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I think I figured it out, what I want most in a game. I want this:

That’s a Post-It note I scribbled upgrade materials on and kept near my keyboard. While the Bow portion was for Valheim, the rest of it is for a Survival Management game called Dead in Vinland that I have played pretty heavily lately. Indeed, Steam says 48 hours in the last two weeks.

It’s difficult to discern whether Dead in Vinland is actually that fun. Hell, I don’t even know where or when I got it. After digging into my account history, it looks like it came from a January 2020 Humble Bundle? Anyway, I had been listlessly jumping from game to game because the games I want to play are unfinished Early Access titles. Which may be redundant but nevermind. Titles like the aforementioned Valheim, 7 Days to Die, Grounded. Basically every survival game ever – just got to add “content” to the list of things you have to scavenge for.

Thing is, I’m starting to realize that it may not necessarily be the survival genre per se. What I truly enjoy, what pushes all my buttons, is exactly what is on that Post-It note: Planning. I looked at all the camp upgrades in Dead in Vinland and winnowed them down to the seven that might actually have a meaningful impact. Then I could start making rational decisions on which to build first based on my available resources. It would be suboptimal to complete the two that both take 20 Wood, for example, as that is a resource that would take focused harvesting at the expense of everything else. Plus, Wood has other users whereas with Pelts I only need 30 of them total.

I do find it annoying in how few games allow you to take in-game notes. I have fun with Metroidvanias but dislike how next to none of them let you mark the map so that you know you need to come back to a particular area after getting the double-jump ability, for example. Technically, Hollow Knight let you mark the map, but only with weird icons that you had to purchase with in-game currency. Games like My Time at Portia let you make notes, but not in the way I wanted – if I’ve figured out that so-and-so really likes Apple Pies, let me attach that somewhere on the crafting screen itself. So, again, I can look at my available crafting materials and plan out the optimal route to utilize them.

I bring that up because it is not as though I necessarily enjoy just writing stuff on Post-It notes.

Well, actually, I do.

Names blurred to protect the innocent

And pondering further, it is not even necessarily that I want games where planning is required. Dead in Vinland can certainly punish you for a lack of planning – the antagonist demands a revolving tribute of goods every 7 days – and that’s not necessarily fun. It certainly drives the gameplay and gives you a reason to head certain directions, which is fine. Fun? No.

In any case, when I bust out one of my half-dozen Post-Its and start writing stuff down, I know that something is cooking. The game itself may not always warrant that level of planning – perhaps it will be a shock, but I do have a tendency to over-analyze things – but the act of doing so absolutely increases the net level of fun that is occurring. Or perhaps is just indicative of something occurring deeper beneath the surface and the product is fun.

Now, I just have to find a (finished!) game that is worthy of that attention.

Silver End

I’m done with Valheim for now.

Where we last left off, I had already committed 4-5 real, prime-time, father of a 2-year old, I-should-be-sleeping hours finding and “exploring” mountain ranges bereft of silver. I had contemplated either uncovering the map with cheat codes or using an online tool to explore my world seed – somehow the latter seemed less morally questionable – but then decided against it. When you’re already this far up shit creek, you may as well keep paddling and see how much further it goes.

The answer is: seven. I explored seven mountain ranges before finding one that spawned any silver.

Quality gameplay

If we want to get technical, the first two mountain ranges were on my starting continent, and even I figured they had a low likelihood of having silver. From there, the modus operandi was to set sail towards any landmass that appeared to have a mountain on it. Luckily, you can tell from quite a distance whether there is a mountain – much farther than the tree-spawning distance, which otherwise tells you whether you’re heading for a swamp, plains, or forest. Unfortunately, all mountains have a similar skybox at range, and thus you do not know whether it’s going to be the size of those open meadow areas, or something more substantial. In my experience though (n=7), if you do not immediately see any drakes flying around, you are wasting your time at that location.

In any case, I finally hit pay-silver on mountain #7. And just like with the swamp, there were at least three separate silver nodes within about a 40m distance from one another. And one of those towers and give you the location of the boss. I had heard those were an extra layer of RNG I could potentially enjoy, but my tower had the location stone. Neat. I set up shop in the tower, moved my smelting infrastructure via portaling, and began getting my dwarf on.

