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Baroque Interludium 04 (End)

Well, there is the last story. High stakes this time.

Immortal

“Today as well, according to the squad’s reports, there is no reason for anxiety for all of you citizens living in the standard area…”
The government broadcast continued, now showing a CGI model of some meta-being extermination squad members.
“Amazing, it’s like one of those old monster movies”
Ruby was glued to the TV.
“That’s just because of the uniforms they are wearing”
Their bodysuits were fully red, with rifles dangling down their backs. If they wanted to make people believe that meta-beings were no problem for their squad, they did a pretty good job, I thought.
But Baroques wouldn’t be deceived by that. It had been six days since the government had officially revealed the existence of meta-beings, and in that time, thirteen customers had come to visit me.
“At least three of them must have died by now. If this keeps up, it won’t be good for you”
“Stop jinxing it”
To most of them, I had given the Baroque of being immortal androids, so that it didn’t matter to them whether they died or were killed by a meta-being.
“Is it really okay, to give the same Baroque to so many people?”
“I’m busy with too many customers now, I can’t help it. Besides, not one of them has complained yet”
Right then, I heard a knock on the door.
Ruby hid under the desk.
“May I buy my Baroque in this shop?”
The girl who just entered the office was wearing a black funeral dress. Her golden hair was hidden by a black veil, and in her hand she was holding a white handkerchief.
“I’m very sorry, but we don’t sell here”
“Not even an immortality Baroque?”
“Sorry…”
I tried to ascertain whether she was truly a a customer. From the slight trembling of her fingers, a Baroque seemed possible, but I couldn’t see her eyes because they were hidden behind the veil.
“But though we don’t sell, we do make trades. The customer’s Baroque, for a Baroque that matches them”
“… fine. This is my Baroque”
She produced a black envelope and put it on the desk.
“There is an address written inside, so you may contact me if you can find a matching Baroque”
Without ever showing her face or even giving her name, the girl left.

“That girl looked like she was coming back from a funeral”
Ruby popped her head out from under the desk.
I opened the black envelope.
“I’m the heir of a house of immortals. Our symbol is our very name. When a ship of a thousand passengers is swallowed by the waves, when a town is submerged by the firey inferno of an erupting volcano, and when demons hunt down and kill people, the survivors always carry our name. He who is blessed with the power of our name becomes immortal, but the mouth that utters our name will forever be sealed…”
“Mmh, not bad”
“What do you mean?”
“In order to obtain the power of the immortal name, there must be some kind of requirement. In order to find this Baroque, you must also find that requirement. You can’t do the former without doing the latter first. But if you don’t find the right answer”
I turned the envelope upside down. The mummified body of a spider fell down without a sound.
“The wrong name becomes the cursed word, and the one who said it will be silenced”
“So if you can’t say the name, you will die?”
“Maybe that girl was dressed that way because she was coming back from the funerals of the Baroquemongers who have failed thus far”
“No way! Kitsune, this is not how you want to die!”
“And why would you know how I want to die?”
“Hey, you must absolutely find the immortal name!”
“If I can”
But I couldn’t make any progress. I examined the patterns of all the Baroques I had seen since, and various legends about the conditions to immortality, but didn’t make any breakthrough. Ruby kept desperately asking for updates, but I never thought I was going to die from the riddle brought by a Baroque. And if by some chance it really became a curse, then it would be a fitting end for a Baroquemonger.
Seven days without any progress passed, and at the dawn of the eighth day, the girl in black appeared again.
It was a strange day, it had been thundering all morning.
“I have heard my Baroque has been found”
“Uh… no”
I never contacted her. But then, Ruby appeared from behind the girl.
“I called her. Hey, your immortal name is the vampire Miralka. Your power comes from blood and the rose that blooms at night”
“Idiot, why did you-”
It couldn’t have been such a simple answer, even Ruby had to know that. But the girl simply bit her lips bitterly.
“Why…”
The girl waved the white handkerchief she was carrying. A black spider landed on Ruby’s bare legs. Immediately, Ruby collapsed. It was a poisonous spider. Ruby’s body and limbs started shivering, and her lifeless eyes grew wider.
“What’s the meaning of this?”
“You ask even though you already know”
The situation suddenly gave me a spark. I walked to my machine, and finished the Baroque I was working on.
“What about this?”
“I’m the angels’ trumpet, announcing the time of rebirth. My music cleanses corruption, guides people to the eternal kingdom. Resurrection is unavoidable. Knowing fate, crossing over the bodies of the perished, the trumpet makes everyone dance. Makes them dance all the way to the eternal kingdom…”
“The requirement for obtaining the power of immortality is sacrifice. Sinking the boat with a thousand people, or slaying one’s own brothers, makes their name immortal. Because the name of the victim is taken, and succeeds one’s own. So, you who have killed Ruby, from now on your name is Ruby”
“…”
“Is this Baroque fine?”
The girl lifted her veil. Her eyes were hidden well, but they didn’t show any of the signs of a Baroque.
She put some money in my hand, then turned around and left. Behind her golden hair, you could vaguely see a pair of small fake wings.

