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Review: Windbound

As a connoisseur of sorts for survival and roguelike games, I had a sideways eye out for the otherwise poorly-reviewed Windbound. After getting the itch to replay Raft only to realize there was a final update coming soon, I decided to play something a least thematically similar. Realizing I got Windbound for free from Epic back in February, I downloaded and booted it up and went sailing.

Overall? The mixed reviews are earned, although I enjoyed my own journey.

The essential premise is that you wake up on an island with nothing to your name, after being attacked by a sea creature. After swimming a short distance to another island, you set off to collect resources, build a boat, and ultimately activate three mysterious pillars scattered across your circular map so you can be transported to the next chapter area. You have a HP and Stamina bar, with the latter decreasing at intervals until you eat food from creatures loath to give you their flesh.

The game is… well, fundamentally really simple. Not easy, mind you, especially if you play on Survival Mode in which a single death means starting back over in Chapter 1 no matter how far you progressed. But there are not a whole lot of different enemy types, or food options, or tech trees, or similar fluff. Enemies have maybe 2-3 moves and become straight-forward to dispatch once you have learned the tells. Later on, you unlock additional combat moves, some of which become required to defeat later enemies, but overall ends up making most combat trivial.

Having said that, combat is frequently very unforgiving. On the very first island, you can face off with a boar that has a standard sort of charge attack which takes off about a third of your HP. While you can dodge-roll, timing is critical, and you can get locked into animations if you aren’t careful. You can craft a sling and bow later on, but ranged damage even with the best gear/ammo is super weak and breaks enemy lock-on, which means Spacebar becomes Jump instead of dodge. The devs clearly intended you to dodge+attack or parry every move.

The sailing portion of the game was good fun. You start off building a canoe and paddling around from island to island, but eventually you can get bamboo or wood and construct larger craft with sails and onboard tanning racks and clay ovens and so on. Reminds me of Valheim a bit with wind direction being important, although I think you can be a little fancier in this game with “tightening” your sails and catching some forward movement even while slightly into the wind.

One element of persistent progress comes from collecting Sea Shards. These can be used to purchase Blessings at the end of each chapter, which then can be “slotted” on your character in the same area. Some are wildly more useful than others, and it is largely RNG that determines which ones are available. Early on I was able to purchase Ancestral Spear, for example, which means I always had a spear available that never broke. So, so many resources and inventory slots saved from not having to re-craft spears throughout my journey.

Ultimately, Windbound is an acceptable, free survival appetizer to hold you over for a better meal. It has next to no replayability, and I don’t actually recommend its punishing “survival” mode if you are just interested in progressing through the game. If you didn’t manage to snag the game for free already, there are dozens of better games out there that are of better value for your money.

Too Early to Access

Early Access games are such a double-edged sword, right?

Conceptually, they are pretty brilliant. Games are risky projects that typically only give you a chance at profits years after development. With Early Access, you can release whatever you have handy – “Minimum Viable Product” in the gaming parlance – and gain money while you finish building out the rest of the game. Plus, sometimes you might actually get a piece of actionable feedback from the customers that changes the direction of the game. Win-win for the developer.

For me personally, Early Access games are Lose-Win at best.

I do not typically replay games. Between Humble Bundles and Epic Store giveaways and being a periodic MMO player, I have accumulated a largely insurmountable stockpile of games that makes it difficult to “justify” playing even ones I like a second time. So when I do buckle down and play an Early Access title, whatever stage of development it is in is typically the only version I experience. Which can sometimes be fine – not every game makes it out of Early Access. But many times I recognize that things are not fine, as I end up experiencing a worse version of an incomplete game that would have been a lot more fun had I waited.

There are a few exceptions to the rule. Well, one and a half: roguelikes and survival titles. Roguelikes, by their very nature, are “replayed” many times. I started playing Slay the Spire back when there were just two characters, for example, and continue(d) to play it now that there are four. Oxygen Not Included, RimWorld, and 7 Days to Die are in similar boats… that encourage or at least don’t punish re-boating.

