D&D 4e Is Bad Actually

People occasionally try to mount a defense of D&D 4e. It was the edition war du jour from 2008 to 2014 when 4e was the current edition and Pathfinder was continuously pushing its teeth in, and that time frame being what it was, that edition war started off with people openly harassing one another over elf games and by the end had morphed into pretending that supporting the wrong elf game was racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever because it was no longer considered acceptable to harass someone over elf games, so people had to pretend that the other side’s community was guilty of some kind of actual wrongdoing. I bring this animosity up in advance because you will sometimes see people who are very committed to defending 4e or PF1, and they might wander into this post, and if they do I want everyone to know in advance what’s up. At some point, the broader 4e/PF1 community entangled their favorite TTRPG very strongly yet also completely baselessly with their sense of moral worth, and you still get lots of people who act like “4e was bad, actually” automatically implies “and therefore everyone who has ever enjoyed it is a bad person,” so instead of shrugging their shoulders and moving on they become a SungWon skit.

But anyway: Why did PF1 outperform 4e by such a wide margin? Why did 4e dwindle to nothing while PF1 consolidated nearly the entire TTRPG market around itself? PF1 got crushed by 5e just like 4e got crushed by PF1, so it’s clearly not that PF1 is some kind of unassailable holy grail of gaming. The math between skill points, attack roles, and saves are incompatible, so you can’t do things like rolling a spell attack against a Willpower save or whatever. The balance is a joke – PF1’s approach to making content was to produce huge amounts of it to the point where there are twelve different ways to make any given character concept and let the community figure out which of those builds is actually viable, to the point where their PC Shifter class is weaker than their NPC Warrior class, a class designed to be simple enough that the GM can easily slap levels of Warrior onto an existing stat block to make it stronger but not any more complex, and it’s not a huge deal if levels of Warrior are much weaker than levels of proper PC classes as a result, which they are – except the Shifter, which is a wreck. A lot of PF1 classes and prestige classes seem to have been designed by figuring out how many cool ideas they had, and then spacing them out from level 1 to level 20, while paying no attention to whether or not the abilities they were giving to a level 20 character were remotely on par with what the other classes got. And the power scale on PF1 was much more expansive than 5e’s, so a character build that fell behind too badly (and some of them did) wasn’t something you needed a calculator to notice, they were unplayable, totally unable to contribute anything to combat.

And yet, despite these flaws and the considerably larger starting capital available to 4e, 4e did not outperform PF1. 4e still does not outperform PF1, according to the Orr Group Industry’s report for Q4 2021 (the most recent as of the writing – they’re usually a quarter or two behind). 4e’s frequent use of aura effects makes it far easier to play on a virtual tabletop than physically, so Roll20 should, if anything, be giving it a slight advantage, and yet 4e is not only less popular than games still in print like 5e and PF2, not only less popular than its own competitor PF1 and predecessor 3e, not only less popular than non-English D&D alternatives like Tormenta and Das Schwarze Auge (which get some advantage in their home markets, but D&D is available in Portugese and German), not only less popular than indie spin-off games like Dungeon World and Savage Worlds (I think? Savage Worlds is listed twice, one more popular than 4e, the other less), it’s also less popular than AD&D, making it the least popular edition of D&D period. It is more popular than 13th Age, though, so it’s still more popular than games that attempt to continue iterating on 4e’s own ideas.

For anyone defending 4e, the first question to answer here is: Why do so few people want to play it? 4e benefits from the endorsement of Matt Colville and the Penny Arcade guys, and it’s still the least popular edition of D&D ever, even on a platform that makes running it quick and easy, where it’s cumbersome and difficult on most others.

Continue reading “D&D 4e Is Bad Actually”

How To Play Out Of Space Solo

The developers say that Out Of Space is completely playable solo, but this is misleading. Technically it’s totally true – I have beaten the largest map solo, so clearly this is doable. However, it’s much, much harder than the multiplayer. Playing Out Of Space solo means you jump right into a special challenge mode, resulting in a difficulty wall that’s hard to get past. This makes sense with the game’s basic theme of being about the difficulties of moving into and maintaining a home with other people. The multiplayer is the game’s default mode, about arguing over who’s going to do the dishes and trying to work out a division of responsibilities that prevents you from being overrun by alien goo monsters, while the solo mode is a special challenge where you have to take care of everything yourself.

But if, like me, you have no friends (or, more likely, you have no friends who’ve bought this obscure indie game), you may wish to play Out Of Space solo from start to finish. And if you’ve tried it, you’ve probably made decent progress on the smallest six-room map, but the alien goo gets more aggressive over time, so you’ve found the tide turned against you and eventually you get overwhelmed. Worse, while the alien aggression ticks up on a timer, it also ticks up if you clear a certain number of rooms, whichever occurs first, so you can’t beat the game by speedrunning the rooms before the goo gets too aggressive to handle. You have to contain it just like you were in multiplayer, but with the resources of just one person. How is this possible?

Step 1) Shrink your front line. Once we realize we’re on the clock, we solo players tend to react by moving blindly forward as quickly as possible, trying to beat the aliens before they get too powerful. This is both impossible, since alien aggression will increase in response to the number of rooms you’ve already cleared even if you’re way ahead of the timer, and also tends to lead to salients that are impossible to defend. If you always clear whichever room is closest to the water faucet you start with, you will end up expanding in every direction and hit that critical endgame of hyper-aggressive aliens with active rooms at three different farflung ends of your space house, and you’ll have absolutely no hope of holding them all even on the small maps. Instead, when you’re expanding, take a moment to check how many doors the room you’ll be expanding into has. Doors adjacent to dirty rooms get dirty themselves, and that dirt spawns alien eggs, which spawn aliens, which spawn dirt into your clean rooms. You’re probably familiar with the general process, but note that the key chokehold here is doors: Aliens can’t open doors, which means doors are impervious as long as you can keep them clean, which means your total vulnerability is a product of the number of doors and the furthest distance between any two of them. You want to both decrease the number of doors you need to monitor and make sure that all doors are as close together as possible.

