Impression: Into the Breach

There are few things that prime the pump more than hearing “from the creators of FTL.” That was one of those games that seemed to come out of nowhere with a simple-yet-actually-brutally-complex system wrapped up in a sweet indie game package and threw me for a loop. It was ultimately a good loop, but a loop nonetheless. 

Despite all that, I had hitherto heard about, got excited for, and then completely forgot about Into the Breach. Until I realized it was on the Xbox Game Pass… and leaving shortly.

Into the Breach is essentially a puzzle game. You command three time-traveling pilots who are trying to protect the remnants of humanity from the Vek by piloting giant mechs. Each turn, the Vek (e.g. aliens) will move around the grid-based map and telegraph the actions they are about to take. During your turn, each mech can make one move and one action to try and foil the Vek’s plans before it occurs. While killing the Vek will cancel their action, the primary mechanism is typically “pushing” the Vek out of place on the grid.

As a general example, the default mech can perform a punch that deals 2 damage and pushes the target back 1 square. Many Vek have 3 or more HP, so this attack by itself will not kill a Vek that is about to attack a skyscraper full of people. But instead of attacking the skyscraper in front of it, that punched Vek will move 1 square away and instead attack whatever is in front of it in that new square. If it’s another skyscraper… well, oops. It could be empty air though. Or even another Vek, if you are clever enough. Or if the Vek was standing next to water/a giant pit/the telegraphed impact location of deadly lightning or whatever, it will die instantly. If the square is blocked, the pushed Vek will take an extra 1 damage and deal 1 damage to whatever blocked its path.

The default squad is the punching mech, a tank that deals 1 damage from range in cardinal directions, and artillery that deals one damage at a location and pushes everyone in cardinal directions 1 square away from the impact. If you successfully clear islands, you can spend reputation points to purchase additional items that can be equipped to give your mechs different abilities. For example, the punching mech can get a shield that makes the Vek turn around instead of pushing them, the artillery unit can get shells that light squares on fire, and so on.

If you cannot tell already, the gameplay ends up both simple and complex at the same time. Victory occurs when X number of turns complete, so you don’t really need to kill every Vek on the screen. Missions always have bonus objections which can complicate things. Incoming Vek reinforcements are telegraphed, and they can be prevented from spawning if their square is blocked – it will deal 1 damage to your mechs, or another Vek if one is pushed there.

Having said all that, this game can also be brutal. The Power Grid represents your life total of the run and it carries over through every mission. Vek destroying 1 building results in 1 less Power Grid for every mission thereafter. While you can take on missions that grant replacement power, that comes at the opportunity cost of missions that reward more reputation, which you spend on buying gear to enhance your team. Your own mechs have HP that is repaired between battles, but losing your HP in a battle will kill the pilot, which results in all their unlocked abilities going away. 

I got super frustrated at one point until I realized… this is a puzzle roguelike. Some situations will go south fast with nothing you could reasonably do. Sometimes the Vek will “waste” all of their attacks on your mechs, which you can simply walk away from. Other times the Vek will spread out and attack buildings everywhere. In a worst case scenario, you can abandon the timeline you are in and take one pilot with you into a fresh game. 

Ultimately, Into the Breach is a decently fun puzzle game. It’s no FTL, but it’s in the same quadrant. I just wish they would port this game to mobile, where it would be a perfect fit IMO. Between this and a mobile Slay the Spire, I might never be productive again.

Exodus Complete

I beat Metro: Exodus a few days after my prior post.

Overall, it was a decently entertaining game. There are many FPS games out there that have stealth tactics just thrown in that aren’t actually viable, but Exodus comes through just like its predecessors. Going from cramped subway tunnels to near-open world initially felt like a big drift away from the “core” Metro experience, but there were plenty creepy/FEAR-y/Metro-esque locations towards the end. And visually, the game is an absolute treat.

My only major annoyances with the game were mechanical. For example, the devs somehow made taking screenshots impossible – not even PrintScreen worked. That is in spite of the fact that there is an in-game Photo Mode. It might be minor, but it also takes forever to load into the game. Once you’re in, there aren’t many loading screens, but its literal minutes to get in even with an SSD.

