Category Archives: Impressions

Frackin’ Starbound

I have kinda let Fallout 76 slide these past few days, as I reach the mundanity of the endgame. Which mainly consists of server hopping for weapon plans and getting distracted by nuke zones in the process. We’ll see if any of these patches fix anything.

Still in a mood for survival game though, I was sucked back into Starbound with the Frackin’ Universe mod pack. This is a full-body mod that basically changes nearly every aspect of the game by adding dozens of new systems and results in thousands of different interactions. To give you an idea, one of the early buildings is a “wooden centrifuge” that allows you to put water in, and get Hydrogen and Oxygen canisters back out. There are other systems changes as well, including the fact that your character no longer emits light, so things like flashlights and seeding tunnels with hundreds of torches becomes important.

So far I have spent about 8 hours playing and haven’t even left the starter system yet.

The problem I’m facing is two-fold. First, there is a noted lack of direction/progression. The mod includes a whole host of “tutorial” quests to introduce some of the concepts, but in practice they are more like “craft a growbed… now have fun!” While I can’t quite build everything yet, I have like a dozen different crafting stations and no sense of what I should be building, or working towards. “It’s a sandbox, do whatever.” Yeah, no, not how it works. If you look at ARK or even Minecraft, there are subtle channels of progression – things are either level-gated or material gated or biome gated. There’s gating in Frackin’ Universe too, but the starting gate is way too big.

The second issue is sort of mundane, but… I’ve already beat this game. Frackin’ Universe puts in all these new systems and such, but the core game is still about collecting six artifacts and defeating the tentacle monster. There is a longer journey to get there – the mod rebalances things so its not as easy – but the destination is the same. While I could and probably should just create my own goal and do whatever, I feel like if I’m already having to do that, I should probably do that in a game I haven’t already beaten. I mean, I already had 60 hours in vanilla Starbound.

We’ll see. It’s fun (and a bit frustrating) for now. The question will be for how long.

Impressions: Metal Gear Survive

The other day I bought Metal Gear Survive for zero dollars.

A bargain at twice the price!

Although most of the internet would probably suggest that zero dollars is still too expensive for this game, I found it to be a rather fascinating experience.

Before I start, let’s address the elephant in the room: Konami sucks. Like him or hate him, Kojima is/was a ground-breaking (and budget-busting) designer and Konami will ultimately rue the day they let him go. That whole episode also marks the ignoble end to some of my favorite franchises too. So, in a way, Metal Gear Survive is a complete mockery of Kojima’s legacy – a survival game knockoff recycling the majority of Metal Gear Solid 5 assets in what is presumably a complete cash-grab.

That said… the MGS5 skeleton is better than most studios could dream of creating.

Metal Gear Survive surprised me right out of the gate with something novel. In the tutorial section of the game, your first weapon is a spear. Fantastic zombie-killing weapon, IMO, and I’m always surprised when no zombie game ever lets you craft one. Then you are introduced to chain link fences. And then they drop the bomb: you can stab zombies with a spear through the fence.

Mind. Blown.

My amazement might sound factitious, but I’m being serious here. It’s a tiny, little thing that grounds the game in some sort of believability. It’s something you feel clever doing every time it occurs. There aren’t any spears in 7 Days to Die, and the only way you can attack zombies through something is if you build columns or have some kind of iron gate. I had been playing Metal Gear Survive for only an hour at this point, and already all future survival games will be judged based on whether I can attack through a chain link fence.

The boldness continued right on the second mission. The task itself was “download(?) the memory board” and the AI advisers warned me that “there will be some Wanderers (i.e. zombies) nearby.” Which, when I turned the corner and saw the building, happened to be a contender for understatement of the year.

That was just half of the enemies milling about.

It’s the second goddamn mission, I have zero weapons other than a spear at this point, and the ability to build chain link fences. And while that sounds like an unstoppable combo, let me just say the devs have specifically accounted for situations in which there are dozens of zombies being held back by a flimsy chain link fence.

Legit freaked out the first time it happened.

