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Steel Diver: Sub Wars in Review


Nintendo’s new Steel Diver: Sub Wars, a freemium 3DS release, is one of the best and most unique games I’ve played in a while. In contrast to the original Steel Diver, which was a quiet, molasses-slow 2D vehicle shooter, the new game is a quiet, molasses-slow 3D vehicle shooter. There are a smattering of single-player, objective based missions with multiple difficulties and medals for performance but the four-on-four team multiplayer submarine battles are the main attraction. Don’t think this is another deathmatch. This game doesn’t care about how fast your twitch reflexes are and there’s not a thousand variations of a machine gun to put in your loadout and there are no killperks or whatever to choose from. What this game prioritizes are patience, suspense, nerve and sheer cunning.

The controls are fussy and sometimes even agonizing. Piloting the game’s well-rendered submarines gives you a sense of weight, mass and the physics of pushing a huge, steel vessel through water. You’re faster on the surface than in the water, but there’s more mobility- and less visibility- beneath. Check the map for the areas where there are ships. Ping the sonar. Use the periscope to look port and starboard. You actually hunt in this game. You can pull the throttle back for a full stop and you won’t be detected by enemy sonar so you can actually sit and watch that murky shape in the distance, judging how much of a lead you need to fire a slow-moving torpedo. Or you can get a lock and fire one of your limited homing torpedoes that will pursue the target- if they don’t switch on their masking device. Fans of 688 Attack Sub or Silent Service might be disappointed that the game skews more arcade than simulation, but the details are meaningful.

It’s all about getting into the right angle at the right deflection and timing your shots- ideally without the enemy ever even seeing you. In the game’s best moments, you’ll find yourself in tense situations where the cat and mouse roles flip-flop a few times before somebody is sunk. Your sub is damaged and your command screen is cracked, red lights flashing and klaxons sounding. Suddenly, you’re at an advantage and you fire. There’s a sense of relief when you get the message that your torpedo scored a hit. There are no headshots. These subs can take a beating. There are no respawns, but there are occasional repair kits that can keep you in the game if you can maneuver into them. Each match is three to five minutes long, which is correct for a handheld device. The big number on your sub is your current streak of won games, a cool touch.

I’ve had a lot of fun with the multiplayer- there is definitely a learning curve and at first it doesn’t seem like there’s much to it and it feels way too slow. That should weed out the Call of Duty crowd nicely. Once you get the hang of piloting something that does not move like a shark on rollerblades (in contrast to most modern first-person games), the strategic possibilities start to emerge. And when you’re in matches with other players that clearly know what they’re doing, you’ll find that there is a lot you can do with the limitations imposed on movement, shooting and visibility. Even team communication is under a compelling limitation- you can only contact your team with Morse code. I haven’t seen anyone bothering to tap out racial slurs or other abusive language.

The single player game is fun as well, although I’ve only played the two missions included in the freemium package. There are seven total, and each has three variations of increasing challenge so there’s really 21 total missions to run. One is a ring-run with some opposition that’s quite challenging since it’s focused on maneuver. The other is a simple “blow up the fleet” sortie where bombers will show up if you stay on the surface too long. Like many of Nintendo’s best titles, the focus is on replayability and challenge. You’ll want to go back to these missions to earn the top medals.

There are a ton of subs to unlock through these medals and levelling up in the multiplayer. There are paint patterns- all customizable in terms of color- and hidden crew members you can rescue. The crew add bonuses to your sub’s stats, and some of the higher level subs let you take on more sailors. The freemium hit is that many of the unlockables are not available unless you pay the very modest $9.99 entry fee. The multiplayer is totally free, as long as you’re OK with playing with just the first two subs. And you might just be.

I think it’s no small coincidence that Peppy O’Hare, the rabbit from Star Fox, shows up in the game to help promote the $9.99 freemium package. Because Steel Diver: Sub Wars in many ways feels like some long-lost game from the Nintendo 64 era. Or possibly even the late SNES era. There is that unmistakable sense of Nintendo charm, even though it’s nowhere near as highly polished as some of the company’s best output. Rather than polish, it has a sense of daring. It’s a very uncommon concept-a “contemplative shooter” as Iwata-san called in last week’s Nintendo Direct. Smart money would never bet on such a game to succeed as a retail, $40 retail release but it’s wisely free try and cheap to buy. I’d love to see more like this and I’ll happily support this fine release with ten bucks the next time I pick up the 3DS.

