Imperial News: Video Cards and the Imperial Birthday

First, a look at the video card situation. As many of you know by now, I have been having video card problems for a long time. Over a year ago, my GeForce card began overheating, making it impossible to play video games, and almost inoperable for regular tasks.

For my birthday last July 16th, I received two Radeon HD 4870 card. They worked, at first. I was even able to play “Dawn of War II”. Then my computer began having problems, problems which may or may not have had to do with the video cards. I found a number of problems: a wrong-size fan had been previously installed on my computer (and I am amazed that when it was put together, the person had jammed in this oversized fan); so I had that replaced. I replaced the power supply, which might have been going bad. I found that my RAM was not in the proper set-up for dual-channeling. I installed Windows 7 to replace my 3-year-old Windows XP installation, thus speeding up my computer and fixing some other issues with it. But the problem persisted.

Since I had finally confirmed that it was almost certainly my video cards, yes, both video cards experiencing the same error (the alternative being that the motherboard was causing this, which is even more unlikely), I contacted the manufacturer. After testing my HDDs and RAM, at their recommendation, they finally agreed to check my cards.

I shipped my cards to them, and in the meantime, I borrowed an older video card from a friend of mine. This card frequently causes minor graphical hiccups, and occasionally dies and requires me to restart my computer. Yet it could play Baldur’s Gate, so that is a small relief.

A week later, the cards are confirmed as faulty. The company ships me out two replacement cards. I put them in…

The replacement cards don’t work. They experience severe, lasting graphical hiccups, to the extent that I must restart my computer when they crop up. I cannot play any video games on them. The screen frequently goes black and my computer restarts. I experience the same problem happens with both cards. As unlikely as it sounds, the cards are likely both broken. That, or my motherboard is somehow breaking video cards. Either way, I don’t feel confident in this manufacturer. I have messaged them again, telling them of the problem. Maybe they will have a solution. Maybe they will send me a different model. Either way, I plan to switch back to GeForce next time I need a card.

I will be using the card I am borrowing from my friend until I get a proper replacement set. If nothing works out with this company, I will just buy a replacement computer once I have some disposable income. That could be a couple months out. I do not plan to play anything system intensive in the meantime, so that is not a big issue.

However, KotOR is itself a problem; it is not built to run well on modern installations. It is possible to get it work (although it might not work on my Radeon cards, period), but it takes a lot of fiddling. Hopefully I can get it to work once I have a working set of cards. Once I [em]can[/em] can get it to work, I will immediately play it.

Next: I am happy to say that I can finally make this joke.
What’s the scouter say about my view count?
It’s over 9,000!
(I know, I know, it’s dated, but this is my only chance to use that joke)
Seriously, though, the blog is getting close to 10,000 hits, and that is really cool. It hasn’t even been a year yet! I am still planning to hold a contest around the big 10K, but I want to be sure I have some money for the purpose of prizes when I do so, so the exact date might not be until August (assuming the blog hits 10K before then).

My birthday is around the corner. Like I mentioned earlier, my birthday is July 16th. If you would do anything to see me play a game, now is a good time to send me one. I get a game, you get to see the game blogged. That way we both win.

For those whom don’t know, I have a poll on my blog, where people can vote on which game I play next. You can find it on the right sidebar of this site. Check it out. You will also notice that some of the games have asterisks by them. Those are games which I either have or which I know someone will lend me. I literally cannot afford to buy games right now. In other words, if you see a game hanging around at the top of the blog, and I don’t play it, it’s because I don’t have the money to buy it. If you want to send it to me, great, let me know and we will make arrangements. I will be able to play and blog about it, and I will even credit you/your handle for sending the game (unless you care to remain anonymous).

Mages and Thieves Can Twiddle Their Thumbs

Mages and thieves are, at times, frustrating. They serve specialized roles in a party, roles which may not get to shine frequently. My party mage, Dynaheir, can cast Stinking Cloud and Fireball. Both spells are devastating. However, they also affect a tremendous area, and do not discriminate between allies and enemies. Therefore, she cannot use that spell unless there are tons of enemies, or there is a distant group; such an occurance has yet to arise. Perhaps a bit of it has to do with skill. Unless they are tossing single-target spells like Chromatic Orb, mages really do need to aim their spells. A mistake could cost a party member a good chunk of health, or even their life; resetting or being forced to return to town are not out of the question.