I completed the entire game via the Xbox Game Pass and do consider Exodus one of the primary drivers towards me subscribing to the service.

Impression: Metro: Exodus

Despite the country being on lockdown and me working from home, my time has actually decreased from before. Figure that one out. Hint: baby.

What I have been doing in extremely limited bursts though, is playing though Metro: Exodus. My overall impression is… better than expected.

The Metro series has been an interesting experience. I reviewed the first game way back in 2012, and the key takeaway was that it was one of the best “authentic” gaming simulations at the time. Features that might otherwise be annoying actually felt right, such as having to pump up your flashlight battery as you explore subway tunnels. The second title was similar, although I seem to recall a truly ridiculous number of “knock you unconscious so we can show exposition” sections. Like, serious traumatic brain injury levels of blackouts.

Exodus starts out in the tunnels and I was not really feeling it. You kinda have to be in a mood to enjoy jump scares and such, right? When the game opened up into an almost Far Cry 3+ way though, it almost felt like too much. You have a map (Far Cry 2-style) and markers, but was it really a Metro experience to just… walk around wherever?

It is, and I like it. Or maybe I’m just getting Fallout vibes and liking that.

Indeed, in addition to pumping up the flashlight, you now have to scavenge for materials to create bullets and repair your gear. There is some minimum level of crafting you can do anywhere, and there are workbenches scattered about to complete bigger tasks like making grenades. Some human enemies drop weapon mods you can otherwise permanently learn, with others being tucked away in remote areas of the world.

There is definitely a tension with exploring though. As usual for the series, the mutants you kill drop nothing. Which itself is a surprisingly uncommon game design mechanism, if you think about it. The result is that sneaking and avoiding enemies is encouraged, which heightens the tension considering how much simpler it’d be to stealth kill them instead. The difficulty I’m on (Normal) doesn’t make avoiding fights necessary, but I do find myself tackling most missions during the daytime, which increases the amount of human enemies, who do drop gear and are easier to take out anyway. Aside from that, the other tension is the lack of fast travel. Exploring is fun and all, until you get to a point where you have to traverse the map in the opposite direction a few times.

I’m not sure how far along in the game I am, but it’s going well. We shall see if Metro: Exodus loses steam or pushes through to the end.

Too Busy for Words

It’s interesting to think about how much life can change. Four years ago, I would have been living up this coronavirus shelter-in-place self-isolation. MMOs for days! Even two years ago would have been good, just chillin’ with my then-fiancee.

Pandemics are a bit different with a baby, though.

This coming week, the daycares are shutting down in my area. My wife has been working from home for the last few weeks, and I will be joining her shortly. Technically I am “essential personnel” but we worked out a rotating skeleton crew schedule at my job. I took the first shift to support the rollout of nearly a hundred mobility solutions for other essential personnel to work from home. By the end of the week, I’ll be working from home as well for the next 3-4 weeks before my on-site shift comes back around. And so on, until… whenever. Through the entirety of April, at least.

Good luck and stay safe, everyone.

Purposeful Obtuseness

The topic of purposeful obtuseness in game design is tricky. Limitations can actually spark creativity, whereas definitive answers typically cannot. But sometimes I think game designers try to be more “clever” than they should.

The most recent example I have experienced is in playing Factorio. There are Conveyor Belts, which move items along them. Each Conveyor Belt tile actually has two tracks: Left and Right. There are robotic arms which can transfer items from wherever and place them on the Conveyor Belt. These same robotic arms can pull items off the Conveyor Belt from either track. However, the robotic arm will only set items onto the Conveyor Belt on the far side. 

My question: why? No, seriously, why the fuck can’t we choose which side to set things on?

There are convoluted “solutions” out there for methods on how to move all items from, say, the Left track to the Right track. There are also solutions on how to construct paths such that a multi-track line is then later split off. None of these solutions involve, you know, telling robotic arms to place items on specific tracks. Maybe there is some huge programming reason why each robotic arm cannot be told to place on one track versus another. But you could certainly add a “near-side robotic arm” machine to the game and call it a day. 