Beyond that, the gameplay loop is… deceptively serious. Hunger and Thirst meters are present, and they dictate the maximum recovery level of your HP and Stamina meters, respectively. This means that if your hunger is at 25%, you can only ever heal back up to 25% HP. On top of this, food items are incredibly scarce. Animals will respawn, but it can take several real-world hours, which means you will spend the first dozen or hours of the game rather hungry.

On top of that, most of the game is spent exploring “the Dust.” The map is covered in a fog that requires you to wear an Oxygen mask to survive in, which is yet another meter to watch. Each time you are in a new area of the (Dust) map, your traditional tracking mechanisms, e.g. waypoints, will not work either. While there are distant lights you can use to kind of manually guide your progress, you can quite easily lose track of time or direction and otherwise get into a bad situation.

Teleporting Wild Ass back to your base is important too.

There is one final element that kind of brings this all together in a hardcore-ish way: Metal Gear Survive works on a Checkpoint Save system. Until you actually make it back to base camp, none of what you pick up or map or achieve counts for anything. If you die 5 seconds before the end of the mission, or if the thing you need to protect blows up, you start all over. While this isn’t too different from all the other survival games I have played, it certainly feels a tad more hardcore in practice, somehow. Possibly because in other survival games, you don’t necessary have to go into that clearly-dangerous area again.

In any case, I’m about a dozen hours into the game and continue to feel compelled to log in again and again. It’s not the best-looking survival game, and there are definitely pared-down elements compared to something like ARK or Fallout 76, but the combination of the formula and the MGS 5 vibe makes it very engaging to me. Even if everything else seems goofy as shit, on occasion.

[Fake Edit]

I just completed the game this past weekend, with 28 hours played. My overall impression has soured somewhat in the meantime.

The first thing to note is that Konami didn’t just recycle assets, they recycled maps. I kinda already knew this heading into the game, but I found the experience rather jarring when a mission sent me to the mansion from MGS 5 for no particular reason. That is, there was a memory board located there that I needed to progress the story forward, but no actual storyline or plot purpose for the mansion itself to exist. There wasn’t even a boss fight or anything inside. Instead, it felt like the devs just said “oh, hey, there’s a mansion in these asset folders we haven’t used yet” and then slapped it in.

The second note is that the game’s cadence changes substantially in the latter half. Instead of survival, everything becomes long action sequences of surviving waves of zombie hordes. While this is not entirely out of character for the game, the fact that the last half-dozen mission are pseudo-time limited is. At no point did I feel the game adequately express the need to ensure that I had stocked up on enough ammo; that I managed to survive the onslaughts at all was a fluke of my hoarding nature.

15 minutes? Are you fucking kidding me?!

Finally, speaking of hoarding, the “endgame” itself radically changes from a resource-gathering perspective. Essentially, instead of wandering around afield in new locations, the optimal method is to simply teleport to every waypoint and gather whatever is located there, then teleport back to base to offload it. This gives you enough material for damn near everything… except for bullets. Specifically, gunpowder can only be collected from specific items you pick up. You can convert materials in dozens of different combinations – turning Iron into Gears, Nails, Steel, etc, etc – but you cannot convert anything into gunpowder. Which is especially frustrating considering that you can convert gunpowder into TNT, but can’t down-convert TNT into anything.

The end result is that you basically can’t really use guns as your primary weapon. Which is fine, I guess. Other games like Dead Island really emphasized melee weapons too. But the fact remains that Metal Gear Survive allows you to farm this gunpowder over the course of several hours, such that you could use guns as a primary weapon if you put in enough mindless time. This ultimately just makes the entire situation feel worse though.

In any event, I do not necessarily regret my hours spent in Metal Gear Survive. If nothing else, it reminded me of how engaging Metal Gear Solid 5 was, and how cool the Fox Engine could be for use in other games. That will… never be made. Sigh. Fuck Konami.

The Real Issue of Fallout 76

Played an unhealthy amount of the Fallout 76 Beta this weekend. I’m now convinced of a few things.

