Review: Per Aspera

Per Aspera is one of those games you can become obsessed with far beyond its actual quality.

Uh oh.

In short, the game is about terraforming Mars – a surprisingly crowded field these days. You are an experimental AI in charge of turning the red planet green, and must plan out a series of resource mines, factories, and resolve supply chain issues on your way. While you go through this process, you (the AI) will reflect on some of the philosophical ideas surrounding artificial consciousness, your role in terraforming Mars, and some political intrigue as major players swap out.

One of the reasons I don’t actually like the game is because it’s poorly paced. When you first start your journey, you have a single hub building providing minimal electricity, one worker rover, and some basic building materials. Your primary goal is to create a 2nd worker while acknowledging the existential threat of not having a Maintenance Facility, which is a building that’s required to keep everything else from decaying in the Martian atmosphere. One carrot, one stick. Okay. So what’s the path?

  • Worker Factory = Parts + Electronics + Glass + Aluminum (and Steel to construct)
    • Parts Factory = Steel + Aluminum
    • Electronics Factory = Silicon + Aluminum
    • Steel Factory = Iron + Carbon
    • Glass Kiln = Silicon
    • Aluminum Mine = Steel
    • Silicon Mine = Steel + Aluminum
    • Iron Mine = Aluminum + Silicon
    • Carbon Mine = Aluminum + Iron
  • Maintenance Facility = Polymer + Electronics (and Aluminum and Steel to construct)
    • Polymer Factory = Chemicals + Carbon
    • Chemical Plant = Aluminum + Steel
  • Solar Farm = Aluminum + Electronics + Glass

Basically, every fucking thing.

So you’ll start by building an Aluminum and Silicon Mine, then a Glass Kiln. This will get you far enough to place a Solar Farm or two, as your original landing hub won’t have enough juice to power many more mines/factories. Then you can get started on Iron and Carbon Mines to fuel a Steel Factory. And so on.

This entire time though, you have one single worker rover, which means it carries a single resource at a time to a location. Does something take six total resources to craft a particular building? That’s six trips. The game offers a speed boost up to 16x, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

Didn’t realize he pioneered driving electric vehicles down tunnels.

To say that the game is a slow burn is an understatement.

Having said that, I did start feeling the coals after a while. As soon as you get that second worker, things accelerate significantly. The 3rd/4th/Nth workers pop out as soon as you build the corresponding Worker Hubs, and you can get busy planning your expansion across the Martian surface. Your growth is kept in check by building limits, which is tied to Tech trees, which is tied to Research Points, which is tied to hosting human colonist and keeping them alive with Ice and Food. A lot of things to keep you busy planning and expanding.

Of course, it all grinds to a halt again in the mid-game when you slowly realize that “choices” aren’t really choices. Goal: increase temperature at Martian polar ice caps to release frozen CO2. Looking at the tech tree, you see things like “Construct Satellite Mirrors” and “Aerobrake Comets” and “Import Greenhouse Gases from Earth,” along with some lesser stuff like Greenhouse Gas Factory. What isn’t immediately obvious is that the comet is a one-time deal, and the Mirror project only heats things up by about 20% of the total. You’re back to doing all of the things, this time limited by how many Spaceports you build rather than Worker rovers.

I did this.

And spoiler alert: there’s a third grind at the endgame, notwithstanding however long it takes to get a breathable atmosphere. The last two hours of my “playtime” consisted of me having the game run at 16x while I dicked around on my phone.

Ultimately though, I did stick around to the bitter end. Why? It’s hard to say. The existential musings were a bit basic compared with other titles, but they seasoned the stew. And this was a very, very long-burning stew. But perhaps in a cognitive dissonance sort of way, I began to really enjoy myself once I saw Mars starting to change. Once water appears, the game just feels different. You start needing to place Water Treatment Plants near the water, but take care that they won’t get flooded should you continue to pump up the water table. Some unique buildings require you to use craters rather than just placing willy-nilly, and that changes up how you approach base design and/or expansion.

