The Longest Journey: Review

An Adventure Game for Grown-Ups


Artwork included in purchase.


It is always with hesitancy and great trepidation that I start an adventure game. On the one hand, I know there is a good chance I will find good story-telling, character development, and a memorable experience. On the other hand, I’m almost certain to find inane puzzles that don’t follow any sort of logic I’m familiar with, and little actual “game-play.” It can even be argued that the adventure game genre is simply an interactive story with some puzzles thrown in for a challenge. The video game approach to graphic novels. At least that’s what my approach to these games has become.

I grew up on Sierra adventure games. I have long considered the Kings Quest and Quest for Glory series to be important titles in my personal gaming history, but ones I enjoyed as a child. My adult gaming by comparison includes RPGs, sims, and action games, with no time or patience set aside for “adventures.” But it was a strong need for high quality story telling and the recent re-launch of that brought me to pick up a game I’ve long considered, but never plunged into.

Considered one of the best in the genre, The Longest Journey is a title that tries to do many things to help bring the adventure game into the modern era. By which I mean 1999, the year the game was released. I said I’ve been considering this purchase for a long time. Eleven years after its release, there were still moments that had me thinking “Wow!” Before I get into it, I can say that the thing the game pulls off best is introducing an adventure game for adults.


The game's opening scene.


As I mentioned above, the adventure games I enjoyed as a child are important to me. But despite being accessible to adults they were written with children in mind, which set limitations in where the story could go. The villains remained cartoonish no matter the extent of their villainy, and the protagonist’s problems’, though often fantastic, were never on the scale of being too broke for rent or having your hearth broken in a real adult relationship. The Longest Journey on the other hand really shines in this department.

April Ryan, the eighteen year old protagonist in the game, captures the on-your-own feeling of first leaving the comfort of your parent’s home wonderfully. She is a “starving artist” working in a small cafe, and trying to get into the university of her dreams by developing a portfolio good enough to pay her way. As the story begins, she is struck by a creative drain brought on by anxiety over an up coming art show which her future success hinges upon. Not exactly fairy-tale problems. But the beauty of it is, as the story progresses, and the fate of the world (well, two worlds) hangs in the balance, the story manages to keep it real (yes, I said keep-it-real.) The fantastic melds with the mundane realities of trying to survive in the real world in ways games like The Sims (all about making it in the real world) could never achieve. As with all good fiction, you will grow attached to April, and want to see he overcome her obstacles whether it be the embodiment of chaos, or an unscrupulous employer trying to weasel out of paying her wages.


Outside April's apartment building.


Don’t get me wrong, The Longest Journey has plenty of magic and monsters for the fantasy and sci-fi fan. The two worlds mentioned earlier are known as Stark, or the “real world” as we know it only 200 years in the future, and Arcadia, a somewhat typical fantasy world with monsters and magic and so on. The future world is the games interpretation of where capitalism, consumer culture, and the security-over-liberty mentality may lead us. The type of world where after the police arrest you, they try to sell you brand name products. Legal drugs leave some neighborhoods riddled with junkies and burn-out, and violence, gangs, and poverty are common on the lowest levels of major cities, whilst a rich elite live lives of decadent luxury high above. The least fortunate are sold into indentured servitude and forced to work on colonies in space.

Arcadia, or the world of magic, is something different. These portions of the game can be interpreted (perhaps somewhat liberally) to be emotional and intellectual journeys April must go through to grow and develop as a human being. For every magic crystal or ancient talisman she discovers, April also learns more about who she is and what she needs to do not only to save the world.. err worlds, but to also become a more capable adult. I actually didn’t care much for April when the game first started. I thought she was kind of annoying and naive, until I understood that she was actually a well realized young adult who shared many of the same hopes, dreams, and ideals I had when I was her age. As she went through her adventures, she developed more and more as an adult. I don’t mean she wanted to settle down and start a family. Instead April begins to learn simple life lessons such as looking beyond the immediate here and now, and looking at things in the larger scheme. She learns that despite trying your damnedest, sometimes life just kicks your ass and leaves you high and dry.


Cinematic scene of the city of Venice.


Yet another way the game captures actual life so well is in April’s interactions with her next door neighbor and complete creep Zack. Being male, it may be hard for me to sometimes understand the full extent of sexual harassment that women may go through on a day to day basis. I try to imagine it as it may be felt by women, but having no common experience as a base, I figure I miss the emotions by a long shot. But within seconds of April’s first conversation with Zack, I felt it. Trying to maintain a civil tone with someone who lives directly across the hall from you is often a necessity for piece of mind’s sake. Trying to do it with the guy who keeps calling you “babe” and insisting you go on a date with him makes it difficult. As the story progressed, I found I needed Zack’s help at a certain point, but the only way he would agree to it was to promise him a date. When I chose to have April skip out on the date (with good reason) and Zack’s tone turned ugly, I actually feared for April’s safety in a unique way. This wasn’t some ancient evil bent on world domination. It was a cocky guy that lived next door and couldn’t handle rejection very well. Suddenly, his calling April a bitch and making veiled threats against her brought upon a layer of fear and foreboding that only real life could bring on. It was exactly the kind of intelligent writing I’d been looking for going into the game!

The game isn’t perfect. I would argue that many of the puzzles suffer from the same shortcomings most adventure games feature, such as illogical solutions and great leaps of reasoning. The game alleviates this to some degree by keeping important “puzzle pieces” in close proximity to where they need to be used. It makes pixel hunting less tedious by providing relatively large areas to click on for small objects. The Longest Journey also flashes objects when you float them over their appropriate puzzle counterpart. If one item needs to interact with another in order to progress the game, it will flash as you mouse them over each other. Never-the-less, unless you particularly enjoy this sort of gameplay, I would encourage a hint guide or even a full blown walkthrough to aid you when you get stuck. The best part of The Longest Journey is the story, and having that hampered by clumsy and often tedious puzzles doesn’t help anyone.


I swear this isn't an adult movie theater!


