[Review] Diablo II (2000)

For over two years now, the hubs and I have been seeking co-op hack-and-slash RPG games in the dungeon-crawler vein of Torchlight or Victor Vran. We had recently tried Grim Dawn, but exhausted it. All through playing these games, the hubs wanted to play Diablo 2, but it was always too expensive to buy on Blizzard’s Battlenet. Finally, with a game-breaking glitch experienced with a recent play of Sacred at Christmastime, we were left hanging. I told him we should just buy Diablo 2 already; we hadn’t splurged for our wedding anniversary in the fall, so why not?! Glad we did; Diablo 2 is certainly one of the best in the dungeon-crawler genre!

Diablo 2, as you might expect from its name is a “conquer the evil” type game. This game starts where its predecessor, Diablo (1996), ends. The hero who captured Diablo in the first game has become corrupted and now Diablo’s hoard which include his bros of Darkness, Mephisto and Baal, have joined the evil party, wrecking havoc in the world. As a wanderer through town, you hear these stories of evil from the townfolk and take up the fight.

Diablo 2 being a typical RPG, you must manage your weapons, armor, skills and health in an inventory. Each town has its own merchant and people you encounter that direct you to quests. The missions have you explore landscapes and dungeons, fighting dragons, possessed ogres and demons, and of course spiders (no game of this nature would be complete without some insects!). Players are able to escape an area and return to town through portals accessed via town scrolls purchased through the merchants. With each level up, you can assign skills to a skill tree, and with that assign special skills to your weapons.

The game consists of 4 Acts, with an expansion game called Lord of Destruction. The hubs and I played the game together on PC over our LAN. We started playing Diablo 2 at Christmas. With 5 character classes to choose from (Amazonian, Necromancer, Sorceress, Paladin and Barbarian), I chose an Amazonian female I called “Olbag” (as always). Olbag’s specialty is archery and throwing spears and javelins; she was a lot of fun. I got only so far into the game when some weird Windows update caused me not to be able to use my original profile. Sigh! Alrighty, then; I started over with an Amazonian I called “Olbitty.”

This second time around, as we progressed into Diablo 2, we experienced some things about it that we figured came down to the game’s age. The most significant of which was the fact that if you died you lost everything, including items in your inventory, all your money, the armor on your back and any weapons you were carrying, unless you traveled back to your corpse and reclaimed it! This is a common experience in games like these that you must be mindful of. At least Diablo 2 provides you with a personal stash in town outside of your main inventory where you could store a weapon or two, along with some extra health potions and armor to tide you over; otherwise you are fighting to return to your corpse with only the clothes on your back (a common situation I found myself in)! The inventory was also teeny tiny to start until you got a Horadric cube in Act 2 that expanded the inventory space.

I assigned the Rain of Vengeance skill to my bow, which would to shoot a radius of arrows at enemies!

The hubs and I were enjoying Diablo 2 enough, and put up with its shortcomings. Out of curiosity, he decided to explore any mods that might improve the gameplay. With a game as old as Diablo 2, there had to be something out there…and he found it in the Diablo 2 Median XL overhaul mod. The hubs tried it on his own and was impressed. What this meant though was that we would have to start the game over again, including a new profile. I left Olbitty behind at Level 12 and welcomed “Olbread”!

The inventory space given after mod.

With the Median XL mod, my enjoyment of Diablo 2 rose tenfold. Immediately at Act 1, gamers were blessed with the Horadric cube, thus starting out with a large inventory. We were also able to port to town whenever we liked instead of having to buy town scrolls. The quality of the weapon drops increased and any gold picked up between you and your co-op partner were shared between you. You also got to keep everything you held in your inventory if you died, which happened to me a lot in later Acts. Leveling up progressed quickly in this game – before I knew it, I had exceeded my Level 12 spot within an evening. One thing that was missing from Diablo 2 was a jeweler / gem meister that could remove gems from socketed items. I seem to recall this dynamic from Diablo 3…thankfully, the gem drops were frequent and useful throughout the game.

I definitely recommend Diablo 2! It’s a fantastic dungeon-crawler hack-and-slash game, and is definitely fun in co-op. I would hazard its replayability is quite high too. Make sure to check out the Median XL mod, you won’t regret it!

