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Impressions: Subterrain

Subterrain is a poorly named, but surprisingly excellent indie-ish game that came as part of the April Humble Monthly bundle. It is essentially a top-down survival horror crafting game, minus any base-building. As someone with an interest in survival-type games, this one scratches the itch very well.

Subterrain_Zombie

Limited field of vision can lead to nasty surprises.

The premise is that you are a researcher on a Martian base who gets thrown in jail, and then the power goes out. For a week. You eventually escape the prison and work your way to Central Command, and try to piece together what happened and why there are infected zombies and other creatures running about.

I’ve spoken about Economy of Design before, and there’s a compelling, intuitive call to action in this game. Specifically, the complex’s powerplant is slowly grinding down. There is already too much damage to sustain power to every single zone, so you have to choose which zones to send power to, with the others getting no Oxygen or Heat (assuming their Oxygen and Heat generators are even online). As it turns out, the infection plaguing the colony spreads faster in cold, non-oxygen environments. As each zone gets more infected, more powerful enemies appear, and at 50+% infection a bunch of zombies appear in Central Command and try to destroy the generator. So there is a race to find materials and blueprints to craft replacement power plant cores to power more zones and slow down the infection.

You have to balance the running around implied above, with more mundane concerns like food, water, sleeping, and even toilet activities. Each zone you enter typically needs to have Oxygen/Heat generators repaired too, so you have to bring along your own temporary supply of both lest you suffocate/freeze while exploring. There are enemies too, of course, so having a good supply of weapons and healing supplies are a must.

All the while, the clock is ticking and the infection is spreading…

Subterrain_Forks

No, really, I was super excited about finding forks.

To be honest, despite the above, it’s difficult for me to say how much fun the game actually is. I’m certainly enjoying it thus far, as it pressing a lot of my buttons in terms of survival and crafting and planning shit out. Fighting enemies is pretty easy, and exploring becomes quicker once you realize that 99% of everything is shit not worth sorting through. To an extent, I hate how formulaic it gets in the mid-game, where I’m at. I’ve unlocked everything in Tier 1, for example, and now to get the Shotgun v2 and Improved Nightstick (etc) I have to unlock Engineering Software v2 and Research Software v2, both of which were found in the 5th floor of X location.

In the meantime, I’m spending my time playing this instead of Destiny 2 because I like collecting all the things regardless of the pointlessness of the activity.

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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.

SPAZ2_02

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.

SPAZ2_01

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.

SPAZ2_03

Humor is there, at least.

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

Portable Steam Machine

[Blaugust Day 15]

Remember when I was complaining about the Vita yesterday, and how I was never play though old games again anyway? I was about to add on a throwaway line to the end of the post about how the first company to make a portal Steam machine would make a lot of cash.

Well, turns out there’s one scheduled for a late 2016 release:

Smach, the company touting the portable Steam OS device, says the handheld will ship out during the fourth quarter of 2016. That $299 price (€299 in Europe) is apparently the device’s pre-sale price only. We’ve reached out to the company for more details on pricing.

The Smach Zero — the Steamboy project’s new name — claims to be “the first handheld console to play Steam games on the go.” The device will play “more than 1,000 games” from Steam’s library on day one, with a hardware spec that will balance performance and cost.

Best part? MicroSD card slot. The rest of the specs are in the article.

To an extent, I almost wish for lower specs and not higher. I don’t want something capable of playing GTA IV on the go – I want something capable of playing the million and a half indie games cluttering up my Steam page. If I could boot this thing up during my lunch break at work, perhaps I would find the time to start playing games like To the Moon, The Walking Dead, and the Legend of Grimrock. The lower the specs, the less expensive the machine, the longer the battery life, and so on.

Incidentally, here is another article about the same handheld, this time with benchmarks:

  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) on Low and 1280×720: 16 FPS
  • World of Warcraft (2005) on Medium and 1024×768: 43 FPS
  • Diablo III (2012) on Low and 1024×768: 38 FPS
  • Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013) on Low and 1024×768: 16.5 FPS

Technically those benchmarks are for the Radeon 8400E (or Nvidia GT 740M), which is the equivalent graphics card that this thing has. So, yeah, Skyrim is right out, and Diablo 3 isn’t looking too hot either.

That said, do you know what would play just fine? Civilization 5. And Total War: Shogun 2 (although you’d need at least a 64gb microSD card). And a whole host of other similar titles whose only question marks would be whether they’d be able to run in SteamOS in the first place. Details, details.

