Candlekeep Mysteries

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I bloody love Candlekeep. Make no mistake about it, Baldur’s Gate was my introduction to the Dungeons and Dragons universe and Candlekeep the first location I ever truly explored.

At the time, everything about being constrained to the BG story annoyed me – I hated being forced to being Gorion’s Ward and having a pre-existing relationship with Imoen. Later in the game I hated the whole ‘Bhaal Son’ thing. But in my older years, having matured, I can appreciate that this was but one of many stories I could enjoy in the Forgotten Realms, or DnD in general.

(All of this, of course, with the exception of Minsc and Boo. Minsc and Boo are infallible.)

One thing that never disappointed me though, was the locations. The isometric maps of Candlekeep and BG and even the wilds that surrounded the cities and places to visit were living, breathing characters on their own. I visited every shop and every store room. I fought assassins and I read books and for a map that was essentially one big circle around a castle, it was undoubtedly my DnD hometown. And now, to see Candlekeep serving as the new location for the adventure anthology, Candlekeep Mysteries – well, I can tell you this is a day one purchase for me.

One of the things that is great about the collection of stories is that WotC have recognised that there is a market for ‘small bites’ of DnD. Sure, some people might love an enduring, multi year campaign … but others have time for a one shot once every few months, and nothing more. After all, life has shown us in the past twelve months that we need some agility in how we live our lives, and so setting up a book of one shots and giving people a chance to taste DnD, rather than scaring the hell out of people who know nothing. It’s a smart move – and I like it.

I want to get a game together for later this year, and while I was planning on grabbing an Internet one shot, I reckon this mystery-style approach could be just the gateway drug we all need.

Let’s see how things go.

Aramoor

The islet village of Aramoor was originally a trading hub, though has increasingly fallen from this status to simply becoming the home for a small collection of (very) rich nobles who established themselves there in Aramoor’s trading highs, and the supporting industry that keeps them in the lap of luxury. The most well-known of these families are the Pistleweeds, who continue to control many of the trans-continental shipping routes, and who ensure their monopoly through an unrelenting grasp of power, money and appetite for murder. Thankfully, this bloodthirst requires Daylin Pistleweed, the eldest son and current Director of Pistleweed Transport, to travel extensively – making Pistleweed Estate an immaculatley kept, but rarely used, piece of property.

The outskirts of town are home to an overtly haunted graveyard, where demons and the dead walk freely among the gravestones and the nearby wreck of the Sunset King, an old merchant ship that saw everyone killed while in-port at Aramoor as a result of a combined mutiny and unknown third-party attack. While the citizens of Aramoor would rather not have any ghouls walking so freely nearby, the undead have, by-and-large, left the living alone, and so they remain free to stay in the graveyard under the ever-watchful eye of the Merchants’ Guard … a once-mercenary solider force that has long-since become the official constabulary of Aramoor.

Bexley

The township of Bexley is largely concentrated around the House of Hathor, a large religious complex within the township, serving as both a place of worship as well as a specialist school established for clerics in their later or post graduation years of scholarship.

The Head Cleric, Archbishop Varbun Lei, acts as the head of both the church and the township, with a small village council used to give the impression (but in reality, serves little purpose other than the inflate the ego of those participating) of democratic governance.

Fort Marlow, nestled just inside the South Gate to Bexley, serves as the regional outpost for a small collection of soldiers reporting to Colonel Melvar Ragetide, an aging old warrior looking forward to his retirement, but still with the air of both respect and responsibility.

The local tavern, the Two Statue Arms, is a nod to the dual statues of soldiers standing by Bexley’s main gate.

Easthallow

Easthallow

The mostly-frozen waters of Easthallow Bay welcome you to the crisp always-winter air of this hardened farming region, best known for growing robust, quality produce all year around. The relative stability of the cold climate allows for a year-round harvest cycle, though the plentiful harvest trade-off is that produce varieties are limited to larger root vegetables and some smaller – both literally and figurative – crops of maize, though this is typically turned into bread and other food for local consumption, rather than export.

The wealthy inventor, Gilliam Bates has a summerhouse located in the region, described as Bates’ Refuge, as he is known for holding ‘think weeks’ at the house to contemplate life, the issues of the day and the universe.

Notable residents of the region include Nothe Keslel, who runs a small apothecary business just outside of Easthallow itself, though rather than Easthallow’s good name, it is more her notoriety as an alleged King-killer that drives much of her sales.

Power Rangers Battle for the Grid

Ahh, Tommy. It’s good to see you again.

You have to admit, Xbox Game Pass is pretty good. For a game that I’d never pick up off the shelf at EB Games, for an IP that I grew up with and I love, this was a great way to quickly consume a rather mediocre game that seemed to focus on exploiting the Power Rangers IP rather than make a fully fledged game. I mean … even Injustice made a better mobile port for its games than the console version does here.

