Category Archives: Impressions

Impressions: Tainted Grail: Conquest

I have been looking for the next Slay the Spire fix for going on a year now. Played closed to a dozen different deck-building games in that time. After spending about 20 hours with Tainted Grail: Conquest (TGC), I am prepared to mark the journey as complete.

Tainted Grail: Conquest is a deck-building rogue-lite game based on a Lovecraftian take on the King Arthur mythos. You have been thrown into the Wyrdness of Avalon, surrounded by a corrupting mist and body-horror creatures of nightmare, whom you need to defeat to escape. Defeating a Guardian (boss) will allow you to return the ruins of a village you are helping build up to house the lost souls you save along the way. Defeat all the Guardians and you will face the a final challenge… and get looped back to repeat it all at a slightly higher difficulty.

Deck-building rogue-lite game, remember?

What I really enjoyed about the game is the variety of classes. There are nine in total, with groups of three under a common faction. This means they largely share the same base cards, but their mechanics often make them entirely different. For example, there are three summoner-style classes. The classic Summoner conjures minions and can boost their levels endlessly, but will take a corresponding amount of damage when they are attacked. The Blood Mage conjures minions by sacrificing HP right away, and focuses on boosting their minions’ self-destructive nature to defeat foes. Finally, the Necromancer, you guessed it, summons minions… but also generates spectral versions of said minions after they die, all while boosting themselves into a powerful Lich form to deal massive damage.

Instead of strict floors and encounters like in Slay the Spire, TGC has you wandering around in the fog towards discrete encounter areas on the map. Each step you take decreases the Wyrdcandle you use to push back the corrupting mist, so there is some constraint on how many encounters and in what order you wish to pursue them. The Wyrdcandle itself is a mechanic wherein a temporary card is periodically added to your hand that does something if you cast it, and does another thing if you don’t. If your Wyrdcandle is fresh and bright, the card is cheap and very useful. If your Wyrdcandle is sputtering or gone altogether, the card is expensive and punishing if you don’t play it.

After encounters, you gain XP and can level up. Each level allows you to choose 1 of 3 cards to add to your deck, and every 2 levels you can add 1 of 3 passive abilities to your character. You can also get one-use items from encounters, along with Runestones. These Runestones are basically swappable passive abilities that have two different functions depending on whether they are put in your weapon or armor slot. An example would be the Gar Runestone, which either increases your damage by 2 (weapon slot), or deals 5 damage at the end of turn to all enemies (armor slot). Getting three of the same Runestone allows you to combine them into a slightly stronger version.

None of the details really matters though, right? Is the game fun? Yes. For the most part.

I already mentioned it, but I really enjoy how different each of the classes feels. The Summoner/Blood Mage/Necromancer line seems like they would play similarly, but they really do not. Well… kinda. All three rely on a Golem minion to absorb damage so you can buff/summon other things without being ran over. But the Summoner has no nature healing abilities, so you are laser-focused on giving yourself Barrier (a type of shield). Meanwhile, as a Blood Mage you use your HP as a resource like any other, especially because you can get a huge burst of self-healing if you play your cards right. Meanwhile, the Necromancer has minions like the others, but the bulk of your damage comes from Lich-form and sacrificing minions to fuel it.

There can be some encounters that are especially punishing to some types of classes though. The default class is a glass cannon that relies on Block (negates 1 attack) to save themselves. Block is decidedly less useful when one of the enemies does some weak, 1×3 attack right before the boss’s 70-damage swing. But that also encourages one to blow up those smaller enemies first, I suppose.

[Fake Edit] I wrote the bulk of this Impression riding off the high of the Summoner/Blood Mage/Necromancer sequence. I have since gone back an played every other class, and… they are weak-sauce. Or the Summoner branch is overpowered, which is entirely possible. The “gotcha!” encounters that give Summoners issues are easily negated, but the other class families can be blown up entirely. I didn’t play them long enough to see if some Passive ability makes up for things, but some of them just aren’t as fun. At least two of the classes, for example, basically rely on doing nothing on their turns but turtle up and buff themselves for an explosive future turn. Which is fine in theory, but they also have no self-healing like the Summoners, so each fight ends up being a Pyrrhic Victory at best, and your last one when you face foes that need to be killed immediately.

