Category Archives: Impressions

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.

[WISP] The Division

(e.g. Why I Stopped Playing: The Division)

I can show you precisely the moment I decided to stop playing The Division:

TheDivision-BossSponge

I’d like to read the Tom Clancy book about taking 6+ bullets to the face…

There is nothing particularly special about this “boss” character. I had actually died to him once already, as he has a machine gun and is able to just keep firing for like 30 seconds as he walks around your cover and mows you down in a realistic way. Having respawned, I was able to safely stay at my pictured elevated position. I was compelled to take this screenshot because I just shot this dude 5 times in the face with a sniper rifle, and he still has a sliver of “armor” left.

I have had a tone issue with The Division almost from the beginning. This is not a game where you are shooting zombies. You are not even shooting infected people behaving erratically. You are shooting “looters” or “Cleaners” (who are trying to burn the infection out) or gang members or prisoners who broke out of jail. Granted, all of your enemies appear to be killing innocent civilians or otherwise impeding efforts to maintain law and order. But… The Division (thus far) made no attempt to even address the wholesale slaughter of people trying to survive in a government quarantine zone.

TheDivision-Beauty

A very, very pretty quarantine zone.

I bring this up because “motivation” is hugely critical in cover-based shooters for me. The core gameplay in these games is so banal and simplified, there is often nothing else to go on. Stay in cover, peek and shoot. Leave cover, die. The Division technically has some additional elements like special powers, and is definitely geared towards small-squad teamplay, including a trinity of sorts.

But otherwise? Peek and shoot. And 100% of the missions up to the point I stopped playing had been about killing people for vague reasons. Even when you are rescuing hostages, there is no sense that A) the hostages were actually being ransomed, or B) the hostages will be better off going back home.

I was actually going to quit playing two weeks ago, but Alex posted this live-action video in the comments. That was… kinda compelling, and set me in the right frame of mind for getting back into the game.

…at least up until I kept encountering these predictable boss characters, with their predictable face armor which takes a half-dozen sniper rifle rounds to remove.

I understand that the game is a looter shooter, and things are not supposed to make too much sense – not quite sure how a new holster is somehow giving me extra armor, but whatever. It would be quite the boring game if the first rifle you picked up from the body of an enemy was the same one you used throughout the entire experience.

But… I just can’t do it anymore. The Division just piles up too much unsupported nonsense and my suspension of disbelief cannot bear the weight. And if I don’t respect the setting and don’t care about the story, there is zero reason to play a cover-based shooter. So I’m not, anymore.

[WISP] The Forest

(e.g. Why I Stopped Playing: The Forest.)

TheForest_Mountain

Ah, the great outdoors…

Let me start off by saying that The Forest has almost ruined other survival games for me. Nearly everything about it is incredibly slick and intuitive. The titular forest feels (and sounds!) like a forest, and walking through it can be a relaxing experience.

The crafting and building game is on point as well. Instead of filling your inventory with hundreds of rocks so you can craft a furnace in your pocket, you instead lay out a blueprint out in the world. From there, you start building it piece by piece, by essentially “using” the items in your limited inventory. Most of the larger constructions require logs, which you cannot fit in your pocket. So you are out in the world, chopping down entire trees, and then either hauling 1-2 logs on your back or crafting a sled to move ~10 or so at a time. This makes each structure feel important, as you spend a lot of time crafting it and seeing it come together a piece at a time, in a way that doesn’t exist just chopping logs for abstracted resources. It’s hard going back to any other survival games after this one.

That said, the game lost me when it went from being The Forest to The Caves.

TheForest_Caves1

Hope you like this sort of thing, for the entire rest of the game.

Basically, nothing you do out in the world really matters – story progression is essentially exclusive to the cave system that snakes through the landscape. Sure, you need sticks and stuff to craft bows and your other weapons, but the experience of slowly creeping through dark, linear passages and encountering scripted amounts of enemies is basically the opposite of everything that led up to this point in gameplay. Those elaborate traps and your fortified treefort? Pointless. That house boat you built after felling a hundred trees? Pointless.

I mean, I get it. This game is technically a survival-horror, and even the craziest mutants lose some of the horror bits when you see them roaming around in the overworld instead of stumbling into them in a poorly-lit cavern. But really, these are two different games. The most you are crafting in the caves is a tent as a temporary Save location, so what was the point in expanding your carrying capacity? Or exploring the different biomes?

TheForest_Mutants

I dunno, seeing the mutants outside can still be terrifying.

