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Impressions: The Long Dark

I first played The Long Dark ages ago back when it was in Early Access. It was back then, and still is today, a survival game of another kind: a true Player versus Environment. Your primary foe is hunger, thirst, and a cold Canadian wilderness hostile to your continued existence.

LongDark_Area

Welcome to the middle of nowhere. Population: You.

Having played it for a dozen or more hours now, I can safely say that I am pining for some zombies.

When I said your primary opponent is the environment, I meant it. Outside of the story mode (broken down into Episodes), there are no NPCs. Fauna consists of rabbits, deer, wolves, and bears. I have heard there might be moose involved, and I guess you can technically fish up, er, fish. But that’s really it. While you can eventually craft a bow or loot a rifle, this is not an action survival game by any means.

Given the above, the fundamental gameplay tension is food and warmth. The Canadian tundra is cold, the windchill is colder, and blizzards are colder still. Keeping warm is a challenge, and just finding shelter is not necessarily good enough. That’s when The Long Dark’s thumbscrews come out.

LongDark_Branch

Don’t do this by hand. Or in a Blizzard. Or, really, ever.

See, picking up sticks is easy. Come across a branch that can be broken down into sticks? That’s going to take 10 minutes by hand. Which the game fast-forwards through, but your warmth meter is depleting rapidly all the while (depending on weather and your gear), and now you’re at risk for hypothermia. And those three sticks you got from breaking said branch? That’s maybe 22 minutes of heat in the campfire, which might not be long enough to regain the Warmth you lost breaking the branch outside, nevermind the other firestarting materials. Oh, and it took 42 calories.

The Long Dark takes counting calories to a whole new level. Sleeping takes 75 calories per hour. Breaking down a crate for wood for a fire takes ~62 calories. Walking around for an hour takes 270 calories. Harvesting meat from an animal, so you can cook it to regain calories, takes X calories. Hopefully less than the amount it took you to kill said animal, but not always.

What ends up happening is that you never really feel safe, anywhere. Sure, finding a sufficiently warm shelter is nice. But necessity will drive you from that place eventually. Water is abundant, but needs fire to be produced. Which needs fuel to be collected. Which needs calories to burned. Which needs food to be scavenged or hunted. Which needs you to be outside, in the cold, taking risks.

Being naturally driven from your comfort zone in a quest for survival is brilliant game design. But it is also dissatisfying. Instead of feeling like I have agency, I instead feel despondent. In 7 Days to Die, I forage for supplies so that I can construct defenses capable of outlasting next week’s Blood Moon. In The Long Dark, I forage supplies so I can… stave off the inevitable for another 24 hours. Technically they might be the same in principle, but one feels a hell of a lot better than the other.

Having said all that, I am currently working through Episode 2 of the Story mode and having a plot to follow makes things a bit better. Plus, the locations where the story NPCs live have a fire going 24/7, which makes things considerably easier. Not having the ability to unlock schematics and such as one does in the regular Sandbox version can be a bit stifling (e.g. not being able to craft a bow), but the overall experience is quite good, if a bit linear and directed.

Slay the Spire: Quick Strategy

I have beaten Slay the Spire two times as the Ironclad and three times as the Silent. All of the runs were quite different insofar as specific cards and interactions go, but the overall strategy was basically the same for each one:

Avoid Losing Health

This probably sounds like I’m trolling, but I am quite serious.

SlayTheSpire_Armor

Not losing HP anytime soon.

As with many games, HP is a resource in Slay the Spire. However, regaining HP comes at a much higher cost in this game. At each Campsite, you can regain 30% of your max HP, or you can upgrade a card. While sometimes necessary, each time you heal at a Campsite instead of Upgrading a card, you are forgoing dozens, if not hundreds of opportunities of using said upgraded card over the rest of the run. Even if you end up grabbing a specific card or Relic that heals you somehow, that is typically at the expense of a different selection that might have helped you in a different way. Much better to simply not need to heal at all.

So here are my tips in avoiding losing health.

Understanding and Loving Block

Blocking often feels bad, especially when it isn’t enough to absorb an entire attack. Instead of being one turn closer to ending the fight, you instead do nothing and take 2 damage, right?