I haven’t played many other sims like this, so I cannot really speak for whether Per Aspera is more worth your time than Surviving Mars or whatever else is out there. Hell, I’m conflicted as to whether it was worth my time to play Per Aspera at all. But I did play it for just shy of 30 hours in less than two weeks, so that’s worth something.

Review: Outriders

This past weekend I completed Outriders via Game Pass. The game is basically an over-the-shoulder, cover-based, arena looter shooter. Think 3rd-person Borderlands or Destiny.

…and that’s it.

No, really.

OK, fine. There were two interesting things going on that kept me playing to completion.

First, the story. Or more specifically, the main character’s “Renegade Shephard with Charisma as a Dump Stat” schtick. I’m not certain if the writers were trying to make the main character into a badass anti-hero and overshot the mark, but the end result is so bad it loops back around to good. I kept expecting to see an attempt on character growth, or becoming a leader, or any of the other tropes in the genre, but nope! Your character basically doesn’t give a shit about hostages, is painfully awkward when NPCs share their trauma, and is content shooting first and never bothering with questions.

As far as plot goes, it’s all grimdark trauma-porn, but not the fun kind.

The other piece that was interesting was the crafting mechanics. As a looter shooter, you get a lot of loot, of course. One thing you can do though, is deconstruct the items you receive to unlock the ability to add the special properties of that item onto another item. For example, if a gun Freezes enemies, you can deconstruct that gun and replace any future gun’s existing ability with the Freezing ability. Epic/Legendary items can have two properties, but you can only swap out one of them. Additionally, Epic/Legendary items have higher-tier effects, which you can place on regular items to make them more competitive.

Really though, only the concept alone was interesting. The actual looting experience was pretty terrible, on par with the foundational problems with Borderlands. You have levels, guns have level requirements, and enemies get exponentially stronger the further you progress. This means that whatever cool items you receive will be useless trash within an hour of gameplay, and you will be scrambling for green replacements for your purples soon enough. While the above crafting system lessens the blow a bit, it never feels great to continuously get weaker, and the drop from 2-slots to 1-slot is especially painful.

I completed the game’s story despite it becoming progressively less interesting, and then immediately bounced off the endgame loop in disgust. You are intended to go on repetitive sort of strike missions and face waves and waves of the same sort of enemies you have fought all game. If you play solo, you will die almost instantly outside of cover, and death resets the entire mission. It is clearly intended to be played in a group, but… why? Destiny 2 is mechanically better and Outriders is not an MMO wherein you might expect to rewarded in some fashion in the future. “Borderlands!” Closer, but the Borderlands series has additional DLC content and is much more kinetic and less swingy besides.

In any case, you don’t have to take my word on it: Outriders is still on the Game Pass.

Idles of March

I am once again experiencing a long stretch of gaming ennui.

Guild Wars 2, which had hitherto commanded a solid portion of my daily gaming allotment, fell off a cliff in the weeks leading into the End of Dragons expansion. There were really three things in play. First, I was beginning to question “the point” of my toil – as good an indication of any that one has shifted from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation. Second, I could not readily commit to which version of the expansion to purchase. This remains a barrier even now, because when I do log in I see items in the Gem Store that are enticing, which suggests I should buy the $80 version of the game (which comes with gems). Surely buying the standard $30 version and then buying gems separately is the worst of all worlds. So… I do nothing.

The third reason was actually recently addressed: I was not certain whether End of Dragons was to be the last GW2 expansion. Who wants to grind things in a “dead” MMO? Well, ArenaNet announced they are working on a fourth expansion. Whether it is coming in 2 years or 4 doesn’t matter so much as that it is coming at all.