So what do you guys think? Would a portable Steam player excite you in any way?

PAX Day Three: Final

And thus PAX came to an end.

The more charitable conclusion is that I simply came during an off year. Or perhaps an off PAX. But what I truly want to say is that the show sucked. At least to this particular non-con going groupie. And I’m thinking that the allure of cons are getting diminished by the same forces that generated a niche market in making physical boxes for all-digital games.

The Twitch booth out on the show floor was extremely hard to miss. After a few minutes, the irony of my having spent a considerable amount of money to fly into the Boston snowpocalypse just to come to PAX and watch a Twitch stream in person was too much to bear. The same principle held for Overwatch and the new expansions to GW2 and FF14 – why stand in line for 2+ hours to play these particular games that will either be released or in public beta in a number of months? Maybe it made sense back in the days when we got our gaming news from magazines (remember those?), but not today.

I mean, they had a bunch of booths for iPad games for god’s sake.

Luckily, I came because of friends. PAX definitely had a better setup for free-playing various games than GenCon. But that was about the long and short of it. If I could do things over again, I probably would have bought a PS4 and just took a 5-day staycation.

Review: The Stanley Parable

Given the extremely recent news that it sold 1 million copies in the last year, I figured I’d go ahead and throw out my brief review of The Stanley Parable.

Game: The Stanley Parable
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score:
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Choose Your Own Adventure games, experimental indie titles

I see what you're doing here.

I see what you’re doing here.

The Stanley Parable is a visual Choose Your Own Adventure tech demo that extremely briefly examines the nature of narrative choice in video games. The “game” consists of moving around in the first-person and exploring an office building while a narrator details all the things you are doing, Bastion-style. The meat of the gameplay consists of getting to one of the endings (sometimes taking as little as 5-7 minutes) and then doing something different on the next play-through.

And… that’s about it. While the concept itself is novel, and some of the meta-humor actually relevant/damning, there isn’t really anything resembling a game here at all. The entirety of the “parable” could have just as well been summed up in a single blog post, but I suppose that would have meant forgoing the opportunity to charge $15 for the privilege of hearing it.

Nevertheless, I do recommend keeping an eye out for when The Stanley Parable appears in one of the many gaming bundles. I might not be willing to put a dollar price on this experience, but it does add value to whatever the overall bundle you might be looking at. So… take that for what you will.

“Indie Devs are People Too!”

A little more than a month ago, I wrote a largely throwaway Saturday post called “Indie Devs Are Kind of Assholes” in which I criticized Falco Girgis for his response to an internet troll on Kotaku. Specifically, he wrote this (emphasis added):

You know, half of what you said was actually fairly useful, but then the other half went into opinionated, biased, tangential bullshit, and you lost me entirely. Bump mapping? Have you LOOKED at our Kickstarter? Our sprites are CLEARLY bump mapped, and they’re also specularly highlighted. There’s even a section clearly describing that. Our later screenshots are also all billboarded and are entirely aligned to camera-space. Your divine wisdom would have been appreciated considerably more if you had refrained from being a total douche in the end… I was actually going to ask for your email and talk development with you… But instead I think I’ll just head on back to Kickstarter and watch the money roll in for this abomination of an indie RPG coming to a Dreamcast near you! Funny, considering the majority of the backers are coming for the Dreamcast, then OUYA is doubling our funds from $150k to $300k. ;)

My overall point was that the stuff I highlighted in red is him just being an asshole and is otherwise dumb to say in any context.

Well, somehow Falco found the post this past Friday and decided to defend himself in the comments, with Facebook backup. Which was interesting for a whole host of reasons, but I’m not going to encourage you to check his recent (public) timeline or anything.

The Team Falco consensus seems to basically be summed up by this:

We’re just people and will respond as human beings. If indie devs acted like you expect us to act the there would be a whole lot more examples of Phil Fish and to a lesser extent Notch.

In other words, these sort of responses are just people being people.

The problem is that you cease being “just people” the minute you become an entrepreneur publicly selling a product. Or take any job whatsoever. I do have a little sympathy for people like Notch after the fact, but that might simply be because I didn’t follow his public comments too closely; if he was anything like Phil Fish or Falco here, he deserved the shit he got up to and including his meltdown. Not that I think he’s exactly crying into his $1.8 billion right now.