A critical part of shrinking your front line is buying and placing rugs underneath those vents that spew goo periodically. Rugs are (close enough to) impervious to getting dirty, so having a rug under a vent will prevent that vent from starting up a goo alien flanking attack which might otherwise spell your doom. No room with a vent is secure until you’ve put a rug down under the vent. You’ll still want to clean the vent off while clearing the room to buy you enough time to get the rug down, and you’ll want to make sure the floor is totally clean before putting the rug down, because dirt underneath the rug stays there and will eventually spread out from underneath it and create more alien eggs, but if you put a rug down on a clear floor below a clean vent, that vent will be unable to dirty the floor again even after it starts spewing goo again. Be warned that objects in the room can still get dirty by the goo-spew, and while this won’t reopen the front line (alien eggs can only grow on doors and walls, never on objects), it will render those objects non-functional. Despite the game’s name, you are pretty much never out of space to put down new objects even on a small map (although individual rooms can get very cramped), so it’s usually best to just leave a vent room empty.

If a battery socket is directly under the vent, this will in some ways be helpful, as the battery getting knocked out by the goo will let you know that the vent needs cleaning. The battery is not destroyed by vent goo the way it is by aliens, so you can just grab a bucket, toss the water from the bucket across the battery socket and vent (you can get both with one bucket if you angle it right), and plug the battery back in. So long as you have a rug underneath, no further effort will be required.

Continue reading “How To Play Out Of Space Solo”

Things I Say A Lot When Reviewing Games

5-star or 10-point rating systems for video games are, I think, rightly despised as a review metric, redeemed only accidentally by the existence of Metacritic. While an obsession with Metacritic review scores is unhealthy, Rotten Tomatoes-style averaging of both critic and audience opinion is useful data. The practice of review point scales predates Metacritic by a lot, though, reaching back to the days of magazines and the early internet when this kind of mass data collection to observe general trends wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Ever since May-ish of this year, I’ve reorganized my games list in such a way as to encourage myself to play more new games to completion, rather than picking at them for an hour or two before falling back on replaying something comfortable, which happens a lot because I’m usually picking a video game to play when I’m tired and picking a new game from a backlog of nearly 200 seems daunting. I started using the blog again as a place to dump my thoughts on these video games, because it turns out once I’m playing new games I actually have new things to say about video games for the first time in a while. Imagine that. And as I’ve spent a few months playing lots of new games, I find myself gravitating towards a few familiar phrases. It’s kind of like a rating system, except without the claim that all games are to be judged on a linear scale of badness to goodness. Indeed, one of the most common ratings I give is “recommended to anyone who thinks the premise sounds cool.”

This ad-hoc, organic rating system is probably not cutting to the core of the human experience of interactive media or anything, but I’m confident it is better than the standard numerical system. Numerical rating systems might’ve made sense as a first try at giving a bottom line on the quality of a video game, but I don’t think it’s hard to improve on that first try.

Play This Video Game. I stress again that these categories aren’t a linear spectrum from best to worst, because we are starting with the category that is “games which are really good” and will be ending with a category that is kind of like “games which are really bad,” and it’s mainly in the middle categories where one category is clearly not better than another. This category, though, is for video games that I recommend to absolutely all gamers, even if I know nothing about them except that they like video games. If the basic concept of a Metroidvania where you play an adorable bug exploring a fallen kingdom full of secrets and lost treasure doesn’t immediately repulse and enrage you, you should play Hollow Knight. Bastion is another game I would put in this category, and Transistor is borderline between this category and “Interesting Enough To Justify Its Playtime.” I haven’t played Hades yet, but given Supergiant Games’ track record, I expect it would also end up here. Games in this category look good, sound good, play good, and don’t overstay their welcome – they’re paragons of their respective genre so good that even people who are usually ambivalent about that genre will probably enjoy the experience.

Janky/Flawed, But It Delivers. If the first category is exemplified by Hollow Knight and XCOM, this one is exemplified by STALKER (for janky) and Assassin’s Creed II, IV, and Syndicate (for flawed). As you can tell from the exemplars, this is really two very similar but still clearly distinct categories. Assassin’s Creed games are safe and same-y but very good representations of their chosen historical eras. If you want historical tourism, Assassin’s Creed delivers, often for eras where there is no competition. Janky games like STALKER and Necromunda: Hired Gun have rough edges resulting from small or medium size teams trying to bring big ambitions to life, but they successfully deliver their core experience of being an illegal scavenger looking for psychic artifacts in the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion and being a cyborg bounty hunter in the underhive of Warhammer 40k’s Necromunda, respectively. I recommend these games to people who like the idea of the premise, because for those people, the jank/flaws don’t matter as long as it delivers.

Interesting Enough To Justify Its Playtime. The best exemplar of this category is definitely Papers, Please, but the significantly less good Mind Scanners, Not For Broadcast, and Fortune 499 also qualify, so remember that these categories aren’t intended to be a linear scale from best to worst. This category is defined by two things: Being interesting, and being short enough that the interesting thing doesn’t wear out its welcome. That doesn’t necessarily mean these games are short, because maybe the interesting thing is so engaging that it holds my attention for twenty hours, but I can’t think of any games that actually pulled that off from the top of my head. Papers, Please only lasts for about three to five hours, but I went back for second and third playthroughs, so it was much more interesting than it needed to be to justify its playtime. Not For Broadcast and Mind Scanners were starting to test my patience a bit by the time they got to the end, and it was mostly because I could tell I was approaching the end that I carried them through to completion, so it’s a good thing they weren’t any longer than they were and they probably would’ve benefited from being slightly shorter.

Continue reading “Things I Say A Lot When Reviewing Games”

Thief Simulator

Thief Simulator is kind of a weird game – it’s got the overall style of the “having a job simulator” games that’ve become more popular recently, with a first person perspective that emphasizes a high degree of granularity in actions. For example, in order to drive somewhere you have to use the interact key to open your car door, get in your car, and turn on the ignition, and only then is your control scheme switched from on-foot to in-car, and your perspective remains in first person inside the car rather than zooming out to a third-person vehicle perspective.

Except, of course, the job it’s simulating is being a thief, so it’s actually a stealth game about avoiding cameras and guard patrols and stuff. It’s more grounded than most stealth games, as a major part of the early game is in observing the routines of tenants of various houses you’d like to rob so you can find a window of time where the house is deserted or, failing that, at least when everyone is asleep, then break in and steal everything with no risk of someone walking in on you to interrupt (so long as you don’t trip any automated security features like cameras or window alarms). It’s only in the second half that the game throws you at buildings which are continuously patrolled by security guards, a staple feature of your average high-adventure sort of stealth game.