Finally, I would be remiss to not mention one area that absolutely, as the kids say, slaps: the music. As it turns out, the devs licensed music from a band named Danheim who focuses on Viking/Norse-esque songs. I enjoyed myself listening to the boss fights so much that I ended up acquiring the Danheim discography. If I was still hosting D&D sessions, I would absolutely be incorporating these songs into the battle music rotation.

Is Tainted Grail: Conquest the kind of game I will play for 300+ hours like Slay the Spire? Ultimately… probably not. For one thing, I can’t play TGC on my phone, where I play Slay the Spire now. But of all the deck-building roguelikes I have plowed through, this game is the closest one I have found. And if you have Game Pass, you can try it out for free and see yourself.

Checkpoint: Subnautica: Below Zero

I’ve been playing some games. Let’s talk about it.

Subnautica: Below Zero

My experiences thus far can be summed up by this meme:

There is an interesting philosophical debate as to whether Below Zero is a DLC or a sequel, but I think the truth is that it’s neither: it’s a map pack. Almost everything is literally the same: same drop pod, same resources, same recipes, same fish, same upgrades, same base building components, same progression. The moment I stepped out of the drop pod (it is a short walk from opening scene), I said “OK, time to make a scanner and build a Sea Glide.” I didn’t know there was a Sea Glide in this game, but I knew. The last time I touched the original game was 2018, by the way.

The bigger marine fauna is different… sorta. You won’t see any Sand Sharks or Stalkers or Bonesharks. Instead, you have the Brute Shark and Cryptosuchus and another bitey creature you swim away from, because who cares? They all make the same scary-at-first roaring noises as they try to take an easily-ignored percentage of your HP bite. Things are so bad in this department that I didn’t even realize I had encountered the Reaper of Below Zero – named Chelicerate, which totally rolls off the tongue – until I got into a special “totally being eaten whole right now” sequence. Then I said “huh, okay” and swam away because nothing one-shots you from full HP.

So what I’m saying is that the novelty is 100% gone for me. There’s a new story and perhaps some additional lore and new set pieces and such. But what I am finding is that it’s not good enough to justify the short-comings inherent to the Subnautica formula.

For example, new items are unlocked via scanning (3) pieces on the ocean floor. Ostensibly, this is to encourage and reward exploration. The problem is that navigating a 3D underwater environment in 30-40 second increments with hostile creatures and no map is difficult. More difficult still is knowing something is there in the first place. You might be in an area with pieces of an item you already unlocked, and not realize there was a second disassembled item available. Or maybe you found 1 of 3 pieces and now for the life of you can’t remember the area where you found that. And maybe that one piece was part of the Ultra-High Capacity Oxygen Tank, which would double the amount of time you can further explore. And so every minute you play the game not having found the remaining pieces you remember how much more restricted you are exploring anything else for not having it.

“Look it up, then.” I did. Then I saw the rest of the game automatically play out in my mind.

I may ultimately go back and finish Below Zero, but it will be with the reluctance one has in going through the motions of inevitable victory in a Civilization game. In my search for the other Oxygen Tank pieces, I ended up landing on basically every other major location/story node and seeing 80% of what they offered. Part of the whole appeal of discovery is doing whatever you want, but what I want is to not drive around the map in a slow-ass Sea Truck back to the same areas I was blocked from accessing the rest of, due to some item I hadn’t scanned yet.

Which included the Habitat Builder, by the way. You know, the thing that allows you to build a base and utilize 90% of the tech you scan? It was apparently sitting right on a box next to everything else I scanned, but I missed it somehow and had to look that shit up too. I understand that there are a lot of people who don’t like hand-holding or arrows over objectives, but the Habitat Builder is a huge chunk of the appeal of the game. I don’t think anything is improved by allowing that to be missed.

And that kinda sums it up: Below Zero improves nothing on the original.