FO76_Farm

Oh country roads…

First, PvP and griefing will largely be irrelevant. Some people may have claimed the same thing before the beta even went live, but having now experienced the game for myself? Yeah, it’ll be no biggie. My one “PvP” experience was inside the Morgantown Airport “public instance,” one of the locations the game funnels you into for story purposes. While trying to access the computer, some guy with a shotgun was shooting me at point-blank range (for like 1 damage). As I looked at him, I saw what presumably was his buddy nearby, naked and holding an axe. At first, I misinterpreted the red “50” over his head as being his level (it was actually the Caps reward for killing him), so I decided to walk calmly to the exit and left the area. They did not follow me outside the instance. I came back later and completed the quest.

Now, yes, their shenanigans caused my behavior to change. It’s also possible to find yourself in the middle of a fight with actual enemies, which would prevent you from Fast Traveling away to wherever. It’s also technically possible for dedicated griefers to Fast Travel to wherever you Fast Traveled to… unless it’s your own CAMP, in which case your Turrets would do your dirty work.

But the real reason none of that matters? Because you get a random server every time you log in. You will not see the same people ever again.

Incidentally, random servers is also the real issue with Fallout 76.

At first, the idea seems liberating. There will not be any “alpha tribes” in Fallout 76 who systematically take over everything. There will not be any sort of administrative busywork in finding servers with the lowest ping or whatever. There is no concern about picking the wrong server, or being left on a dead one, or being on one that is overstuffed. People will pop in, people will pop out, and life will go on.

The impermanence cuts both ways though.

FO76_Workshop

Junk might actually be the most valuable out of those.

One of the big features in Fallout 76 are public Workshops. These are locations that you can capture and claim for your own, and have to periodically defend from waves of enemies. In exchange, you can use Workshop materials to craft basically a 2nd (or 3rd, etc) CAMP to your liking, including being able to Fast Travel back to it for free. Build walls, traps, turrets, crafting stations, and so on. Most importantly, you can craft Resource extractors on specific nodes in the Workshop area, and these extractors will produce 25 whatevers per hour. This is really good if you’re looking for a specific resource, of course – concrete, gold scrap, acid, titanium, to name a few that I’ve seen.

But guess what: the moment you log off, for any reason, for any length of time… poof. You’re on a different server the moment you log back in. I have heard it claimed that your Workshop setup will remain for the next person to have to clear, but you personally will never see that specific Workshop again. Now, you could certainly head back to that same Workshop on a new server and set everything back up. But… why? Even if you blueprint your setup such that you don’t have to fiddle with placing all the turrets over again, the impermanence makes such a task a bizarre sort of daily chore.

Speaking of dailies, there are Daily Quests in Fallout 76 as well. Unless it’s weird beta behavior, these are reset every time you log into a different server too.

Speaking of logging into different servers, a lot of items exist out in the world for you to pick up. For example, there are many known locations for Power Armor that are just laying around. You can’t really equip the Power Armor until level 40, but you can certainly scrap it or sell it to a vendor. And guess what… another copy of that Power Armor is going to exist on a different server in the same place, unless someone just happened to have picked it up before you got there.

As you can see, the real issue with Fallout 76 is its random server situation. It’s not just the potential exploits of farming the same location across multiple servers. It’s the fact that random servers also removes Workshops as being worthwhile to own over time in any capacity. And later down the road? What happens if you spend day/weeks finding all the nuclear codes, launch a missile to create a high-level nuclear zone, and then… disconnect. Oops. Is this why Bethesda was stating the nuke thing is a team effort? So that if you disconnect, you can (presumably) get back to a specific server by joining a friend who is still there?

Ultimately, these are solvable problems. Somewhat. Todd Howard states that eventually there will be private servers such that you can control who or who is not allowed to play with you. This permanence will make taking over Workshops mean something, even if it’s a bit OP in the equivalent of single-player… although waves of enemies do attack the location periodically. This will not stop the ability of people to server hop to farm resources, and I’m not sure how Bethesda will solve that issue. Maybe they won’t. Maybe a baseline level of exploitation is acceptable – people have been crouch-sneaking into a corner for hours in their games for a long time now.

