Impression: Trials of Fire

Short version: Trials of Fire is a deck-building tactical roguelike in which I can’t tell if I’m having fun. After 10 hours, I’m leaning towards Yes. It’s $14.39 on Steam right now, but will be $19.99 next week.

One of the most immediate comparisons of Trial of Fire that pops up from gamingjournalists” is Slay the Spire. This is unfortunate for many reasons. For one, if you really enjoy Slay the Spire like I do, you will be disappointed to learn that this game is, in fact, nothing like Slay the Spire. For two, the actual best comparison is to Card Hunter, which was a criminally underrated and uncopied game from 2013. Seriously, look at the devs (Richard Garfield!) who worked on it. The Flash version of Card Hunter died, but you can still play it on Steam, and it looks like there may be some people taking over the franchise.

Anyway, Trial of Fire. What do you really do? It’s best explained with a picture:

When combat starts, player and enemy tokens alike drop from the sky with a satisfying clink upon a randomize board that rises from the pages of a book. Your characters draw three cards from their deck each turn and can only carry over one between turns. Your deck consists of 9 cards from your class’s default deck, plus any cards that come attached to equipment your party picks up along the way. Sometimes your deck accumulates cards in other ways, such as if your party is Fatigued or Injured (junk cards), or as the result of random encounters. Some cards are free to cast but most require Willpower, which is a temporary resource that dissipates between turns.

The really clever trick Trials pulls though is turning cards themselves into resources. During your turn, you can discard any cards you want from any of your characters to gain 1 Willpower. Have a ranged character in an advantageous spot with a fist full of attacks? Go ahead and dump your other characters’ cards so that your DPS can go ham. Alternatively, discarding a card can allow that specific character to move 2 spaces on the game board. There are already movement cards in every characters’ deck, but sometimes you need just a little bit more distance. Alternatively alternatively, if you discard a card and don’t use the Willpower on something else or move that character, they get 2 Defense (aka Block).

Typing it out makes it seem complicated, but it is surprisingly intuitive as you play.

I also liked what they did with HP. In short, every character has 10 HP baseline. As you equip better armor, you end up with… er, Armor, which is basically bonus HP in battle. As long as no one drops below 10 HP, no actual long-term damage has occurred. Even if some has, your characters regain +2 HP every time they Camp in a sheltered location, which ends up being quite often.

Outside of combat is not like Slay the Spire either. Instead, you move your party around a map while trying to finish the primary quest, periodically stopping at ?s scattered along the wasteland to get some RNG punishment. This part is Trial’s biggest weakness: naked RNG.

Like, I get it, roguelike. I would probably be more annoyed if they didn’t include the percentage chance right on the tin, but it still feels bad somehow. In particular, you can get really screwed early on in such a way that you may as well abandon the run. For example, one of my characters got the Firelung trait, which was a card that is permanently added to the deck that dealt 1 unblockable damage to them and any allies within 1 hex when drawn. That was fun times.

In any case, the out-of-combat part feels the least developed even though it makes up a large portion of the gametime. You can collect crafting material from events and combat sometimes, but you never end up collecting enough to upgrade more than 1-2 items at best. And “upgrading” an item basically means upgraded the cards that it grants, which frequently is of dubious worth. You’re going to want to save mats to upgrade an Epic or higher item, for example, but Epic upgrades take the same mats (plus an epic version) as normal upgrades, so… yeah. It ends up being an Elixir situation wherein you hoard mats the whole game and never use them but you realize you never needed them anyway.

Also, when exploring the map you end up being constrained by two meters. One is “Determination” which only sustains itself while you are moving towards your next quest objective. The other is Fatigue, which decreases while you walk or fight, and requires you to use supplies to Camp to recover. Both meters have to be kept high or else you end up getting penalty cards added to your deck, which again, is a rather harsh kick in the pants. Not that you want to keep exploring for too long though, as there is often a natural inflection point at which you are destroying every enemy in the first 1-2 turns and realize they couldn’t possibly drop anything to improve what you already got going on.