That was convenient.

Then… I was done.

The final nail were Stone Golems. As enemies, they’re fine. I had heard they took extra damage from the pickaxe, but honestly it’s way easier to just bash them with a mace and use your shield to almost negate all their attacks. The problem is that they drop Crystals. And Crystals have zero use in the game. Not “limited use” or “decorative item that grants no bonus,” I mean this is an item the devs put into their Early Access game but didn’t bother attaching to any recipe. It was a stark reminder that whatever the game is now is unfinished. Any of the frustrations I have experienced up to this point may not have been intended. The devs might have just not gotten around to it.

Suspension of disbelief: collapsed.

So now I’m off playing other, more finished games. Steam shows 46.6 hours played with Valheim, which is worlds more than I spend on 90% of the games I do end up playing. Other bloggers have already defeated the remaining bosses and still others appear ready to continue onwards past the edge of the page. Which is fine. But if there is any hope that I will feel motivated to play Valheim 6-12 months from now when it will (presumably) be more feature-complete, I had to call it. Should have called it after the swamp fiasco, honestly. But there it is.

ONI Goes Gold

Another Klei game has graduated Early Access, showing the world how Early Access should be done.

I had stopped playing Oxygen Not Included (ONI) back in March, because I was getting a bit overwhelmed with my longest-running base, but didn’t want to start over with a fresh one because there were some pending updates. I continued holding off because the release date was going to happen soon, then it got delayed, so I waited some more. Booting up the launch version last night was satisfying, like slipping into a well-worn chair after a month-long vacation.

For the most part.

New biomes have been introduced, new machines, new elements, new critters, and a new selection of theme asteroids with random modifiers like “metal-rich” or “magma channels” or “frozen core.” There are trees now, in certain locations, and an entire engineering path in which you can burn trees for fuel, turn them into ethanol, and so on. There are also some major changes to heat deletion, specifically removing some of the cheesy methods and making it more of a hassle.

At the same time… the (optimal) early game is pretty much identical. Construct some Outhouses, dig out some 16×4 rooms, make your vertical shafts three tiles wide for airflow and future-proofing reasons, dig out a basement for your Carbon Dioxide to settle so the Dupes don’t smother in their sleep, and so on. The Research tree has been rearranged, Skills have undergone a third (final?) revision, but everything you learned about the first 50 cycles or so is pretty much the same.

The one thing that stays interesting is the placement and types of geysers that can spawn. In the beginning there were only Steam geysers and volcanoes and such, but now there are ~19 different varieties that can radically change the trajectory of your entire game. For example, having a nearby Natural Gas Vent (i.e. geyser) means you can rush an early Natural Gas Generator and otherwise skip Coal power entirely. A water geyser, in whatever form, is pretty much required for any kind of long-term survival, so it’s good to find an early one and get that concern out of the way.

In many ways, ONI reminds me of Civilization in this regard. Many of the steps you undertake are the same, although early environmental resource placement can cause you to switch strategies. By the mid-to-late game though, all roads lead to Rome and you end up doing the same sort of things, e.g. the one that work, as you coast to an inevitable conclusion.

Granted, I haven’t made it to the endgame in the released version of ONI – or in the beta for that matter – so maybe they changed things up. Hell, there are some asteroid options like Rime, wherein everything is basically frozen except for the starting biome, causing you to be very concerned about generating heat instead of having to worry about cooling everything down like normal.

In any case, Steam says I have played 80 hours of Oxygen Not Included already, so even if the release version doesn’t capture my long-term attention, it’s because I have already spent a long time enraptured in its systems. It is decidedly NOT Rimworld or Dwarf Fortress, but it is another fun game from Klei (makers of Don’t Starve). If you like failing miserably several times before becoming lord of the elements, I recommend the game.

Slain Spire

Remember when I said I wouldn’t buy Battlefield 5 because it would consume all my free time but not “accomplish” anything? Well, I did resist the purchase…

…and promptly put like a dozen or so “empty” hours into Slay the Spire instead.

