Reviews

“Idling for Blood.” A Review of Mortal Kombat 11, Forager, and Crusader Kings 2.

Some games just go together. For a few weeks during late April, Early May, I found myself playing Crusader Kings II, Mortal Kombat 11, and Forager. Usually, I’d play two at the same time. While they are completely different in terms of genre, style, and intent, they all share a common trait. They can be played without actively playing. They share this certain idle quality that allows for hard multitasking. For me, this is the perfect situation to be in, as someone without the desire to fully immerse themselves in a single thing. In this unlikely group, I have found games that compliment each other.

I have wanted, in the past, to write about games that compliment each other. To me this means games that, once you’re done, you can bounce to and from. I have abandoned a few pieces where I take this style: shifting from one review to another. I am still experimenting with the format, so I apologize for any clunkiness. For anyone interested in just one of the games mentioned, I have tried to bold what I’m talking about so you can quickly scroll to your desired topic. The primary game I will be critiquing is Mortal Kombat 11.

MK11 Subs Friend.png
Esquire

Mortal Kombat 11 is a fantastic fighting game. Yet, as a package I think mixed thoughts. The game packs one of the best stories in a video game, let alone fighting game, and yet it struggles to present a good reason to keep playing after getting through the story.

The story is delightful. I completed it in two sittings, eating up the corny bullshit like it were peanut butter. Characters I love burst from scene to scene with flavor, enriched in the backstory of games past, supported by a great cast of voice actors sans Ronda Rousey.

She’s terrible. But you probably already knew that.

The story is pure time travel shenanigans. Raiden sucks at his job, and Kronika, the new villain of the game and the Goddess of Time, is real mad. She warps past versions of characters to this newly created timeline in an effort to defeat Raiden and friends, or at the very least distract Raiden and friends until she can build the perfect timeline, restarting it once again.

The story is presented in similar fashion to this current era of Netherrealms. Cutscene happens. Fights occur after seamless transitions. Netherrealms gets better and better at at these cutscene-to-fight transitions with each consecutive release, as does their graphical technologies, specifically when it comes to rendering facial animations.

Mortal Kombat differentiates victorious rounds with fatality set-ups, while the first round victories show quicker taunts. These first round victory taunts populate the end of each round in the story which felt off at times: a character, spouting one of their lines, would move back into place as though a  new round would transpire. Instead, a cutscene would activate, often showing the character in a completely different area within the same room of the fight. This didn’t ever take me out of the story, but I always noticed. Many elements birthed from fight to plot structure feel jarring–most popularly singled out are the brutal meanuvers between daughter and mother right before a bout of playful banter–however picking these elements apart seems redundant. This is a Mortal Kombat game. If it weren’t ridiculous, it wouldn’t be so good.

After the story there still exists a mountain of content for players wanting a single player experience. Each character contains a slew of customization options including unlockable skins, fatalities, brutalities, equipable items, and augmentations to be slotted in equippable items. The customization is really fun–it’s taken from Injustice 2, yet ascribed to characters I actually care about. You can customize your fantasy squad of Scorpions of different color, some with human faces and others with mask-and-empty pupil face. Each character has maybe six costumes with different color pallets, making for a lot of unlockables.

The way you unlock these items is once again through the Krypt, only this time the Krypt is presented as a third person adventure, where you explore Shang Tsung’s island from the first game solving puzzles and unlocking chests. There has been controversy over the chests, for their locations are randomized, and they demand high prices. Koins, hearts, and souls are earned doing anything in the game, however the best method for earning currency is by completing packs of ladders in the tower of time mode.

