Surviving Mars

I have a soft spot for city sims, in particular when the settings are a large step away from typical urban settings. I have an even softer sport for incremental builders (Dyson Sphere Project is superb). There’s just something about logistical planning that I enjoy… fancy that. Surviving Mars is a mix of both genres, and in order to merge them, both are diluted.

The setting is simple enough, you’re sponsored and given a rocket ship with some bits that can be used to establish a martian colony. In true red planet fashion, the world is inhospitable and you need to balance restocking from Earth and discovering elements to become self-sufficient. The first “larger step” is building a dome for colonists, which is where the city sim portion comes about.

Colonists have specializations that improve performance in certain tasks, and diminish them when doing something else. There are social factors to ensure they stay happy and don’t go bonkers. They can have kids, go to school, and have perks/flaws that impact their behavior. They also die. See, children in space can only work at a given scale. They take a lot of resources and take a very long time to mature to be “useful” when in a survival mode.

And this is the logistics piece. Mars has a ton of resources to be discovered. Collecting them is very painful. Surface elements are sparse, and most of the elements require you to have a specialized building. Buildings that can only be staffed by people. People who can only live in domes. Domes which are expensive to build and maintain, and have a very limited range. It makes it so that the cost to harvest is often well superior of what you can collect.

Now, there are some solutions to this problem, but nearly all of them are locked behind research, which appears to have some amount of RNG in availability, as well as a significant time investment. Breatkthroughs are a type of research that are unlocked through random events and is completely gamebreaking as it removes the need for people. In the “logic” part of the game, you can also create bionic folks, who eat/sleep, but can’t die of old age. If I can create that, how in the world can I not automate mining?

The logistical challenge of the mid-game is often a frustrating point in many games, as it should be a struggle to balance things while working to add automation. Frostpunk is probably the best example of this mindset, where you’re always on the edge of failure, but the hope of automating one small step has a huge payoff. DSP’s mid-game has undergone a lot of tweaks in early access, and is in a really good spot now – the challenge is moving from a planetary scale to a solar system scale.

Surviving Mars (the base game, I have yet to try the DLC) has a rather large gap in the middle portion where automation should be the goal, yet the carrots to achieve this is hidden behind RNG. I enjoy the balancing of resources, both harvesting and refining. The game just puts a massive hurdle in scaling that system where the goal of colonizing Mars is stalled due to the inability to optimize. Contextually, I understand why research is hidden and breakthroughs are so powerful… that’s the whole point of exploration. Mechanically, the game portion suffers from the RNG in scientific progress and direction. Never to a point of critical failure, but in a frustrating lens.

Domes offer a nuanced tweak, where you can prefer specialists and then build accordingly. Space is limited in domes, meaning you need to build another one. The initial and upkeep costs make that a serious investment. Then the people need food, which is a practical challenge. You reach a power wall, where a single building may require 50 and your best tool only provides 5. The thought process here is to build a housing dome, then attach other specialist domes for specific production in the others. A hub and spoke model is theoretically the best path (and what, you know, NASA wants). The practical implications are that you will need multiples of these as mining requires a hub well away from the main cluster, which needs power/water/food/housing. The net effect is that you are better building core infrastructure and then routing it all over the map – with redundant components so that if they are damaged everyone doesn’t die in a half-turn.

And don’t get me started on both the need and pace of research. Argh!!

Boiled down, the game is about 10 hours longer than it needs to be. I ended up setting the speed to maximum (triple time?) and just stepping away for a while. Give me a problem and the tools to solve it.

This comes off as negative, but it’s more an articulation of frustration from the logistics portion. I like the art, I like the challenge of exploring a different planet, the idea that you could be on the edge of something new. There are some neat ideas here, and it would be interesting what would happen if the mechanical components of the genre could better fit the story. And I am very willing to accept that I have simply not cracked the nut of this puzzle.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Still on the metrodivania kick, I picked up Ori and the Will of the Wisps on Switch. I had played the original on PC and was more than pleasantly surprised. The sequel is just as amazing.

