Author Archives: Azuriel

Of Course, Of Course

Hades is coming to Xbox Game Pass on August 13th.

Of course, I bought it for $10 last week. About 5 hours in too, so that’s well past any refund window.

The double-whammy here is that thus far, unlike practically everyone everywhere, I am not actually having all that much fun. I’m in the third zone and all the enemies there are annoying to fight – every room is just me spamming dodge and left-clicking. It’s cool that there’s a lot of unique dialog and all, but that’s not particularly motivating in the face of dodge spamming my way back to the third zone and dying to some nonsense from annoying enemies. And it’s entirely possible that things just get worse!

So, yeah. If you haven’t played Hades yet, continue not playing it until mid-August and take it for a spin.

Summer Epic Sale

Are we still mad at Epic? Probably not, right? Back in the day, my ire was from Epic throwing Fortnite cash around to buy exclusivity contracts, which bypasses normally consumer-friendly competition. For the most part, that all seems to have died down. Instead, we have the equivalent of Steam sales with a bonus $10 off coupon for games $14.99 and up. Which makes for some rather exceptional deals.

Oh, and apparently they added the Wishlist feature at some point.

Here is what I am currently looking at (post-coupon):

  • Hades – $9.99
  • Death Stranding – $13.99
  • Griftlands – $5.99
  • Cardpocalypse – $4.99
  • Disco Elysium: Final Cut – $19.99
  • Borderlands 3 – $9.79

This is the second time some of those games have appeared on my list, but I know for sure that Hades is getting bought, at a minimum. Griftlands keeps being described as Slay the Spire 2.0/knock-off, which is a bonus in my book, and what sets it over the edge is that it’s made by Klei (Don’t Starve, Oxygen Not Included). I keep thinking that some of these will wind up on the Game Pass eventually, especially in the more-likely-than-not scenario in which I purchase the game but don’t play it right away. It’s hard to tell though, what big names will make it and which ones will not.

[Fake Edit:] I ended up buying Hades, Griftlands, and Death Stranding. Borderlands 3 is just as likely to be given away for free by Epic at some point, and I put in 18 hours into the Pre-Sequel before dropping it from boredom. Heard great things about Disco Elysium, but everything I’ve read puts it so out there gameplay-wise that I doubt it’s a game that would develop enough of an itch to play it right now. For example, if I’m in the mood for a new roguelike, Hades is basically it, as I’ve played most of the others.

Anyway, back to playing.

Mod: Darkness Falls

If it seems as though I fell into a hole… I kinda did. Specifically, in the form a mod for 7 Days to Die called “Darkness Falls.”

I have mentioned it before, but 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a game that somehow pushes all the right buttons for me. It has zombies, crafting, loot progression, skill points and XP, base building, a sort of tower defense angle (during the 7th day Blood moon), resource gathering, scavenging post-apocalypse buildings, and so on. A lot of those mechanics synergize with each other in interesting ways too. For example, you have to weigh the costs/benefits of clearing buildings of supplies versus mining for resources to build out your base to survive the Blood moon every 7 days. And knowing that a horde of strong zombies will be able to hone in on your position on a regular schedule gives meaning and structure around your day-to-day decisions.

The base game has been really good over the years, despite it still being in Alpha, but after 200+ hours the novelty wore off. Updates are more often on a yearly cadence, and sometimes the improvements are a step backwards in some respects. In Alpha 19, for example, loot progression has been tied to one’s “game stage.” What this means is that if you end up clearing out the Shotgun Messiah weapons factory early on – a sort of Tier 5 (the highest) dungeon – the big loot at the special chamber will include… Stone Axes and maybe a Blunderbuss. This was done to prevent people from potentially cheesing hard buildings and walking away with an AK-47 within the first two days, but come on.

In any case, Darkness Falls is one of the many (!) complete overhaul mods available for 7DTD. It takes the current game (A19.4) and rolls back some of changes made over the years while adding new enemies, new resources, dozens of new dungeons, and an actual endgame. The core gameplay loop is still there, including the Blood moon. But now you can choose two classes (out of 8) when you roll a character, and each class has exclusive access to some of the new (or old) mechanics. If you max those classes out, you can collect Skill Notes to build another class book and start unlock additional perks.

I have played so much in the last two weeks that I have perhaps burned myself out on it. Also, sometimes the mod just trolls you a bit. In some of the “custom” added dungeons, for example, they will have a full room of zombies just pop out of a wall and mob your face within seconds. Under default settings, you drop all your loot on death, and thus be extra boned from such maliciousness. I have tweaked my own settings so that I get to keep whatever is in my toolbar, so I don’t accidentally get stranded 2 km from my body, naked and alone.