Even with a walkthough explaining exactly what I needed to do to progress through some points, I found I would have great difficulty because I’d have forgotten to “look at” some object a second or third time in order to make a solution that seemed obvious actually work. For instance, at one point I needed to win a prize from a con-man at a street market. The prize would then be traded with a sailor who would give me something else I needed. I knew the prize the sailor wanted, and I’d already beaten the con-man and earned my prize. But every time I tried to collect, April would claim she didn’t know what she wanted as a prize yet. It took some time for me to realize I’d missed an extra bit of conversation with the sailor that allowed April to “know” which prize she needed, despite it having long been made obvious through the plot. Other times, April would be “surprised” by some conversation point, despite having already learned about it earlier. Thankfully, this sort of thing was the exception instead of the rule, but never-the-less, it worked against my suspension of dis-belief.

The only remaining let down is in the action scenes. Obviously this isn’t a game with combat mechanisms. You defeat your adversaries by clicking on the right thing at the right time. But often, dangerous foes would be vanquished after mere seconds of “fighting.” Just because I clicked in the right place shouldn’t mean the monster dies immediately. More then once I found myself wishing for some dramatic combat animations, instead of quick, anti-climactic deaths of something that’s supposed to be a horrific monster.


Fun with learning!


Finally, you may be wondering how an eleven year old game holds up today. I’ll be the first to admit, one of my biggest problems with older games is that I’m spoiled by the graphics, accessibility, and friendly UIs of current titles. Trying to load up some of the “classics” leads to me not lasting past the first 30 minutes of the game. Fortunately The Longest Journey doesn’t suffer from this issue. Most of the graphics still look great even though the games resolution is a very old-school 640 by 480 pixels. The environments are often beautiful, well thought out, and “shot from” great perspectives. Rarely do you feel like your looking into a shadowbox from a perfectly 90 degree angle (a problem I feel many older adventure games suffer from.) The only places the graphics falter is in some of the close-ups of various characters. The lack of detail and old 3D character models can be groan-inducing at times. This is often easily ignored thanks to all the ways the games shines though.

The story, characters, music, environments, and direction of the game are all top-notch and should be seen as standards by which to compare other games. The Longest Journey holds up remarkably well after all these years, and is further proof of the potential video games have for immersive story-telling that deals with social, political, and human issues. The game won’t do anything for your mindless violence and heart pumping action needs (there are plenty of options out there for that already.) But if your looking for a memorable story and gaming experience, this is one title that shouldn’t be missed. The ending will unfortunately leave you with more questions then are warranted, especially considering the lack of resolution in the games “sequel.” But the overall experience will make up for that. I know I will remember many of the characters from The Longest Journey years down the line, which is more then I can say for most games.

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Violent Acts Per Hour

Similar to my recent post entitled Romes Other Option, this was a paper I wrote for a freshman level collage class. Where as the last one was for a history class and thus dealt with historic content, this paper was written for a sociology class and deals with video game censorship and studies relating to video game violence. If anyone wants my references, just let me know, though I’m not going to bother posting them here. One reference may have actually just been some kid’s school paper I found online, but don’t tell my professor that.

Reactionary Reviews and Video Games

In late 2007, the news media was ablaze with stories of two teenage babysitters killing their 7-year old charge by way of violent wrestling. The reason cited by the media was Mortal Kombat, a popular video game that glorifies violent fighting and death. The strange thing about the news reports was the lack of reference in the police report of this game. In fact, when asked why he did it, the primary assailant, 17 year old Lamar Roberts replied “I don’t know. I was drunk.” (Whitting, 2007) Why than would such an obvious factor in decision making and an open admission of cause be thoroughly ignored in favor of the “violent video game” argument? This paper tries to address this issue and debunk the classic stereotypes about video games, games’ connection to violence and social anomie amongst gamers, and in turn bring to light the various social and emotional perks of video games.

Video Games and Violent Acts per Minute

It would seem that every new media or form of entertainment and communications tools introduced to western culture have been met by mistrust, misunderstanding, and reactionary responses predicting the eventual fall of civilization. Even the most common communications tool, the telephone, had a cold initial response. “..the telephone was disparaged because it would create a new and unnecessary distance between neighbors who no longer needed to visit each other face to face, but could simply call (Farman 2010). Of course now, we see social networking sites, cell phones, and twitter receiving the same sort of critique. In keeping with the functionalist perspective, we can see how introducing “new” elements into societal structures would disrupt the “social equilibrium” that existed prior. Video games have suffered particularly in this regard, considering that though they’ve been around for over 30 years, they are still routinely discredited and stereotyped into niche categories that would suggest they are played primarily by male minors who are exposed to nothing more than violent and sexually gratuitous acts so many times per hour. In fact, much like studies on television and movie violence, the once classic format of video game violence studies simply would add up the number of violent acts test subjects in lab environments were exposed to, and deliver the news in such regard. These studies, so often referenced and cited, failed to put into consideration a major difference between games and movies. Where as movie viewing is a passive process, video games are all about interactivity.

How does interactivity make a difference? “Current research suggests that interactive video game content may not merely be a function of the game alone, but may be a combination of the game, personality characteristics of the individual user, and the user’s susceptibility to becoming fully immersed in the interactive environment (Lachlan & Maloney, 2008). What does this mean? Let’s take a game that has been popularly criticized by the news media for its violent content, “Grand Theft Auto.” What the researchers found was that individual users could greatly alter the “violent acts per hour” number based on many different factors, not all psychological. “For example, the range of scores for total number of violent acts depicted in Grand Theft Auto 3 ran from 0.00 to 108.00, with a mean score of 27.00 and a standard 24.87 (Lachlan & Maloney, 2008), meaning that a more experienced player in the research environment, the kind of person who has played video games and understands “how to play” would follow the game structure more closely, which is designed in large part to be goal oriented. Go to point A and pick up object X. Deliver Object X to point B. On the other hand, subjects with little or no gaming experience would generally react to the game in a more panicked manner, often times shooting everything that moved on the screen. Thus you had such wild discrepancies in the number of violent acts seen by the player. Compared to a slasher movie, where all the viewers are seeing the same set of violent acts, the interactive video game allowed for far greater variation, to the point where at least one player didn’t witness a single violent act in the same material that another player witnessed 108.

In fact the researchers point out how fewer violent acts in many games don’t necessarily equate less violent game play. Referencing a popular stealth based military shooter “SoCom: Navy Seals” where the player is rewarded more for being silent and stealthy as opposed to the guns blazing style, they write: “Given that psychotics tend to lean toward action tendencies that may go against social mores (such as fair fighting) the stealth aspect of the game may be especially appealing to psychotics. They may become adept at being silent killers, leading to a reduction in total number of violent acts committed (both by themselves and by others in retaliation) (Lachlan & Maloney, 2008). What they’re saying is, in a game where revealing yourself to your opponents in an open field as per social mores concerning a “fair fight” is penalized by your probable loss of in game life, the more socially frowned upon response of the “shooting them in the back” would actually result in fewer on screen acts of violence. By showing how the player’s psychological state could skew the results of the traditional violence-in-media study relating to interactive mediums, the researchers bring up the other oft ignored element of how violence in video games effects players: that of the players psychological state.