Ori is a metroidvania with respect to exploration, non-linear progress, and skills unlocking new areas. That seems somewhat straightforward and evident, but its the differences that make it stand apart.

Ori is really a platformer at heart, parkour to the next level. The closest analogy is Celeste, in the sense of continual movement, without the puzzle element. With the exception of a few bosses, you never need to kill/attack anything. You can, and it’s a way to speed up collection of money to purchase things, but it’s never mandatory. Instead the game puts a ton of emphasis on environmental hazards, spikes, explosions, lasers and so on. It accents this on a more than a few boss battles where you have a wall of death behind you and need to quickly and cleanly escape using a pile of skills. And with the sole exception of the last boss, you should be able to clear the game without getting hit, making hit points not all that relevant.

Ori is also a fable of sorts, where the story is told through a narrator and experienced through the same environment. There are quests throughout, more for exploration than much else. There are a few cut scenes and NPC dialogue, but it’s the world itself that changes around you that resonates the most. You clear a zone, and the world changes. The art is just plain spectacular, and the music is near perfect. If it wasn’t for the difficulty and frequent deaths, I’d consider this zen.

Credit to the non-linear development here. You hit a cross road about a 1/3rd of the way in and have 4 options to take. Each can be completed in the order you want, and gives a skill that allows for further exploration. Aside from a skill that creates a light for dark areas, the other 3 are all movement based to reach new areas. Many metroidvanias give the appearance of choice (Blasphemous actually delivers in the first 1/3rd), but its more artificial as the boss selection is linear. There are no hidden bosses, crazy skills, or major secret areas. Maybe a nook or a cranny here; in general what you see is what’s there.

I’d be remiss not to mention the difficulty here. Metroid Dread can be beat by nearly anyone. Bloodstained takes it up a notch. Blasphemous is next up, and Hollow Knight a sort of pinnacle. Ori is near the top, not because it’s punishing, but because it’s demanding. The final area in particular has some absolutely devastating areas to get through that feel like trial and error, with little respite. It isn’t 1-hit death, and when you do die, you only lose the progress on that attempt.

There aren’t many games like Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and it’s a right joy to play through. It’s a different take on the metroidvania genre, with a much larger focus on precise movement and exploration, rather than difficult combat. Highly recommended.

Back to Hollow Knight

As many parents can attest, the final week of summer and first week of school is a non-stop adventure. Time management is just at another level, not to mention planning. Everyone is back in class, and hockey restarted this weekend…now it’s about showing up. Looking forward to the first “normal” fall in a long time.

The hectic pace means that most PC gaming isn’t even an option, and the Switch takes lead. (It does make me curious about a Steam deck even further. A new version is due soon.) I’m on a good metroidvania kick now, which works amazingly well for short gaming bursts. Hollow Knight ranked as my #1 iteration of the genre, and given the recent playthroughs through Blasphemous, Dread, and Bloodstained, I wanted to see if it still held true.

No doubt in my mind, it still does. And a Kickstarter no less.

One of my kid’s teachers is a Harry Potter fan. Super fan I suppose. She loves the Philosopher’s Stone, reads it every year, and keeps finding new bits. I played WoW for longer than most, and still there were new bits to find. Hollow Knight has this as well, especially if you’re paying attention to the lore. Given the non-linear construction of the game, there is a ton that’s open quite early if you want.

There are 5 core abilities in the game. The dash is acquired early, followed by the wall jump. Those together are enough to do a good 80% of the rest of the game. The charged dash opens a few more optional areas, and the double jump is required to reach the final areas. Finally, the shadow dash is used for reaching the “true” ending. This big middle portion allows for a crazy amount of exploration options, and the scaling of enemies per zone allows for a higher or lower level of challenge.

This particular playthrough was focused on exploring as much of the map as possible early on, including unlocking the fast travel (tram) options. As a fresh player, the difficulty curve acts as a sort of soft wall to tell players “maybe not now”. As someone with experience, in particular as to how the downward slash (pogo) works, it nearly trivializes some content.

