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Happens Every Time

I have tried to have three vacations this year – honestly, just staycations with the kiddo still going to daycare – and yet we are 3 for fucking 3 on him getting sick/having a fever exactly on the week that I am off. Not the week beforehand, not the week after. The exact week I had taken off. Supposedly this is “good” because, hey, I don’t have to use sick time! But, you know… I could use sick time AND not have to entertain a sick two-year old for 12-14 hours when I had plans to do stuff.

If you’re wondering, yes, I accrue a lot of vacation and sick leave each year. Join a union, folks.

Anyway. What have I been up to lately?

Fallout 76

This has been my default, “I don’t know what I want to do… let me load this game until I figure it out” game for a long time now. The fact that I still play is actually beyond all objective reason. But… it’s a survival-esque game not in Early Access (even if it sometimes feels that way) and the moment-to-moment gameplay is spot-on. There is also a Season reward track that awards some special items and store currency for completing some daily/weekly quests. That said, my character can only really progress further with precise, legendary item god-rolls all to tackle content that in no way needs said god-rolls to run.

I suppose I did play WoW for a decade despite hitting similar progression walls. And yet I do not have the same confidence that Fallout 76 will continue having new content developed that necessitates new gear. Or new challenging content at all, really.

Hearthstone

While I have watched more matches than participated in them, I do still complete the accumulated dailies every 3 days or so. As someone who has played since the beta, I do have to say that this meta is perhaps the strangest it has ever been. Not just the Quest combo decks that finish on Turn 5, or how any game going past Turn 7 is surprising. There just isn’t a whole lot of AoE anymore. Swipe from Druid or Fan of Knives from Rogue have been gone (from Standard) since March, I think, so it has been a while. Still, I raise an eyebrow any time I see players committing a half-dozen 1/1 creatures to the board and/or going wide as a strategy for success. At least, until I remember how much AoE is lacking and that they can usually get away with it.

Slay the Spire (mobile)

I have officially surpassed my progression on PC with that of mobile, in the Ascension department. And I keep coming back, as the game is pretty perfect to play in 10-second chunks as you watch a 2-year old. I have played a LOT of deck-building roguelikes over the past few months, and none of them really come close. I sometimes wonder if that is because of the first-mover effect, or if the game is really that good. Every day I lean more to the latter.

Also, all those other deck-builder roguelikes aren’t on mobile.

…And That’s Basically It

I have a huge amount of games that I “should” be playing that I just… don’t. Ones that have been perfectly fun to play, for the few times that I have done so. The problem is: what do you do when you don’t have a consistent play schedule? For example, I was having fun with Solasta, Control, and trying to see if Death Stranding would ever be fun at some point. But once you lose gaming continuity, a lot of things fall apart. It gets harder and harder to to boot that game back up – you forget the controls, the strategy you were going with a character build, you literally lose the plot.

If I only have an hour to play games, I’d rather play ones that I know can generate fun in that hour.

Oh well. This crazy work project will be going on for several more weeks, and there is no guarantee that anything slows down after that (since we pushed back all normal projects to make room for this one). This could be the new normal. Not exactly what I envisioned or hoped for, but it is what it is.

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.

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…

Slay the Spire, Android Edition

The Android version of Slay the Spire is out. It’s $9.99 on the Google Play store, although you have to scroll down to find it.

And I recommend waiting a while before buying it.

It is indeed Slay the Spire on your phone. If you are not familiar with the game itself, well, you’re in for a treat. I’m sure there were other deck-building roguelikes out there before, but this one is so good that it has basically consumed the entire genre – anything new is basically “Slay the Spire but with X.” Being able to finally play this on my phone without streaming it or other nonsense is something I had been looking forward to for a while. In fact, I had been holding my Google Play credits from surveys for more than a year just to purchase it as soon as it popped up.

The issue is that it is a bad port.

It’s not just the bugs, of which there were many game-crippling ones (stuck on Merchant screen, continuous de-syncing, etc.). The Android port is just poorly designed from a UX perspective. Text is tiny and borderline unreadable, even with the “Big Text” option selected. Cards are shoved far at the bottom of the screen, which means half the time you try playing one, you end up minimizing the app – this behavior can be disabled via Android options, but I haven’t had any issues with Hearthstone like this. Perhaps the most frustrating though are the inconsistencies with selecting things. On the Reward screen, you have to double-tap to collect Gold, but a single-tap will select 2nd option (Potion or Relic), and your card reward requires you to click confirm. That’s three separate behaviors on one screen. Who designed this shit?