And the introduction of those guards also marks the point where the game starts to get kind of boring. In earlier parts of the game, there were always multiple options for how to burgle a building, which made it feel organic, like you were penetrating defenses set up with a limited amount of resources. This camera scans between two different entrances because they couldn’t afford to have two different cameras permanently camping on each of them, that window has no shutters that prevent you from unlocking and entering because it’s on the second floor and the owners didn’t think second story window security was important, the car gate isn’t visible from the house which means you can open it up from the inside to create a getaway route and no one will notice unless they happen to be walking up the driveway at that exact instant because this is a house, not a fortress, and people like privacy.

This starts to fall off in the second neighborhood’s larger, higher-end buildings, but those at least feel like they’re run by people with enough resources to invest in as much security as they want, balanced out by the fact that their houses are enormous and by now you’ve got hacking tools that help you disable a lot of the automated security from at least a small distance. There’s exactly one way out of house 202, the car gate in the front, but the building is big enough that there are at least a lot of options for how you’re going to navigate between the mansion’s three security guards while you’re inside.

In the third neighborhood, though, it starts to feel like the defenses are impenetrable except for one very specifc route that was left open to you by the developers of the game. The whole game is about being a thief exploiting gaps in defenses, and of course the maximum difficulty is going to be buildings with exactly one gap in their defenses to exploit, but the increased difficulty comes at the expense of the feeling of simulation. Some of the third neighborhood buildings are more like the last few buildings of the second neighborhood: Lots of guards covering a large floorplan. Not all of them, though.

There’s also an element of home decoration that’s a lot of fun, where towards the end of the game you can buy a house and then arrange furniture and stolen items inside of it, replacing the grimy industrial safehouse you’d been using for the first half of the game with an empty house that you can fill up and turn into something that looks just as lived-in as the houses you burgled in the first two neighborhoods (which look pretty good, and the third neighborhood isn’t a decline in the quality of building layout or doodads, either, it’s just an industrial neighborhood full of warehouses and server farms and stuff). You don’t have to pay any attention to it if you don’t want to, and it’s annoying that the only items you can outright buy to decorate your house with are furniutre pieces that you can’t steal – any stealable objects must be stolen and then placed in your house rather than sold.

I imagine this is to try and tie the home decoration side-activity more firmly into the main theft gameplay, so that a nice-looking home will necessarily be full of nice-looking TVs and kitchen appliances and stuff that was stolen from specific houses, rather than stealing a bunch of cheap but portable junk like toasters and broken iPhones over and over again until you can buy your own TV, but I would’ve appreciated being able to go on a spending spree and make my house look cool in one two-hour block of home decoration rather than having to make a shopping list of appliances I need to steal and doublechecking against the wiki to make sure the items I’m looking for actually exist.

Thief Simulator does have some janky rough edges. The game is often quite finnicky about exactly where you’re hovering your cursor to interact with an object, which can lead to annoying situations like absonding from a house with a bag full of stolen loot while the police are on their way, and then accidentally ramming your hand into the window a couple of times becuase you’re struggling to get the door handle in the exact center of the screen. The physics of carryable objects like TVs or printers (they make you more visible and also bystanders who would otherwise ignore you will call the police if they see you hauling a printer out to your creepy windowless van) is acceptably functional, but barely, with lots of little annoyances like having to get a running start up a staircase to ram your way through some kind of catch at the bottom stair, and if you drop or throw an object at the wrong angle, it can get launched into the stratosphere.

The lack of fall damage on objects is also weird and annoying. I’m willing to accept no fall damage for the thief as an acceptable break from reality because the game has no health system, the maximum drop in the game is three stories, and depending on how you land and what you’re falling on, a three story drop is potentially manageable (the thief is depicted as quite nimble by the end of the game). No fall damage on objects means that throwing a television out of a second story window to climb out after is not just possible, but frequently a good idea – it means you don’t have to sneak through any first floor defenses while slowed down by a large object. For a game whose whole selling point is that you’re playing as a mostly-realistic thief whose abilities are limited to things that a real world human thief could probably accomplish, it’s kind of annoying that tossing valuable electronics out of second or third story windows is not only effective, but that later buildings are built around this (I’m 80% sure that the intended way to get a server or an office shredder out of building 303 is to toss it out of a second story window).

Despite the jank, I think Thief Simulator is pretty good at doing what it sets out to do. If the premise of being a more-or-less realistic human thief burgling houses in a regular old town somewhere in regular old America or Canada sounds cool, Thief Simulator delivers. If that premise isn’t reaching out to grip you, though, it’s not the kind of Hollow Knight-grade masterpiece where I’d recommend it to basically any gamer.

Crash Bandicoot Should’ve Had An Easy Mode

Crash Bandicoot is 1) infamously difficult, although as with all infamously difficult games, its difficulty is exaggerated, and 2) it doesn’t suit the action cartoon aesthetic very well. Since it is an action cartoon, you want there to be some challenge, but when people are photoshopping Dark Souls UI onto your game, you’ve probably gone too far. Naughty Dog themselves realized this, and have said they didn’t understand difficulty curves very well in the first game. By the third game, the main levels are relatively straightforward and it’s in secret levels and optional collectibles that the Crash-brand challenge is found. Funny enough, one of those Dark Souls comparisons photoshopped the Firelink Shrine title onto the first level of Crash 3 anyway. Crash 1 is a gauntlet, especially in the second half of its final island, but Crash 3’s not that hard.

Anyway, the difficulty of Crash Bandicoot is an accident and it’s pretty easy to fix it with two edits, one of which is very easy. Number one, have an infinite lives toggle. When you toggle infinite lives back off, you are reset to 4, so no cheating by using infinite lives to get past one tricky level and then holding onto your reserve of 30+ extra lives afterwards, and also it’s impossible to get gems (the optional collectible). Even if you fulfill the prerequisites, the gem won’t appear if you have infinite lives toggled on. In Crash, losing a life sends you back to the nearest checkpoint, but losing your last life sends you back to the start of the level. On the harder levels, having to redo the tricky beginning to reach the trickier middle/end can be annoying. Infinite lives solves this problem.