Impressions: Medieval Dynasty

Stardew Valley meets Crusader Kings.

Okay, maybe it’s a bit early for that. I’ve only played for about two hours, and have no particular idea what’s really going on yet. But there are a few notes I wanted to jot down.

First, I really like the premise, from a mechanical point of view. You are a orphaned peasant told to just grab some empty land and build whatever. The twist here though is that each season is only three game-days long. This acceleration is possible because, you know, dynasty, e.g. you are intended to produce an heir that’s carries on the family business of village-building.

This is both unique in the farming/crafting genre and also helps handwave some of the more traditional gamey bits. Like how one dude can chop down a dozen trees and build a house in an afternoon. I mean, it’s still handwavey due to how hunger/thirst works, but I still appreciated the thought.

Also, you can change the 3-day season to be longer if you want via settings. The devs “strongly suggest” leaving it at 3, and I can see their point even from the start: without the dynasty bit, it’s just a worse Stardew Valley.

Having said that… well… the 3-day season makes all the NPC and questing bits exceedingly silly. One of the starting quests is to find out why a rye shipment hasn’t arrived. To complete this quest, you have to walk 1200m or so to the next town, then halfway back, then back, then return all the way. It took 1.5 in-game days to complete. So, basically my entire Spring. The reward was 300g, for which I have no context whether it’s worth the time I lost. Some of the meals from vendors cost 270g for some porridge, so I’m guessing No.

It was nice to see that the quest had an 18-year time limit though. Especially since one part was locating the courier who was bleeding to death near a river. Would he have just been bones if I waited 5 “years?” I’m guessing No again.

Anyway, there’s that.

OK one more thing: I find it intimidating in these games when they say “build wherever.” I recognize the terror of analysis paralysis, so I end up creating a base camp within earshot of the beginning area. Somewhere along the way though, the base camp hits a tipping point where it would be too onerous to move everything somewhere else, so I keep it in a lame area and just deal with the dissonance.

In this game though? Shit is extra scary. I’m going to have to create and reload several Saves given how it might take in-game years to find a spot where I’m happy settling. Meanwhile, I don’t know which resources are more difficult to find/gather or any sort of late-game concerns.

Which is of course the smartest thing to worry about after playing something for 2 hours.

Fighting the Game Mechanics

I just completed Orwell, a sort of Papers, Please-style game that demonstrates the dangers of mass surveillance. As an Investigator, your job is to comb through a few suspects’ Facebook pages, text threads, and anything else you can get your hands on (including medical records) to glean info and connect dots to stop further terrorist attacks.

The game is actually pretty slick in an AR sense, and reminded me of that one old (2012 is old, right?) Youtube video, Welcome to Life. There is no fourth wall – you the player agree to terms and conditions and your participation as an outside observer is intended.

Overall, the game was decent entertainment across the six hours I spent playing. The frustrating part though was how often I ended up having to fight against the game mechanics.

One of the central conceits of the game is that you have to upload information to the Orwell system as “Datachunks.” Sometimes this is straight-forward factual information, like phone numbers or email addresses. Other times you have to exercise judgment and restraint based on context. If someone says they live in “Wonderland, on the other side of the rainbow” or whatever, uploading that will actually make that their address in the system. That example is benign, but as this is a game with multiple endings, you can actually screw things up depending on what you submit and what you don’t.

Yeah, maybe don’t imply that they engage in torture.

The problem I faced rather early on though is that Orwell is a videogame. And as a videogame, progression is based on “flags” which must be tripped before you can continue. There were at least four instances in which I could not progress until I uploaded a specific Datachunk that was not otherwise immediately obvious as being necessary. Once I did so, there would be a totally unrelated phone call or whatever I could listen in on to get more information and continue onwards. But as I mentioned, the game makes it clear that you shouldn’t just upload ALL of the Datachunks lest you pollute the profiles and/or possibly implicate an innocent person.

There is no option to just end the day, or move forward with the information you already have. I suppose it would be more frustrating to basically soft-lock you out of finishing the game at all if you end up missing a crucial bit of information. Nevertheless, Orwell felt like it existed between a visual novel and a Hidden Object game, the latter being a hypothetical one in which you could “lose” by clicking on the wrong thing.

