Impression: Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark

Oh, how sweet is that feeling of consumption. Well, not that consumption… the other one, when you have had gaming ennui and then you boot something up and it consumes your entire mindspace.

Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark (FSAM) is a rather unapologetic Final Fantasy Tactics clone. From the bottom of the Steam description:

Strongly influenced by games such as Final Fantasy Tactics (original and Advance versions) and Tactics Ogre, this tactical RPG stands on its own as a worthy successor of those classics, bringing a slew of improvements and additions to the tactics genre.

Which is fine. We all need some more FFT in our lives.

For the most part, FSAM is pressing all the right buttons. Your characters start out knowing just a few jobs classes like Mercenary or Scoundrel or Mender. As you complete battles, each participating unit will earn AP which can be spent buying abilities in that class in a very limited “tree.” Each purchased ability raises the level of the class, which can unlock new classes. For example, raising Mender to Rank 2 unlock the Wizard class, which then is necessary to unlock other classes, etc.

What really gets the juices flowing is the customization of skillsets. Each character can have a primary class (Abilities + Passives) and a sub-class (Abilities only). So, maybe you want a Knight that also can heal like a Mender. There are two additional Passive slots and a Counter slot you can fill with skills from any class you have purchased though. So instead of being stuck with the Mender’s Passives, you can maybe choose the Ranger’s Evasion Up (13% dodge chance) and the Templar’s Defense Expert (scaling +Defense). And then, instead of something boring like Counterattack, you can choose Evade Magic from the Fellblade class, so you are immune to spells. So, yeah, super tanky Knight in heavy armor with a high dodge rate and immune to spells and can heal themselves or others. Just one combo of a whole raft of similar possibilities.

Another thing I appreciate is the Item system. Basically, Items like Potions and such have per-encounter uses that automatically replenish after combat. Collecting crafting material will allow you to upgrade the potency and unlock additional uses in the future. No more need to hoard X-Potions or the like for a time that may never come.

There are elements where the game falls a bit short. The penalty for death during battle is an “Injury” which is a -10% stat debuff until the unit sits out a battle (or more if multiple injuries). While it’s encouraged to have a larger army of rotating characters so you can sub one out, it’s easier to just travel to an early encounter node and get into a random battle with level 3 enemies, crush them, and then your injured guy is ready for the next story mission. I really just preferred the whole “you have 5 turns to revive your guy” that FFT had. This system is compounded by the sometimes wildly vacillating difficulty, wherein specific units can get piled on if you are not extremely careful, but meanwhile it’s more difficult for your team to alpha strike enemies all in one go.

I am not quite sure about the equipment system and related buff/debuff system yet. Right now I am being offered a raft of generic elemental-themed items (yawn) and a few choice weapons that apply Bleed or Blind (interesting). Debuffs in this game are just as powerful as they are in any turn-based game – battles go bad very quick if anyone on your team gets hit with Berserk/Charm/Sleep/etc, as it consumes your healer’s turn even if you fix it right away. At the same time, characters can equip 2-3 accessories so blanket immunity to many effects are possible. On top of that, enemies will often have these items equipped, so I have found my Fellblade (has a lot of debuff attacks) a little useless when 90% of enemies are immune to Poison/Bleed/Blind.

Overall though, I am having a lot of fun. It’s definitely knockoff FFT quality – there are no Line-of-Sight restrictions, presumably because that’s too difficult to code for an indie team – but for a lot of things in life, a knockoff of something great is still pretty good. Especially when you have apparently been unknowingly craving that thing this whole time.

White Whale, Caught

About a year ago, I beat the Dalaran Heist adventure on heroic difficulty in Hearthstone.

Yesterday, I caught the white whale I had been chasing daily for the last four months: beating Dalaran Heist on heroic with all nine classes. Across all five Acts.

About as good “proof” as possible

As I have mentioned before, Dalaran Heist constitutes an absurd amount of ideas and RNG. All nine classes are available and there are two extra sets of Hero Powers for each class. And three starter decks per class. With random starting decks being an option. And 15 or so random “Anomalies” that can be turned on. It truly felt as though Blizzard devs had a brainstorming meeting and just took everything that was on the whiteboard at the end and implemented it simultaneously. It seems almost like more of a waste to do that than to leave some on the cutting room floor for next time.