Second, make Aku Aku bounce you out of pits you fall into. Aku Aku is a friendly tiki mask who gives you one (two in golden form) extra hit points, making it possible to facetank enemies and hazards, but he doesn’t help with pits. You can find Aku Aku occasionally in a breakable crate, but he also spawns for you automatically if you die enough times in a row without reaching the next checkpoint as an anti-frustration feature. The inability to save you from pits is a pretty annoying gap in this feature. The N. Sane Trilogy is a platform-for-platform remake, but it was rebuilt from scratch, without using any of the original code or assets, so this was the perfect time to add in something that might’ve been difficult to code into the original games if, for example, Aku Aku was added to the game long after the falling mechanics were, and the falling mechanics were coded in such a way that they’d have to be rebuilt from scratch to let Aku Aku bounce Crash out of them, in the same direction he was originally headed so that you can use Aku Aku to facetank pits just like enemies or hazards (like fire, barrels of toxic waste, spiked logs, etc.).

These changes wouldn’t have affected the game for people who don’t need them. Infinite lives is something you have to choose to toggle on and you can’t get gems or other optional collectibles while it’s active, so if you want 100% completion you will at some point have to turn it off. Plus, infinite lives isn’t infinite health. You get to try again from the nearest checkpoint an unlimited number of times, but you still have to overcome the obstacle to succeed. And bouncing Aku Aku only helps you if you have Aku Aku, who doesn’t show up very often from crates so players who aren’t dying often enough to get him automatically won’t see him very often, and who cannot be stockpiled (your third Aku Aku mask gives you temporary invincibility and then goes back down to two) so the relative generosity of the early levels won’t let you facetank entire levels later in the game. It might have some implications for time trials and you’d want to do some playtesting to figure out if that makes the time trials more interesting or less before you shipped it, but at a glance it doesn’t seem like it would make a huge difference if the optimal strategy for certain levels is to pick up Aku Aku from a crate and then fling yourself into a specific pit so you can save a second or two waiting for the platform.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon Lost Its Way

Spyro Reignited is a graphical upgrade to the first three Spyro games, the ones made by Insomniac. I appreciate the Rule of Three love and making the cutoff for the remake be the games made by the original developer and no more is a pretty sensible decision, but having played through all three games, the series was already entering into steep decline by the third installment.

The first two games were about a dragon in a fantasy world fighting fantasy villains. The second game already had a bit of dilution of this concept with some levels towards the end that were pretty blatantly sci-fi, which is also a problem that crops up in MediEvil: Towards the end, there’s a level about the evil wizard using a strange kind of magic called “technology,” a concept which isn’t foreshadowed before that level or revisited afterwards. I think Spyro in particular might’ve been aping Crash Bandicoot, which was in turn aping Sonic the Hedgehog, by having an otherwise low-tech character and setting face high-tech enemies near the end. But that’s because Sonic and Crash have a sci-fi villain attacking a lower-tech, more mystical/nature-y setting as their premise. Sonic’s enemies are robots from the word go, and Crash breaks out of Dr. Cortex’s mad genetics lab in the opening cutscene. It’s not like Lethal Lava Land, which is named for Mario but which refers to a general terrain type that can plausibly show up in basically any genre. Spyro is cartoon medieval fantasy where anything vaguely old-timey can work so long as it doesn’t overwhelm the medieval aesthetic, so you can have trains and even biplanes in moderation, but entire levels dedicated to space sheep and laser cows means that the game no longer has a consistent aesthetic.

The problem gets worse with the third game. The space sheep from the end of the second game return, but are now foes who pop up periodically in the game as the nemesis to a specific side character Hunter. Spyro 3 has a lot of side characters like Hunter, who have different movesets to Spyro in various ways. Sheila the Kangaroo lacks Spyro’s horn-charge (and technically his fire breath, but her kangaroo kick works almost exactly the same) but can jump much higher, Sgt. Byrd the penguin can fly around and shoot missiles (yes, penguins are well known for being flightless and no, Sgt. Byrd doesn’t have, like, a jetpack or something, he clearly flaps his wings to fly while the engines on his rocket harness activate only when firing a rocket), Bentley the yeti is big and slow and honestly is pretty much just Spyro but worse but you can’t bring Spyro to his levels so you have to put up with it, and Agent 9 is a space monkey with a laser gun. You can tell that Insomniac really wants to be making Ratchet and Clank games at this point.

And these characters’ own slightly different movesets then get used as the vehicle for minigames that homage other games entirely. Sheila gets a 2D sidescroller level that I guess is supposed to reference Crash Bandicoot (the level is called “Crash Kangaroo”), a 3D game, but I guess it does have some 2D levels peppered in. Agent 9 is a third person shooter in his original level, but then his other levels are a first person shooter, a rail shooter, and one that keeps repositioning the camera to a top-down perspective every time you enter a new room of the level, but lets you reposition the camera to over-the-shoulder if you want. There’s also a Tomb Raider reference at one point, but she’s not playable.

Spyro 2 expanded Spyro’s moveset with powerups that gave temporary flight (instead of gliding) and long-range fireballs (instead of short-range gouts), and then combined them towards the end with challenges where you had to fly around breathing fire at things. Then in the last phase of the last boss, the arena falls away completely and you get an unlimited superflight/superfire powerup, so the final battle is between Spyro in full dragon mode having an aerial battle with an evil wizard riding a pterodactyl. I don’t know how intentional it was, but I loved how this really felt like Spyro the Dragon has fully arrived just in time for the final battle with an enemy who considered himself unstoppable once he found a world without dragons.

And I guess Spyro 3 didn’t know where to go from there, because its only new gameplay were all these side characters, half of whom feel like they’re visitors from another video game. Spyro is a cartoon setting without any, like, deep lore or continuity or whatever, but what it did have in the first two games (well, most of the second game, at least) was a vibe, and in Spyro 3, that vibe falls apart, at the same time as it runs out of ideas for its core gameplay and falls back on a bunch of minigames and side characters to try and pick up the slack. A mediocre finale to a trilogy that’s 2/3s fantastic.

September Humble Choice

It’s September 6th (with some edits from September 7th) as I write this, the first Tuesday of the month, which means the Humble Choice has just dropped. What’s in the box?