So, yeah. Trials of Fire.

Although the game still feels that it is lacking a certain something, I can absolutely say that the bones are good. The aesthetics and tactile tactical action is something I could play over and over. And have started to do with Combat Run and Boss Rush modes. There is also the higher difficulties, ala Ascension modes. Huh, just like Slay the Spire…

EA Play

New month, new post shilling for Game Pass.

This time, I wanted to direct your attention towards the fact that EA Play is now an included part of the Game Pass subscription. It was supposed to have been added in December, but better late than never, I guess. While there is still a premium tier (EA Play Pro) that holds some newer games out of reach, a very large and very old selection of EA titles are available.

Seeing this one brought be waaaaaaay back, for example:

I cropped the name out, but it’s Populous, released 1989. It was one of the few SNES games in my library growing up – especially when cartridges could cost $80 in mid-90s money – so I ended up spending a lot of time with the game and its many scenarios. I also ended up playing SimCity and Civilization 2 on the SNES, and have many a fond memory of that.

I’m glad I took the screenshot because it appears EA has already taken down Populous and replaced it with its sequels.

Not the same.

Incidentally, there is a big ole “BETA” written across the top of the EA Desktop app they make you download, so perhaps they are testing things as they go. I already ran into one issue downloading a game, wherein the download crashed midway and now the game will neither open nor download nor delete. When I tried booting up Dungeon Keeper 2 for giggles – and to see what the fuss was all about when I played the supposedly bastardized mobile app back in 2014 – it was an unplayable slide-show. I’m assuming that last bit has more to do with the game expecting drivers that haven’t existed for 20 years, but it’s still a poor show to have games available to download (or purchase!) in a unplayable state. At least GOG (supposedly) updates their versions to be playable on Win10 PCs.

In any case, my actual download list looks like this:

Looks like random pishposh because it is. As it turns out, I already played through a lot of EA’s catalog over the years or otherwise own the games elsewhere. For example, many of the Battlefield games, Mass Effect series, Dead Space series, and so on. Not pictured but to be downloaded later includes: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Vampyr, Star Wars Battlefront 2 (maybe), and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.

There is even Anthem available, which I almost want to check out of morbid curiosity. Then again, I don’t want to develop a taste for toad right as the game gets canned. Well, Anthem will still exist for some indeterminate amount of time, but ending future updates on a Live Service game kills the game.

Anyway, if you don’t already have Game Pass then the addition of the EA library probably won’t move the needle much for you. But if you do have it and didn’t pay attention to the pop-ups… well, you’re welcome. I’ll post some impressions of these new (to me) games as I play them.

Or I won’t, because I’m too busy playing them. The eternal blogging dilemma.

Impression: Magic: Legends

It’s bad.

Syp is giving Cryptic some additional grace, but the open beta for Magic: Legends is perhaps the worst open beta for a game I have played. Sure, there are objectively worse ones out there, but the first impression missed so hard that it’s flying off into space.

What is Magic: Legends (M:L)? Once upon a time, it was supposedly going to be an MMO based in the Magic: the Gathering universe. Instead, we’re getting an isometric ARPG in the literal vein of Diablo. Which… is not the worst thing in the world. I have played all games in the Diablo franchise, along with Torchlight 1 & 2, and dabbled in Path of Exile. Do UnderMine and Children of Morta count? I don’t do any legendary-grinding in these games, but am otherwise fully onboard with the general gameplay.

At first blush, M:L looks just like those games. A lot of mouse clicking to move around and attack, some special abilities, extremely gorgeous backgrounds, and so on. I can forgive the 20 FPS given that it is beta – something is clearly not optimized – but there are two things that kills the experience.

