Impressions: Against the Storm
Against the Storm (AtS) is a roguelike city-builder, and may very well be the first of its kind. Each game feels like the early to midgame turns of a Civilization match as you explore the foggy forest in pursuit of randomized resources that will force you to adapt your builds in new ways every time. And right as the combination of production synergies and passive abilities make your base amazing… the match is over, and you prepare to do it all over again somewhere else.
Random really is the name of the game. The win condition is raising your Reputation bar to maximum before the Queen’s Ire bar fills up. To raise your Reputation, you complete randomized Orders (quests), solve randomized Events/Caches strewn in glades on the map, leverage randomized Cornerstone abilities (passives), or raise the Resolve (happiness) meter of one or more of your races past a certain point to earn a steady trickle. You’ll do all of these things by collecting resources randomly distributed on the map, with buildings that were chosen from, you guessed it, a random assortment.
If all that randomness sounds a bit off-putting, well, it is. At first.
The genius of the game’s design is how it leans into adaptability. For example, if you wanted to make Beer, it’s very possible for there to be no Wheat on your map and no Farm building offered to grow Wheat. That sucks. But Beer can be made from Wheat or Roots. Or maybe you get offered a series of choices that leads you towards Wine or something else instead, which you trade for Wheat. Damn near every production building in the game has 3+ alternative inputs available, and since some buildings are more efficient than others, you are passively steered in certain directions that might be out of your comfort zone. I’ve had maps where I was just never offered something fundamental, like Planks or complex foods, and had to radically alter my gameplan to survive.
Remember Sid Meier saying games are a series of interesting decisions? That’s Against the Storm.
Successfully completing a map gains you progression currency you spend unlocking passive bonuses and other goodies back at the Smoldering City. After that, it is back to the world map and selecting the next hex to tackle. Each possible biome has a general theme and resources that appear more frequently. Select your randomized starting party, add some specific resources of your choosing, and then spend the next 5 minutes with the game paused to study the randomized buffs/debuffs you have received, and choose your randomized starting three building blueprints. You will repeat this cycle 5-6 times until the entire world gets reset (except for meta-progression) and you start everything again.
It is worth noting here that I don’t actually like city-builders all that much. I played SimCity 2000 for hundreds of hours ages ago and Frostpunk was okay, but I’m not especially a fan of games where you alternate between Pause and 3x speed. AtS is especially egregious in this regard because of all the interlocking parts with production buildings and various, randomized resources. That very randomness though, is precisely what has kept be playing for the last 25 hours – specifically the desire to optimize the madness. Each map will take you 1.5-2 hours to beat and then you are given a clean slate, so don’t come in thinking you will be making a self-sustaining colony or anything.
Overall, I am very impressed.
The game is starting to wind down for me though, as I have noticed my desire to win just for the upgrade currency to unlock new passives… that will make wining again easier. The offset for that are higher difficulties, including “Prestige” (aka Ascension) ranks that have ever-increasing maluses, but that’s not exactly what I’m looking for. And if I was, I would just play Slay the Spire.
Posted on May 2, 2023, in Impressions and tagged Against the Storm, City Builder, Civilization, random, Roguelike, Slay the Spire. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.
Ha! Let it never be said that In An Age does not occasionally cater to the clamours of its readership.
The ‘first turns of Civilisation’ comparison is quite on point. As is the sense that each match ends a little too quickly. On the bright side, if your base really gels early and impatience never gets a chance to increase beyond a few squares, the Queen offers an appreciative nod or a slight smile. If you know, you know.
One element missing from your impressions is the rainpunk engines and their interaction with the blightrot/corruption mechanic. Did you have a chance to play with them? I think locking them behind tier six of the Obsidian Archive and veteran difficulty respectively is one of the game’s rare missteps, which I hope gets corrected on release. (I feel the same about having to unlock the feature of trade routes to previously built settlements, which gives a warm feeling that your past work was not in vain.) On higher difficulties, rainwater management and the production boosts from the engines are somewhat necessary, and it’s what makes the fox race, who are able to sniff out geysers in war-of-fogged glades, quite strong.
I have played 28.9 hours and only just unlocked geysers. Out of the 11 or so settlements I’ve built, only the last three have I ramped up the difficulty from Veteran to the next highest and then Viceroy on the last one. In that time, I’ve only had to deal with blightrot as a result of Glade Events. Even if that ramps up, is it anything more than simply staffing an extra building with dudes consuming 10 Lumber for the flames?
I’m assuming this sort of thing becomes more necessary on higher Prestige ranks, but there’s little chance I actually get that far to see them. Like I said, city-builders are not my jam, and the past two matches have been very frustrating when I never got offered a building to take advantage of the Large resource deposits I uncovered. Mind you, I still won, which is its own thing, I guess.