Some survival games land further away from the roguelike spectrum and otherwise do not necessarily lend themselves towards repeated play. I have zero desire to play Valheim again, for example, until it is much closer to final release. Is there much of a practical difference between Valheim and 7 Days to Die? It’s hard to articulate, but the latter is more viscerally entertaining and a more varied experience. Both have procedurally-generated maps and such, but how many different bases are you going to create in Valheim really?

I bring all this up because a really, really want to play My Time at Sandrock. Which, you guessed it, just hit Early Access last week. A sequel of sorts to the original My Time at Portia, it has everything I want: basically being a sequel to a game I already put 108 hours into. Everything except… not being done.

What is the current state of the Early Access version?

“Early Access will begin with the single-player story model: players will be able to play some of the first act of the game’s story and have access to romance and friendship missions as we implement them.”

I can’t do it. Even if I imagined that I would pick one of the townsfolk to romance that had already been implemented, the “risk” is too great. “Risk” being uncharitably defined as making a choice that could result in a less satisfy gaming experience in the likely-only opportunity to play the game. Which is neurotic, I know, considering developers add choices to games to allow the opportunity for more people to enjoy themselves. But this brain meat is what I’m working with, so… yeah.

Incidentally, the other reason I’m bringing up this topic is because I was clued into a pre-Early Access game called Life Not Supported that’s basically Raft in space. As in, floating around and picking up space trash to build a space boat. Which reminded me that I spent 8 hours in Raft and enjoyed it and got the itch to play some more only to find that it is still in Early Access itself. And there’s a dev blog from January saying that Chapter 3 is delayed and they’ll be retooling the whole game once it comes out and I’d be better off not playing it until that occurs. At least, that’s the implication. Sigh.

Impressions: Banners of Ruin

Banners of Ruin is an incredibly slick deckbuilding roguelike that has consumed my life for the past week. While it shares some conventions with other games in the genre, it has a fairly unique mix of them that result in a number surprising interactions. Also, everyone is an anthropomorphized animal.

Before moving on though, let me say this: the visuals and especially the music are phenomenal. The combination sucks you right into the setting, and I found myself humming along with the battle music pretty much the entire time it’s playing. Just like with Tainted Grail before it, I will be tracking down this soundtrack, if it exists.

Just look at how evocative that Pierce card is.

The central premise of the game is that you are a member of a suddenly-deposed House, and you are trying to escape the city with your life. As you navigate the city, you must choose from one of three “path” cards which can lead to combat, shops, or events. These choices are mutually exclusive, and you don’t have a particular notion of what offerings you will get next time. After a specific number of choices, you will encounter the boss fight of the area and then move on, if successful.

Combat is highly tactical. You start with two characters that can be arranged however you like (ahead of time) on a 2×3 grid; enemies are will be placed in their own 2×3 formation facing opposite. While you are free to play cards every turn, your foes will only act one rank at a time, e.g. the front three positions on Turn 1, then the back three positions on Turn 2, etc, unless there are no enemies in a specific rank.

Easy choice.

Positioning matters. Enemies will typically attack a specific horizontal lane. Place one character in front of another, and that front character is likely to eat all of the incoming attacks. However, if three enemies are targeting a character with nobody behind them and then that character moves to a different spot, all three attacks will be negated. And remember when I said that enemies take turns attacking based on which rank they’re in? If they are set to attack you this turn from the front rank and you move them (via a card like Kick) to the back rank… then they don’t attack that turn. Next turn, if you then draw into cards that can move them back to the front, you can skip their turn again.