First, there is no loot. At least, there hasn’t been after 2+ hours of play. There are artifact slots and such, so that I know these things exist somewhere, but items and gear do not drop from enemies normally. Sometimes there is gold, most times there is nothing. I do not need a full set of gear from every mob, but I have no real idea what the moment-to-moment motivation for the game is supposed to be without that dopamine hit, or chance thereof.

This is especially problematic given the second issue: the gameplay isn’t fun. Characters have three baseline abilities based on their class. All other abilities are tied to “cards” that you slot into your “deck,” like in traditional Magic. And just like in traditional Magic, what cards you draw are random. Using an ability causes it to both go on cooldown and be shuffled back into the deck and new ability replace it.

So… chew on that a minute. You are playing Diablo 3 or Path of Exile or whatever, and each time you use an ability, it disappears from your bar and is replaced by something else entirely. You are then stuck with those abilities until you use them on something else, or perhaps just cast it on the ground. Oh, and you are also limited by your mana meter, so it’s not like you can rapidly cycle through abilities either. Do that over and over, clearing an entire map, and enjoy the 500g and zero items you receive. Then go spend that currency buying booster packs of random abilities to slot into your deck. Whee!

I kinda get what devs might be going for here. Having dead abilities is a natural consequence of deck building; presumably you would want a deck with a lot of AoE cards if you’re farming, then swap out for more single-target abilities for bosses. Things might get better once you unlock more than two ability slots too. And by going straight for currency farming at the beginning, there is no bait-and-switch that happens to the average player once they hit the endgame.

At the same time, it feels like a colossal disaster in progress. Pushing buttons isn’t fun, the loot isn’t fun, and the monetization strategy isn’t fun. How much can realistically change in Open beta? If the answer isn’t “the whole damn thing” then Cryptic is in trouble.

Pre-Burnout

I decided to start playing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (BLPS), as one of the literal 124 games in my Epic library that I did not pay for. No, really, I just counted one-hundred and twenty-four. Minus one, as I did end up purchasing Outward way back in the day:

Anyway. Borderlands: Pre-Sequel!

…yeah, it sucks. I give myself about a 40% chance of uninstalling it the next time I play.

There are a lot of people who don’t, but I for one actually do appreciate the Borderlands writing style. The humor doesn’t always land, but there simply aren’t many people out there writing, well, out there. Most games have utterly boring dialog and take their generic plots very seriously. So when you have a game series that does the exact opposite, amusing things can happen.

That’s not the problem though. The problem is the gameplay.

Back in the day (Jesus Christ, 2013?!), I talked about getting burned out on Borderlands 2. At the time, I was talking about the absurdity that occurs when you get to the level cap and end up facing enemies with tens of millions of HP. Some of that is impacting me even at the beginning of BLPS, as I start wondering whether I am going to just plow through the story missions or play this “for real.” See, nothing you do matters in a Normal playthrough. And on the next playthrough, you have to plow through the story again until the level-cap, doing zero side-quests, lest the unique side-quest rewards roll stats at your non-level-cap level. Which would make them instantly useless.

The other part though, is just how the gameplay design doesn’t fit the design of the game. For example, for such a kinetic gunplay experience, Borderlands has these awkward moments of intense inventory management. Bosses and enemies can explode in a fountain of epic loot… and you have to meticulously look at each one to analyze its stats, see if you have enough inventory space to pick it up, and so on. BLPS takes this to a whole new level considering the game takes place on a low-gravity moon. Which means you can be in an intense firefight and killing enemies with jetpacks, only to watch in horror as potentially good loot goes flying off in all sorts of directions.

Speaking of low-gravity, BLPS adds the element of gliding and slamming as attacking maneuvers. Which is fine. But it really highlights the fact that there isn’t much that the game is asking you to do that is actually supported in the game. This isn’t a cover-based shooter, for example, but the game does expect you to take cover/crouch to avoid damage while waiting for your shields to recharge. Arial acrobatics and butt-stomps are nice and all, but good luck surviving long enough to do any damage as you are literally floating out in open vacuum. Most of the encounters I face are either trivial or overwhelmingly difficult, depending on the availability of cover and whether enemies are randomly equipped with shocking guns (which melts shields).

