Those among you who are long-nailed and hoary-bearded enough to remember my initial posts on NHS may recall my fond reminiscences concerning an 8-bit strategy game called Chaos. I’m not sure how well known it was outside the UK, but its pedigree is sufficient that it’s well known among prominent games journalists this side of the pond and is a common target for fan remakes.
But the fan remakes can go stuff themselves, because the real thing is about to be updated. Its designer, Julian Gollop whose name you’ll likely recognise from the XCOM remake is kickstarting a modern sequel, Chaos Reborn.
I want to play this game. I need to play this game. I haven’t desired a game with such fervour since the manic buildup to Half-Life 2. But it looks like I might need your help to get it, since the kickstarter still needs about $65k with 15 days to go. Rarely have I despaired more of the tastes of the modern gamer.
Go back it now. I thank you. And when you get the game, you’ll probably thank yourself.
It’s turning to summer here in Atlanta, which means soon it will be so humid that you will be able to look out your window and see schools of fish swimming by. For most folks, summertime makes them think of dreadful things like beaches and cookouts. For me, it takes me back to the summer of 2006 when the game shop I owned and operated with two partners , Atlanta Game Factory, was going strong. I think of scorching hot days driving through Atlanta rush hour traffic in my beloved and airless ’82 Chevrolet Scottsdale, trying to get to a local distributor to pick up Magic cards for the Friday Night Magic booster draft. I remember sitting out back priming Warmachine figures and shooting the shit with Peter, Mike, and Elliot. Waking up every warm morning and not caring one lick that I had a twelve hour work day ahead of me. It was my favorite time with the store, the best summer I ever had.
By far the articles that I get the most requests to reprint, especially since Gameshark.com is no more and everything that was posted there was thrown into a Horrible Black Void, are my There Will Be Games series of articles about my time with Atlanta Game Factory. I sent the first one, which is reprinted here for the very first time, to Bill Abner on Valentine’s Day, 2008. So we’re past the five year anniversary of the series, and it’s time to put it back into print for those of you who probably didn’t know who I was all those years ago.
Reflecting on the series- but without rereading it because I can’t bear to re-read old work- it was profoundly personal, but it really was about something that a lot of people don’t really think about. That shadow world of the brick-and-mortar hobby store. I wanted to present all of the trials, tribulations, drama, and triumphs of selling people D&D books and Warhammer miniatures. But I also wanted to narrate what the hell went on, and why such a great place that really touched a lot of folks’ lives went down in flames. It’s just one “FLGS” story of many, I’m sure, but when I wrote this I had never read anything else like it.
So I hope you enjoy it, a lot of people seemed to really like it but I bet it’s one of those things where it’s not really as good as you remember it. For my part, I’ll brace myself for the inevitable flood of emails that I’ll get from people asking me for advice about starting or running a game shop. If you’re inclined to ask, my two pieces of advice are 1) don’t expect to get rich and 2) don’t go into business with a lawyer. Part one follows- there are 12 more that I’ll be posting here in the coming months.
It’s a little after 10 o’ clock, January 6th 2006. I’m in complete darkness in the back of a van taking me to a destination unknown. My hands are cuffed behind my back and I’m sitting on a steel bench with no cushion, no armrests, and no seatbelt. When the van turns sharply, I’m slammed up against an invisible metal wall that I can smell before I feel its impact. The interior of the van is soaked with the smell of alcoholic piss and human filth and all I can hear are the alternating acceleration and deceleration of an engine accompanied by the strangely distant, sputtering chatter of the police scanner in the cab. Somehow, my love for gaming has culminated in a trip to prison. I’m struggling to stay sitting up straight in a pool of constantly shifting blackness, and I’m thinking about three things in this order- revenge, the game of LORD OF THE RINGS: THE CONFRONTATION I was about to play, and the cannoli I left behind.
Alright, I’m getting ahead of myself, going for the big Bond film opening before establishing a context for it all. Rewind the tape and let’s save that footage for later. Cut in scenes from a gamer childhood. All my life I wanted to be a game store owner- at least for as long as I was aware that there were such things. When I was a kid, there were quite a few game stores in Atlanta, where I grew up, and who knows how much money I spent on roleplaying books, miniatures, board games, and dice. It seemed like a good enough business and you could be right there in the middle of your favorite hobby, right?
