Gaming Age: Survival

When you look at the general gaming zeitgeist, it’s clear that it goes through distinct ages.

  • RPG-elements
  • MMO
  • Battle Royale
  • F2P
  • Open world
  • Survival

We are currently in an age of survival. Not literally (OK, also literally), but of survival games. Which is good news to me as it is clearly one of my favorite genres, but even I have been surprised at the recent volume and game companies involved. Let’s take a look of what’s coming up according to PC Gamer.

Retreat to Enen (Aug 2022) is about becoming one with nature rather than chopping down all the trees. Forever Skies (Early Access late 2022) is survival and exploration in a blimp base above the ruins of Earth. I Am Future (2022) is another sort of “skyscrapers above the mist” setting but is supposedly more jolly in perhaps a My Time at Portia sort of way. Above Snakes (2023) is isometric survival with Native Americans in which you place down your own tiles to explore. Derelicts (TBA) is a 1-man developed survival game that looks like Satisfactory with actual survival elements. Sons of the Forest (Oct 2022) is a sequel to The Forest, ’nuff said. Nightingale (Early Access late 2022) is described as “Victorian gaslamp fantasy” and certainly looks cool, although it strikes me as less survival and more adventure/story progression.

That article was focusing on new survivals games that weren’t “chop wood, mine ore, repeat” though.

In the pipeline is an open-world Terminator survival game. Ubisoft is making Skull & Bones, which is Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag + survival. Wild West Dynasty is the next game from the publisher of Medieval Dynasty. Jagex is working on an open-world survival game based on RuneScape. ARK 2 is coming, featuring in-game Vin Diesel. My Time at Sandrock is a thing.

What kind of inspired the post though, was Square Enix announcing Harvestella, a “life sim farming game.” I know that farming sims aren’t technically survival games, but it’s kind of a wolf vs dog situation.

[Edit] I cannot believe I forgot the other example: Blizzard’s unnamed survival game.

The thing that I am discovering about myself through all this is that my tastes and predilections have not shifted much. That in of itself is not an epiphany, of course. But 11 years ago I wrote a post about Bean Counting and how I recognized that as the sort of root of fun I dig at in every game I play. For a long time, MMOs satisfied that desire. And regular RPGs like the Witcher, and several F2P games, and Open World games, and so on.

With Survival (and farming) games, I feel I have come to perhaps the purest Form of Bean Counting.

Of course, Novelty is also important… otherwise I would be playing Minecraft and calling it a day. And so I feel it rather fortuitous that I happen to be living through this age, and its embarrassment of survival riches. If you don’t like punching trees or watering plants, well, I’m sorry. I’ll just have to horde crafting supplies enough for the both of us.

Impressions: Gordian Quest

Ever wonder what would happen if designers just added all the things to a game? Wonder no more.

Gordian Quest is a sorta-roguelike tactical turn-based deck-building card game, with a full story campaign along with the more “traditional” roguelike modes. You control up to three characters with their own individual themed decks and battle enemies on a grid. Characters can also equip items that boost their stats or even add special cards into their decks. Those stats are important for the scaling of cards and also because there are D&D-esque skill checks occasionally. Also also, characters gain XP and level up, allowing them to place talent points on a customizable, randomized grid and expand in multiple directions. Have I mentioned there are 10 characters to choose from and each character has three distinct themes of cards that can be mixed and matched? And that items have rarity levels and randomized stats, with Legendary versions possibly opening new synergies? Oh, and items have rune slots too, which can be slotted with additional stats or special effects?

Like I said, the designers really went nuts with this one.

In reality, the game is mostly more coherent than I am implying. If you played Banners of Ruin, this game is basically that with some D&D and Card Hunter and FFX Sphere-Grid sprinkled in. Nothing stands out as being completely unnecessary while you’re playing, but just thinking about it now… goddamn is there a lot.

Is it fun? Yes. For a while.

