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Impression: Darkest Dungeon

As I alluded to before, I ended up refunding my purchase of Isaac: Rebirth. Deciding I was still in the mood for a roguelike, I put that $10 into purchasing Darkest Dungeon instead. Now more than dozen hours in, I myself feel like a character succumbing to mania over the experience.

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The art style and tone are an acquired taste, but I have acquired it.

The core gameplay loop of Darkest Dungeon is simply superb. Pick a group of four adventurers, buy them supplies for a dungeon delve, and then crawl through said dungeon killing and looting. Successful completion or not, those four particular adventurers are likely going to need a break to recover from the ordeal, so spend a bunch of your gold on (mentally) healing them. For the rest of the profits, use heirlooms to build up the Hamlet, then spend gold to upgrade the gear of another set of four adventurers… who then will need provisions for their own expedition. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

That might sound boring or perhaps grindy, but there are so many considerations and decisions to be made on a micro level that I find the hours melting away in a Civilization “One more turn” kind of way. For example, you can’t recruit just anyone: you get a small pool of recruits to choose from each “week.” Even if it’s a class that you wanted, out of the 8 possible Skills that class has, they will have 4 random ones. You can spend gold training the specific ones you desire, of course, but that’s 1000g less you have to spend on something else. Other times you have exactly the class and spec you want for your particular dungeon strategy, but they end up accumulating too many Diseases or negative Quirks such that it’s easier/cheaper to just let them go than keep them. Finally, even if you upgrade the Stagecoach such that you get higher-level recruits hand-delivered to you with full upgrades out of the box, they might not have enough positive Quirks to justify the limited roster space.

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Even if I liked Highwaymen (I don’t), this hero is too expensive to treat.

None of this even gets into the combat and dungeon exploring parts of the game.

At the beginning, I thought the combat system was kinda dumb. Each character has the ability to do one thing each round in a turn-based manner. There are priest-esque classes and others with healing abilities, but they can only perform these actions in combat. Yeah, that’s a particular “gamey” limitation, but the longer I played, the more I realized how the entire point of this game is resource management. A turn spent healing is a turn not spent attacking.

However, considering that HP is only a concern in a dungeon, whereas Stress carries over into town and future dungeons, you have to start considering the relative merits of either. Leaving up the weak spellcaster who “only” inflicts Stress on your team so that you can spend multiple rounds healing your team to full HP might not be worth (literally) the trouble. Then again, if you have to end up Retreating from a battle/quest because everyone is about to die, well, they end up getting penalized with Stress/quirks regardless.

Then you have the boss fights, which possibly toss aside all your carefully laid plans. I defeated an Apprentice Necromancer with barely an issue already. Fighting the Wizened Hag though? I have faced her three times thus far, and retreated each time, nevermind the three other attempts that were aborted before even reaching her chambers.

The Hag has a Cookpot that takes up the first two “positions” on the field, with herself in the last two. Invariably, one of your team members gets thrown in the Cookpot and takes damage each individual turn until released. Thus, not only do you lose the actions of that team member, but your remaining members are usually out of their normal position (most abilities have position limitations), and then you have to consider whether to attempt to free the person or attack the Hag. Freeing the person is fine… but the Hag will throw someone else in the pot almost immediately afterwards.

Which can be the same person. /sigh

Having been defeated by this encounter so many times before, I am now in a holding pattern of leveling up my lower-level people to get a pool of acceptable candidates to try and kamikaze my way through the encounter, or perhaps overwhelm her with higher-level gear. Repeated dungeon clears of the other locations unlock additional bosses though, so perhaps I ignore her for now. And, oh, this other quest offers a pretty good trinket for that one class, so perhaps I grab that first.

Around and round I go… loving every single minute of it.