Come to find out it’s a pretty miserable occupation with long hours, alarmingly low profit, and the whole thing is spiked with the constant stench of post-teenage body odor and rancid submarine sandwiches. It’s a great job if you want to hear extremely detailed stories about the adventures of some guy’s umpteenth level Elven Cleric or have to bust some deadbeat kid for slipping a few packs of VERSUS cards in his jacket. It also may be your racket if you like the idea of internet-spoiled customers constantly berating you for having discounted prices $1-$2 higher than on online retailer with no storefront and zero overhead. Despite all that, and the dire warnings from other hobby gaming expatriates I think that most gamers, at some point in their hobby experience, want a chance to be the man behind the counter- if only to show the world that not all game store owners are grossly obese, socially reprehensible carrion crawlers shaking down kids for their allowance money in exchange for YUGIOH cards.
I am one of the few gamers who actually made good on those dreams of one day opening up an awesome game store- you know, the one in your mind that isn’t lit like a dingy pool hall in some 1960s gangster flick, where the best games are never “special order” only, and everything is 30% off all the time. My store was it—we had it all, and it was clean enough that you could even bring your wife or girlfriend in without the usual “boys locker room” atmosphere that seems to surround places where WARHAMMER 40K is generally played. It was a masterpiece, and despite a rough start and some growing pains it was turning into a real institution. We were the Friendly Local Game Store, we had regulars that I’m pretty sure would have been willing to die for the store. We meant something to people, we were a real community and we did all we could to grow it so that the store would be the absolute epicenter of gaming culture in Atlanta. The last month we were fully operational, December of 2005, we pulled in over $25,000 in sales and we were right on the cusp of entering our era of empire. And then the plug got pulled with a harshness and ferocity that resulted in legal action, destroyed friendships, financial ruin, and the loss of the greatest game store that I, for my part, had ever stepped inside.
So this is the prologue to the great American tragedy that was this store, a story fraught as it were with the classical elements of entrepreneurial bootstrap-pulling, dubious futures, sudden meteoric success, and the greed-laden path to catastrophic downfall. No names are going to be revealed to protect both the innocent and the guilty but I believe that two years on it’s time to finally tell the true story of what happened and along the way share some insight to the uninitiated about the hobby gaming industry, the personalities and situations involved, and why your Friendly Local Game Store matters so much even in the face of online retailers willing to cut profit margins to literal pennies on the dollar. If you were there for the ride, hanging out on a Friday night watching DOLEMITE between hands of MAGIC or working with me to build and support the Atlanta gaming community by participating in store events or as an employee, it undoubtedly will have left an indelible mark on your life and a sense of loss that may never be alleviated. I know that’s how I feel—not a day goes by when I don’t think about the store and where it might have been if it weren’t so savagely waylaid in the prime time of its life.
I realize that I’m starting the story in that avant garde, end-at-the-beginning fashion so we’ll hit the rewind button again and cut in some archival footage to give a better sense of linear progression. The story of the greatest game store to ever flog a copy of MUNCHKIN really starts one day in 1994 at a library in a small town in the Atlanta suburbs. I’m a librarian at a tiny community branch and one of the ladies I work with introduces me to her son, whom she’s told me about at length- almost too much at length, but conversations that tend to go on for too long happen a lot when you’re working in a library that may only see ten patrons a day.
She’s sure that we’ll make fast friends given our mutual interest in MAGIC: THE GATHERING, Nine Inch Nails, and the occult practices of ranking Nazi officials. He shows up, looking for all the world like that 17 year old kid who was still an Eagle Scout and at first I think he’s a stuck up tool- for some reason, when he starts using swear words he suddenly seems OK. We become fast friends over games of first MAGIC then other games and eventually we wind up playing D&D, AXIS AND ALLIES, CIVILIZATION, and TWISTED METAL ad nasuem together. We play SETTLERS OF CATAN together for the first time some time in 1996 and together we begin to explore these new Eurogames that I’m blowing my completely disposable, living-at-home income on while paying exorbitant, pre-Rio Grande Games import prices for them.
Years go by and before long he’s become outrageously successful with a business that he started in college and I’m still tooling around in libraries and pursuing the Quixotic dream of a film career. For the purpose of our story, we’re going to call him Dollar Bill.
