My 100+ Hour Tale – Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

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On Tuesday, I finished the main story quests of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (I got the end credits and everything), and now I feel that the game can truly begin with the expansions of Heavensward and Stormblood. But before I continue, I wanted to condense my thoughts about the base game as much as I can and share what I think works in this MMORPG and as well as what things I’ve seen that have been done better in comparable titles.

Here is my Warrior of Light, Jerik Noa:

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Sing, O sing, ye Candidus Fellows, unto the pure Light of Dawnbreak!

And yes, with the conclusion of the final story quest, I just received another bottle of Fantasia, so I might be changing into a female character soon. They just seem to have so many cooler fashions and styles available, besides the fact that I usually prefer to play female characters (I’ll have to write an article about my thoughts of gender in video games, especially in games where you customize your character down to the freckles on their cheeks; although, come to think of it, that approaches the unassailable gates of feminism and political discourse, and we all know how prepared I am for those topics). I’m thinking a Mi’qote, as that was the first race I played as when I first picked the game up, although the thought of playing a hardass Dark Knight Lalafell is hilariously intriguing. I would be playing a nightmare-fueled spikey-armor clad toddler with a three foot soul-sucking blade that just wants a hug.

Is that racist? That seems racist. Can you be racist against fictional fantasy races? I mean, it’s no better than my character now: whenever I change job classes to weaver or goldsmith, I suddenly become Eorzea’s most frightening butler, complete with cummerbund and necktie. Mi’qote just seems like the right middle road between plushy-adorable and mildly-threatening.

 

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On the left: Warrior of Light. On the right: adorable Papalymo. Would you believe the one on the right is arguably more dangerous?

So, how was the ending? Without spoilers, of course, I can say that it was… unexpected. Having gone into this MMO aware of some of the story elements, I knew a few different things had to happen, and a few things still need to happen. I just wasn’t sure how it would all pan out. Unaware of what parts of the story fall into place between A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood, I realize that I still have a ton of content to get through, not to mention taking to time to master all of the other classes and trades.

Here’s my list of good versus bad (with some neutral sprinkled in) from what I’ve played so far in Final Fantasy XIV:

Positive: Changing Classes Made Easy

I started this particular playthough as a gladiator, although I quickly realized that starting the game off as a tank is just asking for trouble in multiplayer dungeons and raids. If you aren’t familiar with a run and you tank for the first time, you’ll probably tick off your teammates. Fortunately, FF XIV makes it super easy to change classes and level them up, even going so far as to make the process of leveling faster for those who already have a high level in another combat class. I hadn’t been an archer before, so I chose to continue my game as an arrow-slinger and eventually as a Bard.

I’m really looking forward to playing as a machinist, as machinists have royally screwed me over in PvP with their pushing and pulling abilities, and I would like to experience being on the other side of the coin. But, then again, tanks are in short supply nowadays, and dark knight looks awesome. Either way, I’ll get to it all eventually.

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Astrologian, too. Heart of the Cards, baby.

Negative: Vesper Bay

Why. The heck. Does Vesper Bay. Not. Have. A FAST-TRAVEL OPTION.

I would say this is a simple complaint, but bear with me, it’s more complicated than just missing an important waypoint. This has more to do with a lack of balance and a clear insistence on wasting my time and resources than it does with ease of travel. Considering you come back to this place repeatedly in A Realm Reborn makes this a travesty in more ways than one.

First, there are two ways to get to Vesper Bay. The first is by fast-traveling to Horizon and hoofing it all the way across the map of Western Thanalan to get there. Even on chocobo-back, this is an annoying journey to have to repeat again and again. I consider this the ‘unintended’ slow way, but the alternate route is no better. The other way to Vesper Bay is by boarding a boat from Limsa Lominsa (by talking to an attendant next to the Arcanist’s Guild). This necessitates teleporting to Limsa Lominsa, teleporting to the Arcanist’s Guild, then taking the boat. Unless you want to spend a lot of money teleporting to Limsa Lominsa again and again during the story missions, then expect to set your home marker to Lominsa.