So, yeah, that is what I have been up to. Like I said, I may be on the tail end of being burned out from playing the mod for so long. At the moment, I am stalling before heading into the endgame biome because I know that’s where the demons are and I don’t exactly have the proper endgame weapons/armor to take them on in a straight-up fight. But I am also getting concerned that the “surprise room of demons” gimmick is in my near-future and I don’t like it. That sort of thing would work better in co-op or something. When it’s just you, there is every incentive to cheese the zombie AI as much as possible to survive. Which… works, but also kinda sucks.

Preconstructed

It’s been a few weeks already, but one of the latest additions to Hearthstone has been Battle-Ready Decks. These are full decks (one for each class) you can buy straight from the Battle.net store for $20, and include 2-4 Legendary cards, a half-dozen Epics, and some smattering of Rares and commons.

Given that Hearthstone is a CCG, it is refreshing not to have to consider the Pay-2-Win angle. Of course it is P2W, like every CCG. So the addition of what Magic: the Gathering players would call “Preconstructed decks” into Hearthstone is not entirely shocking for the genre. That said, the manner in which Blizzard has rolled it out is a bit interesting.

To start, Blizzard included an FAQ regarding these decks:

  • Why can’t I buy a Battle-Ready Deck when the expansion launches?
    • We want to make sure we preserve the exploration phase of each expansion when everyone is trying out new and interesting things. We won’t be offering Battle-Ready Decks right after an expansion launches because the meta always needs time to settle at first, and we need time to analyze the resulting data to determine which decks we should offer.
  • Why can I only buy one? Will more Battle-Ready Decks become available for the next expansion?
    • We’re trying this limited run now to gauge community interest before we decide how expansive this should be.

There is a lot to unpack here.

The simplest “real” answer as to why these decks aren’t available to purchase right away is because it would cut into pack sales. Most Hearthstone decks these days heavily lean on their Legendaries to either close out games or flip bad situations on their heads. Thus, what you’re looking for in packs is cracking open the necessary Legendary cards to make a deck function. Getting all the ones you need straight away pretty much eliminates the need for you to open additional packs and then dust the unwanted cards and try to craft the missing pieces that way. Disenchanting a Legendary gives you 400 Dust, but crafting one costs 1600 Dust. Huge savings being able to get the right one straight away. Less need for packs means more Gold accumulation which you can use to purchase either cosmetics (which otherwise cost cash) or the mini-sets (same).

But let’s take it on face value that Blizzard really is more concerned with “preserving the exploration phase.” That’s good… and really good for Blizzard. By being able to analyze “hundreds of thousands of play sessions” prior to offering anything on the shop, they ensure that A) people early in the expansion buy packs/craft Legendaries, B) they identify what the most popular meta decks are for each class, C) they save themselves the embarrassment/costs of offering a poor-value or easily-countered deck for sale. That is technically a win-win-win.

Unless you are trying to not spend money, of course.

I do find it very fascinating though about Blizzard limiting the purchase to just one deck. I suppose there would be a mini-PR disaster if it seemed Blizzard was just straight-up saying “playing Hearthstone costs $200.” It does cost that much (technically more) for what I would say is a good time, unless you are willing to be considerably patient and underpowered for a few years. No one “needs” every Legendary from every expansion, but the tricky part is identifying the Legendaries – and class! Just ask Shamans – that will last 3 expansion cycles.

In any case, I ended up buying the Rush Warrior deck for $20. Why? To make the $5 offer more valuable.

Blizzard lately has gotten on a tear with limited time offers that are random Legendaries + X amount of packs. The offer that has recently come up is $5 for 5 packs and a random Legendary. Objectively, this is a real good deal, considering two packs are $2.99 in the store. What makes this deal a bit sweeter is the fact that Blizzard has enabled duplication protection for a while now, which means if you have Legendary X, you are guaranteed to not receive another copy of X until you have collected all other Legendaries.

Have you read this blog long enough to see where my mind started going?

All I was particularly interested in was the $5 deal. But if I took it and opened, say, Rokara, I would be sad if I later decided to purchase the Warrior Battle-Ready deck because Rokara was already in it. You do technically end up with two copies in that scenario, so you can disenchant the other for 400 Dust, which ain’t nothing. But it’s certainly not the equivalent of getting 1600 Dust (cost of crafting a specific Legendary) by changing the order of operations a bit.

My random Legendary ended up being Zixor, by the way. I had not realized that the random Legendary pool included all of Standard cards, and thus something from three expansions ago. It will still be Standard legal until 2022, but my internal calculous was based on the erroneous notion of it coming from the current expansion (good until 2023). Oh well.