Puzzle Games Saved my Basement

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That right there is a riser, a riser I built as part of finishing my basement. It is in my movie room so that those banished to the back row of seats can see over the heads of their betters, namely those important enough to be allowed to sit in the front row. It is roughly eight feet by eleven feet, a super fortified combination of plywood, two-by-sixes, two-by-fours, sweat, blood and gumption. It is very big. It is very heavy. It is not fun to move, something I can now attest to personally.

Mold damaged hardwood floors 6

For all it is, one thing it was not, prior to this past weekend, was protected from water damage where it rested on the floor. Call it an oversight, call it stupidity, call it not finishing basements for a living, call it what you want but when I made the riser I neglected to notice that all of the previously framed walls were resting on pressure treated wood, presumably so that my house would not collapse in a damp cloud of wood rot. Unfortunately this shortsightedness extended to all of the walls that I framed for the basement, but that’s not the focus here, the focus here is the riser, the big, heavy riser that, once under the steadfast gaze of the county building inspector, was judged on its water-proofedness, judged and found wanting.

Oddly enough, the inspector didn’t seem concerned that someone with no building experience built this riser. Maybe if he knew that my astigmatism has rendered my eyes incapable of seeing vertical lines straight up and down he’d give pause to giving the ok to a riser that children and the elderly might use but in the eyes of the county, wood that collapses under its own weight is fine so long as said collapse doesn’t happen because of moisture. In other words, ignorance is fine, water is not.

So here we were, two people and a very heavy riser, a riser that needed to be moved so that we could somehow place something under it to prevent water from getting to it. I briefly entertained the notion of destroying the whole thing and rebuilding it but decided instead to use my brain rather than my reciprocating saw to see if there was some way to deal with the problem without resorting to complete and total destruction.

This was easier said than done as before I could even consider putting something under the blasted thing, I had to first get it un-nailed from the three walls surrounding it. In an attempt to make sure it never moved, like ever, I nailed this thing into the walls within an inch of its life. At the time it seemed like a good idea. A hacksaw blade managed to get through most of the nails with my wife providing the necessary illumination via handheld flashlights, overhead lighting gone the way of the dodo for the electrical inspection. I sawed, she held and we moved on.

If you’ve ever played an adventure game, you have come across a puzzle for which there seems to be no obvious answer. Whenever I got to that point, I’d usually open up my inventory and start using everything I had in the hopes that I’m just not seeing the puzzle the way the designer wants me to see it and I’ll stumble across the answer as part of my trial and error. I ran into a similar situation here, with me returning to my workshop over and over again, checking my inventory of 40 year old tools obtained at garage sales across the tri-cities area in hopes I’d find something capable of destroying a trio of three nails that were all that stood between the riser and freedom. Eventually I found a file forged at some point during the Bronze Age and some good whacks with the hammer sent those nails on to their heavenly reward.

Eventually we got the riser moved enough to see that we had options but not so far where it would move any more, a fact that limited many of our choices. The lizard part of my brain and my reciprocating saw were both earnestly pushing for complete destruction and I was doing my best to quiet them down. The saw had already tasted sweet, sweet wood when I used it to cut away a particularly snug section and it thirsted for more.

Now, I’m not one to go one and on about how video games have changed my life and taught me all manner of important life lessons. Video games are entertainment and like all forms of entertainment, they make you think, they stir emotional responses, they serve as way to blow off steam and get a break from life’s little tortures. I will say, however, that if you play a lot of Professor Layton games, eventually some of that shit wears off on you.

professor layton block puzzle

Once I looked at the riser as a puzzle, it all became clear and I mean, like, in an instant it all became clear. The riser was topped with three sections of plywood. We could buy pressure treated plywood and just slide it under the riser. We had already done the heavy lifting, literally, and had the riser propped up on some chairs on one end and some blocks on the other so that I could get under it for other moisture related shenanigans. If we strategically moved the chairs so that two of the three sections were supported at all times, we could slide each section of plywood in, move the chairs and blocks and then do the same for the remaining two. No risers needed to die this day. The saw would go to bed hungry.

So that’s what we did and it worked beautifully. I have to say, I felt pretty stupid not thinking about using the right materials the first time but once that we managed to get the riser back in place, resting atop a layer of moisture-proof wood and looking as if it was built that way from the beginning, I felt like a construction genius.

Now it’s possible my wife would have come up with the idea on her own, she’s pretty smart and it’s possible that had I never played a Layton game, and not experienced more block moving puzzles and river crossing puzzles that I could ever hope to remember, I would have come up with this idea on my own, but I kind of doubt it. The heart wants what the hearts want and my heart wanted to say “screw it” and bust the damn thing up.

