October 2009

Often times in this industry we forget that there are real people on the other end of those email addresses that we send game or interview requests to. Today we lost one of those people. Her name was Rannie and she was one of the nicest people I never had the benefit of meeting.

When we started so many years ago, she was one of the first people to add us to their distro list and start working to provide us with assets.

You can probably find a more detailed account of what happened somewhere else, but the sort of it is that today Rannie ended her battle with cancer.

I hadn’t talked to her in quite a while, but Rannie we will miss you and this world won’t be quite the same without you.

The goal of Witch’s Brew is to concoct the most potent potions from the traditional ingredients of wolf’s blood, snake venom, and herb juice. Each player begins with one drop of each, plus two nuggets of gold. More importantly, each player also receives twelve role cards which form the real meat of the game.

Each card represents a specific role: witch, wizard, druid, assistant, fortune teller, alchemist, cutpurse, begging monk, warlock, wolf keeper, snake hunter, and herb collector. Every round each player selects five of these roles. Whoever goes first (usually whoever claimed the most recent role) announces one of his selected cards, and then each player who also selected that role has a decision to make. Every card has a reward associated with being able to assume that role; this ranges from brewing a potion, doing something gold-related, stealing/begging gold/ingredients from other players, casting each round’s randomly-determined spell, or collecting ingredients. The trick is that only one person can get to assume a given role each round; only the final player to announce a role actually receives that honor, and everyone else who tried to claim it gets nothing. However, each card also has a lesser assistant’s bonus (“so be it…”) for which a player can opt if he suspects a later player will try to usurp the role (the starting player of each hand has no such luxury). 

The strategy in Witch’s Brew comes from trying to out-guess and bluff your opponents while simultaneously managing your ingredients in order to brew potions. Do you go for the big reward of the role and risk getting nothing, or do you take the sure thing at the risk of nobody else claiming the role that could have been yours? Potions become more difficult to brew — and thus more valuable — as easier potions of their type are collected, further constraining your decisions. Extra points can be earned for vials, which are obtained either via the Fortune Teller role (at the cost of a gold), via three of the Warlock’s spells (at the cost of a specific ingredient), or when brewing a potion (at the cost of an additional ingredient of your choice) via either reward of the three brewers’ cards. The game ends at the end of the round when the fourth potion cards depicting a raven has been collected.

Witch’s Brew is a quick-playing game for three to five players. There are some basic reading and math skills required (the begging monk role collects 1/4th of each other player’s ingredients, rounded down; the cutpurse is similar but 1/3rd of gold). There is occasionally some confusion as to which role brews which potion, but other than that the artwork on the cards is well-done. My biggest problem with the game has nothing to do with the game at all: Rio Grande Games apparently has an issue when it comes to providing primarily card-driven games with boxes that aren’t twice the size required for the materials (Race for the Galaxy had similar issues). Aside from that, Witch’s Brew has won several awards for designer Andreas Pelikan and would be a great addition to any gamer’s collection.

Over the years, there have been many video games that fit under the category of “horror.” Although it is hard to pinpoint the exact start of the survival horror genre, there are a few key games we have to thank for its success over the years. Despite the evolution the genre has gone through, we can still appreciate where it has come from, and what the future brings us for this ever-changing game genre.

Horror games have a way of scaring people unlike any other medium, as the medium involves an interactive element you do not get anywhere else. You are inside of this world, you are this character, and you must do what it takes to survive. Many games have captured this sense of fear; some use cheap scares, while others rely on psychological horror. Either way, while the genre is much different now, the basics are still the same: the player wants to be scared.

Many consider Alone in the Dark to be the first real horror game, or at least the first one to gain popularity. It followed a basic formula: a character is investigating or is trapped in a strange place, and they must survive or escape as they are being pursued by plenty of strange creatures. While it has not aged well, the game was a true horror hit back when it was first released, evoking a sense of fear you rarely get from playing a game at the time. It was from here that many developed began to develop more of these kinds of games, including a Japanese company we all are familiar with.

BioHazard, or Resident Evil as it is known in the States, was the first real horror franchise to gain a following and become one of the most successful video game franchises to date. The original, released on the PlayStation back in 1996, did not give the player as much control over the character or the camera as they would have liked. The characters controlled awkwardly, and the camera was fixed and would change angles when you would least expect it. This was done to create a true sense of terror, and it has been used in many horror games since.

Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, two other Japanese horror franchises, use some of the same basics as Resident Evil in terms of controls, but they go for an entirely different kind of horror. While Resident Evil relies on cheap scare tactics, those two franchises tend to focus more on the psychological aspect of horror. Silent Hill is especially well-known for this, giving us a foggy, abandoned town to explore, and a lead character that always has some kind of psychological issue they are dealing with. The monsters you see are meant to reflect on what the character is thinking or going through, as if they are figments of the character’s own imagination. They were meant to inspire fear, not simply “scare” you by the most rudimentary means, and they succeeded at doing so.