The above issues are not unique to BLPS, of course. In 2021 though, the standards to what nonsense I am willing to endure have been raised.

Finally, I just have to say there are extremely early parts of BLPS that is just frustratingly bad. Like when you just start playing the game and are facing multiple rooms full of hostiles before you get your very first shield. Was that a thing in BL2? I don’t remember. But there’s also an area after unlocking the first vehicle where you are expected to make a jump while boosting… and I fell into the pit like six times in a row. I was boosting, I was hitting the obvious ramp, and down in the pit I went. Almost uninstalled that night. The deaths were irrelevant – the percentage of wealth penalty is trivial at that level – but it indicated to me that either the game was going to be that janky, or that I no longer understood what the game was asking me to do.

So far, the answer seems to be “both.”

Silver End

I’m done with Valheim for now.

Where we last left off, I had already committed 4-5 real, prime-time, father of a 2-year old, I-should-be-sleeping hours finding and “exploring” mountain ranges bereft of silver. I had contemplated either uncovering the map with cheat codes or using an online tool to explore my world seed – somehow the latter seemed less morally questionable – but then decided against it. When you’re already this far up shit creek, you may as well keep paddling and see how much further it goes.

The answer is: seven. I explored seven mountain ranges before finding one that spawned any silver.

Quality gameplay

If we want to get technical, the first two mountain ranges were on my starting continent, and even I figured they had a low likelihood of having silver. From there, the modus operandi was to set sail towards any landmass that appeared to have a mountain on it. Luckily, you can tell from quite a distance whether there is a mountain – much farther than the tree-spawning distance, which otherwise tells you whether you’re heading for a swamp, plains, or forest. Unfortunately, all mountains have a similar skybox at range, and thus you do not know whether it’s going to be the size of those open meadow areas, or something more substantial. In my experience though (n=7), if you do not immediately see any drakes flying around, you are wasting your time at that location.

In any case, I finally hit pay-silver on mountain #7. And just like with the swamp, there were at least three separate silver nodes within about a 40m distance from one another. And one of those towers and give you the location of the boss. I had heard those were an extra layer of RNG I could potentially enjoy, but my tower had the location stone. Neat. I set up shop in the tower, moved my smelting infrastructure via portaling, and began getting my dwarf on.

That was convenient.

Then… I was done.

The final nail were Stone Golems. As enemies, they’re fine. I had heard they took extra damage from the pickaxe, but honestly it’s way easier to just bash them with a mace and use your shield to almost negate all their attacks. The problem is that they drop Crystals. And Crystals have zero use in the game. Not “limited use” or “decorative item that grants no bonus,” I mean this is an item the devs put into their Early Access game but didn’t bother attaching to any recipe. It was a stark reminder that whatever the game is now is unfinished. Any of the frustrations I have experienced up to this point may not have been intended. The devs might have just not gotten around to it.

Suspension of disbelief: collapsed.

So now I’m off playing other, more finished games. Steam shows 46.6 hours played with Valheim, which is worlds more than I spend on 90% of the games I do end up playing. Other bloggers have already defeated the remaining bosses and still others appear ready to continue onwards past the edge of the page. Which is fine. But if there is any hope that I will feel motivated to play Valheim 6-12 months from now when it will (presumably) be more feature-complete, I had to call it. Should have called it after the swamp fiasco, honestly. But there it is.

Mirror

I am still playing Valheim, off and on. I haven’t felt the need to write about it though, considering how many other bloggers are filling space with their survival narratives. How many times do you need someone to talk about taking down the 2nd boss and (initially) struggling in the Swamp biome? For a minute there, even I started to wonder whether we all entered some kind of writing prompt class and had to elaborate on the same Youtube video of someone else playing Valheim.