“According to a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General’s report, the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure (Jenkins).” As a parent, it could be much easier to blame the game as opposed to blaming the child responsible for the violent act or the parents themselves. Especially when news media shows images of the most violent video games out of context. Considering the media’s coverage of the “Grand Theft Auto” series for instance, a casual observer with no first hand experience with the game would think it was all about having sex with prostitutes and than killing them, an action “allowed” in the game, but at no point “encouraged” as a goal. The interesting thing is though, “Researchers find that people serving time for violent crimes typically consume less media before committing their crimes than the average person in the general population (Jenkins).” So were the kids responsible for the killings at Columbine playing too much “Doom” (a violent first-person shooter) or is there more to it than that? The media hoopla about how much video games and Marilyn Manson had to do with corrupting these poor, otherwise innocent youth would have the viewer believe that all kids were just as susceptible to such influences. It was sadly much later that the anomie experienced by these kids in their personal lives and school social structure was discussed as a probable cause for their actions, but by this point, the media damage was done. Parents and school officials had acted upon the reactionary viewpoints with policies like banning trench coats for teens, thus further aggravating the problem: “The moral panic over violent video games is doubly harmful. It has led adult authorities to be more suspicious and hostile to many kids who already feel cut off from the system. It also misdirects energy away from eliminating the actual causes of youth violence and allows problems to continue to fester (Jenkins). And also “’Banning black trench coats and abolishing violent video games doesn’t get us anywhere…. These are the symbols of youth alienation and rage, not the causes’” (Farman).

What might be a better solution to this problem? Does a problem even exist? “The amount that violence in video games or in the general media contributes to a child’s aggression can be reduced when parents play a mediating role by properly interpreting the violence for their children. Nathanson (1999) found that ‘Children whose parents discuss the inappropriateness of television violence with them or restrict access to violent television shows report lower aggressive tendencies than children whose parents do not.’ (as cited in Anderson et al., 2003, p. 100)” (Symonds, 2005). Parental responsibility should be focused on much more than it is now. Video game companies for many years now have printed on the cover of every game published its rating in a manner clearer and better defined than movie ratings. This has actually led to a situation where game companies won’t make games that have a rating higher than “M” (movie equivalent of an R rating) as major retailers wont carry “Adult” games. In this regard, the market has created a situation of self censorship in game production companies. Unfortunately, too many parents mistakenly think of video games as “children’s entertainment,” and thus ignore the ratings system. With more parental involvement, they could understand the clear difference in games for kids and games for adults. Of course, the news media’s coverage of video games hasn’t helped this perception. In some ways, the most unfortunate element of all this is that these same games that so many people are reacting to can actually be more beneficial to youth. “Video game use may assist adolescents in the important mastery of competitive and aggressive feelings that seek expression during adolescence. Adolescents who doubt their adequacy and competence in other areas may find a release from this frustration in video games which may be mastered by continual play and improvement over time. (as cited in Dorman, 1997, para. 13)” (Symonds, 2005). What Dorman is suggesting here, is that the virtual worlds players inhabit in games allow for elevating self worth for adolescents who may otherwise have a low self image. Speaking for myself, video games were for me an escape from the real world in which I was a “nerd” into a virtual world where I could defeat my insecurities (in the form of fantasy and sci-fi monsters) and genuinely feel good about myself. One could argue that this is an escapist perspective, but I believe the psychological benefits can have a positive effect on one’s emotional well being both in the short and long term. This point will also be explored further in the paper.

The Aging Gamer and the Social Dynamic

For those who have grown up with such technologies, this heterogeneous, networked, online global, “flat” (Friedman, 2005) world is the unremarkable mainstream. While the older, “world on paper” natives gasp and wonder and worry about the furious pace and penetration of online technologies into everyday life, the younger generations just adopt them, adapt them, and move on to the next (Lankshear & Bigum, 1999; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003).”

We spend so much time focusing on how video games effect children, and to some extent that is understandable. After all, younger minds tend to be more susceptible to media influences. But are video games played by children? “Already 62 percent of the console market and 66 percent of the PC market is age 18 or older. The game industry caters to adult tastes. Meanwhile, a sizable number of parents ignore game ratings because they assume that games are for kids” (Jenkins). What’s happened is that the generation who was first gaming in their youth have long since grown into functional adults, who have continued gaming. And more and more, it’s not violence that sells video games as some would have you believe, but the social element of gaming. As Jenkins points out in his article “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked,” “Almost 60 percent of frequent gamers play with friends. Thirty-three percent play with siblings and 25 percent play with spouses or parents. Even games designed for single players are often played socially, with one person giving advice to another holding a joystick” (Jenkins).

Of course, the place where social gaming is most pervasive is in MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) such as the wildly popular “World of Warcraft” and its somewhat less popular predecessor, “EverQuest.” Boasting well over 11 million monthly subscribers as of 2008 (Blizzard) World of Warcraft (or WoW) has swept the PC gaming world, bringing in unprecedented numbers of new gamers, including females. Of course, the news media has focused once again on the darkest side of this phenomena, “addiction” to online gaming. We can see it in television programming where shows ranging from “The Simpsons” to “CSI: Miami,” which featured a game player who dies after playing a game for 70 hours straight (Urban Hellraisers Season 4 Episode 9). Though such real life scenarios have actually occurred, they are an incredibly rare event. But do these reactionary media responses shed light on the reasons for the popularity of MMO’s?

