Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Demon's Souls

A while back I got the game Demon's Souls, the only game I have for the "holy crap it has a game now" PlayStation 3, and the only game I expect to have on it for the foreseeable future.  I don't know if I've ever been as conflicted about a game before.  It's very clever and innovative, and sometimes it's an action RPG, sometimes it's a platformer, and sometimes it's a puzzle game.

And it's hard.  The word "hard" here is an understatement, regardless of how many times I put the word "really" or various expletives in front of it.  It's hard as if the entire Blu-ray disc it ships on were made of diamond.  But for brevity, let's just say that it's really, really, really damned hard for now.

And that's the flaw with Demon's Souls, but it's a flaw so great that it overshadows all of the other brilliance in the game.  It is not merely hard in that the difficulty level is extremely high even on the lowest setting (which, indeed, is is)—I've played games like that, and I've tried out various games on their hardest difficulties before.  It's hard in that it delights in your suffering, and inflicts that suffering on you at a rate I am unfamiliar with.  Every action you perform in a manner that is not perfect yields punishment.  Oh, you turned a corner without facing the corridor with your shield up?  For that grievous sin you are punished with an axe to the face.  Oh, you used your attack button too many times in a short period of time and are now too weak to block?  For that sin you shall have your exhausted body cleaved in twain.  You die.  You die a lot.  In fact, almost the entirety of the game is expected to be played while you are dead, in "spirit form"—temporary restoration of your corporeal body is a reward for doing something particularly special, like killing a boss or helping another body kill a boss.

This might not be so bad, but there are no saved games, or even checkpoints to speak of.  When you die, you start over the level from the start, but all of the enemies have respawned, and now you are dangerously low on healing herbs.  A few hours into each level there will be a lever that will open a door or activate some sort of shortcut that can let you get back to later portions of the level after your next death, but that's it.

Oh, and you lose all of your experience points and money every time you die.  All of them.  (You do, at least, keep your items and equipment.)  You have one chance to go and retrieve them from the location of your death, and if you die again in the process, they're all gone for good.  You can entirely lose an hour of progress in a couple minutes.  After all, you're being incredibly careful all the time because you have to be, and if you're incredibly careful and still manage to die in one spot, there's a pretty good chance that you're going to die in the same spot when you make it there again, and that's only if you managed to do everything before that point perfectly and avoid dying even earlier.

And that's what's wrong with the game, at least as far as I'm concerned.  You can play for a couple hours and be worse off than when you started, logging off having made no forward progress at all, now with damaged and broken equipment, no money, and zero experience points.  It's demoralizing to say the least.  At best, you got better at playing the game in that time.  But that's just not enough.  After many, many hours into the game I managed to finish one zone of the game and kill its final boss, and I finished two other zones and got TO their end bosses, but couldn't kill either brutally painful boss.  With nowhere else to go other than perhaps grinding out a level or two (which would take several hours) or just beating my head against the bosses (for several hours), I was done with that game.  I'm a PC gamer.  I have higher standards than this.  Console gamers, as far as I have been able to tell, enjoy brutal masochistic punishment.  (Some of them reportedly even enjoy using the horrible PlayStation controller!)  I do not.

What kills me, though (pun somewhat intended), is that with a savegame feature, the game would be miles better.  I would enjoy it thoroughly, and I'd have made much more progress or even finished it by now.  A simple F5 key could have fixed the game if they were unwilling to tone down the ridiculous difficulty.