This mode is tedious and the intent seems lost on me. It’s a collection of towers which rotate in and out of service. Each tower contains modifiers that create completely unfun fights: like poisoning your character so that their health rapidly drains during a fight. Or off-screen projectiles that interrupt player combos. Players gain items that are meant to be employed to counter these modifiers, yet you gain these items through opening chests and completing towers. It’s a system that feeds into itself in a way that promotes this expectation that microtransactions are necessary, and thus Netherrealm developed a game that would try to nickel and dime players who want more unlockables. Yet that’s not the case–the only purchasable currency is for time shards which are only used in the game’s store. The store offers a collection of skins, packs of consumable items, and fatality tokens. It’s five skins at a time, which rotate in and out on a daily basis. It would have been egregious if everything in the game could be purchased with time shards, yet the limited selection of items makes the whole thing nonsensical. I am never compelled to spend the time shards I have accumulated on items because nothing has appealed to me so far, thus I am not compelled to participate in their minimalist micro-transactional model.

I’m not patting them on the back to suggest they’ve built a responsible loot box model. Because it’s not fun. And it’s not really making them more money. It seems designed with the purpose of stretching out time for players over the course of a year or two. And that’s fine, except for the fact that it’s not fun.

I wouldn’t have a problem with it if the tower of time was fun to play. The towers in MKX were much more restrained, as were the towers presented in Injustice 2, so it’s a shame to see their failure here. I was looking forward to having a lot of kontent to playthrough with this game, considering I don’t really go online too often, but for now it’s better to have A.I. controlled fighters go through the tower for me. At this point, we’re transforming a fighting game into an idle game just to collect customization items for a game that isn’t always fun to play.

Speaking of idle games….

Forager Mess.jpg

Forager swallows time. Like slipping down a deep YouTube tunnel, or obsessively building cities in Minecraft, Forager pulls you in and threatens to never let go. Hours melt away until you finally look up to notice. For about the hundredth time you say you need to go to bed. But there’s one more thing to mine. One more item to craft. One more level to gain.

Forager is an isometric indie game about mining, harvesting, crafting, and exploring. There are dungeons and puzzles to find. Lasers and mining droids to craft. Upgrades which lead to more upgrades, with every activity leading to leveling, leading to skills you choose from a skill tree. The game starts by giving the player nothing but a low powered pickaxe. You choose your own goal, your own direction, and you go.

I love unlocking new islands to explore. You purchase these lands with coins that are made by selling items. At first you generate money by slowly crafting it with gold bars. Then, you sell items at a market. And to unlock the market you must spend a level on that corresponding ability, and then spend the necessary resources building it. But later, you get the ability to sell anything in your inventory by dropping it, which means holding the right mouse button when your cursor is over it. You can also generate money by building a bank: the longer that bank stands in its spot, the more money it produces. This becomes useful, because even later you unlock the ability to build a lighthouse, which multiplies the output of any structure. This effect stacks: leading me to devote an entire island to multiple banks surrounded by multiple lighthouses. Wait long enough, and you can earn 20k easily.

And the entire game is like that. This produces that, this upgrades that, this optimizes that. It’s a game where mechanics feed into themselves, and that’s literally the entire point. Unlike Mortal Kombat 11, it feels rewarding, relaxing, and exciting to spend hours of your free time grinding for the excuse to grind some more forever, or until the game is done. You can also build your way into an idle game: letting resources generate, and gather themselves, so that you can then craft what you need at the various crafting stations that take different times to craft depending on what your crafting craft. Craft. You can let the game run in order to get things done. You can run around and gather other stuff to expedite the process or what have you do craft. Craft. Craft.

Islands are fun to explore because they each populate the world with new enemies, creatures, and resources. Some of them have puzzles, which reward giant chests upon being solved. Some islands contain dungeons which invoke The Legend of Zelda: floors of puzzles–boss key–boss–heart container-progression.

The negatives are few. The UI can become cluttered making it hard to see what you’re doing. After a while your screen just shakes constantly due to the fact that you have mining rods erected everywhere. Late game materials take longer and longer to craft, making late game structures and items take forever to gather enough resources/materials for. You get to the point where you just find yourself waiting while resources are gathered and materials are crafted-almost which invokes clickers and idle games like Time Clickers. It becomes the perfect game to play with a podcast, or while playing another game, or while watching YouTube, or while reading a book. I could see this being the perfect game for laptops while sitting in front of the TV. It’s supposed to be coming to the Switch, which would be perfect, although I like controlling this game with the mouse. Finally, neither the visuals are audio are anything to praise. The game is certainly cute, but I get no defining style out of Forager’s presentation. Sounds will remind you of Minecraft. Visuals will remind you of Stardew Valley. The presentation package seems like a grab bag of indie games.