Ultimately, did/will I get my money’s worth? Probably not. I do find myself playing Hearthstone more these days than, say, in the last few months. On the other hand, $25 is 2.5 months of Game Pass. Or any one of the dozens of games that I have on my wishlist but never buy even when they’re on sale because of the minute possibility they end up on the Game Pass. Gamepassgamepassgamepass. Sometimes it really fucks me up, you know?

What I do know is that Hearthstone is still somehow in the small rotation of games I actually do play for whatever reason, so perhaps this was a better deal than I think. For the average player who just wants to be able to play a competitive deck in Hearthstone, it is also a good deal for them. So even though I believe Blizzard is coming out ahead in a secretly nefarious way, maybe you just grudgingly pay for the $5 bottle of water at the theme park and then get back on the rides.

Frostpunk

After putting it off for a very long time, I finally booted up Frostpunk via the Game Pass. What I experienced is one the slickest, most engaging city-builder games that I never want to play again.

One of the reasons I put off Frostpunk for so long was because it was made by the same devs as This War of Mine. Which is a great game, but doesn’t actually make you feel particularly good while playing it. That is kinda the point, from a highbrow, tweed jacket game designer angle. “Here, experience what’s it’s like trying to be a civilian caught up in one of those wars you like to simulate. Have fun!” Aside from that, I also had an issue with the game having a lot of Blind Choices.

So, I had some dread going into Frostpunk.

The premise of Frostpunk is that there is some global cataclysm in an alternate timeline Earth that makes the world freeze over. You are charged with keeping your citizens alive next to a coal-powered Generator as you face increasing environmental threats from the outside, and social unrest from the inside. While there is an Endless mode, the base game really revolves around Scenarios, which have defined escalation points (within a range) and endings.

Like I said before, the game is incredibly slick. You see your citizens march around in the cold, making paths through the snow. Instead of a grid, the game is based on concentric circles around your circular Generator. Laying down roads is a requirement for buildings, but the roads helpfully follow curves by default. Even better, buildings allow new roads to be built beside them, so you never end up in position where you have to destroy a building to make a new road. Everything about placing buildings and such just feels great.

What is not so great is seemingly infinite gulf between utter disaster and zero worries.

Your citizens need food and shelter, and you need Wood, Steel, Coal, and Steam Cores in order to give it to them. No matter the Scenario, the overall world gets progressively colder as time goes by, so you are on the clock. In the beginning, you need to start collecting Wood and Steel from wreckage on the map, and start building tents for your people to sleep in. After about a week, you may be in good shape: you have a Coal Thumper producing infinite Coal (at considerable labor costs), maybe you have a Scoting party able to start exploring the wastes, you have enough food for the time being, and maybe a few buildings that allow you to get Steel and Wood.

Then things go to shit. Maybe refugees arrive. That’s technically good, because now you have a bigger labor pool. But you need to pump out a lot more tents to house them, and they are unlikely to be within the normal heat zone of the Generator. So you research expanding the heat zone, but turning that feature on consumes twice as much Coal as before. Oh, and the weather dropped down two levels, so all your original people are freezing their asses off, which makes them sick, which means they are out of the labor pool and piling up in Medical Centers. Less labor means less people getting food or gather Coal/Steel/Wood, which means you have less resources to build more insulated houses. Meanwhile, your Scouts are accumulating resources, but you have to make decisions on whether to keep going or return back to the city to hand over said resources and otherwise delay finding more/better resources later.

Now, challenging the player is Game Design 101. Starting the player off in an uncomfortable state and having them work towards feeling comfortable as a result of their own good choices is the Ideal. But what I have learned in my time with Frostpunk is that the inflection point is nearly a vertical cliff. Not in the sense of difficulty per se, but rather in how there is no gradient between struggle and success – one moment you are fighting for your life every day, and the next you have effectively solved the game. And each time it comes as somewhat of a surprise. “Oh… my Coal Mine shut down because I too much Coal. Let me just build more Resource Depots to hold more.” Then the Scenario is over and you’re done.

In this sense, Frostpunk is not a survival city-building game at all – it’s a puzzle game. Do A, then B, then C, then win. It is just a matter of figuring out what A, B, and C are. If you play Frostpunk like a steampunk Sim City, or an RTS without units, you will have a bad time. It is way too easy to get infinite resources, which is “balanced” by the fact that the game only lasts X amount of days for each Scenario. Which is fine, I guess. But why dress it up in such a slick package, including having five tiers in the tech tree, as if any of that matters?

