Red Stone: Isometric rogue-likes aren’t dead

January 3, 2009

FROM JASON’S AND ANDREW’S DIGITAL SWORDS — I can tell you this: After a fairly obsessive 10-day frenzy, we are pretty much done playing Red Stone.

We’ve been at the boiling point waiting for Diablo III, eager to click on a new brood of monsters in sprawling isometric dungeons, all in the hopes of picking up a Gut Siphon Demon Crossbow with +160 to 220 percent enhanced damage, or a MetalGrid Amulet with +400 to 450 to attack rating.

There are some sinners out there who hate the Diablo franchise, saying they are simple games of endless mouse-clicking with no skill or merit. Critics say that such rogue-likes are just elaborate fantasy-themed dress-up dolls.

Well, our dealers over at Blizzard keep teasing us with screens and trailers of the new game, but they aren’t giving up a release date or any system specs yet. In the meantime, we’ve been forced to find another way to get our fix.

We weren’t about to play World of Warcraft, so we went looking for online MMOs to vet and found Red Stone. The 2D online adventure looks like it was was designed in Caligari’s trueSpace, and plays almost exactly like Diablo II, albeit not nearly as gothic and spooky.

There are a couple of things that set K2 Network’s MMO apart from Blizzard’s best-seller. First, there are droves of monsters to fight, and while there are a few pallet swaps the makers impress by giving us a huge variety of creatures to fight.

There are the cliche kobolds, turtles, leeches, trolls, and wolves, of course. Then there are chicken fighters, octopuss tongues, lizardmen, nix warriors, zombies, axe skeletons, giant crabs, vampires, tree men, highway thieves, conjurers, halberdiers, evil mantises, and iron golems.

And those are just within spitting distance of your hometown.

Red Stone‘s other strength lies in its class sets. There are 12 to choose from, and each has the ability to transform into another character type to keep you from getting bored.

For instance, the shield-handling squire can at any time transform into the heavy-damage dealing warrior. The magician (see Andrew in the video above) can transform into a physical-damage-dealing werewolf. The necromancer can transform into a demon. The priest can transform into a fallen angel.

There are also princesses, tamers, summers, monks, and thieves.

Each transformation opens up its own slew of skills, and the trees are impressively concocted. Levels (with strength, magic, etc. attributes) are gained separately from skill points, which go toward gaining and empowering new techniques and abilities.

And insanely, the skill cap is set at 999. I hit 45 with my warrior, while Andrew hit 25 with his magician, and that was far enough. There were ridiculous people running around at level 160 and 240 the last time I logged in.

Cooperating over Skype, we let the MMO fever run its course without needing to log that many hours. And now we’re done. At least until Diablo III hits shelves. Then it’s back to happily exploring and grinding.


Week of Cartoons – Day 4: Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors (1985)

March 26, 2008

Part 2 | Part 3

jayce.jpgFROM JASON’S DETACHABLE CIRCULAR SAW — From the golden vineyards of France came Jayce et les Conquérants de la Lumière. You probably didn’t see it, even when it was imported to the US and translated to English in syndication.

Imagine taking He-Man and Transformers, putting them in the Large Hadron Supercollider in Switzerland, and bashing them together. Ta-da. You’ve got Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors.

This is more than just a little coincidence. Executive producer J. Michael Straczynski was a former Masters of the Universe writer and went on to do The Real Ghostbusters and Captain Power. The ‘toon’s writers also had hands in Inspector Gadget, She-Ra, MASK, and Centurions.

The premise has some pretty familiar elements: In Eternia a universe where sorcery is used alongside interstellar travel and advanced battle machines, an experiment goes wrong and radiation from a supernova mutates plants into sentient beings known as the Monster Mind. The leader of the Monster Mind, Skeletor SawBoss, drives the plant people toward galactic conquest.

The only thing standing in his way are the Masters of the Universe Lightning League, led by Prince Adam Jayce. With help from a space smuggler known as Han Solo Herc, a wizard called Obi Wan Gillian, a telepath named Teela Flora, and a wisecracking magical robot living suit of armor named C3-PO Oon, Jayce tries to defeat the forces of darkness.

Opposing him are Saw Boss’ henchmen, who can Transform change into a tank, Megatron a giant gun, a flying flail, and an AT-AT a four-legged transport.

Luckily, Jayce and company have all kinds of cool vehicles to help fight the Monster Mind. And guess what? The toys were for sale! You could own them! I had four of them! Wow! Who’s ever heard of a cartoon that has merchandising tie-ins? It was revolutionary.

The toys were amazing, though. Their schtick was that they disassembled and you could switch the parts out — all kinds of wheels, treads, buzz saws, lasers, torpedoes, grappling hooks, drills — you name it. The more you bought, the bigger and cooler custom Wheeled Warriors you could build. Mattel executives, you are geniuses. The toys didn’t really morph, though; that was left to Transformers and MASK.