Before mod: 3/5
After mod: 5/5

Diablo II + Median XL mod
Blizzard
2000

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[Review] Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek (PC/Android)

I reviewed Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek back in June 2013: one of the very first games I ever reviewed for Caught Me Gaming!

Back then, I was looking for decent games to play on my Android tablet, and this one was just about perfect. Recently, I acquired this game and its sequel in a Steam sale. Wanting to see if it still held up, I installed it and took for a spin on my PC. I can tell you, my feelings about this game have not changed.

In the Ghosts of Maple Creek, you play a detective who wakes up with amnesia after an accident during a violent storm. As your memories flood back, you realize you are in Maple Creek, Vermont investigating the disappearance of Kate, a woman from the area who disappeared. To your surprise, you discover this disappearance is not unique. In fact, there has been a succession of women gone missing, including the loved one of one Detective Hamilton who had disappeared himself searching for her. Along the way, you find clues to Kate’s and the couple’s whereabouts as well as discover that there is something strange going on with the townfolk that links back to a local preacher.

The clicheed-sounding plot of Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek may lower your expectations of the game. But stick around – there are some interesting takes on the whole amnesia-stricken-oh-I-finally-remember plot line. In fact, I’d hazard, this game is one of the more intriguing plots I’ve come to discover in a HOG in a while.

The mini-games are a good variety of hidden object and other uncommonly seen puzzles (Picross, anyone?); some are actually very challenging. I did notice how the game recycled hidden object scenes and even clues a few times (hint: you will be looking for those John Lennon eyeglasses and feathers a lot so pay attention!). In fact, the first HOG you come across will become very familiar throughout. And weird too, because you get to stare at people’s gitch while searching for objects, like you are looking for your keys after an eventful frat party.

Picross in a Hidden Object game? Great!

The graphics in the Ghosts of Maple Creek are well-produced. The story takes place sometime in the Fall, so you get plenty of falling leaves that you have to sweep out of the way, rainfall, and even what looks like a tornado in the distance. Combine that with an eerie soundtrack, and you have the perfect ambiance for a creepy game. This means if you don’t like seeing graves, dead bodies, zombies and skeletons, this is not for you (but who doesn’t like a zombie in their games? C’mon now…).

In one scene, you get to play around with a compass!

About the only real critique on the game I can offer is for the map which is hidden away in your notebook for some reason and doesn’t transport you to a particular area. No idea why…it’s the most essential part to the notebook, in my opinion. Quite a missed opportunity for the perfect game. Just expect a lot of back tracking and mouse clicking with this one.

The Collector’s Edition of Ghosts of Maple Creek also includes a prequel called the Ghosts of the Past, unlocked to players after completing the main game. It is a short HOG that explores Detective Hamilton’s experience searching for his beloved Emily back in 1980. It’s quite good, and fits perfectly in the Enigmatis canon.

A scene from Ghosts of the Past

I was very impressed with Enigmatis: the Ghosts of Maple Creek. Great story, great gameplay. Pick it up!

4.8/5

Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek
Developer: Artifex Mundi
Released: 2011

[Review] Theatre of the Absurd (PC)

Theatre of the Absurd is a game I bought on Steam in May 2014 in a Silverback Games gamepack. Silverback Games is a Canadian developer that brought us the great Empress of the Deep series (“The Darkest Secret” got a 4.75/5 from me when I reviewed it September 2014!). And on preview, Theatre of the Absurd looked like creepy fun. What could go wrong?

Scarlet Frost is an expert on the occult who is called to Doctor Corvus’s estate one dark night to authenticate his Habsburg cube, a red box that holds a captured demon. The troubled Corvus loses his temper and throws the cube, shattering it and unleashing the demon who captures and possesses his young daughter. Scarlet is to use her forces of good to save the young girl. She is tasked with exploring Dr. Corvus’s weird “theatre of the absurd,” a massive mansion, to find pieces of a magical bell that will exorcise the demon. Each room is creepy, and demonstrates Corvus’s disturbing obsession with the devil.

I could really buy into the darkness vibe of Theatre of the Absurd. The music was foreboding, and there were some unexpected jump-scare moments not often seen in a hidden object game. However, the story itself was pretty thin and the tasks and puzzles were repetitive and uninspired.

