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Game Review: Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth

Many fantasy RPGs use the medieval era as a backdrop or inspiration to build their worlds: think The Witcher, Dragon Age, Divinity, Dark Souls. But even without the dragons, magic, witches and warlocks, there is something inherently fascinating about the era – it was, after all, a dangerous time rife with political intricacies, brutal wars and religious dogma; a time of towering castles, jousting knights and tyrannical kings.

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Enter The Pillars of the Earth, a story-driven point-and-click game set in 12th-century England. Based on the critically acclaimed 1989 novel by Welsh author Ken Follett, the game is divided into three books spanning 21 chapters and revolves around several characters, whose fates and lives are intertwined around the town of Kingsbridge. There’s Tom Builder, the mason whose life’s dream is to build a grand cathedral that will stand the test of time; Philip, a kind abbey prior who inadvertently gets dragged into a war involving two English lords; Jack, a young outlaw who grew up in the forest with his mother; Lady Aliena, a disgraced noblewoman who finds love in a most unexpected place; as well as a whole host of colourful, secondary characters.

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The world of Kingsbridge is one of upheaval and strife from the get-go. The country is in the middle of a war after the death of King Henry I, as two opposing factions vie for the crown – and the characters you play will all be embroiled in it one way or another. You start the game as Tom Builder, leading your family through the woods to seek job opportunities elsewhere. Your wife is pregnant, it’s the middle of a harsh winter, and you’re low on food and supplies. As things go, your wife dies in childbirth, and out of grief, you abandon your baby in the woods. Yep, this game pulls no punches – and this is just a small taster of what to expect in the following chapters.

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The real ‘star’ of the story, however, isn’t in its characters (although they are certainly unique and rich, with multiple layers). It is in the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral and what it represents. Ken Follet himself in interviews has said that his inspiration for the novel came from his fascination of medieval communities and their obsession with church-building. In medieval England, building a large and beautiful cathedral was seen as an everlasting monument to God, a way for them to make meaning of their lives and show their religious devotion. But at the same time, the church itself was a place rife with corruption, where bishops plotted to murder. Playing the game, I felt as if the characters are there to tell the story of the cathedral, rather than the other way around. Characters would live and die – but the Cathedral, despite being destroyed and rebuilt time and time again, would endure; the task of building it taken over by future builders. All this is beautifully brought to life with hand-painted portraits, each bursting with detail that makes each scene seem alive.

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That being said, TPoTE is not for everyone. The pace is extremely slow, and there aren’t a lot of climatic moments – it’s really more like reading a historical novel than playing a game, really. There isn’t much to do apart from interacting with objects. Your choices are not that important when it comes to the overarching narrative, but they do matter in relation to the fates of several characters and whether they live or die. You don’t get to solve puzzles other than a few easy ones which have more to do with using items in your inventory to interact with certain things on the screen than actually cracking your brain. And of course, once you’ve finished the game, there is very little replay value. Still, it offers good value — I completed mine in 12 hours, and I since I bought it on sale on Steam for RM15, I can’t complain.

Rating: 6.5/10

Why Playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance Is a Video Game Trial By Fire

Video games are meant to be fun. They’re meant to be a place where you can escape from the real world; where you can be a cat-eyed mutant who kills monsters for a living (but dies when falling off an eight-foot-high wall), or an elf trying to stop spirits from crossing over into the physical realm and tearing the world apart. Maybe even an annoyingly perky tween who throws his balls at every wild creature to cross his path, then force them to battle against their own kind in bloody gym battles.

Video games are fun because they require a suspension of disbelief. 

But what happens when you have a video game that tries to ground itself in reality?

You get Kingdom Come: Deliverance. 

I’ve always been fascinated by medieval European history and its tales of brutality and war, of politics and glory and knighthood and chivalry. I’ve often wondered how I’d fare if I was born in that era, or if a time machine was invented and I could go back and observe how things were like (ala Timeline by Michael Crichton – although we all know how that turned out for the characters lol). So when independent Czech studio Warhorse released KC:D in 2018, I filed it as one of the games I’d play eventually (didn’t have a good enough setup at the time). A couple of months ago, I finally upgraded to a decent gaming laptop, and promptly bought the game which was on sale on Steam, for RM60+.