There's a lot to love about the game, though, and that's why it makes me angry that the game is so close to being great.  Combat is interesting, and it's about player skill more than stat points on your weapon.  Enemies all have their own attack styles, and equippable weapons all have different strengths and weaknesses.  Polearms have a nice range and do great damage, but taking a halberd out in a narrow hallway is a recipe for failure.  You can learn that those guys on the ramp do a very powerful vertical slashing attack that's strong enough to hurt while you're blocking or even one-shot you, and you can counter by rolling out of the way, flanking, or using ranged weapons.  There are lots of secrets to discover, and multiple paths to follow.  And, while it's primarily a single-player game, it has an insanely creative multiplayer component.  Other players exist in their own copies of the worlds, but when you get near other players, you see their spirits fighting up ahead, perhaps even giving you a clue to watch out for an ambush or trap.  Dead players leave bloodstains that appear in all copies of the world, and you can touch them to see their last few moments, so you can watch what tactics they tried and failed at.  You can also leave notes on the ground for others—"beware the next enemy's fire attack," or "don't miss the treasure behind you," or "watch your step."  You can also inscribe runes on the ground that, when encountered by other players, allow them to summon your spirit into their world to help them defeat the area's boss, giving you a chance to practice on the boss without suffering harm yourself, and rewarding you with resurrection if you successfully help out another player.  There were so many things about the game that I found very refreshing and unique, things that I wished were in other games I play.  (Oh how fun it would be to have medieval hand-to-hand combat this interesting in a great single-character PC RPG like Oblivion.)

It's just a pity that I only saw 10 or 15% of Demon's Souls, because I'd really have loved to play more of it.  But as long as I have a job and a finite amount of time to devote to a game, it just doesn't make sense for me to play the same levels again and again for hours on end, each time making slightly more progress than the last.  I'm going to play something fun.  I know that there are people who find that sort of slow progress and extremely high difficulty very rewarding, but that is not fun to me.

UPDATE: For a much more entertaining version of my negative comments about this game, check out the Zero Punctuation review.  In typical Zero Punctuation style, he doesn't really say anything nice about the game, like how well-done the combat is.  But he's a lot funnier than I am.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Made for You

The short version:
OneRepublic—Waking Up: 9/10
P!nk—I'm Not Dead: 6/10
Shakira—She Wolf: 8/10
The Roots—Rising Down: 4/10

I've been listening to OneRepublic's second album Waking Up rather incessantly since it came out, and for good reason: it's irresistible, and the sort of CD that seems to be over far too soon.  The opening two tracks Made for You and All the Right Moves work together perfectly to introduce the album with a grand sound and intoxicating percussion; they fit so well that while both songs stand on their own, hearing them back-to-back increases my opinion of each to the point that I'd rather not listen to just one of them alone anymore, like listening to just half of a song.  (I heard All the Right Moves before the album was released, and my feelings were pretty lukewarm initially; I don't know if it was due to the low quality audio or having not heard the lead-in track, but my opinion has changed completely since then.)  That sort of care to the ordering of the tracks and the flow of the sound from one song to another is evident in the whole album.  Soon after the two-track opener is my third-favorite, Everybody Loves Me, which lyrically probably would have fit best with the first two, but was probably pushed back a track to make it not start to seem repetitive.  While the best songs are in the first half of the disc, like many others, the ones toward the end are still more than acceptable, and balance out the mood of the album nicely.  I can recommend Waking Up to just about anyone, but if you like Keane or other piano-focused pop-rock, this CD is definitely for you.

I picked up P!nk's I'm Not Dead, and it's not quite as essential, but it's okay.  The more upbeat tracks are good though not as intriguing as the best stuff from her last album Funhouse—Stupid Girls, the unfortunately-named U + Ur Hand, and 'Cuz I Can are the highlights, and all very fun to listen to for lack of a better phrase.  There are quite a few slower songs that are really tough for me to stand, though, such as Dear Mr. President.  They emphasize the qualities about her voice and lyrics and style that annoy me, and all that in addition to just not really catching my interest makes them unappealing.  The disc is sort of split down the middle, with several tracks I really like and several that I really don't.  So, overall, I'd say it's a mediocre album: but more accurately, it's half a good one and half a bad one.

Shakira's latest CD She Wolf is another step in her multi-album transition from fairly-slutty to super-prostitute... but at least it's pretty good.  The video for the catchy and amusing first single She Wolf would be softcore porn if it weren't so weird, alternating between "wait, was she even wearing any clothes in that last shot? go back!" and some robotic twitching that makes the Fembots from Austin Powers seem everyday.  My next two favorites are the less dirty Mon Amour and the tamer Gypsy.  And, it's not quite as good as those, but Give It Up to Me (with Lil Wayne) is practically designed for the radio and I assume it's going to be the next single.  It's high-quality Shakira-flavored pop music consistent from start to finish, and if you liked her previous CDs you're going to like this one too.