Dollar Bill was always an entrepreneur; when I first met him he was hawking car stereo equipment and passing out a business card with a line drawing of a Lamborghini Countach embossed on it. He never spent any money. We’d go out with our friends to the record store and drop a hundred bucks on vinyl since none of us had rent or bills to pay and he’d just watch, saying that he was saving his money for when he was rich and then he’d be able to buy anything he wanted. That really happened to Dollar Bill, and as he became successful in one industry he and I started talking about opening a game store but with a level of seriousness that was well beyond the usual “wouldn’t it be cool if” sorts of discussions you hear a lot around a gaming table. We had big ideas, huge concepts that in retrospect were sort of like Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for that mile-high skyscraper- feasible, but not really possible and not really structurally sound. We tossed out a lot of ideas, combining the game store idea with full coffee service, a bar, and a couple of pretty outrageous themes including a shop that would have looked like something from CITY OF LOST CHILDREN.
We really wanted to do something special, something that would be the perfect retail environment for our favorite hobby, but we also deliberately set to establishing a few things that we didn’t want: we wanted our store to avoid all the negative stereotypes and horrendous images of squalor that anyone who’s ever walked into a game store has likely walked out the door with as they left, never to return again. We wanted a friendly, clean environment that was above all else professionally run and managed…very unlike the lazy “permanent vacation” mentality with which many game store owners seem to approach their businesses. We wanted to cater specifically to board gamers, which at the time meant extensive selections of Eurogames and other hobby titles, while also providing a comprehensive shopping solution for folks into role playing games, miniatures, or collectible card games. We wanted to come up with a solution that would demonstrate that a game store did not have to rely solely on the sales of MAGIC and YUGIOH to be successful, and above all else we wanted gamers to make the place their own and recognize it as the premiere place for any kind of hobby gaming in the city.
Despite the serious brainstorming and chin-scratching, it was still all talk at first, like a lot of Dollar Bill’s pipe dreams would turn out to be over the years and I never thought we’d actually move forward with it all. Aside from that, I was having a hard enough time paying rent on a contract archivist’s salary and wasn’t anywhere near a position to invest financially in the idea. Even with a certain sense of inertia surrounding the germinating idea, I don’t think there was a time that we got together for two player games and vintage brandy (often accompanied by the ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK soundtrack CD that never seemed to leave his $10k stereo system) that we didn’t wind up talking about The Store.
Time passed. Dollar Bill’s business was getting big. It had become a very big shark in a very tiny pool and like any business of substantial size it needed one of those litigious lampreys we call lawyers. A couple of lawyers came and went but eventually Dollar Bill found a really great lawyer he could trust his livelihood with and more than that they struck up a friendship. We’re going to call this lawyer The Barrister. The Barrister was an average, middle aged guy that fits the profile of the average, middle aged guy almost to the letter. Successful professional, family with kids, house in the suburbs, minivan in the garage, interested in sports, khaki pants but no tie on Fridays- pretty much an average Joe if ever there were one. Somehow Dollar Bill and The Barrister wound up discussing gaming and there was the shocking revelation that The Barrister was actually a lapsed game nerd- he presented with typical signs, a history of DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS play, a borderline-unhealthy LORD OF THE RINGS obsession, and a complete and comprehensive familiarity with the AXIS AND ALLIES rules.
We invited him into our usual gaming activities and before long, The Barrister was re-indoctrinated into the hobby gaming world in a big way. He was a great gamer too- vicious, competitive, and cunning; at least as far as the Eurogames we were playing at the time would allow him to be. He loved PUERTO RICO and SETTLERS and even talked about starting up a new D&D campaign. There was a certain sense of wonder and discovery that he displayed that was pretty exciting- he was enthusiastic about all things gaming and his heart was really into it all.
It wasn’t long before he was interested- like myself, Dollar Bill, and most gamers at some point in their lives- in opening a game store.
I can vividly remember the first time I saw a copy of Dungeon! Visiting some of my Dad’s friends who had a son a year or two older than me, he pulled a copy out from under his bed and suggested we play. I was gobsmacked, not only because I’d unwittingly stumbled into the company of a fellow geek in the making, but because up until that point I’d only ever considered Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing franchise. The idea that it could extend to a board game seemed stunningly innovative to my young self.
But it seemed to cover the bases well, with a recognisable premise of heroes venturing into a multi-level dungeon to kill monsters and collect treasure, with danger and reward increasing the deeper you went. And the monsters and magic and treasure that I encountered that afternoon were all bona fide dungeons and dragons exports. So we played, and played, and played again. I was amazed that the considerable complexities of the role-playing game could be boiled down so simply and effectively.