These games all are considered “old-school” survival-horror titles, since the genre has evolved much since then. It was not until Resident Evil 4 where the series, and the entire genre itself, was changed forever. This game completely disregarded almost everything about the previous entries in the main series and made it less about scares and more about intense fights and action sequences. The controls remained the same, but with a new over-the-shoulder camera perspective and much smarter (and faster) enemies, RE4 marked the beginning of a new era.

Since then, we’ve seen a few horror games that have continued to stick with the more traditional or old school formula, but the popularity of the genre rests with the new fast-paced, action style. Games like Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space continue to prove that horror can be successful, but like any other genre, changes are necessary to maintain the growth and popularity of it.  

Marvel Ultimate Alliance, released back in 2007, was the first game that successfully combined a large number of Marvel superheroes into one co-op adventure. Although it was far from perfect, it had a surprising amount of depth, and the combinations of different superheroes generally led to fun times. Two years later, we have Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, a sequel that attempts to both re-capture the same audience of the original and bring a new audience in, but somehow fails to do both entirely.

The story revolves around the Marvel superheroes, specifically two different sides of heroes. There is an act that is passed which mandates all superheroes must register themselves as “weapons of mass destruction” and become government agents. This splits the alliance apart, with Iron Man becoming the leader of the Pro-Registration side, and Captain America leading the Anti-Registration side. The story is not the main focus here, but both sides generally are identical and the story never leads to any kind of satisfying conclusion. There are dialogue choices, but their impact on the game’s story are minimal at best. 

Visually, the game looks nice. All of the character models are fleshed out, and you can tell there was a lot of work that went into the making of each character, their animations, and their flashy special moves and fusion attacks. The villains, which play just as big of a role in this game as in the first, are also impressive and have the same kind of visual flair you would expect from a game like this. And there is a wide variety of both them and the many enemies scattered around the game world. The environments can get repetitive and pretty dull though, and the voice acting is mediocre at best. Not to mention we get several of the same lines repeated, which can only lead to people muting their TVs. 

The core gameplay is basic, even more so than the original. You have your main attacks, your special attacks, and your fusion attacks. You also have a jump and double jump (or flying ability for certain characters) to help bypass of the trickier areas in the game. The special attacks are easily performed, and the fusion attacks are a perfect way to get out of a tough situation. All and all, these moves blend together nicely and lead to plenty of cool looking combinations. 

You also have the ability to level up your party and eventually you’ll be able to switch out characters from your four hero team on the fly. And, as always, you’ll be able to switch between your four main heroes at any point during battle, which brings me to the co-op. This is a game that is definitely best experienced with a friend, or even three friends, just like in the original. There are no real improvements to the co-op, but it worked fine in the first place, so there’s not much that needs to be changed.

My main gripe with the game is, even with a friend or friends playing alongside you, you will still find yourself getting bored of it rather quickly. The main combat is not nearly as satisfying as it should be, and all of the heroes, despite their special attacks, all practically feel the same. There is no benefit for going with one hero or another in any specific situation, and there is also no real strategy involved in combat. All and all, it tends to be not only a bore, but there is practically no challenged involved.

Another major problem is a lot of the major components from the first game, mainly the RPG elements, have been stripped down. It feels like they are trying to attract a larger crowd with the sequel. Although you can still auto-level up your characters, if you enjoy micromanaging their stats, you’ll be very disappointed to find out that a lot of the same options that may have made the original addictive have been removed, and the amount of things to level up for each character has been trimmed down significantly. It takes what made the original unique and ruins it completely.

Overall, with a good group of friends you may have some fun with this title. However, the game is just too repetitive to make it a strong single player title. It has a lot of things going for it, but at the end of the day most fans of the original will be very disappointed with this sequel.

ESRB: Rated T for teen; rated for mild language and violence

Pros: Cool character interactions; nice variety of enemies and bosses to fight; has the same basic formula from the original; the co-op is still fun

Cons: It gets very old very fast; while there is a nice variety of enemies, they all are practically the same; the RPG elements and leveling up have been toned down, taking away a lot of the depth of the original; the story is lackluster; the voice acting is bad, and plenty of the same lines are repeated

This week was a huge one for DLC, especially if you are a Rock Band fan. Not only did Rock Band owners get a huge Queen pack featuring ten songs, The Beatles: Rock Band owners got the first of three full albums to be released this year. Both packs are expensive, but considering how many songs you get and the quality of these songs, both are well worth checking out. READ MORE