Thankfully, all’s well that ends well and we passed our next inspection. The basement is ready to be drywalled and then we can move on to installing outlets and switches and learning that, as bad as I am as a carpenter, I am far worse as an electrician. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a Layton puzzle for that.


etrian odyssey iv maps shot 1

Etrian Odyssey IV is a game about maps.

It may look like a game about dungeons and monsters and airships, but it’s really about maps. Sometimes games look like they’re about one thing but they’re really about another. The World Ends With You looked like it was about Japanese teens fighting shadow monsters but it wasn’t. It was about pins. Pins and fashion. It was about equipping pins and leveling up pins and not equipping pins to level up your pins and switching out your pins and admiring your pins. All your pins. So many pins. It was also about wearing unpopular clothes and taking the attack hit for your unorthodox fashion sense, only to see your dress code skyrocket up to popularity. The World Ends With You was into wool caps before you were into wool caps. Now that you’re into wool caps, it is so over wool caps.

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I’m assuming there’s going to be a story in Etrian Odyssey IV. I don’t know, really. So far I’m just doing fetch quests. Get some spices here, go kill a baboon there. This ship needs carrots. That one needs trout. That kangaroo is angry. You know, how kangaroos get. Crabby creatures. To complete these quests you venture into dungeons, first person style, and do battle with various grasshoppers and moths that make you go blind. Occasionally a bear shows up. He is also not happy, presumably from spending too much time with the kangaroo. Turn that frown upside down, mister bear.

As you progress through the dungeon, you map as you go, but it’s not the full featured work of a true cartographer, more like the hasty scribblings of someone trying to remember how to get you to the closest gas station. Making a true map means going off of the beaten path, investigating all of the cracks and fissures and occasionally running away from an angry, kangaroo influenced bear. At those times, you’ll appreciate having mapped out the area ahead of time, provided you were able to. I ran into a bear and was forced to flee but luckily, a secret passage awaited me and I was able to escape. I marked it on my map. It was pretty important, as secret passages go.

Etrian Odyssey IV wants you to make maps. When you take on side quests, it will tell you where on the map to go. A4, it says, assuming you’ve been to A4 and were paying attention. You were paying attention when you went to A4, weren’t you? People need fresh herbs. They are depending on you for their produce.

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Etrian Oddyssey IV is also about exploring. You can’t make the full map until you’ve explored the whole dungeon. We don’t explore any more. We carry around computers in our pocket so that we don’t have to explore. We don’t go down roads to see where they go. Maybe it’s a dead end. Maybe it’s a new road. Maybe it’s a pig farm and you can get out and take pictures of all of the pigs. Yes, a pig farm. Right here. I know, right? Nowadays we don’t explore to find things. We yelp our friendsters to find the Lebanese place with the best hummus. Etrian Odyssey IV wants you to go looking for the hummus. It will taste better this way. Trust me.

I care much more about making the maps then fighting the monsters on the maps, a task made much easier now that I know how to assign skill points. Etrian Odyssey IV is not a game about player instruction, even when it really should be. “Go on, find the hummus”, it says when all I want to do is figure out how to level up my characters. Sometimes I don’t want hummus, sometimes I just don’t want to die at the hands of bipedal rats.

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I spend a lot of time making my maps. When I come across a harvesting spot, which icon do I use? Which one did I use before? Do I want an arrow for this secret passage or an exclamation point? An arrow is functional, but what if it’s a two way passage? What then? An exclamation point has panache! Look here! Passage! Escape! Maybe it’s too much, though. Doors are important too, but there’s an icon for doors. They don’t exclaim anything. They just stately proclaim that they are, in fact, a door. They are unassuming, unlike those exclamation point fellows. Rowdy bunch, exclamation points.

When I finished the first dungeon and the soldier you meet along the way looked at my map and told me how good it was, I beamed with pride. In fact, I purposefully did not carry over my progress from the demo, despite appreciating the option, because I knew how substandard my map was in the demo. I’m not proud of it. It was functional, which is as backhanded a compliment as I can give it. Not this new map. This new map is glorious, exclamation points and all.

I hope that a story surfaces for this game eventually, but if not, that’s ok. I’ll come up with a story about maps and doors and exclamation points. About pig farms and hummus. About journeys to lost places and the angry baboons contained therein. Those are the best stories, any way, the ones you didn’t know you were writing until you stumbled upon them.

