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An Introduction to Exalted

Michał

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Hello, readers of Fandomentals. Once upon a time, I introduced you to two tabletop systems that I appreciate. Today, I introduce you to another one, that many heave heard of but found too intimidating to approach. I will endeavor to make it easier.

What is Exalted?

The story of Exalted began in 2001, when White Wolf released its first edition. Today, the game is at its third, which was released roughly two years ago, under the brand of Onyx Path. After a torturous release schedule full of delays, the game is picking up speed again, having just finished a Kickstarter for a supplement. Making it a perfect time for me to tell you about it.

What is Exalted¸ you ask? It’s a game in White Wolf’s, and now Onyx Path’s, Storyteller system. But very different from the products most people associate it with. Exalted is a game of high adventure, of myth and legend, world-shaking heroes, and twisted intrigue. It evokes mythology and fantasy fiction both.

And the characters you play in it are the titular Exalted. Just who are they? To answer that, let me zoom back and tell you about the world of Creation. In the beginning, there was only the chaos of the Wyld. Until the Primordials, world-shaping titans, came and fashioned a flat world held up by five elemental poles from it. Then they created creatures to populate it and gods to take care of this world as they played their games of divinity and altogether treated the world as their plaything.

But the gods didn’t like being the Primordials’ slaves, so they rebelled. Knowing they couldn’t defeat their masters alone, they allied with their least powerful creations: humans. Their reasoning was that the Primordials wouldn’t expect it, and that humans also really wanted them gone. Who, after all, would want to live as a mortal human in a world that exists at the whim of capricious titans?

The gods invested their power in the mortal humans, creating the first Exalted. The Unconquered Sun, the King of Heaven and leader of gods, created Solar Exalted. Luna, the shape-shifting witch-goddess of the moon, created Lunar Exalted. The Five Maidens of Destiny (Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars), caretakers of fate, created the Sidereal Exalted. The Primordial Gaia, seduced by Luna to join the rebellion, had her children, the five Elemental Dragons, imbue their power into bloodlines of mortal heroes, creating the Terrestrial Exalted, or Dragon-Blooded.

Together, the united Exalted Host brought low the titans and wrested Creation from their grasp. Some of them died, while others were made to kneel. The Exalted had them swear oaths of surrender and locked them away in the body of their king, Malfeas, outside Creation, in what would become hell.

Unfortunately, killing a Primordial isn’t the end of it. Those of them who died were too massive in scope and nature to really die. Their passing broke the cycle of reincarnation, creating the Underworld, Creation’s dark mirror. They now forever exist there, mad with pain and longing for oblivion. With their dying breaths, they condemned their killers, inflicting the Great Curse.

The Exalted Host proceeded to lead humanity into a golden age, but it couldn’t last. The excesses of power and the Great Curse gnawed on the minds of the Solar heroes and rulers, driving them to madness and cruelty. So much so that the Unconquered Sun turned his face from the world in disgust.

Eventually, the Sidereals made two prophecies to see what to do about it. The Prophecy of Gold stated that it’s possible to turn the Solars from their destructive path…but there’s no guarantee it would succeed. The Prophecy of Bronze stated that if the Solars are cast down, the world will be diminished but survive.

Those Sidereals who preferred grim certainty over uncertain hope conspired with the Dragon-Blooded to overthrow the Solars, which began in a single massacre people would later call the Usurpation. Most Solars died, as did many of their Lunar consorts and stewards. The Dragon-Blooded remained as the rulers of the world, with Sidereals retreating into Heaven.

Thus ended the Fist Age of humanity. The new rulers of the world created a civilization of the Shogunate, where many noble houses fought for power. But it wouldn’t last, as the Great Contagion, a plague deadly like no other, decimated Creation. In its wake came an invasion of monsters from beyond the world. Creation seemed to stand on the brink, until an officer found and activated the Realm Defence Grid, a geomantic super-weapon that remained from the First Age.

The weapon decimated the invading Fair Folk, and its new wielder called herself the Scarlet Empress, the world’s new overlord. She bent the remnants of the Shogunate to her will and created the Scarlet Empire. She deliberately orchestrated it to be entirely dependent on her and her alone, creating Great Houses from her own children.

