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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?

Impression: Into the Breach

There are few things that prime the pump more than hearing “from the creators of FTL.” That was one of those games that seemed to come out of nowhere with a simple-yet-actually-brutally-complex system wrapped up in a sweet indie game package and threw me for a loop. It was ultimately a good loop, but a loop nonetheless. 

Despite all that, I had hitherto heard about, got excited for, and then completely forgot about Into the Breach. Until I realized it was on the Xbox Game Pass… and leaving shortly.

Into the Breach is essentially a puzzle game. You command three time-traveling pilots who are trying to protect the remnants of humanity from the Vek by piloting giant mechs. Each turn, the Vek (e.g. aliens) will move around the grid-based map and telegraph the actions they are about to take. During your turn, each mech can make one move and one action to try and foil the Vek’s plans before it occurs. While killing the Vek will cancel their action, the primary mechanism is typically “pushing” the Vek out of place on the grid.

As a general example, the default mech can perform a punch that deals 2 damage and pushes the target back 1 square. Many Vek have 3 or more HP, so this attack by itself will not kill a Vek that is about to attack a skyscraper full of people. But instead of attacking the skyscraper in front of it, that punched Vek will move 1 square away and instead attack whatever is in front of it in that new square. If it’s another skyscraper… well, oops. It could be empty air though. Or even another Vek, if you are clever enough. Or if the Vek was standing next to water/a giant pit/the telegraphed impact location of deadly lightning or whatever, it will die instantly. If the square is blocked, the pushed Vek will take an extra 1 damage and deal 1 damage to whatever blocked its path.

The default squad is the punching mech, a tank that deals 1 damage from range in cardinal directions, and artillery that deals one damage at a location and pushes everyone in cardinal directions 1 square away from the impact. If you successfully clear islands, you can spend reputation points to purchase additional items that can be equipped to give your mechs different abilities. For example, the punching mech can get a shield that makes the Vek turn around instead of pushing them, the artillery unit can get shells that light squares on fire, and so on.

If you cannot tell already, the gameplay ends up both simple and complex at the same time. Victory occurs when X number of turns complete, so you don’t really need to kill every Vek on the screen. Missions always have bonus objections which can complicate things. Incoming Vek reinforcements are telegraphed, and they can be prevented from spawning if their square is blocked – it will deal 1 damage to your mechs, or another Vek if one is pushed there.

Having said all that, this game can also be brutal. The Power Grid represents your life total of the run and it carries over through every mission. Vek destroying 1 building results in 1 less Power Grid for every mission thereafter. While you can take on missions that grant replacement power, that comes at the opportunity cost of missions that reward more reputation, which you spend on buying gear to enhance your team. Your own mechs have HP that is repaired between battles, but losing your HP in a battle will kill the pilot, which results in all their unlocked abilities going away. 

I got super frustrated at one point until I realized… this is a puzzle roguelike. Some situations will go south fast with nothing you could reasonably do. Sometimes the Vek will “waste” all of their attacks on your mechs, which you can simply walk away from. Other times the Vek will spread out and attack buildings everywhere. In a worst case scenario, you can abandon the timeline you are in and take one pilot with you into a fresh game. 

Ultimately, Into the Breach is a decently fun puzzle game. It’s no FTL, but it’s in the same quadrant. I just wish they would port this game to mobile, where it would be a perfect fit IMO. Between this and a mobile Slay the Spire, I might never be productive again.

The Dalaran Heist

One of the most enjoyable things out of Hearthstone have been the roguelike deck-building modes (Dungeon Run) launched with each expansion since Kobolds and Catacombs. The exact formula has changed a bit each time, but the idea is that you start with a deck with only a few cards, and as you face off against increasingly tough bosses, you get to pick a “bucket” of three cards when you win, punctuated with the occasional passive effect or uber-powerful cards. This mode is something that could almost stand on its own, given how engaging it has been for me these past few weeks.

With the latest version though, Blizzard might have gone too far with the options.

The original Dungeon Run featured all nine classes to choose from, each with a simple starting deck. While it could be frustrating to lose over and over with the same class, knowing you would still have to deal with some subpar cards, the Treasures (passive abilities) and bosses you fought and the buckets of cards offered would quickly change how each run would go. Then came Monster Hunt, which featured four made-up classes with new Hero powers to play with. Then was a puzzle-mode interlude with the Boomsday Project. Then came Rastakhan’s Rumble, which featured “shrines” that did special things, but you otherwise used troll versions of the basic classes.

With Dalaran Heist, we are back to choosing one of the nine classes. However, you can also unlock two additional new Hero powers (per class!) by doing things like casting 25 elementals and other achievement-esque things. You can also unlock two additional starter decks (per class!) to shake up the early game. Finally, in addition to passive abilities and uber-cards, there are two sets of Tavern encounters which allow you to do a random assortment of things, like add new cards to your deck, increase your starting health, or even remove some cards.

In short, the whole thing is kinda nuts with the options.

