Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Game of Thrones 502 "The House of Black and White" thoughts

After a drab first episode, season five has begun in earnest with the second, raising the stakes far higher than last week ever threatened to.

NOTE: I have not read the books. There will be spoilers. Shut up.

If last week's episode was an epilogue to season four, The House of Black and White is the true season five premiere. The characters are driving onwards to their goals, the cards are placed on the table and by the end of the episode we're left with a whole new set of mysteries to ponder whilst they hang on a cliff's face until next week.

In addition, the direction of this episode is fantastic throughout. Any feelings that Sansa and Littlefinger just happened to be in the same pub as Brienne is a little too serendipitous are quickly forgotten thanks to the tense action that follows. First, the curt exchange in which you feel Brienne's confidence slowly sap away with each word that drips from the cunning mouth of Lord Baelish. The audience is then rewarded for sitting there, chewing on their first, with a short-but-sweet chase sequence. The episode is full of nice packages like this, scenes where the tension is finely poised and then given some satisfying payoff, unlike last week where scenes often petered out. The episode also keeps up the pace with a couple of excellent changes of scene. Tyrion's "what is she gonna do, kill every dwarf in Westeros?" line being almost interrupted by a dwarf's head being slammed down in front of Cersei was a particular highlight.

The titular House refers to Arya's destination. House Stark's youngest makes a welcome return in this episode, and remains the show's most likeable character. Although her story in this episode is predictable - she arrives at her destination, is disappointed, eventually scraps her way to what she wanted - it feels like a microcosm of Arya's life so far. Her total lack of hesitation in her threats to would-be robbers also shows how little she has to lose and how much she has matured, and the ending of the episode leaves us on tenterhooks. Arya gains access to the black and white house, but the audience is left outside for now.

Meanwhile, Danerys continues to fuck up. Coming into a historic city and attempting to institute rapid, immediate change to it's culture and laws is going as terribly as you'd expect. Class tensions spill over into violence, and the newly-freed slaves are beginning to grow willful. Mossador's claim that he killed a man awaiting trial for Dany, his "mother", doesn't exempt him from justice himself. Freedom and justice are part and parcel of one another, she says near the end of the episode. What Dany doesn't understand is that you can't just chuck these concepts at a civilisation that have never had them and expect them to accept it without issues. The woman who Varys would see the future ruler of Westeros, a huge land of varied tribes, houses, peoples, and cultures, cannot see past her own moral compass and belief system to tolerate the values of others. She's beginning to look less like the regal, respect-commanding leader and more like a Ptolemic figure who lives to subjugate others as she sees fit.

Meanwhile, at the wall, Jon Snow continues to disappoint. It looked like he might have purpose for a little while in this episode, that he might find a reason to do something more important to the overarching political future of Westeros. He's been a side show for a long while now, and Stannis' arrival in his life hinted at his potential being used for bigger things. The end of the episode, however, sees Jon thoroughly trapped in his duties. Almost unwillingly, he finds himself elected to lead the Night's Watch after a last-minute hustings' speech from his mate. "Thanks for talking me into four more years of this freezing cold, no-sex bullshit, Samwell", he probably thought. Our only hope is that Jon's style of leadership changes the Night's Watch in a tangible way. No doubt he will have his hands tied with a slew of opponents from within before he can institute any real change, and therefore change his role within the show.

The House of Black and White was good fun, and a much better start to the season than The Wars to Come. It set up plotlines for the weeks ahead, and provided varied scenes with excellent direction. I don't think it was a coincidence, though, that Arya entered the house through the black door at the end. Things are just beginning to bubble as the heat increases.

I beat Bloodborne, so you can too: BOSS TIPS.

I beat Bloodborne this week. It was my first "Souls"-style experience and I loved every minute, but without community help I really would've struggled on the boss fights. Here's some basic tips to help new players. If any of these words helps a single person beat a boss that's been driving them crazy, you're welcome.


This motherfucker is probably one of the toughest bosses in the game purely because he's the first, and by this point you're probably still a mewling maggot of a hunter who took 25 minutes to individually pick off every single enemy at the bonfire section.

The biggest problem with the Cleric Beast was, I found, the fact that his tall stature made him difficult to get a handle on. If you get close enough to attack, you can't see his punches coming. I'd reccommend not using lock-on because the camera won't be your friend in this fight. Also, you'll gain 1 insight point purely for meeting him (and losing), which allows you to level up in The Hunter's Dream. If you struggle, get some blood echoes and level up your defenses.