The tactical nature of the game extends out into deckbuilding and character progression too. Each character has two weapons slots and an armor slot. Equipping a bow will add a Bow card into your deck; equipping two daggers adds two dagger cards instead; a shield will add a shield card, and so on. Armor is more passive insofar as it affects your starting armor only, although there are special armors that have more interesting effects. As characters level up, they can unlock a choice of three Talent cards which are then added to the deck, but only that character can play the card. Same with the weapon cards, actually. Level ups also unlock a choice of passive abilities. Oh, and each race has a racial ability that can be activated any time, as long as you have a secondary resource (Will) available.

I somehow won this early, accidental Elite battle. I mean, I’m amazing, of course.

What all this combines into is an interesting gumbo of choices, tactics, and deckbuilding strategy.

…until you get to the endgame.

There is a final Final Boss that become accessible after performing a series of steps along the campaign. However, the fight itself is so oppressive and ridiculous that it leads to really just a single strategy to overcome it. Once I understood this, and realized the same strategy works for the rest of the game too, every subsequent run started to feel the same. It doesn’t help that while there is a great variety in character races and Talent cards and passives, the number of defined weapons/armors and enemies in general is much more limited. Indeed, I think all of the bosses are the same each time too.

The potentially good news is that the game appears to still be in active development – there was a major release in November 2021, which added new “hallway” scenarios, some optional difficulty modifiers (aka Ascension ranks), mini-bosses and so on. That is not enough to elevate the endgame to a Slay the Spire level, IMO, but A) not everything needs infinite replay value, and B) maybe a future patch or DLC will spice things up.

Overall, I am very satisfied with my (discounted) purchase of Banners of Ruin. As someone who plays a lot of games in this genre, I definitely appreciated the slick presentation and the novel mix of elements. The sort of defined challenges I complained about earlier might be more of a positive to others who dislike a lot of randomness. Or maybe we can just be happy playing a game for ~30 hours and be done.

Impression: Roguebook

Out of all of the deck-building games I have played, Roguebook is the one that has come closest to scratching the Slay the Spire itch. And yet it is also different enough that it’s possible that someone who didn’t like Slay the Spire might enjoy Roguebook.

There are a lot of interesting design decisions going on in Roguebook. The basic premise is that you have been sucked into (presumably) the titular book, and you must battle your way past many foes and bosses on your way out. However the aesthetic is one of “blank pages,” where you use bottles of ink and paintbrushes to uncover blank tiles in order to explore and otherwise navigate towards the exit. By default, there is a very straight path to each level’s boss, but you are unlikely to survive without exploring more of the board and getting stronger. Regular fights give ink bottles to uncover straight-line paths, and elite battles give AoE paintbrushes. Gold can be found on the map, and there are a number of other structures that allow you to purchase new cards, get additional treasures, and there’s always a shop available to do likewise.

Make no mistake: exploration is extremely RNG-driven. While there are sometimes pre-revealed tiles you can head towards, the difference between uncovering an empty tile and one that lets you transform a basic card into a rare one with gems attached can be massive. You do eventually start earning progression currency that will allow you to improve future runs – thereby making exploration and combat easier overall – but things can be swingy in the beginning.

Speaking of gems, cards have gem slots ala Monster Train. Some gems are standard sort of “+3 damage” options, but some of the rarer varieties can do goofy things like giving you a free copy of the card, shuffling it back on top of your library, and similar. Artifacts can also be earned/purchased, which give passive (and sometimes active!) abilities.

Combat is fairly standard Slay the Spire with cards costing resources to play, drawing new cards each turn, etc… except there are two heroes. Playing a Defend card (or a few others) will cause that hero to go to the front, with any incoming damage hitting just that person. Losing one hero is not Game Over – you can recover by casting 5 special cards, but you get saddled with two spoiler cards in your deck until that level’s boss is defeated. Each hero has their own exclusive card pools and there are four heroes total, and you can choose the pair at the beginning of each run.

One twist I appreciated was the introductions of talents based on deck size. Basically every X number of cards you add to your deck, unlocks a randomized selection of three talents based on the heroes you’re running. All too often in this genre, the optimal strategy is to keep your deck size as small as possible, so it was fun to see the designers address it with talents. While some of them can be misses, a few can radically alter your entire gameplan.