Finally, I've had the latest CD Rising Down from rappers The Roots for months now, but I just haven't been able to bring myself to listen to it all that much.  It's just not that good.  Unlike most discs the best parts don't even start until track #7, but even the best aren't exceptional.  There's one memorable song, Criminal, and it's quality, however while I Will Not Apologize and Singing Man are the next best, even they are forgettable, which doesn't speak well for the rest of the disc at all.  I don't know what's up; the Roots have put out a lot of raps that I really love, but this CD isn't even worth the purchase for anyone but the most hardcore fan.  They're the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and at first I thought that being associated with him was incredibly insulting to their talent, but now I'm not so sure.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Worst phone feature

By far the worst feature of my phone is that there are buttons on the side of it for changing the ringer and using the camera, and they can't be turned off.  I can't imagine a practical scenario where someone would want those buttons so badly that they would be willing to put up with the constant inconvenience of randomly changing ringer styles and taking pictures of their pocket.  My preferred ringer style is the one right before "Silent," so once or twice a week my phone decides without me that I shouldn't know about incoming calls.

I expected more from my pricey zero-dollar phone.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gift cards

A decent amount of my net worth at the moment is tied up in gift cards—about $600 at the moment.  That's a lot of money that can only be spent at specific stores!  Gift cards as a gift idea are great, but as an incentive or reward they are pretty obnoxious.  For one, gift cards are really about the only useful reward I can get from my credit card rewards program, so I've got some there.  And then I've got some from incentives, like a $100 Wal-Mart gift card I got during Black Friday.  And then there are all of those pretty good deals that I tried hard to resist, like "buy a $50 gift card at this restaurant that you go to frequently and get another $10 gift card free."  Those are the obnoxious ones, because I know that financially they make a lot of sense for me.  They're essentially just a discount since I'm guaranteed to spend money there anyway—in the previous example, it's a 17% discount ($10 off a purchase of $60).  But for that free $10 I'm paying a definite price in inconvenience.  To save ten bucks I have to carry around one or two more pieces of plastic or paper with me at all times, or even worse, remember to pick them up before eating there from some out-of-wallet storage location.

What I think is most annoying about the existence of these offers is that I don't feel like that inconvenience is the intent of the promotion.  The intent, as I see it, is twofold.  There's the actual gift-giving case, where someone gives a gift card to another person.  If the recipient is already a customer, no harm is done; the gift card has incentivized and reminded them to come to the restaurant and spend at least $50.  If they're not, then the restaurant just got new customers that they didn't have before, and possibly repeat customers.  And if the restaurant is really lucky, they'll just lose the gift card or forget to use it before it expires.  All of those are profitable—enough to make up that $10 that they gave the buyer if the buyer doesn't also forget to use their incentive gift card (which will likely expire in three months or some short period of time).

In none of those scenarios is the restaurant making profit on my inconvenience.  The closest thing is that they're making money on the fact that this gift card is "burning a hole in my pocket," making me want to eat there and spend money.  I'm good about using gift cards and sending in rebates and those sorts of things.  I'm going to use that card; I wouldn't have it if I didn't plan to.  It ends up being this weird system where I can choose to take on additional inconvenience for what is essentially a small cash payout of $10 or so.  So far I've decided that my precious wallet space is not worth that $10 of free money, but I'm tempted each time.  I feel like normally when marketing promotions are involved, one person's inconvenience benefits another, and I think it actually makes me more annoyed that in this situation my inconvenience doesn't help someone else (even the restaurant's investors) out.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Let's Play World of Xeen

Someone on the Penny Arcade forums has started a long thread titled Let's Play World of Xeen (click "show spoiler" to show the content—or go back to page 1 to start from the beginning) in which he plays through one of my favorite classic PC RPGs, takes screenshots, and adds a narrative. He's not finished with the game yet, but reading through the article so far overwhelmed me with happy nostalgia. Having played and adored the original game (technically a pair of games that you could install together and play simultaneously), reading through this is like candy.