That said, there is still a slight itch for me to roll the dice again and optimize some new set of starting Cornerstones and resources.
It’s kind of fire-and-forget on veteran, maybe unless you really go crazy with rain engines to boost production, but blightrot pressure happens during the storm phase, when most of every other kind of pressure happens. And the other big dimension is geographical – until your firefighters physically get to a blight cyst, it continues to generate corruption, so there’s the matter of hydrants or additional blight posts, particularly if your town is more spread out with multiple hearths. If your corruption multiplier is high and the corruption manages to kill villagers, this can actually create failure cascades.
Still. Rainpunk engines. The aesthetic notion alone…
I suspect you’re right about the twilight of your time with the game, though, because several of the higher difficulties specifically gimp blueprint/cornerstone availability (higher reroll costs on 3 and onward, fewer choices past 12 and 13, fewer initial past 16, etc.) If that annoys you a lot, then you probably won’t find it fun to get up there.
At least stick it out to personal level 10 for the foxes. I don’t see any foxes in those screenshots, just lots of harpies, which probably got set to Favoured the moment the camera was off.
I literally unlocked Foxes on my last match like yesterday.
I have also never had a 2nd Hearth set up, as I’ve never unlocked enough of the map to be able to put one down (I’ve tried). I’m assuming that you eventually need more because Reputation becomes harder to achieve without unlocking more of the map and thus you waste too much villager time running back? That honestly feels like a completely different game than what I’ve been playing for literally 30 hours.
Hmm. Maybe I’ll try a few more maps to see about the geysers. Thing is, I have a hard time imagining the “point” of things like extra Production speed, because I’m always limited by resources, not the end products. Perhaps some of them increase resource gains? That would be something.
Well, while I’ll grant you that zero multiplied by (impressive number) is still zero, efficiency obviously makes those limited raw materials go a lot further. One should not be eating raw meat/grain/veg instead of processing it asap, ideally. One should try to process wood into coal (the kiln is a fairly strong building) into fuel for similar efficiency reasons, not least because fewer woodcutters anger the forest less. So I struggle to imagine a scenario where production bonuses as wild as those provided by rain engines (plus there’s a dial on those things for a little extra comfort for the building’s workers, iirc) wouldn’t be a little exciting.
I find that labour limits me most, particularly early in the run. Marx was right, of course.
I tried the demo and hated it. The main problem is that it’s sold as a city builder (like Cities Skylines, Timberborn or Banished), but it most definitely NOT a city builder. It feels exactly like you describe it: quick rushed builds where you have to deal with randomness. I.e. exactly what you don’t want in a city builder. It goes on the same list as Slay the Spire (which apart from the atrocious graphics was also just a disguised randomfest), but at least for Against the Storm they had a demo which I could test…..
Obviously I like the game myself, but I’m not going to quarrel over a matter of taste. Your objection is quite interesting to me because I’m not sure what else I’d call it if given the task of selling/marketing it. Outpost-builder would be semantically tighter, but that evokes a military association, and the martial aspect is one thing definitely absent from this game. Simply calling it an RTS roguelite would be technically correct, but considerably more misleading because, again, we’re used to the RTS genre being about making units and war and not so much fighting the environment and fulfilling the needs of a population.
Like, would you refuse to consider the old Caesar games city builders because you eventually abandon your cities and progress to governing the capitals of ever more central/prestigious provinces? Tropico series? Anno series?
Plus, I think the devs/publishers are very keen on setting AtS apart from other city builders by tacking on ‘roguelite’ in even the tersest blurb about the game, so you have a fair chance to smell the rat of randomness, if rat it be.
It’s a puzzle game. The fact that the puzzle is putting buildings down does not change that the main mechanics is not that of a city builder. What I mean is that you also put buildings down in Command and Conquer, but that does not make it a city builder. I rank Frostpunk also in the puzzle category, because the city building is incidental, you just have to find the right sequence of actions to do to meet the deadline. The old Caesar games didn’t have the same limitations (even if the game was more fighting the limitations of the engine than planning a city….).
But it probably boils down to my approach with games in general, as with board games I don’t like mechanics where I’m supposed to deal with a stream of randomness and just make sure I don’t do the worst, with planning being irrelevant because you get so many wrenches thrown into the gears that gears don’t matter….. This is why I like stuff like Agricola or Terra Mystica, which are extremely heavy on planning and have basically zero random stuff thrown at you which you have to manage in a short time frame.
@Helistar: It’s a puzzle game. The fact that the puzzle is putting buildings down does not change that the main mechanics is not that of a city builder.