For example, one character might get “Gain 1 Power each time a card is Dissolved,” which by itself is whatever. But if you paired that character with another that is frequently offered cards that generate 0-cost Throwing Daggers that, you guessed it, dissolve when played, and then combine that with an attack the original character has that deals 1×8 damage… yeah. Does that get your juices flowing?

Overall, Roguebook is a fun game that nevertheless feels a tad easier than Slay the Spire. I have played over 40 hours thus far, unlocking almost all of the Ascension-esque effects. I would say that about 80% of that time has been with the same pair of characters chasing the same strong synergies each game, only deviating if my luck was terrible. In other words, I don’t feel it has the same depth has Slay the Spire, but none of that matters much if you aren’t looking for something to entertain you for 200+ hours. Roguebook is entertaining enough and possibly more approachable at that.

Christmas Haul

I bought myself the following games on Epic:

  • Roguebook – $6.24
  • Banners of Ruin – $5.99
  • Inscryption – $5.99
  • Disco Elysium – $7.99

Basically three deckbuilding roguelikes and Disco Elysium. One item I had in the cart and then removed was Horizon Zero Dawn Complete for $14.99. My current thought was that I should probably wait until/if I do that PC upgrade I talked about – worst case scenario being I purchase it during the Summer sale for a similar (or less) amount. But… it’s also just $15. So maybe? Any thoughts in the comments?

For Steam, it was just:

  • Meteorfall: Krumit’s Tale – $7.49
  • Dream Quest – $4.99

I had an eye on Dream Quest for a long time, ever since I learned that it was one of the OG deckbuilding roguelikes that ended up inspiring Slay the Spire and the creator went on to Hearthstone. It also seemed like abandonware at this point and unlikely to receive a discount. Until it finally did. Krumit’s Tale was just another notch on the Deckbuilding Roguelike belt.

With tax everything ended being about $41 or so. Not a bad haul, assuming that at least one or two of the roguelikes entertain me for X amount of time. Granted, it seems a bit “counterproductive” to acquire more games that don’t strictly “matter.” I am endeavoring to play titles with more meaningful and/or unique experiences after all. On the other hand, I am so far down the deckbuilding roguelike rabbit hole that I may as well keep digging. As Mitch Hedberg (RIP) said:

If you find yourself lost in the woods, fuck it, build a house. “Well, I was lost but now I live here! I have severely improved my predicament!”

By the end of this, I’ll be able suggest deckbuilding games to people with surgical precision. “Oh, you played Slay the Spire but didn’t like energy usage? Might I recommend Fate Hunter?”

Review: Fate Hunters

Fate Hunters is a deckbuilding roguelike in the same… well, not vein, but same circulatory system as Slay the Spire.

In truth, the game plays more like Dominion meets Darkest Dungeon – there is no energy, so you can play all of the cards in your hand every turn, but unplayable treasure cards can gum up your deck if you get too greedy. Monster attacks are straight-forward: they do the thing as what their card says, from left to right, every turn. After each boss fight, you are given the opportunity to leave with all your treasure cards or continue the climb, with each successive boss adding a multiplier to your treasure. If you die, that’s it, you get nothing.

And that’s the entire review. The end.

…I’m being kinda serious.

Some very evocative art

What I can say is that the game is very addictive in the just-one-more-fight way and feels amazing even though it seems low-budget. The card art is very Darkest Dungeon and consistent throughout the game. There is a fairly decent amount of cards available, including a half-dozen classes which have their own specific cards. There are also meaningful choices as you level and when you defeat bosses. For example, do you want to pick one of three random Fates (passive abilities) out of 20+? Or choose one of three Legendary weapons? Or choose one of three Heroic spells?

