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Inflection Points

In Divinity: Original Sin, I have definitively hit an inflection point in terms of character power. And that is kind of a shame.

Basically, once you hit level 15 you can start learning “Master” level skills/spells. As one might expect, these can be extremely powerful. For example, one of them is Meteor Shower, which drops 30 little fireballs in a specific area, each of which can deal a few hundred points of damage apiece in addition to spread fire in the area. These powerful spells cost a lot of Action Points – generally meaning needing to wait around multiple turns to save up enough AP – and are limited to One-Per-Battle in terms of cooldowns.

The issue is that you can game the hell out of the system. The AP cost is entirely irrelevant if you happen to spot a group of enemies before engaging in combat, for example – AP only exists within combat, so go nuts for the alpha strike. Hell, I bring down the stars on even one dude, because why not? It’s always been powerful to initiate combat with a “free” spell, but up till now those spells didn’t necessarily gib your target.

Another of the Master level skills allows an Archer to fire 16 arrows in a 45-degree arc. Great for groups… or, you know, if you want to effectively one(16?)-shot bosses from point-blank range. Oh, and hey, there’s a low-level Ranged Power Shot skill that increases damage by 20% at the cost of accuracy. Which would normally be an issue if not for the fact that Arrow skills auto-hit as long as the target is in range.

MMO players will recognize this phenomenon as “Optimizing the fun out of the game.” As I have mentioned previously though, the optimizing process itself is what I find fun to begin with. And it has been pretty fun figuring this out. The problem is that the game is now “solved,” and I am in one of those positions at the end of a Civilization match where winning is a foregone conclusion, but for the long, tedious march to an official win condition.

I said this situation is a shame because I’m not so sure it was necessary. Up until this point, effective AoE in Divinity was actually decently limited. Yeah, there were combos and such that you could set up, e.g. dropping Oil in an area and then lighting it on fire. But none of it was enough to one-shot groups by itself. Hell, often those combos ended up being counter-productive. The Oil+Fire combo was good for setting people on fire, but the resulting smoke prevented targeted follow-up attacks until they moved out of the area.

This scenario sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, when you are suddenly given an excessively OP party member (Orlandu) for basically no reason. The game was challenging up to that point, and considerably less so afterwards. Why? What was the designer reasoning?

Sometimes inflection points are inevitable. At the beginning of a game, your character’s options for skills and magic items are likely limited, so there might be less room for synergies. More options means more combos means more opportunities for OP results. Simply not giving anything new past a certain level isn’t a particularly good design, so the devs might actually be trapped in that regard.

And, hey, I’m not blind to the fact that it probably feels good, both as a player and as a designer, to reach the endgame and feel like a total badass. Every wizard dreams of the moment they go from shooting Magic Missiles into the darkness to altering the fabric of reality itself. This is why games like WoW end up giving you +5% upgrades each tier instead of a more measured 1% – anything less feels unrewarding.

The fundamental problem is that I found the Divinity combat system rewarding as-is. Even with good equipment, things felt dicey all the time. I’m sure that someone out there had a lot of fun going from dicey fights to forgone conclusion ones, but that person is not me. And I cannot help but wonder if it was necessary at all. If super-skills are necessary, do they need to be this particularly powerful? Why 30 meteors instead of, say, 10? That would still be a huge improvement over the standard Fireball spell.

In any case, I am continuing to play Divinity and hopefully wrap things up soon.

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What I’m Playing

WoW: I have been pretty consistent in logging into WoW each day, although I believe my subscription has already lapsed. I’m about halfway into Honored with the Legionfall Reputation, the last pieces of gating between me and flying. Despite this, it’s debatable that I renew my sub.

The problem is precisely the same problem with Legion all along: alts are punished.

Yes, alts are not as punished as they were before. The Broken Shore offers easy loot, your main can mail an Artifact Knowledge book to bump that alt up to level 20 (or 25 now for me), unlocking flying on one character unlocks it account-wide, and so on. The issue is getting there.