“Ruby”
I called out to the lifeless Ruby. Did she choose to sacrifice herself to protect me?
But then.
“Whew! That went smoothly”
Ruby stood up quickly, and grinned at me.
“How did you survive the bite of a poisonous spider?”
“The venom of a spider… of the Tarantella, won’t kill me”
“Tarantella?”
That name awoke memories in me. Tarantella. Dancing all the way to the eternal kingdom. Dancing sickness. The angels’ trumpet. The small wings on the funeral girl’s back. The girl had approached me under the pretense of a Baroque. Did an angel try to kill me as some kind of trial?
Trial. An abducted friend, a boy with light brown eyes, Neuro Tower, a man forsaking his wings.
“Impossible”
I shook my head to chase away the thoughts.
I was a simple Baroquemonger, and Ruby merely a loiterer who spent her time in my office. Even as the whole world was being swallowed by delusions, my days were going on with nary anything out of the ordinary.
If any weird and unique adventure had ever happened, I had no memory of it.
Still, I asked with worry.
“Ruby. Could it be that you are my own delusion?”
Her silhouette getting gradually fuzzier, Ruby grinned.
“Yep. Me, Kitsune, everyone, we all only exist inside a Baroque”
“I see…”
My heart, which had almost burst open, was once again calm inside the delusion.
“Immortality is nice”
“Yeah”
The Ruby of the delusion couldn’t die from the venom of a spider that gave people their Baroques.
“I’ve found a pretty interesting Baroque”
Like always, I went to my machine and created a new file.

 

 

Were you expecting that ending? I suppose it doesn’t make a lot of sense, given the plot of Syndrome, and cements Interludium’s status as a side project.

Kitsune’s memories in the last part are most likely referring to the Prologue novel. I will need to make my way through that someday. Maybe scan it and try my luck with some OCR program for the more difficult kanji. It could be a good idea to waste my summer days. Maybe also go back to these stories and fix the translations a bit, since they are pretty rough at the moment.

But there will be time for that. For now, hold onto your Baroques, and good night.

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Under the sea, nobody can hear you scream in frustration

There’s a joke (among many, countless others) in Monkey Island 2: as Guybrush is hanging over a pit of acid, you can make him ask LeChuck “why didn’t you just shoot me?”. And then LeChuck will reply, “because we had an extra disk”. Games have often struggled with available space, and multiple floppies or even discs were fairly common. Yes, even CD-Roms, with their 400X times the available space of a 3.5 incher, would sometimes not be enough.

Deadly Tide actually runs at 320×240. All images in this post have been pixel-doubled. Better than forcing you to look at them with a magnifying lens.

Of course, the main culprit was the widespread use of FMVs. Cutscenes everywhere! Sometimes all of the game was a cutscene, like the ubiquitous Dragon’s Lair. But some games went further and used FMVs during the gameplay itself. Such is the case for on-rail shooters like Rebel Assault and Deadly Tide. The former is more famous, but the latter is fairly unknown. Let’s fix this.