Mortal Kombat!

Make no mistake about it. This is Power Ranger Mortal Kombat, and it’s a ‘lite’ version at best. No difficulty changing, not really a lot of appetite to chase achievements and a fairly rudimentary game concept doesn’t really spark some Marie Kondo joy, so I’m happy to have had the opportunity to play it, but it’s a no from me.

Assassins of Kings

I knew about King Foltest only because he was one of the primary Gwent heroes in The Witcher 3, but I never really made the connection between ‘the card’ and ‘the character’, but it all makes perfect sense really when you think about the number of cards based on NPCs in W3 as it is, there was always bound to be a few nods to the earlier games littered throughout.

I’ve recently finished the Prologue to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and it is an absolute banger. It places you front and centre of a battle with Foltest, as he seeks to reclaim his (illegitimate) children from a baroness named Maria Louisa La Valette, and in what culminates in a great little ‘taster’ to the world of the Witcher, you end up in the sewers, fighting soldiers and knights, and by the end of the level you are helping Foltest to escape a dragon.

Perfection.

Despite the fact that the game is just all-around solid, what pleases me the most is how similar it is to The Witcher 3.

I absolutely have the aspiration to crack on with W2 … but by God, I know the level of commitment it took to clear W3, so there is a little demon on my shoulder reminding me of that each and every time I hover my controller over the game.

It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve added another title to the pile of shame.

37.733 Miles

TT Isle of Man

I hate motorcycle games. Other than the fact that I’m not very good at them, there’s a good chance that there’s a deep psychological trigger for me reminding me that I’m not very good at riding the real thing either.

In either case, I’m a sucker for a free game and a few easy achievements, and so with one of this month’s Games with Gold being the TT Isle of Man, I put my metaphorical helmet back on and took to the streets.

To be honest, there’s not a lot different about TT Isle of Man from almost any other motorcycle racing game I’ve played – and I guess that’s not necessarily unexpected, but in an age where driving games like Forza can really innovate, I guess I expected … more.

After struggling through the rather bland and long-winded tutorial (it probably wasn’t that long, but boy it felt like it), I did a quick check of the achievement list to see what was a reasonable few challenges to tick off the list. The single lap of Snaefell Mountain seemed to be a reasonable result, thinking that – like other races – it would be a few minutes of bike-riding pain to earn a quick-and-dirty cheevo.

Twenty minutes into the ‘race’ though (and I used the term loosely – it became apparent a few minutes in that I had no chance of being any sort of challenger), and I regretted my decision. Bland environments, terrible compatibility between player and game and just an all-around insufferable achievement, and needless to say I’m glad that I did it and don’t have to do it again.

I’m sure there’s a niche motorcycle racing market out there.

I’m just not it.

From Pajitnov, With Love

I quite like Tetris. I think it’s one of the few timeless games that has managed to find its way into the hands of people from about three or four generations – and do you know what? It’s still just as fun as it ever has been.

I was a little surprised to see in the past week that EA’s Tetris Blitz would be ending in April this year, and instead the product had been licensed out to a new company, N3TWORK.

Um, excuse me? Rude!

There’s not many games that have stood the test of time on my iPhone. Even The Simpsons Tapped Out was taken off there some time ago, and Gardenscapes is only hanging on there by a single nostalgic thread. Tetris Blitz, however, has stayed on my screen for a few years now. I wouldn’t say that it’s particularly religious-level of playing, but certainly once a week or a fortnight, I’d whip it out and see what kind of score I could get with the free boosts that I had collected, or, if the mood grabbed me, what kind of boosts I was willing to cash in on.

Do you know what I’m not willing to cash in on though? $8 of hard-earned money to be able to play Tetris on my phone without ads. GTFO, N3TWORK.

One of the benefits of having the large companies control gaming, is that they are less tied to marketing, or advertising, revenue. Sure, they still put ads in games, either as banner ads or as opportunities to recover a life or get some extra power – but they don’t put them up as a barrier between the player and getting into the game. They want you in their ecosystem to tempt you into micro transactions. Not to bombard you with cheap, crappy mobile ads.

N3TWORK, it seems, couldn’t give a toss what I think. Ads before a game, it is!

I have some other issues with the game, all of which are (allegedly) to be addressed in future updates, but I have to say, unless you don’t want iOS users switch over day-and-date you have your ‘full’ release, then be prepared for a multi-pronged onslaught between xCloud, Apple Arcade, Uplay Plus, and any one of a number of subscription services out to take consumer’s disposable income. You also need to try and deliver, at the very least, a like-for-like product.

Right now there is no Facebook Connect, no different game modes, and limited settings. I assume there is an Apple ID / iCloud connector somewhere working in the background … but I’m not convinced. I feel like this is something that could, and should, have been done prior to launch.