I haven’t seen everything. There is a museum where you submit things for rewards, and I haven’t completed one yet. There are many islands left to buy, many things I’ve yet had enough materials to craft, and I haven’t even upgraded my character to employ magic yet. Apparently you begin finding scrolls in the world that can teach you new spells and I haven’t seen any of that yet. I’ve been more focused on farming early game, economics late game, and mostly I’ve been mining and crafting. It has become the game I go to when I want to relax, and I look forward to slowly experiencing everything it has to offer over time. The developer has come out and said he will offer extended content later down the road, and that’s pretty exciting. Forager is a game I look forward to whittling down over time, returning as I want, and this is a positive aspect in my mind.

But also I’m afraid. Once you turn the game on, it only lets go after the dissipation of hours. So conscious of that…I’m going back to my fantasy ninja fighter.

my raiden fatality pic.jpg

I have always shied away from critiquing or even detailing the gameplay of fighting games to deep extent. I’ll detail how the game feels, who I liked to play as, rather or not I think I’m good at it, and then I’ll move on. This time, I’m going to try and go fairly deep, because I actually really like the fighting engine here, and I especially love how it’s all presented, and how the game bothers to teach.

The tutorial system of Mortal Kombat 11 is the most in-depth I have experienced for a fighting game. It’s mostly successful at teaching the deeper mechanics of the game and of fighting games in general. Most tutorials for fighting games just teach basic movement and attacks, and then you get individual combo challenges for each character. In MK11 there’s a basic tutorial (which the player is prompted to complete before kompeting in their first fight) as well as several advanced tutorials that go over concepts such as frame data, mix-ups, wake-ups, sunny side ups, and fuck ups!

You also get character tutorials that offer a paragraph of data on certain moves and combos per character along with their strategic significance before players put move inputs into practice. Tutorials use language I would hear from the Fighting Game Community (FGC) such as “safe on block” and “meaty.” It’s instrumental in allowing players from any skill sets wrap their mind around fighting game mechanics.

I admit that sometimes I’m too tired to take in deep mechanics so I typically glaze over all of this information and resort to ignorantly completing tutorials so I can get those check marks, which reward coins and skins. But at least they’re there for me to redo at any time in the future. You know. If I ever decide I want to go MLG with MK.

In general, a game of Mortal Kombat 11 is a game of active time turns. Meaning whoever get the first hit has a turn, and if properly blocked the next player has their turn to attack, and so on and so forth until one player breaks through the defense of the other. With one player knocked down, the other can try and position their attack in such a way that they will hit the character as their standing up so that they can steal a turn and continue their attack OR the character knocked down can perform a wake up maneuver to carry out their turn.

In order to block proficiently you must learn character strings to the level that you’ll see what’s coming, and know how to block. You can duck from high moves, and block low mid and high moves by either standing or ducking while holding block. If an enemy attempts an overhead attack, you must be standing and blocking. Ducking puts you in harms way in this situation regardless of if you are blocking or not. New to MK11 are short hops that allow you to jump over low attacks while attacking them to punish. I barely use them, but maybe that’s why I’m a casual.

Kasual.

Crushing blows are also new as a gameplay mechanic, and they offer a slew of offensive strategies as long as you go into your options and disable their automatic use. Every character has different crushing blows, and they are activated in specific ways. Once a character hits their crushing blow, the screen zooms in, you see an X-Ray showing your opponents bones shatter, and you do significantly more damage than any normal version of that attack would do. The most common version of these is the uppercut punish. If you hit a character a few frames after they’ve whiffed an attack with an uppercut, you perform a crushing blow, and this can be done with any character. The problem is this generally gets used on accident, even when disabling automatic crushing blows, and thus I haven’t gotten the chance to really dive in and examine this mechanic. This is due to the fact that you can only perform one crushing blow per match, so I generally get that uppercut (because like any classic Mortal Kombat noob I spam uppercuts) and waste my one crushing blow. I’m assuming it will be critical in high level play especially in tournaments.

