Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

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Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier | Released: 2014 | Genre: Adventure, World War I

This was a really charming adventure game with minor stealth and action elements. I’ve always been fond of European graphic novels and thus the comic book art style, the multiple parallax layers and the cute animation was right up my alley. Most of the time it was strictly side-scrolling with exits (like a doorway) to another plane closer or farther away, but there were also healing mini-games, minor QTE, and pursuits in a car driving towards the camera. The game was also educational. Sometimes a piece of history could be popped up with a paragraph about what really went on in the first world war.

While the game itself was charming and had relatively easy puzzles, the story and the depiction of the first world war was anything but. It followed the story of Emile and Karl (both drafted into the war on each side), Anna the nurse, and Freddie the American that joined voluntarily after his wife was killed. They met up and got separated repeatedly on several occasions, and sometimes they even got captured or wounded. There were many grim sequences with lots of blood and death. Bombs falling, explosions, shooting from afar, planes, tanks, armies – lots of pain and despair to be seen and felt all over the place.

Valerian and Laureline versus Star Wars

How a French Comic Series Inspired Star Wars

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This is a blog post I’ve wanted to write ever since I started my first blog in 2011. After the news got out about Luc Besson releasing a movie in 2017 based on the comic, I thought it would be a good idea to get it done some time in advance. Similar blog posts have since been published by others especially in 2015, but I’m still going to release my version as I have new comparisons I believe no one else have had, and I’m also using original material from both the graphic novels and the movies that I have acquired myself.

I’ve always loved the original Star Wars trilogy and thought these movies have really earned the status as some of the finest science fiction of all time. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve rewatched the trilogy. The first time I saw the first movie, I got minor Flash Gordon comic book vibes, especially as our heroes discovered the Death Star for the very first time.

But after a closer inspection, it turns out that the movies actually owes a French science fiction comic series a whole lot more than Flash Gordon, a series called ValĂ©rian and Laureline that originated in 1967. And I’m not talking about just mere fleeting similarities or obvious coincidences. In this blog post, I will show you various comic pane extracts from the series and compare them to photos of the Star Wars movies. I think you will be quite surprised how much some of them match each other.

Valerian and Laureline: Welcome to Alflolol

Valerian and Laureline

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This is part of a blog series about European graphic novels. See this blog post for a small introduction.

Valerian and Laureline is among my most treasured space and science fiction stories, right up there with monster franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Futurama and probably a hundred more. The stories of adventure, diplomacy and exploration are really intriguing, at least up until the two city books. The way this series was drawn left me in awe right from the beginning, and it still does. No doubt it has inspired a lot of other media since, especially Star Wars.

If you are new to European graphic novels, this series is an excellent introduction.

Page 2 in "Heroes of the Equinox"
Page 2 in “Heroes of the Equinox” where we see the astroship with our heroes in the last pane.

The series is about two spatio-temporal agents, Valerian and Laureline. They belong to Galaxity, the capital of Earth in the 28th century. Their most important task is to make sure that no one uses time travel to change the course of history, but also for Earth to establish contact with new civilizations. To help them with these tasks they are in control of a saucer-shaped astroship that can jump in both space and time, sort of like teleporting. The technology in the series is much closer to Star Wars than Star Trek; overly detailed and dirty, sometimes even breaking down. Taking care of their duty usually turns out to be a complicated matter that brings them on an adventurous and meandering path, typically with a lot of bizarre beings and a constant sense of wonder. The series is very imaginative and still have awesome science fiction ideas I have yet to see anywhere else.

European Graphic Novels

Introduction to European Graphic Novels

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Back in the 70’s, way before the first Star Wars movie, I started collecting comics in the form of graphic novels in A4/C4 size, i.e. the size of a full letter. They were a bit bigger than the standard comics magazine, with stiff high quality color pages inside a solid carton front and back page. Graphic novels of this kind was extremely popular all over Europe especially at that time, and typically had about 48 quality pages. Asterix, The Adventures of Tintin, The Smurfs and a ton of others used pretty much the exact same format. They all had a small back edge with vertical text and a number – a tiny hardcover; ideal for collecting and finding it again on the shelves. It would often take more than a year before the next graphical novel in most of these limited series was published. I collected the novels in my favorite series as they were released and read them many times over during the years to come.

It was quite a different culture than with the superhero magazines on the other side of the pond. Not that we didn’t have those – we certainly did and we also loved them – but we Europeans always held our graphical novels in very high esteem. Each novel was usually an entire story with a start and an end (rarely they continued) and they almost always adhered to precisely those 48 pages. Only a few select titles had more, and then still a static number that it then adhered to, like 64 pages for The Adventures of Tintin. This ensured a good and predictable chunk of time reading it, and that for me was part of the charm.

Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation

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Developer: The Creative Assembly | Released: 2014 | Genre: FPS, Horror

As a first person horror action/adventure, this game was quite true to the first movie and really managed to exude the same atmosphere. Especially the prefabs and corridors were an amazingly close call. In the beginning it also felt like a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, in part because of the ominous graffiti on the walls. And it was quite a looker. Lots of details, all high resolution textures, and a solid lighting style with small whiffs of smoke here and there.

The gameplay was mostly sneaking around, avoiding androids or the alien using various tools for opening doors and a bit of crafting for e.g. creating distracting bombs and health syringes. I could hide inside lockers or crawl through vents. Weapons were weak and ammunition sparse, and most of it would barely scare away the alien anyway. The androids in the game were also tough bullet sponges. Fighting one felt just as absurd as when Ripley fought Ash in the movie, just as it should be.