Or perhaps the devs are being obtuse on purpose.

Oxygen Not Included is not immune to shenanigans. There is a Tepidizer in the game that you can use to heat up water. There is an limit to how hot it can get the water though, presumably because it would be too easy to create Steam systems otherwise. So the solution is to create an Aquatuner – a machine that cools down liquid and heats up itself – and then have the extremely hot Aquatuner boil water into Steam, which then will cool down the Aquatuner in the process. It’s “clever” and involves more steps/physics than simply heating up water via Tepidizer but it’s arbitrary as hell.

Drawing that line would be difficult indeed. But I do think there is a noticeable line somewhere. People have done some ludicrous, literal programming in Minecraft using the Redstone switches and such. That programming would be a lot easier with blocks that automatically did X or whatever. The difference, I think, is that the Redstone system is “simple.” It has the basest of building blocks. In Oxygen Not Included you already have the Tepidizer. In Factorio you already have robotic arms that place items on the far side of Conveyor Belts but are capable of grabbing items from both sides. No one can say Notch or whomever didn’t add something to the Redstone system to limit it on purpose.

Incidentally, other examples of purposeful obtuseness is when a game will feature crosshairs for everything other than weapons in which it would be OP. For example, the bow in Kingdom Come: Deliverance. An arrow to the face pretty much kills anyone but the balancing mechanism is apparently taking away the crosshair so you have to learn the trajectory by muscle memory. Or download a mod. Or dangle a piece of string down your computer monitor. Balanced!

So maybe the line is artificial limitations. I’m willing to accept no bow crosshairs if there were no crosshairs for anything else in the game. Similarly, I’d accept no easy Steam generators if the Tepidizer (or Aquatuner) didn’t exist. And finally, I’d accept lack of granularity with robotic arms and Conveyor Belts in Factorio if robotic arms could only retrieve items from the far side of the belt. 

But they don’t, so I don’t.

Impression: Factorio

I was gifted Factorio from one of my friends whom I had gifted Rimworld. We’re cruel like that. Given how much I enjoyed Rimworld and Oxygen Not Included and other resource-collecting/crafting games, it seems like Factorio should be right up my alley.

For some reason though… it’s not.

I am in the very early stages of the game. The tutorial, in fact. And while I very much enjoy crafting/survival-esque games and colony management games, Factorio is neither. It is an automating and stand-around-waiting game. You directly control an engineer and initially collect resources 1 at a time until you build machines that can do it for you automatically.

For example, you discover an iron ore field. You can mine it yourself, one nugget at a time, until you can build a Stone Furnace to smelt the ore into an Iron Plate. Use those Iron Plates to build a Burner Drill, which will automatically mine whatever you set it on top of, e.g. iron ore. Then you build conveyor belts so the iron ore can fall out of the Drill and be moved elsewhere, where you build robotic arms that can place iron ore into Stone Furnaces and more robotic arms to place the Iron Plates directly into a storage box. Or onto other conveyor belts to move it to Assemblers which can convert them to Iron Gears, which are necessary to produce the next dozen things down the tech tree. You will also need a similar setup to mine/process copper, stone, and coal to power everything.

In principle, this is the same sort of thing you’re doing in Oxygen Not Included. But that game… is fun. I’m not sure what Factorio is yet.

There’s a rather annoying part of the tutorial in which you are specifically tasked with creating 50 gun magazines per minute while also consuming 12 technology per minute. I get that the point of the exercise is to push the player into understanding you can build a dozen Lab buildings to accelerate research, and same with the mass-production of magazines (to feed turrets to fend off hostile wildlife). That said, I was the closest to quiting the game outright at that moment. All prior tutorial steps were “build X, which takes a half dozen steps,” which was fine. The magazine/tech thing was arbitrary though, and I was a little worried I would run out of technology to research before I successfully built enough Labs. Nevermind how many extraneous magazines were crafted as I trialed-and-errored my way to figuring out how to achieve that, again, arbitrary rate.