Gazza is probably the game's hardest boss, at least according to the unofficial Reddit poll. He's the first "hunter" enemy you face, and his speed and capacity to interrupt you with gunfire are tricky.

Make sure you grab the Tiny Music Box item from the little girl, Viola, after you climb out of the bottom of the sewer section. Using this item stuns Gazza, and lets you get a good chunk of damage in on him. Don't use it in the first section of the fight - take your time to master parrying him with your gun, you'll need this skill later in the game. Once he reaches half health he turns monstrous, so now's the time to stun him with the Music Box and finish him off with relative ease.

Finally, don't go back and give the red brooch you get from him to Viola. You don't get any reward and if you keep it yourself you get a decent early-game blood gem.

Oh boy, this one is so tough if you go in blind. It's one of the quickest bosses and inflicts slow poison on you very easily. Bring a full stock of antidotes to this fight. There's two things you can do to make BSB easy, though.

Firstly, recruit NPC help. You can find Alfred, a fellow hunter, in Cathedral Ward. He's upstairs in the building with the tomb, where you pull the lever to reveal the stairs down to Old Yharnam. If you're friendly to him, you can summon him by ringing the beckoning bell at the glowing circle at the bottom of the stairs leading to the BSB fight area.

Secondly, the BSB loves Pungent Blood Cocktails. They're fairly pricy early in the game, but it's worth grinding some echoes to give yourself as many as possible. Throw one of these away from you during the fight and it'll act as a distraction, making the beast ignore you entirely for a short time and leaving it open to powerful backstab attacks.

Combine the cocktails with the further damage and distraction Alfred provides and BSB will be easy. I bashed my head against this boss for nearly 15 tries. After discovering these two tricks, I beat him without taking a single hitpoint of damage.

Personally, this was the hardest boss in the entire game. I just couldn't cope with Amelia's size and her massive number of different attacks. She's very powerful, capable of one-shotting you at your current level, so make sure you level up until you feel like you can cope with taking a blow from her.

Her wavy fur also messes with your depth perception. I often thought I was within range, only to whiff a charge attack completely because her ragged coat makes her appear closer than she is.

She's weak to fire, so bring fire paper to imbue your weapon with flame. Stick close to her, and try and dodge under her arms when she swipes. There's a few frames of invincibility in your dodge move, so don't get disheartened by repeated attempts and use them to try and get a feel for the right time to move and attack. Don't get greedy on the offensive because it's easy for her to catch you out, and if she sits up and starts praying she's about to heal herself - start pummeling her as much as you can to cancel it out. This fight was an endurance battle for me. Just stay patient and you'll eventually come out on top.

This boss is invisible at the start of the fight, and she makes at least one copy of herself that you have to defeat. Try and ignore the creatures she summons as much as possible, as they'll just summon more if you try and focus on killing them off first.

Stalk the edge of the room and keep an eye out for a glowing red light. Once that appears, make a beeline for it and use a charged R2 backstab on the witch as she fades into view. This will open her up for an R1 visceral attack for great damage.

Don't get caught up fighting summoned minions and this fight won't be too difficult.

Speed is of the essence in this fight. Use your fastest weapon (for me it was the one-handed form of Ludwig's Holy Blade), and keep on your toes, constantly weaving and moving to try and draw your three foes into short one-on-one fights.

Duck behind the large headstone in the arena at the start of the fight to hide from the projectile Shadow. The melee Shadows are easily stun-locked with a quick weapon, so pick your moment to attack and take them out. After a set amount of time/damage, the Shadows get new attacks. Watch out for the mage's second form in which huge snakes are summoned that can catch you off guard.

Be prepared to run this fight a few times. Figure out which Shadow you feel is best to pick off first - some prefer to get rid of the mage's irritating fireballs, I preferred to get the in-your-face sword Shadows out of the way so I could focus. Stick to your preferred strategy and keep the tempo of your attacks high.

First of all, ignore the small spiders throughout. Keep on the move, don't use lock-on and don't try and get any more than three or four attacks in before preparing to dodge.