Unfortunately, I basically broke the game before I finished Act 1 (of 4). Two of my characters are an archer and a rogue, with either one of them being capable of solo-murdering the entire enemy team on the first turn. If for some reason there is a straggler, the other one mops up. My third dude never actually gets to play cards at all, but if he did, he also is fairly stacked in the murder department. I had hoped that perhaps things would change once I hit Act 2 – maybe enemies would have a bunch more HP or have more Initiative to go first – but thus far that has not been the case. The only time enemies even get a turn is when they are bosses with literally 10-20x as many HP as normal, and even then they only ever get that one turn before getting melted.

The double-unfortunate thing is that breaking the game in this way was not particularly difficult. Part of that is undoubtedly due to my overall experience with deck-building games wherein winning strategies are roughly the same: prioritize increasing your per-turn draw, and keeping as few cards in your deck as possible. The other part though largely stems from what I imagine was a designer attempt at keeping things “balanced.” For example, the available talents are… boring. Even the ones all the way at the bottom of the tree. So I basically ignore all the Tier 3 talents and just pick the ones that grant +1 draw per turn and similar.

This “balance” extends to the three themes per character as well. My archer has Sharpshooter, Trapper, and Sentry schools of cards. Sharpshooter is all about damage. Trapper is about setting traps on enemy cells and cards that move enemies around (thereby forcing traps to trigger). Sentry is about setting up turrets on your side of the battlefield, boosting said turrets, and then letting them damage the enemy. You would be forgiven for assuming that Trapper and Sentry cards deal more overall damage, considering that that would make sense given the fact that they require setup. But… that’s not the case. Sharpshooter cards deal the same or more damage with no setup. And since 99% of the Trapper and Sentry cards are useless by themselves, you engineer your way to only choosing Sharpshooter cards when offered a choice, thereby increasing the average power level of your damage cards in a runaway feedback loop.

There is a bard character that is all about building up melody combos and essentially buffing the entire party so that they don’t need to worry about defense on their own turns. There is a warlock character that focuses on Bleed effects and debuffs. There is a golemancer that presumably mances golems. I haven’t even bothered trying those characters out because what’s the point? They would never get a turn. There are so many buffs, debuffs, tactical decisions, etc, that are entirely irrelevant in ways it seems impossible to make relevant without massive nerfs and a complete overhaul.

Sigh. Could this be solved by just avoiding the Archer and Rogue? Sorta. Although the Warrior and Cleric characters also have some gnarly damage cards/combos too. Could all this be addressed in a future patch? Maybe. If this was still Early Access, I would not be as concerned. Given that this is a full 1.0 release though, something tells me that they aren’t going to radically alter the way the card schools are entirely set up. And it is not as though higher difficulties can “solve” the issue either – cranking enemy HP higher and player damage lower is only going to make the currently non-viable (in comparison) strategies even more non-viable.

I suppose I will see if anything changes between now and the final boss. Assuming that I bring myself to slog through the rest of the game, like a Conquest victory in Civilization that was a forgone conclusion fifty turns ago.

Up until this point? Pretty fun though.

In Other News…

…this happened yesterday in FF7R:

I don’t remember this part in the original game.

Not quite playing as much FF7R as I probably should for how much amusement I get each time I do.

If there is a particular reason, it’s this: FF7R is not a survival crafting nor a roguelike deck-building game. Those are apparently the only ones capable of consuming my entire life in one go anymore. Everything else has to be… “intentionally” done. Or perhaps there is indeed something critical to be said about the lengths between exposition in FF7R, filled such as it is with vast expanses of empty, dungeon space.

Which reinforces the size of Midgar, mind you, just perhaps too well. Or conveniently well. Hmm.

The Future(s)

Thinking about the future is hard. Sometimes because it is difficult to forecast, and other times because it inspires existential dread. If you’re not up for some of the latter, feel free to Abandon Post!

On Reddit I have subscribed to r/Collapse and r/PrepperIntel. I am not a prepper or doomer, per se, but I do find it useful to have an increased awareness of potential hazards. For example, I have rebuffed all casual suggestions that we move to Florida. Besides the fact that it’s Florida, climate change is going to hit there especially hard between extreme weather events and salt water intruding up through the limestone into the aquafers. A sea wall ain’t going to do shit about that. And while it’s possible that I won’t live to see that level of disaster occur – I will be around retirement age at 2050 – why would I want to set down roots somewhere where my son will have to sell the family house to Aquaman?