I don’t have a solution to this problem; the Orwell devs don’t either. It’s a shame that an otherwise delightful experience could encounter so much friction in execution based on game mechanics.

Non-Service Games

aka regular-ass games.

It is interesting how my perception of games has shifted in the many years we have been living under a “Games as Service” model. Cosmetics, DLC, loot boxes, and all the other myriad monetization strategies nefariously cooked up by black hat economists are just the way things are now. The one little light left in Pandora’s box is that of updates. The suits want to keep engagement high to keep the cash spigot on, so they task the devs with fiddling with all the knobs. Sometimes that ends up making things worse, sometimes maliciously so (e.g. adding time-sinks). But sometimes it works out, and on the player side, hey, at least it seems like someone cares about what’s happening.

Cue my surprise and disappointment and surprise at my disappointment at learning a recent game purchase is… done. Finished. Complete.

Fate Hunters is neat little deckbuilding roguelike I bought for $3.74. The visuals are like Darkest Dungeon, the gameplay is kinda like Slay the Spire, but honestly it plays more like Dominion. There is zero plot, and you only accumulate gold to purchase permanent unlocks if you make it past a boss and retire your deck. Oh, and gold is represented by Treasure cards in your deck, so the more you hoard, the more you dilute your deck. There is no energy, so you basically get to play as many cards as you can (Treasure cards notwithstanding). It is the most arcade-like roguelike I have ever played, but it’s engaging just the same.

It is also “abandoned.”

We finished the game and did almost everything we planned. But there will be no new patches and sequels.

(source)

“The devs are done with the game? Can they even do that?!” Fate Hunters actually plays pretty well – I did not encounter anything remotely close to a significant bug. There are some eyebrow-raising balance issues and some card tweaks that would make everything smoother IMO. The thought that nothing will happen with the game anymore though? It feels like I was duped. As though any game I purchase must have full dev support for at least the length of time I play it, lest it be abandonware. If you aren’t Terraria or No Man’s Sky, who even are you?

Well, you’re a regular-ass game from any time 20+ years ago.

[Fake Edit:] I was digging around and found out that the devs are making a new game that looks exactly the same gameplay-wise… but worse, graphically. It’s in Early Access and is called Dreamgate. On their FAQ thread, they mention:

Do you have experience in developing and releasing a game in Steam?

Our team has been developing games for over 7 years and our last game was Fate Hunter. But unfortunately, we could not continue to develop this game, because the rights to it did not belong to our team.

Based on our past experience, we decided to release our own game, the rights to which belong to us fully and which we could develop as we see fit.

So, there it is. Of course, they also mentioned in another post that they are a 2-man team and “this is not our main project” so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Caveat emptor and all that.

[Real Edit:] WTF. How many done games am I going to be buying?! Just found out about Griftlands:

At this time we don’t have any plans for more Griftlands content or DLC. That being said, who knows? I don’t like to ever say we absolutely won’t do more for a game because that often turns out to be not totally true, but at least for now we don’t have any plans.

(source)

Maybe devs don’t actually like deckbuilding games? Don’t Starve and Oxygen Not Included are both Klei games that have/are getting paid DLC and ongoing support and tweaks. Scandalous!

Impression: Griftlands

Griftlands is Klei’s entry into the roguelike deckbuilder genre. And in typical Klei fashion, it overcomplicates everything.

Dialog is actually pretty good across the board.

In some circumstances, overcomplication can be good news. It represents depth and complex systems and a high skill ceiling. Oxygen Not Included is a gem of a colony sim, and Don’t Starve is one of those genre classics that seems simple at first, but quickly demonstrates how deep the rabbit hole goes.

So what’s the issue with Griftlands? The complication is just time-consuming.