I’m also a bit salty when I straight-up lost a run right before the final boss because the wrong card was played. You cannot read the text on a card without lifting it up a bit with your finger, but lift it up too far and it will automatically be played (if it’s not specifically a targeted card). There is a “long press to Confirm” option in the Settings, but inexplicably that’s just for the End Turn button and nothing else. Incidentally, this lost run was the same one in which I accidentally skipped a Relic – the Select button became Skip after highlighting the Relic once – and then accidentally picked a bad choice in one of the “?” rooms because I was hovering my finger over the option so I could see what the Curse did.

Of course, by “accidentally” I really mean “because of dumbass UX designers.”

So, yeah, the thing I had been looking forward to for literal years was immensely disappointing. The lesson here is to don’t look forward to things don’t purchase things Day 1.

Gaming News

As Reddit is largely my source of gaming news these days, periodically I find that several items relevant to my interests have been buried by random nonsense. In no particular order:

Oxygen Not Included’s DLC has entered Early Access

Called Spaced Out!, the DLC seems focused on creating and managing multiple mini-colonies rather than one. Considering how complex and fragile just one colony can be, Klei is either targeting hardcore vets of the original game or will be introducing methods to trivialize some of the fundamental problems players encounter (heat, water usage, leaning on and then running out of algae or coal, etc). Although I have logged 143 hours into the game – making it my 5th most-played game on Steam – I have never actually made it to the rocket launching endgame, so I would be fine with the latter.

ARK 2 has been announced, starring Vin Diesel

No, really, look at the (pointless) trailer. Cue up the Adam Jensen “I didn’t ask for this.” Supposedly there will be more details coming out over the next few days, but the underlying kick in the teeth is that Studio Wildcard is rather pointedly ending the development of its original game in favor of a star-studded sequel. This shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, considering Wildcard is rather infamous for releasing a paid DLC while the original game was still in Early Access.

Having said that, if the end result is ARK on more stable game-code… maybe it’s worth the re-admission price. Clocking in at 147.5 hours, ARK is my 4th most-played game on Steam. And all that time was spent in single-player, almost entirely on the original map. The bones were good; it’s the flesh that needs work.

Slay the Spire is (still) coming to Android… Eventually!

Mentioned in passing at the top of the latest patch notes: “While we’re awaiting news from our publishing and porting teams for the Android mobile release, we’re bringing some more of the under-the-hood improvements to PC!” While an Android release of Slay the Spire is not news per se, I’m always happy to be reminded that it might eventually happen someday. After all, it’s been six months since it was released on iOS and I have resorted to a number of questionable phone games (like Hearthstone) to scratch that particular itch.

And just to continue the theme, Slay the Spire is #2 on my Steam list with 166.8 hours played.

State of Play

So it’s been a week, eh?

I am not going to go into too many details, but work has been crazy these last few weeks. More specifically, I was reassigned to an interim position after a string of terminations left a critical seat empty. This is not a promotion – in fact, the seat would technically be a demotion if I were taking it over for longer than the six months I am covering. It’s more work, less pay (I’m being paid the same as before), more stress, and I even have to supervise people. I am slowly turning things around, but there was a lot of cleanup to do. Luckily the remaining team is relatively solid.

Regardless, the position drives home the fact that we inhabit an absurdist universe in which “lower” jobs require more work and get paid less than their cushy, “higher” job counterparts for no reason.

In the brief time I have for gaming, I have been focusing on three titles.

Clash Royale is still a thing I play on a daily basis during breaks. I keep thinking I am approaching the end of my patience with the title – and I am certainly approaching the end of reasonable progression – but without it, there is a rather gaping hole in my mobile gamespace.

Slay the Spire has recently reeled me back in with the beta release of a 4th character. The Watcher has a lot of interesting cards and mechanics, although the balance is certainly off. Hard to complain though, given how you have to specifically opt into the beta, and there are almost nightly patches to introduce new cards and change the old ones. My play time here is approaching 150 hours.

A recent addition is Kingdom Come: Deliverance. I will have a lot more to say later, but it is an interesting game so far nonetheless. As you might expect though, I am playing it all wrong.

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.

Slain Spire

Remember when I said I wouldn’t buy Battlefield 5 because it would consume all my free time but not “accomplish” anything? Well, I did resist the purchase…

…and promptly put like a dozen or so “empty” hours into Slay the Spire instead.

I think my total hours /played in Slay the Spire at this point is north of 50 hours. Those are rookie numbers compared to Zubon at Kill Ten Rats, who probably put more hours into writing Slay the Spire posts last year than I have playing the game. Which it entirely deserves, by the way – it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just not a novel experience (to me) anymore, and yet I feel compelled to boot it up any time I spend more than thirty seconds looking at my Steam library.