Like a fat kid settling down to a buffet after a day of fasting, I gleefully start off on what I thought would be an epic adventure. Instead, I found myself questioning my very worth as a gamer, as my Henry – the character players control in most of KC:D – gets brutally hacked to pieces for the seventh time in a row by bandits, while innocently travelling on the road. The worst part? Having to replay two hours worth of game play, because KC:D has one of the shittiest save systems in the history of gaming.

HENRY WHO?

You play Henry, son of the Skalitz blacksmith in the Kingdom of Bohemia. The realm is in chaos due to feuding between King Wenceslas (a useless layabout who only cares about women, drink and the hunt), and his half brother the Hungarian king Sigismund, who wants to bring ‘peace’ to the land by force and subjugation. Anyhoo, you don’t really give a shit because hey –  you’re just an apprentice blacksmith, your village is peaceful, and you’re going to the dance with the tavern wench later in the evening. Speaking of shit, one of the first objectives you can do in the village is throw a bunch of it at the newly whitewashed house of your neighbour, because he’s been talking shit about King Wenceslas, the rightful king. Your dad also asks you to help get some stuff so that he can forge a sword for the lord of the town, Sir Radzig Kobyla, which you will have to deliver once it’s done. Of course, you never get to do so because Cumans – savage mercenaries hired by Sigismund – arrive to pillage and kill. Your world crumbles into chaos. You attempt to run to the safety of the town’s fortified walls, only to watch your parents being brutally slaughtered, along with the rest of the villagers. Jumping on a horse, which you don’t really know how to ride well because you’re a peasant and not a knight, you flee towards Talmberg, the next big town, to warn them – all the while being pursued by the marauders. You survive the ordeal – but the face of the general who cut down your parents burns bright in your mind. You vow to avenge them and regain the sword your father made, which was stolen by bandits.

WELCOME TO BOHEMIA 

KC:D is set in 1403 Bohemia, aka what is now the Czech Republic. Most of the characters in the story are based on real people, like Wenceslas and Sigismund, as well as Radzig of Kobyla, Hans Capon, Hanush of Leipa and Divish of Talmberg – powerful lords whom your character will have to run errands for throughout the game, including (but not limited to) eliminating bandit camps, fetching stuff, and distracting the butcher by singing so that a lord can have his way with the daughter lol. The game prides itself in historical accuracy – the devs even consulted historians and architects on things like weaponry, clothing, combat techniques and architecture, to ensure they made the game as close to real life as possible. The result is breathtaking. The landscapes are beautiful and you can see the meticulous attention the devs have put into everything, from the swaying of trees to the detailing on buildings.

Fookin beautiful Czech scenery, pardon my French

Speaking of which, realism is a big thing in KC:D. Your character needs to sleep and eat or you’ll get tired and hungry, which will eventually lead to incapacitation (even death). You have to wash frequently and clean your clothes, because no one likes to talk to a dirty hobo, let alone trade with you. If you keep food in your pocket to snack on and forget about it, it will rot and cause food poisoning. NPCs go to sleep at night, so you can’t go barging into their homes to complete a quest – gotta wait for morning. Want to go the route of the antihero? You can even steal, pickpocket, lockpick chests and pick fights – but if you’re not smart about it and get caught by guards, you’ll have to answer to the law with a fine or jail sentence. People will remember it to and your reputation will suffer. And if you’re thinking that you can slog through this game’s enemies Rambo style.. well. You’ve got another thing coming.

THE GAME THAT KEEPS ON SHITTING (ON YOU) 

When they call you a peasant, they weren’t kidding. Other than having the most punchable face, Henry starts off with no skills or redeeming qualities whatsoever. Heck, you can’t even lift a sword properly, and will have to run away from most enemies until you’ve leveled up your swordplay a little. Even then, you’re useless against any battle which involves more than one enemy,  because the AI in the game is pretty intelligent and will 100% stab you in the back while you’re distracted with the bandit in front of you.

I learned this the hard way after trying to play the hero in the beginning of the game, bravely facing off against three Cumans who were attempting to rape the mill wench during the Skalitz invasion. “This is what heroes do!” I thought as my Henry jumped off the saddle, sword in hand. I promptly got cut into ribbons. I didn’t even have time to get back on the horse to flee. An hour later (which is probably more than what animal trainers use to train animals not to do something lol), I finally realised that being a hero does not pay off. Not when you’re a weak peasant armed with a stick and a lot of courage. Sorry, Theresa. flees (PS: I found out later you can actually whistle to distract them, without having to fight them. Whew) 

That “oh-shit” moment when they leave the girl you like alone but are going to murder you instead

After the invasion, you start off completely broke, with just the clothes on your back. You can’t even buy a decent knife, let alone a sword and shield to practice with – unless you go for training at the combat arena where they kick your ass over and over again. If you don’t want to die repeatedly from being ambushed by bandits, though, this is the only way that will give you at least a fighting chance (haha, get it?) to survive any unpleasant encounters you might have on the road. You will spend 10 or more real-life hours (at the very least!) honing your fighting skills before you can even think about facing any enemies, and not die while trying to run away. Even if you’re a proficient fighter, one slip of the hand – and your enemies might just hack you to pieces.

