardian called it the smartest, sharpest comedy of the year and they could very well be right. One of the least Hollywood films I have seen all year – it’s very sharp, surprisingly funny, and the characters are brilliantly drawn and characterised. Highly recommended if you like your satire razor-sharp and aren’t bothered by heavy swearing.

District 9

30 years ago, aliens made contact with Earth. And it’s been downhill all the way from there for the ‘prawns’. District 9 is real science fiction, all about ideas and speculation, rather than the flimsy excuse for high budget action scenes that Hollywood sci fi often presents.

It made me think. And that’s a common link with all of these games, books, and films.

Highly recommended, although it is rather visceral in parts (Peter Jackson’s influence, perhaps).

Finding the game to suit your mood

Over the last couple of weeks, my patterns of game playing have changed. I’m still playing the same games as before we had a death in the family, but I have noticed that I am playing them in different ways.

I’m enjoying the social contact and escapism in my MMOs, but I also have a lot of other things to do in real life. I find that I’m reluctant to spend too long in game. Sometimes I solo — more than usual. I’ve started low level alts with sisters and friends, on a very no-strings-attached understanding.

I’ve also been avoiding in game stress. I’m looking for a more peaceful and less challenging experience right now. Maybe it’s part of the grieving process, or a way of escaping from real life upheavals. I’m not entirely sure. Either way, I’m not enjoying progression raiding in the way I had in the past. I can live with it — we have such a light raid schedule that one night a week isn’t going to hurt — but right now I can’t honestly say that it’s fun for me.

I would normally stop doing things if I decided that they weren’t fun. But in this case it’s only one night a week, and I enjoy the company and being able to keep my hand in. I’m hoping this phase will pass soon and I’ll be back to gleefully comparing my repair costs with the other tanks as usual. (In case anyone was wondering what we discuss in the tank channels.)

I also find myself retreating towards familiar things. I would love to spend more time with EQ2 but somehow in spare moments I still drift back to WoW. I think this is down to the low barriers of entry to a game you know very well. Also, I already have a couple of characters who are geared for endgame there and a social circle,  and I’m familiar with most of the current content. It’s very low stress for me to hop into WoW, run a couple of instances with friends or PUGs, and hop out again. A large part of this is because the heroics are easy, I’m overgeared, and I probably could run them blindfold.

EQ2 isn’t high stress by any means, but it takes more time and energy to go and learn a new game, explore, make new friends, and figure out new content and mechanics. And energy, as much as anything, is what I’m trying to recharge at the moment. For the same reason, I bowed out of trying any of the new releases this month. It’s not the right time, and I’m not in the right mood.

Back on the DS, Galactrix has been seeing a lot of play, probably because I’ve spent a lot of time on trains.

I love it more and more with every session, despite the game’s  huge sucking flaws. Yes it spends a freaking aeon saving and loading itself all the time — it has more load screens than EQ2 in open beta. Yes the screen manages to be sensitive when you want it to be forgiving, and vice versa. For all that, I love how it plays and I love what they were trying to do. I’m finally discovering the main storyline, and trekking around the galaxy unlocking stargates, fighting baddies, discovering rumours, making new items, mining, trading, and unlocking my latent psychic powers. I am also impressed at how many variations there are on a simple “match three colours” game.

Mad cycling friends!

I have fantastic taste in friends and mine are all awesome — but sometimes they do very mad things.

Example: Go check out The Race Against Time where a friend of mine is blogging about his plans to cycle from Lands’ End to John O’Groats in 6 days (ie. one end of the UK to the other — according to Wikipedia a typical time to cycle it is 10-14 days) to raise money for charity. It’s also a very worthy charity, The Bishop Simeon Trust, which works to relieve poverty in South Africa.

And the other reason to check it out is that he’s a great writer and a fantastic cyclist and it’s probably going to be very interesting as a first person account of a very challenging ride.