Rom's moveset consists mostly of predictable bellyflops, but he has two things to watch for. If he starts to glow reddish he's about to use a powerful area-of-effect attack, so get some distance between you. The attack that causes most players issues is his missiles. If you see him rear up high when you're far away, pay attention. His icy missiles will hit the ground at the moment his belly hits the ground and not a moment later. If you roll twice to the side at the moment he hits the ground, the missiles will miss you completely.

Other than these two sneaky attacks, he's fairly easy. Make sure you keep your health fully topped up throughout this fight, as it's easy for a spider to finish you off with a cheeky swipe after getting caught with one of Rom's powerful bellyflops.

This is the most boring boss fight in the game. Get yourself some bolt paper for extra damage and stand at The One's side, by his tiny little spider legs. Here, his big sweeps are easily dodged, and any damage you take from the flailing little legs will be mostly negated by the damage you deal with your own weapon.

The heavy version of Ludwig's finished this boss off in record time for me, and The One is a slow mover so staying clear of his attacks should be easy.

I have to admit, I got quite lucky with this one. I stumbled upon it by accident whilst exploring Yahar'Gul when I had one blood vial to my name, but managed to beat it on the first attempt with a sliver of health remaining.

Paarl is quick, but not exceptionally powerful. He's a lightning-infused beast that doesn't have a massive moveset. You should be getting adept at dodging by now, so keep your cool and dodge underneath him when he swipes at you. Your most powerful weapon should do good damage to Paarl. Maintain concentration and this fight will be relatively routine.

Amygdala's head is the weak point, so find which of your favoured weapons has an attack with high vertical reach. Ludwig's two-handed L2 attack worked for me, and I've heard the Cane Whip is effective too.

Amygdala is fairly routine until the last portion of her fight, when she gets a massive boost to her range. Make sure you have a lengthy health bar by this fight, or you'll get taken out very easily. Focus on the head when you can, and manage your distance to her in the second portion of the fight so you don't get caught in medium range where she'll be able to hit you, but not vice-versa.

When you walk into the mob of little aliens, pick a long, sweeping weapon such as the hunter's axe. Determine which alien is the real boss, then damage it until it transforms.

Once this happens, run away upstairs, back towards the nightmare portal. The Emissary won't follow you all the way up there, so you're free to hit-and-run until it's dead, or just lob molotovs at it until the remainder of its health bar has gone.

This applies to most bosses in the game, but more than any other this one: get behind it. Ebrietas hits fast and very hard, and she has a huge variety of attacks. None of them can hit you if you manage to get between her back tentacles, leaving her open to massive damage, especially if you use some bolt paper.

Just keep rolling round to her back if you find yourself face-to-face and she won't be able to hit you. Additionally, your health bar will continuously deplete in the latter stages of this fight, so bring blood vials and keep one eye on it so you don't find yourself caught short.

Micolash himself is a pushover. He only has one or two attacks, none of which are powerful, but he will try to confuse you by fleeing into a maze twice. When chasing him, try and keep track of your steps so you don't get disoriented, and when he locks himself up in the second phase of the fight, go upstairs and you'll be able to drop down into his cage. Otherwise, the easiest prey this game has to offer. Be sure to scour his maze after his death, for it contains plenty of valuable booty.

For the first half of his health bar, try and keep close to him. He's mostly a ranged fighter to begin with, launching powerful missiles at you to zone you out, but his melee attacks are easily dodged or parried. If he stabs a sword into the ground, lock onto it and fire a quicksilver bullet at it to save yourself from an irritating barrage of knives.

In the second half he will buff himself and be immune to parries or interruption, and will become far more aggressive and melee-focused. When this occurs, attack with care and only try to get two or three hits in before dodging away. Use the roof spires to give yourself breathing room if you need it, and be patient in your approach.

An easy fight if you stay behind her. Mergo's Wet Nurse doesn't have many attacks, and her slashes are predictable. When she attempts to hit you, get round to her back and you'll be safe from attack. Her other notable attack locks her into slow, forward movement. This is pretty much a freebie to get to her vulnerable side and go nuts.

Halfway through the fight, she'll turn the arena dark and summon a clone. Don't try and engage her at this point. Run in circles around the edge of the arena, rolling repeatedly if you see her claws draw near. After a short while this phase will pass and she will revert back to her earlier state.

