Friday, August 26, 2016

SPC Interviews: Jenny Gibbons and Malcolm Pierce (Echoes of the Fey)

Echoes of the Fey is a visual novel by a pair local developers in the St. Louis game development community. It's astonishing that they were able to do the majority of the design and development work on this project on their own with just the two of them.

I had the opportunity to throw some questions at Jenny Gibbons and Malcolm Pierce, the duo behind Echoes of the Fey, asking them about the development history of the visual novel, what makes the genre so compelling, and other odds and ends.

Phil Stortzum (PS): Who is the team behind Echoes of the Fey, and what were their positions and general duties with the game?

Jenny Gibbons (JG): The team behind Echoes of the Fey consists primarily of myself (Jenny Gibbons) and Malcolm Pierce. Malcolm came up with the original story idea for Echoes of the Fey, and we both thought it would be a good fit to develop together as a new Woodsy Studio game.
We initially worked with a great new artist to draw the concept art, but she wasn't able to stay on the project. I took on all the art after that, as well as the music and initial programming. Malcolm worked on most of the script, and then tackled the process of importing it into Game Maker. From there we juggled tasks as much as we could, and hired out voice actors!

PS: What can you tell SuperPhillip Central’s readers about the story of Echoes of the Fey?

Malcolm Pierce (MP): Echoes of the Fey is detective story that happens to be set in a world of high fantasy. The setting is the continent of Oraz, which is divided in two by a Great Forest. Humans live on one side, Leshin—the proper/preferred term in our world for Elves—the other. In the months after a long war between these two peoples, our protagonist, Sofya Rykov, is a private investigator who uses her magic powers in secret to solve mysteries in the border town of Vodotsk.

PS: Echoes of the Fey is being released episodically. How many total episodes will there be, and what is the timing for release of the other episodes?

MP: To be completely honest, we don't know how many episodes we'll write. While each episode will connect via certain plot through-lines, they are generally stand-alone mysteries. We see the episodes more  like episodes of Sherlock rather than episodes of, say, The Walking Dead. Character circumstances may change. They may rise or fall, their relationships may become close or unravel... But at the end of each episode, Sofya will be ready to solve another mystery. The numbering is largely to ensure the between-episodes threads make sense to a new player. As for timing, we're working on that now. We're considering a short, free prologue that would be out sometime in the winter—an Episode Zero, if you will—and beyond that I've already started work on outlining the next full installment, which we'd hope to have done in the spring.

PS: What benefits does having a visual novel have over a real novel? What advantages does telling a story in a visual novel have over doing a different type of game, say, an RPG?

JG: The most exciting element of a visual novel is that the players have an active influence over the story. By making certain choices throughout the game, they help craft the story. Writing multiple branches of a story is more work than a traditional novel with one ending, but it's very rewarding as an author to see how players respond. It is like watching your story come alive and grow into something greater than you first imagined.

The biggest advantage of visual novels over other games (like an RPG) is that the story is the primary focus, and that's okay. Gameplay needs to be altered so that it helps the story; not the other way around. We like to make the story our number one priority.

PS: What do you think makes visual novels so compelling to players?

MP: More than any other type of game, a visual novel has to have an engaging story and interesting characters. That's because the story and characters are the gameplay. The fun part of playing a visual novel is seeing how both react to your choices. If you don't care, then the game won't keep you coming back.

PS: What games, fantasy series, films, stories, etc. have contributed to the inspiration of Echoes of the Fey?

JG: Our initial concept set out to be different from anything we'd seen before, considering that the tone would blend high fantasy with mystery and steampunk motifs. We also wanted to take characteristics often given to well-rounded male heroes and give those to a woman instead. That said, we were heavily influenced by other mediums once we started working on the project.

Malcolm drew some inspiration from Terry Pratchet's novel "The Color of Magic." We also got into the "Saga" graphic novel series shortly after we started development, and that was a huge inspiration both on the story and overall aesthetic. Musically, I drew a lot of inspiration from "Legend" and the way it blended soft synth music with a dreamy fantasy world. I spent a lot of time listening to musicians like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis  while working on the game.

PS: How long has development been on Echoes of the Fey?

MP: Approximately one year. Keep in mind, this included the development of our VN system (which was built off of a module called EdgeVN, by Thinkboxly) and when we started, Jenny was the only one who knew anything about GameMaker, or coding at all really. Future episodes should be able to be produced faster.

PS: What were the biggest problems regarding development of Echoes of the Fey? How did you go about solving them?