Chrom Blocked

chrom blocked fire emblem awakening 3

One of the best parts of Fire Emblem: Awakening is the support system. Many tactical RPGs have a system in which various team members can team up to either do more damage or take less damage or somehow help each other out in battle. It’s a pretty simple system here: when attacking, or performing any other battlefield action like healing or dancing (yes, there’s dancing), you place the active unit directly next to another unit. That’s it! Pretty simple, right? Then, based on the depth of the relationship between the two units, or however many units the active unit is adjacent to, bonuses are conferred. Maybe you get a bonus to hit, maybe to dodge, maybe to damage. The same bonuses can be conferred when on the defensive too, with the occasional instance of your battlefield partner pushing the attacked unit out of the way of the enemy’s attack. Thanks Frederick!

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The need to build support in battle so that you can better support each other in future battles adds a nice tactical wrinkle to a combat system that already has plenty of tactical options. Many the time have I positioned a unit so that it couldn’t attack but instead allow another unit to get the kill and set up a support relationship. Some times you have to take whatever opportunities the battlefield affords and move on, but sometimes, particularly in the skirmishes that litter the world map in between story battles, you can take the time to be a little more specific in your unit placement. Sure, it’s just another form of grinding, same as letting less experienced units get kills over higher leveled units, but I don’ t mind grinding so much when the grinding is teaching you good tactical habits along with raising stats.

Outside of battle, you build these support relationships by heading to the barracks and watching the interactions between your team members. but the main way to build support between units is to have them fight alongside each other. Once they’ve battled together enough, their support level increases, but only after you’ve watched a conversation between the two units. These conversations not only allow the relationships to blossom but they also help illustrate the various personalities at play. It’s usually one note stuff, Anna likes money, Frederick likes work, Miriel is very analytical, but there’s some really endearing stuff in there too.

chrom blocked fire emblem awakening

Every relationship goes from C to B to A and then, for members of the opposite sex, it gets to S as this is a Japanese game and the letter S holds a special significance to Japanese game makers that I am too lazy to investigate. Once members of the opposite sex get to an S level support relationship, the fireworks start up.

I was working towards such a relationship. Her name is Sully. She’s a cavalier and along with a no nonsense approach to battle, and life in general, Sully is a fearsome warrior, constantly improving and looking to show the world that she shouldn’t be discounted on the battlefield simply because of her gender. Plus, she appears to be a redhead and her name reminds me of Scully and everyone knows that Special Agent Dana Scully, as portrayed by the superb Gillian Anderson, was one of the bravest, most intelligent and sexiest women on network television.

And so I maneuvered our units together on the battlefield, but not in that way, you pervert, doing my best to cultivate a relationship that would eventually grow into something beautiful. Then, after a certain story battle that I won’t spoil, Chrom, the game’s main character, gave a speech about the importance of life and love and spending your life with someone and who did he pick but my beloved Sully.

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It was as if he used the +10 Atk, +10 Hit, +10 Dam and +10 Lck that our A class support relationship afforded us to rip my heart out and stab it with his falchion. I had been Chrom blocked.

It’s not Chrom’s fault. He had no idea the glowing timbers of love burned within my chest for Sully. Apparently, I had been building up Chrom and Sully’s support relationship as much as I had been building up my own relationship with Sully and the game picked a bride for Chrom from whichever female he had the best relationship with.

I thought about declaring my love for Sully right there but then the game jumped like two years into the future and they had a kid together. I don’t want to be a home wrecker.

So now, with time and distance having healed the wound in my heart, I look to the other women in my squad to see who might bring back the spark of love I once held for Sully. Anna seems like a good fit, but she’d need to be a little less money oriented before I started a family with her. Kids need to know that there’s more to life than just money. On another note, Miriel and could pool our arcane resources and produce a child who could possibly rend the world asunder with their magical arts, but she’s so analytic, I’d fear that the children would miss out on motherly warmth. There are other prospects, but one is a rabbit lady and one turns into a dragon so I’m not sure how that would work out from an offspring perspective. I’m not saying that I have to have kids, but it’s something that can happen in the game and I don’t know what kind of genetic screening is available to the Shepards to make sure that a rabbit dragon doesn’t pop out.

I do wish that the support system allowed for S class relationships to extend to same sex partners, even if I understand why that would be a bear from a logistical standpoint. You either have to assume that everyone is bisexual and allow all people to marry all people and then write the resulting dialogue choices or you have to segment your squad into gay and straight, a practice that has lots of potential pitfalls for stereotypes, insensitivities and the like. Still though, I think it’s important to do. Given that the relationships here are focused on supporting your partner and not who you can have poorly rendered sexy times with, it would be an even greater statement on how same sex relationships can achieve the same level of support between partners as heterosexual relationships than anything BioWare has ever done.