I think my total hours /played in Slay the Spire at this point is north of 50 hours. Those are rookie numbers compared to Zubon at Kill Ten Rats, who probably put more hours into writing Slay the Spire posts last year than I have playing the game. Which it entirely deserves, by the way – it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just not a novel experience (to me) anymore, and yet I feel compelled to boot it up any time I spend more than thirty seconds looking at my Steam library.

That’s probably a sign of good game design.

Last year, the devs at MegaCrit tweeted that they were looking at a Switch and mobile version of the game after coming out of Early Access. It’s 2019 and the game is still in Early Access, although there has been a third class added and, more recently, Steam mod support. If and when Slay the Spire ever receives a mobile port, is likely the day that I earn a Corrective Action Report at work.

I can’t wait. Because then I might be able to get home sated, and ready to play something else.

Impression: Project Zomboid

Project Zomboid (PZ) is an Early Access, isometric post-zombie apocalypse survival game set in Kentucky. While the pared down graphics and isometric camera might give one pause, I was fairly excited to give the game a try. What I discovered is possibly one of the more “realistic” survival games out there… and that realism is way overrated. And less fun to play.


Fairly accurate tutorial.

Honestly, I was actually surprised how much I disliked PZ almost immediately. After character creation, you take control inside the one for-sure non-zombie house – your own. From here, you go through houses and find… normal stuff. Fully stocked refrigerators and freezers. Ovens to cook raw meat. Working lights. Faucets that deliver fresh water directly to your mouth. While your character starts with no skills, you are fully capable of surviving quite a while just fine doing nothing.

That does not last for long, of course. Within a month or so, both the electricity and water will shut off permanently. So the game’s central conceit reveals itself: how long can you survive?

In the abstract, this is not dissimilar to, say, Oxygen Not Included, wherein there is no win condition per se. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find myself immediately repulsed by PZ, conceptually. When you wake up naked on a beach in ARK, there is a very obvious, grokkable progression path towards survival. All of that is turned on its head with PZ. I found myself ransacking houses for supplies, and then asking myself why.


Have to unlearn decades of survival games, e.g. can’t pick up sticks.

The answer is supposed to be “to prepare for self-sufficiency and safety after the lights and water turn off,” but that feels like such a weird, abstract endgame. It’s definitely unique in this particular genre, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like it’s probably unique for a reason, e.g. it feels bad. You aren’t building up to self-sufficiency, you’re building down. It is also harder to feel any particular sense of urgency without metagaming the entire experience.

I dunno. There is technically a starting game mode which takes place 6 months after the start of the zombie apocalypse, which features the water and lights already off, and most things already looted. In other words, a more typical survival game experience. But after spending a few hours with the base game, I don’t know that I feel it.

This is definitely going to be one of those Early Access titles that needs more time in the oven.

Fixing Problems*

After about 75 hours of RimWorld, I decided to download mods to “fix” the base game.

As mentioned a few times around here, RimWorld is still currently in an Early Access state. Version 1.0 is on the horizon, but we do not yet have a complete feature list or an itemized accounting of what is going to change. This was frustrating me quite a bit in my current playthrough, due to an outcome I cannot help but question whether it was intended.

The basic gist is this: a group of mechanical enemies attacked my base, and Wolle got shot and was bleeding out. I rescued him and patched him back up… but he would not leave the medical bed. Prognosis: shattered spine. Vanilla RimWorld actually has bionic arms, bionic legs, and bionic eyes as core features. You can’t craft them, but you can buy them from traders occasionally, and clearly have the medical technology to install them. Additionally, there are nanite serums in-game that can automatically boost your skills, which by the description function specifically by moving from the orbit of the eye, into the skull, and then transmuting into the necessary brain tissue.


The Days-Are-Numbered version

Plus, there is something called Luciferium, which are medical nanites that can fix permanent scarring – including in the brain – for the low, low cost of permanent addiction. If you miss a dose every 5-6 days, and you will go on a berserk rage until death. A “devil’s bargain” indeed.