At this point, I may abandon the tutorial altogether and give the “real” game a try. Not having any express goals is not something I typically enjoy in gaming generally, but is not something that bothered me in Rimworld or Oxygen Not Included.

We’ll see if I have the same sort of success (read: fun) in Factorio.

Impression: Kingdom Come: Deliverance

It has actually been a while since I first started playing Kingdom Come: Deliverance (KC:D), but in that time I have put in around 50 hours. I am not certain that I will put in any more time to complete the game, but figured I would go ahead and dedicate some virtual real estate to my experience.

Wake up and smell the peasantry.

In short, KC:D is for a very specific type of player. And I’m not it.

There are a lot of things to like about the game. Visually stunning. Novel setting and premise, insofar as it’s a no-magic, no-hero medieval adventure. Immersive without needing quotes – first-person perspective in which you can see your feet, helmets getting in the way, walking (or riding) through the muck and rain. Arbitrarily hardcore, even at the expense of fun… which some people enjoy.

Again, I’m not one of them. Or maybe I can be, but not entirely this particular flavor.

The best example is with the combat. You have probably encountered dozens of variations of “you start out as an illiterate blacksmith’s son with no combat experience, OF COURSE combat is hard at first!” I mean, yes and no. Yes in that you start off as a level 1 character with literally no skills or points to put them in until you get XP. No in that the combat system is still trash at max level, as you typically just perform the same moves you have been doing the whole time, except this time you have enough skill points for shit to matter. That’s about as realistic as World of Warcraft or literally any RPG ever made. Except here you are still stuck stabbing faces (lest you be unbeatably countered) while waiting for your opponents to attack (so you can unbeatably counter them).

Also activated the perk: Jank

Oh, and occasionally you will be surrounded by peasants and murdered because lock-on targeting jank. Which is “realistic,” I guess. About as realistic as clipping through a bush or under some stairs and attacking back with impunity.

Another vaunted feature is the whole “the world goes on without you” bit. Example: if someone asks you to meet them tomorrow at sunrise at the crossroads, they will simply go on without you if you don’t show. REALISM. Except… that doesn’t always happen. Some quests will wait for you for months, including Crossroads Boy before you talk to him. Which is handy when you unexpectedly get locked up in jail for in-game weeks after attacking sleeping bandits who were scripted to ambush you, but apparently count as innocent villagers when you pre-murder them.

Which, philosophically, well… huh. Morally though, I think I’d feel worse if the voice of god had not automatically whispered my witness-less deeds to every guard in the kingdom.

Oh, apparently it was only 9 days…

But, real talk, are you the type of player who is fine permanently failing quests you did not realize were timed? I’m not. Which means I had to do a lot of Googling on every upcoming quest to figure out when I was “allowed” to go explore the game and when I was locked on rails lest I run out the invisible clock. One of the biggest failings of the Witcher 3’s story (IMO) was a false sense of urgency with the primary quest, which made the overall impetus for action a joke. But Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s seemingly random adherence to the clock feels worse in practice.

Most RPGs do the false sense of urgency thing. But most RPGs don’t try to present themselves as some kind of immersive sim either. I don’t hold a Final Fantasy to the same sort of standard, even if the fate of the world is supposedly at stake. 

At the end of all that, I still put in 50+ hours, so that’s saying something. I did not encounter TOO many bugs beyond some combat jank. I did lose probably around 4 total hours of progress to the asinine saving system, which involves you needing to manually drink some liqueur. There are mods to fix that (and other issues) but I could not be bothered to manually install them. Instead, I simply stole everything not bolted down from everyone I could to pay for my Quick Save addiction, which was still not good enough to prevent me from losing progress in dumb ways (e.g. peasant dog-piles). 

If you’re looking for Skyrim 2.0, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is not it. But it’s also not the worst thing in the world. Just go into it knowing a lot of systems are obtuse on purpose, and not always because it’s good game design.

Nevertheless, sometimes the novelty of brazzeness counts for more than you think.