This feels a bit like a final exam. Everything you've learned facing the hunter-type enemies in the game so far has to be applied here. Gehrman isn't particularly tough if you're a strong level (I found him relatively easy at level 99), but like all bosses he takes a run or two to learn his attack patterns.

Luckily, he doesn't have that many different attacks to catch you by surprise. At the start of the fight he wields a scythe and his attacks will suck you in close for more hits, so be patient, try and keep to the middle distance and pick away at his health whenever he telegraphs an attack.

At about 50% health, he'll switch to a sword and blunderbuss. This form is easier than the first: try to stay in his face, and if you're trying to close him down, always dodge towards him if he tries shooting at you.

In his final form he'll have a more powerful gun that, if it hits you, will leave you open to Gehrman's own visceral attack that does huge amounts of damage and will probably one-hit kill any players under level 85. Employ the same strategy: dodge towards him, make sure you're a safe distance away before healing up.

You're on your own.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

On Bloodborne's difficulty

The internet loves arguing over whether Bloodborne is easy or hard. Why is this debate keeping us so captivated?

From Software games are now officially mainstream. Last night I saw an advert for Bloodborne during half-time in a Champions League match, and today I read that it has shipped 1m copies worldwide. Impressive numbers for a game that's garnered a reputation for innaccesiblility. Bloodborne was my first proper venture into From Software and their "Souls" franchise, and as I write I'm on the verge of completing it.

A ridiculous volume of talk, once all the review hype had dissipated, has been on the difficulty. Opinion pieces have been written by such luminaries as Susan Arendt fiercely calling out those arguing over the game's challenge, identifying two groups. There are those who believe the true hardcore gamer will find it easy, wearing it as a licence to their own self-defined "real gamer" club. Then there are those who bemoan the difficulty, calling it artificial and pointless. She concludes both to be as bad as one another.

On last week's Giantbomb podcast, Jeff Gerstmann (a skeptic of From's previous work) shared his opinions of the game, having played several hours of it. He almost scoffed at those who heralded it as difficult, and that he didn't really think a game that he boiled down to dodging and hitting enemies when they miss deserved such a reputation.

The more talk that gets about surrounding Bloodborne's difficulty, the less interesting the game appears to the outside world. I've played difficult games in the past, and difficulty can come in many fashions. It can be deliberately arbitrary, brutal and unforgiving, leaving you open to sudden, unforeseen deaths or failures. Call of Duty 4 on veteran difficulty springs to mind; a near-flawless game on regular and hardcore mode, but crank it up to eleven and there are a handful of missions that become near-unplayable without an hour of trial-and-error and a generous helping of luck. Then there are games where the difficulty provides the next goal for players: Guitar Hero, and many character action games. Games such as Devil May Cry give the player a reason to go back for more because of their difficulties. You face a boss on normal mode and it feels a challenge, but then by the time you come back around on hard you've improved. Your dodging reflexes have improved and you know which moves will cause the most efficient damage for the fight.

Bloodborne combines both of these approaches, and gets the balance just right,

It has the punishing, back-in-your-place difficulty spikes of Call of Duty. After finally mastering the early bonfire section of Bloodborne, and feeling like my skills were improving to a point where I could navigate this tricky opening with relative ease, the game then throws two giant lycanthrope enemies between you and progression. Manage to get through them, and you're almost immediately faced with the Cleric Beast, as intimidating a first boss as any game in the world is likely to contain. It keeps you guessing and playing the game on its terms.

There's also an element of the other style in there, where a surprisingly open world environment is kept gated through difficulty and player skill. Theoretically, you could fight your way from Ioesefka's Clinic to Father Gascgoine in a little over ten minutes. The path is right there, fairly linear and easy to navigate were it not for your own skill. In Bloodborne, your own real-life ability levels up over time as much as your in-game avatar levels up their health bar or stamina. Your adeptness with the game (which won't start at the same level for everyone, remember) determines your progress, and that's where Bloodborne really sets itself apart from modern games to me.

There are no level selects, no bridges to the next island barricaded by the army. You could beat the game with an unlevelled character in an hour if you were good enough. Some insane nerds already have. There's no checkpoints, map markers, or even a map. Your own muscle memory, sense of direction and accrued knowledge through your previous mistakes serve as your guide. It's a special experience, and I think that is why I feel so much personal triumph now, as I stand face to face with the final boss, ready to vanquish the nightmare.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Game of Thrones 501:" The Wars To Come" thoughts

Season five of Game of Thrones has limped lethargically into action. Were it not for the episode title, I might have gotten a bit worried this show was having an identity crisis.

