Category Archives: Impressions
Impression: Potion Craft
Potion Craft is one of the most brilliant gameplay experiences I have had in years.
The premise of the game is that you are a new alchemist moving into an inexplicably abandoned former alchemist house. As the title indicates, your job is to wake up, craft potions for townspeople, get paid, buy ingredients, experiment a bit, go to bed, repeat. Unlike a lot of other titles in this sort of storefront genre, there is no looming debt payment or other time constraint whatsoever. It’s just you, the ingredients, and a bit of alchemy.
It’s that very alchemical gameplay though that is so fundamentally brilliant and elegant and intuitive.
To craft a potion, you must move a potion icon around a map and land on a specific, potion-shaped effect. To move around the map requires you to place an ingredient into the caldron and stir. At the beginning, you start off with a limited amount of basic herbs and mushrooms. Hovering over each one reveals the properties of that ingredient, showing you where it will move the potion icon. What you will notice is that there is a sort of baseline distance you move, and then a further distance denoted by a dotted line. If that extra distance is desired, you must place the ingredient into a mortar and then pestle it as desired. Put the resulting mash into the caldron, stir, and repeat until you reach your destination.
Everything about this is so deliciously analog. When using the mortar & pestle, you do not have to grind things up fully – you can choose to stop at almost any pixel distance. Additionally, the quality tier of the potion is dependent on how close you end up overlaying the potion icons. Just touching? Tier 1. More than half? Tier 2. If you want Tier 3 though, you start slowing way down, grinding herbs just so, stirring the caldron ever-so-slightly, and diluting the mixture with water (which moves the icon back towards the center of the map) drop by drop. Until, until… ahh. Perfection.
What continues to amaze me is how… correct all of this feels. The alchemical map starts off nearly blank, and you explore its boundaries by experimenting with what herbs you have available. Finding a new potion effect on the map is exciting because you don’t know what it is until you brew it. Thankfully, Potion Craft does allow you to save custom recipes (limited by magic paper you purchase) so you don’t have to manually recreate every single potion every time. But as you help out your herb/mushroom suppliers, you get greater access to new ingredients that have different pathways. This then allows you to create the same potions with different (and usually) fewer total ingredients, improving the efficiency of your business.
Seriously though, I am deeply, deeply impressed with this gameplay. Indeed, I have spent the last three days trying to figure out if there is a term for what the designers have accomplished here, by so tightly marrying the concept of alchemy with this gameplay that embodies it. The closest I have gotten is “the opposite of Ludonarrative dissonance.” If you have better words for this, let me know.
Having said all this, I do want make an important distinction here: the gameplay is brilliant… but not necessarily engaging long-term.
There are a set of tasks that reward XP that sort of guide you through the general game, which is fine. But after about 8 hours, I have seen pretty much everything I imagine I will be seeing in Potion Craft. It is sometimes fun to realize you can use different herbs in novel ways to improve the efficiency of a recipe, but at the end of the day you are still selling a potion to a random customer for X amount of gold – once you have enough of a income stream, it doesn’t matter too much. And all that XP? It grants you Talent points which you spend to… improve the uncover distance of the alchemy map, increase bonus XP nodes on said map, and increase profit percentages. It’s a very shallow, closed loop.
There does appear to be an ultimate goal to create the Philosopher’s Stone, but it all seems kinda arbitrary. “Craft this precursor with these five potions, craft stage two precursor with these ten potions with an eclectic mixture of effects, etc.” This was all much less interesting than exploring the original map, trying to figure out how in the world you would make it past that obstacle, or figuring out that a potion which previously took 5 herbs to make can be done in two. The process novelty is very finite, in other words.
Be that as it may, I do commend the designers of Potion Craft and encourage anyone subscribed to Game Pass to give it a shot. It is a very unique, grokkable experience which is very rare these days.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
I was stuck in a gaming funk for a while. An embarrassment of riches at my fingertips and I couldn’t muster the energy to choose anything. On a whim, I remembered that I had specifically bought four games to go along with my new PC. With two of them down, why not see if a third could break me out of the funk?
Horizon: Zero Dawn certainly did.
It was a fun experience going into this game effectively blind. Like, I knew the general premise of the game, as will anyone who has ever seen any screenshots: you are a tribesman hunting robot dinosaurs. Basically.
What I was not particularly expecting was the general level of fidelity to the premise. You really are walking around with a bow, arrows, and a spear. After dying a few times on Normal difficulty (!!) in frustrating ways, I took a mental step back. Although things certainly look like a sort of Action Adventure game, this was not Grounded wherein you Perfect Block the attacks of a house-sized spider. You are hunting machines made of metal – you cannot hope to parry with a spear. Of course, you do have a dodge roll with infinite i-frames, but nevermind.
