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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.

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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.

DotE_1.jpg

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.

This Peeve of Mine: Blind Choices

It is amazing how many games you can work through when you aren’t playing an MMO. For example, I cleared through Metro: Last Light, StarCraft 2, Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper, Wolfenstein: the New Order, and am currently plowing through This War of Mine. All in the last two weeks. Granted, many of those all had completion times below ten hours, so perhaps that isn’t too surprising, but nevermind.

While I am not entirely done with This War of Mine yet, I did want to talk about it a bit. Specifically, about how the game has one of my least favorite “features”: blind choices. Or maybe “blind choices” is not entirely the correct term, but rather (unintentional?) obfuscation.

I first complained about blind choices nearly four year ago:

Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforeseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforeseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.

The game I was referring to at the time was the original Witcher, when the game asked me which quest reward I wanted to choose. While the game didn’t hide the the rewards themselves, the relative utility of each choice was very much in question. A book about vampires, your own hut, or the Wreath of immortelles? I chose the latter because italics, and it allowed me to easily bypass a long, involved quest.

Despite having chose the one with the most overall utility, I did not feel particularly clever because the choice itself had no real meaning. Do we praise the stopped clock for being right twice a day? Avoiding a designer trap only highlights the fact that the designers included a designer trap in their game in the first place, which automatically lowers my view of the overall design. It’s a cheap gimmick – one that is overcome only with knowledge that a player obtains after the choice is made. “Giving players the choice to fail” really just means the designers were unable to give players two or more good (or bad) options to choose between.

This concept get a bit murky when it comes to the roguelike genre though. Many roguelikes specifically include things like colored potions that have randomized effects on each playthrough. Sometimes you can minimize the mayhem such potions can cause, by being at full health and in a safe place before sampling the rainbow of colors you have collected. Such testing technically involves risk assessment and valuing the odds, which are pretty high-brow player skills. I was fine with The Bind of Isaac’s random pill effects, for example, largely because everything else about that game was so random it almost didn’t matter. When you could find out early which pills did what though? It sets you way ahead of the curve.

This War of Mine is more or less a roguelike. While the loot you can scavenge is random, it is also random which “scenario” you might encounter when going to a new location. This is generally fine. Roguelikes need randomness to maintain replayability in what otherwise would be short playthroughs. What I found less fine was when I realized that you didn’t need a lockpick to open locked doors, you simply needed a crowbar. That “makes sense” in a sort of logical way, but not always in a game logic way, especially not in a game that also features vegetables that grow to maturity in four days under a heat lamp.

Should the crowbar’s in-game description mention it opens locked doors? I would say yes. There is still a meaningful choice between crafting a lockpick over a crowbar (specifically the amount of noise it generates) when you know the full depth of information about the two. At the same time… well, Minecraft certainly doesn’t give you all the information you might need for a successful¹ run. I haven’t played it in a while, but the last time I did, I knew there was no way I would have ever guessed the correct configuration of materials necessary to craft a bow or shears.

Examining my discomfort in more detail, I suppose it comes down to wasting resources when outside knowledge is readily available. I had no problem playing Don’t Starve for hours and hours despite dying and losing all progress to the most mundane of causes. Murder Bees are serious business, after all. But chasing down the mats to build a blowgun and darts in what ended up being a nigh-useless tool? That pisses me off. I will happily fail in service to muscle memory, even if I lose progress along the way. I will not, however, be so keen to fail because I didn’t read the Wiki first.

There is a distinction between the two that I can feel, even if I cannot enunciate it clearly.

¹ With what constitutes success in Minecraft being left undefined.

Review: The Banner Saga

Game: The Banner Saga
Recommended price: < $5
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: 10-12 hours
Buy If You Like: PC ports of mobile tactical games, Kickstarter games

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

The Banner Saga is one of those darling Kickstarter stories in which a scrappy development team (or professional game designers) achieves high accolades for a beautifully drawn, epic soundtrack-having mobile-to-PC tactical RPG port. When judged against its Kickstarted peers, it stands rather tall amongst them, especially for having actually made it to release. When judged on its own merits however, The Banner Saga falls somewhat short despite it’s high Metacritic rating.

The basic thrust of The Banner Saga is one of Norse-style apocalypse. The gods are dead, the historical baddies (Dredge) are flooding the North, and everything is going to hell. The plot follows two separate caravans as they rapidly become refugee trains fleeing the destruction. Along the way you are presented with a series of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure blind choices and are rewarded or punished (mainly punished) with abrupt character deaths, loss of supplies, and similarly depressing news. Oh, and occasionally battles.