Though it was once thought that “violence sells” in the video game world, more and more we find that people’s motivation for gaming is actually a social one. Many examples exist of people expressing such feelings. “..the most obvious and powerful change in games has been in their growing social nature. Game players had already been known to seek out game play in general for social reasons (Sherry, Greenberg, Lucas, & Lachlan, 2006; Yee, 2006), but for explicitly networked games, the attractions are the other players (Herz, 1997), the relationship between them (Williams, Caplan, & Xiong, 2007) and their impact on out-of-game community and relationships (William, 2006b)” (Williams, Consalvo, Caplan, Yee). As can be seen, the reasons are many, but all deal with the social element of these games. The first question asked by most players these days when a new title is announced for eventual release is “Does it feature Multiplayer?” You can ask if it’s healthy for people to replace social activity with virtual socializing, but you would be missing the point which is shown by research that such socializing is “more of an extension of offline life, for example, a maintenance tool, than a substitute for it (Gershuny, 2002; Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002)” (Williams, Consalvo, Caplan, Yee, 2009).

I can attest to this with my own first hand experience. After having lived on the Big Island of Hawaii for some time, and having developed close social relationships with various people there, I moved back to Los Angeles where by and large, I lost contact with these friends. It wasn’t until I proposed we all play WoW with each other that I found we could all “hang-out” in a virtual world and have just as meaningful a set of interactions as we had before, but now over thousands of miles and whilst battling orcs, dragons and so on. In fact the social element in games has brought a much wider audience to the gaming world, including older players and women, two demographic groups historically not associated with video games.

And in relation to the previous comment about these virtual worlds being an escapist form of entertainment, one could look at a paper by Steinkuehler where she states about MMOs “ They are notorious for their peculiar combination of designed “escapist fantasy” yet emergent “social realism” (Kolbert, 2001): in a setting of wizards and elves, dwarfs and knights, people save for homes, create basket indices of the trading market, build relationships of status and solidarity, and worry about crime. Successful MMO Gameplay is cognitively demanding, requiring exploration of complex, multidimensional problem spaces, empirical model building, the negotiation of meaning and values within the relevant gaming community, and the coordination of people, (virtual) tools and artifacts, and multiple forms of text – all within persistent virtual worlds with emergent sociological cultural characteristics of their own (Steinkuehler, 2004a, 2004b)” ((Steinkuehler, 2008). One player, asked about why he was playing an online game, claimed ”Currently, I am trying to establish a working corporation within the economic boundaries of the virtual world. Primarily, to learn more about how real world social theories play out in a virtual economy” (Yee). Another said “The fact that I was able to immerse myself in the game and relate to other people or just listen in to the ‘chatter’ was appealing” (Yee). Two varying reasons for gaming in “escapist realities” that seem to have little to do with either escape or “games” in the traditional sense. In fact, both are examples of players extending their social life beyond real life (RL) and utilizing the medium to further understand realistic models (in this case economic ones). In fact, so much of online gaming seems to be doing what we would otherwise not want to do in real life, as can be seen in the popular Facebook “casual game” Farmville, where players are asked to develop small plots of land by farming them, which they can than show off to friends who can “visit” their farms.

As players age, so do their interests. As strange as it may seem, we have taken our everyday life activities, and found ways to “simulate” them in virtual worlds. Art imitating life perhaps? And video games are as complex and diverse as the people who play them, allowing for everything from violent killing sprees, to meditative farming activities.

What Next?

As has been seen, video games have come a long way since two white lines batted a white dot across a black background towards each other. No longer are games two dimensional experiments in coding, but rich and vibrant worlds with their own cultures and stories. Taking the fastest growing entertainment industry and pigeon holing it for the sake of short term ratings can have drastic effects on the direction games can go as they develop into maturity. Already the arguments on online forums and gaming and tech blogs focus not on video games effects on kids, but have been elevated to discussions on games artistic merits. “Video games combine elements from narrative fiction film, music and sports. They are arguably an art or sister art of the moving image, specifically, a form of digital animation. The code is like musical notation that is performed by the computer, and the games are played like sports (Smuts, 2005). It may be some time still before we start seeing video games in art gallerias, but the parallels between games and photography when it first emerged are there, with people arguing about game’s artistic merits in much the same way.

The interactionist viewpoint suggests it will take some time before the public at large accepts this newer medium as a viable form of expression, but as stated earlier, as the youth who gamed have grown up, they have held onto their love and understanding of video games. Perhaps we’ve already reached the tipping point, considering games’ wild popularity and continued success even during the recent economic troubles that shrunk so many competing industries. Perhaps now, it’s just a matter of the “older” generations and the dieing traditional forms of media who struggle so much with modern technology to see what so many others have known for so long. There is great depth, complexity, and beauty to be found in video games. And there is an even greater potential for so much more to come.

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Good Old Games

I don’t think they were ready for the rush

I’ve blown most of my day thus far checking out the new Me and every PC gamer out there it seems. The site launch was apparently delayed due to the high volume of users trying to access it last night. It’s still chugging along at a pretty slow pace as of 2:00 pm California time (we have our own time zone.)

Never-the-less, it is rich with the type of features you would expect of a high-grade digital distribution service. Checking out peoples gog playlists is a good way to learn about games you may have missed. I’ve added Age of Wonders to my wish list thanks to seeing it on a few playlists, and reading the forum dedicated to the game. The forums are a great feature as well (don’t remember if they had that with the beta site.) You can really read up on people’s opinions regarding the game you are interested in. Steam could benefit from this sort of service. Having a bunch of users praise a title is a lot more convincing then a re-print of the back of the game box.

I also picked up a game I’ve been meaning to play for some time. The classic adventure game The Longest Journey is downloading to my hard-drive as I write this, and as soon as it’s ready, I look forward to checking it out! I’ll maybe even do a review of it if I finish the game in the near future, even if it is from ’97.

The new is looking great, and despite the flood of users slowing it down on day one, I expect it will be running smoothly soon enough. Check out their huge collection of good old games and pick up a classic. They got tons of ’em!!

Good Old Games

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Good Old Games Coming Back

Publicity Stunt/Scare Coming to an End

Last week Good Old ( shut down its site unexpectedly with a cryptic message that could be interpreted as either bankruptcy or a very silly publicity stunt. Thankfully, it was the second one, and it may have not been as bad a PR move as many think.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Good Old Games has been a great reliable site where you can purchase old Dos and Windows games for unbelievable prices. The site just announced this morning that the new will be launching tomorrow morning!

The previous version of the site had always been in beta, and it had to “grow up” sooner or later. I myself am just relieved we will all still have access to the large library of classic masterpieces in gaming DRM free!

I’ll be sure to check out the new site tomorrow and share what I find, but I encourage everyone who loves PC gaming to check them out and buy some awesome games!