In this age of quarantine and perpetual baby-wrangling though, I came to appreciate the infinite turn-lengths and the dozens and dozens of options. For the most part. See, when I say “four months of daily attempts” I really just meant Act 5. I had cleared everything previous across all classes already, and was two classes deep in Act 5 (Paladin & Warlock) before I started to “be serious” about the endeavor. I was stuck on Druid for the longest time, thinking it was the worst class to get through.

Oh, no. That award goes to Mage.

There are only a few strategies that have much hope of success at the heroic level, and all of them rely on strong creatures and cheating them out early. Or, sometimes, creatures creating infinite value. Mage has some decent options in the latter case, but the issue is that Mage “reward buckets” are diluted with spells. In a normal game, spells can swing games. But in the RNG clown fiesta that is Dalaran Heist, you need cards that continue swinging for more than a turn.

The middle pick is at least something but, geez.

Adding the insult to injury, I discovered that a recent patch actually broke Ethereal Conjurer, a very decent Mage minion. And by “broke” I mean the game basically stalls out and you can do nothing other than concede. Which happened to me twice before I realized it was that specific card that caused it. Then, on the game-winning run, the second-to-last boss played it. Twice. Lucky for me, if you close Hearthstone and reopen it, the bug can be bypassed as long as it was the AI that played it.

In any case, purgatory quest complete, I remain melancholy. There is less than zero desire to “mix it up” and do something insane like beat every Act with every class and every different hero power. I had fun, for given amounts of fun, but it really came down to passing time on a project. I could purchase some more single-player content and unlock some cards via another Hearthstone DLC (Galakrond’s Awakening), but the $20 (!!) price tag seems rather insane. Especially since it is just an Adventure and not the roguelike, Dungeon Run experience I have come to so desire. Surely there is something else on the app market that would offer something similar?

Slay the Spire mobile, when?

Endgame Loops

Fallout 76 recently received the biggest content update since launch: Wastelanders. The headlining feature? Actual NPCs. More quests, more weapons, more bugs, two new factions to grind reputation for, and so on and so forth.

If only I could get around to actually doing anything.

The problem is that I am psychologically trapped in an endgame loop. My character is loaded with a decent amount of legendary weapons and gear, but they aren’t that great. This means I have a high incentive to jump around the map and visit various other players’ camps, as they have the ability to sell their own unneeded legendaries. I’m also interested in switching to a Bloodied gear set.

Purchasing things requires Caps. Each day, vendors collectively have 1400 Caps to give you in exchange for selling things. While you can just kill mobs and sell the guns that drop, the most efficient way is to farm Plastic, Glass, and Rubber (x3) to craft helmets that sell for 28 Caps apiece (depending on Charisma). Fifty (50) helmets will net you the Caps cap, but the true number is closer to 25-30 given the Super Duper perk card, which can grant you bonus crafts.

As mentioned, Wastelanders also introduced two factions with reputation daily quests. Enough said.

So, that’s the loop. Load into world, scout the map for possibly well-stocked player vending machines. Farm material to craft helmets to sell for vendors to finance the purchase of player goods, and pay for the Fast Travel fees. Complete reputation dailies. Additionally, jump into lucrative world events when they pop nearby. Fight the Scorchbeast Queen (last boss) if she’s available, and end up using 1000+ rounds of ammo, which you either need to purchase (Caps) or craft (farm junk). 

If there’s some time left over in your play session (spoiler: there’s not), maybe tackle one or two of the actual, new main story quests.

More likely, you do some of your required chores and run out of time, repeat cycle for a few days, then actually have a solid amount of hours to play but you’re so bored with the game that you can’t bring yourself to do the non-boring stuff. Stop playing for a couple of days, get interested in doing stuff, and then get sucked right back into the loop because you’re level 100+ and the high-level mobs you encounter during regular story missions make you wish you had better weapons… etc, etc, etc. It’s a vicious psychological trap.