Other than that teeny, tiny systemic issue that impacts every corner of the game’s design? Fallout 76 is great. I want to be playing the game some more right now. And I guess in a week I’ll be able to.

Impressions: Fallout 76 (Beta)

I managed to put a solid five hours of play into the Fallout 76 Beta last night.

My overall impression is that the game is fun, despite the frustrations. Whether the game will continue being fun for any particular length of time is another matter entirely.

Let’s start with the basics. The game is gorgeous. Prior Fallout titles judiciously used green/brown wasteland scenery and only populated certain pockets with relatively normal plant life. Here in West Virginia though, you start out in a vibrant, Autumnal wilderness. The music has also been surprisingly good. In fact, I pretty much have left the Pip-Boy radio off through my entire playthrough. One, because it was unnecessary, and two, because everyone around you can hear it.

Speaking of other people, well, they exist. I did not run into any griefers during my playthrough, nor did anyone stream rap music or racial slurs. Conversations were cordial, and mostly focused on pointing people towards where the good loot was located. As reported pretty much everywhere, there is no text chat – everything is open mic.

That said, people are also distracting. Listening to one of the dozens of holotapes strewn across the landscape is hard when XxSephirothxX is chatting about (and demonstrating) how the cars can be punched until they explode in a huge fireball. You can always listen to the holotapes later, but they are often context sensitive to where you found them.

The economy of the game takes a significant shift in thinking. Within about ten minutes of starting, I came across a few ruined buildings with about five Scorched (burnt ghouls that can use guns). I killed four but actually died to the last one, which appeared to be an elite of some kind (had a crown near his level indicator). I respawned, walked back down, picked up my bag of dropped junk, killed the elite, and started looting. The elite was somehow carrying half a dozen pipe rifles. Jackpot, right?

Not really.

There are vendor robots and kiosks in various locations, but the vendor rate appears to be 10% or less. As in, if the item says it’s value is 30 caps, you get 3 caps at best. Fast traveling about four inches on the map costs 7 caps. Moving your CAMP costs 5 caps. Blueprints are 120 caps.

The vast majority of the time, you are much better off scrapping… well, everything. Collect a bunch of weapon, Junk, and other sundries, find a workbench of any kind (thankfully) and break them down for parts like scrap metal, screws, and the worth-its-weight-in-gold aluminum. Breaking down weapons gives you a chance to acquire modding blueprints and the like as well. Then take those bits and pieces and upgrade, repair, and otherwise craft the gear you want.

This feels like more of a sea change in practice than it might come across in text. Damn near everything drops weapons… which I guess normally happens in Fallout games. But now you need to hoard stuff and collect all the things so you can scrap it, because crafting is now a huge component to the game at every level. Settlements in Fallout 4 might have been whatever to you, but your CAMP is basically the only home you’ll ever have. Weapons and armor wear down and break at inopportune times, and even if they don’t, you need this stuff to upgrade your existing stock.

Having said all of the above, there are some somewhat serious concerns.

For one thing, the inventory management of Fallout 76 is hardcore. Now, it’s a typical Fallout game insofar as weight is basically the only driving concern… but it’s a big one. A lot of people on Reddit found out early that your Stash (shared inventory) has a weight limit of 400 lbs of stuff. This might seem like a lot or a little, but the bottom line is that you can easily reach this cap in less than 10 hours of playing. Hell, if you come across some early Power Armor, that’s nearly 100 lbs right there. Junk has weight, scrap has weight, weapons that you can’t use yet – yes there are minimum level restrictions on weapons – have weight. All of this adds up quickly, and I have no idea what exactly the plan is for when you aren’t level 7 and have a full Stash. Throw everything out? Only loot 1-2 key resources? I’m hoping that this weight limit is a Beta thing.

Another issue is that this game is very much a console port. Again. Pressing Esc brings up your map. Then you have to press Z to open the settings/options menu. What? Fallout has never had a particularly good UI scheme, but I found it largely impossible to tell what blueprints I had just acquired from scrapping a gun. For example, I unlocked “Ivory Handle” but did not see it as an option when modifying any of my guns. Maybe it was an ivory handle to a knife? No idea. You have to dig into the Pip-Boy to find out what the disease you just picked up does. Again, this is par for the course for Fallout games, but this is also a no-pause, no safe place survival game.