Taking out Hornet at the start was a breeze, where my first playthrough took nearly 30 minutes on that single boss. The White Tower’s buzzsaw challenges took me a couple days to get through prior, this time it was relatively smooth sailing. The last boss went down on the 2nd attempt this time… and that’s a full on bullet-hell experience the first time.

After having had this run through complete, I posit that metroidvanias have another defining feature – positioning. This was an absolute back in the old castlevania days, where single hits were enough to put you in a pit. It’s now morphed into a skill-based approach, where all bosses support a no-hit kill mode as well as the ability to completely wipe the floor with you. There are no bosses that have unavoidable damage, and Hollow Knight takes this to the extreme with the final Godhome boss – Absolute Radiance – where a single hit kills you.

It’s been an interesting summer of metrodivanias runs, and solidified my love for the genre. It has all the bits I enjoy about gaming, with a solid mix of exploration, challenge, and progression. Hollow Knight is a near masterclass in this design, and remains the bar which other games are measured.

Mike Fahey

Some sad news, Mike passed recently. I had read that he had suffered another medical event in the spring, and the complications were the last bit. It’s a weird thing to mourn a person you’ve never met.

Mike was an old-guard of the gaming blogosphere, and was the only reason I kept with Kotaku over the years. He had a quirky sense of humour, and a calming “uncle” vibe that was always entertaining and safe. He was the old geek we aspired to be, and felt like the final bastion of corporate takeover of gaming media.

He wasn’t a serious journalist by any means, just that friend who liked stuff and you wanted to hear what he had to say. Snacktaku in particular was a highlight of the very odd things that people put in their bellies. His participation in the various Kotaku podcasts were always entertaining because he genuinely liked the people he was working with and had no podium to stand upon.

It’s a tough loss for the community, and moreso for his family.

End of Summer

With younger kids, the summer is primarily bookended with school. This week, the kids are going back for their next year. That comes with a slew of other activities and a tonal shift for all the family activities. Looking back though, it’s been quite an interesting one.

First the elephant. This was the most “normal” summer we’ve had since 2019. COVID is absolutely still a thing, and plenty of friends have been hit, but the impacts are a fraction of prior. We’ll hit another big wave with schools opening, but with luck, we should finally be in the endemic phase. Huge impact – people are joyous to be out and about.

As a Canadian, particular one in my neck of the woods, we often talk about the weather. There are few locations on the globe that truly have 4 seasons – with a typical 60C swing between, up to 80C if it’s really bonkers. This summer was oddly calm, with a stable sunny stretch without too much to harp about. We only had a week of heatwave, and aside from the last week, next to no rain. A spectacular summer in that regard.

I found some “balance” in the working from home and driving around this year. Past years I’ve tried to work remotely, and that didn’t really work out. I’ve come to terms that I need a separation between work and personal. Working from a cottage is borderline depressive when everyone else is having fun but you. Finding a dedicated working space though, I’ll be seeing if I can sort something like that out in the future.

Summer financials were wild. Gas hit insane price points (more than double for a while) which was crazy to absorb. I had a rather expensive repair that came out of nowhere to manage. We’re through it and things are getting closer to normal, but holy heck.

I did skip playing hockey for most of the summer. I picked it up a couple weeks back, and thankfully no heart attacks. It’s fascinating how ingrained that activity is in my mental health. The past say, 5 years or so, I’ve tried to find as many activities as possible to help with mental health. That’s worked out well enough I suppose, in that not having 1 activity doesn’t cause a cascade effect. There are certainly preferences in those activities, but there’s enough there I never feel lost.

The amount of prep anxiety for start of the fall isn’t all that strong this year. There are certainly things to take care of, Back to School shopping isn’t just magic, but it’s also not things that take 50 hours to do. The kids are getting older, and we’ve spent a lot of time teaching them planning skills, that it’s quite easy for them to build a clear list of things to do. And then they do many things on that list themselves, and can live the rewards of those actions. I think that’s one of the larger joys in parenting… seeing your kids grow in autonomy, while still being kids. Hard to explain, one of those “if you know, you know” I suppose.

