Sunsetting the Battle Bards Podcast

All good things must come to an end. No really, we’re just taking a break! An extended hiatus! Yeah…this is what they always say.

Seeing that Syp has kinda let the cat out of the bag in the latest episode of the MOP podcast, I might as well already talk about it here (it’s not like my blog has that many readers): our little geeky podcast on MMO music is setting its sails by the end of June 2024, or whenever episode 234 has aired. Things have just run their natural course and both Syp and I, co-hosting the show for some time now, have felt our enthusiasm gradually lessen. For one it has become harder and harder to find good titles to talk about and without constantly repeating ourselves in our commentary. There are only so many ways to talk about game music and after 11 years it really feels like we’ve unearthed and covered as much as we reasonably can. I would rather end on a high note now as our long journey together very much deserves.

And it really was such a blast! When the three of us (including Steff) set out in April 2013, none of us would have expected to still be chatting (and bickering) about MMO soundtracks a decade later. I call that success and we’ve always been proud to be “the world’s first and only MMO music podcast” out there! There were times when the show did really well in terms of visits and download numbers and we always appreciated the great feedback from our listeners. The fact that the Battle Bards podcast had a small but steady following is part of what’s kept us going for so long. These interactions are one thing I will miss dearly but I’m happy to know we’re still connected to folks on Twitter or Bluesky. Our episode archive can be found on the MOP site for now (and will hopefully remain so long into the future), so you’ll still be able to access it from there.

There will be a bit more commentary in our final episode on all this, even if we haven’t made it an official farewell show and the announcement wasn’t prepared in any way. I’ve never believed in grand goodbyes, not here on the blog or elsewhere and we both want to keep the door open in case a special occasion strikes. You never know, maybe MMORPGs will see a second coming few years from now! Or we’ll just be doing something else together. I would like that.

Thanks to everyone, in case you read this and are/were a follower of our podcast! It’s been a privilege to share the passion for MMO music with y’all! <3

Returning to Valheim

When Valheim launched in February 2021 it was possibly one of the greatest adventures me and my friends have shared online since MMORPGs stopped being good. It was a nearly perfect game and I remember being completely immersed and absorbed by the beautiful world, the great building features and well-balanced mechanics and progression. It was probably also the last time I’ve experienced the famed “running and screaming in terror” that gamers like to refer to with some nostalgia when talking about the good old days of gaming. There’s no doubt that Valheim ranks as one of my top favorite games of all time (overall, not just within the open world survival genre). Games such as this are very rare.

And yet after arriving in the Plains after the initial launch frenzy, things came to an almost screeching halt. Valheim’s indie dev team, Iron Gate Studio, were clearly taken aback by their success. It took them 1.5 years to release the next biome Mistlands and almost the same amount of time to drop the Ashlands expansion this May 2024. Not discounting smaller additions to the game like the Hearth & Home features or Cult of the Wolf optimizations, that is an awfully long time to release new content.

The inevitable happened for me and my group of five – everyone lost interest after the Plains were bested in spring 2021 and most of the gearing and crafting had been optimized to the max. The dedicated server save on which our build had been running was lost by someone’s mistake or other, much to my chagrin. Half a year later, nobody mentioned Valheim anymore. It was as if all memory of it had indeed passed on to the afterlife of Valhalla and only Huginn and Muninn remained to tell the tale.

Home base

It’s hard to come back from such a long break, yet whenever I’m reading Valheim posts by other bloggers I feel it pulling at me something fierce. Now Wilhelm reported that the Mistlands biome was a very mixed bag and often more odious chore than epic adventure. And apparently the developer’s plan for Ashlands is to be as unforgiving and tedious as possible…to slow player progress? Not the greatest prospects. To echo Bhagpuss, I’m not interested in playing Elden Ring Valheim. I’ve no idea what the developers real intentions are but I certainly never thought of Valheim as a particularly difficult game. It was tuned just right to keep your attention, sometimes frustrating but never joyless. I cringe at the idea that they’ve gone and overtuned things in Mistlands or the more recent biome which according to many forum discussions is an endlessly respawning mob rush.

Will I still find Valheim enjoyable when I reach the new biomes? It’s hard to say. Difficulty is often relative, as I have found when playing games that other players consider too easy or too hard. I’m no sucker for punishment for the sake of it, yet I can certainly sink my teeth into a more hardcore title. The question is always: is it hard but motivating? Is it well paced and rewarding? Does the difficulty make sense? And if not, do the devs listen to player feedback?