Swordplay isn’t the only thing you have to master. You can fight with bows, maces, axes and bludgeons, all of which have their own pros and cons. When the direct approach doesn’t work, stealth is often the best – but at level 1 you’re a bumbling idiot who can’t conceal himself properly so you often get caught and thrown in jail, or discovered by enemies and killed. So you have to spend time leveling that up as well, and getting dark coloured gear to avoid detection. Lockpicks break while you’re attempting to open a trunk? Killed / thrown in jail. Not good enough at pickpocketing? Killed/thrown in jail. Carry stolen goods around and don’t have a high enough rep to weasel your way out when stopped by guards? Killed/thrown in jail.

“Henry: fuck this shit I’m joining the monastery”

There are also plenty of other skills to hone which will help you in your quest to become Bohemia’s No.1 errand boy. Picking herbs helps you level up herbalism, so you can collect them to make potions for buffs (Trust me, you need every little advantage you can get in this game). But wait! You can’t brew potions without alchemy, and for that you need to learn how to read recipes. Henry also gains speech and intimidation points over time. The higher the points, the better equipped you are at dealing with situations that arise, and the higher the chance you can avoid any unpleasant fights. There’s also horsemanship from riding, and you get to train your trusty companion, Mutt, whom you can sic on enemies or teach to fetch and hunt.

If this doesn’t sound complicated / difficult enough, there’s also the absolutely shite save system. Unlike games where you can simply reload from the last (convenient) save point, KC:D deliberately makes it difficult for you to save – you can only do so by sleeping at an inn, one of your home bases, or by drinking a Saviour Schnapp (alcohol – which is expensive unless you know how to brew it – hence why it’s good to level up alchemy ASAP). There were times I wanted to rage quit because I could not save my game in between quests (inn was too far away, no Saviour Schnapps in bag, etc) – only to get killed while travelling between towns and losing like 1.5 hours of gameplay.  It’s as if the devs made this game solely to punish you for daring to be a serf in a medieval game where everything and everyone is out to kill you. Which is probably how it really was irl. If you weren’t a lord or royalty, you probably had to work from dawn to dusk just to get enough food on the table – and even then you’d still be held to the whims and demands of your liege lord.

THY KINGDOM COME

You’re probably thinking “this sounds like an awful lot of work and stress for a  game. I want to enjoy my downtime, not add to my anxiety.” And you’re 100% right. This is not a game where you can sit down to enjoy a couple of mindless hours of entertainment after work. KC:D requires dedication – and time – which many of us with busy lifestyles might not have. It needs grinding in game, in multiple disciplines, so you have to be prepared to spend at least a few real life hours improving your skills. Coupled with how weak you are initially (and sometimes well into the middle of the game if you have no patience like me and just want to get through the story), you’re probably going to experience a tonne of frustration – from not being able to complete quests and just dying. A lot.

But. 

If you stick with it, you WILL be rewarded. As much as I hated the combat and the save system (in the early stages), I stuck to the game because it is refreshing to play a medieval game based in real life – without the magic and dungeons and dragons lol. You get to learn history in a fun way, like why the royal brothers were feuding and how war affected the life of the citizenry, the types of armour and weapons they used in battle, how medieval towns were laid out, etc. Imagine if Malaysians had a game like this on Hang Tuah – like you had to go fight with Jebat or something – students would be so much more apt to remember history. And of course, the game is absolutely beautiful. 

Not so subtle intimidation once you’ve honed your badass skills, because why not

Henry and his punchable face (sorry, Tom McKay!) kind of grows on you as well. As frustrating as it was in the beginning, I started to enjoy leveling him up, and got real satisfaction from developing the character into a decent man-at-arms. The first time I was able to defeat three bandits on my own, I was ecstatic. It felt like the time and energy I had invested was finally paying off (Now if only I had the same zeal when it comes to real life lmaooo).