EDIT: Well, it just went from a mildly annoying PR campaign to downright weird. In an awkward yet hilarious video, the two founders of dressed as medieval monks apologized for the confusion, and prattled on about the new site. They try to clarify some of the rumors generated over the last few days, and promise more (crazy?) videos coming through the day to explain everything. I’ll try to link to them all here.

EDIT 2: The rest of the informative videos are up, and here’s the skinny (I’ve been playing Hotel Dusk.. and they talk like that.) Apparently, they’ve improved “98%” of the back-end for faster site navigation and a significant increases in user loads. They’ve improved the experience on the front-end as well, with the neatest new feature being user created playlists of good old games that others could view. By example, they suggested a playlist of games featuring well done female rolls in old-school gaming. That’s a playlist I’d check out!

The final bit of news is a new addition to the library: The original Baulder’s Gate, a game seen by many to be the most important PC RPG title.

I’m pretty excited to see that is doing well and has been able to advance past their beta phase. Their publicity stunt may have upset a lot of people, but the site got more attention over the last week then since its launch. Here’s hoping for their continued success.

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Rome’s Other Options

An Alternative History of the Rise of Rome

This was a paper I wrote for a class dealing with the causes of war. It was meant to explore wars throughout history, and attempt to understand what leads to war. For my paper I used Sid Meier’s Civilization IV as a tool to plot out four possible paths the Roman empire could have taken other then war in its conflicts with Carthage. This is not a scientific study. It was primarily meant to use an excellent simulation software to explore the idea of alternatives to war, and thus is best thought of as a philosophical or mental exercise. I’m neither an expert on the Punic Wars, nor a historian. I am also not a pacifist, and do believe in justified wars. As with most people though (I hope), I would prefer war as the last available option. I’ve left off my reference list, but if anyone REALLY wants to see it, I can always make it available.

The purpose of this paper is to ask a simple question. What would have happened had Rome decided not to go to war with Carthage, but instead governed it’s state in a less violent manner. Due to limited information about the war and the time in which it took place (as most accounts of the events are written by a very Roman perspective and are thus of questionable historic accuracy), it is hard to realize the full extent of how “inevitable” the war was. Surely after the first Punic War, it seems to have been impossible to slow the snowballing effects of further fighting and future wars. Seeing as re-writing history from that point on is simple fiction, the aid of the computer game “Sid Meier’s Civilization” was employed to test out 4 scenarios of pacifistic governance by the Roman nation during the period of the three Punic Wars. The four play-throughs each followed one of four elements decided upon by the class (for which this paper is written) as its leading civic policy, in place of militarization. The four scenarios fall under the categories of economics, politics, morality, and ideological expansion. Each run utilizes one of these approaches to governance as its leading policy, whilst avoiding military build-up and expansion to the point of embracing pacifism. For it seems a brief window was made available in Rome just before her eventual confrontation with Carthage where the Roman senate hotly debated the issue of war, and being unable to reach a decision, “the matter was turned over to the popular assembly for consideration… This was a very rare occurrence in a matter of such importance, and must mean an equal division of opinion among leading senators (handout.)”

I will begin by giving a brief summary of some of the events leading up to each of the Punic Wars, followed by a review of pacifism and how it can work. Finally, I will delve into the different scenario’s listed above. This is not so much to say that the way “Civilization” simulates the events are exactly accurate, but is meant more as a philosophical exploration of the idea of pacifism in nation building and what it could imply in place of warfare. The game was tweaked in small ways to move it away from its relatively war-centric coding to make diplomacy and negotiation slightly more viable.

The Punic Wars occurred as the small and new nation of Rome grew in power through military expansion and the destruction of Carthage, eventually to be the dominant power in the Mediterranean. It can’t be argued that Rome’s militaristic attitude didn’t make it more powerful, or limit its ability to expand. In fact, when Carthage was sacked in 146 BC, large portions of North Africa, Greece and Spain were very much under Roman influence. As many warlords have claimed: unification through war is the only way towards peace, and Rome’s victories in the region seem to affirm this philosophy as it’s hard to argue that war doesn’t reap benefits for the winners such as land expansion. It is also equally hard to argue however, that these same wars have their price: a nation destroyed, many civilians killed or enslaved, and a continuation of violence in the region that never ceased despite Roman unification (handout).

As was stated above, war didn’t exactly limit Rome’s power, and indeed greatly expanded it. But at what cost? After all when Carthage burned at the hands of the Roman army, the Roman general “Scripio, beholding this spectacle, is said to have shed tears and publicly lamented the fortune of the enemy (handout.)” Scripio goes on to wonder about the fate of his own nation, and it’s inevitable fall at the hands of yet another violent war. And indeed, despite Rome’s near absolute rule of the region for many centuries to come, violent uprisings, wars, and militarization lead the way though-out this same period. It would seem that once on the militarized path, it was impossible for Rome to change its policy, and was simply experiencing the cyclical horror of violence breeding more violence.

Had the Roman’s decided against coming to Messana’s “aid” and let their tentative peace with Carthage continue, the history of the region and perhaps the world would have been wildly different, especially after considering Rome’s eventual influence in the world with the rise of the Roman catholic church many centuries later. So why did Rome decide to break it’s treaty with Carthage and knowingly start a war that in some respects went on for the next 118 years. Going back to the same senatorial debate on the subject as mentioned above, there was a seeming split in the Roman politicians. As is stated in one history however, “There was a substantial element among the senators who regarded the prospect of war with equanimity, believing that it would bring them political and military distinction, while many voters saw the prospect of material gain (handout.)” As could be said is the usual case for war, self-interest, and for lack of a better word, greed seems to be the driving force of the policies made by Rome. An arguably short sighted and reactionary thought process leads very easily to the idea that the best way to make gains is through aggression and hostility.

To point out the important element of self-preservation, many Romans also feared that should Carthage gain control of Sicily, they would in essence have Rome surrounded and have easy access to further expansion into Italy proper through the Straits of Messina, a small land bridge connecting Sicily to the mainland. And it’s obvious by Rome and Carthage’s three treaties signed before the warfare began that “Rome was.. apprehensive about Carthaginian encroachment on the Italian coast for the Romans had stipulated.. that [Carthage] must not establish a permanent foothold on Italian soil (handout.)” So aside from self interest and economic/political/ideological gains that some in Rome could except from a successful campaign, it was also about not letting the “enemy” strike first or get an upper hand. After all, Sicily being under both Greek and Carthaginian control, and not being unified meant a sort of buffer or shield for mainland Italy. Despite Carthage’s entirely diplomatic relationship with Rome up to this point, enough people saw this as the beginning of the end for that situation.