I just want to point out that the HUD in this game doesn’t make sense. On the right, you have a health bar. On the left… kinda hard to say.

Developed by Rainbow Studios and published by Microsoft (you can tell because they bothered to use DirectX 2 – no DOS here, they must have actually believed this could have been a Windows 95 killer app), it portraits humanity’s struggle against a race of underwaterish alien lizards. The aliens come to Earth during a long and expensive-looking intro cutscene that probably takes most of disc 1, and a few years later they have flooded the planet with some kind of space technology, or maybe they just waited until climate change did its job. Not really sure. Anyway, you get a prototype ship and bring the fight to their home turf.

It’s kinda Archimedean Dynasty, but with a lot less intrigues and a lot more aliens. Just kidding, it’s nothing like Archimedean Dynasty. It’s a rail shooter that uses FMVs as its very foundation. If you have played Rebel Assault 2, you know the drill: shoot at anything on the screen while the background kinda moves along. However, some sections even let you look around freely, and those are kinda surprising. I wonder what kind of technology it was – I can only guess that it must be something similar to what adventure games started to use a bit later.

The same screen-rotating technology is used in the mission select menu. However, the whole game takes place in the Pacific and the Atlantic. Sorry, Europe.

Too bad those free rotating sections, while kinda impressive to look at, also offer the most annoying challenges. It’s not cool, being killed by an enemy outside the screen. Sometimes they even get above you! Often, during these sections, you can only learn where the enemies are before you die, and then use that knowledge on your next attempt.

To spice things up, you’ll occasionally face on-foot sections and even steal enemy ships. These intermissions are almost invariably a pain, since you’ll have far worse weapons at your disposal. Prepare to die a lot. Too bad, because the game overall isn’t that hard, and missions are short enough that retrying isn’t too much of a chore. But maybe they were trying to artifically make it last longer. Even so, it won’t last more than 2-3 hours.

FMVs are somewhat compressed. Try not to move too often. Oh wait, you have no choice.

Aside from the quite impressive rotating screens, there isn’t much worth remembering about this game. But it’s 4-discs jewel case, while not tremendously rare for the time, is at least a good shelf filler. Just like The 11th Hour, and that Zork Legacy box. And a few others. Imagine if digitl downloads hadn’t taken off, maybe now we’d have PC games on four or five DVDs. Unless Blu-rays somehow managed to become popular.

Ah, who am I kidding? Even if Blu-rays had become the norm, developers would have found ways to fill at least three of them. Maybe with a 4K remake of Deadly Tide?

Bringing a knife to a gun fight

So here’s a story. Back in 2001, an interesting game called American McGee’s Alice came out. It was weird for a couple reasons. First, I believe it was one of the earliest examples of a director using his name in the title of his game, though I might be wrong here. But also, it was a re-imagining of a beloved children’s story, this time with dark and grotesque imagery and more than a bit of violence.

Alice does have a weird tendency to sound completely detached at one point, and break down crying one second later. Maybe it comes with the dyed hair.
I think this is the level in Mario 64 where I almost gave up on getting all 120 stars. I still got them in the end, though.

It was a cult hit, I believe, but not much more. Certainly not many people remembered it by the next year. Anyway, 7-8 years later Disney had a similar idea for their movies, and made a sort of dark fable out of Alice in Wonderland, of course starring Johnny Depp because back then he was still the hottest thing ever. It went on to become a worldwide success, so it’s no surprise that some videogame publisher would try and bank on it. Enter EA, who could have just made a movie tie-in… but instead, decided to resurrect an old, unrelated game that just coincidentally had a similar idea years earlier. And so comes Alice Madness Returns, and the circle is closed.

I dig Goth Alice’s look in Madness Returns, but she really needs to lay down the eyeliner.