What I have come to understand though is that all of us playing the same game and making progress in roughly the same timeframe really puts a mirror to us as gamers. Blog posts by their very nature do this all the time, of course, but when the base experience is so austere, we can’t hide in the minutia.

In examining my own narrative though, I keep coming back to… annoyance.

Fun times

The above is a map of my adventures, starting from the 2nd boss who was like two major islands away. Which is fine. Having them so far away serves as an enforcement mechanism to engage with better boats and creating portals. Which highlights how you can’t take ore with you through portals, and oh you still need to explore the Black Forest to sweep dungeons for the necessary cores. And since you drop everything on death, you have to really be on point when exploring or else you’ll have to build a new boat and sail all over again, so make sure to stop and drop a portal every so often.

The real non-fun happened after killing the 2nd boss though.

The Swamp biome is fine. It’s oppressive and dark and tough to navigate and does a real good job of highlighting how much you do not belong there. The prep work necessary before venturing in (Poison Resist, etc) is precisely the sort of things that make survival games so addicting. If you never bothered to learn what the Wet debuff means on a practical level before, you sure as hell are paying attention now. The desperate struggle to flee while both Wet and Cold, spending what precious Stamina you have left zigging and zagging to avoid Draugr arrows in your back, all while you watch with dread as Poison ticks your remaining HP away is something that I think all of us experienced in our bones.

The non-fun for me was how it took more than 5 hours of “exploration” to find a Swamp biome that even had a Sunken Crypt in the first place. I found Swamps, yes. But Sunken Crypts with their Scrap Iron is the only real reason to ever set foot in one. What I found instead were crypt-less Swamps and a world seed that is apparently 90% Plains, which is a biome two ahead of where I should be. And so I sailed and sailed and slapped portals as far apart as I dared, knowing that dying too far out would likely put an end to my playing Valheim at all.

Then this happened:

Well then

With portal “Swamp 5” I finally located a Swamp biome that actually had Sunken Crypts. Three of them. All within sight of one another. And within one such Crypt I got a read that the 3rd boss was… right next door. Next to another 3-4 Crypts.

Now, perhaps it would be too much to ask that every Swamp has a Sunken Crypt. Too formulaic. On the other hand… come the fuck on. Legitimate Swamps 1-4 were not legitimate enough, eh? I keep thinking how much my perception of the game would be different had I discovered a Sunken Crypt in the first Swamp biome I went to. Then again, maybe not, considering how I’ve clocked another 3-4 hours of “gameplay” finding and exploring Mountains that contain no Silver.

“Okay, you just don’t like exploration.” I mean… maybe? I can agonize for hours and hours in 7 Days to Die or ARK where is the ideal place to create a base. Because that sort of thing actually matters in those games. Valheim is about creating shanty towns next to resources and then portaling everywhere or white-knuckle sailing back to “home base” with a hold filled with ore. Really reminds me of Starbound and No Man’s Sky in that way – “home” is all but an abstraction, a loading screen at the end of an ever-expanding portal chain. The only real anchor in Valheim are carrots, beets, and beer, as those take a few game days produce. But, again, those be located at the ass-end of the world for all it matters.

In any case, I do not consider Valheim’s present state to be a particularly compelling argument for “exploration.” Am I literally “traveling in or through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it?” Yes. But if procedurally-generated emptiness is what floats your boat, allow me to introduce you to No Man’s Sky, (vanilla) Starbound, and another small indie title called Minecraft.

There doesn’t have to be a treasure chest behind every waterfall, but if there are never any chests or my progress through your game is dependent upon a 10% chance of a randomly-generated waterfall spawning a chest 5% of the time, well, fuck you.

Perhaps I am being too harsh. I talked about ARK a lot before, but I sure as hell wasn’t using standard settings that would require 10 real-world hours of unconscious dino-sitting. So perhaps I uncover the Valheim map a bit via cheats (or view my world seed map) and at least note the next 5 mountain ranges of adequate size so I stop spinning my oars in the wrong direction. Because I have no problem collecting 500 whatever to do the next thing. But I have a huge problem spending the time going to the place where the whatever is supposed to be, and finding that the princess is in another castle, in a different game, and have fun playing through it all over again.