But with your home marker on Limsa Lominsa, what’s the use of being in any other Grand Company than the Maelstrom? You’re going to spend a lot of money teleporting to Gridania and Ul’dah if you join the Twin Adders or the Flames, since acquiring and spending guild seals with your Company is a good way to keep your character’s gear up-to-date, not to mention keeping your Barracks active once you reach that point.

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I’d rather not, Minfilia, thanks.

Once you’re done with the story missions, I imagine (or desperately hope) you won’t have to travel to the Waking Sands as often, and you can set your home point elsewhere. But it really bothers me when games make important oft-visited locations difficult to get to. Even search “vesper bay ffxiv” in Google, and the third entry is: “How do you get to Vesper Bay”. When you’ve made it that inconvenient and confusing to repeatedly return to a story-critical location, you’ve either accidentally screwed up as a developer or you’ve done it intentionally. As the game has been out for almost five years now, I’m thinking the latter.

Related Negative: Fast Travel Costs

Just a short point: fast travel is insultingly expensive. I’ve never played an MMO with such high costs of travel. And since your home point is Limsa Lominsa, a landmass away from Gridania and Ul’dah? You’ll be paying out the nose every time your journey takes you hither and yon.

Positive-ish: Oh, the Joys of Resource Gathering

Remember when I talked about fishing in Ocarina of Time and Dark Cloud 2? Well, strap on your gathering pants and get ready to make some money, honey! Whether it’s steel, alumen, mythril, electrum, red coral, fleece, or boar leather, there’s goods to procure from your local environment. I’m not overly fond of the resource node system, especially with how difficult it can be to obtain necessary materials like elemental shards. I understand how high-quality materials work, and I like that part of the system; it’s a thrill to hit those HQ nods and hear the sharp bang of the sledgehammer or the golden glint of the catch on your line. But in The Elder Scrolls Online, for instance, you’ll obtain about three to five resources per node in a single instance and only have your crafting skills to worry about. In FF XIV, the craft and the gathering are separate, and the gathering is more literal, piece by piece.

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Until you rage-quit from worse-than-XCOM accuracy percentages. What do you mean, I missed three times in a row with 92%?!

Oh, and if you don’t upkeep your gear with your current level, you’re going to find gathering a waste of time. Instead, worry about leveling up with fieldcraft leves as soon as you can, then go back and get the materials you need.

Related Negative: Inventory Space

I don’t have housing yet. All my money has been spent fast-traveling and getting stupid lightning and wind shards for crafting. So my inventory is full, my chocobo’s pack is full, and I’ll soon be turning to my retainers to hold mats. You can’t sell anything in this game. Almost everything has a crafting purpose, no matter how obscure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chucked something to free up space just to have to go grovelling back to the Market Board to buy more later on.

Everything about the inventory is so dang inconvenient. Except the ‘Sort’ key, that I like. Let me have a material’s sack like The Elder Scrolls Online, realism be damned!

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I have to have all these coeurl skins and pinches of mythril sand and fishing bait and walnut logs and…

Negative: The Overabundance of Story-Critical Dungeons and Trials

I’m imagining this is how it went.

One thing the developers of Star Wars: The Old Republic realized as the game was getting longer in the tooth was that its emphasis on story was more important than multiplayer gameplay. That isn’t to say The Old Republic had lackluster gameplay; far from it. They realized that they had so much content gated behind dungeons and trials that most players passed it by on their way through the main story missions for each class. Not everyone who plays MMORPGs wants to do so with friends. So they chose the RPG over the MMO and rebuilt their dungeons so players could single-handedly go through 4-man dungeons by themselves (with help from a tanky battledroid and their NPC companions).

And it doesn’t matter what class you choose to be, either. A tank can DPS, and healer can tank, and DPS can… well, DPS more.

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Violence solves ALL the problems!