I am not trying to set myself up as some sort of paragon of good behavior. Who knows how I would have reacted in a similar situation? Maybe exactly the same… or worse! But that is all besides the fact that, objectively, those were all monumentally dumb and utterly unnecessary things to say. For anyone, in any scenario. The anonymous hater was put in his/her place with facts within the first five sentences – everything that came after was just him being an asshole. Any sort of “he was under a lot of stress” apologetics not only highlights the underlying lack self-control (or crippling insecurity), it is also a blank check to internet trolls everywhere. “Maybe they were just stressed when they told you to die in a fire.”

No, we can criticize people behaving badly regardless of why they did it.

Walking away from this exchange and having read Notch’s farewell post, it’s pretty clear that one does not simply make videogames; when you pick up the developer mantle, you get all the baggage that comes attached. Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not. I’m certainly willing to admit that gamers seem significantly more likely to publicly air grievances than, say, Walmart shoppers or whatever. At the same time, this is also what you signed up to do, whether you knew it at the time or not. And now that you know, it’s up to you as to whether the literally infinite reservoir of internet malice is worth responding to every single time.

I recommend not doing so. And especially not in a manner indistinguishable from original source.

Indie Devs Are Kind of Assholes

Let’s play a game called “In what context would this ever be a good idea for developers to write on internet forums?” First up, Lead Engine developer for a recently Kickstarted 16-bit action-RPG Elysian Shadows:

You know, half of what you said was actually fairly useful, but then the other half went into opinionated, biased, tangential bullshit, and you lost me entirely. Bump mapping? Have you LOOKED at our Kickstarter? Our sprites are CLEARLY bump mapped, and they’re also specularly highlighted. There’s even a section clearly describing that. Our later screenshots are also all billboarded and are entirely aligned to camera-space. Your divine wisdom would have been appreciated considerably more if you had refrained from being a total douche in the end… I was actually going to ask for your email and talk development with you… But instead I think I’ll just head on back to Kickstarter and watch the money roll in for this abomination of an indie RPG coming to a Dreamcast near you! Funny, considering the majority of the backers are coming for the Dreamcast, then OUYA is doubling our funds from $150k to $300k. ;)

The correct answer is: none. I don’t even care that the actual context was a bitter vet dev expressing frustration that his/her own game went nowhere and even went on so far as to say “[…] your entire Kickstarter is everything I hate about “indie retro 16-bit RPGs […].” That basically anonymous poster the dev was responding to? Nobody gives two shits about them thirty seconds after closing the tab. But the dev? I’m walking away from the comment exchange thinking to myself “hey, that Falco Girgis dude is an asshole – I sort of hope his game crashes and fails.”

Maybe that sentiment says more about me than anything else.

Regardless, what the dev gave up here was an opportunity to sell another copy of the game, perhaps demonstrate the competency of the team, and, you know, not be another asshole on the internet. We’re full up, dude, we don’t need any more.

But congrats on the game, or whatever. Maybe I’ll check it out in an Humble Bundle in which I allocate zero dollars to your team.

Reviews: Gunpoint, Rogue Legacy

Game: Gunpoint
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~2 hours
Buy If You Like: Indie puzzlers, Hilarious but too short games

Child's play

Child’s play

Gunpoint is a short, 2D indie puzzler with some of the most hilarious writing I have ever seen in a videogame. You take control of Richard Conway, a freelance spy whose latest customer was murdered before he could get the details. From that classic film noir story hook, you get a classic film noir plot broken up by bouts of mildly interesting puzzles.

At their simplest level, the puzzles in Gunpoint revolve around interacting with a computer and then exiting the map via subway station. The central conceit is Conway’s ability to rewire a building’s electronic systems, such that getting caught on a surveillance camera actually opens the locked door instead of triggering the alarm. Some of a building’s circuitry is “hardened” (it has a different color), which means you have to reach a certain (color) breaker box before being able to reroute that circuit’s wires. Completing maps will give you currency to purchase more gizmos, including the ability to electrify certain devices or even the ability to (temporarily) reroute a guard’s gun – causing them to either open a door when they pull the trigger, or forcing them fire the weapon at a buddy when you flip a light switch.

The puzzles are fun, but… well, they end up being only mildly interesting. Rewiring electronics turns out to be fairly powerful as a sort of default ability, which is reflected by the fact that the latter half of the game basically features only 2-3 things you can actually interact with (one light switch, maybe a camera). There are some mechanics that prevent you from simply pouncing/shooting your way through all the guards (the subway gets locked down after any gunshots), and as a result the game becomes incredibly abstract by the end. Normally, that might not matter for, you know, a puzzle game, but I actually enjoyed the early gameplay over what it ends up “evolving” into.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, Gunpoint is extremely short, clocking in around ~2 hours of gameplay. Given that, and given my ambivalence towards the later gameplay, I would suggest waiting until Gunpoint hits $5 or a bundle. It is a game definitely worth your time to play at some point – trust me, the dialog alone is almost worth it – but that time doesn’t have to be now.