Don’t get me started on the CAMP screen when trying to build shit. Let’s just say that Z and C are involved to navigate around. It’s not intuitive at all.

There is no Beta tonight, but there will be some extra time this weekend. I plan on playing as much as possible. The game is a lot of fun, despite my grumblings. But like I said at the beginning, it’s hard to tell for how long. At some point, there will be a transition from “loot all the things” to “can’t loot all the things” to “don’t care about looting things.” It’s tough to forecast how quickly that transition will occur, but I can already see it on the horizon.

When it comes, I suppose that’s when we’ll see the griefers really come out of the woodwork.

Impression: Stardew Valley

While I still have a modicum of free time, let’s talk about Stardew Valley.

It’s awesome. /impression

My current setup.

Describing why it’s awesome is much more difficult. So I’m just going to try talking about its various interlocking systems.

Despite the game looking and sounding like a peaceful farming simulator, there is a rather large amount of tension to the gameplay. You start the day off at 6 AM with (usually) a full energy meter. Each time you till a farm tile, water a plant, chop a tree, etc, you use up a little bit of that energy. Starting out, the only real way to regain energy is to eat either foraged food or perhaps some of your crops. This, of course, will prevent you from selling said items though.

Meanwhile, the clock is always ticking in 10 minute increments. You can walk around and explore the town, but the game doesn’t care if you run out of daylight with a full energy meter or an empty one. People in town have schedules as well, so if you want to seduce/befriend them, you have to plan around their day. Forgot to pick up seeds and it’s 5:10 PM? Tough luck, the store is closed. If you’re not in bed by 2 AM, you collapse and are dragged home by someone, losing money and some of tomorrow’s energy along the way.

On top of that, you have longer-term considerations. Some crops will produce in 4 days of growing. Others take 12 days. Some you have to replant after harvesting, and others will continue producing. Each season in the game is 28 days long, and most crops only grow in one season. Ergo, it’s entirely possible for your 12-day crop to wither on the vine one day before harvest if the season changes.

Oh, and by the way, some of the super-important unlocks require items that can only be found/farmed/fished within certain seasons. If you miss a Spring item after the season changes, well… better luck next year.

Going all-in on seeds.

All of that might sound intimidating. And complicated. And difficult to optimize. And it is all those things.

But it’s also weirdly liberating. Because it is not as though the game just ends if you miss some kind of deadline. Life keeps going. You can try and complete the most efficient path… or you can just keep doing what you are doing. Want a big farm? Focus on that. Want to raise livestock instead? Go do that. Fish all day erry’day? Probably viable. You may or may not get enough cash to upgrade your house before the first winter, but who cares? Only you.

The mutual exclusivity of tasks somehow doesn’t feel constricting. You can’t dig deeper into the mines and also plant new fields and forage for forest plants and also talk to everyone in town in the same day. But that doesn’t feel like an arbitrary restriction so much as a natural consequence. It makes intuitive sense that these things take time to accomplish. And it’s not as though swinging your ax makes time advance faster or anything – it takes precisely as long as it takes to get something done. This also makes you appreciate the tool upgrades a bit more, if they reduce the amount of swings it takes to finish a task.

I recently unlocked the Sprinkler item to craft. As you might expect, it automatically waters crops around itself. That said, the beginner version only waters four tiles in a cross shape around itself. “That’s dumb,” I thought. More advanced versions are available later that water all adjacent tiles, and eventually multiple rings of tiles. But once Summer hit, I went all-in on crops with the idea of earning enough coin by mid-season to finally upgrade my house. And now I’m spending 2+ in-game hours just watering plants each morning. So while the sprinklers are incredibly inefficient, I started thinking to myself that 4 less tiles to water * 10 is actually lot less time/energy used each morning.

That’s just one example of an interesting decision the game presented me without it coming across as an obvious Yes/No binary. The game is just full of them too, thus far. Instead of worrying about watering crops, I could have a different set of concerns if I had decided to build a chicken coop instead. I’m assuming it’d have something to do with feeding all those animals.