Mages can dish out a lot of damage with their magic, but they are also frail. Dynaheir cannot walk up to enemies and go at them with her dagger. She will be slaughtered, even with the Bracers of A.C. 8 that I gave her.

The other side to mages is their utility spells, like the ability to identify items, which comes up more frequently. These spells see more use, but don’t help much when there are 10 archers shooting the party.

To be fair, mages get a better selection as they gain levels. I just have yet to get to that point.

Thieves, in a similar vein, have the ability to pick pocket and open locks. The former will lower the party’s reputation, and possibly result in being attacked, if the party member is seen doing it. A player whom cares about their reputation (and you should, as it gives a great discount at shops) should avoid pick-pocketing. Open Locks is more useful, but again, unwise to do in peoples’ homes. Instead, it just comes up in enemy camps. Speaking of enemies, they set traps. This is where thieves should shine, but there are not many traps, at least in the first half of the game. Thieves can presumably take advantage of their backstab ability, where they move silently and hide in shadows, but that requires raising those skills, keeping in dark areas, waiting, and attacking with a payoff that might not be impressive.

It’s much easier to just have a group of fighters rush into the enemies and hack away at them. There is actually a bit of strategy here, ironically. Mage in the enemy group? Prioritize him; when the fighters’ swings hit, they disrupt the spell. Similarly, standing the fighters next to ranged units means that the ranged units leave themselves very vulnerable.

To be fair, there are going to definitely be times when having a mage or a thief is going to be essential to getting through the game. However, until then, they tend to either just shoot arrows (in Imoen’s case, and she actually does do a half-decent job) or stand and watch the party fight (as Dynaheir must oft do, although now that she has the Ring of Wizardry, that might change).

Montarion and Xvar

How can I describe them? Hilarious. A necromancer and a fighter/thief whom don’t much care for each other. Their playful banter includes lines like, “Must we be so insufferably charitable?” and that death quote form Xvar, “Oh, Montarion, I… heh, never really liked you much anyway.” The amusing thing here is that my character is Lawful Good and, during my first attempt to run through this game, I did not realize that, instead of having his spells under, well, spells, Paladins have an area called Special Abilities – and [em]that[/em] is where Detect Evil is. So, I kept it on that playthrough, playing it as it was until my Paladin would be forced to realize they were both evil and have to kill them.

That time never came. Jaheira and Khalid, another two party members, came in, and after a while, had an argument with those two. Somehow, this made it so that I could not control any of those characters, and would have had to drop all of them. So, after seeking help and trying a few things, I had to reload, restart… and this time I used Detect Evil and had Cruxil kill both Montarion and Xvar. A good act? Maybe not. But not necessarily an evil one. Oh, maybe those two were redeemable… ah-ha-ha… no. Though, to be fair, I probably shouldn’t go around killing everyone whom glows red when I cast Detect Evil on them. Some of them are bound to be important or too strong, and some of them [em]might[/em] be redeemable. I’ll have to think about it. Really, it is the only way to be allowed to kill characters and take their things without suffering a drop in reputation (well, without gaming the system).

But now I must play the game without them constantly insinuating that we should just kill everybody and take their loot. Ah, those funny evil bastards. Reminding us all why you should never do an actual tabletop game where somebody says, “C’mon guys, let me play Chaotic Evil. It’ll be cool.” Montarion and Xvar… you will be missed.

The Style for this Playthrough

Cruxil, the Paladin

My character, Cruxil, the Paladin

This being a roleplaying game with the emphasis on the roleplaying, I am taking a different approach to this game. Part of the fun of D&D has always been getting into character. Baldur’s Gate tries to recapture that feel by retaining the alignment system (and related class restrictions), adding the reputation system, letting the player decide with what sort of characters he wants to associate (consider the difference between the the true neutral druid, the chaotic evil necromancer, and the lawful good paladin), and having decisions make a difference as to whether the character’s reputation rises or falls.