Then you have the other side of the (Bit)coin with Mark Zuckerberg steering Facebook into spending $10 billion this year on metaverse and VR. Regardless of how you feel about any of those nouns, it’s amusing to see such a commitment towards something entirely dependent on, well, non-collapse scenarios. Europe is going to have a tough time heating homes this winter, but sure, let’s pour some R&D money into beaming ads directly into peoples’ eyeballs. Perhaps Zuckerberg is a fan of Ready Player One? Or perhaps he just wants something to help pass the time in his climate bunker.

OK, maybe I’m further along the doomer scale than I thought.

It’s hard to be optimistic in the current, ahem, climate anyway. We’re days away from a Supreme Court judgment on whether and how the Environmental Protection Agency is able to tackle climate change at all. Within the next two years, we could theocratically theoretically be under conservative rule just in time for them to try tax breaks or repealing healthcare to refill Lake Mead before the Hoover Dam goes offline. Almost makes you want that Great Salt Lake bomb to go off sooner than later, eh?

Also, don’t move to Utah. Or any previously-desert State. That desert is coming back.

It’s reasonable to ask the follow-up question of “WTF, mate?” There’s no particularly satisfying answer. Maybe we get a fusion energy breakthrough that allows us to power through some massive carbon geoengineering moonshot. Maybe they find Hillary’s emails on Hunter’s laptop and it’s revealed the leftist climate agenda purpose is to sell Priuses, and there’s nothing at all to worry about having CO2 at 421ppm like it was back in the Pliocene era, 4 million years and 25m+ higher ocean levels ago. Or maybe, I dunno, the sun stops shining so bright and we can just continue doing whatever we want.

For what it’s worth, I largely continue to behave as though there is a future out there that isn’t too unpleasant. What else can you do, right? As an Absurdist though, it makes me laugh a bit when Todd Howard starts talking about upcoming Bethesda games. Starfield is in 2023, then it is pre-production Elder Scrolls 6, and then Fallout 5 after that. Where does that put a Fallout 5 release, mid-2035?

Something tells me that we may not need Metaverse goggles for that one.

Upcoming Game Pass List

A few weeks ago, Microsoft had a presentation regarding some of the upcoming Game Pass titles. As someone who ended up purchasing 12 months ahead at a steep discount – not quite the $1 deal, but way below market – this is relevant to my interests.

  • Grounded (full release)
  • Persona 3 & 4 & 5
  • Slime Rancher 2
  • ARK 2
  • Diablo 4
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2
  • Starfield

Only typing out the ones that interest me makes it seem… well, not as many.

Nevertheless, I continue to appreciate Game Pass insofar as it removes any convoluted parsimony when it comes to titles large or small. For example, I had Hardspace: Shipbreaker on my radar for a while. No dilemma about whether to have bought it for cheaper in Early Access – been playing it for hours for free*. Same with Grounded, which is a survival crafting game right in my wheelhouse. Then you got the larger titles like Starfield, STALKER 2, and Diablo 4. The latter of which was surprising until, oh yeah, Microsoft is buying Activision Blizzard.

Not saying Game Pass is worth subscribing for everyone. I have literally 22 games installed right now though, not counting what I’ve played this year or the larger titles I know I don’t have time for.

But you know what? Let’s make that list. Here is what I have installed:

  • Citizen Sleeper
  • Death’s Door
  • Dreamscaper
  • Eiyuden Chronical: Rising
  • FAR: Changing Tides
  • Firewatch
  • Grounded
  • Hardspace: Shipbreaker
  • Infernax
  • Loot River
  • Nobody Saves the World
  • Octopath Traveler
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps
  • Sable
  • Skul: the Hero Slayer
  • Solasta: Crown of the Magister
  • Superliminal
  • TUNIC
  • Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion
  • Unpacking
  • Unsighted
  • Vampire Survivors
  • We Happy Few

I have only played the ones underlined. There’s a risk of leaving so many unplayed in that games frequently leave the service, unlikely to return. At the same time, there are only so many hours in the day. Plus, if I wanted to play something, would I really have let it sit on my hard drive for months?