In the first scene, you are having to save Corvus’s daughter by giving her water of Horus, an elixir that would temporarily relieve her of her possession. This could only mean the potion would wear off, and you would have to find more water of Horus to help her. I had enough of this task by the second time…

It didn’t help there were elements of the game that I feel were unrefined. Some of the hidden object scenes were blurry to the point I was reduced to pixel-hunting around and using hints to find certain objects. The puzzles felt ho hum fare (run steam through the pipes). And while I pile on, I also noticed odd errors in navigation in the game: an arrow would direct you to go one way, only to click it once to have you loop back to where you stood!

I tried to forge ahead with Theatre of the Absurd but alas, I found myself losing interest by the third chapter. Maybe someone else will feel this game is fun, but I would highly suggest you try Silverback’s much better offering, Empress of the Deep: the Darkest Secret.

2.5/5

Theatre of the Absurd (PC)
Silverback Games
2012

[Review] Princess Isabella: A Witch’s Curse (PC)


Princess Isabella is set to marry her beloved Prince Adam, but an evil witch has put a curse on the entire castle. All who live there have been locked away in a series of mirrors which have been shattered and scattered throughout the castle. You must find the mirror shards to free your loved ones. Each room is locked within the castle which you must open to free the curse. A combo of puzzles, hidden object scenes and scattered mirror shards are available in each space. A fairy follows you throughout the game, providing you guidance and hints, as well as the ability to cast spells. Once all the mirror shards are found, you are to fit them together in each mirror frame to make an image of a loved one to free them from their curse.

Hall of Mirrors

When I found Princess Isabella: A Witch’s Curse on sale on Steam, the comments about it were generally positive. A game from 2009, Princess Isabella seemed to conjure up very happy memories for some from when they would play casual games as children. This game was also a nice bonding experience between parents (and in some cases, grandparents) and their kids who would play together. People were going on about how good a game this was, so when it was on sale, I snapped it up. On preview, its graphics appeared a bit dated, but I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

Considered one of the first of its kind according to some sources, Princess Isabella has the notoriety of being one of the first hidden object games to follow a non-linear environment. Most HOGs from this era forced you to follow a certain series of steps to proceed in the game, but Princess Isabella allows you to move freely from room to room as you wish, which is helpful as there are about 20 rooms to navigate. Thankfully, there is also a trusty map to allow you to port to a particular room quickly, and even provides guidance if there is a task that still needs completing (…and y’all know how I appreciate a good map!).

As an expert HOG player and seasoned reviewer, I am careful not to criticize the decade-old Princess Isabella too much. The game is generally meant for newcomers to the genre, not for the expert, although I think it has something to offer both camps. Some of the charms of this game could also be construed as irritating. The constant hinting by the fairy who is always there in wait, as well as the continuous unskippable dialogue would be extremely helpful for some, but would surely grate on others. I chose to mute my game and listen to some music instead of relying on the soundtrack, and my enjoyment of the game improved tenfold. I mean, everything is better with the very à propos RUSH A Farewell to Kings playing in the background!

Overall, Princess Isabella: a Witch’s Curse wasn’t a bad game at all. I would definitely recommend it for newcomers to the genre, and even to the seasoned gamer… It is usually cheap on Steam…so why not?

3/5

Princess Isabella: a Witch’s Curse
Gogii
2009

[Book] Far and Wide: Bring That Horizon to Me! / Neil Peart


Having experienced another personal loss over Christmas 2018, the return back from our terrible holidays saw me steer the car into my local library to browse the stacks in search of something to fill my gutted soul. Whenever I go through a period of sadness, I find myself gravitating toward tales of travel. It’s something about the author’s process of going through a difficult period far from home that somehow helps me deal with my own lot, I suppose.

It is whilst browsing that I found the perfect grieving companion in the prose of Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for RUSH who is one heck of a travel writer. I have been reading Peart’s books for years, starting with his cyclist journeys through Africa in the Masked Rider (a personal favourite). The book of choice this month, Far and Wide: Bring That Horizon to Me! is the third in a triptych of Far and — tomes, that has Neil recount his experiences of traveling between shows on his BMW during RUSH’s R40 tour.

