Loaded RNG

No Man’s Sky has both determinate and RNG elements, and they intersect in very interesting ways.

Obviously, in the “near infinite” variety of planets, there needs to be some randomization. Theoretically, there should be enough random to have bubble shooting dragons somewhere in this game. There’s a “pool” of events that can occur given fixed conditions. Every planet has creatures, plants, caves, secrets and so on. The variety of each changes, and the quantity, but they are there. Systems are classed on the star type, which impacts the resources found within. There’s a random element to the major race in a system, and then the type of industry. This also impacts the types of events in a given system, as well as the types of ships you’ll find. What remains random (in general) is the quantity and quality of an object.

NMS has a ranking system for many things, from the lowest (C) to the highest (S). Within each rank is some additional random aspect to stats, so that the best rank A item may be better than the worst rank S item, though the overlap is min-maxing in practical terms. A Gek system, for example, will have 7 shuttle types, 7 Haulers, 3 Fighters, 3 Explorers, and 1 Exotic. These types are randomly selected from a pool, but are fixed for that system – realoading will not change the look of these ships. This also applied to Freighters, which is where I’m going with this.

Freighters are acquired through space battles. These battles only trigger when both the following have occurred: 3 in-game hours have passed, and 5 warp jumps have completed. (They will not occur in an unoccupied system, a black hole system, or an Atlas system.) When you warp into a system, it will be assigned a specific Capital Ship Freighter, which is selected from a given pool. The “largest” of them require you finding the correct – random – system. I wanted a Resurgent Star Destroyer, the largest of the bunch inspired by Star Wars. To find this thing, I needed to ensure I had a save prior to my 5th jump. I created a save point and then made single warps until I found the ship TYPE I wanted. That’s RNG phase 1 down, which took about 30 minutes.

RNG phase 2 is finding the highest rank ship, S. That means reloading the same TYPE until I found the proper RANK. To do this, I entered the battle, went to the nearby star station, and created a restore point. This meant I could enter the freighter, scan it to see the rank, and reload if it was not S. The odds of finding an S aren’t exactly high, reports vary between 2% and 5%, with “better” chances in 3* systems or Outlaw systems. The good news is that the reload doesn’t require a battle, simply flying into the freighter. It took about 90 minutes of reloads to finally get an S class.

Effectively this was save scumming, where I limited the RNG portions to only the ones I could not control. Under normal circumstances, you can only roll the dice every 3 hours for a TYPE and RANK, which is a crazy level of random. All told, it took me just over 2 hours of reloads to get what I wanted, which is over 100 attempts. At regular rate, that would have been closer to 300 hours of gameplay. Yeah, I’m good.

Does this freighter have any practical value over others? There are some minimal stat boosts. The real benefit here is 100% cosmetic.

Next up is finding an exotic starship. The good news is that they always spawn as rank S, though the odds of spawn are relatively low. I think I found a way around this though… while I was hunting my freighter, I noticed that starships landed inside the saved freighter, and there was almost always an exotic within. Now the kicker is figuring what type of exotic I want, spawning a space battle (3 hours + 5 warps) in the proper system, and then entering the freighter to collect. Sounds simple, let’s see how that works out.

Diablo 3 Design Time Travel

An interesting article about ex-D3 lead Jay Wilson talking about the original launch of the game. I won’t shy away from thinking he did a poor job and is exceedingly good at deflecting any responsibility from being you know, the actual LEAD.

First in the area of dumb, is that the RMAH was honestly thought to be a good idea to fix the 3rd party market…clearly a solution in search of a problem as 3rd party sites launched at 1/3rd the price of the AH. Duping was fixed with the always online bit, way back in 2012 when cloud computing and dynamic demand management wasn’t yet a thing. The AH was a bad idea from the start, every metric said so, and the gameplay loop clearly pushed people towards it. The truly bonkers reason for keeping the RMAH though… that it was on the box. For fear of being sued and the lawyers needed to confer on this. It took 2 years to remove it. Amazing. I’m all for innovating and taking risks, but you need a back-out plan. Which leads me to…

Jay mentioning that Blizzard’s design approach was iterative perfection, rather than good enough. The old saying of “it’s ready when it’s ready”. Which I think with rose coloured glasses is certainly a valid point and most assuredly delayed a lot of the work on D3. And yet, in that exact same train of thought, the RMAH was therefore “perfected”. Indeed.

Today’s Blizzard is not what once was. The pipeline to delivery is ultra long and their release quality does not indicate perfection. Which I think people are willing to take in stride if the cadence is reasonable, and the corrections doubly so. The last few years of WoW certainly was certainly a head scratcher, where the beta feedback was pretty darn clear about the faults, followed with a “trust us”. And history certainly tells us how that has gone.

It’s a fickle world, where the smallest of soundbytes can be taken out of context. Jay Wilson has spent the last 10 years trying to find every reason why the launch of D3 and its design was someone else’s fault. This older interview with Kevin Martens is a much better take on listening to feedback and an iterative focus on content in Reaper of Souls. Wild how much better than expansion was/is.

Achiever vs Explorer

No Man’s Sky attempts to hit the Bartle archetypes, to various levels of success. You’d have to put a lot of effort convince me that either the Killer or Social types have much weight here, which dramatically reduces the feeling of competition and FOMO. The Achiever and Explorer types are the main targets.