I guess I’ll just have to find out for myself. A brand new server is running anyway, this time our own. Me and the better half have just downed the second boss and the sunrise over our little hut is as poetic as ever. I miss our old base but this is another afterlife we must explore. Here we go again, Valheim.

Tales of the Shire

I’ve been ruminating on Twitter some time ago on how we’ve never seen that many successful videogames based on Tolkien’s works. There’s obviously LOTRO and the “Shadow of…” titles which have done reasonably well. I also personally really enjoyed the LEGO version of the movie trilogy. That aside, there’s the old EA games, an RTS and awful recent failures like the Hunt for Gollum. That is precious little over the past 20 years and I’ve always wondered why we’ve not seen a beautiful adventure game across Middle-Earth, an open-world RPG or casual title. For the most part LOTR based games seem to revolve around war despite the fact that there’s such a wealth of whimsy in Tolkien’s world.

Fortunately, it looks like the folks at Wētā Workshop might change this soon. Thus far, there hasn’t been an awful lot of information on Tales of the Shire other than the website and a more recent gameplay trailer from three weeks ago. But it’s the below update from inside their New Zealand games division that really has me excited:

I would personally love to play a more relaxed and fun LOTR game that focuses on casual play, questing and maybe also farming and building around locations like the Shire, Bree-Land or the South Farthing. I get the impression that there’s a very passionate, talented team of Tolkien fans over at Wētā really looking to create a unique and beautiful experience that could be exactly what many of us explorers and tinkerers have been waiting for. If anyone can do it, it’s probably them. Fingers crossed!

Comfort Films

Struggling with a herniated disc for the past month, I have found myself immobilized and cranky during April and in dire need of diversion. The weather has been annoyingly volatile too which is standard April weather in this part of the world. It’s either too hot to wear spring clothes or then it’s snowing. Certainly excuses enough to return to my favorite comfort watches on the screen for when I am feeling moody and tired!

Gandalf & Frodo

It’s safe to say that the Lord of the Rings movies by Peter Jackson remain my favorite films of all time. Having rewatched the extended versions of the trilogy again last week for the umpteenth time, I feel like they’re the gift that keeps on giving: each time I discover a new detail or line I hadn’t noticed as much before. Or maybe it’s just me focusing on different themes as I get older – great art grows and changes with the observer. The passion and craft that has gone into the 20 year old masterpieces is as impressive as ever. To this day they stand far above the rest.

There’s something uniquely comforting and uplifting about watching the LOTR films. From the moment the magnificent Shire music by Howard Shore starts to play and Gandalf’s cart is arriving in Hobbiton, it’s as if I’m transported back to the past and greeted by a dear old friend. There are only very few movies, books and games that can create that wholesome, almost therapeutic effect for me. Here is a familiar place under the sun where I can relax and recharge for a little while. The stories and characters of Middle-Earth are like immortal companions and the world like a warm blanket to wrap myself in.

I wonder if we’ll ever see another production of LOTR’s calibre but I doubt it. The movie industry has changed too much and failures like Amazon’s dreadful Rings of Power only serve to drive the point home. Apparently there’s an animated movie coming out by the end of this year called War of the Rohirrim, co-produced by some of Peter Jackson’s old crew, but I’m not holding my breath for anything.

(P.S. Just after posting this today, I learned of the passing of the great Bernard Hill this May 5th. He was a wonderful actor and among my favorite characters in the films. Rest in Peace, Théoden King!)

Binging the Fallout TV Show

Fallout is out on Amazon Prime this week and it so happens that I already watched all 8 episodes (don’t ask). After seeing the brilliant teaser trailer for the show, I took conscious steps not to go and read the hype-threads on Reddit or fall prey to the negativity surrounding Amazon after the debacle that was Rings of Power. The creators behind Fallout are responsible for Westworld and Jonathan Nolan, brother of the famed Christopher Nolan, boasts an impressive resumee of his own as a movie director. Add to this Ramin Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame as new Fallout composer and Walton Goggins, one of my favorite actors from Justified and The Shield, playing a major role in the series: I dare say we have a recipe for success! [Mild spoilers ahead]

And the show really delivers, I’m very happy to say. It is a fun and wild watch with some massive world building, wide vistas and beautiful shots. The humor is very sharp and things often turn to the bizarre and macabre. Many an easter egg and inside joke will be missed by the uninitiated as the show is full out fan service galore. I greatly enjoyed the cast and how the different places, back stories and timelines slowly come together towards the end of the season. Goggins’ character is a joy from the first scene and it’s fair to say he’s carrying large parts of Fallout. Ella Purnell and Aaron Clifton are great too even if I felt their romance happened rather haphazardly and could’ve used more time to develop. Some of the relationships fell a little flat.