Final Fantasy XIV went the completely opposite direction. Not only are their 4-man dungeons not optional, there is no way for players to accomplish them by themselves. Dungeons are strictly one-tank, one-healer, two-DPS affairs that break down if any player doesn’t do their part with relative skill. I’m making this sound more dramatically bad than it is, of course, but you all know how I feel about multiplayer; last night I was the only one in the group who hadn’t run the 8-man final dungeon, I fell behind pretty dramatically at one point, and all the other players talked about while the unskippable cutscenes were playing was Japanese porn and masterbation. I won’t question their ability to kick Ultima Weapon in the junk, but I’d rather not hear about what they plan to do with theirs.

“You’ll be doing this dungeon a lot,” they said when I fell behind.

Uh-huh. Like hell I will.

*sigh*

I probably will.

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Despite their vulgarity, my fellow players in that 8-man dungeon were very nice about me getting behind since it didn’t impede their progress. If it had… I would have had a worse experience.

Positive: Gameplay. Like, All the Gameplay

Everything I wrote above this would probably make you think I dislike Final Fantasy XIV. But that isn’t true; I’m 250 hours in, and I’ve probably got that much to give and more with the fun I’ve had so far. I’m in a good Free Company that answers questions (and at least doesn’t kick me out). I’ve nailed down being a level 55 Bard, and I’m excited to see where the storyline goes as I proceed into Heavensward.

It’s a joy to fight, especially when you line up all of your attacks appropriately (and with my mechanical keyboard, it sounds good too). Maximizing my DEEPS (or DPS, damage-per-second) is awesome, and I feel like I’m in a good spot.

Just as long as I can keep multiplayer at arm’s length. Or find a good group of friends to connect with, which is unlikely considering I’m one of the few people I know that cares for a subscription MMO and Final Fantasy and has an appropriate system that can play it. In other words, yes, I anticipate my journey in Eorzea will end due to repetition, multiplayer negativity, and poor time-wasting design decisions. But it won’t be for a while.

At least until Fallout 76 appears. Or I buckle down and actually write more for Alyssum. Type-type-type-type.

A Realm Reborn Review: 8.5/10

In Response – The Irreversible Choice

This blog is in response to Irreversible Events on Gamasutra by Bart Stewart.


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Accepting as fact that fate does not exist (which is a huge assumption to make, but bear with me), I would wager that the entirety of the human condition rests upon the power of agency given to every human being. This may seem overly philosophical to video games, but stick with me.

One thing that strikes me as a harsh and terrible truth about the world is that while it seems that our ability to choose appears to be nearly infinite, there are aspects of life that limit what we can and cannot do. Money, social status, relationships with certain people, and education level can determine where we end up in life. Skin color, gender, and mental or physical health are all hurdles to personal choice. Government and corporate power structures, the rule of law, and even the very laws of the universe dictate to us the decisions we can make for ourselves and others.

At the same time, this terrible truth is a blessing when applied correctly. Even with the “right” connections and resources, turns out it’s still pretty difficult to get away with murder, theft, and infidelity unless you’ve had some practice (in fact, it’s a pretty big blessing that society as a whole acknowledges at least in some way that those three things are pretty rotten). People overcome their apparent restrictions in surprising ways: not a day goes by without seeing a post on Facebook of a first-generation college graduate getting their diploma or a soldier whose limb was torn off in combat finding a greater standard of living through the latest generation of prosthetics. The same laws that govern the destructive power of the atomic bomb have provided power to hundreds of thousands of people for decades. It lies only for us to choose to use our power, time, and resources towards a particular end. The consequences can be beneficial for many or for few, disastrous for many or for few, or be completely unexpected: even nothing happening can be a legitimate result of choice. Consequence follows choice, whether the effects are immediate or not. What may seem a sudden event often isn’t felt for years, even centuries, to come.

So, with the philosophy out of the way, why is choice so important in video games, whether you realize it or not?

Well, simply put, when the crumbling bridge falls or the unlockable door slams shut, people get pissed when they realize they can’t ever make those choices again!

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So much anger. Thankfully, most RPGs are single-player so the rage is contained. Until they complain on Steam forums and Reddit.