Other aspects of Neil’s life during this period also make their way in Far and Wide, sharing very personal pieces from past and present – his interactions with his new young family, the pain and loss of losing his wife and daughter 20 years ago, the physical endurance of drumming, memories of recording certain albums, and his thoughts on retirement…Some of this subject matter has been covered in his previous books, but here he shows evolvement and growth. He also infuses the writing with his own brand of humour. Interesting pics of his journeys round out a very interesting scrapbook of his life at the time.

Neil Peart is forever a private person, but an interesting one; perhaps that’s what attracts me to his easy prose. Far and Wide was the kind of book I really needed to read this past month. I highly recommend it!

5/5

Far and wide: bring that horizon to me! / Neil Peart
2016

[Review] Hope Lake (PC)

Hope Lake Boarding School today is a run-down abandoned shell of its former self. The school’s  been shuttered for years and forgotten about until it recently caught the attention of the police. The reason: all the girls who went to Hope Lake all those years ago are disappearing at an alarming rate. Police suspect there is a link between the disappearances and the drowning death of Ms Braun, Hope Lake’s notorious Governess. Braun’s drowning was the impetus for the Boarding School’s closure; her death was deemed an accident…but was it?

You are a young detective tasked with solving Hope Lake’s mystery. While on your search through the property you find and follow a cloaked figure in the woods that leads you to several clues that point you toward Ms Braun’s disturbed son, Peter. Could he be the cause of the disappearances? Was Ms. Braun’s death an accident? So many questions to find answers to…

Hope Lake is quite an extensive traditional hidden object game that took me almost a month to complete. I took my time with it, partly due to scheduling, and partly because it was enjoyable enough that I didn’t want to see it end. It was a well-designed game with gorgeous graphics. Some hidden object scenes did repeat, but at the very least, you were given fresh clues to find instead of the same old eye glasses or tea cup. Several other mini-games were also included in the game to keep you sharp, such as a Tower of Hanoi and sliding blocks. A lot of interaction with old tech too: tuning in a radio, playing a vinyl record and dialing a number on an old rotary phone.

The Flashlight was very helpful in scenes like this!

Each area you explore in Hope Lake is unique in design, and there are a lot of them – over 45 scenes! And just when you feel there will be a lot of back-tracking, the developers give you an awesome map that allows you to navigate to a different scene instantly. The casual mode will even give you a clue as to what room has an action that needs your attention and a task list of what needs completing is provided! Impressive! You also get a handy flashlight that you can use throughout the entire game. Really, they thought of everything!

The map system

Although Hope Lake is a well constructed game, I feel where the developers skimped out is on the translation from Ukrainian to English. Sorry, a wrench is not a “key,” nor is a stick a “shelf.” This is mostly found in hidden object scenes, where proper translation of items is needed the most. Thankfully, this isn’t prevalent in the entire game; your journal entries are written properly for the most part.

Overall, I was very impressed with Hope Lake: an enjoyable hidden object game with a satisfying story. How often do you find that?

4.5/5

Hope Lake
Far Mills / Mysterytag
2016

[Live Music] The Watchmen – Danforth Music Hall, Toronto, ON, 12/14/18

Some people will always be in your life, and no matter how long you have been apart, when you get together it’s like not a day has gone by. That is my friendship with Jenn, a special person in my life I met when we went to Western together a long time ago. Our friendship has always been effortless. It helps to have similar interests, as well as an ability to find twisted humour in practically everything; Jenn is a kindred spirit in that regard. We have always shared a love for the trifecta of Canadian 90s bands: the Watchmen, the Odds and the Headstones. These are three bands we would go to see very frequently during our uni days. We’d scrape together the scratch to buy tix at the downtown London, ON watering hole, Call the Office and be right there fighting the mosh pits to witness greatness in the front row.

The Watchmen was the one band we went to see the most frequently; at least four times in four years. It wasn’t until October 2008 when Jenn and I reunited to see the Watchmen perform at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. Then, we hadn’t attended a Watchmen concert together until January 2016 when they performed at the Danforth Music Hall (which I wrote about here). And so it goes, life has been extremely busy for both of us…we hadn’t really talked again until this past September when Jenn contacted me on Facebook Messenger that the Watchmen were returning to the DMH in December…did I want to go? Umm…YES!!