For those unfamiliar with the alignment system, here is how it works in D&D. There are two axis, which produce nine alignments. The Axis are Law-Neutral-Chaotic and Good-Neutral-Evil. Mix and match any two sets of words (one from each axis) and you have an alignment. The purpose of the system is to help define characters, and also serves as a basis for how certain spells affect characters, what they can wear, and other things of note (Paladins, whom must be lawful good, lose their divine spellcasting if they act out of alignment).

The reputation system affects how well people treat the main character, the only one whom the player directly controls. Characters with higher reputation will get discounts at shops, and evil characters will complain and eventually leave the party. Lower reputation increases the prices, causes guards to attack, and drives away good characters. It is an admittedly unbalanced system in this game, but given space limitations and the fact that such games are generally geared toward heroism, it is not completely unforgivable that being a bad guy is going to get you screwed. The big advantage of being evil is that the player can steal from, and kill, almost anybody. This is very useful for getting certain rare or unique pieces of equipment. Plus, some NPCs are worth a [i]lot[/i] of experience.

As I am playing a paladin, I am required to be Lawful Good in this playthrough. For better immersion, I am going to be playing that properly. … Also, if I don’t, then my paladin can be stripped of his class and powers, which means that he will suck. The weakness of this alignment restriction is that my character cannot knowingly party with evil characters, cannot do evil or chaotic acts, and must do good deeds selflessly (ie. if the crying woman asks me to rescue her children, I can’t say, “Only if you pay me 5000 gold”).

Technically, I could get around some of these things, but that is gaming the system. The game is meant to be played a certain way, and to get the most out of the game, it should be played that way (that’s not to say you can’t go glitch-spelunking in “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night”, just that you shouldn’t play with an “Alucard is Invincible” cheat). This is a I could go on, but this sounds like an interesting enough subject to save for its own post.

Being a paladin has some advantages beside the combat ones I mentioned beforehand. They have a very high charisma, which in turn means that their starting reputation is very high. A high (or low) charisma also affects other characters’ starting attitude toward the main character.

Next Game: Baldur’s Gate

I considered moving straight on to Ar Tonelico 2, but the series does not captivate me. Like Xerain suggested, it might be fun if the Ar Tonelico 2 fan patches had finished retranslating the game. But such is not the case, nor do I have the rig necessary to get the most out of the game (ie. keeping it from lagging horrifically). Beside all that, I’m not the target audience for this series.

So, on to other prospects.

I have been able to get a hold of Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2, and Icewind Dale. So… the plan is to do those games in a marathon based on when they were released.

I will be doing Baldur’s Gate with the EasyTutu expansion, along with some other small mods, which make the game look… decent. Although the widescreen mod also makes the game [i]really[/i] far zoomed out. They’re almost like ants.

I do not know whether I will actually play through all of those games in order. I have heard that it is easy to get burned out on the series, especially if I play some of the expansions. So, we’ll see. Also, my birthday is in about a month. So, hopefully I can get some of those games that have been sitting high on the list for the longest time (Oh, Dragon Quest V… your day will come eventually).

For my Baldur’s Gate Playthrough, I am going to be a Paladin. With the EasyTutu conversion, I can select a kit. So I am going to be playing a Cavalier, in particular. Really, there is no reason to be anything but a Cavalier if you are doing the Paladin Route. Ooh, you give up missiles… and in exchange, become immune to poison, charm (and something else, I think), gain big resistances, some great bonuses to hit dragons and demons, and keep everything else that is awesome about being a paladin.

Why a Paladin? They get good saves, are good at melee combat, and have some nice support abilities. They’re not fragile, so I do not have to worry about keeling over the first time a kobold shoots my paladin with an arrow. (Also, the Max HP at level-up mod helps)

For those whom do not know, Baldur’s Gate is based on the 2nd Edition D&D engine. It is a touch stifling, particularly since the first Baldur’s Gate is [i]early[/i] 2nd Edition. Baldur’s Gate 2 incorporates a lot of neat things that came around in the later years of that edition… And I still prefer 3.x over either way of that. This is actually my first exposure to 2nd edition AD&D. Well, if you can call it that. Some things do not translate well from pen & paper to computer. For example, fighters getting keeps, wizards getting towers, and clerics getting temples. It can be done, but is a lot of work that would detract from the story and battle.