One would think this would be a good thing. “Lots of replayability there!” But too much of a good thing is a problem. I finally cleared the Heist on Heroic mode and I am beyond done. Not because I only needed to beat it once, but because there is too much to contemplate. I beat Act 5 (Heroic) with Paladin, Boon of Light Hero power, and Old Hero starting deck. I could try and do the same with all the same settings but changing the starting deck to Adventure. Or Holy Flames. Or use the default Hero power and Old Hero starting deck. Or any of the five other permutations. Nine total combinations across nine classes on two separate difficulty levels.

[Fake Edit] I knew there was a Random Deck option too, but I thought that meant it would randomly pick between the three starter decks. I have just now read that it actually gives you a purely random set of cards as your starter deck. Not only does that add another three permutations, it arguably adds a quasi-infinite variety of starting positions.

Oh, and have I mentioned there are Anomalies you can activate too? Stuff like “After a player casts 3 spells in a turn, that player summons a 5/5 dragon.” I don’t know how many of those effects there are (Edit: Fifteen! 1-5!), but that would again layer on additional RNG and permutations.

Like, Jesus Christ, Blizzard. You guys crammed pretty much every possible idea on the whiteboard and put it into one game mode. I’m actively wondering if this might be the last Dungeon Run-esque version we get for a while. Where could they go from here?

Impressions: Sundered

Pretty much everything you need to know about Sundered is encapsulated in this picture:

Oh my

That’s the first boss.

The premise of the game is that you are a human (?) adventurer who gets sucked into a desert temple by some tentacles, and are tasked with defeating some monstrosities by the Shining Trapezohedron. If that sounds Lovecraftian, it is. In fact, that being in particular is straight-up from a Lovecraft book, and the rest of the game takes heavy, sometimes direct, direction from the genre.

Indeed, the eerie disquietness of the game proper has been a wholly unique experience for me. I have seen tentacled monsters with teeth and eyes in all the wrong places in games before. That’s common.

Pictured: tentacle monster with teeth and eyes in wrong places.

What I never really experienced is a sense of trepidation regarding a gorgeous, hand-drawn background that features nary a monster or blood stain, but simply a construction completely out of human scale. The whole time, you are immersed in an environment very clearly not made for you. Hell, even the Sanctuary – the place where you spend Shards to increase your stats – feels “off” due to the massive, smooth stone in the background. It reminds me of looking up at a skyscraper from the street, and feeling as though the whole thing is moments away from falling on me.

The weakness of Sundered comes from its gameplay direction. It plays as a semi-modern Metroidvania, akin to Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest. However, the map features no pre-set monster spawns, and has randomly-generated sections that change upon your death. You will be randomly beset upon by “hordes,” which are essentially a dozen or so enemies at a time. Defeating them sometimes grant you Shards, which is a currency used to purchase your way through a FFX/Path of Exile-esque ability grid.

Ah, yes, just make a right at the corner of Ehshkht’aetag’ling and Kytag’yeh.

The gameplay loop itself doesn’t necessarily feel bad, and the horde spawning mechanic does allow you to take in the environment more than if there were set spawns in specific locations every time. But it does end up feeling… weird. And not the Lovecraftian weird, but the sort of “okay, here we go again” weird. Also the “weird” in which you might find yourself overwhelmed and possibly dead due to what feels like random chance. For example, you might have been able to easily handle a specific horde composition if you were not “ambushed” in a tight corridor with spikes everywhere.

In any case, if you can persist through the first hour or so of the game, before you have unlocked any interesting abilities or encountered tricky enemies, you will possibly come out the other side… changed, as I did. I have not quite played a game that made me feel this way, not even The Forest or other traditional survival horror games.

In those games, the monsters were the invaders. In Sundered, it is you who doesn’t belong.

Ascension

As you may have heard, I continue to play Slay the Spire.

I have beaten the “normal” game dozens of times with all three default characters, and have unlocked all the cards and relics. When you defeat everything with all three characters, you can unlock a fourth stage with a super-secret boss, and you also unlock Ascension Mode. Each character has their own Ascension Mode tracker, and defeating the standard final boss will increment the Ascension Mode up one digit, to a maximum of 20. What happens on each level is the following:

  1. Elites spawn more often.
  2. Normal enemies are deadlier.
  3. Elites are deadlier.
  4. Bosses are deadlier.
  5. Heal less after Boss battles (75% of missing health)
  6. Start each run damaged (-10% health)
  7. Normal enemies are tougher.
  8. Elites are tougher.
  9. Bosses are tougher.
  10. Ascender’s Bane
  11. Start each run with 1 less potion slot.
  12. Upgraded cards appear less often. (50% less)
  13. Bosses drop less gold. (25% less)
  14. Lower max HP. (-5 for Ironclad, -4 for Silent and Defect)
  15. Unfavorable events.
  16. Shops are more costly. (10% more)
  17. Normal enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  18. Elite enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  19. Boss enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  20. Fight 2 bosses at the end of Act 3.

I have been focusing on playing the Silent, the 2nd character, and achieved Ascension 15.