Valheimed

Like the rest of the world, I too succumbed to the call of Odin and bought Valheim.

But unlike the rest of the world, here’s my hot take: Valheim ain’t special.

Innovation!

This isn’t to say it’s bad. Valheim is indeed clever in many ways… assuming that it’s austere design is intentional, and not a result of it being an Early Access game built by two dudes. Part of that cleverness is the fact that Valheim put a tutorial inside an otherwise open-world survival game. Just think about all the other survival games out there, and how they all proudly lean into their cold opens and lack of direction. I have spawned into ARK with a level 1 character on what was supposed to be a safe(ish) beach and was immediately eaten by a raptor. That may be par for the course for survival games, but it doesn’t have to be. And so it’s no wonder that Valheim with its exclamation mark raven has hooked millions of people into an experience they don’t quite realize is about to get very survivalish.

By which I mean the tedium of resource gathering.

Coming home.

After killing the first boss, the player unlocks the ability to craft a pickaxe with hard, deer god antlers and otherwise move on to the Bronze Age. Which requires the exploration of the Black Forest biome to find Copper and Tin deposits, which can be smelted into Bronze that can then be crafted into better armor and weapons. It is at this stage that I realized I could have been playing ARK, Conan, No Man’s Sky, Subnautica, The Long Dark, The Forest, 7 Days to Die, State of Decay, or Fallout 76. And probably should have instead, because Valheim is incredibly basic at this level. Whereas I could tame dinosaurs to speed up resource gathering in ARK, I’m stuck sloooooooooowly collecting 20 Copper Ore at a time, bringing it back to the Smelter, and eventually turning it into Bronze. Meanwhile, you get attacked by Greydwarves every minute and a half, punctuating the tedium with a different kind of tedium. Oh, and make sure you scour every hillside on your gathering missions so you can find instanced crypts and collect enough red cubes to create your Smelter and stuff.

Seriously though, I’m reading these other bloggers and then looking at my game and wondering if they have never played a survival game before. And maybe they really haven’t. There is nothing particularly approachable about ARK (etc), especially in comparison to Valheim. But thus far, it appears all the really interesting genre innovation died with Eikthyr.

Hard to convey that initial depth of panic.

For example, a lot of hay has been made regarding how Valheim is a survival game in which you don’t actually die to starvation/thirst. Supreme innovation! But what really happens is that you trade off ignoring food at the front end to becoming obsessed with it for the rest of the game, when the opposite is true in every other survival experience. In Valheim, both your HP and Stamina meters are dictated by what food you eat, and you must eat three different varieties to keep them topped off. You can get by with just cooked meat from boars and deer in the beginning, but later generic enemies can almost one-shot you if you aren’t eating cooked meat, neck tails, and then something else like Honey or Mushrooms. That is a lot more varied farming for food than I would need in ARK or 7 Days to Die once I’m past initial hump.

I will continue on playing for a bit and see if anything fundamentally changes after defeating the second boss. Based on writings of people who have already logged 60+ hours though, it sounds like it will be more of the same with a slightly new resource. Which is literally the formula for survival games, I know. Thing is, other survival games typically have an X factor that sets them apart from one another.

As of yet, I don’t see what that is with Valheim.

Slay the Spire, Android Edition

The Android version of Slay the Spire is out. It’s $9.99 on the Google Play store, although you have to scroll down to find it.

And I recommend waiting a while before buying it.

It is indeed Slay the Spire on your phone. If you are not familiar with the game itself, well, you’re in for a treat. I’m sure there were other deck-building roguelikes out there before, but this one is so good that it has basically consumed the entire genre – anything new is basically “Slay the Spire but with X.” Being able to finally play this on my phone without streaming it or other nonsense is something I had been looking forward to for a while. In fact, I had been holding my Google Play credits from surveys for more than a year just to purchase it as soon as it popped up.