Because it is simple. You pick a hero, and maybe a few spells from a choice of just three, move five spaces per turn and if you walk into a room you draw a monster card appropriate to its level and roll two dice to see if you can beat it. If so, collect a treasure card from that level. If not roll another two dice to see if it beats you. First to collect a set amount of treasure wins. Explore a dungeon, kill monsters, grab loot. It’s Tomb, only much faster and simpler. And much better.
Tomb, of course, was a game made for adult hobbyists. But its problem was it added length and complexity to the basic formula without adding strategy or fun. Dungeon! is a game for kids, and it does what it does in a wonderfully refreshing no-frills manner, caring little for the niceties of modern game design. In fact this new fifth edition of the game, originally published in 1975, has changed one rule, and one rule only: now, a trap causes you to lose a maximum of two turns, whereas previously it was up to six. That’s it. It’s an improvement, but it’s also like 30 years of game design never happened.
But why should anyone care? Remember, it’s a game intended primarily for children, not for adults to play against one another. Children don’t need complexity, or detailed narrative, because they have the imagination and the credulity to fill in all the gaps without the sort of creative hand-holding that adults need. Many of the classic children’s games that make up the staple of occasional family gaming are founded on similar principles to Dungeon! A lot of luck, a tasty serving of narrative and a bit of gambling. They haven’t changed in decades, so why should Dungeon!?
What has changed are the components and the price. Earlier editions were garish, clumsy things, furnished with art that looks laughable by modern standards and with components outsized beyond need which forced the price up. This edition has great art, especially on the new board and it has serviceable components. Cardboard standups instead of pawns is a bit annoying, and the cards have gone too far the other way, now being too small for comfort. But these small sacrifices have been made in the service of pushing the price to bargain basement levels, allowing it to undercut mass-market tat and even put it in the range of teenage pocket money.
One thing has been added, and that’s official solo rules. There are three suggested ways to play, two of which are badly flawed. The third, however, is a lot of fun. In hunted mode, you draw a powerful monster and scamper round the dungeon as it pursues you, trying desperately to gather enough treasure for the win before it kills you. Even more random than usual, but oddly tense and exhilarating. It’s probably the most enjoyable way to play without a child to share the experience with. And frankly, it’s probably worth the meagre cost of the game all by itself.
It’s worth it because it’s plain, dumb fun to trawl your way round the rooms on the board, actually encountering nasties you only ever read about in the Monster Manual, gloating over your hoard of gold, poking your atrophied adult imagination into wondering what might have been perpetrated in named rooms like The Torture Chamber or The Hole. And it’s not like it’s completely skill-free either. Dice win the day, but you can place tiny bulwarks against fate by choosing effective movement paths and balancing the risk to maximise your gain.
And if you do have kids, and you like a good thematic game, you can’t pass this up. The world is awash with mass-market children’s games based on dreary real-world or educational themes, and with European imports made especially for youngsters. The mantra of simple rules and short play times suits children’s games extremely well, after all. The style of game I fondly remember playing as a child, featuring vampires and giant spiders and battling robots, seems to have gone out of fashion. Dungeon! is back to remedy that, a game that theme lovers can use to introduce their offspring to the questionable delights of underworld delving. It’s Gulo Gulo for the Ameritrash crowd.
I hate to remind you all, but we’re coming up to Christmas, the one season where ordinary families can be relied on to gather round a roaring fire and play board games together. Games that, perhaps, have been newly birthed from their gift wrap and shrink after dwelling beneath the antiseptic smell of pine for a few days or weeks. You know the usual culprits: Monopoly, Life, Scrabble and others will be bringing joy and annoyance in equal measure to millions this December. If there is any justice in the world, Dungeon! deserves a place alongside its peers on that list.
My second favourite place to read articles about gaming (NoHighScores being the first, obviously) is Edge Online. And it was there that I learned the news that two well known names in video game design history, Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall, were joining forces on a kickstarter campaign to fund an “old school” RPG. The modern incarnations of the genre being apparently, in spite of being “epic” and “wonderful”, in need of some competition from the aged paradigm of stat-crunching. The article from which I learned this asked the pertinent question of what, exactly, the label meant. That pushed my nostalgia buttons sufficiently to make me want to try and answer the question for myself.
I grew up with both computers and with pen and paper role-playing games and I can’t recall a time when the link between the two was not obvious. Gathering other gamers together for role-playing sessions is hard and if you want the full effect of slowly developing a group of characters they suck in immense quantities of time. Computers promised a solution to both issues, allowing you to get your fix any time you wanted and speeding up the campaign arc.