Crusader Kings III is an easy get. I probably won’t actually play until it’s got a good few more expansions under its belt, but this gets me the base game for, like, $5, and I won’t say no to that.

Just Cause 4 is another easy get. I love the Just Cause games, they’re the sandbox games that most seem to get what a sandbox is about: You are in a cool place doing cool things while wearing cool outfits. Just Cause 3 and 4 have kind of stumbled on that last one, with Rico gravitating more towards looking like a pretty ordinary 40-year old dude except for the part where he’s hookshotting up to a helicopter gunship while firing a grenade launcher at tanks, and it’s not as good as representing cool places as Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry, but it absolutely nails the “doing cool things” part, and unlike Assassin’s Creed games, it knows exactly what it is and gets you to the good stuff in a hurry.

The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk is a lighthearted adventure RPG of some sort. Sounds like fun, I’ll give it a whirl. It’s yet another video game adaptation of a semi-obscure fantasy story, which the Dwarves was, too, and I wonder if maybe a bunch of mid-size studios are digging through the obscure books (or, in this case, radio dramas) that they love hoping to be the next Witcher. Sounds like a long shot, but as long as the resulting games are made with genuine love for the source material, it usually works out alright (for me, at least – Longes strongly disliked the Dwarves). If I can pitch my own favorite B-tier fantasy novel series to the developers who aren’t reading this anyway: The Dark Profit Trilogy is ripe for a video game spin-off story. The main plot would be a mediocre choice for a game, but the setting in general is perfect for video game adaptation and has plenty of room for side stories.

Forgive Me Father is in the genre that we are for some reason calling Boomer Shooters even though Boomers fucking hated DOOM. I have to assume it’s part of our general policy of erasing Gen X from history. To any future historians who end up reading this, I wanna make sure you guys are aware that the generation in question didn’t get referred to as “Generation X” retrospectively because their true name has been forbidden, they were always called Generation X. Anyway, so far as I’m concerned the shooter genre began with Half-Life and the promise of being a Lovecraftian entry in a genre specifically known for its lack of subtlety sounds only more eye-rolling, so I’m giving this one a pass.

Crown Trick is a rogue-like RPG with some kind of combo-focused turn-based combat system. I have way too many games in my backlog already to be weighing myself down with roguelikes unless they have a really compelling hook, and this one doesn’t, especially.

Descenders is a “fast-paced extreme downhill biking game,” which I’m sure sounds exciting to someone. There’s a certain visceral thrill from watching the gameplay .gifs, but I know this is a game I’d toy with for forty minutes before getting bored and walking away from forever, and there’s plenty of other games that will hold my attention much longer.

Industria is a first-person, story-driven, atmospheric shooter about someone getting lost in a parallel dimension on the day the Berlin Wall falls. It’s not really clear why the fall of the Berlin Wall is relevant to the story, and the gameplay .gifs suggest it’s a lonely, industrial atmosphere, not the thronging crowds present at the fall of the wall. On the one hand, this feels like it picked a famous event from the 80s to hook its story onto despite minimal relevance, and the whole thing scans as just a little bit pretentious. On the other hand, it says it’s about four hours long and How Long To Beat suggests they’re rounding up, which means I can play it start to finish on a workday, I’m going back and forth on this one, but its promise of short length has won me over. I can get it out of my backlog quickly, so even if it turns out to be mediocre, I probably won’t have to grapple with whether it’s bad enough to be a Regret. I really like atmospheric first-person shooters, and I don’t want a reluctance to add to my backlog to keep me from playing games I might really love.

EDIT: I don’t want to make a full post about Industria, since I ended up playing only about a third of it, so I’m backing up here to say that it’s about being sucked into another dimension and so far as I can tell from the first hour and a half the fall of the Berlin Wall indeed has nothing to do with it, and that instead the plot about an insane rogue AI from our dimension trying to kill everyone in that one.

But more importantly, there are certain sections where it causes my processor to chug to the point where it loads about 1-2 frames per second, these sections are not lacking in enemies, and even on normal mode (as opposed to hardcore) this game is punishing enough that you can’t run up to enemies and spam “attack” and still win, which means the game is pretty much unplayable. Its atmosphere is pretty well done (even when the graphics are turned all the way down to try and alleviate the processor lag – it didn’t work), but the game’s first big “reveal” is that your colleague Walter Rebel is secretly the same guy as this other dimension’s last leader Walter Rosenhal, which comes as a surprise to your character but should’ve been bleedingly obvious to the person who tells you, since that guy knows that Walter and protagonist Nora are the only two people to have come from another dimension and that Nora is wandering the streets shouting the name “Walter.” It makes sense Nora is taken offguard that the last leader of this dimension wasn’t even native to it, but her friendly voice with a radio connection should’ve been able to piece this together immediately.

Anyway, Normal Mode is far too punishing with resource scarcity, especially regarding health, considering that they went to the trouble to make a Hardcore Mode. I shouldn’t be dying and reloading four or five times to get through a section of your story-driven, atmospheric shooter when specifically playing on the mode designed for non-hardcore play. Admittedly, the point where I quit and uninstalled came because the game’s difficulty was combining poorly with its technical issues, but I was getting pretty annoyed with the difficulty even in sections of the game that ran smoothly.

/edit

Shapez is an abstract automation puzzle game. A key part of the enjoyment for automation games for me is building cool stuff, so making it abstract is a killing blow to my interest.

That’s technically four new games, although CK3 doesn’t go into my backlog for realsies until I’ve built up a DLC library large enough that I feel I can get a complete-feeling playthrough out of it, and Industria is only going in because it’s promising to get itself back out quickly (EDIT: Which it did, though not well). Between that and a Humble Bundle of games I picked up but didn’t write about, I’ve pretty much totally wiped out progress against the backlog made in August.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, every game in the backlog is a game I would someday like to play. If my backlog is still growing despite my efforts to more consciously chip away at it, then that means there’s games in there (mostly the longer ones) that I will never see. On the other hand, my backlog is growing because the Humble Choice continues to deliver me games that I do, in fact, want to play. If I end my Humble Choice subscription, that just means I either miss games that I want to play or else go back for them later and buy them at a higher price.