Brief encounters: Free Realms, Metaplace, Galactrix

a href=My journey in Free Realms continues to be one of discovery. This week I finally figured out how to take screenshots whilst simultaneously failing to take any good ones. Funny how that goes.

To take a screenshot: F12

To remove the UI (so you can get a clean screenshot): F10

If using Windows XP, screenshots will be stored in C:\Program Files\Sony Online Entertainment\Installed Games\Free Realms\ImageCaptureOutput

(NB. If the program actually asked you before it installed where you’d like it to go, this might have been more obvious — this is one of the minor side effects from it being such a seamless install.)

I’m approaching FR from an exploring point of view, so if I find myself getting bored or distracted from one activity, I just go and do something else. So it’s quite interesting for me to check what levels I have in different careers because it shows which minigames I most enjoyed:

Higher than 15: Card Duellist, Miner, Blacksmith

Higher than 5: Wizard, Ninja, Pet Trainer, Adventurer

Higher than 1: Brawler, Archer, Warrior, Chef, Postman

So this week I did try out a few of the combat careers, but was put off by the grind. I think this would be much more fun with someone else to play with. But given FR’s total lack of a working friends list, continuing awkwardness of befriending people you actually know, and my lack of being able to persuade my other half/ sisters to play, that will going to have to go on the back burner (for me at least).

I have liked the little mini combat encounters and dungeons that I have seen. But the 2* difficulty ones that you get after level 5 are harsh to solo on my little wizard, who doesn’t get any crowd control until level 10.

Miner and Blacksmith are both more solo friendly. I’m impressed that Tobold has hit level 20 in both, I was finding Blacksmith fun in small spurts but rather grindy overall. It doesn’t help that I still don’t much care for smelting. However, fun in small spurts is what this game is all about for me. I don’t need long sessions and I think it works best if you approach it like a bag of licorice allsorts (ie. just grab a handful of different flavours and see what you get).

I also tried out the Pet Trainer this week, although have still resisted the urge to buy a Pookie of my own (next week I’ll try to get a picture of her side by side with my cat to show the similarity). If you don’t own a pet — which costs real money — you can ‘borrow’ one for 20 mins at a time to train with. I was able to get to level 7 in the first 20 minute session;  the pet animations and sounds are absolutely enchanting, even to a tomboy like me.

I particularly love the way that the pet really gives the impression of slowly learning its new trick. And the trainer (ie. you) is so obviously trying to encourage it.

I’ve decided to limit myself to a similar monthly spend to a regular MMO with Free Realms to see how it goes. I may well buy the pet next month. I noticed that some cost more than others and note in the flavour text that they help you with treasure hunting. I’m guessing that this means they’ll help you sniff out collections when you are out in the world with them, but have not been able to test this yet.

In the spirit of getting more value from my paid month, I also exercised my option to make an alt. Two things I noticed here:

  1. With the alt, I was given the option to skip the tutorial. Hurrah.
  2. Male characters get the option to have cool tribal type face markings and female ones get make-up or sparkly hearts/flowers/butterflies? I’m not making any specially feminist snark here but I know that as a kid I wasn’t into girly stuff and I don’t see the point in limiting options. Plus who is to say that some boys might not want the face sparklies?

In any case, congratulations are due to the Free Realms team for having achieved a million signups in a very short period of time. They’ve made a great little game and thoroughly deserve it. (They also celebrated this with a new loading screen which no longer shows the character with the guitar ;) ). Now, about that friends list …

Metaplace is now in open beta

If you like building stuff, check out Metaplace. I haven’t had a lot of time yet to experiment but the little starting tutorial will give you a flavour for the power behind the tools. As is often the case with tutorials, there seems to be a huge gap between where the tutorial stops and what  you really want to know to do the things you want to do. But I’ll be amazed if a prolific fan community doesn’t spring up to fill in the gaps.