The initial offerings I came across were interactive fiction games, which I found and still find charmless, frustrating things. They have all the book-like limitations of trapping you inside someone else’s imagination without the benefits of character development and absorbing narrative. And the experience of dealing with language parsers drives me to a level of incoherent fury unmatched by anything else in my gaming experience. These were not the things I wanted, where an inventory was a clumsy box of puzzle solving tools rather than a roster of legendary weapons and magical armour.
So the first time I got wind of something that smelled like my beloved Dungeons and Dragons, my delight was incandescent. It was original Bard’s Tale and I was ten. I had no idea how to play the game properly, and I didn’t care. I would carefully roll up a party, lovingly name them and clothe them in skins of iron and steel before setting out into the brutal dawn of Skara Brae where they would stumble into enemies and be torn apart like mewling babes. Whereupon I would go back to the inn and repeat the process over and over, ignoring homework, meals, bedtime, until I was dragged protesting from my dream world, eyes round and red from wonder and exhaustion.
This happened because I was expecting a replica of my childish D&D experience where the heroes went out and slaughtered monsters, collected the loot and went out to slaughter more powerful monsters. I think I solved exactly one of the horrible battery of puzzles the game slammed in front of the player like iron doors, which was how to get into the first dungeon. And once the euphoria of that discovery wore off and I realised that what I’d found was nothing more than a faster way to get my callow band of heroes slaughtered, my interest in the game began to wane.
But unbeknown to me, The Bard’s Tale was just the most popular and visible cap on a mushrooming world of computer role playing games. Ultima had been born five years before and, although I would not play a game in the series until the early 90’s, had set down many genre conventions. After The Bard’s Tale and the home computer revolution they began to sprout in earnest. And why not? On the limited hardware platforms of the time action games looked awful and played in a sticky, halting fashion compared to their arcade counterparts. Role-playing games offered the majestic worlds of wonder and the grand sagas that we craved from both pen and paper RPGs and computer games.
What all the early role-playing games had in common was an obsession with numbers. Character ability scores, experience levels, weapon bonuses, spell counts. That’s where the focus was, or at least the focus of most players. Sure some of those titles were filled with cleverly conceived plots and marvelously inventive settings but what the pen and paper role-playing crowd who lapped these things up really wanted was a computer simulation of their favourite games. And that meant stats and power curves, building up experience points and hoarding loot. It is, as we well know, an incredibly addictive model of game play so titles that stuck to the Dungeons and Dragons formula sold well, got well reviewed, and spawned copies until it became the dominant model in the genre.
Inevitably actual licensed Dungeons and Dragons games eventually began to appear, the first being Pool of Radiance in 1988. But what’s striking about this release is that came after the first video adventure game that struck new ground in the genre, Dungeon Master. With its real time play, peculiar repetition based experienced system and mix of tough puzzles and twitch combat it moved the focus sharply away from number crunching and toward action. The stats were still there of course, buried in the character screens, but for the first time the player didn’t really have a clue what the number represented, what they were for. So obsessively tweaking character builds for maximum power became futile.
Dungeon Master laid, arguably, the groundwork for the modern concept of the action RPG. But while people raved about it they kept on lapping up the stats based model. They did so because it was a better mimic for their other hobby and because that reward-response reinforcement is so amazingly powerful. So while technological developments allowed first map-based tactical combat and then real-time combat the numbers stayed totally in the heart of things.
What changed the game finally was Diablo. One hundred percent real time and a character stats system stripped back to its bare essentials, it arrived at a time when computer gaming was becoming increasingly seen as an ordinary everyday activity and not the preserve of Dungeon and Dragons nerds. And it proved that the reinforcement model was just as addictive for mainstream gamers as it had been for the pen and paper role-players before them. From there, slowly, the action RPG model took over as the dominant one and evolved toward pinnacles of near-perfection like Dark Souls and The Witcher, whose difficulty made them once again the playthings of hardcore hobbyists. Video role-playing had come full circle.
Until now, and the kickstarter calls for a new stats based role-playing game to challenge these behemoths of modern technology. It is, as others have observed, a little sad that kickstarter is so often used to stoke the dormant volcanos of nostalgia than to drive innovation. But what I find especially odd about this new project is that as far as I can see, what I consider as old-school role-playing never went away.
If you go trawling around the stony bottom of the internet you will find many, many stats-based role-playing games that will give you many hours of enjoyment without costing you a penny. Just like the arthropods you might find under the real stones of a real stream they’re often ugly and will bite you if you’re not careful, but they’re there. From fan freeware modelled on the console JRPGs of our teenage years to the untold legions of lovingly maintained Roguelikes they will satisfy your desire for stats-based, reinforcement model gameplay to the very brim.