It got me thinking that this basic formula, even without the completely made-up character interactions the author has added, would work pretty well for game reviews. Looking through something like this, edited to remove spoilers and focus on early-game content, would be a lot more useful to me than most game reviews. This format is most similar to a video review, I guess, but video reviews for games that I've seen so far in my life have all been pretty inexplicably terrible, even with my very low standards and expectations for reviews of video games.

This guy's trip down memory lane is precisely what I would have liked to have seen before buying the game in the first place. From a few screenshots and basic descriptions you can get a pretty detailed picture of a game, and from there you should be able to know how much you're going to like playing it. A walkthrough of the first hour of a game is far more useful to me than the opinions of the reviewer who might like be looking for completely different things in a game than I am.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Earlier this year—er, last year—Microsoft Money was announced to be discontinued.  My ancient copy of Money was working mostly fine for me, but a couple years ago it could no longer talk to my credit union to download statements, so I've been manually downloading them, a minor inconvenience.  I figured that at some point I'd have to replace it with something else.  I looked into a few online options, such as Mint, but I figured I already had all of my account information online, so why have it online at yet another site?  Then that struck me: I already have all of my account information online.  Why do I need it offline, essentially just a second copy of it?  Why am I downloading my transaction history, categorizing it, and tracking it every month?  I don't use that information for anything.  It's wasted effort, no different than if I each month wrote an essay about what I spent, and then immediately deleted it.  I don't use that data to form a budget, or even have a budget.  I can still review my statements for illicit transactions without going to this ridiculous extra effort.  I just don't need to have online statements, printed statements, and an electronic record of that information.

It seems like the worst case is pretty much that someday in the future I really do need that information sorted and categorized for some reason, and then I have to go through that effort—I ended up simply postponing it until necessary.  That sounds like a really good bet to me.  So, I haven't sorted or categorized or tracked any of my statements for the past several months, instead only giving them a quick review for fraud and things like that.  So far, I'm much happier.  I can use all that extra time to write blog posts about how I'm saving time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Oh, and in case it's not obvious, I've been back from Nebraska for a week now, and I've been sick for most of that time. I seem to be getting better as of today, though. I think I'll be able to return to work tomorrow, not that I'm in any way excited about that.


I just got back from a three-hour homeowner's association meeting. Well, technically, it was only an hour and a half. The first hour and a half was the pre-meeting with two visitors from the City of Redmond Public Works department to talk about a rate increase for stormwater services. The meeting went something like this:

Public Works: It turns out we've been billing you as single-family homes instead of a complex of homes under a homeowner's association all this time, so we're correcting it, and that's why your stormwater bill will be twice as much, billed collectively instead of individually.
Homeowner: But it's twice as much as before.
Public Works: Yes, it turns out to be about twice as much as before. [Explanation of how they calculated how much we owe.]
Homeowner: I don't want to pay twice as much as before.
Public Works: You were being billed less than you should have before. Now it will be correct.
Homeowner: But it was correct before.
Public Works: No, it was wrong before. The new amount is correct.
Homeowner: I don't want to pay twice as much as before.
Public Works: We realize this.
Homeowner: You should have given us more notice.
Public Works: Well, we tried, but you didn't get the mail.
Homeowner: We shouldn't have to pay since you didn't give us more notice... ever!
Public Works: Well, you still have to pay. It's a city ordinance.
Homeowner: But it's more than we were paying before.
Public Works: Yes, it's more.
Homeowner: If you're going to increase our rates, you should have given us more notice.
Public Works: We tried to.
Homeowner: Well, I don't want to pay more money.
Public Works: (sigh)
(...continued for 90 minutes...)

There was like five minutes of actual content in the meeting (none of which was news to the board), repeated ad nauseum for the elderly/confused/angry homeowners who either weren't paying attention, didn't understand, or couldn't hear. I do not want their job.