Tomb Raider (2013) on Moonlight

On a whim, I reinstalled Tomb Raider (2013) on my gaming PC this week, and started playing it. I have very mixed feelings about this game (despite the fact that this is the third time I’m playing through it), which I will probably detail in another post later once I finish it.

Playing this game through Moonlight on my Raspberry Pi is a charm: the visual quality is excellent, and so is the framerate. Despite its age, this game still looks great. At the time I first played it, I remember thinking “I don’t care if games ever look better than this, this is good enough”. This opinion has not changed.

Enter Moonlight

 Over the past few weeks, I’ve decided to test Moonlight instead of SteamLink. Results have been… mixed.

 The program is actually very easy to install via the RetroPie-Setup script. It is available in the ‘experimental’ packages. There is a specific command available to automatically create shortcuts, so games can be started directly from the RetroPie menu (under the ‘Steam’ category).

One problem I encountered right away: For whatever reason, my DualShock 4 was recognized as ‘Wireless Controller’, not as a DS4, and the button configuration was all messed up. I tried to figure out how to change it, but gave up after about an hour, and went back to using a Dual Shock 3 (also wirelessly), which was properly recognized and works as expected.

The first game I tried, of course, was the original Tomb Raider. SteamLink had some noticeable input lag issues. It is not the case with Moonlight. Everything worked perfectly. Same with Tomb Raider II. I was able to beat both games without any kind of issue. The visual quality looked even better than using Steam streaming. 

Other games I’ve tried with Moonlight:

  • The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure (thanks to the recently released translation mod for the PC version). I’ve played about 10 hours so far and I have yet to encounter any issue. Again, the video quality is top notch, and the inputs work great (using a Dual Shock 3).
  • The Lego Ninjago Movie Videogame: This game is surprisingly fun and funny (especially since I got it for free last year during a promotion). I have found two issues: Anytime I need to rotate the left analog stick, the motion is not detected properly, making those puzzles virtually impossible to complete, and the game will crash randomly when streaming. I tried the rotation puzzles on my PC directly with an Xbox One controller, and it worked as expected, and without crashes.
  • Valkyria Chronicles: I can hear the sound, and that’s it. The screen stays black when streaming this game through Moonlight. I tried it with SteamLink, and have not encountered any issue there. I did some Googling, and the same issue occurs on an Nvidia Shield device as well.
  • Tomb Raider: Legend: Again, seems to work great with Moonlight. I had two issues playing this through SteamLink: the game was too dark, and the analog sticks were too sensitive. I haven’t encountered either of them with Moonlight.

More testing with Tomb Raider (1996)

I’ve spent some time testing this game today over wi-fi. It was not a good experience, due to input lag. It’s not much, but enough to be noticeable and make a relatively simple platforming section in the second level of the game somewhat tricky (especially for the jumps).

I tried a few other things as well:

  • Ethernet over power lines — Better, but still noticeable. I did not run into any video issues though, the frame rate was constant and did not notice any compression artifacts.
  • Wired both PC and the Raspberry Pi into the same router — About the same as ethernet over power lines. Maybe a tiny bit better, but still noticeable.

So, at this point, I’m not convinced this can work, at least not for action game that require precise timing. This should be fine for anything turn-based though.

First experiment with new desktop computer streaming: Tomb Raider (1996)

The new computer showed up early last week, and I’ve been testing various thing since. And now I’m finally getting to testing the streaming to my Raspberry Pi.

One game I’ve been replayed a lot in recent years is the original Tomb Raider. Yes, that super ugly and blocky game from 1996, featuring Lara Croft’s triangular chest. I think I’ve played the thing from start to finish at least six times in the past four years.

The issue with this game is that controller support is… problematic. Considering the game was made long before the Xbox 360 controller became the standard in PC gaming, that’s understandable. Luckily, Steam now has built-in input mapping, which can map controller buttons to keyboard keys. And, when using a Steam version of a game, it is fairly easy to import other people’s configurations.

 To get this working, I first installed the GOG version of the game. Then, I downloaded the Tomb Raider Automated Fix installer. By default, GOG runs the DOS version of the game through DOSBox. The automated fix installer makes it easy to run the Windows version of the game in widescreen, at high resolution, in addition to updating the FMVs if you so desire. I then added a custom shortcut in Steam pointing to the ‘tombati.exe’ executable, gave it a proper name, added some custom artwork, and enabled controller support. Since this was a custom shortcut, I was unable to import someone else’s configuration. Making a new one wasn’t too hard by looking up the original PS1 configuration and matching it.

So, how did it go when I tried to steam it to my Raspberry Pi? I’m not sure.