So, I stopped playing. The caves are both nerve-wracking and boring, simultaneously. I have heard that I’m pretty close to the point at which the plot starts to unfold in interesting ways, but that plot is at the end of more caves, which is further from the truly fun and innovative parts of this game. And that’s a real goddamn shame.

Going forward though, I do hope every survival game copies certain elements from The Forest. Don’t let us keep Furnaces in our pockets, especially if we’re basically allowed to build them out anywhere in the world anyway. Make things feel more grounded in the open world. And, yeah, please keep the open world and not goddamn caves.

Impressions: Conan: Exiles

Conan: Exiles (hereafter Conan) is basically ARK where the dinosaurs are people.

Not really… but kinda.

ConanSandbox_Sunrise

It can be a very pretty game too.

The first thing I want to say about Conan is that this is perhaps the first survival game I have played that has completely nailed the setting and tone. In a lot of these games, you are a faceless protagonist, or a random nobody who just suddenly is completely fine with butchering cannibals within minutes of regaining consciousness. In this game, you are a barbarian, in a barbarian land, doing some very barbaric things. And it fits.

In ARK, you tame dinosaurs by beating them unconscious with clubs, rocks, or narcotics. Then you… put food and more narcotics into their inventories. In Conan, you beat warriors/cooks/etc unconscious with a club. Then you… tie a rope to their legs and drag them along the ground back to your camp, and lash them to your Wheel of Pain, feeding them gruel or even human flesh, until their will to resist finally breaks and they join you. Crom would be pleased.

ConanSandbox_Thrall

Just another future Thrall, about to be lashed to the Wheel of Pain.

Like I said, it fits the theme and tone of the game. All of that is further reinforced by the demonic mobs, corruption of mad gods, and other sort of weirdness that permeates the land. It feels right.

Having said all that, there is a lot of jankiness all over the place. I’m not just talking about the typical survival game tropes like carrying 500+ stones in your loincloth inventory, or how your Thralls will sometimes unequip themselves of their weapons. I mean the very consistent outright bugs, like how attacks don’t register if you are fighting under a tent. Or the overall jarring inconsistencies in progression, like the ridiculous hoops you have to go through to complete the early-game Journal task of “skinning a creature with a knife” (literally a dozen+ steps). Or the general incongruent nature of a more “realistic” game in which you cannot simply loot the items that NPCs are wearing, or interact with any of the set pieces that dot the land.

ConanSandbox_Bug1

Pictured: no damage being taken, because standing next to a rope.

I think that, more than anything, there is one thought that is draining most of my enthusiasm away from playing Conan: “Elder Scrolls Online did it better.” Can you slaughter a camp of people and drain the Unfulfilled Desires from their corpses to fuel your ritual offerings to Derketo in TESO? No. You can, however, interact with the world in a meaningful way, like… you know, sitting in a chair, opening a crate, stealing a bowl. Certainly the whole dungeon thing works a hell of a lot better when death does not send you back across the map, naked and alone.

For the record, my experiences in Conan have been from the viewpoint of someone playing it single-player on a local server. I ended up cranking up the resource gain to x4 rate, which is probably too high, but farming iron ore for days and days is just dumb. It was dumb in ARK too, but that was on purpose: you were meant to tame dinosaurs to make collecting resources more efficient. In Conan, it’s just mindless labor meant to create PvP opportunities in which someone jacks all your stuff.

ConanSandbox_Base

My current base, sans defenses.

We’ll see how long interest lasts. I tried my first dungeon the other day, and was slaughtered by the boss all the way at the end. Despite having admin powers and the ability to spawn all my equipment back on my body and teleport back to the area, there was a very tangible part of me that felt like that was an interest-terminating loss. I never felt deprived in ARK for not seeing the bosses there while playing single-player, but dungeons in Conan are more of a thing. Probably because there are less “things” in the world otherwise.

Impressions: State of Decay 2

As mentioned, I buckled down and bought State of Decay 2 (SoD2) recently.

SoDecay2_PyramidHead

Pyramid Head

It is difficult for me to directly compare this game to the original, because I last played it in 2014. Based on that review, a lot of things have stayed the same. You are still selecting base locations at predetermined places, you are still looting all the places for supplies, you are still recruiting survivors, and are still faced with Ironman mode – auto-saving checkpoints and permadeath.

Let’s assume you haven’t played this series at all before. What’s it like?

After the (extended) tutorial, you are basically given a base and four survivors. Your survivors are going to consume certain resources every in-game day, such as 1 Food/person, 2 Medicine when healing from injuries, etc. Missing those resources will lead to negative morale, which leads to in-fighting, which leads to survivors leaving and/or dying. Thus, you need to keep supplies high.

