Comic Book Hero: The Greatest Cape – a Game For Nerds

I have a broad range of interests–whether it comes with being a writer or not I don’t know–and I’m not afraid to admit to some of my nerdier ones.

Do you remember the weird kids in high school who’d sit in a little circle, or maybe at a table at lunch, holding a sheet of paper and rolling dice? No, they weren’t the local bookie and craps dealer at your school, rather they were the ones playing some sort of RPG (role-playing game). Heck, maybe you were one of them–I know I was.

I had two games of choice back then: Advanced Dungeon & Dragons (2nd edition), and Heroes Unlimited. Everyone has heard of D&D, be it good, bad, or otherwise, but I’m willing to bet most people haven’t heard of Heroes Unlimited. It’s a shame, really, because Palladium makes some pretty cool games. While I had a group of buddies I’d play AD&D with, I only had one other friend who would play HU.

It was a fun change of pace because it’s all about being an over-the-top comic book hero and doing heroic things. What kid, teen, or adult wouldn’t love to do that? By that logic, I must be a big comics fan, right? Not at all. Never have been. I have nothing against them, and do find myself reading a graphic novel here and there, but I don’t think I ever read a single one before I was 27 or 28. I’ve always enjoyed words and never found myself wanting pictures in the story itself. I’m weird that way.

This, of course, leads us to Comic Book Hero: The Greatest Cape. It’s a simulation game for Windows (exclusively) about, well, being a comic book hero. Or anti-hero, if that’s your thing. “A simulation?” you ask. Yes, a simulation. As in, lots of text and numbers. No, really. Text and numbers. Oh, and an awful UI, but we’ll get to that later.

Before we go further, if you’re unfamiliar with Adam Ryland, the creator of CBH, he’s written numerous other simulation games. They’re mostly either focused on wrestling or MMA. It’s a fairly small niche inside of another fairly small niche. He’s basically a one-man game producer, though he does get some outside help for graphics and such. Anyhow, his games are fairly inaccessible to the uninitiated, and they’re very data/numbers heavy. They’re real simulators–these are no action games.

With that in mind, what exactly is CBH? Perhaps it can best be described by what you do in your first five minutes: pick your difficulty, decide if you’re going to use a preexisting hero from an original fictional comic world or create your own character, pick a “writer” name (by playing the game you’re “writing” comic books about your character–you see?), pick a hero name, and then start being a hero. As a player, you “control” your hero insofar as you decide on when to add or upgrade powers, even remove powers; travel to different cities; track down villains; try to find NPCs to talk to/hang out with/start a romance with; meet with your team/alliance (or create one); help out the community; rebuild your secret identity; go on patrol; and so on. Yes, you can do a lot, but each “day” consists of doing only one of those activities, and whatever you choose to do is not a guarantee: it’s all decided by numbers.

A day, for instance, can consist of trying to track down another hero (it does get dangerous running around solo) so that you may form a friendship. Once you find this hero and become friends, you can go on patrol in future days or they may even give you information on upcoming villainous activities. But, while looking for that hero, you may also get ambushed by a villain and find yourself in combat.

Combat is anything but pretty. Why? Because it’s all numbers. At first it’s a bit confusing, but combat basically revolves around rolling a higher number than the other person. That’s it. You roll a higher number by having higher stats (strength, endurance, willpower, etc.), and you get a better chance to roll a higher number by being higher “level” (your popularity) or taking powers that give you more rolls. If you win, congrats! You get some points that can be allocated to enhancing/purchasing skills/powers/etc. If you lose, you lose your unsaved points and have to recuperate.

Along the way, you’ll have to watch your health, your energy (required for using certain powers), your stress level (even comic book heroes are stressed), your social level (don’t be a hermit!), your fulfillment (“Am I making a difference?”), and, if you want, your romance level. Romance, by default, is optional, but increasing it increases the positive psychological aspects. Of course, if a friend or loved one dies, then your tragedy level rises. Yes, your tragedy level.

There’s no specific goal to the game. That’s its strength and its weakness. You’re writing your own story, so it’s up to you to decide what you want to do. Along the way you may find yourself in a position where you have to make some sort of damning, moral choice, but I haven’t seen those yet (from what I can tell, it looks neat–you possibly have the chance to die, and if you do, it’s game over). The game is “done” when you decide it’s done. Unhappy with that hero? Start another. Sick of being a pre-made hero? Make your own. The freedom of choice is wonderful and refreshing.

However, it’s all very numbersy. That’s how Mr. Ryland’s games work. They also rely on a heavy dose of role-playing, so if you’re not much of one to role-play, you may not find you’re able to get as much enjoyment out of these games as others do. That said, it’s still fun, and there should be enough for most everyone, if playing games with lots of data and numbers and almost no help files whatsoever is your idea of fun.

Oh, I didn’t mention that the help system is terrible? Let’s get the bad things out of the way then: while an improvement over other games, question mark boxes are sprinkled throughout the game for you to click on. They’ll tell what this ability does or what the tragedy level means, but at the end of the day, you only know the bare minimums. You don’t have any information on how a lot of different aspects actually work and what things really mean. For instance: say you want to find another hero. What determines your chances of success? If you read the forums, you’d know it’s a roll of your cunning versus the other hero’s. However, that isn’t stated in the game. There’s a mention in the cunning help mark that indicates it “helps” you to track down NPCs, but it doesn’t say how.

And that, as well, is how Mr. Ryland’s games often work. He doesn’t like to give away his algorithms, even if they’re that simple. That means you’ll sometimes struggle to understand why something happens when you’re convinced the result should be the opposite. A search on the forums usually uncovers the answer (but not always).

The rest of the help consists of a single-page HTML file that gives you a general understanding of a couple of things. In fairness, there’s more than enough information for most users to get by with. They’ll be able to figure out on their own how some things work, but for others, they’ll be forever mystified. For people like me who must know the hows and whys, it’s frustrating.

The other mark against CBH is the interface. I know Mr. Ryland isn’t a UI engineer, and I don’t necessarily fault him for it, but the UI is hideous. It’s outdated, inefficient, and I’m sorry, I know this is personal opinion, but ugly. While it doesn’t detract from a game that’s based upon numbers and data, in any other situation it’d be unforgivable. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

On a related note, the game screen is a fixed 1024×768 window. This means if you have a small display, you’re probably okay since most displays are a higher resolution than that. However, for those with large monitors, it’s a small box on the desktop, and the text can be difficult to read (especially because the fonts are awful–Comic Sans, not a good choice). Worse, there’s no way to change these things, so you have to deal with small, ugly text, and a small window if you’re on a big monitor.

My gripes are all fairly minor in the grand scheme. No one else is making games like Mr. Ryland, and even though I complain about certain things, I really do enjoy the game. Specifically where this game is concerned, I think it’s a one-of-a-kind. I know of a few similar games to some of his others, but I don’t remember seeing anything like CBH, and perhaps for that reason alone, I don’t regret the $25. I want him to know I appreciate his time and effort and want him to continue making new games. If he does, chances are good I’ll buy them, even though it’s a pain for me to have to reboot into Windows or boot a virtual machine just to play (I’m a Mac guy).

Here’s the final verdict: if you’re a numbers/simulation nerd and you’ve ever found yourself wishing you were a comic book hero, then buy Comic Book Hero: The Greatest Cape. It may have a steep learning curve, but if you’re patient enough to learn it, it’s rewarding. And if you’re a little hesitant to spend the money, try the demo. Yes, the demo is unfairly weighted against you in battle, but it gives you an adequate idea of how things work.

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