And then, she disappeared. No one knows how, why or where, but her empire is crumbling in her absence. The Sun has chosen to turn his face back towards Creation and the Solars are returning. The Age of Sorrows is reaching its tipping point, that will lift it up again or plunge it into the abyss.

That’s for a brief and cursory summary of the history. But you’re probably wondering who all those Exalted are, and what they do, and what stories we can tell with them. Let me begin from the two kinds we can currently play.

The many who are Chosen

Solar Exalted, or the Lawgivers, are the game’s default protagonists, who appear in the core rulebook. They’re the chosen of the Unconquered Sun, returning god-kings who will save or doom Creation with their deeds. The Great Curse still hangs over them, and the power they wield can corrupt even without it. But maybe they will be able to redeem themselves and prove that the Sun was right to turn his face back on Creation.

The Solars’ themes are excellence and heroism of mythical proportions. They’re the mightiest of Exalted and the rules drive it home. Their abilities manifest themselves through supreme mastery of different skills. A Solar master of combat can rout armies and slay behemoths. A Solar artificer can produce wonders unseen since the end of the First Age. And a Solar orator will inflame passions, sway hearts and minds and empower prophets. Their Exaltation often comes at a moment of glory and victory, but not always. There are many ways in which they can catch the Sun’s gaze and make him think, “there is someone that I want to spread my word in this fallen world.”

Somewhat balancing it is the fact that Solars aren’t established yet, the way other Exalted types are. And the more waves they make, the more likely they are to provoke response from the Realm, even fraught as it is with the impending civil war.

There are things Solars cannot do, though, which mostly fall outside their motifs of supreme human ability and the Sun’s glory. They can’t command the elements, change shape, take flight, or see the future. However, they can make up for some of it with magic artifacts, martial arts, or sorcery. Such sources of power are available to anyone (even some rare mortals), but Solars’ mastery over them is second to none.

Playing a Solar means being a massive fish in a small pond. Their power is immense and they find it very easy to excel in what they focus on or dabble in many skills. Thus, challenges to Solars are often like those we see in superhero stories. It’s not about giving a Solar weapon-master a monster too big, bad, and scary to cut down with their blade, but about giving them challenges they can’t outfight. A Solar king might shine with Sun’s glory with their every word, but there are no Charms for being a just, fair, and wise ruler.

The Solars’ past hangs over them as new ones appear in Creation. They ruled the world once and brought it to the brink of ruin. Can they avoid repeating it? Do they even want to? The Sun can’t and won’t tell them what to do; that goes against the idea of Exaltation. All he does is choose them and let them go to make the world more righteous as they see fit.

The Dragon-Blooded, also known as the Terrestrial Exalted, Princes of the Earth and the Ten-Thousand Dragons are the weakest among them, but reading through their book quickly shows how relative that comparison is. The Dragon-Blooded are still Exalted, still heroes, and Creation quakes in their passage.

The power of the Terrestrials comes from their lineage. The blood of the Dragons is strongest in the Scarlet Dynasty of the Realm, but there are others out there—the nation-state of Lookshy, the cabal of Forest Witches, or many smaller families scattered across the world. Sometimes, the blood manifests in a lone outcaste.

Despite what their name might suggest, they don’t have any draconic elements. Their power expresses itself in form of superior skill, but also elemental themes: fire, air, water, earth, and wood. The last is there as a nod to Chinese traditions, perhaps, but also due to old White Wolf’s deep and abiding love for the number five. Dragon-Blooded are elemental demigods who field the raw force of nature.

Many readers will no doubt think of Avatar: the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra now. Dragon-Blooded predate both of those shows, but their current incarnation in the third edition isn’t shy about drawing inspiration from them. Of course, Dragon-Blooded are far more powerful than benders and directly manipulating the elements is just one of many things they can do.

One of the main settings to play Dragon-Blooded in is the Scarlet Dynasty, the ruling class of the world-strangling empire. The elemental demigods who still keep their boot on much of creation engage in the same politics and dynamics all empires do, but the great power and burning passion of the Exalted drive them to extremes. With the Scarlet Empress gone, the Great Houses vie for power, the satrapies are rebelling, and nothing is certain. The Solars are returning and the Lunar Anathema are ever howling at the gates. And the need to keep the bloodlines strong is as strong as ever.