Generally if I was to criticise anything, it’s that things feel somewhat rushed halfway through. There’s so much ground to cover between the past and present that it’s hard to take in everything about the very detailed scenery and locales. I would also have liked characters like Wilzig or Ma June to get more screen time, to learn more about why they got to where and who they are. I wonder how much had to be cut and edited out as it feels like there was material enough for 10 episodes at least. As someone who is not too familiar with all the Fallout lore myself, I feel like I probably also missed quite a few things along the way. The show is big into ‘show rather than tell’ which generally is a very good thing.

“Wasteland has its own golden rule. Thou shalt get sidetracked by bullshit every goddamn time.” [The Ghoul]

It’s definitely rich and entertaining enough for me to give it a second watch soon and the way things were left off in the final episode, it’s clear we’re supposed to get a second season. That at least should be a given – Fallout is an excellent watch and deserves all the praise it’s receiving. It’s not often we get such a high quality adaption for a video game series, even less so when it comes to live action!

DD2 Status Report

Dragon’s Dogma 2 is a gorgeous game. It is also bewildering and strange and you really don’t want to play it without a controller, as I now have to concede after 6 hours of playtime. The PC port still struggles with other optimization issues but I’ve experienced little in terms of bugs myself, the odd clipping aside or blurry textures. It’s worth looking into the various guides for graphics optimization depending on the system you’re running – or better yet, just play it on console if that’s an option.

Playing hunter for my main class right now, I’ve not been able to get used to Dragon’s Dogma’s intricate combat mechanics just yet. This is partly due to the abysmal keyboard controls and me just being unsure about which vocation to go with. Fortunately switching class is simple and also encouraged in this game. I will probably end up playing some type of wizard, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my excellent main pawn’s abilities; Raistlin is a formidable companion and has already saved my ass many times. I love the fact that I have him along for this ride and I chuckle every time he is being rude or sarcastic to the other hired pawns.

Raistlin the mage

Gameplay mechanics aside, Dragon’s Dogma’s biggest pull is undoubtedly its world, the harsh travel and exploration. The game feels like a wild marriage between the formulaic JRPGs of yore that would make you earn your passage dearly and the magic of Skyrim’s endless sky. I’m loving every minute of it while I’m out in the field. Everything takes time: preparing for travel, preparing for quests, hiring new pawns as two of them don’t level with you. Inventory is tight and so is daytime when you lose sight of it – beware of the night!

Having a party of three NPCs along doing and saying different things is also quite rad and I love how it harkens back to the classic JRPG party setup. Only in DD2 you don’t command your pawns in some slow round-based battle, you adjust to the dynamic play-styles of each class and hope for the best. Banter before and after special fights can be really hilarious and it’s useful to actually listen to what your pawns have to say, as I found out the hard way trying to attack foes beyond our skill set.

Having arrived in the main big city just yesterday, I can’t say much about DD2’s main story line just yet. I find myself constantly straying off the path exploring or then following some side quest. The game’s horizon feels absolutely vast; there are things you must do but just as many or more things you can do. There are quests that are timed and can be lost forever, there are quests you can solve in a multitude of ways. There are optional storylines, optional classes (this is wild!), optional bosses. I feel like I haven’t scratched the surface of this world and for now I really like it that way.

Review-Bombing on Steam

Dragon’s Dogma 2 is out today and has already received some considerably negative reviews on Steam. While the game seems to have some optimization issues right now, the primary reason for the review bombing is that Capcom, most likely on the publisher’s side, added micro-transactions to the game which allow players to purchase optional items (like fast travel) which make the often harsh gameplay more trivial.

While I am no fan of micro transactions myself, much less in a premium single-player RPG, much of the current review bombing on Steam is based on misinformation and not entirely fair. As veterans of the older title have pointed out, optional items were always a thing in Dragon’s Dogma and more importantly, the ingame world also offers opportunities to receive the much coveted items, albeit on more difficult terms. If you want to play DD2 the way its director of development, Hideaki Itsuno intended it, you will ignore the optional items and enjoy this RPG world for what it is. If you prefer shortcuts, you have to pay extra.