In short, KC:D is not a game for the faint-hearted, where you can hack and slash your way to glory. It is a game that requires skill and intelligence, not just in the way you complete quests (which can sometimes be resolved in multiple ways ie through violence or peaceful means), but also knowing which battles to fight, and when to fight them. In a funny twist of irony, this game teaches you that you need to work and put in the time in order to be good at something – exactly like real life. 

 

*Course, the game can’t be 100% realistic. There are some pretty funny things that can happen (including bugs). One of my favourites was raiding a bandit camp and murdering everyone, then sleeping in the camp surrounded by their corpses (after looting them, of course) because my character (and the player, yours truly) was just too drained after all that fighting. 

 

 

Mystic Messenger: This Game Will Ruin Your Life

… Well, not ruin ruin… BUT you will:

  • lose sleep
  • spend lots of money
  • ignore everything else. Like life. lol.

Hey guys! I know I’ve been away from this space for a pretty long time. It’s mostly coz I’ve been busy with work, but it’s also because I’ve been spending every waking hour playing this seriously addictive game called Mystic Messenger. It’s a South Korean otome (story-based video game targeted towards women, where the goal is to develop a romantic relationship with one of the male characters).

An otome game wtf Eris I know it’s so not like me to play this genre but hear me out.

So this game came highly recommended by JW at the workplace, who said she spent over a thousand bucks on it. I was like ??? As fun as a game is, I doubt I’d fork out that much just for a game (I think twice if a game is over 50 bucks; and I only get games on Steam when it’s summer/winter sale lol) but it piqued my curiosity so I downloaded it onto my phone.

I ended up being a sleepless zombie for the next few days because I kept staying up (sometimes til 4AM… and then go to work the next day at 7AM wow poor life decisions). I told myself “just one more chapter!” but couldn’t stop pressing next until I finished the entire route lol.

Plot: 

You play a girl who downloads a mysterious app that leads you to a ‘secret’ apartment owned by someone called Rika, who is the founder of a charity organisation known as Rika’s Fundraising Association. In the app, you’ll meet six other characters, who tell you that Rika has passed on, and they want you to take over her role as party organiser. You interact with these characters through the chat room, text messages and calls. You’ll also be responsible for replying emails to guests that are invited to the party, correct answers of which will get them to attend your party on the final day of whichever route you chose.

There are seven playable routes. Each one has its own story, and depending on how you’ve interacted with the characters, how good your relationship is with your chosen beau, and how you’ve replied to party guests, you can get different endings.

What makes Mystic Messenger different imo is that events happen in real time; as if you are interacting with actual people. A chatroom may open at 3AM, and if you miss it, you’ll have to use hourglasses (in-game credits) to replay it (this is what I meant by losing sleep). It’s a unique game play that I’ve never seen before, but requires a lot of commitment. If you’re impatient, like me, you’ll find yourself buying hourglasses. Each route takes a whopping 11 days to finish.

So, I’ve played four routes so far and gotten the good endings thanks to hourglasses – but I’ve finally come to my senses and decided to just go at a slower pace lol.

And now, time to introduce you to my MM baes:

YOOSUNG

My first route was Yoosung‘s, which is apparently the easiest and most popular route for first timers. He was Rika’s cousin and her death threw him into despair. Previously a diligent student, he became addicted to games and uncaring of his studies in general. Your goal is to lead him back to the right path, and also help mend his damaged relationship with V, Rika’s ex-boyfriend, as YS felt betrayed by him after Rika’s death.

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Yoosung has bleached blonde hair, violet eyes and a naive disposition. He often gets picked on by other RFA members, especially Seven, who pranks him constantly. ‘Dating’ Yoosung will remind you of your first love, where everything was innocence and sweet messages late at night.

Gah I feel like such a cradle snatcher 

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I know it’s a game but kyaaa

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Yoosung will also call you. The voice actor plays him to a tee!

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You will be rewarded with this sweet picture if you end up with YS. The final days of the route were surprisingly nerve-racking and suspenseful, which I did not expect from how saccharine sweet everything was in the beginning. Kudos to the script writers for a great plot.

ZEN 

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My second route was Zen, an aspiring actor. He was initially my first choice, but I got so sick of his narcissism that I picked Yoosung instead LOL. Zen is aware of his good looks, but in spite of his flirty demeanor, he is a workaholic who is too busy to date.