The picture quality is perfectly fine. The problem is controlling the game. My performances at the game were not that great. I’m not 100% sure where this comes from. It could be that there is a very minimal but noticeable input delay. Or it could be that I’m using a PS3 controller. After years of using nothing but a DS4 and an Xbox One controller, going back to the DS3 felt cramped and awkward. 

Anyway, I will keep playing some more this week. I plan to test again with a DS4, we’ll see if things improve. I’m not optimistic.

Valiant Hearts – The Great War review

I need to get into the habit of writing reviews more often. Though that is not likely to happen.

Anyway, Valiant Hearts – The Great War. Published by Ubisoft in June 2014 on a multitude of platforms, developed by Ubisoft Montpellier. Certainly one of the good surprises of the year for me. I bought it for the art style. And also because it was on sale on Steam. I figured this would be a nice, short holiday game. It was short, all right. It was very nice, as well. But it certainly did not put me in a good mood. Especially not after finishing it.

The game has you playing as one of four distinct characters (Émile, a French farmer, Karl, a German young man who gets drafted into the German army, married to Émile’s daughter, Freddie, an American expatriate, and Anna, a young Belgian woman) and Walt the Dog, all caught in the middle of a war known as The Great War, aka World War I. The game is divided into four chapters, and each chapter is composed of a variety of small vignettes, highlighting specific elements that are typically associated with WWI (trench warfare, poison gases, the arrival of tanks on battlefields, zeppelins, etc.) Each section is played using a different character or two. To move the story forward, the player has to solve some (usually fairly simple) puzzles, in typical adventure game fashion: Find object A, bring it to NPC B, find a way to move object C to clear the path. The game is sometimes interrupted with simple action sequences where the player is controlling a car and has to avoid bombs, mines and enemy fire, or (when playing as Anna) rescuing injured NPCs by playing some sort of rythm mini-game (which is the most annoying and frustrating part of the game). Movement is strictly 2D.

One cool thing about the game is its art style. It is very comic-booky: all characters, backgrounds, objects, have very clear black outlines, and it’s all drawn in a manner that reminds of old French comic books (Franquin’s Spirou albums are the ones that came to my mind) . The backgrounds are detailed and look amazing on a big screen TV, and vary from dark forests, to destroyed cities, bunkers, trenches, mines… The colour palette is somewhat muted, but that is very much in line with the subject.

The real star of the game, however, is the story. I got attached to the characters very quickly. They are very human, very simple and relatable people who get involved (not on their own accord) in events bigger than they are, and they try to survive as well as they can, attempting to find their loved ones in the middle of one of human history’s darkest hour. It is sometimes funny, but usually pretty dramatic. The ending had me in tears. I have not been moved by a piece of entertainment like this since Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.

As the story progresses, the player can access historical facts regarding some of the events depicted in the game. The texts are short, very interesting and very relevant to the game. This game also aims to educate, and succeeds very well in that department. Also unlocked are various diary entries by the main characters, adding some extra bits of character developments. These are entirely optional. And also well written. And fun to read.

Also good: The music. From the very French piano main theme (which reminded me a lot of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, a movie about WWI), the more comedic moments (there are a few, mostly related to the main villain of the game, Baron Von Dorf) to the appropriately sad ending song, it’s all good. I might actually have to buy the soundtrack for this.

As any Ubisoft game, this one has collectibles in it. They are far from meaningless here, though. Each one is associated with an interesting fact regarding the life of soldiers or civilians during World War I. I am not quite sure how I feel about them. On the one hand, they are a distraction and, as someone who is slightly obsessive-compulsive, missing one of them was somewhat frustrating (though I eventually got over it). On the other hand, they don’t feel gratuitous at all, and actually add to the educational value of the game. At least the games make it possible (and easy) to replay portions of the game and find the ones the player may have missed.

Side-note:

I played this on my home theater PC, streaming the game from my main PC. I was pleasantly surprised by how well this worked in my house. I had zero problem, outside of the fact that the game crashed once on me.

Anachronox review

I really liked this game initially. The first few hours were great. Awesome, funny dialog, a great story, interesting characters. (Including one named ‘Styletto Anyway’. I’m still not sure whether this is the best or the worst name for a videogame character ever.)

And then the combat starts getting tedious.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Anachronox is a PC RPG developed by Ion Storm (of Deus Ex fame) and published by Eidos, released in June 2001, and re-released on GOG and Steam in recent years by Square-Enix. It is built on a heavily modified Quake II engine.