So, yeah. I’ll be curious to see how I end up towards the endgame; if this gameplay loop still entertains or if I get ground down by the repetition/familiarity. I ended up choosing Radiant difficulty based on the, ahem, horror stories from others who played originally. Indeed, some of the original mechanics sounded outright dumb: the inability to take characters back into the final dungeon more than once, for example. Some of those have been address since the game’s launch, but it’s a bit sobering to read that Radiant was designed to bring down the play-time “from 80 hours to about 40.”

Fake Edit: took down the Hag with this handsome group of characters:

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What does not kill you, stresses you out.

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Impressions: Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

It’s kinda funny, looking back and seeing my original review of The Binding of Isaac being posted in November 2011. 11/11/11, in fact. Nearly six years ago is a pretty long-ass time. And yet here I am buying the re-release of a game and its expansion for another go-around. Maybe.

The truth is: I don’t know.

Ostensibly, I bought Rebirth (and Afterbirth DLC) because it was on sale and I had read all the people praising it on Reddit as being far better than the original. One person mentioned that it was simply relaxing to play. Certainly, I felt slightly similar back when I first played the game insofar as I compared it to Solitaire. Just something to play for a little bit without a sense gravity.

At the same time, I constantly found myself pausing the game and going to the Wiki. What does this Tarot card do? What the hell is this buff? Why is this room empty aside from a spike pit in the middle? These mysterious things are traditional trappings of roguelikes in general, but I feel like Isaac spends an inordinate amount of time in being obtuse. Random effects or items? Fine. Obfuscated abilities? Not fine.

It took me three runs to make it down to and defeat Mom, which resulted in about 15 achievements. Among other things, this unlocks the other half of the game (post-Mom), new items that get added to the random pool, new characters to play as, and Challenges. The latter is new to me, but is basically normal Isaac runs with some kind of penalty added on. In fact, pretty much everything I’ve seen so far is just piling on difficulty.

I’m not sure this is me anymore though. It was certainly relaxing to play in the moment… until I started pausing every other room to double-check the Wiki. I’m not going to stop doing that either, as I find blind choices fairly abhorrent. I don’t need to win every time I play a roguelike, but I’m also not going to let myself ruin an otherwise good run with some bullshit “Gotcha!” moment either.

So, yeah. Perhaps this will be my 2nd Steam refund.

Dungeon of the Endless

I was in a mood for a new roguelike for those times when you want to play something for 10 minutes (but end up spending 2 hours), so I picked up Dungeon of the Endless. After finally completing the first ship on Too Easy mode – having died a dozen times in frustrating ways on Easy mode (only two options at the start) – I’m not sure that I’m up to playing any more.

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No, no there is not.

The core mechanics to this game are actually really novel and layered. The goal is to open new rooms until you find the exit, then move the crystal to said exit. Each time you open a door though, you trigger a Tower Defense-esque round where enemies may or may not pour from every unpowered room that you have discovered (unless characters are parked in those rooms). You can power and unpower rooms at will, but are limited to a certain number of powered rooms based on your Dust level. Dust is discovered by opening rooms and killing enemies.

Additionally, each door that gets opened gives you X amount of Industry, Science, and Food, which can be augmented by building components in powered rooms. Oh, and there are defenses you can place, new tech to research, items to equip, your characters can level up by using Food, and so on.

If it sounds complicated… it actually isn’t, amazingly. While you can order your characters (up to four) around, you can only tell them to go to given rooms; they attack automatically. Eventually you can unlock extra abilities, which generally last less than 10 seconds and thereafter take 2-3 rooms to recharge. You can sometimes get clever combos going, but it’s mostly panic button stuff.

What ends up being frustrating though, is how the game sorta becomes more of a Press Your Luck game than roguelike. Your accumulated resources carry over to each new floor, so there is always a tension between placing defenses (which cost Industry) to be extra safe, and/or just going for the exit, and/or opening a few more rooms to get some more resources/items. You can sometimes get screwed going the extra mile with Binding of Isaac or FTL encounters, but for the most part your twitch gameplay skills can save you. With Dungeon of the Endless though, there is a thin margin between being okay and getting slaughtered. Since everything is practically automated – you cannot choose which alien your characters shoot at – there isn’t much you can do when you get a gang of suicide enemies amongst cannon fodder or tanky enemies.