_____________

Game: Rogue Legacy
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Harsh action platformers, RPG-esque indie games

Not a boss run.

Not a boss run.

Rogue Legacy is a sort of indie hybrid RPG roguelike action platformer. The developers describe the game as “Rogue-Lite,” as the central premise is that while the game features permadeath, your children will take up the family mantle and invade the procedurally-generated castle to avenge you. This design is actually pretty compelling, especially considering that while purchased equipment/abilities cary over from one character to the next, the gold used to purchase these things do not. So what ends up happening is failed runs (usually!) end up leaving you with enough gold to be stronger for the next one, while not encouraging you to hoard gold in the meantime.

The castle itself is divided into four main areas, each with a boss at the end. While the general location of the areas are stable, all of the individual rooms and transitions are randomly determined. I say “random,” but the vast majority of rooms have a high level of coherence, as opposed to the truly random nonsense of games like A Valley Without Wind. You do not technically need to clear a room of enemies to move on, but it is generally a good idea considering getting better equipment and stats requires gold. That being said, there is an entire class (Miner) that encourages you to avoid combat as much as possible while quickly snagging as many treasure chests as you can.

The gameplay itself is pretty unforgiving. While you can equip a bunch of Vampiric gear later on, and occasionally find a piece of health-restoring food when destroying furniture, for the most part damage you take is permanent. This can lead to frustrating scenarios in which an otherwise solid-looking boss attempt is stymied on the way to the door because you landed on some spikes in the prior room. Or misjudged a screen full of projectiles. Or faced one of those goddamn wolves that seem to charge half a second earlier than you’re prepared for.

And by “solid-looking boss attempt” I mean that at least one of the three children you can select for your next castle run had a good class/characteristic/ability combination. For you see, sometimes your favorite class might be Farsighted (makes the center screen fuzzy), or the screen is upside down, or they have an enormous character model (increased weapon reach, but increased hitbox too), or maybe everything is good except they have a weak magic ability.

I am not attempting to dissuade you from purchasing Rogue Legacy, but I do want to point out that while the devs say “Rogue-Lite,” the game is still pretty roguelike. I had a pretty solid 9 hours of fun, and a less fun 4 hours of being stuck grinding gold and new abilities to give me the hope of downing some of the bosses. Admittedly, being better at the game might have reduced that time, but then again, being worse would have increased it exponentially. So in your game purchase decision, be sure to take into consideration how good you are at semi-twitch platformers.

Review: Don’t Starve

Game: Don’t Starve
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 20-60 hours (variable)
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes that don’t kid around, amazing indie games

Pro tip: everything kills you.

Pro tip: bees will STAB you TO DEATH

Don’t Starve is a harsh, survival indie roguelike with dark humor, a fairly unique visual style, and a pointed lack of hand-holding. You control a man named Wilson who suddenly wakes up in the wilderness, is told that finding some food before dark would be a good idea, and then… you are on your own. From there, the basic idea is to scrounge for some carrots/berries while using available materials to craft torches, tools, traps, and other basic gear as you do your best to survive in a world that wants you dead.

Moving around and interacting with the world is surprisingly easy and intuitive. You can move around via left-clicking the ground/objects or by using WASD. Interacting with objects is done either with left-click or right-click. Pressing the Spacebar will cause your character to perform some context-sensitive activity, like start chopping a tree if equiped with an axe, pick up something if it is nearby, or attack an enemy. Combat is not particularly deep, but the “shallowness” combined with the roguelike nature of the game lends a tremendous amount of gravitas to battles. It reminds me of survival horror games that have clunky combat on purpose, to ratchet up the implicit difficulty.

Don't worry, I got this under control.

Don’t worry, I got this under control.

The default game starts you in Survival Mode, which is really more of a Sandbox mode. While there is not really an “endgame” in this mode, the game’s structure naturally (and ingeniously) lends itself to a sense of progression and escalating danger. Establishing a base camp is pretty typical and allows you to stockpile materials and research structures, making the maintenance of your Hunger, Health, and Sanity easier. On the other hand, resources generally do not regenerate very quickly, which forces you to forage farther and farther from your base camp with each passing day. And ultimately, the arrival of Winter will stretch your capacity to survive to the very limit, given how traditionally easy sources of food dry up (plants don’t grow, ponds freeze over). This is on top of an escalation of random hostile encounters by the Hounds, or other boss-level mobs.