So what does that leave us with from a kickstarter project? A new story, that’ll likely follow any number of tiresome fantasy conventions, perhaps. A graphical update that still won’t be able to match the best looking action RPGs on the market, certainly. But ultimately, and ironically quite unlike the trailblazing adventures its supposed to simulate, this seems doomed to re-tread some very well worn paths indeed. I’ll be sticking with Angband and my action RPGs.
Penny Arcade’s first two Precipice games were quasi-real time affairs, animated and written in the style of the popular webcomic, Penny Arcade wit and all. For the third game, Cthulhu Saves the World developer Zeboyd took the property in a less graphical, more turn based direction, but kept the series’ trademark sense of humor. That sense of humor will go a long way towards determining how much you enjoy the game. If you’re not a fan of the comic, the straightforward nature won’t draw you away from other RPGs any time soon. On the other hand, if you find yourself repeatedly hitting F5 every M-W-F for the latest strip and post, Rain-Slick 3 is a nice mix of wacky humor and solid RPG mechanics.
I should note that I find myself firmly in the latter camp, so take that into consideration when reading this review. I should also point out that while I really enjoy the comics, I go to the site three times a week for Jerry Holkins’ posts. In fact, many the time have I gone, read the post, re-read the post, wished I could write like that and then left before even reading the strip. Holkins wrote Rain-Slick 3, as with the other games, and between the game’s dialog, the excellent characterizations of haughty genius Tycho and punch-happy idiot Gabe, and the hilarious enemy names and descriptions, I laughed out loud plenty of times. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good Optimus Mime joke.
Rain-Slick 3 is an RPG in that your characters have different classes, they level up and you take turns in battles, but if you’re looking at a deep adventure filled with tons of side quests and optional activities, this ain’t it. The plot moves you along pretty briskly as Tycho, Gabe, Tycho’s PI ex-wife Moira and mystical skull-in-a-jar Jim work towards preventing an apocalypse of Lovecraftian proportions. The mime cultists and filthy hobos of the previous games make a return, as does Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood. Obviously, if you’re coming in cold, you’re going to be a little confused, even with the game setting up events, but as this is the third game in the series, it’s not unreasonable for it to expect that the player knows what’s going on.
The game uses a combination of Final Fantasy class and occupation combinations and Grandia style action bar queuing to help you punch your way through an army of monsters and filthy mimes. Each character can take on two additional occupations, drawing from as eclectic a group of jobs as you’ll ever find. The Crabomancer specializes in defense, the Masochist can injure enemies at the expense of their own hit points, the Diva does damage at the expense of their team’s health, the Gardener can plant gardens that continuously dole out damage, health or magic points and the Apocalyptic can call forth prophecies that rain down fire, ice and poison once it comes up on the action bar. With three classes per character and four characters to manage, there are more combinations that you can possibly go through, but thankfully the experience system makes playing around with the various occupations a breeze. Any unequipped occupation levels up, albeit at a slightly lower rate than equipped occupations, which means you can always switch up your occupation and not feel like you’re going to go into a fight with an underpowered crew.
This is a good thing as the game is more than happy to throw large groups of monsters at you, each with hit points that range in the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands. Early on, you can pretty easily blaze through fights with minimal planning, but late game, managing your party as well as the action bar becomes critical. As you queue up party actions and your enemies do the same, party member and enemy portraits show up on the action bar. Once the portrait moves all the way to the right, the action is completed, be it a friendly skeleton attack, a Deep Crow attack, or your garden disgorging its army of angry bees. Managing attacks that interrupt enemy attacks and knock them further down the action bar not only keeps your team from being damaged, but also allows your team to get some licks in before they get a face full of broodlord, um, fist? Mandible?
With a lack of side quests, the game feels like what it is, one battle after another, interspersed with hilarious bits of dialog and Gabe acting like an idiot. Thankfully, that’s more than enough for me as the various classes and occupations offered up enough variety to keep me interested over the length of the game. Maybe if it was 30 hours long, rather than six or seven I’d feel differently, but it wasn’t, so I don’t. The game is funny, the combat system is interesting, the classes varied and I got a kick out of seeing which Penny Arcade employee was going to show up next. I don’t know if Zeboyd’s games are all this funny, but if they’re all this solid, I have a new developer to keep an eye on. That right there is well worth the price of admission.