Me and my buddy Mike have spent years as armchair game devs. Years ago we spent maybe a month talking about actually making a game together. But it didn't get very far. No, most of our dev talk over the past decade-plus has all been hypothetical. We just shoot cool ideas at each other, talk about the possibilities and move on. Because neither of us really has the time, attention span or skill to put these ideas to good use.
But I remember very specifically back in 2018 that I was hyped on an idea. I shot Mike an email.
My dude! I have the best idea for a video game ever! It combines two things I love so much. Imagine if there was a football game, but it was completely turn based? It'd be like Madden, but on a grid, and everything you did utilized action points. Imagine Madden by way of XCOM. I am a genius, and this is the game of the future.
And then Mike - who is an avid tabletop game player - wrote back simply, "that's already a game. it's called Blood Bowl."
I've paid very little to tabletop gaming in my lifetime. I've never had a big group of IRL friends to play games with. I used to do a lot of meetups online. But I haven't had a chance to really play pen and paper games since like junior high. As such, I've completely overlooked the world of Warhammer. And so Blood Bowl completely went unnoticed. Until Mike mentioned it. I downloaded Blood Bowl II on my Xbox almost immediately.
The craziest thing is that I started Blood Bowl II on May 5th, 2018 and thought it looked cool and got sidetracked, only to fire it up again almost five years to the day later. I had re-added it to my "to play" list after reading HG101's Epopee book, which is composed of interviews with French video game developers.
Admittedly, the learning curve is slow. There's a fairly long tutorial built in to the campaign, which means it's some hours before everything opens up to you and the game stops holding your hand and limiting your options. But by the time the game did that for me, its hooks were in me pretty deep.
The thing that works to Blood Bowl II's advantage is that it's simple at first. If you understand American Football, and you understand XCOM, then this is easy to get into. But on the flip, it's also pretty damn deep. There's so much to learn and wrap your head around, so every match feels like an actual learning experience. The progression goes a long way as well, as your players level up via playing well, and you have the ability to upgrade your team between matches. Oh, and sometimes your players die on the field. Permadeath, baby.
Blood Bowl II is a nail-biting experience. Each match is just sixteen turns. Each turn is just four minutes. And there is some incredible drama that takes place in that time.
I also appreciate the single player campaign in this game. There's not a lot of digital board games with a really solid single player campaign. Never mind ones based on football. As I said before, the early matches of the campaign amount to a tutorial. But later scripted events deliver referees with death-grudges, retired players hopping in to join you, and all other kinds of crazy shenanigans.
I find it interesting that a French developer tackled the sport of American football, as I'd assume that soccer (as we call it) would be far more popular in France. And it is jarring to hear the field referred to as the pitch, or a game called a match. Though this turn-based bloodbath is anything but a true simulation. And certainly the cutscenes involving commentators Bob and Jim have a rather French ashetic to them. Though, I'm not familiar enough with the Warhammer universe to know if these were pre-existing designs, or creations of Cyanide. As a side-note, it's hard for me to type "American Football" without the song "Never Meant" getting stuck in my head. I'm just saying.
Now one thing I don't care for in this game is that unlike in a traditional football game, you can't just play through a season taking the wins or losses that you get. Each match is essentially a "level" that you must beat. That means that every match is potentially an hour that you might lose and have to replay. Take for example my match against the Warhammerers that I had to replay multiple times. That can feel like a total drag, and I guess in that sense the game comes closer to XCOM than Madden.
At fifteen matches, the single player campaign isn't particularly long. Heck, it's shorter than an actual season of football, never mind the playoffs and Super Bowl. But it was fun the whole time. And because you need to win every match to proceed, it wasn't a breeze. There's some challenges like "complete three passes in a game" that must be met even with the win to continue the campaign, and that keeps things interesting.
I had an odd glitch where no matter how much I played, the playtime clock just said zero. But I'd estimate I put in around twenty hours over two weeks. And I had fun the entire time. To me, that speaks volumes to a good game of this ilk. As far as turn based games about football with permadeath go, I don't think you could do much better than Blood Bowl II.
When I first played Undertale in 2015, it was all the rage. Gaming publications at the time gushed about this weird indie game made by one guy. I was a little stand-offish. It had a very minimalist look to it, almost reminding me of an old Commodore 64 game or something. And it was a sort of fourth-wall breaking RPG that encouraged pacifism. None of that exactly turned me off. I like weird games. But the hype was just so huge.