Hell, I’ve played the game for 10 hours now and I don’t know what the suicide enemies look like. This is definitely one of the those “discover on your own look up everything in the Wiki” games.

I dunno. I may play a little bit more to see if I’m just not grokking the experience. With Binding of Isaac and especially FTL, getting that “Aha!” moment was both sudden and mind-blowing in terms of how much further I could go. I’m not sure the same is possible here, but we’ll see.

——-

Since writing the above, I played for another 5-10 hours and my conclusions are basically the same. I feel like I understand the essential essence of the game… but there isn’t anything I can do when things like this happen:

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Oh, hey, I lost the dice roll four times in a row.

Opened 23 doors, still didn’t discover the randomly placed exit. GG. Since monster waves get worse and worse the more doors you open, there was literally nothing I could have done here. Other than chose to go south and west first, back when my map was blank.

Play perfectly and still get randomly screwed? Yeah, welcome to roguelikes. But in most other ones, I feel like you have room to improve your own skills. In this instance, my RNG was the only meaningful skill I was lacking.

This game is definitely going straight in my Steam graveyard category.

Review: The Binding of Isaac

Game: The Binding of Isaac
Recommended price: $5 (full price)
Metacritic Score: 84 (!)
Completion Time: Technically ~1 hour, or 20+ hours
Buy If You Like: Twisted, roguelike Flash games

The Binding of Isaac (hereafter Isaac) is a game that, strictly speaking, I should not enjoy. Indeed, I did not enjoy it at all the first few times I played it. But I did keep playing it, and once I sort of stumbled my way out of fifteen years of safe game design, Isaac rekindled a bit of that stubborn old-school gamer flame that propelled my younger self face-first into Battletoads hour after bloody hour.

This is what the first few hours will feel like.

Isaac plays like Smash TV from the olden days, with WASD controlling movement and the arrow keys controlling which direction you eject the streaming tears from your naked body at the merciless demons haunting your childhood nightmares. Map layouts and room contents are randomly determined each time you start the game, with the only consistency being the number of total levels, and there being Item and Boss rooms on every level (until the last few, which have no Item rooms).

As I mentioned, the game did not seem terribly fun the first few times. There is no quick-save, there are no checkpoints, and I got the feeling that I was lucky to even have a pause button. Death is permanent, none of the items you receive are really explained before you use them, many items can actively harm you in some way, some room setups are completely unfair, and it is both entirely possible and very likely that you will get screwed right from the very start with things only getting progressively worse.

Sometime around my fourth attempt, it suddenly all clicked: this is like Solitare. A game you play because you aren’t sure you want something heavier, a game that you don’t have an expectation to beat every time, and yet something you still find fun hours and hours later.

Isaac gives you plenty of opportunities to make bad decisions.

And I have indeed been having fun hours and hours later; 20+ hours to be exact. Although you never carry over items you accumilate, beating the game or getting specific achievements will unlock new items that are then added to the random roster, some of which will radically change the tenor of a particular run. I have a few more specific achievements to grab by beating the full game with different characters (basically different starting load-outs) before getting to the truly ridiculous “take no damage for X levels” kind, so it will be interesting to see if the game is still fun once those dry up.

But you know what? Getting more than 20 hours of game time in a roguelike, a genre that I was hitherto convinced I would despise on principal, is an absolute goddamn steal at $5.

Indie Game Alert

I cannot imagine anyone reading this wouldn’t already know, but in case you haven’t checked:

  • Bastion is the mid-week Steam madness sale. $7.49 (down from $15)
  • New Humble Bundle is up, now with The Binding of Isaac as a bonus.

As previously mentioned, Bastion is top-quality material.