Beyond all that, I am actually playing a lot of different games. Not the ones I committed to in December, of course. I completed Undertale, but then hit a wall with SOMA insofar as trying to decide whether I wanted to keep playing with monsters on or off. I (used to) own all of the Silent Hill games and enjoyed all of the Resident Evils through the years, but I’m not a particular fan of the helpless horror genre. Dead Space and Prey? Good. Amnesia and Alien: Isolation? No thanks. The anxiety and thrills feel cheaper than, say, from a roguelike or at the end of a long raid-dance sequence – I either one-shot the area or get killed enough times to abstract the encounter into a puzzle.

In any case, I do not particularly want every post between now and Summer to be an Impressions piece of whatever indie game I take for a spin. So, I have been writing next to nothing. Which is probably worse, on balance. Hmm. This is what I have been playing recently:

  • Black Book
  • FAR: Lone Sails
  • My Friend Pedro
  • Outriders
  • We Happy Few
  • Sunset Overdrive
  • Sheltered

That last game, Sheltered, is really a sort of Fallout: Shelter-esque time-waster that nevertheless sucked 6 hours out of me and reignited a burning need to collect random garbage in survival crafting fashion. Unfortunately, I have pretty much played everything in the genre already, and what’s left will remain unpurchased until Epic’s Summer Sale. A mere 50% off doesn’t do it for me anymore: I need 50% + $10 off.

So, that’s my life at the moment. How are you?

Stand with Ukraine Bundle

Humble Bundle has a new mega bundle for $40 with all of the proceeds going to Ukraine relief. Since I was browsing through the list anyway, here are what stands out:

  • Satisfactory
  • Metro: Exodus Own
  • Sunset Overdrive Game Pass
  • This War of Mine Own
  • Slay the Spire Own/Game Pass
  • The Long Dark Own/Game Pass
  • Ring of Pain Own/Game Pass
  • Starbound Own/Game Pass
  • Supraland Game Pass
  • Wizard of Legend
  • Vagante
  • Wargroove
  • Warsaw
  • Superhot Own
  • Pathway Game Pass

The above aren’t all the games, just the ones I would have been interested in. For example, Back 4 Blood Game Pass is one of the “headliners” but I have no interest in Left 4 Dead-esque games these days.

As you can see though, a large number of these games are currently available via Game Pass. While pure value isn’t the purpose of the bundles, I do think it’s worth pointing out that this will be much more heavily weighted on the donation side of things. That said, a few of these games – like Starbound, for instance – are better off in a more permanent library where you can easily mod them. So there’s that.

It’s Getting Tempting Now

Still in the market for a new computer, then start seeing deals like this:

Laptop with a RTX 3070 and 165Hz IPS screen for $1400, shipped from Walmart of all places. Less than a month ago, a prebuilt PC with the same specs was running $100+ more. I wasn’t in the market for replacing my PC with a laptop, but now? Hmm.

That said, 512GB SSD is untenable when I’m already rocking two additional SSDs (1TB and 500GB) in my PC. So right off the bat I’d have to pony up $100-$200 more for a 2TB upgrade for the laptop, voiding warranties in the process. Plus I’d probably want to get some kind of cooling stand to put the thing on. Finally… there really isn’t much of a use case for the mobility it would offer. The option to take it places is one thing, but 99% of the time it would be sitting on my desk making loud fan noises as I play Game Pass. And even if I did take it somewhere, it isn’t as though it’s actually mobile – I would be much better off with a cheap tablet and emulators or a Switch or whatever.

In any case, video card prices are recovering to a large degree, and I am expecting things to continue getting less expensive as we head into the Fall and start seeing the 4060/4070 release. I am not necessarily planning on waiting 8+ months to replace my current PC, but if it takes that long before a good 3080 prebuilt hits ~$2000, then maybe I continue waiting. It has worked up to this point.

Impressions: Banners of Ruin

Banners of Ruin is an incredibly slick deckbuilding roguelike that has consumed my life for the past week. While it shares some conventions with other games in the genre, it has a fairly unique mix of them that result in a number surprising interactions. Also, everyone is an anthropomorphized animal.