I can remember my wife and I taking a bus trip to NYC and overhearing a teenage girl describing the game to her mom. Her mom sounded like she was really struggling to fake interest in this game. But I realized then that Undertale was an anomaly. When I was a teenager, a game like Undertale would not have been mainstream in any way. In fact, the two most obvious inspirations for Undertale had almost zero impact on American audiences back in the day. Earthbound (1994) hit the American market with a whimper upon release, taking at least a decade to be recognized as a true work of genius art and a coveted holy grail amongst SNES collectors. Meanwhile, Moon: Remix RPG Adventure (1997) never even left Japan. I have to imagine that no publisher thought that Americans would even appreciate the game, and thus it languished on these shores until it was finally localized in 2020.
But you can draw a line through those two games and find your way to Undertale. Earthbound is obvious. Yes, it's a JRPG, but unlike Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy it takes place in a more modern setting and has some truly bonkers dialogue and story curveballs. More importantly, you could reference Toby Fox's "Halloween Hack" of Earthbound as a sort of dry run for the work he'd later do on Undertale. Thematically, the comparisons to Moon are way more obvious, though. Moon is literally an RPG about a boy whisked away to a strange world where he must help the inhabitants instead of hurting them. Moon's cult status was long that of an "anti-RPG," a label which could quite easily be applied to Undertale as well.
Going back to the Halloween Hack reference, Undertale is tonally weird. The game's simple and cute graphics are at odds with the somewhat unnerving story and setting. In Shin Megami Tensei games, you mostly kill monsters and sometimes talk to them in hopes of recruiting them. In Undertale, your goal is to always avoid fighting (even though it's the first option) and talk to monsters in hopes of flattering, flirting, threatening, and so on in hopes of avoiding any and all conflict. All the while there's an overwhelming vibe of depression, loneliness, and despair. Monsters literally cry. The landscape is often barren. It's discomforting, and yet hard to put a finger on. Maybe the best way I can describe it is, did you ever see Pan's Labyrinth? Imagine if that was a 16-bit RPG. Imagine if Dragon Quest was a literal nightmare.
The battle system is equally as interesting. Whereas most throwback RPGs would choose to stick with the tried and true turn-based battle systems of yore, Undertale swerves hard. Instead, how about if battles are played out in a danmaku shmup sort of way? How about if you're represented by a tiny hard and must dodge a whole hell of bullets? You can't fight back. Just dodge. Your goal is to just hang in there each turn and hope you have enough HP to take another turn and resort to peacefulness?
In reality, you can actually fight. You can kill stuff. But that's not the point. In my first playthrough of the game back in 2015, I did get desperate and kill something. And then everything went downhill. The game got infinitely harder, and I had to keep killing to survive. That's a way you can play the game, but not the intended way. Undertale is very much a game about nonviolence. I don't know Toby Fox, so I can't say for sure that he's preaching any sort of agenda. But certainly it's an interesting take on a genre. What if the most basic thing you're supposed to do in an RPG (kill stuff and grind XP) is completely removed from the genre? What would that look like?
Then there's the weird characters. Take for instance the motherly goat that you first meet that introduces you to the underworld. Or Sans and Papyrus, the two skeletons who have gone on to be something of the faces of the game. These are odd characters with completely unique personalities. And dare I say, they can even be funny.
All of this amounts to something of a fever dream in game form. I don't think I can accurately describe the insanity that Underworld turns into when you're suddenly thrown into a televised game show that's being hosted by a robot. I'm not making this up. This is something that happens in a video game that wasn't created by David Lynch.
Ultimately, Undertale truly is an anti-RPG. It's fairly short; it's linear with no backtracking; there's no weapons or armor or spells to upgrade. Basically, it goes out of its way to break nearly every convention that you'd be accustomed to from any other RPG. Because of that, I find it a totally interesting game. But one thing that nags at me is that on the second playthrough I felt that I was having less actual fun. I think that the first time around, I was so interested in the story and seeing the subversions of the genre, that that was enough to keep me invested. Going into it knowing fully what to expect this time, I found that the battle system (or rather, anti-battle system) and the puzzles that make up the actual game play weren't all that compelling to me on their own. Don't get me wrong, it's a great game. It's an impressive game and labor of love by one developer. And it's a game I think everyone should experience once. I just don't know that it holds a lot of replayability for me.
I started Phantom Pain this week.