SlayTheSpire-AgainBlock

Fist full of Curses, but Block still set me free.

Well, imagine instead that there was a 1-mana card that said “Gain 5 HP.” Would you play it? Yeah, you would probably play it as much as you could. Guess what. That’s what Block does any time it absorbs damage. There will be times when you will save more HP by burning down an enemy than blocking half the damage, but you also have to look beyond the current battle. If you save 10 damage now by burning down the enemy quickly, but lose 30 HP three fights from now, you have ultimately made a poor trade.

Now, there will be times where you have a fist full of Block cards while your opponent is doing nothing but buffing themselves. Those times will suck, and it’s possible you’ll take more damage overall later. However, consider the opposite case where you have a fist full of attack cards and a pile of damage coming back your way. The latter is much more dangerous than the former.

Combat is for the Fortunate

If you do not have a reliable means of avoiding damage via deck/Relic combos, you should not be taking unnecessary risks in combat. Or getting in combat at all. This means picking a route that bypasses as many regular and Elite encounters as possible. Yeah, combat gives you a chance to add cards to your deck, and Elites giving a Relic is cool, but you can also get cards and Relics in those “?” encounters, typically without losing HP. Do those instead.

SlayTheSpire_Map

This sort of route is ideal.

The biggest exception to the general rule is everything on the 1st floor. Since you are just starting a run, it behooves you to take as many risks as possible now, when failure does not sting as much, rather than later when you could lose hours of progress.

Relics Will Carry You

Your overall run will, in a large part, be dictated by the Relics you acquire. Nab the one that gives you 3 Block every time you discard a card? You should probably start picking everything that lets you discard cards. The beginning of a run is more free-form as a result, but you generally can’t go wrong with a fast cycle deck. Just make sure you pick up some Answer cards along the way.

Answer the Encounter Questions

Slay the Spire is currently in Early Access so this can change, but generally the “questions” that an encounter will pose and the subsequent answers are:

  • Single, large attack | Apply Weaken
  • Multiple attacks | Apply Weaken or reduce Strength
  • Escalating Buffs | Kill faster
  • Punishing Attack usage (thorns, etc) | Kill faster, or Passive damage
  • Punishing Skill usage | Attacks that also gain Block
  • Punishing Power usage | Only use highest impact Powers
SlayTheSpire-Gib

Exhibit A

Generally, you are going to want to have at least one card that applies Weaken no matter what. Several bosses have one uber-attack that will deal more than 40 damage at a time, so that one Weaken card will end up being the equivalent of “Gain 15+ block.” Would you draft a card that said “Deal 9 damage, gain 15 Block”? Of course you would.

Beyond that… well, it depends on the character you chose and the relics provided. Playing as the Silent means you have specific access to some very nice cycling cards, and can pick up cards that apply Poison. Tons of Block + Poison = eventual win. With Ironclad, you are generally more reliant on attacking, but don’t forgo Block cards on your way to stack Vulnerability (+50% damage). I had the most success with Ironclad when I kept a lean deck and upgraded the 0-cost card that buffed my Strength for the turn.

Accumulate Advantage

Some of the cards and relics you pick up during a run have an impact beyond any individual combat. For example, the Feed card gives you an increased max HP when it deals a killing blow, and the Alchemize card grants you a Potion. There are also relics that heal you when you cast a Power, or perhaps grant you a special action when you reach a campsite.

This may seem like another duh moment, but… do those things.

Specifically, engineer scenarios in which you can take advantage of them all the time. If you get a Feed/Alchemize card, start drafting card draw or extra block so that you can stall combat long enough to capitalize on them. If you get a bonus action at campsites, make sure you are not wasting the opportunity by having to heal up. You should avoid having to heal at campsites anyway (so you can upgrade cards instead), but that goes twice as much when one of your precious relic opportunities is consumed by something that is useless otherwise.

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.

SlayTheSpire_1

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.

Dungeon Runner

I have spoken about Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run mode before, but these last few weeks I have finally figured it out: Dungeon Run is the mobile version of Hearthstone.