Before moving on though, let me say this: the visuals and especially the music are phenomenal. The combination sucks you right into the setting, and I found myself humming along with the battle music pretty much the entire time it’s playing. Just like with Tainted Grail before it, I will be tracking down this soundtrack, if it exists.

Just look at how evocative that Pierce card is.

The central premise of the game is that you are a member of a suddenly-deposed House, and you are trying to escape the city with your life. As you navigate the city, you must choose from one of three “path” cards which can lead to combat, shops, or events. These choices are mutually exclusive, and you don’t have a particular notion of what offerings you will get next time. After a specific number of choices, you will encounter the boss fight of the area and then move on, if successful.

Combat is highly tactical. You start with two characters that can be arranged however you like (ahead of time) on a 2×3 grid; enemies are will be placed in their own 2×3 formation facing opposite. While you are free to play cards every turn, your foes will only act one rank at a time, e.g. the front three positions on Turn 1, then the back three positions on Turn 2, etc, unless there are no enemies in a specific rank.

Easy choice.

Positioning matters. Enemies will typically attack a specific horizontal lane. Place one character in front of another, and that front character is likely to eat all of the incoming attacks. However, if three enemies are targeting a character with nobody behind them and then that character moves to a different spot, all three attacks will be negated. And remember when I said that enemies take turns attacking based on which rank they’re in? If they are set to attack you this turn from the front rank and you move them (via a card like Kick) to the back rank… then they don’t attack that turn. Next turn, if you then draw into cards that can move them back to the front, you can skip their turn again.

The tactical nature of the game extends out into deckbuilding and character progression too. Each character has two weapons slots and an armor slot. Equipping a bow will add a Bow card into your deck; equipping two daggers adds two dagger cards instead; a shield will add a shield card, and so on. Armor is more passive insofar as it affects your starting armor only, although there are special armors that have more interesting effects. As characters level up, they can unlock a choice of three Talent cards which are then added to the deck, but only that character can play the card. Same with the weapon cards, actually. Level ups also unlock a choice of passive abilities. Oh, and each race has a racial ability that can be activated any time, as long as you have a secondary resource (Will) available.

I somehow won this early, accidental Elite battle. I mean, I’m amazing, of course.

What all this combines into is an interesting gumbo of choices, tactics, and deckbuilding strategy.

…until you get to the endgame.

There is a final Final Boss that become accessible after performing a series of steps along the campaign. However, the fight itself is so oppressive and ridiculous that it leads to really just a single strategy to overcome it. Once I understood this, and realized the same strategy works for the rest of the game too, every subsequent run started to feel the same. It doesn’t help that while there is a great variety in character races and Talent cards and passives, the number of defined weapons/armors and enemies in general is much more limited. Indeed, I think all of the bosses are the same each time too.

The potentially good news is that the game appears to still be in active development – there was a major release in November 2021, which added new “hallway” scenarios, some optional difficulty modifiers (aka Ascension ranks), mini-bosses and so on. That is not enough to elevate the endgame to a Slay the Spire level, IMO, but A) not everything needs infinite replay value, and B) maybe a future patch or DLC will spice things up.

Overall, I am very satisfied with my (discounted) purchase of Banners of Ruin. As someone who plays a lot of games in this genre, I definitely appreciated the slick presentation and the novel mix of elements. The sort of defined challenges I complained about earlier might be more of a positive to others who dislike a lot of randomness. Or maybe we can just be happy playing a game for ~30 hours and be done.

Impression: Roguebook

Out of all of the deck-building games I have played, Roguebook is the one that has come closest to scratching the Slay the Spire itch. And yet it is also different enough that it’s possible that someone who didn’t like Slay the Spire might enjoy Roguebook.