…Yeah, actually, my preferences are whimsey-based more than anything. Whatever. I’m working on it.

Review: Windbound

As a connoisseur of sorts for survival and roguelike games, I had a sideways eye out for the otherwise poorly-reviewed Windbound. After getting the itch to replay Raft only to realize there was a final update coming soon, I decided to play something a least thematically similar. Realizing I got Windbound for free from Epic back in February, I downloaded and booted it up and went sailing.

Overall? The mixed reviews are earned, although I enjoyed my own journey.

The essential premise is that you wake up on an island with nothing to your name, after being attacked by a sea creature. After swimming a short distance to another island, you set off to collect resources, build a boat, and ultimately activate three mysterious pillars scattered across your circular map so you can be transported to the next chapter area. You have a HP and Stamina bar, with the latter decreasing at intervals until you eat food from creatures loath to give you their flesh.

The game is… well, fundamentally really simple. Not easy, mind you, especially if you play on Survival Mode in which a single death means starting back over in Chapter 1 no matter how far you progressed. But there are not a whole lot of different enemy types, or food options, or tech trees, or similar fluff. Enemies have maybe 2-3 moves and become straight-forward to dispatch once you have learned the tells. Later on, you unlock additional combat moves, some of which become required to defeat later enemies, but overall ends up making most combat trivial.

Having said that, combat is frequently very unforgiving. On the very first island, you can face off with a boar that has a standard sort of charge attack which takes off about a third of your HP. While you can dodge-roll, timing is critical, and you can get locked into animations if you aren’t careful. You can craft a sling and bow later on, but ranged damage even with the best gear/ammo is super weak and breaks enemy lock-on, which means Spacebar becomes Jump instead of dodge. The devs clearly intended you to dodge+attack or parry every move.

The sailing portion of the game was good fun. You start off building a canoe and paddling around from island to island, but eventually you can get bamboo or wood and construct larger craft with sails and onboard tanning racks and clay ovens and so on. Reminds me of Valheim a bit with wind direction being important, although I think you can be a little fancier in this game with “tightening” your sails and catching some forward movement even while slightly into the wind.

One element of persistent progress comes from collecting Sea Shards. These can be used to purchase Blessings at the end of each chapter, which then can be “slotted” on your character in the same area. Some are wildly more useful than others, and it is largely RNG that determines which ones are available. Early on I was able to purchase Ancestral Spear, for example, which means I always had a spear available that never broke. So, so many resources and inventory slots saved from not having to re-craft spears throughout my journey.

Ultimately, Windbound is an acceptable, free survival appetizer to hold you over for a better meal. It has next to no replayability, and I don’t actually recommend its punishing “survival” mode if you are just interested in progressing through the game. If you didn’t manage to snag the game for free already, there are dozens of better games out there that are of better value for your money.

Inflationproof

No matter what’s going on in the world today, I just gotta say: we picked a great hobby.

Inflation approaching (or hitting) double-digits? Gas prices through the roof? Games got your back. EVE raised subscription prices to $20 and a few developers are testing $70 price-points, but budget options abound in nearly every gaming genre. Supply chain slow-downs hit graphics cards and PS5 pretty hard, of course – I waited 1-2 more years than I had originally planned to upgrade my PC. It wasn’t like I was starving for options in the meantime though.

Just think about it. Prices in gaming go down over time. Outside of a few edge cases in live-service games, there is effectively an infinite supply of whatever you want to play. Between insane marketing giveaways and F2P options, there are scenarios in which your average monthly cost to engage with the hobby is between fifteen and zero dollars. You can’t even paint for that cheap. I have some friends that love to go to conventions and they are not having a fun time in this environment, let alone when COVID shut things down. Meanwhile: “Oh, I should be staying indoors? Way ahead of you, buddy.”