Even better, they included the original game with the sequel. At least, on consoles. At least, as paid DLC. But now it’s free DLC! Funny how that works. Since Madness Returns was put on sale and also joined the backward compatibility program, I could finally play American McGee’s Alice, which I had missed upon release, and also take a bunch of screenshots.

There’s a whiff of Shadow Man to the enviroments and design, although encased in a fairly old-looking modification of the Quake 3 engine. I swear Quake 3 was much more pleasing to the eye, this is closer to Quake 2 in looks.

Not much to say about the game itself. Some interesting ideas, and the design is definitely disturbing at times, but the platforming and combat are both mediocre. In an action-platforming game you’d guess that could be a problem, and it is. Still, worth playing through, if only to see what happens. The Disney 2010 movie took a different direction for sure. At least I’m ready for Madness Returns now… though I might not start immediately. Quantum break has been waiting for too long.

Breaking the hours barrier

I just noticed that I must have spent more than 200 hours playing Destiny. That sounds like a lot of time for one game, but I did come close with some other titles too. The Binding of Isaac is roughly 180 hours, same for Diablo 3, Dark Souls 2 is probably more than that between all of my characters, and even though Morrowind and Baroque have no counter, I have a feeling I must have spent more than 200 hours in those too.

The counter actually says 190 hours, but it doesn’t count the time spent in cities and in orbit. And believe me, that was a whole lot of time spent mulling over legendary items.

While playing one game for so long is quite rare for me, I know that some people have played other games far, far longer.  I’m always amazed whenever someone comes up with an 800 hours savedata for Disgaea or whatever. I mean, I have spent the last two months playing almost exclusively Destiny (granted I didn’t have a lot of free time in the past two months… or in the next month) and I only got to 200 hours. And that was on top of the existing 70-80 hours I had accumulated during the launch period. Just how long do you have to play to reach 800 hours? (… well, I guess you’d have to play 800 hours)

You disturbed the remains (stealth Destiny reference). And yes, of course the various Serious Sam games have also been played way too many times.

If you have played a certain game for more hours than you’d care to admit, how did you do it? Did you keep playing even through the boring parts, or were you actually never bored? I can’t possibly imagine playing a game for that long without getting tired at some point. I’m doing fine in Destiny now, but of course repetitiveness is setting in.. and now I’m Light 398, it won’t be long before I get to 400 and lose the drive to grind in the first place.

I just lack that kind of focus. Then again, I play more games than the average person. Maybe I lose interest too quickly, and then switch to the next game. Well, that’s fine too. But maybe one day I’ll find that perfect game. The one that grabs and just doesn’t let go. That game to marry, so to speak. Not that there’s anything creepy about marrying a game, no sir.

Remember when there was just one Alien?

Juggling several games at once, like I constantly do, means you have more chances of rediscovering stuff you bought (or maybe even got for free) ages ago and never played. One such game is Alien Versus Predator, one of the most famous among those featuring the Xenomorphs – and the Predators too, of course, but there are many more games about the Alien whereas the hunter creature never really got anything aside maybe from Predator: Concrete Jungle (another game currently in my waitlist). And as it usually happens with very old stuff, 18 years old in this case, what you discover is not quite the same as people saw it upon release.

The Marine campaign would be much more tense, if it weren’t almost arcade in nature.

They said it was scary. Well, people also found The Exorcist horrifying in 1973, so I guess standards do change. But even so, I was never really afraid of peeking behind a corner. Perhaps the biggest problem was, even if an Alien had been hiding there, I could just blast its face full of lead. At worst its acidic blood splurts would take out maybe 15% of my armor, top. Not so scary then, is it? Enemies respawn, which means you can never truly feel safe, but it’s also easy to predict where the developers are going to spawn an Alien, so you are always ready. Except for the face-huggers. Those things were really annoying.

The Predator campaign is a bit like playing Crysis in 1999: you get the coolest weapons, a cloaking ability, your energy recharges with time, and the graphics hurt your eyes.