That is, of course, a pretty silly thing to say considering a feature-complete version of Hearthstone is already an app. In fact, you can only access Dungeon Run from within the regular Hearthstone app. But having played it at work pretty regularly now, consider the following:

  • It requires no prior card collection
  • Randomized bosses/abilities for variety of experiences
  • No Rope, e.g. time limit on turns
  • Relatively fast games
  • No real penalty for losing (or winning)
  • Can stop and start at your leisure

The last point is a bit dubious, as I have had my Run prematurely canceled when I closed the app in the middle of a match and came back hours later. But aside from that, as long as you complete the current match, I have been able to come back and choose my set of cards for the next round.

In short, I have been having a lot of fun with Dungeon Runs on mobile that I was not having playing at home. And that is largely because I wouldn’t play regular Hearthstone at work, because I might have interruptions that would cost me a game (and ranking). Clash Royale has the same issue, honestly, but losing 2v2 is not a big deal, and each round takes a maximum of 4 minutes in any case. And on the flip side, playing Dungeon Run at home feels pointless because there aren’t any rewards or real “reason” to, comparatively.

Not that it would happen, but I honestly think Blizzard should just release Dungeon Run as a standalone app in the future. Hearthstone on mobile is incredible bloated – the latest balance patch was over 700 MB worth of downloads, and the overall install sits at 3.41 GB, which is absurd for an app. Then there are all the 3Dish animations for cards and minions that are not strictly necessary and could be simplified. So, size, CPU usage, patching… all of those things could be scaled back and optimized as a standalone package.

Or, I suppose, I could try finding a good CCG-ish app that already does those things.

Uh… any recommendations? Aside from Shadowverse, of course – I’m looking for more Ascension-esque than a competitive CCG. I’ve heard good things about Slay the Spire, but that’s Steam only.

The Dungeon Runs

Hearthstone’s latest expansion, Kobolds & Catacombs, introduced a new single-player feature: Dungeon Runs. Designed to emulate roguelikes, it has you face off against a random assortment of bosses – eight in total per run – with each success resulting in selecting between three sets of three cards, which then get added to your current deck. Sometimes you get bonus cards, which can either just be overpowered cards, or passive effects like doubling your starting HP, or having your Battlecry effects trigger twice.

Dungeons Runs are the most entertaining addition to Hearthstone in years. And the least rewarding.

Just to be clear, there are NO rewards to Dungeon Runs. Well, unless you count a card back for clearing all the final boss with all nine classes. No daily wins, no quest credit, nothing. “Fun is its own reward!” For now, that is indeed holding my attention steady. However, considering I could be playing on ladder, or casual, or even in a Tavern Brawl (most days) and be getting rewarded while also having (less) fun, I am actively harming my collection progression. And let me tell you, Blizzard has the thumbscrews firmly in place this expansion, as usual – all the staple cards are Epic or Legendary. So, in effect, I am having fun at the expense of my future self.

Beyond that, Dungeons Runs can be extremely frustrating too. Yeah, Hearthstone is always random, sure. But this game mode is about sixteen different layers of RNG, starting from what cards you are offered, which bosses you encounter, what your random effects do, which cards you draw, what cards your boss draws, etc etc etc. Fights that should have been easy are instead lost from a single coin-flip. This isn’t like Binding of Isaac where your reflexes could theoretically save a bad run.

Also, can I just say that Azari is a complete bullshit last boss? I’ve gotten him like 80% of the time, and it essentially means I have to chew through 70 HP with just half my deck – he automatically destroys your top 2 cards each turn. And he starts with 2 mana crystals? And that hero power costs zero? Some of the bosses are unfair, but goddamn.

Perhaps I would be more upset if there was a defined prize at the end. So in that sense, Blizzard might be doing me a favor.

Regardless, I remain fairly surprised at how compelling the game mode can be, and how ingenious in a way. If you are a brand new player with a small collection, Dungeon Runs give you a peek at how powerful older cards could be, or new cards for that matter. In that sense, it can be a pretty good advertisement for buying a few packs and hoping to pull one for everyday play.

I do wonder what Blizzard intends to do in the next expansion. Will Dungeon Runs be supported? Will there be newer cards, newer bosses, or anything else? Most people are saying “No,” but a flood of posts on Reddit got Blizzard to change their mind with DK Rexxar, insofar as his hero power will incorporate newer beasts going forward. Which pretty much ensures that Blizzard won’t be doing that sort of ability ever again, but good on them changing their minds.