There is a fairly high variance in card effect quality which can lead to some swingy runs, but overall you are not likely to be shut out of possibly winning. And besides, as long as you get make it past at least one boss, you can just exit the dungeon with whatever spoils you happened to collect and try again.

As for the downsides? Well, the game is done and will no longer get any updates. Which is a real shame because there are a number of tweaks that could have been made to buff the weaker cards/abilities into usefulness. The nature of the game also lends itself to very specific strategies too – you pretty much have to always build a discard-themed deck given how treasures work. There is also zero story or lore of any kind, if that is important to you. The default price of $15 is extremely ridiculous.

But, honestly? It’s on sale for $3.74 right now and I have put in 18 hours already. If you are someone who enjoys deckbuilding roguelikes, it’s a no-brainer. Just be wary of using it as “filler” or a palate cleanser in-between other games, because every time I try and do that, it’s suddenly 2AM and I never get to the other game. Which is a pretty glowing review, now that I think about it.

Non-Service Games

aka regular-ass games.

It is interesting how my perception of games has shifted in the many years we have been living under a “Games as Service” model. Cosmetics, DLC, loot boxes, and all the other myriad monetization strategies nefariously cooked up by black hat economists are just the way things are now. The one little light left in Pandora’s box is that of updates. The suits want to keep engagement high to keep the cash spigot on, so they task the devs with fiddling with all the knobs. Sometimes that ends up making things worse, sometimes maliciously so (e.g. adding time-sinks). But sometimes it works out, and on the player side, hey, at least it seems like someone cares about what’s happening.

Cue my surprise and disappointment and surprise at my disappointment at learning a recent game purchase is… done. Finished. Complete.

Fate Hunters is neat little deckbuilding roguelike I bought for $3.74. The visuals are like Darkest Dungeon, the gameplay is kinda like Slay the Spire, but honestly it plays more like Dominion. There is zero plot, and you only accumulate gold to purchase permanent unlocks if you make it past a boss and retire your deck. Oh, and gold is represented by Treasure cards in your deck, so the more you hoard, the more you dilute your deck. There is no energy, so you basically get to play as many cards as you can (Treasure cards notwithstanding). It is the most arcade-like roguelike I have ever played, but it’s engaging just the same.

It is also “abandoned.”

We finished the game and did almost everything we planned. But there will be no new patches and sequels.

(source)

“The devs are done with the game? Can they even do that?!” Fate Hunters actually plays pretty well – I did not encounter anything remotely close to a significant bug. There are some eyebrow-raising balance issues and some card tweaks that would make everything smoother IMO. The thought that nothing will happen with the game anymore though? It feels like I was duped. As though any game I purchase must have full dev support for at least the length of time I play it, lest it be abandonware. If you aren’t Terraria or No Man’s Sky, who even are you?

Well, you’re a regular-ass game from any time 20+ years ago.

[Fake Edit:] I was digging around and found out that the devs are making a new game that looks exactly the same gameplay-wise… but worse, graphically. It’s in Early Access and is called Dreamgate. On their FAQ thread, they mention:

Do you have experience in developing and releasing a game in Steam?

Our team has been developing games for over 7 years and our last game was Fate Hunter. But unfortunately, we could not continue to develop this game, because the rights to it did not belong to our team.

Based on our past experience, we decided to release our own game, the rights to which belong to us fully and which we could develop as we see fit.

So, there it is. Of course, they also mentioned in another post that they are a 2-man team and “this is not our main project” so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Caveat emptor and all that.

[Real Edit:] WTF. How many done games am I going to be buying?! Just found out about Griftlands:

At this time we don’t have any plans for more Griftlands content or DLC. That being said, who knows? I don’t like to ever say we absolutely won’t do more for a game because that often turns out to be not totally true, but at least for now we don’t have any plans.

(source)

Maybe devs don’t actually like deckbuilding games? Don’t Starve and Oxygen Not Included are both Klei games that have/are getting paid DLC and ongoing support and tweaks. Scandalous!