After the first of the three wars with Carthage, Rome added insult to injury by not only winning the war, but by also invading and taking both Sardinia and Corsica; two islands west of Italy and north of Carthage. This was an open exploitation by Rome taking advantage of Carthage’s military being weak and in need of serious bolstering. The result was the same that we see over and over again in history. When Rome attacked with violence, Carthage responded with more of the same. By this point it would appear that peace was next to impossible without serious losses to Roman interests. It is said that in response to the outrage caused by Rome, the Carthaginian “general Hamilcar Barca, made his nine-year-old son swear that he would hate Rome ever after (handout).” Of course, this young boy was none other than Hannibal himself, who would later lay waste to large parts of Italy “in response” to Rome’s aggressions, and further the cycle of violence.

By the end of the second war with Carthage and Hannibal, the situation had escalated far out of control and the elements of greed were far to entrenched in the policy making bodies of Rome. She carried out her attacks on Carthage one final time from 149-146 BC, leading to Carthage’s final destruction.

Before going into the experiment itself, it is important to take a moment to address political pacifism itself as a viable alternative to the policies of war. A concept so unfamiliar to so many in our violence ridden world is hard to take seriously by most. It’s easy for people to dismiss pacifism as unrealistic, and critics seem to take particularly pleasure in tearing it down as some sort of juvenile, idealistic, and unrealistic approach to “the real world.” Andrew Alexandra, in his article “Political Pacifism” points out some of these criticisms. He writes: ““’Jan Narveson, for example, in his influential paper on pacifism, finds the doctrine of pacifism to be at the same time ‘incoherent,’ ‘self-contradictory,’ and ‘logically untenable.’” “According to Tom Regan, ‘[t]o regard the pacifist’s belief as ‘bizarre and vaguely ludicrous’ is, perhaps, to put it mildly.” “Elizabeth Anscombe says of pacifism that ‘[i]t is an illusion, which would be fantastic if it were not so familiar,’ and claims further that it ‘has corrupted enormous numbers of people’”( Alexandra, 589.)” With such hostile views of a philosophy of non-hostility, it seems the argument itself is an argument against pacifism. After all, if the very idea of non-violence is treated with such contempt and hostility, how would the actual practice of said philosophy possibly have a chance, seeing as people seem to not take it seriously enough to put into practice.

Fortunately, Mr. Alexandra goes on to point out a recent example of pacifism in action, where it seems to have worked. He cites Lithuania’s proclamation of independence from the USSR in 1990, and Russia’s eventual withdrawal from combat in the face of pacifistic resistance put up by the Lithuanian citizens.

“On 11 January 1991, paratroopers opened fire on unarmed civilians in the capital who were trying to protect the Press Building. In the early hours of 13 January, a tank and infantry attack took place against civilians guarding the television tower; fourteen people were killed and 702 injured. After the seizure of the tower, the people did not disperse, but moved to the center of the city to join the crowd surrounding and protecting the Supreme Council from the threat of imminent attack. No attack came. The Lithuanian philosopher Grazina Miniotaite, from whose account these details are drawn, claims that “undoubtedly, the Soviet government’s decision to refrain from the assault was due to the people’s dogged determination despite the loss of lives at the television tower.” The U.S.S.R. eventually withdrew its troops [and] international recognition of the state of Lithuania was granted in late 1991 ( Alexandra, 589.)”

It is important to point out examples such as this that show pacifism succeeding, to help shift the general societal views of the philosophy towards greater acceptance. The small nation of Costa Rica (which is a lovely place to visit) is also an obvious example of a pacifist state that has not only survived for many years in a very militaristic region with no standing army, but has actually thrived, being a symbol of stability in central America. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor: “”The greatest challenge to democracy in Latin America – not just in Central America – is to prove democracy works,” says Oscar Arias Sanchez, former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner. “We don’t want to arrive at the end of this century with new dictators,” he says. “But democracy must deliver the goods. For democracy to deliver the goods we need to eliminate economic distortions and the Army is one of the greatest distortions and obstacles to economic growth” (Civilian.)” And the New York Times reported: “Costa Rica has long maintained stable democracy and relative economic stability without an army. Not only that; the absence of an army has created a climate of international good will; when Costa Rica ran into debt problems last year, it was able to win generous relief (Panama.)” In contrast, neighboring Panama has suffered one loss after another trying to control its territory through militaristic approaches. Though brief, these are just a couple examples of pacifism in action and working effectively.

Having discussed briefly the situation in Rome prior to the Punic Wars, and giving a quick overview of the concept of pacifism, we now come to the study itself. As the following charts and graphs will show, Rome theoretically could have not only sustained itself, but possibly even thrived under a more pacifistic rule. The results seem to suggest the strength of morals and ideology are much more far reaching then they would appear at first glance, with a Rome driven by religion (in its Roman mythos as opposed to the later Catholic Church), and culture could have done very well for itself. Below I will compare how the state fared in the following areas under particular civic codes: The economy, production and manufacturing, farm and crop output, land acquisition, and finally the ruler’s approval ratings or how the citizens viewed the direction of the state. I also compare these elements against where they were when the simulation first began in 300 BC, where it was at the start of the 1st historic Punic war, and where it was during the historic fall of Carthage. Finally, I compare the Roman empire against that of other powers in the region such as Greece, Carthage, the Celts (or Gaul ), Egypt, and a number of smaller nations such as the tribes of Hispania. The graphs each show one field of growth under each civic model, and any growth/contraction they experienced as time went on.

Gold gained by each model.

Starting with the economic growth of Rome, the graph below shows very similar growth for both the policies of economic and political rule. Curiously, however, where one would assume that a policy driven by economic growth would lead to the greatest actual economic prosperity, I found almost the exact opposite to happen. In both a politically and economically driven simulations, Rome ended up fairing much worse than the two other runs. That’s not to say that they didn’t experience growth, but instead didn’t seem to do so with such speed as the other two. It would be hard to explain this in a real world sense in large part due to my limited knowledge on the real world economics of either then or now, but if one were to venture a guess, perhaps this would show the same failings that the self-interest driven policies of war seem to encourage, in that by looking inward for growth, and using the market as your main leveraging tool, the all important human element is left out, and much like we see in our current economic crisis, when driven entirely by greed and capital, the system eventually collapses under its own eventual corruption. Where as in the simulations encouraging cultural growth, a much more balanced growth in terms of the civilization itself was able to take place.