Another aspect of the Terrestrials is the Immaculate Faith. It’s a religion created by Sidereal Exalted to solidify a Dragon-Blooded mandate over Creation. It posits that the Dragon-Blooded are spiritually superior beings, close to the Five Immaculate Dragons, who represent the pinnacle of all life.

It also declares the Solars and Lulars “Anathema”—demons who stole power from the sun and moon and now possess strong but unvirtuous mortals. The Immaculate Faith is the state religion of the Realm, but it’s present in many other places beyond it. Once, the heirs of the Realm rode out in great Wyld Hunts to slay them. Nowadays the resources they can spare to hunting them down grow scarce.

Playing a Dragon-Blooded means having power over the elements and walking among the people of creation as a hero. You may come from an illustrious lineage or from the teeming masses. Your power is great, but still lesser than that of other Exalts, so the stories it allows are different. If you choose to play a Dragon-Blooded who’s part of the Scarlet Dynasty, you will step into a world of intrigue, politics and burning passion in an empire whose wealth derives from ceaselessly exploiting people fare and wide.

Those are the two kinds of Exalted we can play right now. The next ones we will receive are the Lunar Exalted, Luna’s shapeshifting god-monsters. They were the seconds of Solar Exalted in ages past—consorts, lieutenants, and assassins. But then the Solars died, and Lunars had to flee to the borders of the world from their killers. Since then, many Lunars have fought a ceaseless war against Dragon-Blooded and Sidereals, particularly after the Immaculate Faith branded them Anathema. They’ve found a place for themselves in the world after the Solars’ departure, but the Lawgivers’ return casts doubt on it.

Lunars have had a difficult history in the game that I won’t bore you with. The current developer team has a vision of them as raw, physical, cunning, and powerful heroes embodying change, towering rage, and themes of predation and symbiosis. Lunars walk the wilds of Creation as rightful masters, stride among barbarian tribes as living gods and rally them to battle against the Realm. They have plenty of reasons to hate it, but not all of them choose to take part in the endless war, preferring to seek their own ends. After all, who can tell a skin-changing moon-hero what to do or where to go? Many Lunars nonetheless look over mortal communities as unseen protectors and trickster mentors.

The Sidereal Exalted, the authors of so much of the right mess I’ve described so far, are the shepherds of Fate. They dwell in Heaven, as their actions during the Usurpation have caused them to disappear from Creation’s eyes. They hold sway over fate and destiny, both predicting it and manipulating it. Theirs is also a master of martial arts not even Solars can match. Sidereal Martial Arts twist fate and resonate with abstract concepts rather than simply different forms of combat.

The Abyssal Exalted are a new arrival on the scene, one whose appearance coincided with that of Solars. That’s because they’re Solar dark mirrors. The forces of the Underworld stole Solar Exaltations on behalf of the undying titans at its centre and twisted them to become Death’s lawgivers in hope of bringing about Creation’s end. But they can’t hope to cage and control Exalted, and the Abyssals are free to do as they please.

The Exigents are a different sort of thing. They’re the Exalted of the smaller and greater gods who dwell in Heaven and in Creation but can’t aspire to the lofty heights of the Sun, Luna, or the Maidens. Any god can petition the Unconquered Sun for Exigence, which is a portion of his divine fire through which a god may invest power into a mortal. Of course, there’s also tales of gods obtaining Exigence through theft or other unsavory means…

Exigence takes a great toll on a god. Creating Exalted isn’t something done lightly. But those gods who are willing and able will receive a champion like few others. Exigents have as much variety as the gods of Creation, which is to say a lot. We have no rules for them yet, but they hold promise for creating our very own, unique Exalted.

There are other Chosen who walk Creation and other worlds, but I’ve gone on about them long enough. What’s the world they inhabit like?