Back on the first hand, maybe I should be more choosey about games like Industria, that give me mixed feelings. I added Parkitect from that Humble Bundle to my backlog, but really, how many theme park tycoon games do I want to play in my life? It might be just one. This has prompted me to take another look at my incomplete list and remove both the Escapists games from it, because I played half of the first game and didn’t like it, and on reflection they made it onto my backlog list during the original roundup through a combination of me really wishing a fun prison escape game existed and the fact that I was pushing through like 500 games to find out which ones I wanted to play, so I wasn’t giving a whole lot of consideration to each one. That review of the backlog only caught those two games, though.

Critical Success And Failure For Skills Is Bad

D&D 5.5e – they’re trying to call it “One D&D” but they tried to call 5e “D&D Next Edition” and I’m not playing along with the new dumb name anymore than I am with the old one – is mostly the same as 5e, but the beta test does show a couple of significant rules updates. One of them is adding in critical success and failure for skill checks: On a natural 20, you always succeed, on a natural 1, you always fail. This is a bad idea.

The reason why this idea gets support mostly seems to come from greentext stories about rolling a natural 20 and causing something insane to happen – the Bard seducing the BBEG mid-fight or a dwarf being too stubborn to fall in a pit or whatever. These greentext stories make great memes because they’re funny enough to be worth the two minute time investment it takes to read them. For some fraction of the playerbase, the point of D&D is basically to create an environment that generates these greentext stories. But that’s not a very big fraction. Most people balk at the idea of spending four hours playing a game in the hopes that a two-minute joke will fall out that they can post to Reddit.

And for everyone who plays D&D to tell a full-length story at the table, rather than to boil it all down to one funny moment posted to Reddit, critical success and failure both have negative effects on the flexibility of the skill system. The possibility of critical failure means that no one, no matter how high their bonus is, will ever reach a point of being able to do extraordinary things as a matter of routine. A character with a +5 ability bonus, +6 proficiency, and another +6 from expertise cannot roll lower than an 18, which means DC 15 checks succeed automatically. Removing the tension from die rolls is usually bad (abilities that do things like allow you to reroll any roll below a 10 are usually bad), but the massive investment of character resources required to reach the point where a DC 15 check is automatic means that it’s not a common thing. It’s a high-level superpower, which arises emergently from the game’s systems. You can kludge that back in with a special 17th-level ability for Bards that grants them autosuccess on DC 15 skill checks for any skill they have expertise in (or whatever), but it’s much easier to just let it happen as an emergent property of the skill system, that way you don’t have to write another rule into the books to cover it.

And critical success is, counterintuitively, very disempowering for players. Part of the GM’s job is determining what’s even possible to accomplish with a skill check. Under the current system, skill checks can be capable of achieving some pretty spectacular results on a DC 30, 35, or 40 (the latter in particular achievable only by stacking buffs on someone who’s also got a very high passive bonus). You can make it possible to do things like climb rain up into the clouds or convince a guard that he’s been polymorphed into a wombat, because you can assign these things an extremely high DC, so they’re available only to very powerful characters.

But some things might just be flat-out impossible. No amount of Arcana lets you cast spells without a slot, no amount of Perception lets you observe things from ten miles away, no amount of Athletics allows you to strike the ground and cause an earthquake that levels a city block. Which of these things needs to be impossible no matter what you roll and which are possible but only at extremely high DCs is left up to GMs – and if a character always succeeds on a natural 20, a lot more stuff is going to be moved over into the “impossible no matter what your bonus is” category. Most people’s D&D stories have room for legendary Barbarians climbing rain into the clouds, but not for a random farmer who tried it every time it rained and got lucky after a month or two.

Critical successes and failures push D&D towards slapstick, and while that’s definitely a style of play, it’s also definitely not the primary style of play, and the default rules shouldn’t be supporting it at the expense of the standard high fantasy pulp-not-parody tone that most people play in. And if you’re creating optional rules to encourage a wakcy playstyle, critical successes and failures are a good place to start, but don’t go nearly far enough on their own.

The Dwarves

The Dwarves has got all your standard fantasy tropes: There’s a big world map with X kingdoms that you’ll be traveling across (although we never end up going to one of them – maybe they ran out of budget and had to cut something?). Team Good Guy is humans and elves and dwarves, with the emphasis placed strongly on the latter, and they must come together to fight Team Bad Guy, which is orcs and ogres and dark elves.

I can’t decide if the Dwarves is aware of the problems with this and just can’t bring themselves to completely let it go, or if it’s totally oblivious to the problems with clearly intelligent being with individual personalities being inherently evil. The titular dwarves face significant racial prejudice from humans, and a major theme of the game’s first arc is the hero, a dwarf raised by humans, having to deal with that, especially once he’s ventured away from home and no longer has any childhood friends or wise old mentors backing him up. A dwarf king who’s trying to persuade the other dwarf kingdoms to go to war with the (non-dark) elves is a short-sighted antagonist blinded by racial hatred. There’s a half-dark elf character who’s unambiguously good (this is supposed to be a minor reveal but I don’t feel bad about spoiling it because you can pre-empt that reveal by leveling her up enough to unlock her blatantly dark elven shadow teleportation powers). The dark elves are albino white, not jet black or purple, and they seem to originate from beyond the mountains but not underground, so the reason for this definitely isn’t that it makes sense biologically.

On the other hand, you never run into a good orc, and one of the main characters is really consistently racist against orcs. Like, more so than any of the humans are racist against dwarves. Dehumanization is basically inevitable in racist narratives, and the dwarf berserker character calling orcs “piggies” and making oinking noises at them has no equivalent in anything the humans say. The term “groundling” is clearly some kind of slur, but it doesn’t associate the dwarves with some kind of vermin or slaughter animal. The racist dwarf is impulsive and foolish, but the narrative still treats him as firmly one of the good guys, even as it talks about dwarves, elves, and humans putting prejudice aside and all coming together.

And the good half-dark elf is only half dark elf. Her other half is human, who, as the presumed “normal” viewpoint characters, tend to reflect the human reality that you can’t necessarily tell if someone is good or evil just by looking at them, which is common in racist narratives. White supremacists can make all black people their enemies by choosing to be enemies with them, but they can’t force all white people to be their allies, so they have to recognize that lots of white people can and do choose to side against them. I use white supremacy as the example here, but the same dynamic is at play in every racist narrative – members of the allegedly “good” race can and do choose to ally with the allegedly “evil” race, so racist narratives have to acknowledge that, so fantasy stories built on that DNA also tend to present humans (inevitably the stand-in for whatever the author’s own in-group is) as being prone to joining Team Evil without any reciprocation of orcs (or whatever) joining Team Good.