That’s probably a sign of good game design.

Last year, the devs at MegaCrit tweeted that they were looking at a Switch and mobile version of the game after coming out of Early Access. It’s 2019 and the game is still in Early Access, although there has been a third class added and, more recently, Steam mod support. If and when Slay the Spire ever receives a mobile port, is likely the day that I earn a Corrective Action Report at work.

I can’t wait. Because then I might be able to get home sated, and ready to play something else.

Gaming Update

I’m probably done with RimWorld for now. After installing the mods I was talking about, I found some uranium on the map, made mining it a high priority, and completed the construction of a ship. By the time I had four cryopods – not nearly enough for my 12 colonists – I realized that a lot of it didn’t matter. I could continue fast-forwarding through time, or I could see the ending credits right now. So I did. And this was apparently enough to satisfy whatever itch compelled me to boot the game up every day.

I’ll definitely revisit RimWorld once 1.0 is released, but in the meantime, I’m playing other games.

Ironically, the other game that continues soaking up my free time is another Early Access title: Slay the Spire. I had stopped playing it a few weeks ago, having rather thoroughly and completely beat the game and unlocked everything. The Daily Challenges brought me back: they are normal runs with additional bonuses and/or restrictions. For example, some of them give everyone (including enemies) +3 Strength, or cause you to get three copies of a card when added to your deck, etc.

It is not lost on me that the Daily Challenge has some strong parallels with, say, Mythic+ dungeons in WoW. “Play the same content with additional restrictions/considerations.” The huge, fundamental difference though is that Slay the Spire is fun, and WoW dungeons are not. Well, that and the simple fact that the bonus/penalties in Slay the Spire can change the entire way you approach run, whereas in WoW it just makes the things you were going to do anyway (speedrun past enemies) more deadly.

I haven’t talked about it before, but I’m approaching the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider, e.g. the sequel to the first Tomb Raider reboot. The visuals are incredibly amazing, but for the most part I think I enjoyed the first game better. While this game plays better, I’m at a point where I feel more like Spiderman than Lara Croft. Or Ezio from Assassin’s Creed, for that matter. There’s always been platforming element overlap between the two series, I guess, but it feels more fantastical in Rise of the Tomb Raider than it ever did before.

Going forward, I have a lot more games queued up on my plate. We’ll see which ones actually get any attention though.

Impressions: Monster Slayers

Monster Slayers is basically a worse Slay the Spire.

Monster-Slayers-Attack

Ugh, the visuals and UI are just bad.

The premise of this deck-building roguelite is that you are part of a guild of people trying to take down the Big Bad Guy. Your deck and cards are reset on death to the default ones associated with the class you pick (of which there are several), but you maintain any gear you have accumulated, and any Fame unlocks. Considering that gear increases the damage of your attacks, can give you “temporary” cards in your deck (that will persist as long as that gear is equipped), and boosts your HP, these are essentially permanent advantages that you maintain as soon as you collect them.

The issue is twofold.

First, it is physically impossible to actually “beat” the game without several cycles of death and gear accumulation. In other words: grinding. It’s not the grinding that’s necessarily bad, but rather how the game is balanced around it. You will essentially be paired up with monsters that you have zero chance of defeating, not because of poor planning or execution or even RNG, but simply because the game is “balanced” that way. Losing in that manner never feels fun. Roguelikes (and -lites) often feature punishing RNG, but that’s not what’s going on here – you are engineered to lose X times in Monster Slayers, guaranteed.

Monster-Slayers-LevelUp

Weeee

The other, more important issue is that… the gameplay is simply bad. In Slay the Spire, you get a notification of what the enemy is about to do, and so there is a possibility of some interplay or tactical considerations. Should you try Blocking the damage, or are you free to go all-out Attacking?

In Monster Slayers, beyond a description of what the enemy does in general, e.g. “Vampire Bats can drain health,” there is no real indication of anything. So what happens is that you just play your cards until you run out of cards or AP, and then your opponent plays their cards, and you wait to see if you’re dead yet or not. That’s really it.

There are some other “minor” issues like the game looking terrible, the UI being horrendous and mostly useless, not having a understanding of what cards the enemy is playing (not that you can interact with them much), the music being repetitive, and the act of playing cards not feeling good. For example, the Rogue class has several “Deal N+1 damage, draw a card” attacks, and while it’s fun chaining those together, if you click too quick, you’ll accidentally play a different card.

If you are looking for another Slay the Spire fix, look elsewhere. If not… play Slay the Spire instead.