Instead, I started approaching the game as the hunter I was supposed to be. And the game got worlds better. Unlocking the ability to set down elemental tripwires and such certainly helped, but even before that I started approaching from cliffs, and using other terrain to my advantage when possible. Did I still occasionally get one-shotted and lose 20 minutes of progress due to the annoying checkpoint system? Yeah. But I also realized that I was one-shot because I got cocky and wanted to finish off one robot instead of retreating once I aggroed the second. It all sort of reminded me of PvP games and the adage that if you died with cooldowns available, it was your own fault.
Also amazing? The visuals. Yeah, I have a beefy PC so I’m playing a max settings and everything, but the visual direction itself is spectacular. Running around in the machine bases in particular has been a treat. Some of the larger robots are extremely intimidating, even after you are experienced enough (and have the proper tools) to take them out with ease. Plus, as before, even “routine” encounters with robots you have killed dozens of times can quickly turn against you if you aren’t careful. Any time I see a few Snapjaws (robot crocodiles) swimming around, I say “Nope” and go a different way.
Near as I can tell, I’m about halfway through the game. And unfortunately, I fell into the Open World trap of exploring the Open World instead of plowing through with the main story. I say “unfortunately” because at this point I have unlocked all the Skills I was looking forward to, and unlocked all the best weapons. The game is still fun for now, but I’m worried about whether or not I’ll stick around long enough for the ending. I had 80ish hours in Cyberpunk and never actually beat that game, for example. So we’ll have to see what happens with Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Battlefield may just not be for me anymore.
I wasn’t there at the very beginning of the franchise, but I caught Battlefield 2 at just the perfect moment in college such that I abandoned console gaming and spent all my limited monies purchasing a gaming PC to play it at higher fidelity. Battlefield 2 consumed me. And even after all these years, there are experiences with that game that are not replicable – grabbing the Commander reins during a losing battle and RTS’ing my teammates to uncertain victory is a top 10 gaming memory. Shit, just having a Commander role at all was something else. Sneaking deep behind enemy lines and getting an unrequested radar sweep was a gentle reminder that someone out there recognized what you were doing and wanted you to succeed.
I understand why the Commander role was removed in Battlefield 3 though. The difference between a team with a Commander and one with an empty seat was enormous. Nothing in the game proper prepared you for that critical role either, so the only practice you got was typically when your team was losing and the previous Commander abandoned ship. And even if you were an expert? Better hope someone else didn’t grab the slot or that other players went along with your vote kick.
In any case, Battlefield 3 was fantastic, Battlefield 4 was good with some annoying bits with unlocks/Battlelog, Battlefield 1 was a bit too oppressive, and Battlefield 5 was hot garbage. Between the series trendline and the poor news articles, I didn’t have high hopes for Battlefield 2042. And yet I am still disappointed.
I played Battlefield 2042 for about 7 hours via EA Play, which I get for “free” from Game Pass. One of the first options you are presented with is whether you want to allow Cross Play, e.g. get matched up with console players. I chose No, as console players typically get a generous Aim Assist to “level the field” with mouse & keyboard players. Then I had to quickly reverse that decision because it was literally impossible to find a match. Actually, it was still difficult to find a match considering you don’t really “look” for matches, you just get auto-sorted into one (or an empty lobby). I think there was maybe one game mode that allowed you to manually look for a lobby? But those were primarily custom XP farms, like the one where everyone just gave each other ammo, and you get kicked for shooting at each other.
When I actually got to play the game, it was… basically Battlefield. Sorta. There was a lot of criticism about the pivot to Specialists at release, and I agree conceptually. What do they bring to the table that simply having a “specialist tool slot” would not? It’s also kinda weird having these named, unique-looking Specialists when fights are supposed to be 32v32+. It is precisely due to the larger battles that I felt like the Specialists weren’t all that special. Can one of the Sniper guys fly a drone around? Who cares? The enemy is back-capping Point A 1000m away with two tanks. Meanwhile you have a thumb up your ass pressing Q. I guess technically the Sniper can equip whatever other gear they want, even tossing a bunch of C5 packets on the drone like the San Francisco PD. It’s clever, but again, the scope is a bit too small for how games play out.