The manufacturing industry seemed to fair much better under the economic model as seen below, and comes as no real surprise. When all your resources are applied to trade, you can develop large industrial gains. Interestingly, the “moral” run also produced improved industry, and an explanation of the polices governing that simulation could explain that. Finding their attempts at converting pre-existing nations to the Roman mythos being very difficult, Rome decided to instead use the somewhat colonial model of sending out religious settlements one after another to set-up communities north of Rome. Though often harassed by marauding brigands and the like, Rome managed to keep diplomatic ties with the neighboring Celtic tribes and minimize the threat from that angel. Perhaps it was this rapid expansion that also prompted industrial growth, and even perhaps the religious Rome’s great financial success.

Manufacturing under each model.

The next graph is perhaps the least relevant for the purpose of this paper, but is more for anecdotal information about infrastructure during these different Romes. It shows the amount of crops produced to sustain its own citizens. There is little to be said aside from the religious or moral Rome had the greatest output, likely due to the above stated policy of religious expansion. The more settlements you have the more food you need to produce. A lack of sufficient food of course could lead to unhappy and traitorous settlements, and obviously needs to be avoided.

Crop yealds.

Perhaps the most frequently cited example of the historic Rome’s success is its vast gains in land, one of the bigger factors of expansion, and perhaps a better explanation of why some of the growth took place in the economic realm. Both the religious and the cultural Romes controlled almost twice as much land as the economic and political Romes by the year 146 BC. The settlement policies of the religious Rome would be an obvious reason for the massive accumulation of land, but why the cultural Rome’s growth? Surprisingly, when Rome focused on the arts rather than warfare, their cultural influence grew to such proportions, that the surrounding landscape started becoming more culturally Roman. One after another, small settlements and even the island of Corsica began to identify themselves as Roman. In the case of Corsica, there was a people’s revolution, prompting the placement of a new governor and control of the region. And unlike the historic taking of the island, this didn’t spur retaliation by Carthage, and though it may have heightened political tensions, profited both Rome and its people by providing them with a rich culture and a war free life.

Land and expansion.

Next we see the approval ratings by the people of the actions of Rome. Much like most political powers, a new ruler enters with higher approval ratings only to watch them slowly melt away with time. The goal here then is to try to prevent this slip, and at the least, keep its fall as slow as possible. Both the religious and cultural simulations left the citizenry in about the same state of happiness in their rulers. The political modal was really the only example which fared significantly worse than the other here, but that has been consistently true for every graph shown. It would seem that ignoring all else in favor of politics (back room deals and what have you), is the least effective way to lead a nation (at least according to this simulation). Consistently, politics failed Rome where culture, religion, and even trade succeeded, raising questions of the actual worth of politicians and whether they do more harm than good. Many a joke or political cartoon can be drawn from such conclusions, but it seems apparent that slick talk is never enough.

Approval ratings

Finally, we compare Rome to the rest of the region by applying hierarchical rankings to each model. What we see is that consistently, Rome did better relying on winning people’s hearts and minds instead of their pocket books. The only time Rome really did well in the political and economic models was in manufacturing, where they seem to soar compared to the rest. But as all the other graphs show, this lead to no real gains outside of crating more “stuff,” and had questionable value in the long term.

From 1st to last.

It seems the biggest surprise comes in the success of the religious Rome. On further observation however, one needs only think of the Catholic Rome ruled by its Popes (for better or for worse) that for so long held great influence in most of Europe long after the days of the Cesar’s. Also a point of consideration would be the success of a cultural Rome. To observe the real world Catholic Rome once again here, it’s important to point out that the church was also instrumental in developing and expanding culture in the Europe of the middle ages, leading to the eventual start of the renaissance, spurred almost entirely by the churches interest and funding of the arts. Having no immediate real world comparison of a civilization basing the bulk of its growth on culture, it’s hard to really compare the pros and cons of culture versus religion. It would be interesting to note however, that the United Stated popularity the world over seems to have been at its high point when the country abandoned (or at least de-prioritized) its religious stance and expanded its culture in the form of music, literature, and film from the 1950’s to the 1960’s.

Perhaps this is my own opinion, but I would forward the idea that though the religious model did slightly better than the cultural model, I would advocate for culture in the end, as both the simulation (in the constant attacks of the settlements and the hostile view of powers subscribing to differing religious viewpoints suggests) and the real world example of Rome in the middle ages show a great loss of life can also occur from religious policies. Where-as when we look at modern day Costa Rica and its success in the region (despite being a very catholic country), it can easily be argued that they have done as well as they have by promoting Costa Rica for its culture and natural beauty.

As stated in the beginning, the purpose of this paper hasn’t been so much as to promote any particular view over another on any sort of scientific grounds, but instead to provide some alternative view points and ideas for how history could have progressed. At least in this instance, it seems Rome could have done well for itself by avoiding armed conflict, and instead looking towards creation and the arts. As a final bit of anecdotal information, the first “test” simulation I ran allowed Rome to act in its historically militaristic manner, and lead to large parts of the region coming under the military control of the Empire, and also leading to the destruction of both Greece and Carthage. Though Rome had more land at the end then the pacifistic policies we looked at more closely in this paper, it was at the loss of many lives, and any cultural or infrastructural growth. In the end, it was just a large army that needed to continue fighting to justify its existence, and it needed to continue growing to stave off the growing list of enemies Rome made in the process, thus once again repeating the cycle of violence.

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BioShock: Infinite Propaganda Posters

I Want Prints!

I’ll admit right now, I ripped these directly off of the GameInformer site, but they are way too freakin’ cool to not add on here. I’m too excited about this game! The attention to detail is amazing, right down to the half-tone dot pattern. I would so buy these if they released them as posters, and I haven’t bought a poster since I was a kid!

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Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale Review

Capitalism, ho!