A long-weekend to go, and that will be the real transition to the Fall. Fingers crossed we can stay in “normal” for as long as possible.

Fool Me Once

I removed all my Blizzard-specific feeds a while ago, there are sanity limits. When Immortal came out, it was all but impossible to not hear about the F2P / lootbox shenanigans. Clearly there are people willing to dump oodles of money, and Blizz is doing a fine job of sucking up every last possible penny. They are doing a great job competing with EA’s FUT system.

The shadow of Immortal casts a long way, and Diablo 4 (the actual game the “fans” wanted) is having to make due with that. The real money action house (RMAH) that launched with Diablo 3 was meant to deal with the less-than-honorable 3rd party sellers, but ended up being a massive blight on the game’s fundamental incentives. A lot of the responsibility of those decisions is rightfully put at Jay Wilson’s feet (that’s the job of a game director), and Reaper of Souls’ removal of all those bits is ample evidence the “meta” of Diablo 3 needed a full re-work. Overwatch 2 is pure F2P, and is coming with what appears to be insanely large cost structures for cosmetics (the price of a full priced game).

AAA studios are all trying to milk every dollar out of a game, while gamers are trying to find value for that dollar. It’s competing priorities. The Season Pass is a staple of the F2P genre now, where it combines the drive of FOMO with the incentives of small payments. It’s inversely driven though, as you’re paying to have FOMO… instead of getting to the end of the track and then purchasing all the additional items…

Diablo 4 therefore has a hell of a mountain to climb. The need to generate mountains of cash, an industry model that is more effective than drug dealers, and a rabid fanbase that has both expectations and has been ignored for large stretches.

The quarterly update is an attempt at this. It will have a season pass, but only for cosmetics. It’s very clear that it doesn’t want to have any “power” that can be purchased, which is quite fascinating to me. First, that there’s somehow going to be enough cosmetic content to support this mindset (WoW is a good example of challenges with cosmetic design). Diablo 3 seasons have cosmetic rewards, but they are extremely minimal… not sure how that turns into an actual generator of funding.

Second, everyone has their own opinion of what “power” means. Buying a gem directly is certainly power. Buying something that increases your odds of getting a gem… that’s convenience and the core model of Immortal. I am quite curious as to how this particular system works out, both at launch and long term. People expected a dumpster fire with Immortal. Diablo 4 is where the ARPG crowd has been holding their breath. I have very low expectations here, so it should be quite hard to disappoint.

Return to Bloodstained

If ever there was a bloodline for the metroidvania genre, this one would be a pureblood. Koji Igarashi is the person credited for building the genre, and his indie game really pushes that to the next level.

This is one of like 3 games I have every backed on Kickstarter. Iga building a metroidvania was about as sure a bet as the sun coming up. It had some bumps in development and was delayed a tad. The visuals in particular were overhauled. I like to point this fact out as much as possible, because the changes are spectacular.

The storyline itself is pure Iga, where there’s only one “true” ending, and multiple fake endings along the way. You likely don’t know they are failures until you see the credits, and then dig through the lore to see how to go further (the first Gebel fight is a perfect example of this). The good news is that you’re never locked into a failed state – Blasphemous has a key point where you can lock yourself out of the true ending, and the auto-save feature means you can’t revert.

The mechanics are all about throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it sticks.

  • You need to take down bosses to unlock skills to unlock more of the game
  • Unlocking the endings requires specific skills to be used at specific times
  • Multiple optional bosses
  • A less-than-clear crafting process for equipment
  • An even-less-than-clear crafting process for food, that gives a 1 time stat boost
  • Dozens of weapon types, with attack moves
  • Dozens of “shards” which provide active or passive magic effects. Said shards can be upgraded by crafting and collecting more of the same type.
  • A manual save system, where you lose progress on death since the last save (which is ultra painful when farming shards)
  • A bunch of side quests
  • An actual leveling system based on experience points.
  • Multiple hidden areas and items
  • Bosses that can be killed without you taking damage, while at the same time being able to wipe the floor with you. This particular one is a staple of the genre, and taken to the next level with the “Souls” series.