The week leading up to the event, I was planning my route and making some decisions. Jenn had moved since our last concert, and there was no driveway parking like I had last time…She still lives in East York,  but just south of the Danforth where there is half street parking and half “Green P” public parking. Both can be dicy and writhe with an errant parking ticket if you aren’t careful. Yeah, driving and parking in Toronto is not fun. I can manage riding the subway, but I’d have a long ride back to my car late after the event. I decided to chance it and weather the Friday night traffic to her place and park on the street, so I could simply take off home after the show. This ended up being the best decision, and really wasn’t that bad after all.

Just some of the interesting things found at Jenn’s

I arrived at Jenn’s place to be greeted by her bright and talkative 5-year-old daughter, who is the cutest. A  hug and a homemade cosmopolitan welcomed me into Jenn’s warm and eclectic two bedroom apartment, filled with interesting things. We talked and reminisced while waiting for the babysitter to arrive, and it was certainly like old times. The sitter arrived and Jenn and I ventured into the light of the Danforth.

The last time we went to the Watchmen, we grabbed a bite at the Detroit Eatery, a greasy spoon along the strip. We decided to relive our night in 2016 and go visit it again. Fish and chips, and a brew were what we had, and they were delicious. We caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and as expected, time passed way too quickly.

We headed down to the DMH, and had missed the opening act, Ron Hawkins (Lowest of the Low). We had just enough time to check our coats and stroll by the merch table before the Watchmen took to the stage at 9 PM sharp.

The first song of the evening was Must to Be Free. The crowd went nuts, and so did we! The Watchmen still have it, and delivered a tight show. Their major hits were paid props including Boneyard Tree, Run & Hide, Slomotion, Incarnate, Stereo and All Uncovered. The Watchmen managed to showcase their talent, hitting the hits and adding several well-known cover songs to their set, including the Johnny Nash hit, I Can See Clearly Now, Tom Petty’s Square One, as well as Superman by R.E.M. The band also paid respect to the Hip’s Gord Downie, performing a cover of Wheat Kings, which stoked the audience. The opener, Ron Hawkins, came out and did an excellent duet with the band of the song A New England (originally by Billy Bragg; I’m familiar with it via Kirsty MacColl). This concert was really something to see and hear live…

When we had gone to see the Watchmen in 2016, Jenn and I had trouble with the Amazonian-sized dudes around us who enjoyed bathing in Axe Body Spray. Passing out from the cologne fumes, we escaped to the right side of the stage, and this action ended up being the best thing at the time. We had great line of sight, and plenty of room to dance. Would we be lucky a second time with that same spot? This evening, as the Watchmen took to the stage, we quickly rushed to the right side of the auditorium…and so did everyone else. It was a packed house with a lot of fans. We are both around the same height and obviously not 5 ft 8, but It was fine, I thought; we could see in between the heads at Danny and the boys somewhat comfortably. That was until the phones came out.

With advancements in technology and the advent of social media, a green monster has emerged, compelling users to compulsively take shot after shot – never mind video recording entire segments – of the show with their cell phones. I expect some picture-taking (I snapped a few myself), but I also hope for discretion. I was in the unenviable position of standing behind two people obsessed with their phones. I hazard they watched the entire show through their cell screens from song one…and sadly, for a portion of the show, so did I. In true Canadian fashion, instead of confronting them, I swallowed my ire and tried to ignore it. What are you going to do? I didn’t want any trouble. So, when a space next to Jenn opened up, I moved over to allow a tall dude with a fat head on my left to block my peripheral view of their phones. Huzzah!

Back to the band, do these guys drink from the fountain of youth? Lead singer, Danny Greaves has not aged in 25 years; he continues to be his trim self. Ken Tizzard was the only one whose appearance has changed – from a fine moustache, to a wicked beard with extended goatee. But, these guys are getting older; the show was done in an hour and a half, and Danny cited a “curfew” as the reason for the show ending when it did. After all with over 20 songs and two encores under their belt for the evening, these guys were allowed to “exit stage right.”

When the house lights went up, Jenn and I doubled back to the merch table one last time to check out the wares; Watchmen t-shirts were for sale, as well as some solo projects on vinyl by the band. Jenn purchased a Christmas card with a downloadable song sung by Danny with all proceeds going to charity.

Overall, this was another memorable evening with Jenn and the Watchmen. I totally look forward to more experiences with Jenn in the near future and I am also certain we’ll be going to see the Watchmen again, whenever they stop in Toronto.