The issue is that it is a bad port.

It’s not just the bugs, of which there were many game-crippling ones (stuck on Merchant screen, continuous de-syncing, etc.). The Android port is just poorly designed from a UX perspective. Text is tiny and borderline unreadable, even with the “Big Text” option selected. Cards are shoved far at the bottom of the screen, which means half the time you try playing one, you end up minimizing the app – this behavior can be disabled via Android options, but I haven’t had any issues with Hearthstone like this. Perhaps the most frustrating though are the inconsistencies with selecting things. On the Reward screen, you have to double-tap to collect Gold, but a single-tap will select 2nd option (Potion or Relic), and your card reward requires you to click confirm. That’s three separate behaviors on one screen. Who designed this shit?

I’m also a bit salty when I straight-up lost a run right before the final boss because the wrong card was played. You cannot read the text on a card without lifting it up a bit with your finger, but lift it up too far and it will automatically be played (if it’s not specifically a targeted card). There is a “long press to Confirm” option in the Settings, but inexplicably that’s just for the End Turn button and nothing else. Incidentally, this lost run was the same one in which I accidentally skipped a Relic – the Select button became Skip after highlighting the Relic once – and then accidentally picked a bad choice in one of the “?” rooms because I was hovering my finger over the option so I could see what the Curse did.

Of course, by “accidentally” I really mean “because of dumbass UX designers.”

So, yeah, the thing I had been looking forward to for literal years was immensely disappointing. The lesson here is to don’t look forward to things don’t purchase things Day 1.

What a Ride

January kicked my ass.

The GameStop saga will be one for the ages. Suffice it to say, I disregarded my own advice, especially perhaps the #1 Rule: if it’s good enough for a screenshot, it’s good enough to sell. Alas, I am still in the game (Stop), scalping premium on option trades instead of cashing out where I had originally planned to exit. Canceling that limit order – and taking the subsequent screenshot – is going to haunt me for a while. Which is good, because I need to be reminded from time to time what happens when you abandon your own exit strategy.

Stock aside, I still stand by my earlier post about GameStop the company. News out yesterday indicates that they’re creating* a Chief Technology Officer position and slotting in the former Amazon engineer lead for Amazon Web Services. They’re also bringing over the the Director of Customer Service at Chewy to be the Senior Vice President of Customer Care. Finally, they got a guy who was doing fulfillment at Amazon and Walmart to be Vice President of Fulfillment. None of which means anything to anyone here other than the fact that there’s now a chance that GameStop can pivot away from being Pawn Stars and towards being some combination of Micro Center and… something else. Maybe like a comic book store hosting Magic: the Gathering tournaments?

Or maybe they’ll fall on their face, Chuck E Cheese style.

In any case, don’t worry, this will be the last GameStop post I do this year. Next time we reconvene on the subject, perhaps we’ll be talking about how the company has gotten into the digital license reselling market, how it rents out VR/AR rooms by the hour (and the predictable downsides to that), or the partnership with Geek Squad in custom building PCs onsite.

Or perhaps I won’t mention it at all, seeing as how we’re 1 month into 2021 and I’m already exhausted.

*It’s telling that GameStop didn’t have a Chief Technology Officer position until just now. We all knew it was mismanaged, but that mismanaged?

Shadowlands Alt Leveling is Bad

It is difficult to say with any sort of conviction, but I’m strongly leaning towards the Shadowlands alt leveling experience being the worse it’s ever been in any expansion.

The normal leveling experience in Shadowlands is certainly the most on-rails I can recall, perhaps in the history of WoW. You go through the Maw tutorial and head into Kyrianland, which just happens to be the least interesting of the afterlives. And the actual quest content and layout in Bastion is horrible. There are long stretches of time in which you are far from an Inn or mailbox or flightpath. Want to take a break after 30 minutes? Better hearth back to wherever and then plan on spending 5 minutes riding back to whatever quest you were on. Or just buckling down and spending the extra 15 minutes to finish the quest chain in that area.