Impression: Griftlands

Griftlands is Klei’s entry into the roguelike deckbuilder genre. And in typical Klei fashion, it overcomplicates everything.

Dialog is actually pretty good across the board.

In some circumstances, overcomplication can be good news. It represents depth and complex systems and a high skill ceiling. Oxygen Not Included is a gem of a colony sim, and Don’t Starve is one of those genre classics that seems simple at first, but quickly demonstrates how deep the rabbit hole goes.

So what’s the issue with Griftlands? The complication is just time-consuming.

One of the central hooks is that Griftlands is a roguelike deckbuilding RPG. The three characters you can pick from each have an elaborate backstory and encounter numerous choices throughout the game. And speaking of backstory, the game’s lore is extremely elaborate and interesting. It takes place on a remote, swamp-like planet populated by the descendants of a spacefaring civilization that… stopped sparefaring. Most of the citizens worship Hesh, an inscrutable Cthulhu-esque monster in the deep ocean. So you have mechs, bioweapons, ancient tech, and post-apoc Thunderdome elements in this gumbo soup of a setting. It’s pretty cool.

Less cool is how all these RPG/Visual Novel elements interact with, you know, a roguelike deckbuilder. Like how my first playthrough with the first character ended when I died to the final boss after 7 hours, 15 minutes. While you can make different choices the next time around, in reality they are more of an A/B route sort of thing. Do you side with the authorities or the rebels? Do you double-cross the one dude or not? The final boss is always the final boss. My second playthrough was a success after five hours. And that was with me skipping some of the dialog I had already heard before.

Just a breezy 5 hour, 20 minute playthrough.

Even ignoring the story aspects, the deckbuilding side itself is complicated.

You start off with two decks, completely independent of one another: Battle and Negotiation. Whenever you come across an encounter, you often have the choice of determining whether to use one or the other. Generally speaking, Negotiation avoids “battle” encounters entirely, but sometimes they are used to weaken a particularly stubborn foe before fisticuffs. Negotiation is an entirely different battle system with different mechanics and even different “HP”. Additionally, you can “lose” in a Negotiation without losing the game, although that typically results in you no longer being able to do any more Negotiations for the rest of the in-game day.

On top of this, all cards have XP meters that increase as you play them. Once filled, the card gets one of two upgrades to choose from. The generic cards have a dozen or so potential options, but the main ones you get from shops or win from battle will just have the two options. This XP element will typically encourage you to stall battles out so you can level-up your cards, but this can only be done for X number of rounds before your character becomes exhausted. Nevertheless, the XP mechanic complicates things quite a bit considering the final encounter for each character is always a Battle, so choosing Negotiate all the time will lead to inevitable failure.

Turns out this combo is pretty strong.

On the Battle side of things, everything is more straight-forward. Ish. You face off versus one or more enemies like in Slay the Spire. You might get some help though in the form of a pet, hired goons, NPC helpers, or NPCs summoned from cards in your deck. Each of the three main characters have their own special mechanics. For example, one gets Charges that can be expended to boost cards, another takes self-damage that turns into end-of-turn self-healing, and so on. You can add cards to your deck after successful encounters or buy them from shops. Grafts are permanent items you, well, graft into your skull that act as passive abilities. And so on and so forth.

Oh, I forgot to mention about relationships. During Battles, enemy character have X amount of HP, and then a slightly higher threshold for Panic. For example, someone may have 80 HP but Panic once they get to 20 HP. Cause all the enemies to Panic and the encounter ends with you having the choice as accept their surrender or execute them. Executing characters grants you a special card, but will also likely cause one of their friends to hate you. This hate manifests as a Social Bane, which is just a persistent debuff that exists as long as they hate you. Some are whatever, but others increase the costs of all vendors, or cause you to lose money every time you sleep, and other nastiness. You can try and kill the person who hates you to erase the Social Bane, but unless you properly provoke them into a duel, you just continue the cycle of hatred.

