Impression: Outer Wilds

I started playing Outer Wilds this week.

So far, I’m only 22 minutes in.

I love the smell of supernova in the morning

…five or six times. You know, because the solar system explodes and time loops back around.

I don’t think I’ll be talking much about the experience of Outer Wilds as I go along, because a lot of people have gone to great lengths to not “spoil” anything. Not that I have encountered anything in-game that might constitute a spoiler yet. Supposedly the game can be completed in 20 minutes if you know the right place to go, but… of course it can. The sun explodes every 22 minutes of game time, so by definition it has to be solvable within 22 minutes.

What I will say though, is that Outer Wilds has not thus far been anything approaching peaceful or idyllic or an explorer’s dream or anything of the sort. That seemed to have been the impression I gleaned from reading other posts about it.

In my first foray in space, I brought my spaceship over to some interesting orbiting debris, took a space walk to explore, and when I turned around I realized that my ship had floated away. Or rather, was in a rapidly decaying orbit around the goddamn sun. So I chased after it, damn near skimmed the surface of said sun, and then was slingshotted out into the abyss of space where I eventually suffocated in the darkness, alone. 

Lost in Space

That was the “first death” too, so I had to watch it play out in its entirety. Kind of fitting, I guess. On all subsequent screw-ups, you can use the menu to manually reset the time loop at will. But that kind of starter experience really sets a tone.

After that, I started exploring an ocean planet with constant, horrific tornadoes that are so strong that they LAUNCH THE ISLANDS YOU WALK ON INTO SPACE. That was a fun second experience. After surviving re-entry somehow, I died walking off a cliff, not having realized a jetpack at full thrust was unable to overcome the planet’s 2.0x gravity. The next few deaths were “only” due to sun explosion as I tried exploring some other ruins. Fun times.

So, yeah. Outer Wilds. Fun in the way I imagine Alien Isolation or the Chemical Plant level in Sonic 2 can be considered fun. But I’m getting the hang of things, and hopefully the experience will improve as time goes on. And loops again. You know what I mean.

Fell Seal Complete, plus tips

Just beat Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark after almost 60 hours.

Quality of the gameplay remained high throughout the campaign. I could probably have shaved ~20 hours or so off the time to complete, but I enjoyed getting most of my team to a point where they had OP combos and synergies. The plot itself is nowhere near Final Fantasy Tactics, but the dialog is surprisingly humorous and there are some slight twists. The main thing that could be improved was the lack of different battle music, but luckily what exists is not annoying.

There is some “post-game” areas and New Game+ options – and some DLC just dropped – but I do not anticipate coming back. I got my fill of the systems and progression; anything else would be going through the motions, like grinding out the rest of a Civilization match.

Gameplay Tips

I would not consider the following to be “spoilers,” but if you want to know nothing else about the game systems, you should probably skip this part. This is merely the text I wish I was able to see as I started playing the game.

Units gain AP after battle in two ways. Everyone who participates in the battle get a large chunk (110ish for random encounters, twice that for Story) of AP for their primary class. There is a second, smaller “Vicarious” AP gain (~40) that is doled out to each battle participant based on the primary classes of the other participants. So, for example, if you have a Knight, two Wizards, a Mender, a Mercenary, and a Scoundrel in a battle, then the Knight will get some AP towards its own Wizard, Mender, Mercenary, and Scoundrel classes, and so on with the other 5 people.

The above is useful to know because some of the best-in-slot Passive abilities comes from Classes that are only unlocked after some esoteric prerequisite classes. For example, if you want to unlock the Assassin, the chain goes:

  • Assassin
    • Gunner 4
      • Mercenary 4
      • Knight 4
      • Ranger 4
        • Scoundrel 4

That doesn’t actually seem that bad for a martial class, aside from the ranged portions. But something like the Warmage or Fellblade will require some Mender and Wizard levels, which can be awkward for some of the story characters. Luckily enough, all you really need is for there to be A Wizard or Mender in the party for 10-15 battles, and you’ll have enough AP to level the class to the minimum to unlock the higher classes. Characters get that Vicarious AP even if they have not yet unlocked the the class in question; it will be waiting for them once they do.

It’s not immediately obvious, but Kyrie is the main character of the game – she will be required for the vast majority of story missions. The other story characters can be unavailable for 1-4 missions.

Debuffs are very important throughout the whole game (including the final boss). Some boss-esque characters have 999+ HP that is much easier to chew through when you give them Bleed/Poison (% HP loss), for example. There are very deadly characters that are NOT immune to Sleep or Berserk, which means you can essentially delete their turns while you mop up the flunkies.

At the beginning of each battle, before deploying units, you can actually go into the unit screen and re-equip or change up abilities or whatever else based on what it looks like you’re facing. Is there water on the map and enemies who can move your units around? Equip some Flippers on your guys that can’t swim. Poison water around? Equip the rings that give immunity to Poison. And so on.