I love the prologue mission. There's so much stuff in that opening hour that just shows the stuff that I think Kojima is great at. This constant juxtaposition of kind of gritty realism and absolutely bonkers off-the-wallism. The creepiness of that little red-headed floating thing in the straight jacket and gas mask? The fire whale and unicorn? And even though there's some stealth stuff, it's not undo-able for me. That part where you have to hide under beds that the guards are shooting through - it's tense to me, but I can do it.
Ugh. I'm so bad at this game.
The first little mission I had to do was to get intel from that tiny village. So I take my time, case it out from afar. I can find two guards and tag them. I go around the village and approach from the side I think is clearest. I make it in - seeing a third guard in the process - but manage to get into the room w/ the intel. As I'm reading it, that third guard pops into the room. Thankfully, I manage to take him out and now I panic and flee out the door alerting other guards in the process. There doesn't seem to be too many, and I figure out how to get my horse to come pick me up and we take off. So, mission accomplished though it's certainly not clean.
So now that I've got that intel, I know where they're keeping Miller prisoner, so I head to another bigger camp/village thing. From the distance I start looking for guards and tagging them. There's one... another... third... hmm, oh another... and five... and dammit, six, seven, eight... Okay, awesome. How do I approach this then? I know: like a total moron! Right. Here's a brilliant idea - I'll just start shooting a shorter range gun from way up here in the hills then - instantly alerting all eight of them in the process! So now they're launching missiles at me up in the hills! Excellent. Such a good idea. I'm the best.
It's dark out so I figure maybe I've caused a distraction and can sneak around the side of the camp without them noticing. This almost works except there was a ninth guard I never saw over on the outskirts of the camp who sees me approaching now and he lets the others know. I take one guard out and I'm pretty sure at least badly hurt another but run out of ammo in the process. Meanwhile countless bullets riddle my body as I jump back on the horse and haul it back up the hill. They don't even try to stop me because, well, I think they felt bad for me at this point.
There's so much stuff that's awesome about The Phantom Pain, yet I fear I'll never get to any of it because missions like this just aren't something I can deal well with.
But I retried that mission to rescue Miller. And this time it was a success. Sloppy, but still. This time I went way around the right side of the base and did my best to slowly work my way to where he was being held. Of course my best is still bad when it comes to stealth so I was spotted by someone. I'm not sure who, as I thought I tagged everyone. Oh well, fight or flight time. I hugged a wall and started firing back. I'm not totally sure how I survived the two grenades that were tossed my way, but I just barely did. Once I had a clear path into the building I ran in and got rid of the couple of guards hanging out in there, and then waited for the rest to come in. The best was the last one who patiently waited for me outside of a closed door. I guess he planned to surprise me, but since I had tagged him it was no surprise. I kicked the door open and took care of him - earning an achievement for securing a base in the process. Which felt good because well, I'm bad at this game so any minor victory is a major one to me.
Actually, getting rid of all those guards was a blessing in disguise. It meant I could haul Miller out of there without trying to sneak around or have another gun fight. Eventually we were ambushed by Skulls though. That was bad. We took off on the horse and made a getaway on the helicopter. Then I finally got the Mother Base setup. So yeah. Some early progress now.
A Hero's Way
Okay, mission three took me like an hour... but still. I did it. In this mission I had to "eliminate" a certain dude in one of those big camps. Now, the suggestion was that he had some good intel so I'd be better off kidnapping him than killing him. So that's what I hoped to do. I spent a long time trying to come up with a feasible approach. I tell you I surveyed every side of that compound from afar. This explains why the mission took me so long. I was literally spending a lot of time just circling the damn place and trying to find my target, and trying to find some way in that wouldn't get me super killed.
I had tagged about a dozen guards but still hadn't found the target. And then I faintly heard it: "we're the kids in America/woah-oh-oh...," dammit, there's a radio playing inside that little shack. I figured he must be hiding out there, but I couldn't get a good view. So I made a trek around the opposite side of the outskirts so I could try to spot him. I make my way up a small cluster of rocks and sure enough there's movement in that shack. Zooming in, it's confirmed. I've found our guy.
Alright so now what? There are over a dozen guards around this compound. Several right outside his shack. One with a spotlight adjacent to it. And oh no - he's apparently got a friend guarding him inside. Y'know what? Change of plan: I'm just gonna really eliminate this guy instead.
It's at this moment that I realize that a sniper rifle would be greatly appreciated. But oh well. I move my way in to try to get a better shot. I make my way to a small building and hide behind it. I start crawling closer. There are at least three guards patrolling right around me. I nervously inch my way from makeshift cover to makeshift cover. I'm finally close enough so that I can see him through the window. I wait.
