Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Guild

"Billy was born within sight of the shipyard
First son of a riveter's son"

Sting - Island of Souls

a.k.a. Europa 1400 - The Guild.

The third installment in this series is slated for release sometime this year. Unfortunately I'll be much too busy with other new (or old) stuff to give it a try but I did want to get a taste for what the series has to offer so I've been giving the first one a run for whatever money I paid for it.

Something about medievalism just gets our social ape motor running. It's got the right community size and population density to feel abundantly tribal, it revolves around objects built and actions taken at the medium-size animal level which our brains can intuitively grasp, it's got just enough technology to provide some toys to play with while lacking the sort of complexity which might make us feel stupid (what the hell is quantum physics anyway) it legitimized and glamorized our sadistic and violent omnivore instincts and since we've largely forgotten all the myriad iron-clad medieval social rules which made personal choice an irrelevant fiction and littered life with social pitfalls leading by some path or another to death by torture, we get to fantasize about a simple life of personal agency.

So let's do some of that.
During a balmy summer morn, a humble worker lugs a cart full of granite to one of my masonries, perhaps throwing a wistful glance over his shoulder while passing my sumptuous palace. At first I was tempted to compare The Guild to Mount&Blade due to the superficially similar freeform medieval aesthetics but in truth The Guild has very little to do with mounts or blades. Instead of the usual feudal army-building it centers on the rise of the mercantile bourgeoisie during the Renaissance. Yet, though played not from an FPS perspective but a city-sim top-down view, it takes Children of the Nile's attitude in focusing more on the comings and goings of the various inhabitants of that city than on buildings and resources. Not enough to get you to care about them by name though. Also, with only a few dozen buildings it doesn't quite offer the expansive megalomania of city sims.

So what the hell does this thing have going for it?

You start the game in 1400, in one of a half-dozen possible European cities. I chose populous, thriving Nuremberg and started my career with a little workshop assembling bricks and granite into sharpening stones. The first requirements are simple enough. Keep an eye out for ingredients when they're cheap. Wait to sell your goods when prices rise at the market. Oh, and marry. Marry young, because this is the middle ages and death is always around the corner. If you do well, you'll become a full-fledged citizen of your fine town. You can stop by the town hall and apply for a public office. Something simple like a night watchman. Wealth and respectability (and the respectability that wealth brings) lead to further advancement. You expand your shop. The goods you make get more complicated, with more ingredients to juggle. You buy another business, maybe one that can supply your main one with materials for free, like a mine, quarry or sawmill.

Then you die. (The flowers on your grave are exquisite, the cinematic assures you.)

If you managed to raise a child to at least twelve years of age, you can continue playing as your progeny... and now you realize the real game is just beginning. By 1461 my original character's great-grandson was a duke. The Guild's true selling point is that rarely touched upon concept of dynasty building. Train your children in a craft, then send them to university. They inherit a great deal of your wealth. By ten years later, Wer Wolfe son of Wer Wolfe son of Wer Wolfe son of Wer Wolfe son of Wer Wolfe is a bona-fide prince and judge to boot, rubbing elbows with mayors and cardinals at soirees on which he expends more money than his great-great-grandfather's entire life-long wealth.
Schmooze and bribe some officials to have yourself elected to ever more lucrative positions in the town or church councils. Spy on your enemies to catch them with their pants down or post scathing lampoons about them in the market square. Defend yourself from thieves and falsify evidence. Wear flashy status symbols like a nobleman's staff or a gold chain around your neck to impress the townsfolk. Each real-time round of the game consists of one day symbolically representing a year, with each year being represented by the next season. Sounds needlessly convoluted at first but it yields a wonderful immersion. It makes you feel the passing of every season as you struggle to get yourself out of debt or make some big sale/purchase by the symbolic 23:00 round's end. Year by year the Wolfe dynasty grew until it owned a quarter of Nuremberg. Eight stonemasons fed by my very own mine and quarry ground out luxury goods with which to flood the market. Palaces and statues boasted the Wolfe lineage's prestige and if defamation, beatings and poisonings didn't eliminate the competition I could always mount my castle's highest tower and light up a cannon to smite mine enemies!

And then I had to stop. Not because the game got boring - far from it. The sheer avalanche of interconnected features from crafting to buying new businesses to running for office to schmoozing and backstabbing would have kept me plenty busy, not to mention the replay value of trying a less conventional occupation like a priest or a robber. No, much like my stint as Pharaoh, my grand adventure as a Hanseatic merchant prince was brought to a halt by a simple bug. My trade carts stalled at the market without officially reaching it. Not that it was the only such bug. Many businesses got stuck in repetitive scripts. One of the quarries in Nuremberg never mined anything but clay and made nothing but bricks for seventy years straight. A worker in one of my businesses never "woke up" one fine work day. At one point my character got the "you are about to die" message for decades in a row - but then, is immortality really a bug?

Compounding this, the English translation (the developer being German) left a lot to be desired and though the game lavished a wealth of features on players allowing them to immerse themselves in whatever medieval lifestyle they choose, the in-game documentation for those features was rather beggarly. Weird off-the-wall interface choices didn't help matters. Right-clicking takes the role the escape key would in most games - and hitting escape does nothing in some screens. Ingredients lack tooltips on mouse-over in your business' inventory window, leaving you to guess as best you can what's needed from the pixelated ideograms.

Aaaand from what I've read of the sequel, The Guild 2 was if anything even buggier than its predecessor and managed to make a complete chore of every single task by reducing players from taking positive action to whack-a-mole reactions to various events. So I'd have to hear some really glowing reviews of The Guild 3 to even bother taking a look at it. However, the very first incarnation of the series is certainly worth a play-through or two if you've never tried anything like it before. With more funding and more time for bug testing it could've been something truly great.

By the way, amusingly enough despite all the dozen or so professions you could pick, of all the guilds I could've mastered in Nuremberg, the one thing I could not be is a master singer.

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