The most useful classes I found were Knight, Fellblade, and Assassin, surprisingly in that order.

The Knight’s Defensive Hit is probably the most damaging attack you will have for the early game, especially if you stack armor. Knight also has Taunt, which inflicts Berserk 100% of the time from two squares away, which can turn an enemy mage into an ineffectual melee attacker or make an enemy bruiser kill his own team. Life Font (gain HP when moving) is something I slotted into all of my characters, which pretty much removes the need for a dedicated healer.

Fellblade was pretty much my “default” class for all my characters due to versatility and debuffs. Sleep Slice to delete enemy turns, Poison Slice for high HP targets, Evade Magic as a counter-ability to ignore magic-users entirely, and Black Blade as a backup attack that deals magical damage and inflicts Blind. Plus, the Malice passive makes sure your debuffs have a good chance to stick.

Assassin is pretty much a splash class. What you’re really going for is Dual Wield, which enables some crazy damage. The ranged Blind and Sleep abilities are nice, but usually only have a coin-flip chance to succeed. Sabotage can be incredibly powerful in certain situations though. Specifically, if there is water in range and an enemy unit who cannot swim – Assassin hops in water, use Sabotage to switch places with enemy, instant death for them.

The sort of ultimate damage combo is a character with Dual Wield passive and Warmage class. Use Infused Edge, and your character will get two attacks plus an elemental bonus attack (or other spell). Personally, I was fine with Dual Wield + Attack Expert (Scoundrel’s passive +Attack based on level) and two weapons that had debuffs on hit. Indeed, I strolled into the final battle with story characters having primacy classes of Scoundrel and Knight.

Don’t forget the lowly Rock. It has a 100% chance to hit and always deals the full damage (50 when maxed out). This is useful for monsters that have crazy defense values like those jellyfish spellcasters, or even enemies with 30% evasion.

The crafting system is… annoying. Always go to Component View to see what your other crafting options are before using a resource you don’t think you can easily farm back. SAVE YOUR QUALITY THREAD. It’s a mid-tier Component used in an endgame armor (light helmet) and is supremely difficult to get any more once you’re in said endgame.

Steam Link

What a rollercoaster ride of emotion.

Way back in the day, I purchased a physical Steam Link. This was a little black rectangle that allowed you to stream Steam from your PC to your TV. The purchase was made after I attended a few game nights with friends, and the hilarity that ensued from the Jackbox games. The setup over there was a laptop plugged into the TV; having no laptop myself, this seemed like a good workaround. I promptly never actually used it and Valve stopped making them.

Cue last week when I discovered that there’s a Steam Link App on the Google Play store. It pretty much does exactly what it sounds like: stream any Steam game from your PC to your phone. You may be wondering who in the world that sort of thing is for. Me. It’s for me. Or anyone stuck watching their progeny running around in quarantine while pretending to be working from home. Can’t use the physical Steam Link because that means the little guy can see a screen, and apparently kids are ruined forever if they witness more than 30 minutes of pixels a day.

If you have been following this blog for any length of time though, you know that I never do things the easy way.

The app is fine but you need a controller. Your options for native support are a Steam controller (discontinued), PS4/Xbone controllers (don’t have either console), or some nVidia garbage that is literally $200. When I looked at PS4/Xbone controllers, they started at $65 and went up from there. That’s… normal? Jesus. Actual prices during this pandemic are much higher, especially on Amazon.

So I decided to purchase just a generic bluetooth Android controller. The $35 kind that expands outward and turns your phone into a Switch-like device. While the controller “worked,” it was not recognized by Steam Link. So you have to download their China app – it’s always fun scrolling through items on Amazon and see “competitors” all say you need use the same app – which basically throws an overlay over your screen to make touch controls work with the controller. That got the job done… aside from the fact that you have to look at your touch controls all the time. Yuck.

So here I am now, returning the junk, and looking to see if spending $65 + $10 (for phone mount) is worth being able to play Fell Seal in the living room on my phone. Do I have other options?

I did look into Moonlight, which is another app that interfaces with your nVidia graphics card for streaming purposes. After spending an hour of the precious, “I could actually be playing videogames on my computer” time, I abandoned the effort when it didn’t work even after a driver update.

Currently, I am in a holding pattern. I do already have a PS3 controller (for the PS3 I never play) and an Xbox 360 controller I bought specifically for PC games that necessitate it. I have heard some people have success with simply pairing the Xbox controller to their PC (instead of the phone), and then basically bringing the controller and phone to the living room, assuming a decent bluetooth signal. Or maybe I will try getting one of those 8bitendo controllers that might be recognized by Steam Link. Or maybe I’ll just break down and spend an extra $30+ for a legit controller that will have no other use than however long this situation persists.

Or maybe I will just get by like I have up to this point, subsisting mainly on Reddit and playing with my child.

It’s a rough life, I know.

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.