By my lights, a puzzle implies a single solution, and veers to the side of being static. Lots of randomness makes a thing less, not more, puzzle-like. And, generally, calling AtS a puzzle is not very useful/informative. You could reductio ad absurdum many, many different kinds of games, including city builders, to fit the definition of a puzzle. A WoW raid encounter certainly qualifies as a puzzle. So does a Caesar III city map, with its objectives of population, prosperity, culture, favour, and peace (at which point it ends and you move on). There’s an optimal way to do it.
But quibbling over language aside, I think I get what you mean – you prefer your city builders more open-ended and organic and less goal-driven. You want events to be more directly consequences of your actions rather than deus-ex-machina’ed into your lap. I can respect that.
That approach, however, usually creates the Civ problem, where the game gets solved half-way though. Or the Stellaris problem where you know roughly when the big tests will come and you can prepare accordingly. For players experienced with macromanagement games, it can be difficult to provide a challenge in this way.
Also, challenge via randomness is kind of truer to the ‘real world’, isn’t it? As Mike Tyson and Field Marshal von Moltke both observed…
To echo Esteban, IMO the game really starts in the higher difficulty tiers. Before that what you do matters a whole lot less, as almost anything works and you don’t need to worry about the details. Once things become more difficult, you can’t ignore mistakes, and if you don’t take advantage of the benefits a start/map gives you, you won’t make it.
It’s like playing Slay the Spire but never going beyond the early difficulty levels, and wondering why everyone praises it.
Ehh… I don’t think Ascension ranks in Slay the Spire are the reason why someone would praise it. Ascension certainly generates longevity in gameplay that you have mastered, but StS’s base difficulties are fun enough on their own.
What I will grant is that, in my most recent match with Foxes, by the 2nd Glade I had all three races at max Resolve earning 0.95 Rep/minute, which would have made the P1 difficulty easily attainable (I was on Viceroy). That was the first time that ever happened though – I rarely get such a favorable combination of Cornerstones and map resources.
Part of the problem I have though is the meta-progression. There are upgrades I have yet to purchase that would make future Prestige challenges easier to accomplish. Field Kitchen, more Embarkation bonuses, race Starting Abilities, etc. So… what’s the idea? Crank up the difficulty on both ends for the “sense of pride and accomplishment?” It would be like tackling StS’s Ascension ranks before unlocking all the cards for a character.
For me the meta progression was somewhat self-correcting. I’d push to progress as fast as possible when I could, but there were certain levels or combos that resulted in a loss and I’d have to change things up. For me any game where you ALWAYS win is boring, and so that’s why I appreciate the system here.
Now that said I never ‘finished’ the game by beating all of the levels, but my issue was more that even with all of the randomness, game to game things somewhat started to feel the same (get a higher tier of food asap, if at all possible make tools, lean hard into trading/traders after you stabilize. Even opening glades became somewhat formulaic).
To echo Esteban, IMO the game really starts in the higher difficulty tiers. This sounds a lot like “WoW is really raiding, you should just buckle up through all the inane quests until you get there”.
The problem with games like StS or the short test I did with AtS is that I never get to any “higher tier” because what I see in the lower tier is uninteresting/boring/random/….. so I just stop playing.
Yes and no. What buttons you push in combat in WoW doesn’t matter until raiding, as the content before that is faceroll easy. But combat complexity isn’t all WoW is about. In AtS the core game is there right away, but if you play without pushing the difficulty to the point of failure, you aren’t really pushed to learn how best to take advantage of the various mechanics (and in AtS more complex mechanics get layered on)
This is why I like stuff like Agricola or Terra Mystica, which are extremely heavy on planning and have basically zero random stuff thrown at you which you have to manage in a short time frame.
I don’t play many board games, but I have played Agricola and that is actually a great comparison. Against the Storm is definitely on the Settlers of Catan (x10) side of things wherein you have to change your plans on the fly to react to the randomness (other players), as opposed to Agricola where everything is on the table. And I also agree that it AtS also feels more puzzle (as Frostpunk was) than anything like a traditional city-builder ala Cities: Skylines or SimCity.
For now though, there is something compelling about it for me in a way that Frostpunk lacked, and I am working my way through the Prestige ranks to see if there is an abrupt drop in personal interest. But yeah, if you aren’t having fun within the first match or two, the “real” game isn’t worth playing.
Ok so that confirms my interpretation that it’s my tastes getting in the way. It’s not that I hate Settlers of Catan, but I find that it’s roll and pray and I can just not bother thinking and hope the dice side with me. After winning a game in an absolutely disgusting way (I was basically locked in on a single tile, then ALL the players during their turns rolled my number), I decided that it wasn’t worth my time.