A world of myth and drama

Creation is a flat world amidst churning chaos, and relics of past ages litter its every corner. Mortal cultures of every stripe inhabit it, among gods, Exalts, and stranger beings. The book paints a dizzying variety of mundane and supernatural setting elements, and it’s very refreshing to see a world that incorporates fantastic elements into it from the ground level.

Many settings are afraid to let magic affect things. They paint the usual “European knights and wizards” picture, with magic mostly mattering to the player characters. Not so in Exalted. Solar artificers and sorcerers once created wonders beyond compare, shaping the world to their desires. In their absence, the Dragon-Blooded couldn’t maintain this artifice, which fell into disuse. But now the Solars are back.

Even aside from the works of Exalted, Creation is teeming with magic great and small. Gods, spirits, elemental, demons, sorcerers, and among all of those, humans who seek their own ends, try to change the world or just survive. The world this game paints is very intentionally amoral and might-makes-right. Righteousness is what those powerful enough decide.

I’ve spoken a lot about the Exalted, but gods also warrant mentioning. Creation is full of them, both great and small. The greatest are the Most High: the Sun, Luna, and the Maidens. But the gods run the gamut in power and influence, both in Heaven and on earth. The least of the gods are small deities of rivers, fields, or forests.

But even those least gods have great influence compared to mortal humans. After overthrowing the Primordials, the gods and Exalts created a hierarchy and bureaucracy to bind the gods together. But after the Solars’ disappearance, it has gone into disarray. Now nothing stops gods from extorting, bullying, and abusing mortals. Not unless the mortals have some leverage over them.

Nothing, of course, except Exalted. Many gods are no match for their power, and part of the Immaculate Faith that holds sway in the Realm is assigning every deity its proper place. They will get their share of prayer and devotion, as long as they fulfill their tasks within their spheres of influence. If not, Dragon-Blooded monks of the Immaculate Order wield powerful elemental martial arts, which the Sidereal sifus designed to help them bring unruly spirits to heel.

I’ve gone on about the setting and dramatis personae a lot. What about the mechanics? The rules of the game are hefty and heavy. They’re hard to approach and it helps to start out with mortal characters. Yes, you can play mortals. They lack the sheer might of the Exalted, but they’ve got their own stories to tell and their own impact to make on the world. More importantly, they don’t come with the plethora of superpowers and the rules that adjudicate them.

The Instruments of their glory

What are some mechanical widgets that make Exalted stand out? I’d like to draw your attention to two: combat and social influence.

The designers of the third edition had a problem. How to make combat between demigods enjoyable, and how to make rules that properly reflect such titanic struggles? The previous editions of the game had fallen into the trap of offense overwhelming defense. The Exalted and foes equal to them in strength threw around attacks with such power that they mostly obliterated their targets unless they raised an equally powerful defense.

But that’s not very exciting, is it? From the perspective of the players, if one combatant negates another’s attack, nothing happened. Until someone slips up and becomes a fine red mist. Third edition counters it with initiative. To avoid getting into the nitty-gritty of things, there are two kinds of attack: withering and decisive. Withering attacks steal initiative from enemies and give it to you. Then a decisive attack targets the enemy’s actual health, using your initiative as a damage pool.

This means that you need to build your momentum and position yourself to strike. It also lets powerful attacks go off without actually killing someone. Thus evoking the battles of myth and fiction, where opponents dance and struggle with each other before someone finally lands a decisive blow.

The social influence system addresses another problem. In too many systems, persuasion, diplomacy, and subterfuge boil down to rolling once and figuring it out from there. Or bypass rolling entirely, which is unfair to people who invested mechanical resources into it. With Exalted, another problem is letting the player characters convince anyone to do or think anything just because of how incredibly good they are at the relevant skills.

The game counters it by means of Intimacies. In a general sense, they’re things people believe and hold important to them. Whether they’re relationships to other people, philosophical beliefs, old grudges, ambitions—anything.

You cannot convince anyone of anything or get them to act on your behalf if you don’t attach your attempt to a relevant Intimacy. Likewise, if your attempt runs counter to one, it will be more difficult or outright impossible. But Intimacies can be created and weakened through social influence or simply through events of the game.