Ark Life

Ark can teach you a lot about life. Namely, man’s futile struggle against a hostile, uncaring universe.

Ark_FeelingLucky

Don’t do it… it’s a trap!

It all started when I returned to my base with a handful of Obsidian from a scouting expedition. Emboldened by my success, and reading about the usefulness of the Sabertooths (Saberteeth?) I spotted on the mountain, I took flight again to snag a pair.

Life 1

I made it to the mountain in one piece, and scout around. I spot a pack of four Sabertooths, land on a nearby rock, and tranq two but the others had already wandered off. While taming, I am stuffing my face with Cooked Meat, because the temperature of the mountain is below zero. During this process, I realize that I’m out of Raw Meat, rapidly losing health due to the weather (no Fur clothing, because no Fur from these dinos), and while I have plenty of arrows, my crossbow itself is about to break. Shit. In a frantic bit of survivalship, I manage to kill some dinos for meat, tame the Sabertooths, and make my way to the warmer beach. Then I begin the journey back to my home base.

Along the way, I have to go through the Swamp biome. I stick to the edge, between the Swamp and the ocean, to avoid the more dangerous swamp creatures. What I did not avoid was the seemingly endless amount of piranhas. Despite doing only 15-20 damage per hit, one tiger dies. I hop off my bird to try and assist the remaining tiger. One minute later, the piranhas eat the remaining tiger and, somehow, my flying mount. I embrace the darkness.

Life 2

Take a backup bird to fly back and get my dropped items. This time, I load up on a fresh crossbow and extra meat. Spot my corpse, pick up my items. In the distance, I notice a low-level Sacro (e.g. giant crocodile). Thinking this might be a worthwhile tame to assist with the piranhas, I land on a rock and start shooting tranqs. With the Sacro down, I hop off the rock to start feeding it meat.

That’s when its mate shows up and starts feeding on me. Turning around to try and escape on my bird, I notice that the bird has simply dematerialized. No death record, it’s just glitched out of the game. Cool. I die.

Life 3

Fuck it, Imma build a boat.

Tour length: 3 hours.

I spent the next few days collecting resources and constructing a boat and adding crafting stations and such to it. The goal was originally to boat up to the mountain, tame the Sabertooths, then boat them back. That’s when I realized that the snowy biome sounds more interesting, and hey, those penguins give you tons of Organic Polymer when you beat them with clubs. No, seriously, that’s how it works. Since I need a bunch of Polymer to craft advanced weaponry, let’s head North instead.

After a long time, I make it to the Snow biome. Club some seals, mine some frozen Oil, good times. Off in the distance, I see a Carno and some of hell boars. Huh, interesting. I craft some stuff for a bit, and then start to prepare to take my bird out to collect more resources. Except now there is a Carno and some hell boars, having aggro’d and swam out to greet me, clipping through the bottom of my boat killing my birds and my favorite mount. Fuck this.

Life 4

I ruthlessly murder every Carno and hell boar that I see. At one point, I got a little too zealous and fell off my rock perch, and the hell boars got their revenge.

Life 5

Let’s just avoid that area and get a little further North. What’s the worse thing that can happen?

This. This is the worst thing that can happen.

—–

It should be noted that I am actively save scumming in Ark, e.g. backing up files. Why they just don’t add a Quick Save functionality to Single-Player Mode, I don’t know. Perhaps it goes against the general principle of Ark, or might give people the wrong impression when/if they try and go to public servers and lose all their stuff for real.

In any case, I don’t even feel the least bit bad for what I’m doing. I cannot possibly imagine a scenario in which “cheating myself” out of that last loss will result in more game time than rewinding it. Maybe if this was more of a roguelike with a definite end, like Don’t Starve (Adventure mode), or even Binding of Isaac, I can see less replay value overall. With Ark though, losing an entire boat worth of stuff along with some of my best tames? I would be more liable to quit altogether than start over. Or perhaps never to have set sail in the first place, which is kinda the same thing.