Note: I haven't read the books. There will be TV spoilers in this. This is just my opinion. I don't care (I love it).


The best moment of this entire episode lasts less than a second, a single-word sentence uttered by Margery Tyrell moments before an ad-break. It's a word that by definition opens up a realm of possibilities, and Margery uses it to cryptically imply she has plans to further antagonise Queen Cersei that go beyond just fucking all of her children. It's classic GoT politicking, with intelligent characters deftly maneuvering to get one over on each other whilst not showing too much of their hand themselves. It's a familiar dialogue in King's Landing, the fictional capital city that has turned into a literal game of king-of-the-hill.

It's a shame, then, that the rest of this season opening feels flat to me. There's not much in the way of character development or a sense of purpose for many of our heroes and villains. The stakes feel dramatically lowered and the cast seems oddly aware of it. At the end of last season the show had eliminated most of the biggest threats to Westeros; Tywin is no longer puppeteering his regal children, the wildling army is defeated, and Joffrey's murder trial has passed. These were things motivating our characters to act before, but with these issues solved we've been left with a vacuum in the show that's yet to be filled. This episode offers zero indication of what's going to fill it.

It feels a little like an epilogue to season four in many ways. Scenes quickly cut from character to character, showing them reacting to previous events but never dwelling long enough to show you what they are planning to do next. Over half the scenes in the episode end in an identical way: a character meets someone, says something along the lines of "I'll be fine" or "everything sucks", then they walk out of shot without purpose and the scene ends. Baelish and Sansa drop his son off at some kind of medieval boarding school, before walking out of shot without purpose. Cersie mourns her father, and rebuffs her born-again cousin, before walking out of shot without purpose. Brienne stands in a field aimlessly whining about how irrelevant her character has become before the camera shrugs her off screen.

Even the one character that does have an identifiable goal in this episode ends up the same. Jon Snow is tasked with persuading wildling leader Mance Rayder to kneel for Stannis and form a deal with him that takes more than a little inspiration from William the Conqueror's mercenary-fuelled plan to take England in 1066. By the end of the episode, Jon Snow has failed to convince him, and Rayder is executed at the stake. Snow gives him a merciful arrow to the chest, before purposelessly scowling his way out of shot to close the episode. It's all too obtuse, with no carrots dangled indicating why the show is back. It doesn't have to be the case, either. Stannis and Danerys are in control of large armies and could march to the capital tomorrow, Arya is yet to appear and the deliciously twisted Boltons are the North's biggest house. The characters and motivations are there, this episode just didn't seem to use them.

Tyrion has been rescued by old chum Varys, and is now playing fugitive at an exotic villa. Varys lets him in on his master plan - to through his political weight behind the only person he sees fit to rule the nation - Danerys Targaryen. She, he says, has the perfect balance of qualities to inspire peace. The script has other ideas, however, and then spends the rest of the episode making Varys look uncharacteristically stupid, with all of Danerys' scenes showing her to not be at all what the eunuch thinks her to be.

Dany's struggling to run Mereen, let alone Westeros. She's barely been in control five minutes but has already resorted to martial law after one of her unsullied is murdered in a brothel. She then provokes the ire of her civilian population, closing the historic fighting pits because she is morally offended, despite them seeming to be unanimously popular amongst fighters and fans. Disagree? Fuck you, I have dragons. Ohh wait, she doesn't even have them any more. The dragons were her biggest asset, the only real outstanding power she wielded. They were a kind of twisted political mandate, giving her a self-proclaimed right to rule because she had the biggest, scaliest sword in the room. Now one is missing, presumed renegade, and the other two chained up and tetchy after her betrayal. All she now has is her army of unsullied, which are no longer slaves thanks to her own moral convictions, able to be poached away by a higher bidder. Her plans are slipping away from her, yet Varys thinks her fit to sit on the iron throne? I need more convincing.

I'm not saying the episode needed any more action or spectacle - last season had a double helping - but it needs a thread to follow. The Wars To Come felt like a false start, like when you find the end of the sellotape but it just peels off to the side. You get left at square one with a tiny noodle of tape to hold the package together.