Trouble is, nothing cures a shattered spine in the core game. Was this an oversight? If Luciferium can cure stab scars in the brain, surely it could repair a spine too? Well, it doesn’t. So that led me to question whether it was intentional. There is nothing that cures shattered ribs either, for example – they just permanently reduce the amount of torso damage a colonist can take before collapsing/dying.

So, perhaps the designers were wanting to force the player to confront a scenario in which they have a permanently disabled colonist. Do you maintain them as dead weight, perhaps even taking them with you somehow if/when you escape the planet? Do you simply euthanize them and turn them into a hat? I can see how the emergent moral dilemmas come about. On the other hand, it’s hard to draw a line at spines and ribs when nanite magic is already out of the bottle.

Despite this, it wasn’t until I wasted an in-game month unsuccessfully trying to find uranium to start building a ship that I broke down and modded the game. I added a mod that augments the ground-penetrating radar to actually tell me the resources that are located underneath. And then I added Expanded Prosthetics and Organ Engineering (EPOE).

With EPOP installed, I did the relevant research and built the required workstation and finally crafted a fresh new bionic spine for Wolle. After a successful surgery, I took a look at his Health page… and realized that he wasn’t just fixed, he was better. Specifically, something like 20% better. So now I’m in a scenario in which I could craft 11 more bionic spines and implant them into my colonists to maximize the amount and quality of their work. Then I could get to work on about a dozen other bionic implants too.


Now his spine is broken in a different direction.

Like I said before, bionic eyes, arms, and legs are already in the base game. In fact, I have some spares hanging around for emergencies, but bionics are better than standard-issue meat in every way already. While you cannot craft your own, you can generally pick up extras without too much trouble. So it’s not quite too far a bridge, right? Right?


Yeah, yeah, I know. I do think shattered spines are a hole in the vanilla game’s original design, hopefully to be filled in a more balanced way upon release. But then again, sometimes it is precisely the gaps in satisfaction that moves us out of our comfort zone.

Impressions: Oxygen Not Included

Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a base-building and resource management game currently in Early Access, in the vein Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld. At least, that is what people tell me, as I have not played either one of those. What I have played is Craft the World (pt1, pt2), and ONI is basically that, minus the dwarves and goblins.


My first base. Doomed to failure.

The premise of ONI is actually kind of compelling. After picking three Duplicants from a roster of randomly generated ones, they appear in the middle of an asteroid. The ostensible goal is to survive as long as possible using what resources you have available. Instead of controlling them directly, you the player can generate and prioritize tasks like digging out certain squares, constructing machines, etc, and your Duplicants will work to make that happen. Contrary to the title, some basic oxygen is included in the form of oxygen-generating rocks, but it is not nearly enough to last long-term.

Indeed, oxygen-management is indicative of what you will be working on over the arc of the entire game. In the beginning, you will create machines that convert algae (mined from special squares) into oxygen to supply your base. However, your Duplicants exhale CO2, and that will gradually accumulate in the lower reaches of your base (science!). So, eventually, you are going to need to either research technology to convert that CO2 into some other form, or at least pipe it elsewhere. Meanwhile, you also have to grow food, find water, and research some method of disposing of all the poop (or polluted dirt, if you prefer) your Duplicants generate. Have I mentioned there are germs and stress to worry about too? And the fact that you are in the middle of an asteroid, so the whole “pump the CO2 elsewhere” is really just delaying the problem for another day?


Gas management is much better in my current base.

As of right now, I do not believe there is a story or “campaign mode” for ONI, and I do not know if there is any planned either. The goal is to survive as long as possible, and there are some very optimized base configurations out there to ensure that is the case. However… I’m not sure that is enough for me, game-wise. Klei’s other popular game, Don’t Starve, also features an implicit goal of surviving as long as possible against escalating threats. The end-state of death there though, usually comes from violence or mistakes rather than slowly running out of finite resources. I felt much more agency in Don’t Starve, in other words, even if the outcome was very similar.