For instance, you can’t convince a loyal officer to betray her liege lord, no matter how many dice you throw at the problem. So if you want to do it, you will need to erode her loyalty somehow or appeal to some other Intimacies she holds. For instance, if the officer is a fervent believer in the Immaculate Faith and her liege lord has been consorting with Anathema, you can use that information. And obviously, no one says the consorting with Anathema has to be true.

I hope my rather lengthy introduction has at least sparked an interest in you about Exalted. It really is a special game that deserves some consideration and perusal. And if I’ve managed to do that much, I’ve done a good job.


Images courtesy of Onyx Path

Michał is a natural meddler, driven to take fiction apart and see how it works. In The Fandomentals, he examines fantasy and gaming with a critical, and somewhat cranky, eye.

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Spider-Man Does Whatever a Spider Can

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Over the long decades of Spider-Man games that have come and gone, the quality has varied wildly. Some have been really good games for their time. Some had a great idea carrying poor gameplay. More often they were plain bad. No matter the quality, though, one thing they all struggled with was the fundamental issue of capturing the feeling of Spider-Man.

The first Spider-Man on the Playstation was an excellent game. It was also limited in how much it could put Spidey’s real power in the hands of gamers. Maximum Carnage has many nostalgic fans, but it was just a side-scrolling beat-em up. The Spider-Man 2 movie game had terrific web-swinging, but was average or bad at everything else. Often the problems were technological. Other times they were an issue with developer skill or budget. Whatever the case no game really made you feel like the guy you read in comics.

And even more than the actual mechanics of being Spider-Man, games struggled to craft stories of the type that made Peter Parker and his crime-fighting alter-ego so iconic. Ultimately it is the relationships between Peter and his friends and foes that make him so popular. You feel an earnest connection to the conflicts driving his stories. Again, some of the failure here for his gaming adventures involves technology. Spider-Man gaming fell off significantly early in the Playstation 2 lifecycle, and gaming storytelling made significant leaps in that time. More often, though, those games just didn’t try particularly hard.

So how fares Insomniac’s attempt to finally give games a true Spider-Man game? How did they approach these problems? Were they ultimately successful? As an Insomniac Games fan since Spyro the Dragon some 20 years ago, I’m happy to say they made the best attempt yet.

Does Whatever a Spider Can

I’ll start with a pretty definitive statement here; no game has ever, ever had Spidey gameplay coming close to what Insomniac managed with this game. Not only that (and I admit this is purely opinion), Spider-Man has taken the Batman: Arkham formula and completely outdone it.

I won’t pretend the game doesn’t blatantly take the Batman formula. The combat certainly does. It’s the same directional, combo-focused, dodge-and-counter style I enjoyed across four Batman games. Thing is, it also addresses many of the problems in those games. Spider-Man’s enemies do not patiently wait as he beats down their friends. They jump in to stop you. They don’t point their guns forever like they forgot how to fire them. Those suckers get unloaded constantly. Spidey doesn’t gravitate from enemy to enemy like his fists have Bat-magnets pulled towards baddie faces. If you’re caught out of position, you’ll flail stupidly and someone will probably smack you for it.

While certainly inspired by Arkham, Spider-Man has a much more aggressive feel that perfectly suits the more agile, frantic, and plain capable nature of its superhero. Spider-Man isn’t a normal human being with crazy ninja training like Batman. He’s a true superhuman. You dodge bullets and rockets flying all over the place. You web people up, throw stuff at them, or even throw them if they’re properly restrained. Spidey flies around combat zones taking advantage of huge amounts of gadgets and suit abilities. His enemies have armor, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, whips, swords, shock gloves, and sometimes even support vehicles.

It makes for a very fast game with more challenge than I expected. The random baddies you find on patrol are perfectly capable of stomping Spidey into the ground. While nothing close to unforgiving, the game does demand the player get a handle on the combat and understand it. Even when you have your trusty standby style and gadgets, optional challenges encourage you to try the many options in ground and aerial combat. You’ll need to in order to acquire the combat tokens used to upgrade the suits and gadgets you like.