Achievers are goal setters, where progress for the sake of progress is the main joy. The goals can be self-defined or system driven, but they are there, and the goal is often times worth more than the journey. RPGs tend to scratch a crazy itch for achievers, as there are numerous levels of goals within (quest, levels, stats, items). Games with logistical challenges are also a big hit, be it Valheim, SimCity or Factorio.

Explorer certainly have goals, but the journey is the key driver. Looking under each rock, they take joy for cataloguing the world and see how the pieces fit together. A goal is often just another part of the journey to the next exploration bit. Games with large maps and interconnected systems really resonate here, so things like Minecraft and Skyrim are like crack.

NMS has a lot of content for both types. A practically infinite world to explore (I am the first human discovering some planets in a game that’s 6 years old). A very large swath of procedural tasks to accomplish (on a per-planet basis, this dwarfs most “games”). There’s a substantial amount of “stuff” to find and catalogue – language alone has 700+ words for each of the 3 species. There’s a tiered systems of resources, where complex ones can only be crafted. There’s a “system of trade” that has market forces within (you can “crash” a market by flooding it). And there’s a collection system with an RNG rarity tier on top of it, meaning that there’s usually a carrot of sorts to aim for.

One of the twists here is the interconnectivity of these systems. Valheim forces you to explore in other to achieve, that’s where all the bosses are and by consequence, the ability to use any of the new materials. And exploration is generally gated through achievement, you simply need a better boat to get across the ocean, or armor to avoid squito. NMS is in this vein, where you absolutely need to move between planets and explore them to some level of detail in order to acquire necessary stuff. There are certainly “golden planets”, where you can set up self-sufficient mining operations – I mean it’s a game of odds after all. But you still need to find them, and the only way to catalogue a planet is to land on it.

This effectively placed tiers on NMS’s various systems, in that in order to progress (achieve) you need to find (explore) the necessary components. Some of them are obvious – find copper. Some less so – Vykeen Daggers are randomly dropped from specific events in certain systems.

Where things get a bit tougher to digest is when you apply scale, as with all other logistic games. You will find dozens if not hundreds of systems in your travels – let alone planets. Organizing them is just bonkers. Mining is useful, until it’s not because you have what you need. There’s no automation of this system, just some standalone pieces. Exploration will reach a point where you simply accept the infinite variety of things – which I suppose is a message in itself. Never have I seen a game better reflect the adage of “stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back at you”.

These are far from complaints. The journey along the path lasts as long as you want it to last. The infinite goals are there as long as you want to achieve them. I’m frankly amazed that this game even exists.

No Man’s Sky

In all the history of gaming, there are only a handful of games that we can generally accept as “comebacks” from their launch failures. FF14 gets most of the attention, but we forget how it was shut down and relaunched, acting more as a sequel than an iteration. No Man’s Sky however, that’s something altogether different.

Launched in 2016, it was touted as a near-infinite procedurally generated miracle. The hype machine was going full speed. What actually launched was a proof of concept of a universe builder and exploring simulation. A sense of ownership and place just didn’t exist, and gamers were not pleased. The developers took the flak, shut down most social media, and then decided to get to work.

Foundations was the first post-launch release, about 3 months later. It started things off with being able to create a home base. There have been 30+ releases since launch, culminating with version 4.0 – Waypoint, and a Switch release. The most recent one streamlines a lot of the starting experience, and provides a “relaxed” mode that fits between survival and sandbox.

I’ve had NMS since 2018. It was on my radar for a very long time, and the mid 2010s continued failure to launch junk had me wary of jumping in. The whole “no presales” bit eventually dove into “wait for reviews”. It was the tail end of the 1.x content, which if I recall was what the game’s original launch vision was supposed to be. I gave it a go, and lasted a few days. The training wheels section was both painful and too short, with survival mechanics that were a major source of friction.

I’d pop back in every year and a bit, start a new save and see where it lead. The pandemic certainly gave time. If I played sandbox mode, the sense of exploration was dramatically neutered because you had everything at hand. If I played the normal mode, then it felt like I was in the northern wilderness continually finding base materials to fix my mining laser. I wouldn’t say I despise, but certainly have an aversion to survival mechanics that are simply time padding. I think we all have enough of that in the real world, right?

4.0 came out a week+ ago, and with it came relaxed mode. The “default” relaxed mode is essentially survival without so much friction… things take the same amount of materials to construct, but they just last longer. Not having to recharge your suit or mining laser is AMAZING! Death is far less frequent as well, which is a huge boon as combat is not this game’s strong suit. The game just becomes substantially more accessible to everyone. And on top of that, there’s a slew of additional toggles you can use to add/remove difficulty to the game.

I realize I haven’t even gotten into the game mechanics yet, and honestly, I think that’s for the best. There’s no singular answer to what NMS actually is. The things it does offer are rarely in isolation of each other, which makes it that much more surprising as you go through. You can treat it like a base builder if you want. A pirate hunter. A trade empire. An exploration adventure. In small spaces, it had multiplayer as well. It may be easier to explain the things it doesn’t do.

I’ve personally focused on the main Atlas Path quest, to find the source of truth of the universe. I’ve got a simple base, my starter ship, a stupidly powerful multi-tool (through sheer RNG), tons of new languages learnt, a settlement to take care of, and two dozen or so systems discovered. And it still feels like I’m standing in the surf of an endless ocean. A clear research path leads ahead of me. There are a dozen breadcrumbs quests open to add more complexity to the gameplay loop. And I’m still enjoying the gameplay loop.

I’m frankly awestruck as the sheer volume of content here, and overall polish. It’s one of those few games that everyone should give a try.

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.

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…