So, yeah. Stardew Valley is fantastic. It’s scratching all kinds of itches I didn’t even know I had. Short-term planning, long-term planning, optimization, experimentation, agency… all wrapped up in a pixel bow and all created by one dude. Can’t wait to see what else this designer has up his sleeve, and hopefully the sleeves of a few extra helpers, because I don’t want to have to wait another 4+ years for his next title.

Why? Just why?

Why did I think it was a good idea to start playing Stardew Valley for the first time this weekend? The Fallout 76 Beta is coming out like tomorrow, and I decided it was a good idea to boot up a game that has already consumed 10 hours of my time in two days? Good lord.

As a side note, it’s amusing experiencing the same synapses firing off when I farm and plant crops as I do when playing survival games. It’s starting to make me wonder whether I like survival games, or if I have been using survival games to scratch the itch for farming simulators.

Either way, it’s trouble. I gotta do stuff this week.

Sense of Pride and Accomplishment

In addition to Hollow Knight, I have been playing a bunch of Dead Cells lately.

Because apparently I hate myself.

DeadCells_01

I definitely recommend letting traps do the heavy lifting.

Dead Cells is basically a roguelike Metroidvania that has more in common with Rogue Legacy and Binding of Isaac than, say, Hollow Knight. Defeating enemies occasionally gives you a currency (Cells) that you can spend at the end of each level to unlock permanent upgrades and blueprints of items that are then seeded into the item pool of future runs. Of course, that assumes you make it to the end of the level – die before then, and you lose everything you were carrying, and have to start over at the beginning of the game.

Of course, that’s how roguelikes work. It’s expected that you start over a bunch of times. And in this regard, I definitely felt less terrible after a death in Dead Cells than I did in Hollow Knight.

…up until The Hand of the King encounter, that is.

The final boss in Dead Cells is so absurdly more difficult than anything that comes before it. While its attacks are not inherently “unfair” beyond their massive power – they can be dodged just like everything else – most of them will prevent you from utilizing health potions, lest you get hit again mid-swig. Thus, you have very little opportunity to practice learning his moves, and dying here means it’ll take at least ~30 minutes of re-clearing everything else along the way to get another shot.

DeadCells_02

Amazing ranged synergy… what could go wrong? (Failed run)

Well, after 26 hours /played in Dead Cells, I finally killed the last boss.

According to conventional wisdom, I should be feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. I died to this boss at least ten times, re-clearing the entirety of the game to get another chance each time. The fight itself is difficult, and difficult = rewarding. Permadeath confers a sense of risk, and overcoming risk = rewarding. Right?

I feel none of that. And it sorta makes you question the whole “difficulty” edifice.

To be fair, I did not expect to win on the particular run that I did. The items offered on each run are random, and while you can sometimes affect the odds by resetting shop items, the best gear drops from bosses and you don’t have many shots at those. I had strolled up to the final boss several times before with what seemed to be unassailable combos, only to die embarrassing deaths. On the winning run, I made a last minute substitution that basically had no particular synergy with anything – it simply offered an extra 30% damage reduction, which apparently was enough to get me over the finish line.

I have never particularly believed that difficulty was valuable in of itself. But the total emptiness of having beat Dead Cells makes me question why I ever tried to debate anyone on difficulty previously. It is often taken as a given that “log in, collect epix” is bad, and defeating the game on extreme permadeath Ironman mode (or whatever) is good. But I know for a fact that I would have enjoyed Dead Cells more had I beaten the last boss two runs earlier than I did two runs later. And that disappointment and dissatisfaction I felt at losing was not made up by eventually winning.

DeadCells_03

Successful run items. Ice Grenade was a late addition.