On the flip side, Social Boons also exist. Most of the time they come from doing quests for people, but sometimes you can just straight-up throw enough money at someone to get them to like you. Just like in real life!

Are you feeling the overcomplicated-ness of this game yet?

Overall the game is fun, but honestly it is in spite of all of these systems. A particularly long Slay the Spire run takes me maybe 2-3 hours max. Doubling that for Griftlands does not double my fun. Indeed, the longer things go on, the more disappointed I become if I don’t succeed. The saving grace of most roguelikes is winning or losing quick enough that you can jump back on the horse without questioning your life choices. With Griftlands, you have plenty of opportunity to ask questions.

As a final note, there is a Brawl mode which eliminates all the plot and just lets you play battles in sequence. I just completed my first one before writing this… after 3 hours and 20 minutes. That is one long-ass roguelike experience.

Impression: Trials of Fire

Short version: Trials of Fire is a deck-building tactical roguelike in which I can’t tell if I’m having fun. After 10 hours, I’m leaning towards Yes. It’s $14.39 on Steam right now, but will be $19.99 next week.

One of the most immediate comparisons of Trial of Fire that pops up from gamingjournalists” is Slay the Spire. This is unfortunate for many reasons. For one, if you really enjoy Slay the Spire like I do, you will be disappointed to learn that this game is, in fact, nothing like Slay the Spire. For two, the actual best comparison is to Card Hunter, which was a criminally underrated and uncopied game from 2013. Seriously, look at the devs (Richard Garfield!) who worked on it. The Flash version of Card Hunter died, but you can still play it on Steam, and it looks like there may be some people taking over the franchise.

Anyway, Trial of Fire. What do you really do? It’s best explained with a picture:

When combat starts, player and enemy tokens alike drop from the sky with a satisfying clink upon a randomize board that rises from the pages of a book. Your characters draw three cards from their deck each turn and can only carry over one between turns. Your deck consists of 9 cards from your class’s default deck, plus any cards that come attached to equipment your party picks up along the way. Sometimes your deck accumulates cards in other ways, such as if your party is Fatigued or Injured (junk cards), or as the result of random encounters. Some cards are free to cast but most require Willpower, which is a temporary resource that dissipates between turns.

The really clever trick Trials pulls though is turning cards themselves into resources. During your turn, you can discard any cards you want from any of your characters to gain 1 Willpower. Have a ranged character in an advantageous spot with a fist full of attacks? Go ahead and dump your other characters’ cards so that your DPS can go ham. Alternatively, discarding a card can allow that specific character to move 2 spaces on the game board. There are already movement cards in every characters’ deck, but sometimes you need just a little bit more distance. Alternatively alternatively, if you discard a card and don’t use the Willpower on something else or move that character, they get 2 Defense (aka Block).

Typing it out makes it seem complicated, but it is surprisingly intuitive as you play.

I also liked what they did with HP. In short, every character has 10 HP baseline. As you equip better armor, you end up with… er, Armor, which is basically bonus HP in battle. As long as no one drops below 10 HP, no actual long-term damage has occurred. Even if some has, your characters regain +2 HP every time they Camp in a sheltered location, which ends up being quite often.

Outside of combat is not like Slay the Spire either. Instead, you move your party around a map while trying to finish the primary quest, periodically stopping at ?s scattered along the wasteland to get some RNG punishment. This part is Trial’s biggest weakness: naked RNG.

Like, I get it, roguelike. I would probably be more annoyed if they didn’t include the percentage chance right on the tin, but it still feels bad somehow. In particular, you can get really screwed early on in such a way that you may as well abandon the run. For example, one of my characters got the Firelung trait, which was a card that is permanently added to the deck that dealt 1 unblockable damage to them and any allies within 1 hex when drawn. That was fun times.