And it’s not like these orcs are mindless murderbots, extensions of the dark will of their masters. Early scenes show dark elves negotiating terms with orc chiefs for who gets what parts of the country, and establishes rivalries between different orc tribes, so these are clearly independent beings each pursuing their own agenda, with leadership hierarchies to keep it all organized.

I’m talking a lot about this trope, but the narrative’s opening and final arcs both deal heavily with putting aside prejudices between the three good-aligned races, so it sticks out like a sore thumb that the evilness of the orcs is never even questioned, especially since one of the main characters is so vitriolically racist against them. The story is about a defensive war, so if it weren’t for its own emphasis on inter-racial friendship and alliance married to the prominent role played by a blatantly racist protagonist whose racism is never addressed, it would be easy to assume that there’s probably good orcs out in the world somewhere, they’re just not part of the invasion force, because, y’know, obviously. Unfortunately, the story draws tons of attention to this theme while failing to explore its most prominent example in its own text.

The writing isn’t as bad as I’d feared from the opening. It never gets amazing, but there’s lots of different characters with firmly established personalities and a couple of them even have arcs. Given that there’s thirteen playable characters in the game, it would’ve been nice if more than half of them have arcs, and I count six. None of them quite reach the level of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate where I didn’t even realize an arc was supposed to be occurring until it’s being resolved, but there are some one beat character arcs that boil down to “I have decided that one of my established traits is a character flaw and have resolved to stop doing it” and then later on there’s a beat where they’re apparently already on the other side of that arc, demonstrating change but not struggle.

It also turns out the opening is slightly less good than I’d thought, because it actually takes place a thousand years ago. The dark elf villain who breaches the gates of the dwarven fortress to assail Girdlegard apparently spends the next thousand years getting punked by wizards before the game’s actual inciting incident, one of the wizards betraying the council to side with the dark elves. It’s completely unnecessary, too. You’d have to revise a few specific lines of dialogue, but the game’s events are totally unaltered if the dark elf invasion is a recent event, with the traitor wizard’s ambush occurring as they assemble to contain the dark elf invasion for the first time, rather than at a regular meeting of an organization that’s been keeping them at bay for a thousand years. And even if it did need to be an institution that’s stood the test of time, why is it always a thousand years in these fantasy stories? Thirty years would’ve been enough to establish that the wizards have the dark elves locked down indefinitely and the betrayal was necessary to their advance.

You do have to make sure that the fall of the dwarven citadel doesn’t coincide too closely with the age of our protagonist, because it’s an open question which dwarf kingdom he came from and if the fifthling kingdom fell to the dark elves at anywhere close to the time he was born, everyone would just assume he was a fifthling (he isn’t, and it’s not a spoiler to say as much – in the story as it is, the fifthlings were wiped out a thousand years ago, so there’s no way Tungdil could be one and indeed he is not). Having the fall of the fifthlings be an inciting incident for the story would’ve served that perfectly, though – there’s no reason to assume our protagonist is a fifthling because he’s already like thirty years old when the fifthling kingdom fell. He might be, but he might just as well be from any of the other kingdoms.

Speaking of dwarf kingdoms, the setting seems like the world map was drawn up first and then a story for it second. That’s fine, except then you need to go back and edit the world map so that areas not relevant to the story are de-emphasized. Early on I got the impression that there would be one arc in each of the seven kingdoms on the map, but we never visit Ran Ribastur or Urgon. It’s just as well, because the kingdoms are poorly distinguished from one another. While Sangpur’s desert theme makes it immediately visually distinct, we interact with its people not at all, since that arc is entirely about fleeing from an orc horde to the safety of a dwarven kingdom, and Sangpur is just in between the start and finish of that journey. Idoslane, Tabain, and Weyurn are all the focus of different arcs, but only in the sense that those arcs take place mostly or completely within their borders. Very little differentiates them from one another. Gauragar is visited a couple of times, but the only notable thing about it is that it’s the home of the traitor wizard whose betrayal sets the events of the game in motion.

I’m reminded of the Siege of Avalon, an old 2001 RPG that also featured seven good guy kingdoms fighting a bunch of orcs (sort of – for clarity’s sake I tend to undo setting-specific jargon for concepts that are mostly or completely the same as something well known, but Siege of Avalon’s Sha’Ahoul are actually kind of straddling the line between being orcs with a different name and being something distinct – they’re also not really important to the point I’m making, though, so “orcs” is close enough). Each of the seven kingdoms has some kind of hat, so there is a woodsy kingdom and a sailor kingdom and a knights kingdom and so forth. You don’t actually travel to these places, but rather people from all seven kingdoms have shown up to the titular Avalon to help it hold against the orc(ish) horde, and the seven kingdoms’ distinct schticks means they feel like an international coalition. Giving each kingdom a single hat that defines their culture is definitely not very realistic, but neither Avalon nor the Dwarves is trying to be a gritty tale of medieval succession wars or whatever, and a single hat defining different kingdoms is better than the kingdoms being distinguished purely by their boundaries.

Combat is good but not great. It’s real time with pause, but optimal gameplay requires you to pause about once every second or two. As you get deeper into the game and your characters get good at refreshing AP very quickly, you might actually find yourself pausing to issue new orders after less than a second of unpaused combat. Every combat in the game is against a huge swarm of enemies, and it has to be, because the game’s abilities are distinguished primarily by their area of effect. A good chunk of them are single target, but being single target (and usually very high damage) distinguishes them from other abilities which are cone effects, line effects, or radius effects. There are also a few buffs and debuffs and heals, but the vast majority of characters have one buff or self-heal alongside two to four attacks, differentiated by a combination of damage and AoE type, and also sometimes they move some monsters around which probably comes in handy if you’re sprinting for objectives rather than playing in Chara mode like I do.