To me, one of the defining features of the genre is both how obtuse and important the relationships between the systems are. If you play through without paying attention, you’re going to have a very hard time. If you read the lore and stats, and do as many side activities as possible, you’ll get way more enjoyment out of it.

Think about that for a minute. A game where the subsystems actually matter and are not simply separate activities? It’s a heck of a balancing act to run from a development perspective, as all the variable can be applied to different degrees based on how much the player has “done”.

I’d say I’m about halfway through the core storyline now, which in this genre means closer to 20% of the actual game. I’m finding myself smiling at the various bits and bobs throughout. That the boss AI is both punishing and rewarding. The joy of collecting a new shard, or the relief of finding a new save point when inches from death. Death here is not a frustration, just a chuckle and another attempt. It’s just plain fun, and given all the *waves hands at everything*, we can all use some of that.

Blasphemous Replay

I need me some metroidvania. There’s some hidden joy in the genre, where progress rewards progress. It’s an interesting genre, that only recently (say 5 years or so) has really come into it’s own. The defining feature today is that the game is 2D. If you think about it, the Link/Zelda series are a type of metroidvania, where character ability defines access to content (BotW excepted). Metroidvania eventually bleeded into the rogue-like genre, where progress is a mix of abilities & player skill (think Dead Cells or Hades).

What’s most impressive about the genre is how prolific it’s become. Metroidvanias don’t need a AAA studio development, they can deliver absolutely stunning content with a “small” team. I’d even argue that the smaller teams allow for greater innovation and risk taking, in order to differentiate from the others in the genre.

I’ve talked about Metroid Dread, where the game has high spots, but the experimentation with EMMI doesn’t really work for me. My kids have given it a shot, and they both hit the quit wall of EMMI, which is a real shame. Hollow Knight, by comparison, is astoundingly more difficult, yet the gradual increase of said difficulty comes across many hours of gameplay (honestly, if you’ve finished this game with the true ending, hats off).

Blasphemous is a strange one. On the one hand, it has all the pure essence of the genre. 2D, tough combat, game changing abilities, hidden secrets, alternative endings. On the other, it has a rather obtuse quest system and punishing health/death mechanic that fits a souls-like game. Understanding the mechanics of the game drastically change the player’s ability to succeed.

My first playthrough was close to 40 hours. If it tracked the number of deaths, it would be obscene. Heck, the first boss (well, I thought it was the first) took me 20 tries before realizing I could slide through it and the i-frames that came with. It took me another 20 hours to figure out how the dodge-attack worked properly. It was an eye opening experience of gameplay discovery, as much as it was content discovery.

A really fascinating part of the game is that actual ability increments are optional. Walking on clouds, stabbing roots, avoiding fall damage or poison… all require you to go out of your way to find them. You could, if you wanted to, complete the game with zero upgrades. You’d even be able to do get the “good” or “true” ending this way. I can’t imagine clearing Isidora this way, but it’s certainly feasible.

I had some time to fill in recent weeks and the Switch is awesome for pick up and play. I gave the game another go (3rd run) and this time it felt like a completely different game. An understanding of the mechanics, what abilities should be prioritized, and general patterns made a huge difference. I had some slowdowns in trying to go a quicker/harder route at the start, and some bad luck with Isidora, otherwise it was an incredibly smooth run. It was right up there with Hades in terms of enjoyment of the controlled chaos.

It helps that Blasphemous has had multiple content updates since launch, some quality of life, others being significant (boss rush, a “true” ending, a set of new bosses, NG+). Looking back after the credits, there’s a larger appreciation on what a small studio can deliver with today’s tools. And it’s giving me an itch for more of the genre…

MHR: Sunbreak – Content Patch 1

We’re short of 2 months since the launch of Sunbreak and the first major content patch is out. And it adds a lot, but summed into the following bits.