I was going to title this post “Futureproof” instead, as there’s nothing stopping gamers from using renewably energy to power our PC/consoles… but perhaps that’s whistling a bit too loudly past the graveyard. Some kind of collapse in the internet infrastructure would end the past-time for anyone not stockpiling emulators and ROMs. On the other hand, if there’s no internet, things have truly gone to shit and most everyone’s hobbies are probably over too. Unless you’re a gardener or psychopath, I suppose.

Hmm. Perhaps all these survival games will come in handy after all…

Second Impressions: FF7R

I didn’t think it was possible, but I like Final Fantasy 7 Remake even more.

One aspect that I didn’t like initially has really grown on me: uninterrupted dialog. Basically, there are no RPG-esques pauses whenever someone is talking. Conversations just flow with zero button inputs. It was initially kind of frustrating, because some of the banter is hilarious and it goes by too quick for me to take a screenshot (I always have subtitles up in games precisely for screenshot purposes).

But do you know what it all reminds me of? Mass Effect.

Over ten (!?) years ago now, I was writing about how the winks in Mass Effect were blowing my mind. There is a lot more than winks going on in FF7R, but that’s not really the point. The point is that these are genuinely interesting characters with personalities and mannerisms. They wink, nod, pose, strut, and otherwise behave in consistent ways. Some of those mannerisms are very anime-ish, but hey, Japan. At least these land miles better than in FF14.

Anyway, I just got to the point where I party up with Aerith and I’ve been smiling the whole goddamn time. I’ve always historically been Team Tifa, even before Disc 1, but Aerith is the biggest dork in the Remake and I love it. Just the little things like Cloud saying “The wererats pray on the weak” and Aerith replying “Well, you better be careful then.” Typing this out seems so dumb but there’s just this whole vibe going on in the game, and I’m feeling it.

Oh, and there’s this moment when Cloud and Aerith reach a pipe and have to slide down to get to the next area. Aerith goes first… and says “Wheee!” with her hands raised in the air as she goes down.

It was almost over before I could take a screenshot.

Guys. Guys. Again, feel super-dumb typing it out. But when was the last time you played a game where you were able to vicariously feel the joy and care of the designers through the screen? Whoever scripted that moment loved their job. It didn’t have to exist. It was over in literally two seconds – I couldn’t even hit the screenshot key fast enough – and it has no bearing on anything other than to flavor the experience and convey that which is Aerith.

It made me smile. When was the last time a game did that for you?

In closing, let me reiterate the disclaimer that the original Final Fantasy 7 has been in my top 5 game list for 25 (!?!) years. So FF7R is basically intravenous nostalgia from the word GO. Will you appreciate the “personalities and mannerisms” of these characters in the same way I do? Probably not. In a vacuum, they might just be cliché.

Nevertheless, these devs have taken a formative experience of my childhood and brought it to life in a way that has exceeded all my wildest expectations. A breath I never knew I was holding has been released as a cathartic sigh, blowing away my whole jaded gamer schtick. For the time being, at least.

So there it is. Hopefully the rest of the game holds up, but it doesn’t even matter. I’m happy right now.

Too Early to Access

Early Access games are such a double-edged sword, right?

Conceptually, they are pretty brilliant. Games are risky projects that typically only give you a chance at profits years after development. With Early Access, you can release whatever you have handy – “Minimum Viable Product” in the gaming parlance – and gain money while you finish building out the rest of the game. Plus, sometimes you might actually get a piece of actionable feedback from the customers that changes the direction of the game. Win-win for the developer.

For me personally, Early Access games are Lose-Win at best.

I do not typically replay games. Between Humble Bundles and Epic Store giveaways and being a periodic MMO player, I have accumulated a largely insurmountable stockpile of games that makes it difficult to “justify” playing even ones I like a second time. So when I do buckle down and play an Early Access title, whatever stage of development it is in is typically the only version I experience. Which can sometimes be fine – not every game makes it out of Early Access. But many times I recognize that things are not fine, as I end up experiencing a worse version of an incomplete game that would have been a lot more fun had I waited.