I wish I had given this route a try the first time, because it gets really interesting as the story progresses. Zen is a bit of a bad boy, implied from his smoking habits and love for motorbikes. He is brash, hot tempered and constantly at loggerheads with another bachelor you can choose, Jumin. Their conversations actually make for some of the most hilarious ones in the game.

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Like this one about getting it up

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Or this argument about Parmesan cheese.

Zen’s interactions are the most sexually charged, so you get calls like these:

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There’s a scene where you actually go and meet Zen and things get hot and happening. The ensuing ‘aftermath’ is hilarious

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Once you’ve gotten close to him, Zen will shamelessly flirt in front of all the other RFA members.

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Zen’s happy ending. I liked the good ending because Zen saves you from danger in a touching display of bravery.

IRL, I think I avoid pretty boys (not that they’ll give me a glance lol js) because speaking from experience, I think most of them are pretty vapid and self centered coz they’ve had female attention all their life lol. Same goes for beautiful women.

MY PERSONAL FAVOURITE – JUMIN 

We now come to my ultimate BAE, Jumin Han. Jumin is only unlockable in Deep story mode, so I had to gather enough hourglasses to unlock his route. Born to a rich family, he helps his father, the chairman of a large company, to run the business. Because of his father’s womanising ways, Jumin has internalised his feelings and is unable to express himself properly, so he acts and talks like a robot. In the beginning, he often says that ’emotions’ are impractical and useless – so it’s all the more sweet when you manage to crack his icy exterior and encourage him to open up more.

Jumin is also extremely obsessed with cats, and has a pet cat called Elizabeth the Third.

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Personally, I like Jumin’s appearance the best among all the bachelors. Who doesn’t like a tall guy in a suit and tie ? 😀 winkwink

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After losing his cat Jumin goes through a neurotic phase where he becomes extremely obsessed with you instead. He locks you in his apartment after you visit him and only wants you to be by his side. This will make me sound like a freak but I wanted him to get possessive with me lol. Of course, if you give in completely you’ll get a bad ending, so you have to help him overcome his obsessive tendencies.

Among all the routes I’ve tried, Jumin’s was the hardest because the choices you have to make are not always clear cut. It also went against answers I would have naturally given irl.

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Once Jumin realises he’s in love with you, he gives you some of the sweetest interactions ever! He also changes his profile picture to one featuring your character’s face. It’s so satisfying to see the icy prince become an adorable bunny muahahaha.

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Story aside, I like how organic the conversations are in the game; as if you are talking to friends. This is very well done, as they all have different personalities and sound like real people.

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One more for the win! ❤

SEVEN (707) 

Friends who have played MM all recommended I try Seven’s route. I left it for last because Seven is actually my least favourite bachelor lol (I know I’ll get a lot of hate for this). That being said, he has one of the most interesting backstories, and is quite a challenge to play.

Seven is a hacker working for an intelligence agency, and is also responsible for the RFA’s  classified documents.  His personality in the chatroom is that of a cheerful prankster who is constantly making jokes and never takes life seriously. I think it’s because of this that I found interacting with him really exhausting. I’m super introverted and interacting with people like this IRL tires me out. 

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If you choose his route, however, he turns into this super emo dude who constantly tries to push you away because he is afraid of endangering you with his work. Seven has a dark past, and if you choose his route, you’ll have to be very patient even though he constantly says things to hurt your feelings.

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If you eventually touch his heart and make him understand that he doesn’t have to be alone, you’ll get the Good Ending. To be honest, I was disappointed with the good ending because it felt inconclusive; like a cliffhanger. Seven’s story will be expanded on in Another Story mode and two Secret Endings, so maybe the developers want to hook you with that and get you to pay more lol. 😛

 

Other routes that I haven’t played include the one featuring the only female member, Jaehee. Some woman and woman love right there; I respect that, but it’s not my thing 😀 Playing it right now but I’ll just patiently wait to complete the route without paying.

There are two more bachelors you can hook up with, namely V, the mysterious older member of the team who was Rika’s ex boyfriend, and Ray, who is responsible for leading you to the RFA in the first place. You need a whopping 550 hourglasses to unlock them, and since 1000 hourglasses cost RM100; I think I’ll pass.

 

All in all, I think it’s safe to say that Mystic Messenger is one of the best otome games out there. I really like the unique game play which is done through real time chat (although it’s designed to make you pay money :P), the stories are superb and characters well fleshed out.

Now excuse me while I go stare at my Jumin wallpaper. 😀