There are a lot of interesting design decisions going on in Roguebook. The basic premise is that you have been sucked into (presumably) the titular book, and you must battle your way past many foes and bosses on your way out. However the aesthetic is one of “blank pages,” where you use bottles of ink and paintbrushes to uncover blank tiles in order to explore and otherwise navigate towards the exit. By default, there is a very straight path to each level’s boss, but you are unlikely to survive without exploring more of the board and getting stronger. Regular fights give ink bottles to uncover straight-line paths, and elite battles give AoE paintbrushes. Gold can be found on the map, and there are a number of other structures that allow you to purchase new cards, get additional treasures, and there’s always a shop available to do likewise.

Make no mistake: exploration is extremely RNG-driven. While there are sometimes pre-revealed tiles you can head towards, the difference between uncovering an empty tile and one that lets you transform a basic card into a rare one with gems attached can be massive. You do eventually start earning progression currency that will allow you to improve future runs – thereby making exploration and combat easier overall – but things can be swingy in the beginning.

Speaking of gems, cards have gem slots ala Monster Train. Some gems are standard sort of “+3 damage” options, but some of the rarer varieties can do goofy things like giving you a free copy of the card, shuffling it back on top of your library, and similar. Artifacts can also be earned/purchased, which give passive (and sometimes active!) abilities.

Combat is fairly standard Slay the Spire with cards costing resources to play, drawing new cards each turn, etc… except there are two heroes. Playing a Defend card (or a few others) will cause that hero to go to the front, with any incoming damage hitting just that person. Losing one hero is not Game Over – you can recover by casting 5 special cards, but you get saddled with two spoiler cards in your deck until that level’s boss is defeated. Each hero has their own exclusive card pools and there are four heroes total, and you can choose the pair at the beginning of each run.

One twist I appreciated was the introductions of talents based on deck size. Basically every X number of cards you add to your deck, unlocks a randomized selection of three talents based on the heroes you’re running. All too often in this genre, the optimal strategy is to keep your deck size as small as possible, so it was fun to see the designers address it with talents. While some of them can be misses, a few can radically alter your entire gameplan.

For example, one character might get “Gain 1 Power each time a card is Dissolved,” which by itself is whatever. But if you paired that character with another that is frequently offered cards that generate 0-cost Throwing Daggers that, you guessed it, dissolve when played, and then combine that with an attack the original character has that deals 1×8 damage… yeah. Does that get your juices flowing?

Overall, Roguebook is a fun game that nevertheless feels a tad easier than Slay the Spire. I have played over 40 hours thus far, unlocking almost all of the Ascension-esque effects. I would say that about 80% of that time has been with the same pair of characters chasing the same strong synergies each game, only deviating if my luck was terrible. In other words, I don’t feel it has the same depth has Slay the Spire, but none of that matters much if you aren’t looking for something to entertain you for 200+ hours. Roguebook is entertaining enough and possibly more approachable at that.

Monitor Acquired

A few months ago, I was talking about wanting to upgrade my battlestation. It’s been a few days, but I have since bought a new monitor and have been putting it through the paces. And I’m here to confirm that… my chicken/egg dilemma was correct.

I went with the LG 27GL83A-B, which is a 27″ 1440p 144Hz IPS panel monitor. I bought it off Amazon when it was on sale for $279.99, but it has since crept back up closer to its $379 MSRP. My previous monitor was already 27″ but it was just a 1080p 60Hz VA panel. If you don’t speak monitorese, the short version is that I now have a 2K monitor that is actually capable of displaying more than 60 FPS.

if my PC can output more than 60 FPS.

Thing is, my computer (graphics card, CPU, etc) has not changed in any way, but now it has to output 43% more pixels. So while the colors are absolutely poppin‘ on the screen, some games end up looking worse because I’ve had to downgrade textures and other settings to maintain acceptable framerates. That’s the chicken/egg dilemma, and I chose the egg.

Now we wait for a passably decent Prebuilt PC with a good graphics card before I can get maximum value. With the rumors of Nvidia’s 4000-series coming out in the August/September range, I’m somewhat hopeful that either the 3080 card becomes a bit cheaper or possibly just leapfrogging directly to 4070 or whatever.