Thankfully, this challenge has nothing to do with poor controls. Spider-Man plays like a dream. The controls are smooth, responsive, intuitive, and quickly become second-nature. This allows the player to effortlessly transition between all the tactics needed for late-game encounters. It’s no problem at all to unleash a combo, dodge someone, counter, duck through a shielded opponent’s legs, web up to an aerial enemy, and unleash a special suit move restraining them all with your web.

In fact, the random baddies can be so surprisingly tough that the boss fights feel almost disappointing. Don’t get me wrong; they play well and usually have properly sizable scope. After hours of beating on upwards of like 50 thugs at a time, though, focusing on only one or two supervillains feels almost tame. Especially when few of them try anything particularly innovative in the combat system.

(The highlights are definitely the 2 fights involving Spidey going solo against 2 supervillains. One keeps the Spidey in the air at all times, while the other involves extensive use of the environment.)

But what about the method of traveling between all these fights? How exactly did Spider-Man manage the always important web-swinging mechanic? We all remember Spider-Man 2 and want something matching it, I know. And I won’t say the physics behind Insomniac’s Spider-Man matches its PS2 predecessor.

You know what? I don’t care. Rather than go for something “realistic,” Insomniac went for fun. Give me this any day.

The most important part of the web-swinging, in my humble opinion, is to make you feel like Spider-Man as he zips around New York City. This game manages that and then some. Besides the obvious swinging from building to building, Spidey can zip to ledges and points, vault off them, dive-bomb to pick up speed, and shoot quick webs to propel him forward and maintain speed around corners. He can run up and along buildings with ease. Transitioning from one move to another really lets players keep the speed up with ease.

Insomniac definitely went for accessibility over depth. The right-trigger button puts the player in something of an automatic parkour mode, and you can basically hold it down as you go and pull off what looks like complicated web-swinging and city traversal. However, this won’t make the most of the web-swinging. There’s a learning curve before you find the groove making the most of the speed and flow the web-swinging is capable of.

While the physics may not match what Spider-Man 2 did, don’t listen to anyone who says physics play no role. You can’t swing if there’s nothing your webs can attach to. Where your webs do attach determines the speed and momentum of your swing. Combined with the zip-lines and quick webs and wall running skills, you’ll need to make the most of all these mechanics and physics to become a truly gifted web-swinger. Especially if you want to complete the various challenges and missions.

Within the story missions, Insomniac blends these gameplay elements with well-placed quick time event button presses to create impressive spectacles. Spidey swings from helicopters and stops falling cranes and smashes through glass ceilings while beating on villains. The scale of these events makes for highly memorable moments after the various side content available between them.

Spider-Man’s open world certainly tries nothing new. You stop random crimes, pick up collectibles, activate towers that fill in the map, and take photos of various landmarks. Nothing about it breaks the mold formed by dozens of open-world games before. Where Spider-Man tends to avoid monotony, though, comes from the speed of these tasks. In the time it takes to scale to a viewpoint in Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man lets you stop a crime, collect a backpack, activate a tower, and be on your way to the next objective. None of these typically mundane tasks feel mundane because of how quickly you complete them. None of these tasks feel lazy or boring when it’s so easy to check multiple items off the list in like 3 minutes. Thus, Spider-Man’s web-swinging adds a fresh new dynamic to the familiar open-world formula.

Like with the combat, it is this speed that defines the game. If you have an aversion to this kind of open-world repetitiveness, I can’t promise this game will overcome it. If one can, though, this may be it. Besides the brisk nature of these tasks, the game also does a good job pacing them. Right when you might be sick of picking up collectibles, enemy strongholds are revealed. You get sick of that and the challenge missions show up. You get sick of random thugs and the research stations unlock.

Overall, Spider-Man takes advantage of its namesake’s abilities, along with some excellent design, to avoid a lot of the flaws in open-world gaming design. It’s a fresh, updated fusion of Batman and Assassin’s Creed. Almost everything about it plays fantastically. If you have any interest in Spider-Man or open-world games, I can’t imagine feeling dissatisfied. Even if you don’t, I think you’d enjoy this game.

Now It’s Personal

But what about the underlying story and characters driving all this gameplay? After all, who cares about gameplay if I feel no motivation around anything? If you’re a Spider-Man fan, I think you’ll be more than satisfied. Insomniac has a GREAT grasp on what makes Spidey and Peter Parker so appealing.