The tactical combat system in The Banner Saga is not one I have seen before, and I’m tempted to say that was for a reason. Every unit has both an Armor meter and a Strength meter, the latter of which is also your HP. Damage is calculated as “Your Strength – Their Armor = They Lose X Strength.” I already consider such systems a Red Flag simply for how many times it leads to snowball situations: wounded characters immediately lose most of their combat value. “Luckily” enough, damaging Armor isn’t tied to Strength at all (Armor Break is a separate stat you can increase), so even a character with 1 HP (i.e. 1 Strength) can do something useful. Also, some character classes have special abilities that do a set amount of damage no matter that’s character’s Strength.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

My issue with things comes from the Turn Order system. Simply put: it alternates. Before you get into combat, you can decide which of your party members goes in which order. Once combat begins, it starts with your 1st member and then goes to one unit on the enemy’s side. If you manage to kill an enemy before their turn, the next enemy in the turn order will take their spot and everyone else moves down. This continues until there is only one enemy left, which starts “Pillage Mode” and your whole team gets one turn for every one that the last enemy receives.

The entire system leads to bizarre scenarios wherein an enemy unit can suddenly get 3-4 free turns of attacks off on a character before you can react, as you uselessly move around other out-of-range characters. In other words, the enemy gets more dangerous the more enemy units you kill; conversely, this never seems to improve your own odds of success when put in similar situations.

The other major problem I had with the game design was… well, the rest of it. You receive Renown points after battles, and Renown pulls double duty as both currency to purchase items/Supplies for your caravan and as an upgrade currency. If you want to level a character up from 2 to 3, that costs 10 Renown, for example. The problem here is that there is never enough. Which, okay, it’s Ragnarok, what are you going to do? But The Banner Saga is not at all gun-shy about killing your playable characters without warning in one of the frequent dialog choices, taking the 30+ Renown you’ve invested along with them. I couldn’t help but feel like the developers were trying to make the game be a roguelike but only going halfway. Am I supposed to reload my last auto-save when I find out that X died? Or will there be enough Renown later to off-set the loss?

Spoiler alert: no.

Know what's fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

Know what’s fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

In the end, I find it somewhat hard to recommend The Banner Saga, at least with even a fraction of the fervor it was recommended to me. If you are looking for a solid tactical RPG ala Final Fantasy Tactics, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for an engaging roguelike, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a regular RPG with a great story, you will be disappointed – the game ends abruptly with a cliffhanger, as it was designed as a trilogy from the start. If you are looking for an iPad game to play for more than 10 hours, you will be disappointed.

There is some good things going on in The Banner Saga – the music, artwork, and animations are fantastic – but it’s not a complete project. The less you treat it as a serious game and more as an interactive picturebook, the better off you will be.

Payment Model Perspective

I was browsing Kotaku the other day, and came across an article/review of a mobile game called Wayward Souls. Truthfully, I only read it because the byline mentioned Secret of Mana, which is relevant to my interests; it is, incidentally, probably my second-most played game of all time right behind A Link to the Past. Did you realize that SoM came out in the US 20 years ago this past October? Two decades.

Anyway, Wayward Souls is whatever – doesn’t seem to capture much of SoM’s magic beyond the pixel and music style based on the video alone. What was interesting to me though, was when they mentioned in the video that they’re going with the MineCraftian business model, e.g. selling it for $5 at first, and increasing the cost as time goes by. To me, this raises a number of interesting questions. First… is there a term for this payment model? I use MineCraft as perhaps the most well-known example, but surely it was tried beforehand.

Second, does it feel bad to anyone else?

I mean, I understand the logic behind it. Traditionally, game companies are going to want to charge full MSRP at release to capture the dollars of whom we now term “whales,” e.g. the people who would have paid $100 for the game, if they had charged that much. As time goes by, the price comes down via sales and whatnot to capture the players who would have bought it for less than MSRP. The MineCraft model seems like it should never work, but actually makes a lot of sense when you realize that the traditional model relies on a well-informed and excited playerbase for your game – in an ocean of crappy mobile games, you’re not going to have the whales spending money out of the game. This alternative model lets you build buzz somewhat organically, and then try and capture the big spenders as you ride the wave home. Plus, it sort of short-circuits the “wait until the Humble Bundle sale” strategy insofar as it will supposedly be more expensive the longer you wait (which ironically sorta is how Humble Bundles work).

Like I mentioned though, the MineCraft model doesn’t particularly work for me. It grates, like a piano out of tune. But I can’t fully articulate why though, especially when you consider nearly all games do this via cheaper preorders. Damn near everything is 20% off on GreenManGaming before it comes out. Sometimes a game will drop in price within the first three months (and sometimes faster these days, if they miss the forecasts), but it’s usually quite some time before it drops below the preorder price. So… what’s the difference, really? I can’t even claim that it’s because of psychological manipulation, because that’s pretty much behind all sales strategy. It just feels… bad, somehow. And causes me to mentally dig my heels in and wait for the Humble Bundle because screw you for defying the natural order of things. Or something.