After a few sessions, it occurred to me that nothing really felt like it mattered. Yes, in the broad view, nothing matters. The nihilism felt particularly acute in Battlefield 2042 though. It’s already one thing that you cannot select specific servers to play on, and always get thrown into a mostly-empty map any time you accidentally press Escape too many times. But you’re also getting thrown together with console players, with whom you fundamentally experience the game differently. Then there is the BattlePass deal, whereby you are no longer really working towards gun unlocks in a satisfying way. Maybe it ends up being all the same in the end, but it feels worse when you “unlock” several items that you cannot actually touch because you haven’t spent however many dollars buying the BattlePass.
All I know is that I did not feel particularly satisfied playing Battlefield 2042, even when I won. I could psychoanalyze it further – as if there is anything left to say on the topic – but if a game is not sparking joy, what is the point? Play something else. So I am.
Impressions: Sigil of the Magi
Sigil of the Magi is a deck-building roguelike ala Slay the Spire with some Into the Breach vibes. It is currently in Early Access, and I was given an early peak by way of a review copy.
The Slay the Spire influences are front and center with the types of cards available, the pathways, and especially the shops. Basically, if you are at all familiar with Slay the Spire, chances are good that you will immediately recognize which cards are going to be good, which ones are noob traps, and what “relics” are going to pull their weight through a run.
That said, Sigil of the Magi does have a number of other interesting things going on.
First, you actually control a party of three separate characters, each with their own cards and card pools. Second, you literally control them in that you can move them around a very small map. While the UI needs some iteration to make things more clear, you can currently see what actions enemy units will take, and their attack preferences. That is where the Into the Breach vibes come in: if an enemy is set on attacking someone but you move all your characters out of range, the enemy will close the distance but then do nothing. Unfortunately, this sort of turn manipulation only goes so far, as enemies will settle for their 2nd or 3rd choice targets if they are within reach instead. Additionally, many of the enemies in the game have some sort of scaling mechanism that makes delay tactics unwise.
The third feature is what really sets Sigil of the Magi apart though: the Tray. This is a four-slot area under the map where you can pre-cast any card in hand for use in future turns. At first, this really just feels like a consolation prize for not being able to do much in the first turn of battle, before many of the enemies are within range. And since you only get 3 energy to play cards (at first), you typically don’t have anything left over to store for future turns once the melee is joined.
That said, the Tray becomes very interesting once you hit 4 energy and start getting cards that interact with it. For example, there is a card that give +4 Armor twice, but gets +1 Armor each time it is stored. Or maybe you get some discard synergies going, but don’t have a payoff card in hand, so you just bank the enabler. The cards in the Tray also are no longer in your deck when it is shuffled, so sometimes it might be worth keeping the generic damage cards in there to keep them out of your hand.
Is Sigil of the Magi good? Right now… kinda, sorta. The tough thing about Early Access for deck-building games is how so much hinges on card/enemy/relic balance, which can change at any time all the way past post-release. For example, right now, you have to choose a card after each combat encounter. This is literally the first deck-builder I have played that didn’t allow you to skip a card choice, and having to slot in whatever the least-bad, anti-synergy card you get offered feels like a punishment for winning battles. Is this an intentional design, like a sort of auto-difficulty balancing mechanism? I hope not. Conversely, abusing Taunt cards to force the end boss to skip all his mechanics and uselessly attack a very armored Knight was a lot of fun. Probably a bit imbalanced, but fun.
Overall, this is one game that I will keep an eye on as it makes its way through Early Access. The bones are good, and they definitely have things set up to allow for a lot of balancing methods. There are only two parties available at the moment, for example, but I can easily imagine varied combinations or even a sort of random mixing to add flavor to future runs. Plus, I really like the Tray conceptually.
We shall see how the balance goes though.
Impressions: Grounded, pt 2
While the first Impressions post for Grounded was a week ago, the reality is that I have been mainlining the game daily for the past three weeks. That first post was written based on my first dozen hours or so, but I ended up playing so much that I never got around to actually posting it. So here are my impressions about the game after some 50+ hours.
Grounded is good. Sometimes annoying. Definitely still Soulslike.
The game world continues to be a huge star of the show. Survival games sometimes have to make huge contortions to accommodate varied biomes – lava must coexist with snow and deep oceans and deserts all in the same map – but the way Grounded interweaves its own biomes is a masterclass in design. The backyard is a believable backyard. And yet going from the Grasslands to the canopy of the Hedge is a big transition. Or to the pond. Or in the sandbox, with it’s deadly Sizzle effect when you traverse the dunes without shade. These are different places, with different resources, and different challenges to overcome. And it all feels… coherent. Believable. Or at least, as believable as teenagers crafting crossbows out of grass vines and crow feathers can be.