Ah, I’ll cut it here for now, before I begin comparing various editions of D&D. I would be getting somewhat off-topic.

Anyway, looking forward to playing through this game. I have heard mixed reviews, so I will be drawing my own conclusion. And, if for some reason I do not like it, well, there is Icewind Dale. And then there is Baldur’s Gate 2. And a lot of other games in the world.

A couple other things:
I have sent in my video cards for repair (borrowing one from a friend right now). After extensive testing, I have determined that it is either my video cards… or the video card ports on my motherboard (the latter seeming quite unlikely). The manufacturer will be testing them to confirm whether the video cards are at fault, and sending them back. I should have my answer within a week. If everything goes smoothly, I’ll soon be playing KotOR or Dragon Age: Origins. I say “or” because KotOR has many problems independent of the fact that there is something wrong with my video cards. Suffice to say that the body of work detailing methods by which to get the game to run proper is extensive.

Also, if you have not yet done so, remember that you can decide which games you would like to see me play. Just visit the poll on the right sidebar.

Thanks again for reading. Thanks to Lumice for letting me borrow his copy of Ar Tonelico (and another friend of mine whom let me borrow his when the first copy began giving my PS2 some problems). Thanks to all of you whom comment, and make this blog even more vibrant. See you at Baldur’s Gate.

Little Power from the Tower – Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia Review

Ar Tonelico is an RPG of average quality, balancing out its better features with some bad design choices. I have dwelt at length on some of these issues in other posts, so I will be hitting mostly the highlights.

The game is much lauded for its music. There is heavy use of what might be called tribal music in the technologically advanced areas, giving a sense of irony and cohesion to the world. In particular, the tune that plays in the highest reaches of the tower of Ar Tonelico. There is also at least one area where the field music flows right into the battles… and it works! I am, however, irritated that some of the boss battles have this song where somebody starts rapping. Yes, lyrics can go with battle music, but it cannot interfere: this music just feels out of place, and actually the tune itself is a little less grand than it should be for such an impressive battle.

The graphics appear to be modeled on those from SaGa Frontier. They feature semi-realistic backgrounds with character sprites that fit just slightly awkwardly thereupon. The look is a little weird, but not really in a bad way. It seems like an artistic choice, and the payoff likely varies from person to person.

The same praise(?) cannot be given for the anime cutscenes or the enemy sprites. The anime is choppy and subpar by today’s standards. Thankfully, there are very few of these jarring scenes. Unfortunately, there are a lot of battles. Oh, the system is… interesting, but there are literally less than 15 significantly different models, and it would be generous to say the actual number of significantly different models could be counted on more than two hands. To put it in another light, the spellcasters have more costumes than there are different enemy models.

The combat system is original: having to synergize the front row fighters with the back row spellcaster. Its folly, however, is that it is never fully realized. There is a lot that could have been done with the system (as previously discussed) and it is a shame that it was predictable by the end. The game is not challenging. For all its originality, most fights can be easily resolved with the exact same strategy of brute force.

The cast is not particularly deep, except the Reyvateils. This game being part dating-sim, and them being the dating interests, it was necessary that they be developed. The Reyvateils have interesting quirks, flaws, and histories. It is a shame, though, that the same attention to detail is not realized with much of the rest of the cast. Most ridiculously is the main character, Lyner, whom is perpetually befuddled toward the romantic advances of the Reyvateils. By the end of the game, his bemusement stretches credibility to the breaking point. There is actually a scene where he symbolically gets married, and he still doesn’t get that the girl is at all interested in him.

The nicest thing about the game is the small morality play toward the end. The game explores what motivates somebody to do evil, and focuses on the main villain. The characters learn about the villains’ past, relationships, and motivations. The payoff is that the final boss fight ending is more than just skewering the villain and riding off into the sunset.