Another different mechanic in MK11 are how the bars are used. Typically in a fighting game you fill a bar, usually three, and these bars allow you to perform super moves as well as powered up versions of special moves. To fill bars you block damage and/or deal damage. In MK11 you have two offensive bars and two defensive bars. You begin the match with them already full, and once you exhaust a bar it gradually fills up over time. Certain combos and normal moves can be powered up by spending bar, but it’s generally special moves that you’re spending. I like this, because it emphasizes spending bar in your basic combos, or at least it compelled me to do so more than the other, more generally used meter model. Defensive bar is used in few ways: you can spend both to spin your character if they’re popped up from a combo, which breaks free from your opponent’s combo/link/juggle/hotdog. You also get a few options to spend meter on while waking up from a downed state. You can attack in a variety of ways, or you can roll away or toward your opponent. These options are great and add to the guess and execute nature to the fighting system that is simple to read and comprehend.

Finally, there’s the fatal blow. Mortal Kombat 9 began using X-Rays, which basically acting like Super Combos from Street Fighter 4, and MKX did the same. I never liked these moves because they took forever to watch and it was generally more intelligent to spend bar on crazy combos rather than saving it for one big move that may not do more damage. Using the fatal blow as a whole additional resource is smart. Like crushing blows you can only use it once per match, and you can only use it when your health is below a certain percent. An indicator pops up below your health bar that efficnetly communicates to the player when the options is open. This leads to more exciting comeback opportunities, and the fatal blows seem to move a lot faster in my experience, making them less of a chore to get through.

Though maybe that’s because I’ve played significantly less MK11 than MK9 or MKX, so maybe I haven’t seen these enough to get tired of them.

The action feels slower than either 9 or X (MKX feeling fastest). There’s no running. You can shimmy forward or back by double tapping the directional input, but doing so isn’t always advisable due to traversal attacks. For instance just about every character has a kicking combination that will include your character taking large steps toward your opponent. It becomes easy to catch someone in the middle of their shit with one of these moves, but you run the risk of getting caught simultaneously. It seems to work against the AI more times than not, especially if your using a traversal combination that includes overheads. You just have to be sure and initiate the combo far enough away that you aren’t getting punished so easily, as these combos tend to start and recover slowly. High risk, high reward.

These are my experiences and how I understand the gameplay. My execution is pretty sporadic so I’m not always hitting my combos. Part of that is I don’t quite understand how to time everything in a consistent fashion. Another part is I tend to mash buttons too much. This is my experience with every fighting game and to be frank I don’t stick with one game long enough to completely get over bad habits.

So far I have the most fun playing as Scorpion. He’s always been my guy, and I always seem to mesh well with his gameplay. Probably because he’s always high tier, and simple to learn. By that same token I enjoy playing as Sub-Zero. His attacks look really cool, and like Scorpion it’s pretty easy to get decent combos going. Noob Saibot can be fun, but I often feel like I’m missing some kind of tool that he needs in certain situations. I don’t know exactly how I should approach characters, where as with Scorpion or Sub I have a general plan I can operate from. Maybe I need more work with him, or maybe I need to experiment more with variations and custom moves. I’d also put Raiden in this category. He has a lot of useful tools and I just don’t grasp how to employ them effectively at this point. I guess he requires more time.