I haven’t played a Japanese RPG in years. I haven’t been able to finish one even longer. But there was a time when the JRPG was the pinnacle of my gaming world. Games like Secret of Mana and the Final Fantasy series were some of the most emotionally fulfilling gaming experiences of my youth. At some point however, the JRPG formula’s evolution couldn’t keep up with my ever growing interest in gaming. The plot lines grew stale with one too many rebellious, amnesiac protagonists fighting to save the world from an effeminate horror/freak of science (ok, that’s the plot to FF7, whatever.) I got tired of the same turn-based, random-encounter combat, the endless grind to gain just a few more levels. I moved onto to other things.

So when I saw the free demo on Steam for the strangely titled Recettear with its big headed anime characters, I more or less ignored it. When I finally read the description a few days later and saw it was a game where you ran a JRPG style item shop, I was almost annoyed with what seemed like such a goofy concept. When I finally downloaded it out of boredom, I was hooked. It seems enough time has passed. I can enjoy a Japanese RPG again!

Typical duologue between the two leads.

Well, let’s clarify that. Recettear is indeed an item shop management sim, with a relatively simple buy low/sell high economic model. The game also features an equal part Diabloesque dungeon crawling rpg. As the games protagonist, the ever cheerful and hungry Recet, you will meet various adventurers who visit your shop to buy gear. As you get better acquainted, you can start accompanying and funding these dungeon delving rpg archetypes on their adventures. In return, you get to keep all the loot they find to sell in your shop, often times to the very same adventurers.

As you can see, Recettear is already different enough from the traditional JRPG to warrant some attention. As a hybrid of the sim and rpg genres, it becomes a surprisingly rewarding title. The two styles compliment each other well, and break up any monotony you may experience with either on its own.

The plot is simple. Recet wakes up one morning to find a stern fairy named Tear in her bedroom looking for an outrageous sum of money loaned out to Recet’s missing father. Tear informs the young lady that if she can’t make the loan payments, then the fairy will have to repossess the house (perhaps too realistic a plot considering the housing market collapse here in the states.) But don’t worry, for Tear has a plan that will keep everyone happy. She suggests converting Recet’s home into an item shop similar to the hundreds, nay thousands, of such shops we’ve all visited in countless video games.

Super Cool Mystery Door!

Thus you start with a small space, a few display tables, and a pitiful amount of Pix (in game cash-money.) Each week you have to make a payment which increases in value. By week five, you will have to earn half a million pix just to keep going. This can quickly seem overwhelming, if not for a clever gameplay mechanic that starts the game over after a failed payment, but with your inventory and experience intact, giving the player a leg up over their last incarnation. I didn’t realize this until my 3rd re-start so I was actually able to beat the main challenge on my first game “loop.”

Every day you have four “slices” of time in which to stock up on goods, sell various items for profit, walk around town talking to the locals, or go adventuring with one of the local wannabe heroes. They fill various rpg archetypes such as swordsman, thief, mage, cleric, archer and so on. As far as I can tell, there are a total of eight different adventurers, two of which are only unlock-able in the late game. Each adventurer has their own fighting style which greatly changes how you fight the swarms of monsters in the dungeons.

My store after a couple expansions.

The monsters are varied and evolve their abilities along side those of your heroes as the game progresses, keeping the action tight and challenging. And challenge you they will! The rpg portions of the game don’t allow you to save mid-dungeon. You have to fight your way through five levels of frantic action before getting a chance to leave with all your loot. Should you fail before finding an exit, you loose almost everything you found. The agony of a lost stash is thus contrasted by the thrill of discovering some new treasure, or even better, a previously undiscovered ingredient for the games crafting portion.

Did I not mention Recettear has a crafting element as well? Selling generic loot to the locals is one thing. Selling a custom made Uncle Sam hat is… well kind of weird actually, but par for the course considering this games somewhat zany tone. Fusion, as it’s called in the game, involves combining dungeon loot and store bought items to create more powerful and unique items with which to attract more rich customers into your store. I usually can’t stand the tedium of grinding to collect ingredients for this sort of thing, but thus far I’ve been having a blast with Recettear’s crafting system. Its simple, straight-forward approach encourages exploration of the system’s potential, without making it the crux of the gameplay. And as long as you pay some attention to what you need, you can always come back from a successful (meaning you didn’t die) dungeon dive.

When you make all your payments, the game opens up a free-play mode that can be much more relaxing then the frantic rush to make payments in the earlier part of the game. It also allows for a bunch of new content that was likely missed in the earlier segment, plus new characters that only come around post-game-end.

Finally, the games tone and writing are particularly noteworthy. If the premise of running a JRPG item shop doesn’t make it clear, Recettear is a bit of a spoof. A comedy that can appeal to young and old alike, with the more adult jokes being disguised well enough in innuendo to be interpreted as kid friendly when needed. Most of the jokes and writing deal with the absurd, and will often sweep in the unexpected at the strangest of times, leaving me laughing out loud in my seat time and time again. It can get a bit cutesy as Japanese games, anime, and manga often do, but a consistent tone and excellent English localization keep the plot scenes running smooth. You could very easily skip most of them if you so choose, and wouldn’t miss out on any crucial information. You would however miss one of the most endearing qualities of Recettear.

In fact, the game is only available in English thanks to a new indie localization company called Carpe Fulgur, who’ve done a good enough job to warrant a shout out. The dialogue is easily understandable by people unfamiliar with Japanese pop culture, while maintaining enough of it to keep a great balance. I can only hope that this game is successful enough in the western world to encourage more products from them.

Recet is... cheerful, to put it lightly.

The game most reminds me of Princess Maker 2, not for gameplay so much as for style and menu systems. Both have a sim and an rpg element to them. Both feature young female protagonists, though Recettear keeps it much more tasteful. If fans of PM2 are anything like me though, they will instantly fall for Recettear.

This is a surprisingly deep and complex game with great presentation and even better writing. It encourages a one-more-turn mentality to gameplay almost on par with the Sid Meier’s Civilization series (you know what I mean if you’ve ever played those.) It has so much more content I haven’t even gone over, including store customization and merchant class leveling. Changing rule sets for dungeons, fluctuating prices in the market, and even marketing through the use of window displays. At $20 it’s practically a steal!

Recettear is available on Steam, Impulse, and other digital distribution sites. The original developers are a Japanese company called EasyGameStation. I would encourage anyone who is a fan of this sort of thing to get a copy immediately, help support the localization team, and hope for more great titles from Japan in the coming years!

Much expanded store.

The first boss fight. Dragon Warrior anybody?

The joy and relief of making a loan payment.

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