Not Much to Say

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I’m usually of the opinion that if you don’t have anything to say, there’s no need to talk. Unfortunately, regular posting schedules and not having an opinion on things don’t mix well, so here we are. I’m playing a lot, more than ever thanks to Fire Emblem worming its way into my usual evening routine of iPad entertainment but I don’t feel like I have a lot to add to the conversation around the game. Me starting it several weeks after everyone else certainly doesn’t help. It’s good! You should buy it! There’s a lot to it, a lot I’m still discovering.

fire emblem awakening farmer

Take the level cap, for example. There is one. I didn’t know that. If one of your characters hits it, they don’t get any better. That’s a bummer. Luckily, you can get around that by using magic seals and not the seafaring mammal type, to either promote them to a better version of their present class or switch their class entirely. When you do this, they revert to level one, but still keep all of their present stats. That’s important. You don’t want to bring a level one character out to the battlefield and have them get smacked around, possibly dying forever. Instead, you get to keep your current stats and go back to earning experience towards getting even better. Classes can only change to a subset of all classes, so you can’t make your cavalier a cleric, but you can let your cavalier change up mounts and ride a wyvern, which is pretty cool. Well, until you come across a bowman. Then it’s not so cool. It’s actually rather painful.

I’m about 60% of the way through Tomb Raider, although I have no idea what that statistic represents. Level completion? Collectibles collected? Skulls staved in with my climbing axe? I’m quite enjoying the game, even if some of the story beats alternate between aggravating and predictable. When Dante trolled DMC fanboys by not appreciating his temporary platinum hairstyle, I laughed as it was appropriate to the character and served to flip off people at the same time. That’s who Dante was at that point, a dude who didn’t care what others thought about him. When Lara enters her first tomb and says that she hates tombs, it feels like the writers are trying too hard to say, “Hey, we’re doing something new here!” The fact that I had already plundered two optional tombs at this point certainly didn’t help. I could have also done without the obligatory “lose all of your weapons” level, but at least they ripped off The Descent during the level, so I appreciated that we have the same taste in scary movies.

tomb raider combat

The farther I go in the game, the more I’m feeling how your skill choices matter. I think that by the end of the game, I’ll have everything, so I’m betting this is a temporary feeling, but now that I’m getting to more combat heavy areas, dumping all of my skill points into melee combat seems less and less like a good idea. Granted, the higher level weapon skills all involve finishing moves, moves you have to get in close to perform, but you also get a headshot reticle, something I could use right about now. More often than not, me rushing forward to brain a dude with my climbing axe ends up with one of many death animations either because the guy I was trying to kill was armored, armed or both.

On the flip side, picking so many skills that had to do with scavenging ammo and salvage was pretty smart. I mean, sure, the skill system sort of funnels you into that early on, but I could have picked the skill that makes it easier to find animals to shoot and I resisted. You’re safe from me, rat boys and girls! Auntie Lara couldn’t hit you if she wanted to! Now that I’m shooting a lot more, being able to find more ammo on dead guys is very important. Granted, I don’t know how a brilliant archaeologist managed to get through higher education and not learn how to rummage through a pocket but maybe pants in England don’t have pockets. I’ve never been.

tomb raider wolf

I’m finding the combat to be both satisfying and maddening, satisfying when I finally get through a rough spat, maddening with how much they harass the player. You can’t just hang back behind cover and pick guys off. Between the machine gun fire, the molotov cocktails and dynamite and the melee guys, staying in one place is a good way to get killed. Trust me, I know! At this point, I would be surprised if there’s a death animation that I haven’t uncovered. My favorite is a tie between “debris spike through the neck because you didn’t dodge correctly during the river rapids sequence” and “impaled on the armored brute’s makeshift pole-arm thingy”. Both are pretty gross. I should know, I’ve seen them a lot.

I’m also quite enjoying the collecting of things however I think that you can probably ignore 90% of it if you don’t care about experience and maxing out your skills. Sure, Lara knows her way around Japanese artifacts, but their descriptions don’t do anything to explain what’s going on or to set up character interactions. The documents, on the other hand, are very good for that and shouldn’t be ignored. Granted, years of achievement hunting have trained me to spend hours poking around for things, time you may not want to spend, but I think in the case of the documents, some extra time taking in the sights is worth it.

On the ukulele front, I’m practicing a lot of chords and chord changes. It is boring, challenging, frustrating work, but it’s important and will pay off down the line. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. At least now I have an excuse when what I’m playing doesn’t sound like music.