What I will say is that Oxygen Not Included grabbed my attention very early with a compelling premise, and makes me wish there were more Terraria/Starbound/etc survival games out there that I haven’t already played . Hmm… maybe it’s time for RimWorld then…

Impression: Slay the Spire

Slay the Spire is basically a deck-building roguelike in the vein of Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run with a splash of Dominion. While still in Early Access, damn near everything about the game was compelling enough to grab my attention for 20+ hours immediately after purchasing.


Not a good hand at the moment.

The basic gameplay cadence is to pick one of two classes, and then complete encounters on your way up the Spire. At the start, you have 10 cards in your deck, and three energy to spend each turn. After each turn, cards you played (and any you didn’t) go to the discard pile and you draw 5 more cards. When you run out of cards, the discard pile is shuffled into a new draw pile, repeat ad infinitum.

Your beginning deck is basically filled with 1-energy Attack (deal 6 damage) and Defend (gain 5 block) cards. As you defeat enemies, you get a choice of one of three cards to add to your deck. Some of these are strict upgrades to your basic cards (Deal 5 damage AND gain 5 block), but many of them are completely different mechanically (discard your entire hand, draw that many cards). Adding these new cards to your deck makes it more powerful, but just as with Dominion, a deck with 30+ cards is not as powerful as a deck with 15 cards – you are simply less likely to get the combo pieces you need when you need them.

This is where the brilliance of Slay the Spire comes in. For one thing, it allows you to forgo getting new cards if you wish. Additionally, in shops and certain non-combat encounters, you can choose to remove cards from your deck. This is good both for thinning the lower-impact cards from your deck, and also removing Curse cards (usually just a dead draw) you might have inadvertently picked up. In addition to cards, you can also get one-use potions, and gain Relics, which are typically passive abilities that augment your run in some way.

All of this is on top of a robust buff/debuff system, a dozen or so different enemy types with their own behaviors, a bunch of bosses/elite encounters, some non-combat events, Shops that let you purchase new cards, one-use potions with nice effects, and so on and so forth.

Oh, and have I mentioned that the two available classes have different card pools?

Since purchasing the game last week, I have beaten the final encounter a couple of times with both classes, using (by necessity) several different methods based on which relics I managed to pick up. For example, one relic gives you 3 Block each time you discard a card. Suddenly, Calculated Gamble (Discard your hand, draw that many cards, costs zero) becomes the best defense card in the game, while simultaneously moving you closer to a your win condition cards. Other games required playing and fetching the same two cards as many times as possible. Still other games saw me die to the first elite encounter I faced, three moves into a run.

Roguelikes sometimes dislike rogues, know what I’m sayin’?

In any case, if you were looking for something less RNG than Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run, or enjoy deckbuilding in general, I highly recommend Slay the Spire. It is in Early Access, so technically it could get better or worse, but they would have to essentially gut the entire game at this point to make it not worth the $13 (on sale) I already paid. Buy it, or keep it on your radar once it releases for real.

EA Impressions: SPAZ 2

The original Space Pirates and Zombies (SPAZ) was a hidden indie gem back in the day, and saw me through almost 40 hours of gameplay. Granted, it had some lousy pacing and the early portions of the game weren’t particularly great either. But hey, it was done by a two-man dev team, and hit some great notes in the middle there somewhere. Hearing about SPAZ 2 being close to Early Access graduation and on a Steam sale to boot, I just had to take a look.


Where 99% of the gameplay takes place.

Well, then.

SPAZ 2 is set in same universe as the original, and even continues the story a bit. That and the ship names are pretty much the only things left in common with the original title. The principle “game” here is a sort of galaxy map… thing. I don’t really know what to call it. Simplified RTS? Except time only moves when your ship moves, so Real Time doesn’t fit. Nor does Strategy, now that I think about it. If anything, it reminds me of games like Eufloria, where you are basically collecting infinite resources and expanding your empire while everyone else is doing the same.

In the original game, combat was sorta handled like a twin-stick shooter. In SPAZ 2, combat is a formality. While you can elect to aim your weapons like you wish to actually play a videogame, the game’s tutorial advises to stick to “Battle Wagon” mode, which is where your weapons automatically fire and reload according to their ability to hit things within their range. The former supposedly allows you to target specific sections of enemy ships in an effort to break them off and commandeer them as your own, but the reality is that none of it really matters. Scrap, the currency of SPAZ 2, is abundant, and you’re unlikely to know what components your opponents are using anyway.