So I suppose I am playing an MMO these days, eh?

Impression: Into the Breach

There are few things that prime the pump more than hearing “from the creators of FTL.” That was one of those games that seemed to come out of nowhere with a simple-yet-actually-brutally-complex system wrapped up in a sweet indie game package and threw me for a loop. It was ultimately a good loop, but a loop nonetheless. 

Despite all that, I had hitherto heard about, got excited for, and then completely forgot about Into the Breach. Until I realized it was on the Xbox Game Pass… and leaving shortly.

Into the Breach is essentially a puzzle game. You command three time-traveling pilots who are trying to protect the remnants of humanity from the Vek by piloting giant mechs. Each turn, the Vek (e.g. aliens) will move around the grid-based map and telegraph the actions they are about to take. During your turn, each mech can make one move and one action to try and foil the Vek’s plans before it occurs. While killing the Vek will cancel their action, the primary mechanism is typically “pushing” the Vek out of place on the grid.

As a general example, the default mech can perform a punch that deals 2 damage and pushes the target back 1 square. Many Vek have 3 or more HP, so this attack by itself will not kill a Vek that is about to attack a skyscraper full of people. But instead of attacking the skyscraper in front of it, that punched Vek will move 1 square away and instead attack whatever is in front of it in that new square. If it’s another skyscraper… well, oops. It could be empty air though. Or even another Vek, if you are clever enough. Or if the Vek was standing next to water/a giant pit/the telegraphed impact location of deadly lightning or whatever, it will die instantly. If the square is blocked, the pushed Vek will take an extra 1 damage and deal 1 damage to whatever blocked its path.

The default squad is the punching mech, a tank that deals 1 damage from range in cardinal directions, and artillery that deals one damage at a location and pushes everyone in cardinal directions 1 square away from the impact. If you successfully clear islands, you can spend reputation points to purchase additional items that can be equipped to give your mechs different abilities. For example, the punching mech can get a shield that makes the Vek turn around instead of pushing them, the artillery unit can get shells that light squares on fire, and so on.

If you cannot tell already, the gameplay ends up both simple and complex at the same time. Victory occurs when X number of turns complete, so you don’t really need to kill every Vek on the screen. Missions always have bonus objections which can complicate things. Incoming Vek reinforcements are telegraphed, and they can be prevented from spawning if their square is blocked – it will deal 1 damage to your mechs, or another Vek if one is pushed there.

Having said all that, this game can also be brutal. The Power Grid represents your life total of the run and it carries over through every mission. Vek destroying 1 building results in 1 less Power Grid for every mission thereafter. While you can take on missions that grant replacement power, that comes at the opportunity cost of missions that reward more reputation, which you spend on buying gear to enhance your team. Your own mechs have HP that is repaired between battles, but losing your HP in a battle will kill the pilot, which results in all their unlocked abilities going away. 

I got super frustrated at one point until I realized… this is a puzzle roguelike. Some situations will go south fast with nothing you could reasonably do. Sometimes the Vek will “waste” all of their attacks on your mechs, which you can simply walk away from. Other times the Vek will spread out and attack buildings everywhere. In a worst case scenario, you can abandon the timeline you are in and take one pilot with you into a fresh game. 

Ultimately, Into the Breach is a decently fun puzzle game. It’s no FTL, but it’s in the same quadrant. I just wish they would port this game to mobile, where it would be a perfect fit IMO. Between this and a mobile Slay the Spire, I might never be productive again.

Exodus Complete

I beat Metro: Exodus a few days after my prior post.

Overall, it was a decently entertaining game. There are many FPS games out there that have stealth tactics just thrown in that aren’t actually viable, but Exodus comes through just like its predecessors. Going from cramped subway tunnels to near-open world initially felt like a big drift away from the “core” Metro experience, but there were plenty creepy/FEAR-y/Metro-esque locations towards the end. And visually, the game is an absolute treat.