So… Galactrix

I’ve had a couple of train journeys worth of Puzzlequest Galactrix which is not enough for a proper review (even by my lax standards). But I am really liking the ideas behind it, and it does have the freedom of movement I want to see in a Space-type game — that sense of ‘I can fly anywhere in the galaxy!!’.

But crikey it does spend a lot of time saving and loading data. Does the DS have no RAM or is the DS port just  too ambitious/  unoptimised for that platform’s requirements? (One of my jobs in my last place of work was porting code/ drivers from specialist hardware to PCs or vice versa but you don’t need to be an expert to see when the job is … a bit lacking.)

Still, I’m having fun and that’s all I really ask from a game. First impressions from Galactrix — money well spent!

What makes a good games shop?

First up, thanks all for the discussion yesterday. It’s been interesting and I know I’m thinking about my assumptions.

Second, thanks muchly to Ixobelle for cleaning up the header here.

Back to the topic, I had a really unusual experience yesterday in a games shop. Ever since I was a teenager buying comics and RPGs, I’ve felt like an outsider in games and comic shops. The token female. Even when I knew lots of other women were into this stuff, somehow they never seemed to be in the shops. Games shops themselves have always been a small corner of male-dominated geekery.

Truth is, since I started playing MMOs I don’t buy other games all that often – I have to be very sure that I’ll want to play it enough to find the time. Or else it has to be cheap in the sales, or else maybe an old, classic game that I’ve wanted to play for ages but never got around to. Or a DS game.

The DS is actually the only current gen console that we own, because it’s just perfect for train journeys, of which I make several a week.

So on this occasion I was in GAME because I wanted to pick up a couple of copies of Puzzlequest Galactrix. Puzzlequest (ie. the prequel) never sold well in the UK, but surely part of this is because it was hard to find  on the shelves in shops? I don’t know how many people buy from brick and mortar shops rather than online,  but guessing still a majority.

I don’t know what went wrong with the promotion. A good puzzle based DS game with a fantasy theme really shouldn’t be a hard sell. It’s not like GTA: Chinatown which failed to sell because the people who own DSs don’t want to play GTA.

So I was happy because not only did I find a copy, but it was also in the sale (presumably because it didn’t sell as well as expected – perhaps the total lack of promotion was a factor there too?). So I went to the counter to ask if they had another copy and the guy behind the desk asked if I was buying it for myself. I said I was, and he brightened; we had a quick chat about how great Puzzlequest was and how disappointing that it hadn’t been more popular.

Do you know how unusual it is for an employee of a games shop to treat female customers over 30ish as if they were actual gamers and not just buying for a child or partner? VERY.

Funny thing is, I had to go to the other branch of GAME in town to pick up the second copy  since I’m not buying a copy of Galactrix for myself without getting one for my husband, that would be a cause of minor household friction, and the guy behind the counter there was pretty much the same. So either

  • they’ve all had solid diversity training
  • all GAME employees like Puzzlequest (to be fair, it’s a good game)
  • or if a woman over thirty comes into the shop and buys a puzzle-based DS game, odds are it’s for herself. (ie. games shop employees have a good knowledge of gamer demographics and this was a shoe-in).

Whatever it was, I like it.

Now of course, we can buy over the internet, where no one knows you’re a dog. So we can avoid those pokey little holes stacked high with shelves of games for consoles you don’t own, where people act like you don’t belong. But if they can make me feel more as though I’m part of a community of hobbyists, I’ll be more likely to spend time there and if I spend more time there, I’ll spend more money there too.

Busy on Saturday? In London?

If you’re in London on Saturday afternoon (9th May), feel free to drop into the Cittie of Yorke for  a drink.

I’m going to be hanging out with Arbitrary, friends from Warhammer Online, and BoG readers. The aim is to chill, chat (probably about gaming but who knows?), drink, and maybe play a few games.

She’s summed the plans up much better than I could. Anyone who wants to come is invited! And as a bonus, it’s one of the prettiest pubs in London.