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Review: Fate Hunters

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

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

And that’s the entire review. The end.

…I’m being kinda serious.

Some very evocative art

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

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

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

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

Non-Service Games

aka regular-ass games.

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

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

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

It is also “abandoned.”

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

(source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(source)

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

Impression: Griftlands

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

Dialog is actually pretty good across the board.

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

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

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

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

Just a breezy 5 hour, 20 minute playthrough.

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

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

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

Turns out this combo is pretty strong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impression: Trials of Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, yeah. Trials of Fire.

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

White Whale, Caught

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

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

About as good “proof” as possible

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

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

Oh, no. That award goes to Mage.

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

The middle pick is at least something but, geez.

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

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

Slay the Spire mobile, when?

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.