Continuing on my theme of ‘video games represent an ever-perfecting medium of pure escapism’, it only stands to reason that people get tired of being restricted day in and day out. The circumstances of our lives offer us options, and sure, we make a veritable torrent of choices every single day, but most of them decidedly non-life-threatening and unimportant. Many of them are incredibly boring or even repulsive. Let’s be honest: we make many of the same choices again and again. Why? Because of taste, ease, comfort, or even decision fatigue. Take me for instance: I choose to drink the same two drinks over and over with very little variation (Citrus Energy Sobe and Slim Fast) because I’ve grown accustomed to the taste and effects of both (although I don’t advise drinking both at the same time). Some people (like Mark Zuckerberg) wear the same clothes day in and day out so they don’t have to make a decision about fashion. Some people end up forming relationships with the same person or type of personality because they’ve grown accustomed to it (for better or for worse).

Role-playing games, or at least the good ones, allow you to step into the skin of another being and make decisions that you yourself would never have the opportunity to make unless you were, in fact, the leader of a paramilitary mercenary organization, the ex-head of security at Sarif Industries, the last dragonborn, or even a mute child with spiky hair and a time-traveling ship. These individuals, through hardship or happenstance, somehow found themselves in the middle of world-shaking circumstances, and their video games enables you, the player, to make the decisions regarding how these characters would survive or even thrive in life-threatening situations. In most games, you can make the choice to clothe your character in different armors, use different items like potions or food to boost their abilities, read books detailing the lore of the world, and fight fantastical monsters that real life does not offer.

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He never asked for this. But gamers do!

When these characters encounter choices that suddenly and severely restrict their comparatively god-like abilities, it becomes easy for the player to say, “Well, why don’t they do X instead?” And it is upon the shoulders of the game developer to explain to the player why these options are no longer available to them. I’ll give you some examples.

First, something simple:

Why can’t Mario walk backwards in Super Mario Bros.? That really bugged me as a kid. Did it bother anyone else? If you miss a mushroom or it disappears behind you off-screen, you might as well walk off a cliff, because you ain’t never getting that back. Is Mario afraid to look backwards, scared of what he might find in his past? Or was it just an engine limitation? Well, whatever it was, Mario got over it in later games.

I would call this a mechanical limitation of choice, not a technical limitation of the Nintendo system itself but of the game’s design (whether it was or wasn’t). To use Stewart’s example, this is the collapsed bridge that you can never cross again unless you restart the game from the beginning. Telltale Games centrally structures their games around this limitation, as the major choices you make have irreversible consequences (even minor choices can affect whether the story even continues). Many of these choices are even timed, giving the player no time to think about the decision they’re about to make. Thus, you could actually consider Stewart’s first example as split into two parts: the mechanical limitation of choice (the crumbling bridge) and the plot limitation of choice (the story reason for crossing the bridge).

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I’m not sure if this is a spoiler or not. If it is, please let me know.

A prime example of this would be choosing a major faction in the main questline of Fallout 4. If you believe a synth deserves freedom like any human, the Railroad is your faction. If you believe that synths are simply tools that are built to serve humanity, join the Institute. If you believe that synths are weapons that could spell the future doom of mankind, there’s always the Brotherhood of Steel. And if you believe that improving and defending all peace-loving human-looking life in the Commonwealth is more important than all this petty synth business, the Minutemen need a new general. There is a way for only the Institute to be destroyed, and for a while, it seemed like this pathway wasn’t intended by Bethesda – either the Institute destroys the Railroad and the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood destroys the Institute and the Railroad, or the Railroad destroys the Institute and the Brotherhood. Somehow, when the Minutemen lead the charge against the Institute, the Railroad and the Brotherhood no longer have a reason to clash. If you want to experience the whole of Fallout 4, prepare to play 4 different characters and then some with the Nuka-World DLC (choosing to become a raider boss or not).

Also, ever run into an invisible wall or boundary that brings you unwillingly back to a certain point? The edge of the Great Ocean in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask comes to mind. Whether they’re necessary (such as a world border) or not (like certain dumb ones in Fallout: New Vegas), these barriers limit where you can go and how fast you can get there.