It’s time to face the facts: the new Druid main was a mistake. Boomkin is awful in solo PvP, and awful-feeling in solo World questing when other people are around. Sure, Sunfire will tag all the mobs, yay. Now watch as every cast is interrupted by the mob in question dying to other people who get to press buttons.

PvP is basically impossible. Mages burst me down in literal seconds, and there isn’t anything you can do against melee classes. If someone is distracted or can’t reach you, sure, Boomkins can blow you up with some long-casted spells. But so could a Hunter with auto-shot.

So here I am, stuck with a class I no longer want to play, but cannot really drop either. I mean, I can, but that just means that I will have to redo a whole lot of effort, e.g. grinding reputation all over again. Being stuck inbetween impossible choices doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable experience.

Divinity: Original Sin: This is an RPG that has lasted a whole lot longer than I ever expected it to. I think my current time counter is at 70 hours. Combat remains extremely entertaining, if not maddening at times. Crowd Control is absurd, with half a dozen different ways to lose your entire turn, multiple times in a row. This goes both ways of course, but there are always more enemies than PCs and you only have to be hit once or twice by CC to change the entire tide of the battle.

As fun as it is… I’m trying to wrap things up as soon as possible. Because…

Mass Effect: Andromeda: …I haven’t even booted it up once. Not because I’m particularly apprehensive (at least there has been a patch to smooth out facial animations), but because I anticipate dropping all other games until I finish playing it.

Final Fantasy 14: Redownloaded the client both because of the free login promotion, and because my friend finally made the necessary PC upgrades to play the game. I figure that FF14 is about due for another attempt, and the lull between now and the 2nd expansion is perhaps as good as any. Might clash with ME:A though.

Clash Royale: I continue to play and be frustrated by this game on a daily basis. I did managed to hit Challenger 2 (e.g. 4300+) again this month, but the 4000ish range is simply annoying beyond belief in terms of just farming chests. Meta decks abound in this range, and it’s almost expected to face over-leveled cards in every match. I’m talking about level 13 Royal Giants, Level 3 Lava Hounds, Level 6 Balloons, and so on.

Inventory Junk

Sometimes it takes a game to start doing something mundane before you appreciate how every other game doesn’t bother you with that crap. Case in point: Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t automatically remove anything from your inventory.

Nothing. The answer is nothing.

In pretty much any other RPG ever made, introducing lock to key causes the key itself to disappear. It is not as though the key will work on any other lock, so why keep it around? “Why not?” muses the D:OS designers. “Because it’s dumb,” says I. My inventory is filled with keys (which you can’t sell), books that no longer serve a quest or skill gain purpose, and other kitchen drawer debris. There isn’t any special glowing inventory effects either, so sometimes it gets difficult to realize that you actually have picked up something worth clicking on.

Can I manually go through my whole inventory? Of course. But why exactly do I need to? What is the underlying gameplay purpose? As far as I can tell… well, I can’t. I don’t actually know if this is a “old-school” throwback, as I don’t remember if Baldur’s Gate had anything similar. Probably not.

In any case, I’m glad most modern games have moved on. Because ain’t nobody got time for that.

Fuzzy Rules

I have been play a bit of Divinity: Original Sin and continue to enjoy it. Mostly.

One thing that I strongly dislike in games though, are fuzzy rules. By “fuzzy” I mean that the parameters of the rules are either not consistent or not entirely clear within the game itself. Divinity has tons of them that were at first amusing, but now are a bit grating.

For example, sometimes when you attack a target, they bleed on the ground. Fine, right? Well… environment effects are super important in Divinity. There is a talent that actually heals you when standing in blood, for example. Blood puddles also apparently conduct electricity, as I discovered when two of my melee team members got stunned after a third one shot a Lightning Bolt.