Also, I am so done with this game.

This particular Ascension mode design is rather brilliant in a lot of ways. Many games have harder difficulties, including roguelikes, but most of them are not as granular as this. The first “downside” of more Elites, for example, is not technically a downside for someone skilled with the game – each Elite enemy killed will result in a Relic, which can substantially improve the rest of a run. It’s often advised to target as many Elites as possible in the first Stage, to either wash out a weak deck early, or load up on goodies when the risk to your time is low.

Plus, there is the more mundane benefit to the fact that even if you are a super pro player from the start, you still need to play through and beat the game 20 times before you reach the hardest difficulty. Per character! That’s a lot of gameplay. Or grinding, depending.

I lasted way longer than I thought I would at the beginning (Ascension 15, remember), but the fundamental truth is that each time I succeeded, each subsequent game became less fun. By design. Well, presumably I am supposed to become more and more proud of my ability to overcome challenges, but that doesn’t really happen in practice. Especially in Slay the Spire’s case, where after a while things become more and more RNG-based as the margin for success shrinks.

This is probably for the best. I prefer the discrete finality of a rolling credits screen to the ashes of burning out, but an ending is an ending. Now maybe I can move on to something else.

Sense of Pride and Accomplishment

In addition to Hollow Knight, I have been playing a bunch of Dead Cells lately.

Because apparently I hate myself.

DeadCells_01

I definitely recommend letting traps do the heavy lifting.

Dead Cells is basically a roguelike Metroidvania that has more in common with Rogue Legacy and Binding of Isaac than, say, Hollow Knight. Defeating enemies occasionally gives you a currency (Cells) that you can spend at the end of each level to unlock permanent upgrades and blueprints of items that are then seeded into the item pool of future runs. Of course, that assumes you make it to the end of the level – die before then, and you lose everything you were carrying, and have to start over at the beginning of the game.

Of course, that’s how roguelikes work. It’s expected that you start over a bunch of times. And in this regard, I definitely felt less terrible after a death in Dead Cells than I did in Hollow Knight.

…up until The Hand of the King encounter, that is.

The final boss in Dead Cells is so absurdly more difficult than anything that comes before it. While its attacks are not inherently “unfair” beyond their massive power – they can be dodged just like everything else – most of them will prevent you from utilizing health potions, lest you get hit again mid-swig. Thus, you have very little opportunity to practice learning his moves, and dying here means it’ll take at least ~30 minutes of re-clearing everything else along the way to get another shot.

DeadCells_02

Amazing ranged synergy… what could go wrong? (Failed run)

Well, after 26 hours /played in Dead Cells, I finally killed the last boss.

According to conventional wisdom, I should be feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. I died to this boss at least ten times, re-clearing the entirety of the game to get another chance each time. The fight itself is difficult, and difficult = rewarding. Permadeath confers a sense of risk, and overcoming risk = rewarding. Right?

I feel none of that. And it sorta makes you question the whole “difficulty” edifice.

To be fair, I did not expect to win on the particular run that I did. The items offered on each run are random, and while you can sometimes affect the odds by resetting shop items, the best gear drops from bosses and you don’t have many shots at those. I had strolled up to the final boss several times before with what seemed to be unassailable combos, only to die embarrassing deaths. On the winning run, I made a last minute substitution that basically had no particular synergy with anything – it simply offered an extra 30% damage reduction, which apparently was enough to get me over the finish line.

I have never particularly believed that difficulty was valuable in of itself. But the total emptiness of having beat Dead Cells makes me question why I ever tried to debate anyone on difficulty previously. It is often taken as a given that “log in, collect epix” is bad, and defeating the game on extreme permadeath Ironman mode (or whatever) is good. But I know for a fact that I would have enjoyed Dead Cells more had I beaten the last boss two runs earlier than I did two runs later. And that disappointment and dissatisfaction I felt at losing was not made up by eventually winning.

DeadCells_03

Successful run items. Ice Grenade was a late addition.

What makes the situation all the more absurd is that there is a lot more left to Dead Cells. Defeating the last boss unlocks “Boss Cells” which are essentially bonus modifiers you can apply to all enemies and bosses. Defeat the last boss on this new, higher difficulty and you unlock another Boss Cell slot. And so on, up to 4, which is the current limit. Ergo, the last boss could have been easier, and everyone else who craved a harder game could have been more than satisfied with four additional difficulty tiers.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m still just salty from winning when I didn’t expect to, and losing (several times) when I did. Perhaps that was the secret sauce all along – expecting to lose from the start led me to have lower anxiety levels during the fight. Or maybe I had seen the boss’s moves enough to commit them to muscle memory.

All that I know for certain is that difficulty, by itself, doesn’t particularly add anything meaningful to a game. In fact, it often can poison an entire experience. I’m not sure how you balance a game such that there are difficult moments without being frustrating, but Dead Cells ultimately did not get it right when it comes to the final boss. Which is a damn shame, because I otherwise had fun.

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.