The Belgariad is far better than Lord of the Rings

December 20, 2007

belgariad1.jpgFROM JASON’S BOOKSHELF — Let’s get off on the wrong foot. I think J.R.R. Tolkien is given far too much credit.

There. I said it.

Tolkien has some unique strengths: He more or less defined the high fantasy style with The Hobbit in 1936 and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the mid-1950s. In doing so, he made minute detail and elaborate back-story hallmarks of the genre.

Unfortunately, I think he goes too far. He makes many descriptions laborious and oftentimes paying more attention to world-crafting than character-building.

Half a century later, in 1982, along came David Eddings with The Belgariad. It’s admittedly a simpler series of books but far more accessible. And, in my opinion, far more engaging, thanks to Eddings’ pacing and uncomplicated attention to motivation.

belgariad2.jpgIt also has a special place in my mind because it was my first fantasy. Oh, I’d been bred on Star Wars, Legend, Willow, The Dark Crystal — all the sword and sorcery movies. My fourth grade teacher had even read The Hobbit aloud in class. But there’s something far more intimate in turning the pages yourself, and The Belgariad sucked me in.

I was amazed, and moved on to The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (which tells the same basic fantasy formula story, only from the perspective of Welsh mythology).

It didn’t take long to get to Lord of the Rings, then on to The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, The Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist, and the heavyweight of them all: Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.

I was hooked. That was almost 20 years ago, and I still return (like I did yesterday morning before work) to Eddings almost on a yearly basis.

belgariad3.jpgThe story of The Belgariad is deceptively simple: There are seven gods, one of whom was driven mad for power. Torak coveted a jewel made by his brother and stole it, but the magic stone — the Orb of Aldur — disfigured him with fire and put the him in an eons-long slumber.

The sorcerers who have watched over the orb since then also wait for the prophecies to be fulfilled. They protect a royal line, hiding the successors in obscurity until the day that Torak wakes.

The story begins in earnest when the stone is stolen, and Belgarath the sorcerer gathers all of the pawns of prophecy needed to recover it and put an end to Torak’s reign. At the center is Garion, a special boy with a hidden power and a destiny.

Eddings’ characters do suffer from the “one of each Dungeons & Dragons class” syndrome: There’s the main character — the boy hero who will quest until he is a warrior-magician-king. There are his wise sorcerer and sorceress mentors, the knight, the giant/barbarian, the thief/spy, the archer, the dwarf, the rogue, and the goodman.

belgariad4.jpgWhat Eddings is good at is blurring archetypes. He starts with a caricature and molds it into a character — something too many fantasy novelists forget to do.

Instead of being a knight through and through, Mandorallen faces a crisis of cowardice. Instead of being the typical barbarian, Barak is rather cultured (for an Alorn) and despairs about a mysterious curse placed on him. Rather than conform to the ruddy little dwarf brand, Relg is a religious zealot who must overcome his hang-up with moral “purity.”

Each party member has at least one prominent problem and a host of other shortcomings. It’s the character flaws that make each one so engaging — and a running theme is that those flaws are just as important to the grand cosmic chess game being played by the Prophecies as are the heroes’ strengths.

belgariad5.jpgThere’s also a magic sword (there’s always a magic sword. The damned things are inescapable). Just once I wish the protagonist would charge into the climactic clash of good and evil armed with a magic lance, or a magic spear, or a magic yo-yo.

Even though Eddings doesn’t wade in a cesspool of back-story like Tolkein, The Belgariad still features a nicely-fleshed-out mythology that lends a great deal of credibility to the books.

There are seven gods, six who lead their own unique race impressed with their personalities. A sixth race has been exterminated, leaving the seventh god to weep ceaselessly for his lost children. An eighth race rejected by the rest of the deities worships the father of the gods. There are also a handful of sub-races and non-humans, as well as monsters to deal with.

One thing that I really like about this series is that the characters are generally very good at what they do. They rarely make stupid decisions. They outwit their enemies. There’s a general message that a team tapping the strengths of its members can’t be beat.

A second series, The Malloreon, continues the story with the same cast of characters, now fully realized in their powers. There’s a slight dip in quality but a complimentary surge in both darkness and intricacy, especially since the exposition’s already been shuffled out of the way in the first five books.

Later Eddings novels, though, decline rapidly. They’re still worth a read, I suppose, but they’re quickly rendered transparent.

The Elenium, for example, recycles The Belgariad’s character templates shamelessly, sending the heroes once again chasing a magic stone around the world — this time with the direct help of a goddess.

In The Redemption of Althalus, a mash-up version of the thief and wizard characters from The Belgariad pursues a magic book through time and space. With the help of a goddess. And he’s immortal. And he lives in a magic tower. Even some of the characters’ quips are reused. Can you hear my sigh?

At any rate, I highly recommend The Belgariad to both young and old fantasy fans. I guarantee it will be a quick read, and you’ll want more.