SoDecay2_Base

Current, fairly successful base.

To keep supplies high, you can scavenge for them. Each building will typically have 1-5 spots where you can look for stuff. Some of those things will be individual items/upgrade materials, and others will be the duffel bags of base supplies that you are really looking for. Your character can only carry one duffel bag at a time, so extended scavenging is best done with a vehicle that has decent trunk space. Of course, that vehicle will need to be gassed up from time to time, which requires you to scavenge for Fuel too.

Another way to get supplies is leveraging base upgrades. Building a Garden, for example, will grant you +1 Food/day. That Garden can be upgraded if you have a survivor with the Gardening skill, and it can also be modded (say with a Compost Bin or Fertilizer) and temporarily boosted at the cost of Seeds. Doing all of those things, including providing your base with water somehow, can boost the Garden into providing 9+ Food/day. You can also turn the Garden into a Medicine factory by switching the yields to herbs.

Bases also allow you to claim Outposts. You start off with two possible slots (up to 5, I think), and you can essentially claim almost any building anywhere as an Outpost. All Outposts will create a zone where zombies won’t spawn, and will allow access to to your storage area and the ability to swap out characters. Additionally, certain Outposts can passively give you resources – Ammo Stores give Ammo, fast food joints give Food, etc. Some just give you more bed slots, and others actually give you base-wide power or water, at the cost of daily Fuel.

SoDecay2_Drone

Heroes never look at the explosion.

I mentioned all of the above rather than getting into the meat of the actual gameplay because the above essentially creates the gameplay. You need to scavenge for materials to make your base more self-sufficient, or scavenge to make up for the deficiency. You recruit more survivors because the one you are currently controlling has gotten injured, or is exhausted. There are quite a few guns and explosives and different melee weapons in the game, but zombies don’t drop loot and are best avoided in general. Technically, killing them will periodically grant you Influence, which is a catch-all currency in the game, but eventually weapons wear out and you’ll likely be spending that Influence on spare parts to repair said weapons.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is a lot of fun for me. But if you don’t like the base management and/or resource management side of things, SoD2 is definitely not for you. This is not Dying Light or even Dead Island. There are quests to follow, but since any member can permanently die at any time, there isn’t really a strict narrative going on. The overaching “point” of the game is to destroy all the Plague Hearts, which involves tossing a bunch of molatovs inside a building while waves of red zombies attack you. That’s… basically it.

Like I said: fun. For me, for now. For you? Maybe, maybe not.

Impression: Project Zomboid

Project Zomboid (PZ) is an Early Access, isometric post-zombie apocalypse survival game set in Kentucky. While the pared down graphics and isometric camera might give one pause, I was fairly excited to give the game a try. What I discovered is possibly one of the more “realistic” survival games out there… and that realism is way overrated. And less fun to play.

ProjectZomboid64_Tutorial

Fairly accurate tutorial.

Honestly, I was actually surprised how much I disliked PZ almost immediately. After character creation, you take control inside the one for-sure non-zombie house – your own. From here, you go through houses and find… normal stuff. Fully stocked refrigerators and freezers. Ovens to cook raw meat. Working lights. Faucets that deliver fresh water directly to your mouth. While your character starts with no skills, you are fully capable of surviving quite a while just fine doing nothing.

That does not last for long, of course. Within a month or so, both the electricity and water will shut off permanently. So the game’s central conceit reveals itself: how long can you survive?

In the abstract, this is not dissimilar to, say, Oxygen Not Included, wherein there is no win condition per se. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find myself immediately repulsed by PZ, conceptually. When you wake up naked on a beach in ARK, there is a very obvious, grokkable progression path towards survival. All of that is turned on its head with PZ. I found myself ransacking houses for supplies, and then asking myself why.

ProjectZomboid64_Sticks

Have to unlearn decades of survival games, e.g. can’t pick up sticks.

The answer is supposed to be “to prepare for self-sufficiency and safety after the lights and water turn off,” but that feels like such a weird, abstract endgame. It’s definitely unique in this particular genre, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like it’s probably unique for a reason, e.g. it feels bad. You aren’t building up to self-sufficiency, you’re building down. It is also harder to feel any particular sense of urgency without metagaming the entire experience.

I dunno. There is technically a starting game mode which takes place 6 months after the start of the zombie apocalypse, which features the water and lights already off, and most things already looted. In other words, a more typical survival game experience. But after spending a few hours with the base game, I don’t know that I feel it.

This is definitely going to be one of those Early Access titles that needs more time in the oven.