JG: For me personally, trying to balance a full-time day-job with working on this game in my free time presented the biggest challenge. To that end, it was also very difficult (both practically and emotionally) when our artist left the project just a few months into development. But Malcolm took on more and more of the work tasks as I took over the art, and we were able to keep up that balancing act for the rest of the project!

Otherwise - in terms of basic game development - I'd say the biggest challenge we faced was trying to make a visual novel in Game Maker, which felt very unnatural at first. Fortunately, as Malcolm mentioned before, we were able to purchase another programmer's plugin engine that provided the foundation of code we needed to launch forward.

PS: Is there anything not in this first episode feature-wise that you would like to include in future episodes?

MP: This was our first VN in an engine other than Ren'py. Don't get me wrong, Ren'py is great for creating visual novels. If that's all you want to do—tell a story with visuals and music and branching paths—go ahead and stay with it. But from the beginning we knew we wanted to do more, and add more game systems. In the first episode, The Fox's Trail, this manifests with side-scrolling sections that represent the city where the investigations are taking place. But now that we're both way more proficient with coding, we're hoping to add deeper systems. I can't promise exactly what those are, but I can say that we're beginning to experiment with some game-within-a-game ideas.

PS: There is a relationship system in Echoes of the Fey that changes certain elements of the story. How was this implemented to work well?

JG: That's an interesting question for this story, which can't be answered in great detail without dropping spoilers! But I will say this: in Echoes of the Fey, the pursuit of character relationships through side quests is optional, but also has a strong impact the main plot. By spending time with some characters, you find clues that will help you solve the central mystery. We wanted the plot to feed the character development and vice versa. Towards the end, your relationship with other characters determines whether they will help you out when you need support!

PS: How do you go about making the choices players make feel like they’re actually proactive in engaging with Echoes of the Fey rather than just feeling like they have no power and are just going through the motions?

MP: Choices are a double-edged sword. On one hand, we want to tell a compelling, fully-formed story. We want our player-character, Sofya, to have a personality of her own rather than simply be a cipher. Too many VN protagonists are blank slates. Sofya is a disgraced noblewoman and war veteran who hides her physical scars with magic and her emotional scars with overcompensated optimism. So all the choices—and there are a lot of choices—have to be things we believe Sofya might actually do. Fortunately, she's also (more than) a bit capricious. One of the tools we use to make the choices feel meaningful is information. Certain choices reveal a lot more about the world—and the case—and thus provide the player with information. Other choices are about sharing that information. Since Sofya is a private investigator, she tends to uncover secrets about the characters around her. Revealing certain information to others can drastically affect where those characters end up by the time the credits roll.

PS: How are you encouraging replay value with Echoes of the Fey, or is it intended to be a go-through-it-only-once experience?

JG: Assuming that you see all the side quests on your first playthrough, the primary replay value of Echoes of the Fey comes from the last third of the game. After uncovering the mystery, the player has to make big decisions regarding what to do with the discovery. Do you tell everyone you know the truth, even if doing so causes someone harm, or do you lie about it? Do you tell some people and not others? There are several ending variations depending on your choices throughout the last third of the game, and you can only choose one character to help you deal with the consequences on each playthrough.

PS: Are there any parting thoughts or something you’d like to say to SuperPhillip Central’s readers before we finish here?

MP: If you enjoy stories in video games and you've never tried a VN, you should give one a shot. A lot of people think of them as a purely Japanese phenomenon, but there's a rich history of interactive fiction in the so-called west, from the trial-and-error text parsing of Infocom titles to the wacky puzzles of classic Lucasarts adventure games, to the janky-but-ambitious work of David Cage. A good story can be told in many different formats, and games are too often overlooked on that front.


And if you are interested in Echoes of the Fey after reading this interview, look no further than the game's Steam page to download the title. My thanks to both Jenny Gibbons and Malcolm Pierce for their responses to my questions. Stay tuned to SuperPhillip Central for future interviews, whether for small or large devs, or someone anywhere in between!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Most Overlooked Current Gen Games - Part Three

The Most Overlooked series of articles is one of the longest series ever seen on SuperPhillip Central. And as long as there are games that don't get the due attention they deserve, then this article series will keep on keepin' on. Today's edition is part three of our look at the games on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One that have slipped through the cracks, being overlooked by the mainstream market for the most part. To check out past editions of Most Overlooked Current Gen Games, look no further than part one and part two.

TrackMania: Turbo (PS4, XB1)

We kick part three of Most Overlooked Current Gen Games with a release from earlier this year, TrackMania: Turbo. The game features the similar arcade-style racing gameplay of past games with over 200 unique tracks to speed through. Turbo's focus is on performing stunts while racing through tracks that generally don't take any longer than a minute to complete. However, getting gold medals on tracks is all about that perfect run. With the ability to play cooperatively with friends or in split screen with up to four players, something that makes it stand out as the first game of its type on both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, as well as create your own tracks, TrackMania: Turbo is a super-charged arcade racer that like a lightning fast race car, many gamers blinked and missed it.

Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth (PS4, Vita)

The fifth game in the Digimon Story series, Cyber Sleuth brought the Digimon sub-series to a home console for the very first time, offering a JRPG absolutely drenched with content. While the turn-based battle system doesn't innovate exponentially, and the dungeon design is a tad linear, what Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth does get exceptionally right is being an overall entertaining experience for fans of the Digimon series as well as those who love a traditional RPG with lots of longevity. Seriously, you can enjoy Digimon Story; Cyber Sleuth upwards of 100 hours, and that includes the bonus New Game Plus mode that allows you to keep all of your collected Digimon, money, and more.

Hand of Fate (PS4, XB1, PC)

Card-based gameplay in video games in nothing new. We've seen it in games like Baten Kaitos and Lost Kingdoms, for instance. However, the Defiant Development-crafted Hand of Fate takes card-based gameplay to a new frontier, offering a tabletop card game experience brought to life. Here, the game blends that experience with rogue-like gameplay and action-RPG combat. The ability to customize your own deck is here, allowing you to build unique strategies to fit the given situation at hand (no pun intended) as you go on an adventure to take on 13 different bosses to complete the game. Hand of Fate encourages multiple play-throughs which only further sweetens the proverbial pot. Those looking for a card game unlike any other, be sure to check out the digital delight that is Hand of Fate.

Super Mega Baseball (PS4, PS3, XB1, PC)

With the Major League Baseball season racing towards the finish line, perhaps you're searching for a baseball game to play that is easier to pick up and play than a simulation-style game like MLB; The Show. Now, while Metalhead Software's Super Mega Baseball lacks the licensing of Major League Baseball, what it does offer is arcade baseball goodness that harks back to the glory days when baseball games were easy to pick up a controller and enjoy with buddies or by your lonesome. Nonetheless, don't think that Super Mega Baseball is overly basic. It's not. It delivers the full baseball experience, giving you full control of every player on the field, even allowing the customization of all 216 on the various teams in the game. With Super Mega Baseball, Metalhead Software hit it out of the park.

Kick & Fennick (PS4, XB1, Wii U, Vita)

Kick & Fennick is a touching adventure, starring a boy and a helper robot that he encounters in a mysterious lab setting. Together, the two assist each other through a concrete jungle of skyscrapers and buildings while being pursued by a large robot. Kick & Fennick's way of mobilization is quite unlike any other game. Kick has a special propulsion cannon of sorts that can be used to shoot him at various angles to reach new platforms that he otherwise wouldn't be able to access, as the game provides no basic jump button. The player can shoot Kick into the air, and then launch him a second time in midair. Careful precision movements and timing are required to get through later levels where the hazards are quite challenging to dodge and evade. Full of dozens of well designed levels, beautiful visuals, an innovative gameplay premise, and lots of secrets to unlock, Kick & Fennick is a great game that deserves more attention.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Skylanders SuperChargers (PS4, XB1, Wii U, PS3, 360) Review

SuperPhillip Central keeps on rolling review-wise this month, as does the Summer of 700. While we won't quite reach that milestone THIS month, NEXT month will be something even more special! For now, let's turn our attention to last year's Skylanders SuperChargers. With Imaginators coming out this year and all the hype around Crash Bandicoot being in it, it seemed like a smart time to try out the game's predecessor. Here's SuperPhillip Central's review of Skylanders SuperChargers.

Five years in and still all charged up

Update: @SP_Central Twitter follower @Trev_G1 (Trevor Gould) let me know that you don't need the air or sea figurines to beat the game. You can actually skip the segment I was talking about in the last level. I apologize for the error! The grade remains the same, however, as the figurine "problem" didn't heavily weight on the overall grade.

This year, the first competitor saw its exit from the toys-to-life arena with Disney Infinity calling it quits. This made gamers and fans wondering what the future was for other games that revolve around figurines for their gameplay and thus, their success. Well, if Activision's Skylanders series, now at its fifth game with Skylanders SuperChargers, can continue to be as well rounded and engaging as the latest game in the series, then fans have nothing to worry about.