I guess we’ll see. I managed to craft a modern pistol and assault rifle with my (rewinded) resources, while avoiding the anti-boat whale area. If the novelty of Ark wears off after gaining such weaponry, perhaps I did “cheat” myself out of time. Then again, I still have projects that I want to complete, caves I want to explore, and map to uncover. I’m thinking it’s better overall to trade future game time of uncertain value for non-frustrating gameplay right now.

Especially because of all the bullshit Ark throws at you out of nowhere.

Impression: Darkest Dungeon

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

DarkestDungeon_01

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

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

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

DarkestDungeon_02

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which can be the same person. /sigh

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

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

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

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

DarkestDungeon_03

What does not kill you, stresses you out.

Impressions: Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

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

The truth is: I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom from Hunger

I am currently playing through a rougelike called “Wasted,” and the experience has been interesting. It is an Adult Swim Game that I believe came in a Humble Monthly Bundle or something, as I don’t remember purchasing it. The premise is very non-serious – think Borderlands rougelike with permadeath – but that’s not particularly relevant. What’s relevant is the addition of the SOB Purifiers.

The general gameplay in Wasted pretty common in terms of opening doors, killing enemies, avoiding traps, grabbing loot. After about two minutes on each floor though, an extremely deadly (albeit predictable) enemy spawns at the entrance and slowly makes it way towards you. The first few times I encountered these SOBs, I very nearly quit playing the game entirely. Why do they need to exist? How much bullshit is it that their miniguns basically stunlock you? The SOBs seem to have sucked all the fun out of exploring the levels.

After a while, I realized something. Namely, that I wasn’t experiencing Fallout-esque burnout.

As the developer has gone through great lengths to point out in the Steam forums (even getting a bit saucy in the process), the Purifiers exist as a gameplay element to shepherd the player around and drive them forward. You aren’t supposed to be exploring, you should be making some strategic gambles on your way to the exit. If I had all the time in the world, I would be fully healed before opening any door, spending 99% of the gameplay crouch-sneaking, and micromanaging an incredibly-limited inventory with the attention of Warren Buffet. In other words, I’d be playing it just like I play every other post-apocalypse game. Or most games, period, if I’m honest.

Other roguelikes have addressed the “problem” of over-exploring characters with Hunger mechanics and the like, but the Purifier feels really interesting to me now. Mechanics like Hunger don’t actually impact my behavior in those games; if anything, it just makes me more committed to looting all the things in the vain hope that there is some half-rotten morsel in that broken filing cabinet. Hunger also evokes that most-hated of all gameplay mechanics: the Breath meter in underwater levels. It feels oppressive, cheap.

After I got over the first few bullshit deaths to Purifiers that nullified hours of progression, I started to realize how… well, elegant is not the term, but perhaps “fair” they are. The Purifiers always spawn in the same location (the entrance to the floor you started on), after roughly the same amount of time, and always move towards your location decently slowly. If you happen to be in a circular sort of area, you can lure them to your location and then double-back behind them. Yeah, getting caught in a long hallway or dead-end sucks, but the Purifier’s arrival is announced both when they spawn and as they get closer to your location (the music changes).

In a real sense, Purifiers give you a sense of agency that Hunger does not. If I hit a fork early in a level, I might skip the locked door (which the exit is never behind) so as to give myself more time to explore a later fork. Or maybe I’ll lay some traps near the entrance to the level so that the Purifier spawns in a mine field that will hopefully cripple a leg and give me additional time. And, hey, even if I just barely escape through the exit at the last possible second, I know that I still get a full X minutes to explore the next floor without having to worry about them. That is a far cry different than Hunger or whatever, which often represents a cumulative loss of time.

For the record, I am taking this mechanic way more seriously than the game does. Indeed, the premise of the game is drinking Booze and getting radioactive hangovers that will help/hurt your next Booze run. But the problem that Wasted solves with Purifiers is a problem that exists in every roguelike (and arguably any survival game), and it’s the best solution I’ve seen in quite some time. I’m not sure it would be especially applicable in future games ala Fallout 5, but I hope the eventual solution is more akin to this than something else.

I don’t think I can stand the freedom to collect 10,000 tin cans anymore.

Dungeon of the Endless

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

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No, no there is not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

——-

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

DotE_2

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

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

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

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