Much of this initial outrage seems fabricated or at least very knee-jerk to me and I feel a little sorry for the development team who likely had no say in the matter. I also wonder what some of the hot critics who are unfamiliar with the franchise will say once they discover all the other warts of this new title. Dragon’s Dogma has always been rough around the edges and decidedly less mainstream than Skyrim, for example. Newcomers should probably watch videos like this one by Gameranx first which very accurately describes what you’re in for, should you decide to give DD2 a go. I still look forward to playing it this coming weekend, anyway.

My top 3 QoL hardware upgrades for gaming

When I recently updated my blog’s About-section, I thought back on my earliest days of gaming in the mid-80ies. Many of us share gaming as a life long passion and even if I don’t spend 20 hours a week playing with other people anymore, it is and always will be an important part of my personal life. Love and friendships have been facilitated by this hobby of mine, even a few cool job opportunities back when I was a penniless student. Not to mention the decades of social engagement and fun that gaming has brought me, the education and creative boosts, the great talks and fond memories of which there are too many to ever count.

Yet a sedentary hobby such as ours also has its downsides. For some the impacts become noticeable much later in life but sitting at a desk for longer periods of time (when you may also have an office job) just isn’t ideal. I’ve talked about my own posture problems in the past and how raiding in WoW wrecked my back until I decided to give it up. It was one of the better decisions I have made.

Since becoming aware of the health impacts PC gaming has had on me personally, I started upgrading the most essential hardware items and peripherals that I use each time I sit down to play. It’s really made a world of difference towards my recovery in recent years and I would never go back. There are 3 items in particular that I wouldn’t trade for the world and can only recommend to anyone struggling with similar issues or just looking to make their game time more comfortable. While it’s true that some of them are not exactly cheap, it’s worth looking into a good setup for yourself and there’s always sales going on when you stay on the lookout. When it comes to my physical wellbeing and gaming, I’d rather save up on other things than skip these essentials. (This post is obviously not being sponsored by any of the named brands but I feel it makes no sense to not mention them here).

1. Custom cut-out desk

By far the greatest improvement towards my neck, shoulder and back problems has been the custom desk that my partner made for me some four years ago. Materials for this were in fact fairly cheap; you can look into any type of wood board, desk frame and color finish you prefer. The most important part is the cut-out area which enables you to slide closer to the keyboard while your arms rest comfortably on the table. No more stretching your arms out in weird angles and constantly carrying their weight with your shoulders – this was the number one killer for me and has been completely ameliorated since. If you regularly experience pain in your upper body after gaming sessions, I really recommend looking into a custom desk like this.

My custom gaming desk

My custom gaming desk

2. Dedicated gaming chair

There are a couple of brands for dedicated gaming chairs out there and not all of them are great. While they often look shiny and colorful, you don’t want to skimp on quality because nothing goes to hell faster than a flimsy gaming chair. It’s just not worth it and you’ll end up paying twice, trust me I’ve been there.

I spent quite a lot of time comparing offers before getting an Omega chair by Secretlab and I can’t say I’ve regretted the decision. While the chairs can be on the more expensive side (depending also on the required size), Secretlab often run sales which is how I got my own chair several years ago. The materials are sturdy, the chair is comfortable and comes with many individual settings for your arms as well as upper and lower body. I can’t speak for everyone as my chair is within the regular bracket but my partner who is very tall and heavier uses the Titan version and is happy with it. There are different models for people of different height and bodyweight on their webpage.

3. Wireless headset

To say that my life has changed after getting the Arctis Pro Wireless 7 by Steelseries in 2019 would be an understatement. Everything about the way I sit at my desk has changed for me, including more frequent getting up, walking to the kitchen to get a drink etc. while still talking to someone on the other end. The change a wireless headset has brought to my lifelong habits was drastically unexpected and it took several weeks until it had sunk in that I am no longer tethered to the desk while gaming or socializing on Discord. It’s great for remote work too and all those unnecessary Teams-meetings as I can at least do other things in the house now while “listening”.

The best wireless headset for gaming

The headset really is worth every last dime; not only is it lighter than others I’ve used (I am prone to headaches from heavier headsets), the fabrication is top notch, the sound quality excellent, the setup is super easy and the twin-battery docking station just knocks it out of the park. At no time do you ever run out of juice because there’s always a second fully charged battery waiting for you to swap in. In fact I’ve perfected this process, it takes me less than 3 seconds to do these days – sign me up for the Olympics! I have recommended the Acrtis Pro to all of my friends of which many have gotten it since and never looked back. There’s a newer version out since last year (Arctis Nova Pro Wireless) that looks a bit different but has received similar raving reviews. The quality has its price but if I count all other headsets that have gone before, the Arctis Pro has already outdone them in terms of bang for the buck and longevity.