The next example Stewart mentions seems to be the limitation of choice using in-game items. To use Final Fantasy as an example, you never quite know how many megalixirs you’re going to be granted, causing the player anxiety over using them now or for a tougher challenge later on. Did you know that, technically speaking, there are non-renewable resources in the nearly infinite world of Minecraft? Anyway, this isn’t quite what Stewart is solely referring to; it’s a limitation of overall resources available to the player, not just of items, but of abilities and stats that makes your player unique.

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“But I’ll run out eventually!” you cry, with tears streaming down your face. Siiimple and Cleeeean is the waaay that you’re maaaaking me feeeel toniiiiight…

Ever play the Bioshock series? Then you’re probably familiar with the Little Sisters, the genetically-modified little girls that accompany the iron-suited Big Daddies in the city of Rapture. Choosing to sacrifice them for their ADAM or saving them and receiving a lesser reward for a better game ending is a perfect example of a game designed around resource limitations. The game actually becomes more challenging if you choose to be heroic, and you get the bad ending if you choose to sacrifice even one Little Sister in a moment of desperation.

A good example of a limitation of ability would be the conversation cutscenes that occur in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. A lot of the simplest pathways are restricted to those that have the sharpest tongue. If you don’t have the social enhancer and upgrades related to charisma, you’ll find yourself blundering through conversations and end up with much fewer options. Worse, you can fail even if you have these upgrades like I often did, restricting yourself even more when stealth or direct combat remain the only avenues of progress. Further, if you do prefer the stealth approach over direct violence or persuasion, you’ll often miss many items and upgrades that would be available to you otherwise. In my first sneak-only playthrough of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I played the entire game passively without ever knowing how to use a P.E.P.S. gun, as the ammo was very rare and heavily guarded. And that’s all besides the fact that bosses were violence-only affairs before Eidos patched them with non-violent solutions.

A special example of resource restriction that comes to mind is when a temporary character comes into your party in an RPG that has surprisingly buffed stats and abilities compared to your regular team members. These characters often leave your party just as quickly as they arrive unless progress is stalled in some way or the player outright cheats to keep them available. Examples include Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, Edea and Seifer in Final Fantasy VIII, Beatrix in Final Fantasy IX, Seymour in Final Fantasy X, Larsa and Reddas in Final Fantasy XII… Do you sense a trend? While these team members are in your party, you can pretty much wipe the floor with enemies, and can often demonstrate the kind of potential your characters will achieve by the end game. You’ll suddenly feel very naked when they have to say goodbye.

One notable inversion to this that I can think of is Cidolfus Orlandeau from Final Fantasy Tactics. He’s incredibly powerful, and once devoted to your cause, will never leave your side. Unless you force him away. But why would you? His nickname (and his theme music) is ‘Thunder God Cid’!

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SUCK ON EXCALIBUR, MALBORO! Art by Morbidmic.

The third example of the limitation of choice Stewart mentions is less about gameplay and more about the mistakes a player can make while playing. I’ll call this the limitation of accident forgiveness. This can happen after important events when the autosave will kick in and force the player to accept the change or revert back to a previous manual save…

And when do we perform a manual save, children? “All the gosh-darn time,” that’s right, you’re so smart!

Even in games with autosave systems, every gamer is going to make mistakes and regret not saving when they had the chance. These times come more often when the game is a new experience. The worst of these is when it’s time to choose a dialogue option in the game, and the game itself doesn’t describe the choice very well. Hilarity can sometimes ensue, but most of the time it will piss off the NPC and the player. Fallout 4 was known for this until the introduction of mods that expanded the dialogue options.

One of the best games I’ve seen avoid this limitation of accident forgiveness is actually Into the Breach; its time-travel mechanic made it possible to reverse already-made movements and attacks once per battle. This handy tool saved my bacon many times. Even then, however, I was in the midst of my next turn and regretted not being able to turn the clock backwards just a little further. In a similar game like Final Fantasy Tactics? No such accident forgiveness. If you move or act, it’s set in stone, whether you’ve made a mistake or not.