The game takes place 8 years after Peter acquired his powers, bypassing a lot of the “learning to use your powers” stuff we’ve seen and played a thousand times. This allowed Insomniac to build a rich history of what Spider-Man has already done, what kind of relationships he has with those in his life, and how exactly he lives his life. Insomniac uses this basis to build a story and world operating as a love letter to Spidey comics new and old.

From the beginning, we see a familiar picture: Peter Parker struggling between his personal life and his superhero responsibilities. He has a tense post-relationship dynamic with Mary Jane Watson. He helps Aunt May at a homeless shelter. His professional life takes place in a lab with Otto Octavius, who feuds with Mayor Norman Osborn. Peter isn’t the unsure kid facing these difficulties for the first time. That doesn’t mean he fails to struggle. Early in the game, he even loses his apartment after failing to pay rent on time. Said apartment is cluttered with late notices and makeshift gadgets.

To be honest, I think this is the best version of Peter Parker anyone has ever managed, even in comics. He’s a perfect blend of the struggling, responsible dork and super-capable superhero veteran. He blends effortlessly between cracking jokes and dramatic moments. One moment he’s stopping masked thugs, the next he’s freaking out over a text message MJ took the wrong way. Spider-Man never shies from leaning into these moments and letting the emotion and drama of a moment speak for itself.

Peter’s personal relationships lay at the center of the story. Both of the major villains are mentor figures to Peter. Aunt May and Mary Jane feature prominently, including in gameplay. Miles Morales is introduced during one of the game’s big twists and becomes a prominent character afterwards. A pre-Wraith Yuri Watanabe plays a Commissioner Gordon role, and the banter between her and Pete make for some of the game’s funniest moments. Even the lesser supervillains have a history with Spidey that come into play when he confronts them.

Everything is so steeped in personal history and Insomniac does a terrific job relaying that history.

One considerably controversial piece of storytelling occurs through the occasional stealth sections putting Mary Jane Watson and eventually Miles Morales in the player’s hands. Some dislike these sections for interrupting the Spider-Man gameplay with comparably weak content. I actually like them. They’re easy, forgiving, and typically do a great job giving MJ and Miles a key role in the story. They also serve as a perfect example of something I mentioned earlier: the excellent pacing keeping the open-world Spidey gameplay from becoming monotonous.

These gameplay segments are also used to great effect in some key story moments, making you really feel the tension or tragedy of the moment. Plus they do great things for player investment in those characters. Investigative journalist MJ is easily my favorite MJ ever.

The same can be said of the lab puzzles you perform for Octavius. All of the puzzles are pretty easy, quick, and give useful rewards. They help immerse the player in the shoes of Peter Parker, not just Spider-Man. Not everyone likes them, and I get it. Insomniac does, too. They let the player skip them completely while also receiving the rewards for them. It’s the storytelling purpose of these segments that matter and are why they exist.

Overall the story doesn’t hit any particularly groundbreaking beats. Does it matter when they hit the familiar beats so well? Seeing the degradation of some relationships alongside the rehabilitation of others makes for some fantastically well-told moments. Insomniac succeeds with storytelling no Spider-Man game would attempt 10-20 years ago. Some of the more dramatic plot points rank among some of my favorite video game moments in recent years.

And when it all finally comes to an end, the game pulls no punches. The final boss has all the emotion you’d expect after hours of build-up, and afterwards, Peter is forced to make one last decision perfectly representing the idea of “with great power, comes great responsibility.” In fact, the ending can be seen as a direct rebuke of an infamous Spider-Man story from the 2000s.

Overall, like with the gameplay, no Spider-Man game has ever captured his life this well. Insomniac chose to create a Spidey game for a reason, and I think their love for the character shines in every second of this experience. I wish I could delve into a more spoiler-y summary of it to make this opinion more clear.

Perhaps myself or someone else will eventually, because I think Spider-Man deserves it.

Final Thoughts

I won’t say this is the best game of the year. Not with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey currently receiving hype as the best game the series has put out in years, and definitely not with Red Dead Redemption II releasing this month. You also have to consider God of War, Monster Hunter, Dragon Ball Fighterz, etc….it’s a hard slog to proclaim Spider-Man the best of that bunch.

