It is kinda true what they say about donating to Kickstarter and the like: you can’t stop at just one.
I’m stopping at two.
Meet Darkwood, a top-down survival-horror roguelike with crafting elements. It is also open-world and procedurally-generated, but I’m kinda tired of typing out that phrase. Could we maybe come up with an acronym or something? “Pro-gen” or maybe start using Minecraft as an adjective. Anyway, Darkwood is actually over on Indiegogo instead of Kickstarter, and as of two days ago it passed its $40,000 goal, by virtue of my $10 gamble no doubt.
Take a look at the video:
What caught my eye – aside from the fact you never really get a good look at the monster(s) you are fighting, or how you can’t see the light shining behind you – is when the dude laid down a bear trap, put meat on it, soaked it in gasoline, and then set a gas trail on fire to burn the trapped monster. That… is pretty clever. Plus, I’m a big fan of looting. Not the sort of mechanical action of inherent to every game ever, but the whole ransacking of an abandoned house in search of random post-apocalypse survival tools. I always find that sort of thing both compelling and mentally soothing at the same time.
Please announce Fallout 4 at E3. Please announce Fallout 4 at E3. Please announce Fallout 4 at E3.
Anyway, it’s $10 to secure your infinitely reproducible digital copy on Indiegogo. The projected release date is “mid-2014,” which is admittedly a bummer. Even if you’d rather wait for my inevitable review, do go ahead and pop open your Steam client and vote for the game on Green Light. The more of these indie games that get onto Steam, the more likely you can pick them up for 75% off later. Win-win.
By the time this gets posted, I will probably be done with my first play-through of XCOM: Enemy Within after ~20 hours.
Taking the advice of many others, I started out with Normal Ironman difficulty which turns the game into a sort of roguelike. While I have lost quite a few agents, the majority of them were rookie redshirts I tasked with carrying around the stun gun to take the aliens alive. A sort of morbid hazing ritual, if you will. An unfortunate few were grizzled veterans who got one-shot by new alien types before I had a chance to realize the danger. Or simply victims of poor planning when the only guy with a Medkit is the one bleeding to death. Too bad all the people standing around him cannot, you know, take the Medkit from his pocket and spray him, but I suppose knowledge of medicinal nanomachine application is only imparted at the character select screen.
I always find it interesting how I start developing relationships with the randomly generated characters though. Name, gender, nickname, nationality, and even class are all randomly determined, but you can customize some of those qualities. One stun gun redshirt managed to beat the odds and survive the bagging of two new alien species… and suddenly I am taking Chloe Dupont the saucy German Assault trooper with me everywhere. Mechanically, Chloe is indistinguishable from any of the other max-level Assault troopers, but I have had more fun
ordering her watching her aggressively breach UFOs armed with a shotgun and the same stun gun she has carried since her initiation than any of the others. Just yesterday there was a rather hilarious moment when I put her on Overwatch mode, and during the enemy turn one Muton Elite turned a corner only to get an Alloy shot in the face, while a second Muton triggered her auto-reaction shot when it climbed a ladder I didn’t realize she was standing next to. It was practically a scene out of an action movie.
Other times, I sorta feel bad bringing, say, any new sniper because that entire class is cursed. “Sorry, Yoshio Saito of Japan. You’re probably going to die.” Sure enough, that is the mission when the aliens start using grenades, a redshirt bites the dust, my other redshirt panics and, in defiance of his accuracy rate for the entire goddamn mission up to this point, shoots Saito in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
Anyway, game is pretty fun thus far and the full review will need to wait until A) I finish, and possibly B) I try out Classic Ironman. The only negative I have is the slight impression that the game isn’t really all that deep for a “tactical” game. A lot of times I feel like I’m playing a turn-based Dawn of War 2, or one of those WW2 squad-based cover games. Also, the game is terrible when it comes to indicating at which locations (and elevations!) you can actually see/shoot at the aliens someone else sees before moving there. If you have already committed your game to having grid-based movement, give me grid-based weapon ranges and Line-of-Sight indicators.
XCOM is no Final Fantasy Tactics, or Tactics Ogre for that matter, but it is pretty good nevertheless.
Game: FTL: Faster Than Light
Recommended price: $9.99 (full) / Bundle
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~2.5 (or 25) hours
Buy If You Like: Harsh roguelikes, micromanaging space ships, indie games
FTL is absolutely one of those games which, had I not forced myself to dig beneath the brutal, unforgiving crust, I would have written off as awful after the first four hours of playing. While this may have been par for the course for roguelikes, I had hitherto been spoiled by The Binding of Isaac, which not only had a more generous feeling of incremental progression, but a more direct correlation between skill and outcome. With Isaac, awesome twitch-skills is nearly enough by itself to propel you to success. With FTL, success is largely determined by how many coin-flips you win early on.
At least, it seemed that way at first.
…actually, no, coin-flips are still pretty important.