Some aspects of the game have begun to provide friction. As you become stronger and explore further afield (ayard?), you… well, have further to go each time. Ziplines become a means of faster-ish travel, but they require a LOT of setup – constructing a vertical tower in the yard, carrying supplies to build destination anchors, and slaughtering dozens and dozens of spiders to turn their webs into silk to craft the zipline itself. Meanwhile, the only way to repair your Antlion Armor is to kill Antlions in the Sandbox, the best healing component must be farmed in the Pond, and you feel in your weary bones how much more time will get wasted with each unblocked attack you take while exploring the Upper Yard for the first time. It gets pretty exhausting, especially when you have to leave an area, inventory laden with loot, and know how much busywork is ahead of you before you can go back again.
Perhaps the better recourse would be to build multiple bases instead of one major hub. Problem with that is some of the more advanced crafting stations can’t really be moved easily. Plus, it’s arguable as to how much time you would really be saving building several bases.
In any case, I am decidedly approaching the endgame. Having achieved upgraded Tier 3 Armor and Weapons, I can say that most fights with bugs are less Soulslike than they were in the beginning. As in, I don’t have to Perfect Block every single attack in order to not die. The tradeoff, as explained earlier, is that you end up needing to farm up considerably more healing potions and items to repair your gear. Some of the bugs I am facing do indeed still pose an incredible threat even with all my gear, so don’t believe you can necessarily gear your way past everything. Plus, there are required boss fights in this game, including different Phases and novel attacks.
And this is kinda what gets me about Grounded. The setting, premise, and story do not match the gameplay. Teenagers from the 90s shrunken down and running around their backyard for flimsy story reasons leads you to believe this is a game that might appeal to younger players. On Normal difficulty, it most decidedly is not a game for younger players. Or older players that may be reflex-impaired. Every time I think I’m hot shit crushing bugs left and right, I take two unblocked hits and I’m sprinting away chugging healing potions. And this is in a game where I can hit Save after every encounter!
I have my frustrations with Grounded, but I’m still here mainlining this game for like 3+ hours every night. There isn’t anything special about the story, and yet I find myself eagerly traversing the yard to clear out the labs to get the next morsel of plot. Or, if I’m more honest, to unlock the next piece of gear and craft the latest weapons from the
bones exoskeletons of my enemies. And all this feels fine to me, as there is a definitive conclusion on the other side. No “keep playing until you get bitter and jaded” purgatory here as with ARK or other survival games.
So, yeah. Grounded. Not the worst way to spend 50+ hours.
Grounded is a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids survival game from Obsidian, which recently graduated from Early Access. I played it for about a dozen hours during Early Access, but decided to wait until full release before diving in for real on Game Pass.
What I have discovered is… well, a fun albeit highly incongruent survival Soulslike.
To start out, the world of Grounded is amazing. You wake up in a small cave that opens out into a forest of grass and weeds that towers above you. Although there are giant juice boxes and other items to hammer home just how tiny you are, they are really unnecessary – everything about how you move around the yard, the distances involved, and of course the creatures keeps everything front and center.
Your first experiences with the yard fauna is usually benign. Aphids, Weevils, and Gnats are basically mobile food and resources. Red Worker Ants are curious about you, but only go hostile when you hit them. Same with the lumbering Lady Bug, although they will quickly one-shot you in the beginning when attacked. Mites are typically your first hostile mob, and they are only really dangerous when you’re distracted or get surrounded. But it doesn’t take a lot of exploring before you encounter the apex predators of the backyard: spiders. Orb Weavers relentlessly patrol their territory and Wolf Spiders are the terror of the night, ranging far and wide through the yard from dusk till dawn. Daylight does not offer much comfort once you journey further afield though, as you encounter Larva, Stinkbugs, Mosquitos, and more.
And this is where things go a little off the rails for me. Grounded has all the trappings of survival games, including a huge map where you can build bases just about anywhere, resources needing to be gathered, and so on. But what you are actually doing to progress at all is a series of escalating Souls-like melee encounters. I say “Souls-like” because everything revolves around performing Perfect Blocks against insect attacks, then counter-attacking. You can technically just regular block attacks (with a shield made out of Weevil meat), but you still take a significant amount of damage, can get debuffed, and eventually stunned depending on the frequency of attacks. Meanwhile, you completely block all damage even with a Pebble Axe from any enemy if you Right-Click your mouse at the correct time.