Getting the 2023 GOTY refunded on Steam

A recent humorous post over at Redbeard’s blog about “thirsty RPG memes” reminded me of my brief intermezzo with the much lauded Baldur’s Gate 3 last fall. I should have known that BG3 wasn’t going to be my cup of coffee but sometimes the glowing reviews by friends outreason all better judgement. It’s not even that I disliked the thirsty romance aspects of the game, which I absolutely would have tried to ignore as much as possible, I never actually got that far into BG3 for it to become a potential issue. I couldn’t stand the combat and controls of the game, not that I was oblivious upfront but I’ve never played any Baldur’s Gate titles and underestimated how much I would hate the RNG dice rolling of the round based combat, the constant clicking of things and general movement style and camera. I’m sure that BG3 has great world building and storytelling and whatnot once you get out of the intro stages of the game, it just isn’t for me personally.

Having spent 70$ on this misadventure, I was eager to get a refund. I was also still below the 2hr mark of playtime that’s part of Steam’s refund policy. Or so I thought because much to my surprise the title had logged over 10hrs of playtime in the Steam profile; this is due to me letting the startup launcher run during the longer install time and then forgetting about it in the background, as I was busy doing other things elsewhere that day. So while the ingame BG3 save file clearly indicated that I hadn’t played for more than 2hrs, the Steam log showed a difference of over 8hrs – just great. I opened a ticket anyway and took a screenshot of the ingame save time.

Baldur's Gate 3

The first support ticket was squashed rather quickly by a Steam support agent telling me that I had played the game for much too long and so their refund policy didn’t apply. Every support ticket on Steam ends with the question of whether you’re happy with that and want to close the ticket which I promptly declined of course. I started pleading my case about the launcher’s runtime having been added to my effective playtime which was actually below the 2hr mark. The next support person (they change every time) completely ignored my argument and denied the request again. I remained persistent however, because why wouldn’t I – it’s not like I had anything to lose. At least two more times did I restate my issue, adding a bit more information every time as to why I wanted a refund and why the game, including its control scheme, was unplayable for me and therefore a complete loss.

Lo and behold, between the fourth or fifth attempt (I should have screenshotted this whole conversation) I was told they were going to make a “one-time exception” due to special circumstances. My 70$ were refunded and I was very happy with myself. So happy in fact, I spent the 70 bucks on Starfield right away which I haven’t played past the first few hours since.

The moral of this story: persistence is key whatever a policy states and you can always waste your money on the next big thing! It’s slightly comical when the official GOTY of the 2023 game awards is the only game you refunded that year but I still call this a win in my book.

DD2 Character Craze

Dragon’s Dogma 2 is only 5 days away and I mentioned briefly last week that the character creator has already hit Steam. Having spent a few hours on it myself over the weekend, I second that the customization options are pretty impressive. It still has its limitations in some departments though (height, hair, eyes, colors…) which is a deliberate choice to fit the overall world building and lore, I believe. To start off, the game lets you choose from 3 different races which are the humans, elves and beastren. You then get to create your main character, aka the Arisen, as well as your main companion, aka your Pawn. The game lets you have up to three of these AI companions which are essential to group combat in Dragons Dogma. The other two pawns will come through accessing the game’s online network called Riftstones and they will have been made by other players of Dragon’s Dogma 2 which is a really cool feature.

Booting up the client on Saturday, I meant to only have a quick look and erm, riiiight….you know how these things go! In the end I created an Arisen for myself and two more character models. The game lets you export these pre-made characters to official release, so at least it’s not like you’re wasting your time completely – and a lot of time it is! I spent around two hours learning different sliders and submenus for my Arisen after which I decided I was going to model my main pawn after the better half. This was a good laugh and I dare say he approved of the final result!

Raistlin from Dragonlance

Having browsed the Steam community page which is naturally overflowing with doppelgangers of famous actors and fictional characters, I also decided to give Raistlin from Dragonlance a go for a mage pawn. I got lucky that the customization options mostly agreed with me and other than lacking a wavier hairstyle as well as the option for golden skin and hourglass eyes, I dare say he turned out pretty alright. However, this now puts me in the difficult position of having to decide between the better half and Raistlin Majere, Master of the Past and Present, for my future main pawn – a real quandary I tell you!