What makes the situation all the more absurd is that there is a lot more left to Dead Cells. Defeating the last boss unlocks “Boss Cells” which are essentially bonus modifiers you can apply to all enemies and bosses. Defeat the last boss on this new, higher difficulty and you unlock another Boss Cell slot. And so on, up to 4, which is the current limit. Ergo, the last boss could have been easier, and everyone else who craved a harder game could have been more than satisfied with four additional difficulty tiers.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m still just salty from winning when I didn’t expect to, and losing (several times) when I did. Perhaps that was the secret sauce all along – expecting to lose from the start led me to have lower anxiety levels during the fight. Or maybe I had seen the boss’s moves enough to commit them to muscle memory.

All that I know for certain is that difficulty, by itself, doesn’t particularly add anything meaningful to a game. In fact, it often can poison an entire experience. I’m not sure how you balance a game such that there are difficult moments without being frustrating, but Dead Cells ultimately did not get it right when it comes to the final boss. Which is a damn shame, because I otherwise had fun.

Ghost of Fun Past

Novelty is a finite resource. The best we can hope for in a game is that it ends before the novelty wears off. Too soon and the game feels like it missed its full potential (which it literal did). Too late, and well… we feel relief when the credits finally roll. Assuming we can bring ourselves to crawl across the finish line at all.

HollowKnight_2

Unless you like super hard games.

 

As mentioned previously, I have been playing Hollow Knight. It’s a decently fun game (with some reservations) with amazing music and visuals. It also has an almost tangible sense of novelty that you can feel slipping by, as sand through your fingers. Unfortunately, the last third of the game is the “gritty fingers” part of the experience.

Metroidvanias have a delicate balancing act. The hallmarks of the genre are exploration, boss fights, character progression, and backtracking. Specifically, you explore new areas, fight new bosses, unlock new powers and/or movement abilities, and then go back to previously unreachable areas to unlock new zones. Repeat until done.

The problem is when either the new zone or new power steps become exhausted and the game just continues on. This is what happens in the Hollow Knight. The base game “ended” around hour 15 but it took an additional 10 hours to finish.

Now, technically I unlocked the ability to fight the end boss and achieve an ending before the map and/or powers were totally completed. The issue is that this would have been a Bad Ending, and who the hell wants that? So I continued on, capping my movement abilities, and essentially farming harder versions of bosses I already fought for a currency to unlock the Real Ending(s). And there were technically new areas to explore too… but they weren’t the same.

A lot of games work this way, but the latter half of Hollow Knight basically transforms from what it originally was… into Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls. The White Palace area straight-up abandons any pretext of grounded world-building and populates halls with floating buzzsaws and thrusting spears. I was fine with the platforming aspects earlier in the game, because the thorns and spikes made in-universe sense. But what lumber were these subterranean bugs cutting in the stone palace, exactly?

Why are we going to such extremes to begin with? Bosses and puzzles getting harder over time is Game Design 101. But at a certain point, an ever-higher ceiling turns your living room into an auditorium into a cathedral. The entire purpose of the room changes. In an MMO, the transition is necessary as you move from the solitary leveling game into a daily/weekly set of multiplayer chores in order to keep players subscribed. Single-player games have no such need. It’s certainly disappointing when the final boss is weaker than a prior boss – be it due to greater player skill or character power – but I’m not sure erring on the side of absurdity is much better.

I did end up defeating the “true boss” in the base game a few days ago. It was an incredibly frustrating experience, because each time you fail, you have to defeat the “fake boss” all over again just to get another shot. Rather than satisfaction at finally completing a difficult task, all I felt was relief that my toil was finally over.

Those who enjoy the Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls experience will likely be happy with endgame content, and happier still with all the extended DLC that supposedly ups the ante even further. Anyone else who fell in love with Hollow Knight’s first 15 hours of gameplay, on the other hand, can presumably go fuck themselves.

Impressions: Hollow Knight

One of the games I have been playing in relatively short bursts is Hollow Knight.

HollowKnight_1

Beginnings

I am usually skeptical about games with nigh-universal praise, because I’m fundamentally a cynical bastard at heart. But Hollow Knight is really pretty good. Amazing, even. It can also be frustrating, anxiety-inducing, and exhausting overall.