In games like ARK, there’s no Perfect Blocking a T-Rex bite. But, you can still take out a T-Rex through clever terrain and/or structure use. In Grounded, most enemies ignore most terrain that otherwise slow you down, e.g. grass stems. And even if you happen to engage from on top of something they cannot reach, your (early) ranged attacks with the bow don’t deal much damage. Indeed, since you cannot block while using the bow, the game seems to discourage any realistic use of it outside first-strike or fleeing bug scenarios. “What about flying bugs like Mosquitos?” Yeah, sure, try to get a few arrows in. But you will 100% die if you don’t perform Perfect Blocks with a regular melee weapon of some sort, even if you have the clunkiness of having to toggle between it and the bow.
The worst part, IMO, is how there isn’t much of an escape from the bug-based progression. I guess I cannot claim that it is impossible to complete the game without learning each bug’s song and dance, but it is a fact that several crafting stations require bug parts to be constructed. Again, in ARK the dinos are “soft” required because nobody has time to collect 10,000 Stone and Iron to build the goodies you want. In Grounded, you simply aren’t building a Drying Rack without Bombardier Beetle parts. I haven’t made it into any of the later Lab story areas yet, but there are plenty of bugs between me and where I think the front door is, so… yeah. Prepare to “git gud” or die trying.
(Or play on a lower difficulty, I guess.)
Overall, though? I’m still having fun. The first dozen or so hours had me running from everything more powerful than a Solider Ant, but I’m basically approaching Tier 2 equipment and a general level of confidence to take on most things. Had it not been for an Orb Weaver Jr joining the fight in defense of its momma, I would have taken one of those down already. Luckily, the game features both the default survival “fuck you” of dropping all your gear on death AND the ability to Save your game at any time. Which… is weird. I’m assuming you don’t get saves while playing Multiplayer and that’s the difference. In any case, saves won’t, er, save you from getting owned by spiders or whatever, but it at least affords you the opportunity to practice Perfect Block timing as many times as necessary to get the last bug part to craft a new Hammer or whatever.
Beta Impressions: Forever Skies
Forever Skies is a survival sandbox – airbox? – currently in a beta playtest state. The central premise is that the Earth has been wrecked by several flavors of disasters such that the only safe means of exploration is in a customizable blimp above the roiling green fog below.
The beta is severely limited. As soon as you unlock the blimp, a 20-minute timer counts down and things just end no matter where you are. Nevertheless, I still got a feel for the basic gameplay loop.
Forever Skies is essentially a simpler, airborn Raft. One of the principle tools you have is a blimp-based extractor gun that allows you to deconstruct specific objects at a distance. The main two resources have been Metals and Synthetics, which you can extract in unlimited quantities from floating tumbleweed-esque things. These let you build insect fishing lines (which penetrate the green fog below), moisture extractors, water purifiers, and create fuel for your engines. Although I appreciate the fact that the tumbleweeds ensure one doesn’t get stranded in a failure state while exploring, it does sort of undercut any perceived need to explore anywhere – you essentially solve all food, water, and fuel concerns within 5 minutes of getting the blimp.
In any case, one of the limiting factors in the creation of additional higher tech goodies are Solid State Batteries, which are found in sort of light beacon structures on the tops of skyscrapers. I managed to have time to float towards one such structure, explore around, grab the battery, and then build the tool that allows me to add rooms (etc) onto the blimp. I then unlocked the ability to create a turbine, which would have allowed me to fly higher up, presumably granting increased access to other such “islands” above the clouds.
Having written this out, my impression is less and less that Forever Skies is a sandbox at all. Even if each beacon island (or probably their location) is procedurally generated, you are not really “exploring” anything on the way to one. And once you arrive, your goal is to A) grab the battery and B) check for blueprints. Hopefully there are more uncommon ingredients introduced later on, as the tumbleweeds essentially made anything else you could pick up redundant.
It is difficult to gauge where exactly along the Early Access progress Forever Skies happens to be. If this demo is early-early, then good. If what I saw was basically Beta… yikes. The trailer seems to indicate that this is not the case, what with the sample environment not looking exclusively green, there being a few additional tools, and a better-looking blimp.
Still, I have some concerns about the sort of fundamental “island to island” gameplay. In short: meh? The overall concept of the game is different than other survival ones – no trees to punch, for example – but the islands may as well be instanced puzzles inbetween loading screens. This isn’t Subnautica where there are interesting things going on around you, even if you are in transit to another spot on the map. Effectively nothing else exists outside of the blimp and islands, which is why it reminds me so much of Raft. The trailer indicated that maybe your blimp will take damage from storms or creatures or whatever, but again, that alone is not going to elevate (har har) the experience by much, if at all.