My only major annoyances with the game were mechanical. For example, the devs somehow made taking screenshots impossible – not even PrintScreen worked. That is in spite of the fact that there is an in-game Photo Mode. It might be minor, but it also takes forever to load into the game. Once you’re in, there aren’t many loading screens, but its literal minutes to get in even with an SSD.

I completed the entire game via the Xbox Game Pass and do consider Exodus one of the primary drivers towards me subscribing to the service.

Impression: Metro: Exodus

Despite the country being on lockdown and me working from home, my time has actually decreased from before. Figure that one out. Hint: baby.

What I have been doing in extremely limited bursts though, is playing though Metro: Exodus. My overall impression is… better than expected.

The Metro series has been an interesting experience. I reviewed the first game way back in 2012, and the key takeaway was that it was one of the best “authentic” gaming simulations at the time. Features that might otherwise be annoying actually felt right, such as having to pump up your flashlight battery as you explore subway tunnels. The second title was similar, although I seem to recall a truly ridiculous number of “knock you unconscious so we can show exposition” sections. Like, serious traumatic brain injury levels of blackouts.

Exodus starts out in the tunnels and I was not really feeling it. You kinda have to be in a mood to enjoy jump scares and such, right? When the game opened up into an almost Far Cry 3+ way though, it almost felt like too much. You have a map (Far Cry 2-style) and markers, but was it really a Metro experience to just… walk around wherever?

It is, and I like it. Or maybe I’m just getting Fallout vibes and liking that.

Indeed, in addition to pumping up the flashlight, you now have to scavenge for materials to create bullets and repair your gear. There is some minimum level of crafting you can do anywhere, and there are workbenches scattered about to complete bigger tasks like making grenades. Some human enemies drop weapon mods you can otherwise permanently learn, with others being tucked away in remote areas of the world.

There is definitely a tension with exploring though. As usual for the series, the mutants you kill drop nothing. Which itself is a surprisingly uncommon game design mechanism, if you think about it. The result is that sneaking and avoiding enemies is encouraged, which heightens the tension considering how much simpler it’d be to stealth kill them instead. The difficulty I’m on (Normal) doesn’t make avoiding fights necessary, but I do find myself tackling most missions during the daytime, which increases the amount of human enemies, who do drop gear and are easier to take out anyway. Aside from that, the other tension is the lack of fast travel. Exploring is fun and all, until you get to a point where you have to traverse the map in the opposite direction a few times.

I’m not sure how far along in the game I am, but it’s going well. We shall see if Metro: Exodus loses steam or pushes through to the end.

Too Busy for Words

It’s interesting to think about how much life can change. Four years ago, I would have been living up this coronavirus shelter-in-place self-isolation. MMOs for days! Even two years ago would have been good, just chillin’ with my then-fiancee.

Pandemics are a bit different with a baby, though.

This coming week, the daycares are shutting down in my area. My wife has been working from home for the last few weeks, and I will be joining her shortly. Technically I am “essential personnel” but we worked out a rotating skeleton crew schedule at my job. I took the first shift to support the rollout of nearly a hundred mobility solutions for other essential personnel to work from home. By the end of the week, I’ll be working from home as well for the next 3-4 weeks before my on-site shift comes back around. And so on, until… whenever. Through the entirety of April, at least.

Good luck and stay safe, everyone.

Purposeful Obtuseness

The topic of purposeful obtuseness in game design is tricky. Limitations can actually spark creativity, whereas definitive answers typically cannot. But sometimes I think game designers try to be more “clever” than they should.

The most recent example I have experienced is in playing Factorio. There are Conveyor Belts, which move items along them. Each Conveyor Belt tile actually has two tracks: Left and Right. There are robotic arms which can transfer items from wherever and place them on the Conveyor Belt. These same robotic arms can pull items off the Conveyor Belt from either track. However, the robotic arm will only set items onto the Conveyor Belt on the far side. 

My question: why? No, seriously, why the fuck can’t we choose which side to set things on?

