Exploring the uncharted territory of the gay videogame experience. Here, I explore the female/LGBT presence in videogame culture, media and industry.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: Echo Bazaar

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the mystery genre; whether it be books, film or video games, I can’t get enough of it. So when I heard about Echo Bazaar through the Extra Credits video series over at The Escapist, I dropped everything and headed straight over to the website.

Steampunk? Mystery? Free to play? Definitely count me in.

Upon arriving at the website, I took a quick look at the address bar to make not of the URL, and I was instantly struck by something very strange indeed. It was developed by a company called Failbetter Games. Normally, “fail” is not a word I would like to see in association with a game, but I tried not to let it color my opinion of the game.

After the site loaded, I expected to see the familiar “log in” and “join” options normally found on server based game screens. Instead, there were only two buttons: Sign in with Twitter and Sign in with Facebook. I groaned inwardly, fearing Echo Bazaar to be just another social media game; something to annoy the shit out of your friends and followers as you spam their dashes with constant updates about needing bricks or plywood or some other arbitrary supply (I’m looking at you, Farmville). But this wasn’t the case at all. This function allows for easy sign-in and save capabilities. As another point in its favor, Echo Bazaar only gives suggestions for wall/feed updates. If something major happens and you want to tweet about it or post it on your facebook feed, you can; but you don’t have to. Having complete control over the application posts allowed me to relax and enjoy the game, rather than spend all my time and energy worrying about spamming my twitter feed every time I completed a courier event or picked a bar fight.

The character customization screen amused me to no end. It was the standard “choose your gender, pick an avatar” fare, but the language it used is what pleased me. Rather than just having a choice between male and female, it asked if I “fancied [myself] a gentleman, a lady” or I could choose a prefer-not-to-answer option that read as follows:

There are creatures roaming the streets with faces like squid. Squid! And do you ask their gender? I think not. Quite frankly, I think it’s none of your business what I am.

On the surface, it seems silly or downright self-righteous. But I’m glad they have an option for those who don’t like to be confined to rigid gender roles.

The avatars are simple silhouettes, like what you would see in a Victorian era parlor. Whether this was due to lack of funds or server space, I have no idea, but I find it adds another level of player involvement. I don’t know exactly what my avatar looks like, so I have to use my imagination. The one I chose looks to be tomboy-ish (judging by the outline of short hair) and has what look like either flying or driving goggles around her neck.

The first thing that entered my mind was “sky captain.” (Note: this is probably a sign that I’m nerding right the fuck out and reading entirely too much about Steampunk culture.)

I only spent about 10-15 seconds on this screen, then I jumped right into game play.

It’s a turn based RPG style game mixed with elements of a table top card game (a la Magic: The Gathering).

You have a list of options, or storylettes as EB calls them, to choose from in order to advance your story. There is also a deck of cards, the Opportunity Deck, that players can draw from for additional options. You can only hold one card at a time, but once you have lodgings, you can hold two. This is especially helpful if you draw a card that is of particular interest, but you haven’t quite leveled up enough or don’t have a required item yet. Once you draw a card, a counter appears, ticking down the minutes until the next card generates. A counter also appears when you use up a move.

Free players are allotted 40 moves per day and can use up to 10 at a time (represented by a dwindling candle). Paying players get 80 moves a day and can use up to 20 at a time.

At first, I didn’t notice this feature and blew through my first 10 moves trying to decipher some writing on a wall. It was frustrating because your moves regenerate at the rate of one every six and a half minutes (cards regenerate at one every five minutes).

The FAQ page explains that the wait is so long because they writers don’t want players to “blow through the content and never come back.” They’re trying to build a fan base and give themselves time to write more scenarios.

I found this logic to be sound and learned something in the process: patience and to weigh multiple outcomes.

How many other games out there force players to slow down and think about the consequences of their actions? How many games deny us instant gratification?

Sure, we could be given infinite moves per day or instant move regeneration so we could max out our attributes and play through the game in a matter of hours or days.

But where would be the fun in that?

There are four different attributes the player has at her disposal: Dangerous (strength), Watchful (cunning), Persuasive and Shadowy (stealth or rogue). Each one has a different area of the city, Fallen London, that is conducive to its advancement: Ladybones Road (Watchful), Watchmaker’s Hill (Dangerous), Spite (Shadowy), Veilgarden (Persuasive). Players can focus on one, master them all or mix-n-match. This level of character customization ensures that players have unique experiences.

I spend most of my time in either Ladybones Road or Watchmaker’s Hill. I’ve been playing my 40 moves a day for a couple of weeks now and have slowly but surely risen to a level 18 Watchful and level 16 Dangerous. I like to fancy myself a James Bond kind of character; a spy with her ear to the ground and finger on the pulse of the city, but doesn’t back down from a brawl if it comes down to it. I’ve taken to focusing on my Shadowy attribute recently; I’m a level 12 now. So I steal sometimes to get the answers I need.

And trust me, you will need answers.

It seems like just as I start to figure out a plot point, 10 more questions arise. But I don’t mind, it just serves to draw me further into the story I’m creating with each choice I make.

Leveling up is a pretty simple process, helped along by the easy to understand, color-coded risk system: Straightforward (green), Low-risk (blue), Modest (yellow), Chancy (orange), High-risk (red), Almost Impossible (purple).

Obviously, the easier the task, the more likely you are to succeed. But there’s a downside; you won’t learn as much therefore won’t level up as quickly. Players gain experience no matter if they succeed or fail in a task. But the more difficult the task, the more XP you earn. Succeeding not only gets you XP, but important items as well. So players are left with a choice: use moves to complete easy tasks and acquire items or use moves on difficult challenges for huge XP gains.

Overall, it’s a very engaging and enjoyable game. The developers over at Failbetter Games certainly know what they’re doing; providing a deep, rich experience without spending a lot of capital.

The game is easy to learn how to play; just a few minutes clicking through the tabs will do the trick. And for all its depth, it doesn’t force you to sink vast amounts of time into it. If you only want to use ten moves that day, you don’t feel guilty about walking away after doing so. The attention to detail is astounding. There are so many factions a player can align herself with; devils, bohemians, the University, constables, thieves, high society, street urchins, rat catchers and the list goes on. Dozens of sub-attributes allow for infinite possibilities for customizing the character and storyline. The names of characters you meet along the way add yet another layer of fun to the game.

How could you possibly not want to find out more about a man simply known as “The Absconding Devil,” or enjoy the company of “The Seductive Heiress”?

The only complaint I have is the long wait for moves and cards to regenerate. But I solve that by doing something else for an hour or so (laundry, school work, take a nap) then coming back to the game.

I give Echo Bazaar a solid 90/100 for showing the world that it is indeed possible for a free, web based game to be fun.

I think we’ll be hearing more about the folks over at Failbetter Games in the future.