The basic premise is that you are a Federation ship with secret knowledge trying to outrun the advancing Rebel army. Each “turn” you move to an unknown point on the star map and either encounter an enemy ship, a text scenario of some sort, a Store, or possibly nothing at all. Combat takes place in real-time, although you can pause as much as you like. When attacking, you can choose specific ship systems like Weapons or Shields to disable them, or perhaps continually attack their O2 rooms to suffocate the enemy crew. Meanwhile, the enemy is doing their best to repair your damage and blow you up in turn. Some encounters can take place with environment hazards like asteroid fields, solar flares, or ion storms. Defeating enemies randomly gains you Fuel, Missiles, Drones, Scrap, or even ship components. While combat is pretty nuanced and skill-heavy, the text scenarios are the coin-flips where you either win needed materials, or lose big, without much room inbetween.
Once I realized that the game is meant to be played on Easy instead of Normal though, FTL blossomed like an origami flower. Getting more Scrap (upgrade currency) and less ridiculously-armed enemy ships granted the breathing room necessary to learn about juggling power supply, the importance of simultaneous weapon fire to pierce shields, which weapons can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and so on.
I also was able to get a handle on which events were riskier than others, and how many of them can be mitigated with certain ship upgrades or items. Since failing (i.e. losing the coin flip) events typically results in losing a crew member, I began to understand that outside the beginning few levels (where restarting is less painful), it just wasn’t worth the risk. But it was that precise lesson in risk management that eventually started turning every Easy run into a full clear, and then doing the same in Normal.
At the time of this writing, I have 45 hours logged in FTL. Part of what keeps me coming back is the cohesion of the overall package, from the 16-bit graphics to 16-bit sound. A bigger part is the very randomness I despised originally. When you start the game, you have access to just a single ship. Getting 2 out of 3 ship-specific achievements will unlock a different configuration of that ship type; these alternate ships not only have different room layouts, but also different starting crew races and weapon loadouts. Entirely new ship types, each with their own alternate layouts, are further unlocked via gameplay. There are a total of 9 different ships, which means 18 different configurations.
What all of this combines into is an extremely slick, subconscious form of progression. Your games with the Engi’s drone-focused ship are going to be much different than your Rockmen’s missile-focused ship. While most ships are going to look basically the same upgrade-wise by the time you get to the final encounter – the ridiculousness of the flagship sees to that – the getting there becomes a game unto itself.
That is sort of the whole point of roguelikes, of course.
Ultimately, I am recommending this game at full price or Bundle price because it comes down to how much early frustration you are able to handle before giving up. You have no idea how close I was to uninstalling after I died in the screenshot at the top of the review, for example. If scenarios like that make you leery, I suggest waiting for FTL to hit Humble Bundle or Indie Royale as it inevitably will.
If, however, you are the type of person willing and able to muscle through rough first impressions to get at the delicious marrow in the bones of your enemies, buy FTL right now. Not only will you be getting a pretty ridiculous hour-per-dollar gameplay ratio (get 240 hours from a $60 game lately?), but you will be supporting one of the first indie game Kickstarter successes.
Game: The Binding of Isaac
Recommended price: $5 (full price)
Metacritic Score: 84 (!)
Completion Time: Technically ~1 hour, or 20+ hours
Buy If You Like: Twisted, roguelike Flash games
The Binding of Isaac (hereafter Isaac) is a game that, strictly speaking, I should not enjoy. Indeed, I did not enjoy it at all the first few times I played it. But I did keep playing it, and once I sort of stumbled my way out of fifteen years of safe game design, Isaac rekindled a bit of that stubborn old-school gamer flame that propelled my younger self face-first into Battletoads hour after bloody hour.
Isaac plays like Smash TV from the olden days, with WASD controlling movement and the arrow keys controlling which direction you eject the streaming tears from your naked body at the merciless demons haunting your childhood nightmares. Map layouts and room contents are randomly determined each time you start the game, with the only consistency being the number of total levels, and there being Item and Boss rooms on every level (until the last few, which have no Item rooms).
As I mentioned, the game did not seem terribly fun the first few times. There is no quick-save, there are no checkpoints, and I got the feeling that I was lucky to even have a pause button. Death is permanent, none of the items you receive are really explained before you use them, many items can actively harm you in some way, some room setups are completely unfair, and it is both entirely possible and very likely that you will get screwed right from the very start with things only getting progressively worse.
Sometime around my fourth attempt, it suddenly all clicked: this is like Solitare. A game you play because you aren’t sure you want something heavier, a game that you don’t have an expectation to beat every time, and yet something you still find fun hours and hours later.
And I have indeed been having fun hours and hours later; 20+ hours to be exact. Although you never carry over items you accumilate, beating the game or getting specific achievements will unlock new items that are then added to the random roster, some of which will radically change the tenor of a particular run. I have a few more specific achievements to grab by beating the full game with different characters (basically different starting load-outs) before getting to the truly ridiculous “take no damage for X levels” kind, so it will be interesting to see if the game is still fun once those dry up.
But you know what? Getting more than 20 hours of game time in a roguelike, a genre that I was hitherto convinced I would despise on principal, is an absolute goddamn steal at $5.