Things get real dumb though when you fight zombies. See, zombies are healed by poison effects. Guess what zombies bleed? Poison. So… yeah, hit zombies enough and they will bleed poison on the ground, which then heals them. I can kinda sorta maybe see the logic, if the designers were using this self-regeneration mechanic as an explanation for zombie resilience. But it’s far more likely that this is just sloppy game mechanics. Especially when you set zombies on fire, then the fire makes the poison explode, which ends up dealing fire and poison damage simultaneously, which sometimes cancels out the fire damage entirely.

Are there benefits to fuzzy rules? Sometimes. The real world is full of strange situations, so carrying over some of that uncertainty can make virtual worlds more realistic. Plus, fuzzy rules are a de facto increase in difficulty – if you’re not certain something is going to work, you have to be more cautious. Weird situations also make for good stories.

That said, I don’t like unclear rules very much. It’s tough to determine whether vague interactions are intentionally designed, or just designer incompetence. And when you end up failing because of said interactions, it’s difficult to know what you should have done differently. Did you lose to a dice roll? Strategic blunder? Not leveling up enough?

Growth requires not just knowing what went wrong, but what can be done to avoid it in the future. If the answer is “nothing,” there really isn’t any growth at all.

Divinity: Original Sin

My early impressions of Divinity: Original Sin (D:OS) is that this is the funnest tactical game I’ve played in years… in those few moments the game allows me to play. And I don’t mean that the game is crashing or anything – it’s just a few battles interspersed with long periods of fetch quests/running around town. Which is a real shame, because the combat is amazing.

Right from the start, I knew the D:OS battle system was for me, as it seemed to blend a whole bunch of mechanics from my favorite games. First, it’s character turn-based with a prominent display of upcoming turns, which reminded me of Final Fantasy Tactics or even FFX. Second, it uses Action Points just like with the old-school Fallout games. Third, speaking of Fallout, the movement system is non-grid based, as with Fallout Tactics. Finally, unused AP from the end of your turn is carried over to the next, providing additional tactical considerations.

DOS_Rope

Asking the serious questions.

 

What really takes the cake though, are the relatively novel innovations. For example, right from character creation I was able to learn the Teleport ability. Now, this is an offensive teleport whereby you drop someone (or something) from 20 ft in the air, but the sheer number of uses is extraordinary. In the beginning town, there was a joke about how a rope was preventing my character from reaching a treasure chest. Teleport it over to my area. Spellcaster hiding behind melee? Teleport him in front of your own. Considering how a main component of D:OS are environmental combos – shooting a lightning bolt into the water to electrify everyone standing inside – it is extremely convenient to be able to place people where you want them.

The other thing I appreciate? Spells have cooldowns. This prevents spellcasting from being too OP in combat itself (e.g. Teleport), while still giving you amusing out-of-combat options – aforementioned Teleport, casting a Rain spell on a boat on fire, etc. While this does affect game balance quite a bit in the sense that healing spells are effectively infinite, the sort of D&D/Baldur’s Gate style of resource management just means you can’t do fun things.

DOS_Loot

Oh, hey, an upgrade.

While I am enjoying my time thus far, D:OS does have some annoying design decisions. Inventory management is a righteous pain in the ass. The designers were very generous in the inventory slot department, for example, but they also went the Skyrim route of having nearly everything lootable, e.g. dishes, soap, individual gold pieces, etc. That’s on top of the baffling decision to make it so that inventory isn’t combined when selling things. Start a trade and realize you dumped the expensive goods on your mule partner? Can’t switch characters during a trade. Ooooookay… let me just manually shuffle items around and get right back into the dialog later.

As I mentioned, the pacing is weird too. There is a tutorial of sorts with enemies and traps and treasure. And then you are just kinda dumped into a city to investigate a homicide. The Witcher series has this exactly same issue, actually, but Witcher’s combat was awful so I enjoyed not having to slot through the nonsense. With D:OS, I’m hoping for fights.

In any case, this is fairly early on in the game, so I’m hopeful that things improve from here.