As a Spidey fan, though, I can’t imagine anything besides Red Dead possibly competing for the title of my favorite game this year. This is the best Spidey game yet.

There’s certainly room to improve. The game kind of bogs down in the final act, with an excessive amount of armed thugs lying around. The open world stuff could be more imaginative. Improvements can be made to the web-swinging. I’d also love to see inspired boss fights taking full advantage of the combat’s depth. Also, no symbiote suit? Really?

Considering the obvious sequel setup this game ends on, I’m sure we will get these improvements and then some. Insomniac knows how to do sequels. Just look at the sequels to Spyro the Dragon or Ratchet and Clank.

For now, though, I prefer to bask in the many, many things Spider-Man does right. I was skeptical this game would be anything more than solid, and feared the worst. Years of Spidey-related disappointments trained to temper my expectations. Instead I got something very, very good, but just short of great. But it was great enough for this Spidey fan.

You can bet that for once, I’ll be ready to pre-order a sequel immediately.


Images Courtesy of Sony Entertainment

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Gaming

Facade’s ‘Tortuga 1667’ Packs A Lot of Piracy Into A Small Package

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Piracy comes to your table with Tortuga 1667 from Façade Games. Tortuga is a social bluffing game for 2-9 players, each game lasting between 20 and 40 minutes. Players belong to one of two (or three) sides: The British or the French. In games with an odd number of players, there is a solo Dutch pirate. Players do not know who else is on their team, and they are likely not part of the same crew.

Set up is fairly simple, thanks to Façade’s design: lay out the map, pass out starting vote cards, and set up the event deck. Most importantly, players starting locations, and therefore roles, are chosen randomly by choosing meeples out of a bag. This randomization mechanic is becoming more popular, and I love the way it streamlines set up. Also given out randomly? Your loyalty cards.

Crew members receive their role based on their position on deck. If you are at the front of the line, congratulations, you are now the captain of that ship. The person behind you, assuming there is one, is your first mate. Ideally, you trust them. The person at the back of the line is the cabin boy. This might sound like you’re low on the totem pole, but you are the only one who can move treasure once it’s been placed. It is possible to be the captain or first mate and the cabin boy, if your crew is small enough. The captain of The Flying Dutchmen goes first.

There are five locations players can go to during the game. Two ships (The Flying Dutchmen and The Jolly Roger) two row boats, and Tortuga. The titular Tortuga is where players will find themselves marooned if they are kicked off their ship. The rowboats allow access back on board either ship, but can only carry one player at a time. Similar to the ships, Tortuga also has a track with meeples filling in from top to bottom. Are you the first player on the island? Welcome, Mayor! Everyone behind the mayor has the same role: a voting member on the island.

The victory condition for Tortuga is to get the most treasure for your country by the end of the game. If you are a solo Dutch pirate, your goal is to make sure both the French and the British have the same amount of treasure at the end. The game ends when the Spanish Armada card is revealed to all players. This mechanic allows game time to fluctuate: less cards in the deck means a shorter game. It also means no one knows quite when the end will come, providing tension as the deck grows smaller.

What does play actually look like? For us it was a lot of cooperation at first. We all wanted to get treasure, regardless of which side we were on. The only way to get treasure is to work together—a captain with no crew cannot win a battle. We exchanged vague plans and preferences, hoping to come to an understanding without revealing confidential information. Eventually, people started to decide who to trust. People were kicked off boats. The mayor of Tortuga ruled over quite a few brawls. My captain betrayed me. It was a wild journey, full of cannons and mutiny.

Tortuga is a quick, dynamic, and beautifully historic game with high replayabiltiy. The packaging is stunning, as is a hallmark of Façade Games. If you have always wanted to deal with scurvy, mutineers, and stolen goods, this game is for you. If the idea of lying to your friends, marooning them on an island, and leaving them for broke makes you seasick, seek different waters.

I give Tortuga 1667 5 out of 5 Dubloons.

 

 


Images Courtesy of Facade Games

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