Also? The demo has you get a virus early on from eating a melon, which results in you taking damage any time you look towards the sun. Okay, fine, that’s unique. You end up curing the virus by eating a pepper in another area. Like, I know that the premise of the game centers around viral shenanigans, but I’m not exactly sure what this sort of “mechanic” is supposed to bring to the game. Maybe an enforcement of not being able to exclusively grow melons (which you can’t do in the demo anyway)? Are we going to routinely get infected with random shit and need to go to the next island for the cure? In some games, you do need to encourage players to expand their horizons instead of turtling in one particular area. This one ain’t it – there isn’t anything else to do but head to the next island.
In any case, that’s the Forever Skies demo. I’ll submit my feedback in the more proper channels as well.
[Cyberpunk 2077] The Other 40 Hours
I have a very dim view of the designers behind Cyberpunk, but as Nogamara pointed out, I do have 40 hours and counting in the game thus far. So, what gives?
As it turns out, Cyberpunk 2077 is a lot of fun in the moment-to-moment gameplay.
My prebuilt beast of a PC is running Cyberpunk pretty much on max settings (1440p) with 60-80 fps, and… damn. Night City looks incredible. Aside from the absurd number of loading screens when booting up the game, I notice nary a slowdown or hiccup as I speed around the streets looking for trouble to get into. In this regard, it is pretty much like GTA 5 mixed with Skyrim: a pleasure to just get around and get into trouble.
In the beginning, I was playing the game like I always default to with first-person games: sneaky archer. Cyberpunk does support this to a point, but only just so – Dishonored this is not. To clarify, you can indeed stealth through pretty much all the missions, taking special care to perform silent takedowns, pick up Quickhacks that will blind or distract enemies, hide bodies from patrols, add silencers to your weapons, and so on. There’s just… no particular reason to. Stealth is not extrinsically rewarded, locations are huge with dozens and dozens of mooks to plow through, and pretty much every other aspect of the game leads you towards more direct confrontations. Indeed, if you end up picking fights with higher-level “skull” enemies, you are no longer able to perform takedowns on them.
Having said that, the game gets a bit weird once you stop pulling punches and start pulling grenades. As it turns out, grenades are rather good at solving a lot of problems, like gang assaults in progress, enemies hiding behind cover, and basically anything you toss them at. While these have been my preferred method problem-solving, bullets work just as well. By the midgame, there aren’t a lot of things that are especially difficult. Granted, I am playing on Normal difficulty, but I’m not certain whether increasing the number of headshots necessary to defeat foes would do much to make things more engaging.
From a story perspective, Cyberpunk has been serviceable to good. There are a lot of weird side gigs and cross-references that sort of make the setting feel more Outer Worlds goofy than Deus Ex. For example, there are direct Office references, Portal cake jokes, and so on. The main story segments are more reserved and philosophical… ish. While I’m not done with the game yet, the whole Keanu Reeves rock star terrorist angle feels bizarre. Is he supposed to seem cool? Was he a rock star turned partisan, or was he always a commando and did concerts as a front? I’m not sure the answer even matters.
Indeed, I was presented with a few “choices” between unlikeable major factions and I just chose to destroy the one that insulted/betrayed me more recently. I’m fine with games introducing decision-points that have no bearing on anything other than roleplaying, but guys, would it kill you to offer a bit more context? What’s my motivation here? Hard to hate The Man if none of your interactions up to this point have dealt with The Man in a meaningful way. For all the implied Corpo oppression, it doesn’t affect the player in any way. Yeah, there’s poverty and gangs everywhere, but that’s window dressing and content, respectively. I would have liked to have seen a variation of the Wanted meter where instead of cops, you start getting hunted by Corpo mercs depending on the side jobs you take.
In any case, those are my positive impressions. It’s fun to run around and shoot people in the face. The commitment to first-person perspective – including little things like being able to see your feet, seeing when you get cyberware installed on your hands, etc. – is refreshing and welcome. I seek out opportunities to fight and infiltrate buildings and cause mayhem. I love cyberpunk as a genre.
However. I am currently sitting on 1 unspent Attribute and 7 unspent Skill points. Nothing in the talent trees get my juices flowing, and I have nothing to look forward to, nothing to build towards. Shit, I just found out one of the capstone Technical Ability Skills I had within reach – the one that makes Tech weapons ignore all enemy armor – doesn’t actually work. As in, enemies don’t have armor to ignore. What kind of literal fucking clown show is this? Apparently I was also supposed to be getting free Quickhacks for my hacking efforts (and spent Attribute points) but some bug that’s been around since 1.0 prevents it. Neat. This game would arguably be better off with zero Attributes or Skills systems at all. Not even “everyone has everything all the time,” but literally no one having any enhancements.