The story revolves around the mystery of MysTech, rocks left behind by an advanced civilization in order to allow future civilizations to battle forces that want to destroy the universe. In order to unlock the mystery, your party will go from planet to planet, investigating all sorts of varied environments (from space station to volcanic planets to a scenic, snowy village where the main character, Sylvester ‘Sly’ Boots, gets stranded at some point). Nothing completely original, I agree, but the story is told through interesting cutscenes, well-written, wacky and funny dialog, and it ends up being a lot more interesting than my quick writeup makes it sound. The section aboard a super-villain’s spaceship is hilarious. I really have nothing to say against the story itself (aside from the fact that what we can play is only the first half of it, the other was to be delivered in a sequel that has yet to be made). I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it is the reason why I actually beat the game. It certainly wasn’t because the combat was engaging, because it wasn’t.

The game is not very pretty to look at. Even at the time it came out, I suspect its graphics were already way outdated. Today, they are downright ugly. Of course, this means the game will run like butter on any computer. The textures are blurry as all heck, the environment geometry is very simple, and the character animations are atrocious by today’s standards. The game even attempts to add facial expressions and some lip-syncing. The results are usually clunky. I’m no expert, but I think this might be due to the technology used, not a lack of skill on the part of the team’s artists. I am under the impression the Quake II engine was built for straightforward first person shooters first and foremost, not an ambitious RPG like Anachronox. An entire scripting system (called APE) had to be grafted on to the engine to make this work. (More on that later).

Though classified as an RPG, I found the game to play a lot more like an adventure game with an RPG combat system grafted on to it than something like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy. Most of what the player has to do (outside of combat) is gather items for whatever purpose, talk to people, take some photographs here and there.

I am not going to describe the combat in detail, other than by saying it’s similar to the ATB system seen in various Final Fantasy games since IV. Unlike Final Fantasy though, you can move characters around various points of a grid. Some characters and enemies can only attack if they are standing next to an adversary. Most characters can equip guns or long range weapons. I see two big problems with it: It is painfully slow, and the characters miss a lot, making fights take a lot, lot longer than they should. For the most part, it is also very easy (I played on Normal difficulty), which really makes it more of a nuisance than anything else.

In the sound department, the voice-acting is surprisingly good, and there are some real laugh-out-loud funny moments in the game. The music, however, is completely forgettable.

At some point, I encountered a weird bug: I had been playing the game and decided to reload my save game without exiting, and the game timer was reset. My progress would be there, but instead of saying that I had played for 25 hours 34 minutes and 10 seconds, it looked as if I had just started.  Which can actually be a pain in one particular area. To get one of the ‘Excellent’ weapon for a character, you have to let the character in a section for several hours. 7 of them, if I remember correctly. You basically have to let the game running while you go do something else (like, get a night of sleep, a day of work, or watch an entire season of Game of Thrones). You can’t just let him get in, get out, and get right back in. You have to wait a certain amount of time (10 minutes, I think). However, it has to be ten minutes between the time where the character last came out of the section. So, if the time reset between the time the character came out and the time you try to get him to get back in, you are screwed. You have to wait. What I ended up doing was: Look for the the APE script file for that section, decompile it, look at the syntax, figure out what I needed to change to bypass the time limit, recompile the script, put it back in the correct folder, and try again. (While I was at it, I also reduced the required amount of time to spend in the section to 2 minutes, because why not?) This was actually pretty fun, even though the APE script compiler was not easy to find online. I was able to do this since I’m a developer by trade. I don’t think anyone without any kind of programming experience could have done this. I have no idea how widespread this bug is. I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned anywhere online, but I did encounter it on both my work laptop and my home desktop PC.

There is also a bug where one of the toughest (optional) bosses of the game will cause the game to freeze. I tried it. The game froze. I gave up. I did not care enough to go through this long fight again to get an item that makes an easy game even easier (on normal difficulty).

I also encountered a bug where all the photos in my camera were wiped out, while I was trying to complete a sidequest that required me to take photos of small creatures spread out throughout the universe. Luckily, I was able to copy the files (which had not been erased yet) out of my save game folder, and then copy them back, which brought the photos back.

One last quick point: The game’s control scheme is heavily geared towards mouse and keyboard. Having a different control scheme for gamepad would have been cool. (I personally prefer to play while sitting on the couch than in front of my computer monitor.)

Should this game be played? Your mileage may vary. If you want to enjoy the story, I’m sure you can find the cutscenes on YouTube. Watching them will be a lot shorter than having to go through the game and having to suffer through the combat. If you still want to experience this game, then make sure you put the combat on easy. This should make it shorter.

First article of a blog nobody will ever read!

Since I don’t think anybody will ever read this blog, I can say whatever I want, right?

Anyway, not much to add at the moment. I will probably publish a new page later this week displaying the current status of the backlog (which I believe has over 300 games in it) and games I beat since the beginning of the year. I will also publish short reviews of games as I complete them. Anachronox (PC) is first in line. (Spoiler: It will be a pretty mixed review.)