Each character, under their customization, can be equipped with different moves. You have three points, and each move costs one or two points, so you can have up to three of these special moves. They range from teleports, to modified combos, to projectiles, to extra spear moves for Scorpion. They’re pretty fun to try out, and it’s easy to figure out which moves I prefer. It can be a little intimidating at first when you’re looking at the list of moves and you don’t have any idea what they may do. I find the description to generally spell out what each move does quite well. I also have my preferences: I don’t like the moves that only anti-air, and I don’t like moves that merely buff your character. If you don’t like deciding, or want a little more direction, there is a list of variations you can choose from. Two of these variations from the list are tournament variations, designated by a trophy icon, and these variations are the only ones legal for ranked online play as well as in tournament use. So if you wanna go legit, it’s vital you learn the two tournament variations from your character and decide which one you like. With just three interchangeable moves, your character can play completely differently, which I find fascinating. I look forward to seeing how the pros employ this system.

Speaking of Evo, Crusader Kings 2!

CK2 Plot to Kill .jpg

Crusader Kings 2 is a grand strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive. I have tried and failed to get into CK2 for years. The UI is thick and clunky, and I thought the tutorial failed to direct the player. I kept hearing all this praise from the different figures in the industry. It finally clicked when I heard three moves ahead describe it as a RPG more than a strategy game. You’re supposed to role play as a character, make decisions based on how you think that character would make decisions, and build your dynasty in that fashion. Taking over the world can be a goal, but it’s not always interesting to do so. Rather, you should be playing the lives of a kingdom the way you think they would, and you should be spicing it up whenever you can. In a way it’s like how I play Universe mode in the 2k wrestling games: as a tool for fiction writing disguised as a video game.

You begin a game. Select a starting date. Select a character. The game begins. You’re looking at a map of medieval europe, some of asia, and some of africa. The “known world.” You see what land you rightfully command, and you begin a series of decisions to begin building your power.

The first thing you try and do is marry your character if they are without spouse. Because your character will die, you need to produce offspring so you can continue your playthrough. A system exists designating the next-in-line, usually being the first born son. The wife you choose is important: you can strategically marry to gain an alliance with a count or king, or you can marry a character with the prefered stats you want. When you produce offspring they gain a mix of your attributes plus your wife’s as well as a chance to inherit traits.

You then wanna fill out your council, and set them to perform tasks. You then select an ambition and a focus for your character. After that, you wait. The time moves on, you may fast forward it up to five times if you want, and you just wait for something to happen.

Usually those somethings come in the way of choices. An event box will pop up notifying you of some event occurring, which can range from another county declaring war on your county, or your two sons getting into a fight. Usually these events are influenced by the ambition and focus you’ve selected for your character. The decision you make can affect your stats, your currency, or a vast variety of other modifiers that will affect how your game plays out. This is how you develop your character and their personality to fit how you think they would be. You work with the game to tell yourself a story. It’s almost limitless what you can do.

But a certain sense of randomness goes into play as well, and this is what makes that story interesting, and worth telling. The relationships you form often change the course of the game. If someone in your family doesn’t like you, they may plot to have you killed. If someone in your council doesn’t like you, they may flee to another county. Or plot to have you killed.

Usually someone is trying to kill you.

Relationships are represented by a number (green if positive, red if negative) that is summed up by decisions you make, the diplomacy stat of your characters, as well as the traits you have and how they relate to the traits they have. For instance, if your ambitious and your son is slothful, you will dislike your son a little bit. Your character may get gout and die suddenly, leaving you with a child ruler. Or your son’s wife may sneak off and have sex with you, leading to your son murdering you and taking the throne, but then your first offspring may be from your father’s, leaving you with a bastard son that cannot inherit the throne. This game, more than any other that I can remember, leads to interesting stories that you want to tell.

For instance, one of my first characters was the target of a failed assassination, which happens often. Only this time the would-be assassin was my son’s wife. So I put her in prison. I expected that my son would resent me for this, however we still had a positive relationship. I decided I would plot to kill her, which includes inviting people into the plot to increase the percentage chance that your target will be assassinated. Not only did I convince several people to join in on the plot, pushing the percentage way passed 100%, but I was able to invite my son. Apparently he didn’t like her! Well, after a while I noticed the plot didn’t seem to be working out. I haven’t actually looked it up, but I figured at the time that I couldn’t have an imprisoned character murdered. Which was a bummer because I thought that would be hilarious! Well, I decided instead that I’d take the option to push her into a deep hole inside the prison, which increases her chance to die and lessens her chance to escape. I checked on my son’s approval rating, and it was STILL positive!