Unintentional Hardball

Just got this email from Humble:

There is a saying that “He who speaks first loses,” which is supposed to be a negotiation power-play. This is very convenient for me, since I tend to not say anything when things get awkward, lest I make things more awkward. Which is does, inevitably. But I somehow get rewarded for it, so I never change.

So… thanks, Humble. I was going to buy the bundle for $12, but I accept your $6 counter-offer.

Humble Choices

You would be forgiven for not following the changes to the Humble Choice subscription, as it has gone through a number of iterations over the years. The latest move was to basically do away with all the previous nonsense of four tiers and go back to “pay $12 for X games.” I mean, it was clever of them to crank up the FOMO in canceling your Classic subscription, knowing it would cost you 60% more a month if you came crawling back. But unfortunately for them, that coincided with both a dearth of worthwhile bundle offerings and blistering competition from Game Pass and Epic Store (to an extent).

Seriously, looking at my Humble account, the last bundle I actually purchased was in April 2020. I maintained my Classic subscription this whole time by “Pausing” it each month, in the hopes I would find something worthwhile next time. I forgot to pause it like six times overall, but requested and received refunds each time. Not everyone bothers though, and that is why companies pull this shit.

Ironically, due to the changes, I was actually feeling good about finally canceling the subscription altogether instead of constantly pausing. The sweeteners that Humble are adding to keep people subscribed… don’t quite it hit the mark. Unless the mark was my face, in which case it slapped.

Previously, if you were an Active subscriber in the Classic/Premium tier, you had a 20% discount in the Humble Store. Pause a month and you lost that discount, but it went back to 20% if you actually bought a particular month’s bundle. Now there is a loyalty system in which consecutive months of subscribership are necessary to reach the 20%. Crucially, if you pause/skip a month, the discount resets to the lowest level (10%). Buy 11 months in a row but not feeling the 12th? Back to 10% for you.

Granted, some of this concern is moot. The only game I have ever directly bought off the Humble Store was Rimworld, precisely because the devs never let it go on sale, thus getting a discount via storefront was worthwhile. However, over the intervening years other storefronts (GMG, Fanatical) have better/comparable discounts without the hoops.

Humble is also introducing a standalone app that will let you play a small assortment of Humble-owned games as long as you are subscribed. Many of these are already on the Game Pass or given away for free on Epic. This is in addition to the “Trove” of DRM-free games that you could download and keep playing forever afterwards. Neither of which seem particularly compelling considering you could probably just subscribe for a month, get your fill, and be done. A Game Pass this is not.

That said… I might actually comp this month:

Black Book is a deck-building whatever, so I’m in; Per Aspera is another Mars building sim; Everhood is an Undertale-esque rhythm game; Calico is cats; Before We Leave and Paradise Lost are probably good for an evening.

Then we have Borderlands 3, which I have mixed feelings about. Loved BL2, bounce on Pre-Sequel after 18 hours, and otherwise feel that the particular sub-genre the franchise belongs to has been supplanted. Seriously, I’m not sure how you can play a looter-shooter with bullet-sponge bosses anymore without, you know, a dodge-roll or something. Does BL3 have dodges? If not, I’m going to struggle a bit. And that’s besides the logistical point that the game has two Season Passes worth of DLC on top. Some people have mentioned that there isn’t a “complete the bundle” option for BL3 on Steam, so it might end up being more expensive buying it via Humble and then buying the DLC.

Then again, what use would DLC be if I never make it through the base game?

Anyway. I have until the end of the month to waffle on whether Humble deserves my $12. This is certainly an improvement on the last two years of offerings, but time will tell how they follow up. Or if they can follow up, given how much goodwill they burned up to this point between the multiple tier nonsense, the poor game bundles, and pulling the rug from out under legacy subscribers.