The levels were quite linear to begin with, but the later areas got bigger and with adjoining corridors. If the area felt particularly open with lots of options for moving around, chances were that the alien would be tagging along there as well. There was also a lot of backtracking, either to get back to a hub (such as the tram stations) or to open previously blocked doors with newly acquired hacking or cutting tools.

But it’s true what they all say – it was way too long (a whopping 19 missions) and sometimes relentless. I heard the rumors and prudently selected one of the lower difficulty levels, but still. There were actually a lot of levels where the alien wasn’t even present, but when it was, it felt like it was tethered to me. Sort of like if it could sense my aura and know not to go too far away.

Papers, Please

Papers, Please

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Developer: Lucas Pope | Released: 2013 | Genre: Simulation, Puzzle

This was a mix of a simulation and a puzzle game as an immigration officer at a border checkpoint for the fictitious country of Arstotzka in 1982. Inspecting the passports and papers of the arrivals from a massive queue was split up in days. In between a family had to be supported with the income, and if I had too many validation errors then maybe they would starve, be cold, or even die.

On various new days there were a change of rules, possibly introducing a new tool. Sometimes it was just additional papers, at other times confiscating passports, detaining, searching for hidden weapons after a couple of snapshots, even using a key to open a locker with a weapon and shooting a runner.

I didn’t expect this one to grab me as much as it did. Normally I’m not always keen on these simulation kind of games, and I had prepared myself for one of those that I played for one hour (the unwritten backlog rule) and then abandoned. I even selected easy mode with an additional income to avoid having to break too much of a sweat supporting my family. But within just a few minutes I was really hooked.

One reason was the terrific atmosphere – the dark, dystopian scenario, with perfect muffled talk sounds. Another reason was that checking up on details in passports, papers and fingerprints spoke to my tad of a perfectionist gene that I made good use of in my 12 years as a software tester. Not that I didn’t get quite a few error receipts. Sometimes the game did feel a bit unfair as if it wanted me to be downright wrong about a decision no matter what I chose. But that feeling of nailing a wrong piece of information and maybe even detaining someone, it was mysteriously fascinating.

Fallout 4

Fallout 4: Part 4

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Developer: Bethesda Game Studios | Released: 2015 | Genre: RPG, First Person

After some random exploration, various side quests and most of the quest line for the Minutemen, I have finally decided that I’ve seen what I want to see of the vanilla version of Fallout 4. Maybe I’ll be back for some DLC later. I got to level 55, with 264 locations discovered and 108 quests completed. I maximized hacking and lockpicking relatively early and kept to mostly using single shot rifles, sometimes assisted by an automatic rifle with explosive bullets whenever I had ammunition for it.

The game generally had a bit too much street fighting for my liking. There were hardly any place I could go in the world where a gun fight wasn’t taking place somewhere in the distance. It often sounded like New Year’s Eve. Brotherhood of Steel was also quite aggressive and often had a Vertibird or two flying around. Hey, we have a skirmish over here, come on over and help us out! Sometimes it spiced up the action and was fun to take part of, but as said before, I still think they overdid it. There were situations where I just wanted to do a quest and was constantly pestered with skirmishes on the way.

By the way, I have a weird tip for you in case you’re bored watching loading screens. You can rotate the model by holding down the left mouse button and then move the mouse around. You can also toggle the green soda filter by hitting the V.A.T.S. button. I wonder if there’s more that can be controlled like this on the loading screen? It’s important.

Dragon Age 2

Worn RPG Tropes

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With more than 400 completed games notched into my belt – 50+ alone being CRPG – it’s inevitable that some parts of this particular genre has started feeling worn out. It’s like having heard the same kind of joke thousands of times before. Even with a different wording, you can predict every beat of the joke as it’s being told, and the final twist will leave you numb. Know that feeling? For an old geezer like me, this sensation can come with everything these days. Movies, games, books – you name it.

Luckily CRPG tend to be so detailed and multifaceted that there’s stuff to like and admire, even when they tend to trigger the most tired tropes of all time. Maybe the tropes they’ve reused may even have a different approach to still make it fresh. Nevertheless these kinds of tropes are often so hackneyed that it’s almost impossible to impress me with variations on their theme anymore, unless the interpretation acknowledges the danger and really tries to consciously adapt and surprise.

Let me list what I personally find to be the worst contenders among these tired CRPG tropes.

Fallout 4

Fallout 4: Part 3

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Developer: Bethesda Game Studios | Released: 2015 | Genre: RPG, First Person

I’ve completed the main quest and a bunch of side quests as well, and have reached level 43. I’m far from having completed the game though, as there’s still a ton of spots I’ve never visited on the map. Knowing Bethesda, there’s bound to be a lot of side quests I haven’t seen yet. As an indication of this, I’ve only found half a dozen companions so far and I know there are a lot more. That being said, I actually played solo for a while after having maximized Piper’s and Nick’s devotion. I don’t know, I guess I can’t ever shake the desire to be a lone wolf in games like these. I like not being dependent on anyone else than myself.

That sounds awfully familiar, actually.

My main weapon focus has been on rifles. I maximized the perk for rifles, and I currently have a legendary combat rifle on the first slot plus a legendary shotgun on the second. The shotgun does awesome damage but also have a ginormous recoil as part of the legendary attributes, which probably explains why I can’t mod it away. I also made a Gauss rifle my first sniper choice. A long scope, warming up the shot, and then holding my breath for a precise shot – not a lot of enemies can survive a direct hit from that. And finally, I have a missile launcher for when the enemies get too close to each other.

Fallout 4