There are convoluted “solutions” out there for methods on how to move all items from, say, the Left track to the Right track. There are also solutions on how to construct paths such that a multi-track line is then later split off. None of these solutions involve, you know, telling robotic arms to place items on specific tracks. Maybe there is some huge programming reason why each robotic arm cannot be told to place on one track versus another. But you could certainly add a “near-side robotic arm” machine to the game and call it a day. 

Or perhaps the devs are being obtuse on purpose.

Oxygen Not Included is not immune to shenanigans. There is a Tepidizer in the game that you can use to heat up water. There is an limit to how hot it can get the water though, presumably because it would be too easy to create Steam systems otherwise. So the solution is to create an Aquatuner – a machine that cools down liquid and heats up itself – and then have the extremely hot Aquatuner boil water into Steam, which then will cool down the Aquatuner in the process. It’s “clever” and involves more steps/physics than simply heating up water via Tepidizer but it’s arbitrary as hell.

Drawing that line would be difficult indeed. But I do think there is a noticeable line somewhere. People have done some ludicrous, literal programming in Minecraft using the Redstone switches and such. That programming would be a lot easier with blocks that automatically did X or whatever. The difference, I think, is that the Redstone system is “simple.” It has the basest of building blocks. In Oxygen Not Included you already have the Tepidizer. In Factorio you already have robotic arms that place items on the far side of Conveyor Belts but are capable of grabbing items from both sides. No one can say Notch or whomever didn’t add something to the Redstone system to limit it on purpose.

Incidentally, other examples of purposeful obtuseness is when a game will feature crosshairs for everything other than weapons in which it would be OP. For example, the bow in Kingdom Come: Deliverance. An arrow to the face pretty much kills anyone but the balancing mechanism is apparently taking away the crosshair so you have to learn the trajectory by muscle memory. Or download a mod. Or dangle a piece of string down your computer monitor. Balanced!

So maybe the line is artificial limitations. I’m willing to accept no bow crosshairs if there were no crosshairs for anything else in the game. Similarly, I’d accept no easy Steam generators if the Tepidizer (or Aquatuner) didn’t exist. And finally, I’d accept lack of granularity with robotic arms and Conveyor Belts in Factorio if robotic arms could only retrieve items from the far side of the belt. 

But they don’t, so I don’t.

Impression: Factorio

I was gifted Factorio from one of my friends whom I had gifted Rimworld. We’re cruel like that. Given how much I enjoyed Rimworld and Oxygen Not Included and other resource-collecting/crafting games, it seems like Factorio should be right up my alley.

For some reason though… it’s not.

I am in the very early stages of the game. The tutorial, in fact. And while I very much enjoy crafting/survival-esque games and colony management games, Factorio is neither. It is an automating and stand-around-waiting game. You directly control an engineer and initially collect resources 1 at a time until you build machines that can do it for you automatically.

For example, you discover an iron ore field. You can mine it yourself, one nugget at a time, until you can build a Stone Furnace to smelt the ore into an Iron Plate. Use those Iron Plates to build a Burner Drill, which will automatically mine whatever you set it on top of, e.g. iron ore. Then you build conveyor belts so the iron ore can fall out of the Drill and be moved elsewhere, where you build robotic arms that can place iron ore into Stone Furnaces and more robotic arms to place the Iron Plates directly into a storage box. Or onto other conveyor belts to move it to Assemblers which can convert them to Iron Gears, which are necessary to produce the next dozen things down the tech tree. You will also need a similar setup to mine/process copper, stone, and coal to power everything.

In principle, this is the same sort of thing you’re doing in Oxygen Not Included. But that game… is fun. I’m not sure what Factorio is yet.

There’s a rather annoying part of the tutorial in which you are specifically tasked with creating 50 gun magazines per minute while also consuming 12 technology per minute. I get that the point of the exercise is to push the player into understanding you can build a dozen Lab buildings to accelerate research, and same with the mass-production of magazines (to feed turrets to fend off hostile wildlife). That said, I was the closest to quiting the game outright at that moment. All prior tutorial steps were “build X, which takes a half dozen steps,” which was fine. The magazine/tech thing was arbitrary though, and I was a little worried I would run out of technology to research before I successfully built enough Labs. Nevermind how many extraneous magazines were crafted as I trialed-and-errored my way to figuring out how to achieve that, again, arbitrary rate.