After all, there are always grenades.
Having said all that… there is a greater than zero chance I segue right into a second playthrough with a male V focused on “studying the blade” at max difficulty. Quickhacks have been cute, but I’ve been eyeing time dilation katana shenanigans ever since I saw the requisite cyberware on vendors. Viable? Probably not. But it is just crazy enough to possibly be fun.
[Cyberpunk 2077] Terrible Design
Cyberpunk 2077 has undergone a ton of changes since its disastrous launch. I was not keeping track of everything they fixed and tweaked, but suffice it to say, there was a lot. Some of which was immediately indicative of… well, idiot designers. That may sound harsh but let me give you an example: there is an early talent (Dagger Dealer) that allows you to throw your equipped knives. What was missing from the launch of the game until literally February of this year was any way to retrieve your thrown knives. Some designer thought this talent up and some programmer put it into a game where there are legendary knives, and no one thought that maybe losing them forever was a bad idea? Again, this was fixed in version 1.5 which I am currently playing. But the fact that it was even a thing outside of alpha is mind-boggling.
What I am coming to understand is that Dagger Dealer is a symptom of deeper issues.
The overall leveling system is just a mess. You gain XP and gain character levels, which grant you Perk points and occasionally Attribute points. The latter are very important because they determine the maximum level of perk you can select within that Attribute. Additionally, each Attribute has multiple Skill Trees associated with it. So for example, the Reflexes Attribute contains the Assault, Blades, and Handguns trees, each of which contain 17-20 Perks that can have multiple tiers.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Each Skill tree has its own XP meter that increases by utilizing that specific Skill in various ways. The more you use Handguns, the more Handgun XP you generate, and eventually you work your way down the reward track up to the limit of the Attribute. The rewards are usually little enhancements (Recoil reduction on Handguns, etc) but sometimes they are Perk points which you can actually assign anywhere. While that could lead to some interesting decisions wherein you start farming Blade XP to generate extra Perk points to put into Handguns or whatever, the emphasis should not deviate from the word “farm.” Because that is what it takes.
All of that may sound complicated, but none of it is particularly interesting.
I could live with all the overcomplicated shenanigans, but what I cannot stand is a Talent/Perk/Skill system with so few synergies. It is like the designers didn’t even try. I scoured the various trees and the closest thing to interesting that popped up was a Reflexes 8 Perk in the Blades tree called Stuck Pig that increases Bleed duration by 3/6/9 seconds. That is notable not because it’s actually any good, but because there is no “inflicted by a Blade” qualifier to it. Some things other than Blades inflict Bleed, so that would be an interesting choice and/or build to work towards if Bleeds were your thing. If instead you put any Perk points into Handguns, well, all of them turn off the moment you equip anything else.
And, Jesus Christ, don’t get me started on the crafting system. Because I’m going to anyway.
Crafting is governed by the Technical Ability Attribute and subsequent perks in the Crafting Skill tree. The most important ones are those Perks that unlock the crafting of Rare (5), Epic (12), and Legendary (18) items. In many games, there is always a tension between player crafting and found loot: A) if crafting is better, why search for loot, vs B) if loot is better, why engage with crafting at all. Cyberpunk kicks this up a notch with Iconic gear – these are weapons/armor with unique effects that you can continually upgrade… provided you dump a bunch of Attribute points into Technical Ability. If you don’t, those Iconic items might be good for a mission or two before trash drops start dealing more damage.
Aside from that, crafting largely sucks. You need to purchase weapon/armor “specs” from vendors to unlock the ability to craft that item in that specific tier. Just because you can craft a Rare sniper rifle does not mean you can craft the Epic version of the same sniper rifle, even if you unlocked Epic crafting via Perks. Also, the spec for that Sniper Rifle costs 75,000 credits which is just about what it costs to just purchase the Legendary version of that Sniper Rifle from the same vendor. At a certain point you can farm practically infinite amounts of credits via crafting anyway (purchase components, craft X gun, sell to vendor, cycle vendors), but the point is that the system as a whole makes no fucking sense. What was the harm with a more reasonable weapon spec cost? Woohoo, I get a “cheap” Epic Sniper Rifle by dumping Attribute and Perk Points into a tree that does not otherwise enhance my ability to deal damage with said Sniper Rifle. Christ, I bet that I would deal more damage with a trash-tier Sniper Rifle and those points spent in Reflexes instead.