Those in search of a more structured endgame can seek out Maxwell’s Door, a set piece randomly located somewhere on the map. Once entered, you are in Adventure Mode, tasked with surviving five randomly-determined theme worlds while collecting four Things in order to open the gate to the next world. Even if Don’t Starve consisted entirely of Adventure Mode, it would be enough to cover at least 20+ hours of gameplay. Especially given how the brutality of Survival Mode holds nothing to Adventure Mode worlds in which you are trapped in an endless Winter, or constant rain, or even a world with zero sunlight.

I'm pretty surprised myself, actually.

I’m pretty surprised myself, actually.

While I have been infatuated with Don’t Starve for quite some time, the game isn’t for everyone. Don’t Starve is extremely unforgiving, even in roguelike terms, where death is both easy to stumble into and results in a deletion of your save file. That said, while death is easy, it is almost always going to be due to mistakes you have made, rather than randomized deathtraps. Even if you get one-shot by a particular mob, that is only because you chose not to wear armor at the time, or because you were being reckless in not running away. Compare that to a game like The Binding of Isaac, where a white pill might randomly give a buff in one game and permanently reduce health in another.

If you are someone willing to play and lose dozens of hours of progress in a roguelike though (or cheese the system via console commands or making backup save copies), I cannot recommend Don’t Starve enough. It has style, it has substance, and it is receiving developer updates every 3 weeks (at the moment). It is simple to get into, impressively complex when you start planning ahead, and always engaging while you struggle to survive.

Review: Dungeons of Dredmor

Game: Dungeons of Dredmor
Recommended price: $10 (with DLC)
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Turn-ish-Based RPGs, Indie Humor

Open door, immediately confronted with this.

Open door, immediately confronted with this.

Dungeons of Dredmor (DoD) is an indie roguelike RPG wrapped in a fluffy layer of humor and genre in-jokes. The goal is simple: navigate your way to the bottom floor of the dungeon and kill Dredmor. Along the way, you will explore rooms, evade traps (a LOT of traps), kill monsters, loot treasure, and level up.

The core of DoD is its extremely interesting combat/exploration system. Essentially, everything is turn-based: for every step or action you take, all enemies make one too. These “turns” occur instantaneously, so you are never waiting on some action on the part of the AI, which makes the action go as fast or slow as you want. This ends up feeling rather amazing, as it avoids the “spacebar fatigue” that accompanies other tactical games. This system ends up putting a premium on actions though, and it’s quite easy to get surrounded and murdered if you’re not careful.

The statistics part of DoD is intentionally obtuse – your six base stats affect 18+ other stats – but the “joke” belies a pretty robust equipment and talent system. When you first roll your character, you can choose seven different categories of talents, which either grant new abilities or a direct increase in stats as you spend skill points. For example, taking the Swords talent will let you get new abilities (not all of which require a sword), and perhaps some bonuses for using swords. There is a pretty huge number of talents though, and it’s entirely possible to pick a combination that simply won’t work. On the other hand, you could pick 6 warrior-ish talents and then grab the one that let’s you shoot fireballs. Armor generally decreases your magic ability, but it’s possible to either craft or come across armor that hurts it less.

Never been closer to the edge...

Never been closer to the edge…

DoD is definitely a roguelike (although you can turn off permadeath at character creation) and thus contains certain abilities/scenarios in which you are likely to die pretty quickly, if not arbitrarily. This is… dangerous, for lack of a better word, in a game where you can spend 22 hours on a single character exploring every room of each level (which you may want to do to stay ahead of the curve). Indeed, in the titular Dredmor encounter, I about died within three moves before I “cheesed” the rest of the encounter via judicious use of invisible mushrooms and the all-powerful ability to close doors.

At the end of the day, I spent 28 hours in Dungeons of Dredmor and could see myself replaying it again with another character setup, or perhaps after picking up the two DLC. It’s a fun game, perhaps a more cerebral version of Binding of Isaac, but where Binding of Isaac and FTL come out ahead is giving more focused gameplay with their permadeath. Had I lost my 20+ hour character, I probably would have quit altogether right there. Luckily for me, I didn’t, but I’d be lying if I said I did not make three backup copies of my savegame. So if this game sounds fun to you, I recommend turning off permadeath until you wrap your mind around the game’s many idiosyncrasies.