Look, Ma, no hands!

The utter lack of regard towards the combat system is, frankly, baffling. There is a video on Steam from the devs demonstrating how to play SPAZ 2 in VR mode. Holding RMB down even brings up a targeting reticle. But… why? No game systems support, encourage, or require any manual control during battles. I mean, there’s a tiny element in the bizarre looting system they have, as the components shot off from downed enemies is not assured to be in the normal post-combat loot table. But you can’t collect these pieces – you must physically bolt them onto your own ship. Which is another whole gameplay element that isn’t even defrosted, let alone half-baked: if components are popping off your ship, you are dying, and you won’t live long enough for it to matter.

Maybe all of this is due to me being in the early game still? Maybe it’s due to Early Access? I dunno. What I do know is that the fun of the original SPAZ came from combat, and everything else was a chore. In SPAZ 2, combat is now a chore, and you are left with extremely simplified empire management as your only element of gameplay.


Humor is there, at least.

Hopefully this gets better, because I’m already past my Steam refund window.


Maybe there was some fanfare somewhere, but it came as a complete shock to me that Ark came out of Early Access this past week. As in, it’s fully released. It even has a Big Boy Pants price going on:


Glad I picked it up for $12 a year and a half ago.

Deleted my prior saved game and started fresh on a “Single Player” server. The results were… rough.

The early-game in Ark is essentially broken as shit. I spawned in the “Easy 3” section of the default Island, which puts me on a beach. The first few minutes is the traditional Minecraft experience of punching trees to create tools. As you gain levels, you can spend Engram Points to purchase schematics according to your level, which kinda allows you to differentiate yourself between a builder or scavenger or whatever. Which is fine, but particularly sucks in single-player considering that I’m level 10 but still can’t build a Thatch house (since I went for weapons).

The real problem though is the absurd difficulty spikes. The beach where I spawned has a cliff face blocking access to the interior of the Island, and the water is filled with massive sharks. No matter which direction you travel down the beach, there are extremely aggressive raptors essentially trapping you in a corridor of death. You can respawn after being eaten, but whatever items you were carrying will have been dropped, and the dinosaur responsible will still be by your corpse.


Carno corpse camp.

Oh, and your items despawn after 15 minutes.

In other words, in the early game, consider your former items to be permanently lost. Which wouldn’t be too bad if not for the fact that getting back to some baseline of combat readiness requires you to punch trees, craft a Pick, mine some stone, create a Hatchet, gather some wood, then make some Spears. Oh, and hold E down when near about two dozen bushes so you can craft some clothes. All so you can maybe engage some raptors that you cannot outrun and will likely kill you. So you can do the whole thing over again. And by the way, you can actually spawn into the game right next to a raptor or T-Rex and start getting eaten before you even have full control of your character.

If you make it past this early game though, you can craft a house and a bed that will let you respawn at a stationary location. And perhaps build some storage containers filled with surplus equipment, so that you aren’t starting from zero every time.


Carno, Alpha Raptor, Therizinosaurus? No thanks, I’m good.

This terrible beginning experience will not deter my Sisyphean struggle however. Part of the reason I stopped playing Ark 1.5 years ago was the terrible optimization that caused my PC to run it at 24 FPS max. With some settings tweaks, the game runs basically around 50 FPS at all times now. I’m hesitant to say everything is fixed on this front though, because I have a GTX 1060 now instead of a 970, so your frames might vary.

In any case, what I’m curious about is how the single player portion will play out. Supposedly there is an actual storyline involved, rather than this being a pure sandbox experience. [Fake Edit: Nope, no story] I routinely boot up 7D2D despite there not being any particular narrative, but the fundamental fact is… I like these sort of survival games. Ark scratches that “collect hundreds of Wood to build things” itch, in spite of being unbalanced as hell thus far. So, I will persevere. And should the boulder roll back down, I shall smile as I walk back down to push it up again.

At least, unless I spy a more interesting boulder somewhere else.