Basically, Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania minus the XP. There is side-scrolling exploration, a lot of backtracking once you unlock new movement abilities, and some fairly lethal combat with severe death penalties. Specifically, you drop all your Geo (currency) upon death, and if you die again before reaching your corpse, it disappears forever… until you get some special items. There are no particular “instant death” mechanics, but the number of invincibility frames available after taking damage is quite small, sometimes leading you to take more than one “hit” from the same attack.

I would describe the game overall as a mixture of Salt & Sanctuary + Ori and the Blind Forest, if you played either of those two. Or a melee-based Super Metroid.

HollowKnight_3

Super Metroid vibes can get pretty strong.

What deserves every accolade attributed to it is the art and music of Hollow Knight. Beautiful, haunting, perfectly mood-setting. For a weird game about bug ghosts – at least I think that’s what this game is about – the visuals and soundtrack pull you in and makes everything… belong. Coherent. Even when there’s a lot of vague nonsense going on, you just let it slide right off as you go explore the new area or experiment with some new ability.

Like I said before though, the game is exhausting. When you reach a new area, there is no map until you find a specific NPC somewhere on the level. Then you have to find a Save bench before your map can be updated. Because reasons. This leads to play sessions that begin and end with Save benches, even though I think you can technically do a Save & Exit, as it’d be difficult to know where you left off. Plus, some bosses seem like total bullshit until you figure out the trick, and the game makes sure your face in rubbed in the carpet on the walk back to your corpse. Which can lead to behavior like backtracking all the way to a shop to spend all your Geo “just in case,” because Stiff Death Penalties are Good Game Design, Guys.

Whatever. Hollow Knight is fun despite its annoyances, but don’t assume you’ll be able to just play the game casually.

Tabletop Simulator

In case you were unaware, there is a Steam game out there called Tabletop Simulator (hereafter TS).

TS is basically an emulator for board games, with the Steam Workshop operating as a ROM storefront. In fact, I’m not even sure how any of this is particularly legal. TS by itself is “merely” a toolset… but it is fairly robust and powerful to the extent that it’d be difficult to find some board game that it couldn’t recreate.

Tabletop-Simulator-Agricola

Hand sizes of 14 cards is a bit much though

The first time I used it, my wife and I played Agricola with a friend on the West Coast. The version of Agricola we played did not have any scripting beyond the starting board state, so we still had to manually place the extra resources on the board each turn.

Something I really appreciate about the game is the ability to see the “hand” (i.e. mouse cursor) of other players – it allowed us to point to cards, see who was already moving a piece, and so on. The 3D nature of the simulator itself obviously leads itself to some exciting possibilities in custom games (or presumably in VR), but it is more of an annoyance in traditional scenarios. For example, it’s sometimes difficult to pick up only one card from a stack, or place down multiple cards, or accidentally stack pieces that you did not intend to stack.

Tabletop-Simulator-Catan

Classic millennial gaming.

The second session a few weeks later had us playing a semi-scripted Settlers of Catan game. The starting tiles and numbers were already randomly placed for us, and the roll of the dice would highlight exactly which tile produced resources that turn. Settlements and roads also snapped into place, so there was not a bunch physics-based fiddling necessary. Oh, and scoring was semi-automated as well. I was somewhat disappointed that resources did not automatically arrive in our hand, but I suppose there should be some sort of interaction going on. I did like how you can take cards out of other players’ hands, for when you move the Robber.

Tabletop-Simulator-Robots

Good thing we already knew how to play…

After Catan, we played a few rounds of Ricochet Robots. This used to be a fairly obscure board game that sold for $80+ on eBay, but it looks like it was reprinted here recently as it’s selling for about $40 on Amazon. There was not particular automation here either, as there really isn’t any need for any. There were a few features that I wish were available, and depending on how difficult it would be to code, it’s probably possible to add them myself.

Having played about ~10 hours of board games using Tabletop Simulator, I will say that there is no substitute for sitting around an actual table with real people in the room. Right-clicking and rolling dice will never be the same as rolling them yourself. But if you are in a scenario in which remote gaming sessions were the only option, Tabletop Simulator is an extremely viable option. To say nothing about its usefulness in testing new games before buying them, or using it in the wild ways of creating your own games, running D&D campaigns, and so on.