The main characters have a lot of overlapping abilities, especially the dwarves, who make up at least half your party through the whole game. Since the game has thirteen playable characters, some overlap in abilities helps keep things manageable, and isn’t a huge problem, particularly the way that your main character Tungdil has a lot of ability overlap with the fast-moving high-damage melee berserker dwarf Boindil and the heavy armor sentinel-type dwarf Boendal, who join the party just before the first battle. These three will be the core of the party for the whole game, and it makes sense that Tungdil is learning most of his abilities from them. Some of the characters who join your party later in the game (and I won’t go into detail here because it’s potential spoilers) have a lot of overlap, which is appreciated, because there’s only like eight combats left in the game when they show up, so if they had a completely distinct max-level ability set, they’d be too overwhelming to use properly.

As with a lot of these games I find in Humble Bundles, I don’t regret playing it, but there’s much better examples of the genre out there. If you’ve already played Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 (and 3, if you aren’t waiting for the full release) and Neverwinter and stuff, and you really want another D&D-style high fantasy dwarves vs. orcs adventure, the Dwarves is perfectly serviceable. The roster of D&D-style high fantasy RPGs is actually pretty slim these days, so if that’s your jam, it probably won’t take you too long to get to the Dwarves.

If you like RPGs in general, then it might take a lot longer, but you’ll still probably get to it eventually. There’s a ton of fantastic RPGs in the archives to get through, but if you’re caught up on those, then Baldur’s Gate 3 looks promising, but what other big releases are you looking forward to in the genre? Mass Effect or Dragon Age? BioWare’s lucky when they can produce something mediocre these days. Fallout or Elder Scrolls? Best not get your hopes too high after the comedy of errors in Fallout 76, Bethesda’s been coasting on the goodwill from Skyrim and Fallout 3 for a decade and they show no signs of stopping. Bloodlines 2? Dev team fired, which means either the executives were right and the game was a tirefire, so that’s a bad sign, or the executives were wrong and sacked the dev team for some stupid or petty reason, so that’s also a bad sign.

Iron Harvest World Map Update

The original Iron Harvest post is still well within my buffer and normally I’d edit in my evolving thoughts, only making a separate post if the original had already gone live. Editing this one in would completely mess up the flow of that one, though, and these blog posts are supposed to be whatever I happen to be thinking about right now, it’s not like I’m bundling them into a collection for sale or whatever.

So what does Iron Harvest’s new World Map Campaign change about my initial impressions? Well, in the World Map Campaign, you only have a handful of units unlocked by default, and the others are only unlocked if you’ve captured the right territory. I tried my first campaign playing as the expansion American faction because FREEDOM, so normally the only units I’d particularly care about here are the engineers, the basic infantry (they have slightly different rifles from the Polish rifles), the M29 Salem MG mech, and the M19 Knox mech destroyer. Now, in fairness, the M9 Attucks artillery is good against both infantry and mechs so long as you can keep them away from the front line, and the machine gunners and flamethrowers are a potentially worthwhile gambit to win at the early/midgame break, overrunning the enemy with slightly cheaper and faster infantry units right as their mechs are coming online, but if you mess it up their MG mechs will tear up all your infantry specialists and you’ll be like 700 resources in the hole from having upgraded your barracks and pumped out some units for a gambit that didn’t work. Infantry specialists take up the same amount of army size as basic infantry, so you could switch to them in the endgame when you have plenty of iron and oil but your army size is still capped, but at that point your infantry are mainly just there to capture resource points while your mechs handle the bulk of the fighting, so there’s not much point in bothering.

But that’s still more useful than the ZR3 Revere, a midgame airship that’s way too fragile to be used in the midgame when there’s mechs everywhere. It could have a role as a fast anti-infantry unit for keeping enemies from snatching your undefended resource points, but it’s not nearly fast enough for that. Or the M22 Stark, a short range mech destroyer that’s better at operating alone than the Knox, but why would you have a single unit wandering around by itself in the endgame? Or the field cannon, a generic unit which is an artifact of the game’s initial release, when the devs seemed to think that heavily defensive strategies were at all viable in this game.

But the World Map campaign changes all of this by locking lots of units behind specific territories being conquered. The M22 Stark is useful because the M19 Knox requires capturing a specific territory near the center of the map, so you’ll probably have the Stark before the Knox. Anti-armor gunners are useful because they’re unlocked from the start, so they’re you’re only good answer to enemy anti-infantry mechs until you get the Stark. Field cannons are still mostly useless because they’re very slow and you always have gunner infantry, but they at least have something of a role in that they can be produced from a basic barracks and are effective against mechs.

Rather than always starting with two infantry squads and an engineer squad, you get to deploy a starting army in each battle, which moves around on the world map. If America’s starting hero Princess Sita (who is actually Arab because of the Lawrence of Arabia plot in the American expansion) is marching around the world map with a bunch of flamethrowers and machine gunners, then she gets to deploy with those units at the very start of a battle. Normally by the time you’re deep enough in the game that you can afford to swap out your basic infantry for specialists, you’re also deep enough in the game that you’re fighting all your battles with mechs so you don’t care, but now swapping those guys out will allow you to start the next battle with some significantly more powerful troops.

And that goes double for titan-class mechs. Titans are very hard to unlock in a world map campaign, but the ability to bring one with you at the start of a battle is huge. Particularly since your enemies rarely have access to mech destroyers (a cluster of which is about the only thing that can kill a titan besides another titan), a titan mech alone is often enough to win an entire battle just by proceeding directly to the enemy headquarters and blasting it to pieces. Actually building the rest of the army is just being thorough (which is still worthwhile, because if the enemy’s army is able to destroy your titan, you’ll have a Hell of a time getting another one).

Some maps start each base off with a free flame bunker. Flame bunkers are really effective against infantry and pretty good even against light mechs. They’re far enough up the tech tree that they’re normally a waste of resources, because the enemy will blow them up with artillery or heavy mechs, but if the enemy has one for free and you don’t have any artillery or heavy mechs yet, the ZR3 Revere might actually come in handy. Flamethrowers can’t attack air units, and the Revere’s rocket barrages are fairly effective against buildings.

Through a combination of reusable armies, making certain high-tier units unavailable, and deploying certain high-tier defense buildings automatically, the world map campaign makes most of the game’s unit roster actually useful, at least at one stage of the game or another. Skybikes still seem pretty useless, and field weapons are still useful only in edge cases (and almost anything is useful in an edge case). Still, it’s a good update.