  • New monster variants (and their equipment)
    • Seething Bazelgeuse
    • Silver Rathalos
    • Gold Rathian
    • Lucent Nargacuga
  • Anomaly Investigations
  • Qurious Crafting

New Monsters

These are MR6 level challenges, so they come with a lot of HP and a lot of damage. Continuing the Sunbreak theme, all these monsters attack at crazy speeds, with long chains of attacks. Openings exist, but the camera angle and blast effects reward planning to a greater degree. It feels like the monsters have twice the HP of their normal counterparts.

The armor drops from these guys are elder-level, I do expect the meta to change a bit here, which is a good thing.

Anomaly Investigations

Anomaly Quests are still there, where you target a specific monster. Investigations are randomly generated and the list of available investigations increases as your Anomaly rank increases. A rank 11 monster can still show up in the rank 30 battles, it just has increased stats. Higher rank also has harder monsters show up.

The randomness is interesting. Where Quests are 1 monster at a time, Investigations can have multiple monsters, including Apex monsters for some reason. Apex Azuros was the stuff of nightmares in the base game, I can’t imagine encountering him with MR stats. The RNG aspect, and the fact you have like 20 Investigations to choose from at a time, mean you can avoid these very painful ones for a more “optimized” route.

Investigations give anomaly rewards (for rank 10 crafting) and other material to help with Qurious Crafting – or for talisman melding. There are now 3 ranks to track, HR, MR, and AR.

Qurious Crafting

Continuing the trend of additional customization, Qurious Crafting allows for additional modifications to weapons and armor. Using the AI drops, you “unlock” the ability to customize. Each item has a number of “slots” (you can increase this, to a given amount), and then add from a set of stats that take up a given number of slots.

For example, a longsword starts with 4 slots, and can go to 6. You can mix and match additional boosts, like +10 attack for 2 slots, or 5% affinity for 2. More rampage gem slots too. You can change them around if you want, for no cost, as long as they are unlocked. This is very similar to the Buddy skill customization system, just that there’s a material cost to unlock the bits.

Where talismans have a HUGE RNG factor, Qurious Crafting allows for targeted improvements. There’s a cost here, and frankly a substantial one if you are swapping between gear sets (HBG elemental pierce comes to mind). The net effect is that this system is the long-tail carrot to keep people playing.

To me, the game appears “feature complete” now, where any additional content patch is going to be just that, content and not systems. New monsters, subspecies (e.g. elemental versions), and powered-up versions (e.g. permanent enraged). Even quests too, for some interesting layered armor.

It’s going to take a while for the meta to reset, as the various Qurious Crafting unlocks will need to be tabulated. It’s crazy the amount of content here…

The Last God

I was on a family weekend getaway and my sister had this book on hand. It had an interesting pitch, and I borrowed it for a solid read.

One of the more interesting bits here is that this series was developed with PnP in mind, so the tail end has an annex on how to apply D20/DnD rules to the setting. Given the amount of world building in many graphical novels today, it felt like a smart move. Most writers are going to spend a fair amount of time on the lore anyhow, and this allows a more practical view on the various character power levels and history.

The Last God falls into the fantastical horror genre, with a big layer of flawed legends and the gradual uncovering of the truth. The plot itself isn’t terribly innovative, and you can see most of the twists and turns throughout. There are character archetypes, the corrupt leader, the rebellious wife, the pure newbie, and so on. This isn’t a critique per se, it’s sort of like how there are many simple Lego pieces and depending on how you put them together, you get different results. There are many graphic novels that apply this mind set.

The results here are quite good, primarily enabled by the fundamental lore than gives a platform for these characters. The main character here is the setting. The gods themselves and their lasting impacts on the world are fascinating. The impacts of prophecy and the desire to escape one’s fate are cool. The cost of magic, at scale, is even more interesting. The ending feels like an ending.

The largest issue I have is the poor print quality. This was clearly digital art that was then transferred to paper, and the quality loss is significant. I’m ok with poor print quality in an actual comic that’s produced in large quantities. A hard cover book should do better. If you happen to have a 10in+ tablet, you’re better off getting a digital copy.

If you see it on sale, I’d say pick it up.