This is the tense part. I know that even with a silencer his friend will notice when I start shooting. So I have to make this count. But I'm still not really quite close enough to make it easy on myself. Oh well, let's let it ride. I open fire and the target goes down while a bunch of dudes swarm me quickly. There's bullets flying at me from every direction and as I turn to run I realize that the target isn't actually eliminated. It's just a flesh wound. Ugh! I turn back towards him - and as my luck would have it - he hasn't gotten smart enough to get out of the window. I finish the job and book it with no real escape route planned.
I whistle for my horse just as a giant sand storm kicks in. I have no idea if this is a scripted event or if I'm just really lucky, but it totally helped save me, plus makes for a cool story. I can hear the soldiers scrambling to find me amidst the chaos, but they fail. As my heart rate slows I find a spot to chill long enough to call for a heli-Uber. I can still hear the confused and upset guards off in the distance as I make my way to the rendezvous.
Tackled mission four, and with that one I feel like Phantom Pain has officially clicked with me.
This was the mission that involved taking some satellites out of commission. On paper, this sounded like a fairly easy mission. But it's me, so things just aren't going to go smoothly. More on that later... I started the mission out by finding a little puppy friend. Good stuff. Then I started my trek towards the camp I was looking for. I stumbled upon a small lookout that had two guards chilling. Miller tipped me off that one of them was speaking English so he'd make a good translator. I went around and clipped both of them with tranquilizers and whisked them off to Mother Base. I'll admit, I was pretty proud of myself.
I hopped back on the horse and continued towards the objective. On my way there it dawned on me that I really wish I had a good sniper rifle. And then it dawned on me that I could just use the iDroid to develop one and have it delivered Amazon drone style. So I did just that. Yes! Okay, yeah I'm starting to make more sense of this game and its possibilities.
So I made my way up to a good lookout spot and tagged the three satellites, along with a bunch of guards. I started to consider how I'd go about taking out the satellites when - oh crap - apparently I didn't hear a guard come up the hill behind me and discover me. Cover blown; time for bloodshed. The new sniper rifle came in quite handy as I started picking off guards below. They sent backups and I just kept whittling down their numbers until the base was all mine. I had Mother Base deliver me some C4 and took care of the satellites.
Admittedly I'm still trash at stealth. But at least it seems like I can bungle my way through these missions, which is nice.
Here's what I mean about the game finally clicking with me, though. It occurred to me that Phantom Pain is basically what I had wanted from Breath Of The Wild. It is a huge sandbox of possibilities. It does present you with the ability to tackle problems as you see fit. There isn't necessarily a "right" way to do anything. But the difference is that there is actually a structure to Phantom Pain that was lacking for me in Breath Of The Wild. Eventually I just grew tired of asking "where should I go next?" in the Zelda game, whereas The Phantom Pain kind of combines the best of both worlds for me.
Over The Fence
The mission I had left off on was was an extraction. It was pretty straightforward. Not super challenging. And yet I screwed it up enough that I was offered a Chicken Hat, which I proudly wore like the dunce I am. I don't know what to say other than every time I thought I knew the layout and where all the guards were I'd stumble upon another who would freak out and alert everyone else.
Where Do The Bees Sleep
I spent about an hour attempting to find "The Bee," a weapon which was the goal of Mission 6. First off, it took me a long time to even get where I was going. I took lots of detours around mountains and bases and whatever. Finally I was able to sneak into an underground hideout, mostly thanks to a windstorm that conveniently supplied me some cover. There were a couple of guards hanging around down there and I was jumpy and ended up drugging them. I took off down deeper into the complex in search of The Bee but ugh, I didn't think to hide those drugged up guards so they got discovered. So now I'm down in this hole and doing my best to hide from a whole camp of dudes that are searching for me. It was at this point that my wife asked if I was ready for dinner and this felt like a relief.
I have decided that I have a special love/hate relationship with The Phantom Pain. I have a certain appreciation for how open the game is; for how much is possible; for how you can approach it as you wish. I love the music and the atmosphere. Not that I've played all of the Metal Gear games, but this must be my favorite. And yet, I'm also really bad at it, which makes it a game that I just can't focus on for as long as I'd like. If I feel a ping of frustration, then I need to give it a break, else I risk losing that feeling of what I love so much about it. It feels like a game that I can come back to and play missions in spurts rather than really committing to binge-playing it. So for now, Phantom Pain, we're on a break.