(For clarification, you can assassinate an imprisoned character. Plotting for assassination doesn’t automatically lead to that character being assassinated if your plot power is over 100%. What the game does is check for assassination with a background roll of the dice. Higher percentages lead to a higher chance that the character will be killed, and having above 100% doesn’t exactly mean that character will be assassinated. Often you have to wait for it to happen, and often that waiting takes a long time.)

I’ve been playing this game with, and alongside, my buddy BOON, and we’re constantly swapping stories about this game. It almost seems like an experience playing DnD: where the goal isn’t about winning. It’s about playing out a story. You can’t win if you wanted to. You can only survive, and once you reach the year 1453 the game ends and you receive a score. Because of this, you don’t even want to reload past save dates even if something goes terribly wrong. Like that one time I took over another county in a war, and then got invaded by the Norse because they were close, and they took over the land I had just gained, resulting in me being right where I was before with more enemies and significantly less gold. I could reload an old save, but its more interesting to keep playing and see what happens. You’re weaving together a narritive that becomes more interesting than the sum of its parts. The little victories are nice, however they don’t make or break a game.

There’s much more to Crusader Kings II than what I’ve attempted to describe here, but I haven’t sunk nearly enough time into it. I imagine it will be something I keep playing as it goes so well with other activities. Because a lot of the game is waiting for things to happen you can play other games and run CK2 in the background. I’ll likely write about it again sometime, however I will assign a score even with my fully formed opinions not fully formed.

8.5

Crusader Kings II

Oh, and I talked enough about Forager soo..

7.0

Forager

These games went well with Mortal Kombat 11. Once a few patches came in, the tower of time mode improved to the point that I could get through most of the towers without sending my godlike AI Noobsaibot. Playing the game while having resources gather and craft in Forager, or while waiting for events to occur in Crusader Kings II felt like the best of all worlds. I usually multitask while gaming, rather if it’s watching TV or listening to a podcast, and having the ability to play multiple games that I’m deeply interested in at the same time is great! I loved pausing a fight whenever I heard that sound indicating an event in CK2, and I loved relaxing with Forager whenever my AI is fighting through towers for me. I find these games to compliment each other strongly.

Mortal Kombat 11 may be this year’s strongest fighting game when all is said and done. I enjoy the fighting engine tremendously, and there’s much more depth for me to explore. The story mode was good enough that I’ll probably go back to it a couple more times just to relive the events. And although the content is vast, and somewhat a pain to unlock, there will always be something there for me to unlock as I play through the single player modes. And hey! One day I might even get online once I get over the stubborn fact that someone may send me hate mail even if they beat me.

9.0

Mortal Kombat 11

It may just be my favorite Mortal Kombat experience.

This took way longer than I thought it would! It’s worthwhile for me to experiment and try new things. I’ve always wanted to try including other games than the main one I’m reviewing in these pieces, especially due to the fact that I generally play multiple games over the course of one of these review periods. Rather or not it works, I don’t know. I’ll let you be the judge, even though I’m pretty darn sure that it doesn’t work at all, and even though I’ll probably do this from time to time even if everyone hates it. Even.

Next up I’m planning on reviewing some Metroidvanias. Those will probably be shorter reviews…I hope…and they will be done as I gear up and prepare for Bloodstained, my most anticipated title of 2019, which comes out June 11th!! How exciting. There’s also a new commercial port of BLOOD that I’d like to write about, AND SOMEDAY I want to get back to the many 2017 video games that I never fucking finished.

Persona 5….Breath of the Wild….Yakuza Zero….please forgive me. You’re all amazing. It’s just…the games keep coming and they don’t stop coming!

Fed to the rules and I hit the ground running

Didn’t make sense not to live for fun

Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb
so much to do so much to see

so what’s wrong with taking the back streets?

05/14/2019

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