Despite all of that, I nevertheless played through three of the four Scenarios in the base game and briefly contemplated the DLC. It’s fun-ish for the time I spent playing, and I absolutely ended up playing for like four hours straight in one of those “one more turn” Civilization traps. If you end up really liking the formula, there are higher difficulties and even “no death” runs for the ultimate masochism.

If nothing else though, the bar for city-building games have definitely been raised from a UI/feel perspective.

Post-It

I think I figured it out, what I want most in a game. I want this:

That’s a Post-It note I scribbled upgrade materials on and kept near my keyboard. While the Bow portion was for Valheim, the rest of it is for a Survival Management game called Dead in Vinland that I have played pretty heavily lately. Indeed, Steam says 48 hours in the last two weeks.

It’s difficult to discern whether Dead in Vinland is actually that fun. Hell, I don’t even know where or when I got it. After digging into my account history, it looks like it came from a January 2020 Humble Bundle? Anyway, I had been listlessly jumping from game to game because the games I want to play are unfinished Early Access titles. Which may be redundant but nevermind. Titles like the aforementioned Valheim, 7 Days to Die, Grounded. Basically every survival game ever – just got to add “content” to the list of things you have to scavenge for.

Thing is, I’m starting to realize that it may not necessarily be the survival genre per se. What I truly enjoy, what pushes all my buttons, is exactly what is on that Post-It note: Planning. I looked at all the camp upgrades in Dead in Vinland and winnowed them down to the seven that might actually have a meaningful impact. Then I could start making rational decisions on which to build first based on my available resources. It would be suboptimal to complete the two that both take 20 Wood, for example, as that is a resource that would take focused harvesting at the expense of everything else. Plus, Wood has other users whereas with Pelts I only need 30 of them total.

I do find it annoying in how few games allow you to take in-game notes. I have fun with Metroidvanias but dislike how next to none of them let you mark the map so that you know you need to come back to a particular area after getting the double-jump ability, for example. Technically, Hollow Knight let you mark the map, but only with weird icons that you had to purchase with in-game currency. Games like My Time at Portia let you make notes, but not in the way I wanted – if I’ve figured out that so-and-so really likes Apple Pies, let me attach that somewhere on the crafting screen itself. So, again, I can look at my available crafting materials and plan out the optimal route to utilize them.

I bring that up because it is not as though I necessarily enjoy just writing stuff on Post-It notes.

Well, actually, I do.

Names blurred to protect the innocent

And pondering further, it is not even necessarily that I want games where planning is required. Dead in Vinland can certainly punish you for a lack of planning – the antagonist demands a revolving tribute of goods every 7 days – and that’s not necessarily fun. It certainly drives the gameplay and gives you a reason to head certain directions, which is fine. Fun? No.

In any case, when I bust out one of my half-dozen Post-Its and start writing stuff down, I know that something is cooking. The game itself may not always warrant that level of planning – perhaps it will be a shock, but I do have a tendency to over-analyze things – but the act of doing so absolutely increases the net level of fun that is occurring. Or perhaps is just indicative of something occurring deeper beneath the surface and the product is fun.

Now, I just have to find a (finished!) game that is worthy of that attention.

FF14 Play Style

Got an email from Square Enix talking about FF14:

Curiously absent is, you know, Combat? Fighting? Raiding? Hell, even Story is absent.

Also, the Free Trial (which extends all the way to level 60 and an expansion) prevents you from joining Free Companies, using the Auction House, and if not outright preventing you from owning a house, caps you at 300k currency which is probably not enough to purchase one. Maybe the assumption is that you will be so enamored with the game as soon as you start the trial that you will fork over money right away. It’s misleading either way.

I do technically still have FF14 installed and some residual interest in slogging through the beginning nonsense to get to the presumed “good parts” of the plot. I don’t think I noticed any streamlining when I last tried though. We’ll see.

Twitter-Style

Part of me wonders if I should get into Twitter.

As you may have noticed, my posting frequency has been anything but. Traditionally, this is a result of either being too busy to play games or too busy to write about them, but not in this case. My current struggle is the fact that I flit in-between too many games for posts to make sense. I could belt out a half-dozen Impressions posts in a row, but at a certain point that all just seems so silly. I do not intend this to be solely an Impressions blog.

On the other hand, not much of a blog without posts either, eh?

I will have to work it out. Twitter is probably not the answer, as I have no particular desire to keep up with everyone else’s tweets. Just have to get over the compunction to make everything a 1000-word treatise on some armchair game developer nonsense. Sometimes a game is just a game.

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.