This was arguably a problem with old games in general. Can’t really see people getting scared by Alone in the Dark or Resident Evil today, aside from a couple of scripted sequences – which brings me to my point: scripting. In the end, is it only possible to do horror in games by carefully constructing everything in advance? The success of Outlast, so hollywoodian in nature, would make you think so. Even earlier games like Penumbra and Amnesia, though less restrictive, still relied for the most part on scripted events. Heck, the most memorable parts of the aforementioned fathers of survival horror are still the scripted scenes, like the dog monster breaking into the house from the window in RE1, or… the dog monster breaking into the house from the window in AITD. Yeah, I can see a pattern here.

The Alien campaign sometimes reminds you of the more colorful Rayman 2.

I can’t think of many ways of doing horror without carefully setting up a specific scene for the player to stumble upon. Certain titles like Silent Hill and Forbidden Siren were a bit creepier all around, but even in those games you are on the edge of your seat precisely because you don’t know when the next scripted scare will come up. I so, however, remember the NY Tenements level in Shadow Man, where somehow I was scared all the way through, even though nothing happened. Now I know this, it’s not scary anymore, but the first time it worked well. Is it possible then, to do horror without scripting? Perhaps so, but just like scripted horror, it would lack replayability.

I don’t actually remember what I wanted to say anymore, so nevermind. As it stands, AVP1 was fun but flawed, and certtainly not that scary. From what I know, when Monolith developed AVP2, they dropped the randomized nature in favor of the Valve-esque route of scripted events. So maybe it will be more horror in nature. I’ll know soon: the game itself is not available on any download service, but I still have the disc, and it seems to work fairly well on Windows 10 too. We’ll see if a scripted scare is more effective than Aliens coming out of the goddamn walls.

Serious Sam Fusion 2017 beta: Fish’n’Fries

If you own Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, you can now download the Serious Sam Fusion 2017 beta on Steam. What is it? Well, apparently some kind of central hub for all things Serious Sam, allowing access to the first up to the third game, presumably including the DLC chapters, and even SS4 whenever it comes out (so far it only supports TFE HD). It features slightly revamped graphics, easier access to all games from one place (guess the Steam client wasn’t easy enough), and probably new leaderboards. That last bit is my current problem.

Perhaps you don’t know, but Serious Sam HD works a bit differently from other games. Your leaderboard score is simply the sum of your scores from every level… and I mean all levels, including extra ones: so if you start TSE HD, and have the Fusion DLC installed, you can get a higher score by playing through the TFE episodes and two demo levels as well, not to mention the Legend of the Beast DLC chapter. It’s kind of pay to win, at least when it comes to leaderboards. But if Fusion 2017 is going to have unified leaderboards for all games, that means in order to keep my spot, I’ll have to replay every game, one by one, and get a high score in all of them!

Oh well, back again with Serious +  No Health + No Armor + No Powerups… 66x multiplier, here I come.

SS HD Fusion 2017: level 1
I’d play on Mental for 76x, but it has less enemies. I noticed you actually tend to get lower scores.

The graphics look a bit more natural, though also a bit less rich… I wonder if it was a side effect of having to make the game work smoothly in VR mode. I kinda like the new look. Currently it has a few bugs and also a few fixes. A big one is the werebulls behavior, which is a bit too aggressive. Seriously, right now whenever I meet one of them, I just bombard them from a distance, because dodging them has become near impossible. One fix, which was a long time coming but still disappointing, is the revolvers reload glitch: now, if you switch to a different weapons, the revolvers won’t be automatically reloaded. I’ll have to plan for that change during big fights.

But most importantly, they actually fixed the fishes’ behavior! In the original game and even in the HD remake, fishes were everyone’s nightmare because their physics were completely broken. They were supposed to be able to electrocute you from a short range, but in actuality, you could be hit from the other side of the arena, and their attacks hurt like hell. As if that weren’t bad enough, they could even chase you out of the water! An absolute nightmare. In Fusion 2017, they finally act like they should: much shorter range, and not nearly as aggressive. I can finally explore the waters in peace.