Skylanders SuperChargers, of course, brings back the toys-to-life concept that Activision's series helped spearhead, thus bringing us competitors from LEGO to Nintendo. However, I still maintain that Skylanders has the best use of toys-to-life concept to date. For those unaware of what toys-to-life entails in regards to Skylanders SuperChargers, the game comes with a portal known as the Portal of Power. Here, you place figurines on them to bring the characters into the game. With SuperChargers, you need to place two figures on the Portal of Power at once: one Skylander and one vehicle. Depending on your vehicle, whether land, sea, or air, you can access different challenges within levels. While I had thought this was optional to play the game as sea and air missions aren't required throughout most of SuperChargers, I ended up being required to have a sea and an air vehicle for the last level. So, yeah, that's a bit of a bummer-- playing through the entirety of Skyalnders SuperChargers just to end up having to buy two extra vehicles to beat the game.

No mere minion is a match for Spitfire!
The Skylanders you place on the Portal of Power are what you control through the game's 13 levels. Through defeating enemies as a given Skylander, your character earns experience points. Earn enough points and your Skylander levels up, giving them more health and strength. If your controlled Skylander loses all of his or her health, you need to replace them with a different Skylander until you either finish the current level or start it from the beginning. You'll have to do the latter if you run out of Skylanders with health.

Some Skylanders have long range attacks, because why get all up close and personal?
Each Skylander can pick up coins, giving them their own separate total instead of every Skylander pooling their collecting coins into one pot, if you will. These coins at certain spots of the game allow you, the player, to purchase new moves for them, helping you contend with enemies more easily in battle. As the moves become more complicated and worthwhile, the prices go up. There's also branches that make you choose between moves of one style over another.

Skylanders SuperChargers is part action-adventure platformer and part vehicular combat and racing. The action-adventure parts sport a modest amount of platforming as well as a camera that follows your Skylander around without relinquishing control to the player. This mostly works well, as the camera is far enough away that you can go backwards in levels, towards the camera, without the fear of getting hit by an off-camera enemy or falling into a pit.

Meanwhile, the vehicle segments either put the camera behind your vehicle racing-style as you speed along a road, usually needing to avoid some kind of series of hazards in the process, or they put your vehicle in an arena-like setting. The arena segments are a little harder to control, as the camera is at an isometric view with the vehicle controls taking some getting used to. Meanwhile, the flight segments are brilliant, offering either normal or inverted controls depending on players' preference.

The 13 levels within Skylanders SuperChargers are well executed and constantly bring new variety into the fold. One level had my Skylander growing to the size of a titan to level buildings and tower around a tropical series of isles with ease, while another had segments where it turned this normally 3D game into a 2D side-scroller.

Dive-Clops only needs one eye to take out enemy minions.
In-game collectibles are an important part of Skylanders SuperChargers to add even more longevity to the game. There are things like hats that a Skylander can wear for increased stats, vehicle modifications that add both aesthetic and statistical changes to your rides, and legendary treasures that can be placed around the hub world of SuperChargers, Skylanders Academy.

Outside of the main campaign, there is plenty more to do in Skylanders SuperChargers. The main extra mode is a Mario Kart-style racing mode, complete with six initial, well-designed, tracks (six more needing to be unlocked by figures). Starting off, both race mode with up to seven other AI players or three other human players online or locally as well as a time trial mode are available. With different figures in the form of trophies, extra content like boss battles and grand prix events are unlocked. Regardless, the racing is absolutely aces, offering item-based combat where you try to whittle down the health of an opponent's vehicle to slow them down while trying to avoid enemy fire as you race through an elaborate set of courses.

The racing could be its own game-- that's how good it is. ...Wait a minute.
The other extra in Skylanders SuperChargers is the return of Skystones, a collectible card game that is a cross between Magic the Gathering and Hearthstone. This uses cards gathered throughout the game from treasure chests or through won games, and using them to attack your opponent's cards and overall health until it is emptied to nothingness.

Skylanders SuperChargers is a very pretty game with a tremendous art style and design to it. Characters exude personality and charm, environments are well detailed and original, and everything runs smoothly. The PS3, 360, and Wii U versions sport longer loading times when compared to the PS4 and Xbox One versions, but other than that, all versions of Skylanders SuperChargers play well. The voice acting is pure Saturday morning cartoon goodness, played off well and presenting lots of humor for both kids and adults like me. The music is joyous to listen to, relaxing to explore levels in at some times while dramatic when it needs to be at others.

Smash Hit's next record is how many of these insects he can exterminate at once.
Overall, Skylanders SuperChargers makes the case for the series' longevity. After now five installments, the series successfully keeps adding to itself and changing things up just enough to stay both rewarding and satisfying. Being able to use all of the figures from past Skylanders games means you don't have to pick up new ones just for this game (apart from vehicles), unless you're like me and are just a collecting freak who can't help himself! You can even use a Portal of Power from past Skylanders games as well. While being locked out of air and sea content is annoying, and the occasional troublesome camera angle can mean some annoyances here and there, ultimately, Skylanders SuperChargers is a really fun game that both kids and adults can love and cherish.