In/Out of Commission

Kiddo got sick at daycare. Which got us sick. And then kiddo stayed sick enough that we’ve had to keep him from daycare six days and counting. So, that’s been my week.

P.S. Norovirus is no joke. 

P.P.S. Seriously, hand sanitizer doesn’t kill it.

Rent to Never Own

It has been a long time coming, but I have fully surrendered into post-ownership mindset.

The transition is largely semantic. Nobody “owns” a Steam game in their library and never have – just a non-transferable, revocable license… unless you lucked out and live in a sane country that allows resellable digital goods. Nevertheless, a game library was a thing that had value and meaning, you know? It was exciting seeing Steam sales and bargain hunting so you could accumulate stuff.

At least that is what it felt like.

The final, frictionless step was seeing Final Fantasy XV appearing on the Xbox Game Pass. I was already a bit crestfallen seeing how Kingdom Come: Deliverance was on the Epic Store free-game docket, but FF15 just flipped the metaphysical lights off. It’s not that I felt like a chump for spending $12 on the Humble Bundle that included Kingdom Come or, well, however the hell I acquired FF15. It just became increasingly obvious that I don’t need to do anything anymore. Games just happen.

I beat The Outer Worlds on the Game Pass, and I will never play that game again. I also beat Children of Morta, and I will never play that game again either. I just started on Metro: Exodus, and it’s possible I don’t even bother getting through the tutorial. Why force myself to? The game cost nothing other than download time. Compare that to Outward, the first game I purchased in the Epic Store, and how getting my $5.99 refund request denied made me very salty (bought during the Winter sale and first played much later than 14 day limit).

It’s rote to say Netflix obliterated any desire of mine to own physical movie DVDs. And not even really all that accurate – it was Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go and Disney+ that obliterated all desire. Your favorite movie might have fallen off one service, but likely landed on another. Or perhaps the sheer number of choices, which would keep you busier than any free time you had available, simply made the concept of “favorite” meaningless. Who is rewatching movies anyway?

I will, of course, still be purchasing games on occasion. Probably. Final Fantasy 7 Remake isn’t going to just show up Day 1 on PS+ or wherever. Probably. But what I’m getting at is that if my Steam library just up and vanished – which is entirely possible, and unable to be appealed – I don’t know if I would be mad. Or even really notice. The last time I played something on Steam was December 8th. And damn near everything I would play is already on the Game Pass.

Children of Morta, Finished

As I wrap up Children of Morta, I can reflect that it has consistently demonstrated excellent game design. That is the case even when I don’t necessary enjoy the gameplay of some of the characters. For example, Kevin is a rogue-ish character that uses daggers with ever-increasing attack speed and has a lot of dodging ability. Those two elements are at odds with each other, especially when you encounter enemies who don’t get “stunlocked” by his attacks. That said, some people might like the challenge of that back-and-forth playstyle, and there are some levels in which that fast attack will stunlock every relevant enemy.

The one area in which the game stumbles a bit though? The final boss fight.

I’m not going to go into the details of the fight, just the setup. Which is… spawn in, get three random items, fight boss. None of the boss fights leading up to this point have been so straight-forward. Which is nice on the one hand, because it avoids the frustration of going through three floors of monsters only to die and have to re-clear. On the other hand, it obsoletes nearly a half-dozen or so upgrade paths that you may have spent money on AND prevents you from potentially getting some nice single-run buffs. 

This could technically be good roundabout design, insofar as it encourages you to farm gold and XP in other dungeons so you can purchase those last few upgrades to damage (etc) you might have skimped out on. If you are great with reflexes and pattern recognition, go beat the final boss; everyone else can make the fight progressively easier by farming. 

Given how many other games completely change all the rules for the final boss fight, I’m inclined to give Children of Morta a pass on this one. I have died a few times already without making much progress through the phases, so I am a tad salty about the change-up. And given how close to the end I am, the thought of farming isn’t exactly appealing. But this final bit is the capstone of a very enjoyable game otherwise, so yeah, I will play along.

[Fake Edit]: I ended up beating the game last night.