Now, let’s hope they fix the werebulls soon too, because in their current state they could make later levels near unplayable. And as Sam would say, that’s a load of bull.

Barrow Hill: The Dark Path – Night of the Offering Redux

I’ve made no secret of my love for niche horror adventures. I don’t know what it is that attracts me to them – maybe the obtuse puzzles, or the totally corny voice acting, or the nice art that still relies on point and click screens. I’ve been playing these things since the original Dark Fall. Although, it wasn’t always such a great time: Dark Fall was a bit too complicated. Rhiannon was a screen-hunting mess (in a real nice setting though). The Lost Crown was really good, but perhaps too long. Barrow Hill was one of the most interesting titles, but suffered from a pretty hard big puzzle near the end. So how does its sequel fare?

(spoilers ahead)

tdp4
“I thought I was rid of Emma Harry and her crazy spirits forever. But now I know I must go… BACK TO THE HILL!” *theme music*

The plot is not too different from the first game. It’s still the Equinox, some kids are still stupid enough to go around meddling with vengeful spirits, and you gotta save everyone. While it does feel like a retread, even down to the puzzles progression, enough has been changed to make the experience feel fairly fresh.

tdp2
Oh, looks like the victims from the first game got some mourning from their families. Finally someone who cares about disappeared NPCs.

The big problem in horror adventures is often how difficult and obtuse the puzzles are. Finding some of the ingredients in Barrow Hill was outright devilish. Dark Path tries to solve this issue by hinting at solutions a bit more heavily, especially if you enable item descriptions from the options. The three big puzzles to end the game – find the kids’ personal items to free them, find the metals to destroy the circle, and get some substitute items to replace Baibin’s – are almost all fairly obvious. This does make the game a lot less frustrating as you are generally able to understand what you are supposed to do without going around in circles, although the hints are a bit too direct at times.

tdp6
Ah yes, somewhat crudely rendered 3D objects. Believe it or not, they are a big draw for me. They harken back to the days of Myst. (okay, not quite *that* crude)

Unfortunately a few obtuse puzzles are still there, but perhaps more due to the interface than the developers’ intentions.I had to look for a walkthrough to see that I was supposed to make a fishing magnet in the garage, because the cursor didn’t help at all. At one point, I just started clicking the screen at random until I got it to do what I wanted. Another big annoyance is a point where you need to rearrange a series of short clips. And in general, there is a lot of scenes with rubble to move around, which honestly shouldn’t count as puzzles. These feel like influences from the HOG genre. Overall though, I feel the general experience is improved, and a good mix of old adventures and new HOGs.

tdp5
This style almost looks like a screenshot straight out of an hidden objects game.

The visuals have been modified in several ways. While of course they are higher quality (1024×768 instead of 800×600, and more detailed) the general look is not as dark as before. I don’t mind myself – Dark Fall was one of the most illuminated horror games around, and it’s still got one of my favorite art directions, while its much darker sequels weren’t as good. And who can forget the original Alone in the Dark with its pastel colors? So I’m not that bothered. Still, I can’t help but think that it’s a bit too colorful at times. But hey, you get to enjoy the nice scenery, at least. And of course the voice acting was bad as always, which is just what I wanted.

tdp7
The day again, at last! Now to call a taxi, and hope it’s not being driven by a skeleton in diguise.

In the end, Barrow Hill: The Dark Path is a pretty good effort. While it feels modernized, it doesn’t stray from its roots too far, and its improvements for the genre are many. Some may say it was made a bit too easy, though, and that’s something to think about for future games.

Speaking of future games… will Bracken Tor ever come out? I’ve been wondering since 2010 at least, but I’m a bit more hopeful now. Dark Path contains a few audio and visual teasers. Also, many might not remember Wychwood Hollow, another game that was announced a long time ago, as far back as 2011. I remember the early trailer and shots, and it really looks like the project eventually evolved into The Dark Path instead. Chances are, Bracken Tor could end up like that too. Something to wait for?