[SPC Says: B+]

Monday, August 22, 2016

SuperPhillip Central's Favorite VGMs - You've Got Character Edition

With this "You've Got Character" edition of SuperPhillip Central's Favorite VGMs, we're all about character themes this week. These themes punctuate and accentuate the characters that they are tied to, making each character even more memorable than normal.

We start off with an emotionally somber theme from Bloodborne before moving on to an equally emotional and somber theme from Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Then, the tone is greatly changed with a character theme from The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Finally, Street Fighter Alpha 2 and Mega Man X: Command Mission round out this edition.

Want to check out past VGMs featured on SuperPhillip Central's Favorite VGMs? Look no further than the VGM Database. Now, on to the music!

v1211. Bloodborne (PS4) - Gehrman, The First Hunter

We start this edition of SuperPhillip Central's Favorite VGMs with the theme of Gehrman, one of the bosses in the difficult action-adventure game Bloodborne, exclusive to the PlayStation 4. This emotional theme sets up the battle against Gehrman in an excellent way, making it one of more memorable encounters in the Souls series' history.

v1212. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3) - Old Snake

This initially subdued theme is the theme for Old Snake, a soldier burdened and aged by years of covert missions. It's slightly somber, a perfect tone for this tragic figure. Metal Gear Solid 4 is nowhere near my favorite of the Metal Gear Solid games, but did offer a fresh take and perspective on the long-running franchise.

v1213. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS) - Linebeck's Theme

Throughout The Legend of Zelda series, Link has had a helper character joined to his side in many of the games. Between Navi, the King of Red Lions, Midna, Ezlo, and many countless others, Link is seldom alone on his adventure. In The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, it was the quirky and comical Linebeck that joined him.

v1214. Street Fighter Alpha 2 (PS1, SAT, SNES) - Adon's Theme

That pointy and unmistakable haircut can only mean one thing-- it's time for Adon! Rock out with his character theme from Street Fighter Alpha 2, a game that released on multiple platforms throughout its lifetime. Adon's theme is old school rock synth that takes me back to the era of arcades and sitting down in front of my PlayStation, ready to face any comer to a street fight.

v1215. Mega Man X Command Mission (PS2, GCN) - Mission Fight X (Theme of X)

Mega Man X Command Mission was an interesting take on the Mega Man X series. Instead of the traditional 2D platforming the series was known for, Command Mission took the series into RPG form, providing a decent story and set of characters, as well as turn-based combat. The overall game was a good one, worthy of a play for fans of the Blue Bomber.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fancy a shot at winning $200 in games? Then check out our affiliate's new contest!

It's always nice to give attention to SuperPhillip Central's friends (as seen in the affiliate section of the side bar of the site). Each site presents something unique. So, when regular commenter on SuperPhillip Central, CM30, contacted me to ask if I'd share a special contest that his site, Gaming Reinvented, is having, I couldn't help but accept.

As written on Gaming Reinvented, this is what the contest is all about:
Do you fancy yourself a video game journalist? Have a game or gaming event you really wish to give your opinion on, but have nowhere to post it? Want to potentially win 200 dollars in video games of your choice?If so, then you’re going to love the new writing contest at Gaming Reinvented. It’s pretty simple really; write a good article, and if it’s better than everyone else’s, you can win up to 200 dollars in video games of your choice. There’s no catch, no fees and nothing to worry about, it’s purely about who can write the best article on Gaming Reinvented.Here’s how it all works:
  1. You register on Gaming Reinvented via the forums. This gives you access to the article posting features on the main site.
  1. Once you’ve registered, you return to the site and post your article. It can be a standard article, a review, a walkthrough or an interview.
  1. The article then gets added to a list of other articles posted by contest entrants.
  1. This contest will then end on the 22nd September.
  1. Then, each article is scored by a group of judges (once of which is myself). These judges will rate the article based on the following factors:
  1. How unique or interesting the topic of the article is. Things you can’t easily find elsewhere will score well here, while bland top/bottom ten lists and clickbait will score low.
  1. The written quality of the article. Does it flow well? Has anyone proofread the thing, or is it filled with spelling and grammar errors?
  1. Once everything else is done, the winner will be contacted and the prizes sent out.
  1. And that’s it.
So what are you waiting for? Write your dream article today!
The prospect of having your own content not only being honored but awarded is really nice. To read more about this contest, such as a FAQ, look no further than this link! Good luck and have fun to all entrants!