Finally, the game must be marked down for the lag and glitching. Apparently, reports of lag vary depending on which model of PS2 is being used to play the game. However, this playthrough had lag for opening menus, scrolling down menus, entering combat, switching outfits, and commencing attacks – all very standard procedures that should be executed smoothly. There is also a nasty glitch, perhaps caused by the lag, which can make the game unbeatable, and an incautious player could very well need to restart the game because of it. Beside all that, the game has a bizarre memory card issue that makes it very risky to play “Ar Tonelico” on a PS3 (assuming the model is even backwards compatible). These are the sorts of issues that could pass in an amateur game, but in a professional release, it is disappointing that they are a constant presence.

“Ar Tonelico” is not a terrible game. However, it is not a particularly fantastic game either. It is deep – sometimes. The music is good – usually. The graphics are hit-or-miss. The combat system is novel, but the implementation is uncreative. There is a lot of history to the world, but most of it won’t show up in the game itself. The designers cared for this product, but it feels rushed and unfinished. It ranks somewhere between being a very impressive amateur game (which it technically isn’t) and being a slightly sub-average professional game. Worth checking out, if only for the fact that they seem to have tried very hard to make the game well, but not a definite buy unless novelty is that important of a purchasing factor in the eye of the player.

Sundry Thoughts for Ar Tonelico

Is there any point to Spica? Really? She just stands there, being mysterious and selling kitty candy and black market grathnode crystals. She is played up like she has some great secret, but there isn’t any. For a secret to be meaningful, there must be some impact on the game. And it’s not that she sells Grathnode Crystals. We already know that one.

Radolf wears nipple plate armor.

Why doesn’t the game ever dwell on Bourd’s motivations? About half way through the game, Lyner begins to make a big deal about understanding one’s enemies. Yet we never get a clear picture into Bourd’s mind. He was an adventurer and his thuggishness belies his intelligence, but that’s most of what the audience knows of him. I would have liked to see a scene where we encounter one of Bourd’s relatives, or his journal, find out why he took up adventuring and why he was evil.

This missing factor undercuts the admittedly interesting message that the game brings. Peace through understanding. It is cool to see a hero whom genuinely wants to end things without fighting. The message is a bit forced toward the middle; it doesn’t feel like a natural progression. But it does play out well toward the end. The group scouring the world to understand Mir’s reasoning.

My favorite character is Jack. I like his attitude and I like his outfit. He’s like Killey from Suikoden, except he wears green and you get to hang out with him for more of the game. I wish we got to see more of his past, his development from Harmonica to Jack, and his thoughts on the situation. He comes from a unique perspective as one of the Teru-Teru tribe, and we never really get to see what that culture means to him.

I talk about the problem with the lack of information frequently. I do wish a lot more of it was incorporated into the game. I wonder whether all that extra room went toward putting in no less than four visual novels. Four. Why are those in there? Well, maybe there’s some truth to the idea that this was going to start out as an H-Game, or perhaps something more like a visual novel itself.

There is something about Ayatane’s appearance that I don’t like. It seems he is trying [i]too[/i] hard to be androgynous. He naturally is. The eyeliner and the purple lipstick actually look garish on him. Now, I will say that his appearance is impressive: the samurai armor is cool, the touch with the green hair is neat, and I like the hair-ties. But he could lose the make-up. Come to think of it, Lady Shurelia could lose the metal tits on her armor, too. Seriously, what’s up with the weird chest plates in this game? Even Ayatane’s looks almost like there’s some weird face right in the middle of it.

Having now played through one of the paths, I can say that I am not interested in playing through the other. The game is thoroughly average to me – maybe a bit below – and I admit that it is partially due to me not being the target audience. The one thing I really am interested in, the history of this world, is poorly laid out in the game itself.

I never figured out why the President of Tenba was unaware of Bourd’s misdeeds. It sounds like Tenba’s mistreatment of the Reyvateils was obvious. I know she is the President, which means she is busy, but the game never actually explains [i]what[/i] she was doing all the while that Bourd was up to scheming.

Which reminds me: did anyone else think they were going to actually [i]do[/i] something with that gigantic song crystals in the Song Park? It seems like a missed opportunity.