In any case, the out-of-combat part feels the least developed even though it makes up a large portion of the gametime. You can collect crafting material from events and combat sometimes, but you never end up collecting enough to upgrade more than 1-2 items at best. And “upgrading” an item basically means upgraded the cards that it grants, which frequently is of dubious worth. You’re going to want to save mats to upgrade an Epic or higher item, for example, but Epic upgrades take the same mats (plus an epic version) as normal upgrades, so… yeah. It ends up being an Elixir situation wherein you hoard mats the whole game and never use them but you realize you never needed them anyway.

Also, when exploring the map you end up being constrained by two meters. One is “Determination” which only sustains itself while you are moving towards your next quest objective. The other is Fatigue, which decreases while you walk or fight, and requires you to use supplies to Camp to recover. Both meters have to be kept high or else you end up getting penalty cards added to your deck, which again, is a rather harsh kick in the pants. Not that you want to keep exploring for too long though, as there is often a natural inflection point at which you are destroying every enemy in the first 1-2 turns and realize they couldn’t possibly drop anything to improve what you already got going on.

So, yeah. Trials of Fire.

Although the game still feels that it is lacking a certain something, I can absolutely say that the bones are good. The aesthetics and tactile tactical action is something I could play over and over. And have started to do with Combat Run and Boss Rush modes. There is also the higher difficulties, ala Ascension modes. Huh, just like Slay the Spire…

White Whale, Caught

About a year ago, I beat the Dalaran Heist adventure on heroic difficulty in Hearthstone.

Yesterday, I caught the white whale I had been chasing daily for the last four months: beating Dalaran Heist on heroic with all nine classes. Across all five Acts.

About as good “proof” as possible

As I have mentioned before, Dalaran Heist constitutes an absurd amount of ideas and RNG. All nine classes are available and there are two extra sets of Hero Powers for each class. And three starter decks per class. With random starting decks being an option. And 15 or so random “Anomalies” that can be turned on. It truly felt as though Blizzard devs had a brainstorming meeting and just took everything that was on the whiteboard at the end and implemented it simultaneously. It seems almost like more of a waste to do that than to leave some on the cutting room floor for next time.

In this age of quarantine and perpetual baby-wrangling though, I came to appreciate the infinite turn-lengths and the dozens and dozens of options. For the most part. See, when I say “four months of daily attempts” I really just meant Act 5. I had cleared everything previous across all classes already, and was two classes deep in Act 5 (Paladin & Warlock) before I started to “be serious” about the endeavor. I was stuck on Druid for the longest time, thinking it was the worst class to get through.

Oh, no. That award goes to Mage.

There are only a few strategies that have much hope of success at the heroic level, and all of them rely on strong creatures and cheating them out early. Or, sometimes, creatures creating infinite value. Mage has some decent options in the latter case, but the issue is that Mage “reward buckets” are diluted with spells. In a normal game, spells can swing games. But in the RNG clown fiesta that is Dalaran Heist, you need cards that continue swinging for more than a turn.

The middle pick is at least something but, geez.

Adding the insult to injury, I discovered that a recent patch actually broke Ethereal Conjurer, a very decent Mage minion. And by “broke” I mean the game basically stalls out and you can do nothing other than concede. Which happened to me twice before I realized it was that specific card that caused it. Then, on the game-winning run, the second-to-last boss played it. Twice. Lucky for me, if you close Hearthstone and reopen it, the bug can be bypassed as long as it was the AI that played it.

In any case, purgatory quest complete, I remain melancholy. There is less than zero desire to “mix it up” and do something insane like beat every Act with every class and every different hero power. I had fun, for given amounts of fun, but it really came down to passing time on a project. I could purchase some more single-player content and unlock some cards via another Hearthstone DLC (Galakrond’s Awakening), but the $20 (!!) price tag seems rather insane. Especially since it is just an Adventure and not the roguelike, Dungeon Run experience I have come to so desire. Surely there is something else on the app market that would offer something similar?

Slay the Spire mobile, when?