One of the central hooks is that Griftlands is a roguelike deckbuilding RPG. The three characters you can pick from each have an elaborate backstory and encounter numerous choices throughout the game. And speaking of backstory, the game’s lore is extremely elaborate and interesting. It takes place on a remote, swamp-like planet populated by the descendants of a spacefaring civilization that… stopped sparefaring. Most of the citizens worship Hesh, an inscrutable Cthulhu-esque monster in the deep ocean. So you have mechs, bioweapons, ancient tech, and post-apoc Thunderdome elements in this gumbo soup of a setting. It’s pretty cool.

Less cool is how all these RPG/Visual Novel elements interact with, you know, a roguelike deckbuilder. Like how my first playthrough with the first character ended when I died to the final boss after 7 hours, 15 minutes. While you can make different choices the next time around, in reality they are more of an A/B route sort of thing. Do you side with the authorities or the rebels? Do you double-cross the one dude or not? The final boss is always the final boss. My second playthrough was a success after five hours. And that was with me skipping some of the dialog I had already heard before.

Just a breezy 5 hour, 20 minute playthrough.

Even ignoring the story aspects, the deckbuilding side itself is complicated.

You start off with two decks, completely independent of one another: Battle and Negotiation. Whenever you come across an encounter, you often have the choice of determining whether to use one or the other. Generally speaking, Negotiation avoids “battle” encounters entirely, but sometimes they are used to weaken a particularly stubborn foe before fisticuffs. Negotiation is an entirely different battle system with different mechanics and even different “HP”. Additionally, you can “lose” in a Negotiation without losing the game, although that typically results in you no longer being able to do any more Negotiations for the rest of the in-game day.

On top of this, all cards have XP meters that increase as you play them. Once filled, the card gets one of two upgrades to choose from. The generic cards have a dozen or so potential options, but the main ones you get from shops or win from battle will just have the two options. This XP element will typically encourage you to stall battles out so you can level-up your cards, but this can only be done for X number of rounds before your character becomes exhausted. Nevertheless, the XP mechanic complicates things quite a bit considering the final encounter for each character is always a Battle, so choosing Negotiate all the time will lead to inevitable failure.

Turns out this combo is pretty strong.

On the Battle side of things, everything is more straight-forward. Ish. You face off versus one or more enemies like in Slay the Spire. You might get some help though in the form of a pet, hired goons, NPC helpers, or NPCs summoned from cards in your deck. Each of the three main characters have their own special mechanics. For example, one gets Charges that can be expended to boost cards, another takes self-damage that turns into end-of-turn self-healing, and so on. You can add cards to your deck after successful encounters or buy them from shops. Grafts are permanent items you, well, graft into your skull that act as passive abilities. And so on and so forth.

Oh, I forgot to mention about relationships. During Battles, enemy character have X amount of HP, and then a slightly higher threshold for Panic. For example, someone may have 80 HP but Panic once they get to 20 HP. Cause all the enemies to Panic and the encounter ends with you having the choice as accept their surrender or execute them. Executing characters grants you a special card, but will also likely cause one of their friends to hate you. This hate manifests as a Social Bane, which is just a persistent debuff that exists as long as they hate you. Some are whatever, but others increase the costs of all vendors, or cause you to lose money every time you sleep, and other nastiness. You can try and kill the person who hates you to erase the Social Bane, but unless you properly provoke them into a duel, you just continue the cycle of hatred.

On the flip side, Social Boons also exist. Most of the time they come from doing quests for people, but sometimes you can just straight-up throw enough money at someone to get them to like you. Just like in real life!

Are you feeling the overcomplicated-ness of this game yet?

Overall the game is fun, but honestly it is in spite of all of these systems. A particularly long Slay the Spire run takes me maybe 2-3 hours max. Doubling that for Griftlands does not double my fun. Indeed, the longer things go on, the more disappointed I become if I don’t succeed. The saving grace of most roguelikes is winning or losing quick enough that you can jump back on the horse without questioning your life choices. With Griftlands, you have plenty of opportunity to ask questions.

As a final note, there is a Brawl mode which eliminates all the plot and just lets you play battles in sequence. I just completed my first one before writing this… after 3 hours and 20 minutes. That is one long-ass roguelike experience.

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.

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.

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…

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.