Perhaps I expect too much.

I’m going to keep the new Tetris on my phone for now – if only to hold out hope that it’ll get better. It’s a very thin, tenuous hope, but if Blitz is to be retired, well, it might be all I have.

Tetris has survived this long on my phone. There’s a very good chance that this’ll be the year it does not.

Blacker than Black

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six® Siege2020-1-19-23-10-2

For as long as there have been Tom Clancy video games, I have been in love with the franchise. Truth be told, I’ve never really liked Clancy’s style of writing because it is technically and character heavy, but his contemporary and near-future military setting has always appealed to me, as has the lore he built-out, first with the Rainbow Six series (assumedly with others’ input), and later with other franchises such as Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon. Truth be told, I take issue with some of the latter aspects of the franchise, only because I know they were created after his death … but I still love and cherish the setting, and so I play the games without complaint.

I’ve played quite a bit of Rainbow Six Siege on Xbox over the past few years since it was released, and now, going into its fourth year, I finally took the plunge and dived into the game on PC. I wasn’t sure if I’d already bought it or not, but from what I can tell, I simply had the cheapest, if not free-to-play, version on my PC, and so I lashed out with a heavily-discounted $15 purchase to grab the ‘Year One’ edition, which brings with it all the original operators and the full game itself. That, in itself, was probably unnecessary right now, as the main action in R6 is happening in an event called ‘Road to SI (Six Invitational) 2020’, and involves a deliberately crafted structure and course designed to simulate a real world military-sports event. Truth be told, it’s quite good fun, but if there was ever a game I wanted to bring across all my unlocks and perks and characters in, it’s R6.

Exhibit #813 when it comes to why games should have cross-save.

And so, I’m doing the slow crawl from Level 1 onward on PC. It’s served me well so far because people aren’t unnecessarily cruel and unusual in their ‘feedback’ (there are exceptions), but I think the value in the game comes from being able to undertake what I’ll consider ‘team-lite’ gameplay … going solo with everyone having the broadly-speaking same goal, rather than a more coordinated squad-based shooter.

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six® Siege2020-1-19-19-49-7

For Assault, I’ve been leaning heavily into Glaz, because I like his infrared scope, and for Defense I normally go Rook for his body armour. I’m a simple man with simple pleasures, though I suspect the Road to SI 2020 event would actually be a good time to experiment with other operators – considering they’re all unlocked from the get-go.

For now, I’m keen just to have the occasional game and build up my renown without too much exposure to the broader internet. The internet is typically a fairly average place to play games with people you don’t know … so I’ll try and stick to Terrorist Hunts and the odd multiplayer when there are challenges that require it. I’m not a ‘bad’ player, but skill and capability doesn’t seem to mean much on the internet these days anyway. The list of things that will have you labelled ‘a letdown’ far surpasses those that earn a ‘good job’.

Toss a Coin to your Witcher

If there was one thing I loved about The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, it was Gwent. I don’t think I’m alone – I think everyone who played the game either loved, or didn’t really have any attachment to – Gwent, though from the people I spoke to … many, if not most, fell into the former camp.

Now that The Witcher series has dropped on Netflix, to mixed reviews, it’s little surprise to see The Witcher III concurrent players spike. Hell, even I re-downloaded the game, if not to try and recreate the series, but just to revisit what is being considered the well-deserved ‘game of the decade’.

Now that I have a little better context to the origins of some of the characters, I also considered another playthrough of the core game – that is if it wasn’t 90-plus hours long just to get through the main story, and without any real achievements worth cleaning up along the way, I admit that my appetite just isn’t really there for another hard slog.

(The Witcher 2 is another story though – I started this in the last 24 hours, but that will be something I’ll save for another blog post.)

What it is there for though, is Gwent. And so in addition to putting W3 back on the Xbox, my iPhone slogged through a few gig of download today to put Gwent back on my device, and already I feel a little more in love with the game than I did back when it first launched. It’s unclear how many quality-of-life improvements have been made to the game since it launched, but it certainly seems like an accessible, fun alternative to Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering or the myriad of other CCGs in the market.

For a rather saturated market, I quietly hope that Gwent manages to stay the course. Almost all of the major CCGs have big corporate backers: Activision, Bethesda, Wizards, etc., and Gwent has CD Projekt Red which gives me some comfort – but at the end of the day, an unprofitable game is an unprofitable game, and so I fear its longevity is directly related to The Witcher‘s success as a franchise.

In the meantime, I’m going to have a red hot go at having some success this ‘season’ on Gwent to see where I land. Even if I play terribly, there seems to be more incentive to progress than something like Hearthstone, which just seems to mock my inadequacy rather than encourage me to do better. Let’s see if that feeling is the same at the end of the season than it is now.