For as bad as Hellfire Peninsula was back in TBC, you at least had the ability to skip certain hubs and go to others. Once I figured out that hitting level 62 opened up the questing Christmas trees in Zangarmarsh, you bet your ass I was hoofing it out of Hellfire. No such skipping in Shadowlands. Do every quest in order, every time. Oh, and if you’re not level 53 by the time you get to Elysian Hold, go do some sidequests or pick some herbs until you are.

And can I just say something that I don’t feel enough people have complained about yet? The gearing situation is shit while leveling. Every single expansion I can remember had you immediately kitting out in expansion-reasonable questing gear within the first 30 minutes. That leads to casual raider tears when yesterday’s epics were replaced with greens, but it’s a necessary evil. Because it’s an incredibly dumb, unnecessary evil for my toons to still be rocking ilevel 58 shoulders throughout the entire fucking zone when 87-100 is the baseline.

What could be worse than all that? Threads of Fate.

On its face, Threads of Fate sounds like an incredible innovation. NPC meets your alt immediately outside of the Maw tutorial, and you unlock all the zones to complete in any order. What they neglect to mention is that “complete” means “grinding mobs like in a 1990s MMO.” Some of the Bonus Objective areas literally give you 1% completion per mob kill. “Just don’t do those.” Sure, let me just ride around this entire zone with only three flightpaths unlocked while trying to complete the same World Quests I’ll be grinding at endgame for the next two years. Oh, and they give 12k XP, same as each of the dozen story quests you could do in the same amount of time.

In many ways, Legion was considered the worst expansion for alts due to the way Artifacts (and AP) were spec-specific on top of the RNG of Legendaries. What is mentioned less in that calculus is how all the zones were available from the start and each class had engaging class-specific story content on the way up. With Shadowlands, everybody has the exact same story and quests in the same order until endgame, and then everybody is grinding Torghast for their Legendary, on every character.

There’s some Kyrian NPC who mentions that the Path is grinding Aspirants into dust. You’d think I’d remember his name after seeing it ten times but whatever. That’s what leveling feels like: being ground into dust. My character roster is 60, 60, 57, 54, 53, 52, 52, 52, 51, 51. I kept thinking maybe a different class would make leveling more enjoyable. But that’s when I realized that it wasn’t the class that was the problem, it was the rote, banal, awful design of Bastion through which all characters must pass. Well, that, or level 4x slower by chain-killing mobs inside a yellow shape on your mini-map. Engaging!

No escape in BGs either. Winning a 15-min match gives you… 12k XP. Once per day. Then it’s half that every other time, for a win. Not particularly reliable when you queue as Alliance.

I have never been more discouraged trying to level alts in an expansion than Shadowlands.

What would fix it? There is no fixing of the on-rails story portion, which wasn’t that bad the first time. It really comes down to Threads of Fate and fixing the jank there. Take the only page out of the Jay Wilson handbook and just double everything. World Quests give 24k XP, Bonus Objectives complete twice as fast for 16k XP, and the overall zone meter gives 1.5 levels. I am not even sure that this doubling would result in things being faster than mindlessly grinding the story quests, but at least it would be closer. And what exactly would the point of Threads of Fate be if it was slower than just doing the story again? I think you get a whole 4 extra Renown that you wouldn’t have, for all the good that does an alt facing down the barrel of 10-20 hours of Torghast and Maw busywork.

I forgive you for wondering whether I just don’t like leveling anymore. Thing is, I would take all my characters through Maldraxxus again in a heartbeat. I want to start over there. The Theater of Pain is where the actual Shadowlands experience begins, IMO. But you have to drag your face through four levels of Bastion broken glass to get there. Every. Single. Time.

I hope that this leveling setup is an experiment that Blizzard never tries again.