At this point, I may abandon the tutorial altogether and give the “real” game a try. Not having any express goals is not something I typically enjoy in gaming generally, but is not something that bothered me in Rimworld or Oxygen Not Included.

We’ll see if I have the same sort of success (read: fun) in Factorio.

Impression: Kingdom Come: Deliverance

It has actually been a while since I first started playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance (KC:D), but in that time I have put in around 50 hours. I am not certain that I will put in any more time to complete the game, but figured I would go ahead and dedicate some virtual real estate to my experience.

Wake up and smell the peasantry.

In short, KC:D is for a very specific type of player. And I’m not it.

There are a lot of things to like about the game. Visually stunning. Novel setting and premise, insofar as it’s a no-magic, no-hero medieval adventure. Immersive without needing quotes – first-person perspective in which you can see your feet, helmets getting in the way, walking (or riding) through the muck and rain. Arbitrarily hardcore, even at the expense of fun… which some people enjoy.

Again, I’m not one of them. Or maybe I can be, but not entirely this particular flavor.

The best example is with the combat. You have probably encountered dozens of variations of “you start out as an illiterate blacksmith’s son with no combat experience, OF COURSE combat is hard at first!” I mean, yes and no. Yes in that you start off as a level 1 character with literally no skills or points to put them in until you get XP. No in that the combat system is still trash at max level, as you typically just perform the same moves you have been doing the whole time, except this time you have enough skill points for shit to matter. That’s about as realistic as World of Warcraft or literally any RPG ever made. Except here you are still stuck stabbing faces (lest you be unbeatably countered) while waiting for your opponents to attack (so you can unbeatably counter them).

Also activated the perk: Jank

Oh, and occasionally you will be surrounded by peasants and murdered because lock-on targeting jank. Which is “realistic,” I guess. About as realistic as clipping through a bush or under some stairs and attacking back with impunity.

Another vaunted feature is the whole “the world goes on without you” bit. Example: if someone asks you to meet them tomorrow at sunrise at the crossroads, they will simply go on without you if you don’t show. REALISM. Except… that doesn’t always happen. Some quests will wait for you for months, including Crossroads Boy before you talk to him. Which is handy when you unexpectedly get locked up in jail for in-game weeks after attacking sleeping bandits who were scripted to ambush you, but apparently count as innocent villagers when you pre-murder them.

Which, philosophically, well… huh. Morally though, I think I’d feel worse if the voice of god had not automatically whispered my witness-less deeds to every guard in the kingdom.

Oh, apparently it was only 9 days…

But, real talk, are you the type of player who is fine permanently failing quests you did not realize were timed? I’m not. Which means I had to do a lot of Googling on every upcoming quest to figure out when I was “allowed” to go explore the game and when I was locked on rails lest I run out the invisible clock. One of the biggest failings of the Witcher 3’s story (IMO) was a false sense of urgency with the primary quest, which made the overall impetus for action a joke. But Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s seemingly random adherence to the clock feels worse in practice.

Most RPGs do the false sense of urgency thing. But most RPGs don’t try to present themselves as some kind of immersive sim either. I don’t hold a Final Fantasy to the same sort of standard, even if the fate of the world is supposedly at stake. 

At the end of all that, I still put in 50+ hours, so that’s saying something. I did not encounter TOO many bugs beyond some combat jank. I did lose probably around 4 total hours of progress to the asinine saving system, which involves you needing to manually drink some liqueur. There are mods to fix that (and other issues) but I could not be bothered to manually install them. Instead, I simply stole everything not bolted down from everyone I could to pay for my Quick Save addiction, which was still not good enough to prevent me from losing progress in dumb ways (e.g. peasant dog-piles). 

If you’re looking for Skyrim 2.0, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is not it. But it’s also not the worst thing in the world. Just go into it knowing a lot of systems are obtuse on purpose, and not always because it’s good game design.

Nevertheless, sometimes the novelty of brazzeness counts for more than you think.