By the way, Cyberpunk does feature a Respec button. The hilarious thing – in a comedy of errors sort of way – is that it only refunds Perk points, not Attribute points. Thus even though I am 40 hours deep into the game and realize how terrible Crafting has been for me, none of it matters because I can’t shuffle many of those points elsewhere because I’m limited based on Attributes, not Perks. I guess there is an argument that people would game the system by switching to a full Crafting build, upgrade all their shit, get infinite money, and then swap back to a weapon-specific build, but come on.
Know what else is disappointing? The cyberware parts of Cyberpunk. The game is predicated on body enhancements and everyone certainly looks the part. But the thing you find out after browsing a few Ripperdocs is that all the enhancements are… just random buffs locked behind Attribute gates. Sometimes you will find a common-tier upgrade not locked behind such a gate, but the vast majority are tied to your character’s Body or Reflexes Attribute, which means a Technical Ability/Intelligence character (cough) doesn’t have much to gain by cyberware. Which is really fucking bizarre, right? Compare that to how Deus Ex handles things – augments grant gameplay-changing abilities and are otherwise a big deal. In Cyberpunk, they are non-choices.
Ultimately, that is the biggest disappointment of all: everything in Cyberpunk (outside of dialog) feels like a non-choice. Can you “choose” to build your character around using Shotguns and Katanas for roleplaying purposes? Sure. Place your Attribute and Perk points in the corresponding slots. But none of that is interesting. And to me, there is no such thing as an uninteresting choice – there are choices and mere decisions. You decide to use Shotguns, and everything else follows. Notwithstanding the banality of having to decide on a specific weapon to use in the first place, there is no room for synergy choices within Skill trees or trying different strategies once Attribute points have been committed.
I am not certain this part of Cyberpunk 2077 is fixable. Being able to Respec Attribute points would help, or perhaps granting more Attribute points overall. Perks would have be radically reworked to introduce synergies though, and I’m not certain designers who had to wait a year and half to noodle on how to fix throwing knives is up to the task.
Impression: Necromunda: Hired Gun
In a word: jank. But the good kind. Mostly.
Necromunda: Hired Gun (N:HC) is a run-n-gun, arena-based looter-shooter set in the Warhammer 40k universe. You play as a cybernetically-enhanced mercenary taking contract-killing jobs deep in the bowels of the eponymous Imperium hive world. And you also have a dog. And that dog can be cybernetically-enhanced.
The gameplay is… well, jank. Cool jank, but jank nonetheless. After about the first mission, your character unlocks a bevy of amazing movement capabilities. These abilities include double-jumps, wall running, power slides, and even a grappling hook. However, these maneuvers become downright required mechanically – several of the player upgrades include 50%+ dodge chance while wall running, for example, or even that your guns become more accurate and have aim-assist… while wall running. That said, the movement is not as tight as, say, Titanfall: when you power slide off a catwalk, your character instantly drops to the lower level in a sudden abandonment of physics.
Despite this focus on movement, the maps are not all that set up for you to take much advantage of these maneuvers, up to and including many instant-death zones for you to fall into. Sure, that makes the environments feel more real and dangerous. On the other hand… jank.
The gunplay is also not really that tight. There are several classic Warhammer 40k weapons available, but several of them are downright awful. Enemies have near-perfect aim and you will be taking constant damage, so the entire gunplay element requires you to be in close range to take advantage of DOOM-esque self-healing by rapid enemy takedowns. This makes longer-ranged engagements (and the corresponding guns) functionally impossible. So you end up being laser-focused on close-quarter weapons like shotguns and the like.
As mentioned previously, this is also a looter-shooter. You will acquire a lot of incrementally more powerful guns that you can customize with various mods and relics. You can also farm cash with side missions to assist with upgrading your cybernetics and special powers. For as many powers you have available, I did find it quite odd how limited you end up being with accessing them via hotkeys (there is 1 total). You can pause time to select from the full menu but that breaks the game flow a bit.
To be honest, the weird feeling of the world and overall game design snapped into place once I read the the developers of this game were the same as EyE: Divine Cybermancy from a decade ago. I don’t expect anyone to have ever played that but it was basically a radiant-quest Deus Ex meets Warhammer 40k meets… developer dreams exceeding their grasp. It wasn’t a great game, but it had a lot of ideas and they did their best to execute on them. Same thing here.
Ultimately, I do find Necromunda: Hired Gun serviceable in the “shoot people in the face” department. Boot it up, play a mission or two, and put it down. My copy came from a recent Humble Bundle that got discounted down to $6 instead of $12. If yours didn’t, well… maybe it’ll come to Game Pass.