There are a few exceptions to the rule. Well, one and a half: roguelikes and survival titles. Roguelikes, by their very nature, are “replayed” many times. I started playing Slay the Spire back when there were just two characters, for example, and continue(d) to play it now that there are four. Oxygen Not Included, RimWorld, and 7 Days to Die are in similar boats… that encourage or at least don’t punish re-boating.

Some survival games land further away from the roguelike spectrum and otherwise do not necessarily lend themselves towards repeated play. I have zero desire to play Valheim again, for example, until it is much closer to final release. Is there much of a practical difference between Valheim and 7 Days to Die? It’s hard to articulate, but the latter is more viscerally entertaining and a more varied experience. Both have procedurally-generated maps and such, but how many different bases are you going to create in Valheim really?

I bring all this up because a really, really want to play My Time at Sandrock. Which, you guessed it, just hit Early Access last week. A sequel of sorts to the original My Time at Portia, it has everything I want: basically being a sequel to a game I already put 108 hours into. Everything except… not being done.

What is the current state of the Early Access version?

“Early Access will begin with the single-player story model: players will be able to play some of the first act of the game’s story and have access to romance and friendship missions as we implement them.”

I can’t do it. Even if I imagined that I would pick one of the townsfolk to romance that had already been implemented, the “risk” is too great. “Risk” being uncharitably defined as making a choice that could result in a less satisfy gaming experience in the likely-only opportunity to play the game. Which is neurotic, I know, considering developers add choices to games to allow the opportunity for more people to enjoy themselves. But this brain meat is what I’m working with, so… yeah.

Incidentally, the other reason I’m bringing up this topic is because I was clued into a pre-Early Access game called Life Not Supported that’s basically Raft in space. As in, floating around and picking up space trash to build a space boat. Which reminded me that I spent 8 hours in Raft and enjoyed it and got the itch to play some more only to find that it is still in Early Access itself. And there’s a dev blog from January saying that Chapter 3 is delayed and they’ll be retooling the whole game once it comes out and I’d be better off not playing it until that occurs. At least, that’s the implication. Sigh.

First Impressions: FF7R

Oh, man. OH. MAN.

I know the game is a remake and the devs have had decades of modern game design experience to leverage… but, guys. I’m home. I haven’t been this giddy and excited since… I don’t even remember. Every single part of game so far is like finally finding someone who shares the same passion as you and catching up for hours. Walking around Sector 7 Slums and looking up (looking up!) just pulls the FF7 memories of my high school imagination straight out of my head and serves them right back in high definition.

And it really reinforces, to me, how groundbreaking FF7 originally was. For you see, FF7 was not my first Final Fantasy game – that was actually FF6. So this is not a “always remember your first love” situation. This instead is a recognition of how novel the pseudo-sci-fi setting was, the mind-blowing scale of Midgar, and that first time you leave the city and see it as just another town on the world map. Blew my fucking mind. That experience is right up there with first leaving the Vault in Fallout 3.

There are some other things I like. An extremely flirty Jessie. The random NPCs commenting on Cloud. The aftereffects of the reactor explosion. The extra cutscene on what really caused the reactor explosion. The well-stitched narrative in which I felt it difficult to stop playing. Not that I was going to stop playing until I reached Tifa for the first time. Tifa.

Welcome home.

The one negative so far, and it’s kind of important: the combat system.

Basically I’m not quite sure what’s going on yet. Like obviously I’m reading the tutorial prompts and successfully navigating the fights. But it seems like I’m taking a lot of damage and I don’t know if that is expected, or if I’m supposed to not, or what. It’s “action gamey” but not in the same way as, say, Nier Automata. Controlling Barret feels even worse as none of his attacks feel particularly satisfying. Hold X to rapid-fire for some amount of time, or press Y to… speed up the charging of a special attack. But that attack can be stopped by random terrain if you aren’t careful.

Anyway, not going to let a little thing like a combat system interrupt my JRPG nostalgerbation. I am going to assume it gets better, or that I can change things around enough to make it so, or that it will not diminish the rest of the experience. Which would be quite the feat considering how much I am enjoying myself already just walking around.