Another game that avoids this limitation is Fallout: New Vegas, which warns you with a text box stating that if you continue working with a certain faction, you’ll soon be unable to work with an opposing faction. Unimmersive, sure, but helpful.

Also, have you ever made a mistake while playing a permadeath character? This isn’t fun.

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Three out of the three XCOM soldiers in this picture will die by the end of the match. When you consistently miss 85% accuracy shots, you begin to wonder if you’re the one at fault.

So, in the end, we have:

  • Limitation by mechanics (programmed barriers to backtracking)
  • Limitation by plot choice (plot choices that restrict options)
  • Limitation of resources (items, abilities, stats, and team configurations)
  • Limitation of accident forgiveness (ability to backtrack after making a mistake)

Which ones are allowable, which ones should be better designed, and which ones should never see the light of day again in today’s role-playing games? I think they all have their place, although I am seeing a shift from finite resource limitations in RPGs past to games with unlimited but difficult-to-acquire items that only require time and skill. It’s a good trend to follow. But in the end, it’s up to the designers and developers of each game to establish and explain the extent of each of these limitations.

My (Preliminary) 10-Hour Tale – No Man’s Sky

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“Oh, Mr. Conductor,” I say with exuberance, waving down a man dressed in a bright pink space suit and a tiny blue conductor’s hat. “Does the hype train get off at the next exit, my dear sir?”

“NO,” says the bright pink conductor of the Hype Train in a booming voice that reminds me of the unwavering density and blackness of the vast universe.

“THE HYPE TRAIN NEVER STOPS.”

Chugga-chugga, choo-choo, my friends. Man, very few video games get into the hype levels No Man’s Sky has generated. I didn’t even feel Fallout 4 or Fallout 76 got this much attention, especially considering this is the third such wave of excitement for the 70’s-sci-fi-book-cover space exploration simulator. Even the lead programmer and head of Hello Games had this to say:

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Nothing says despair and dread like a lower-case “oh no”.

His reaction is appropriate. At the game’s release in 2016, I bought into the hype train like crazy and spent the full $60 game for something that was very unpolished and most decidedly not multiplayer. This derailed the Hype Train quite badly for a lot of people, leading Steam reviews to put No Man’s Sky at Mostly Negative.

Fortunately, I don’t think Sean Murray and the team at Hello Games has much to worry about anymore with No Man’s Sky’s latest update called NEXT. How big and important was this update? When I downloaded, it came to about 6.7 Gb. Impressive, I thought, for a game that was about that large before the update. But what’s more impressive is what it meant for the originally single-player-only experience: No Man’s Sky is actually multiplayer.

And what’s more? The game looks even more incredible than it did before from both a gameplay and a graphics standpoint.

I mean, look at what the last three days did for No Man’s Sky:

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Wow!

It’s gone from Mostly Negative to Mixed. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a game do that. And that’s 2000 positive reviews more than there were yesterday. I mean, just take a look at the patch notes for NEXT. Hello Games took their sci-fi adventure and flipped it on its head. Base building is nearly infinite, freighter armadas can be purchased and travel the stars with you, and even the basic building materials and recipes have been overhauled to the point where crafting and exploration is now an exciting venture instead of a mindless grind.

Admittedly, I struggled and panicked at the very start of the game; I was dropped onto a very radioactive planet with no ship and three-fourths of my radiation shielding gone, and had no idea what materials I needed to recharge it. I didn’t even have a scanner to search! But panic turns into resolve when you finally get your bearings, and following the mysterious storyline of the Atlas is proving to be very interesting.

There’s finally a reason to upgrade your blaster: biological horrors and sentinels show up in the worst places, and even caves are no longer safe places to hide. You’ll need to refine the raw materials you harvest from the worlds you explore, and refined materials are often more valuable than their components. Oceans are deep enough to fly under (this may be a bug, I’m unsure) and mountains are now continental in height. Artifacts can be found in hidden underground ruins and can sell for millions of credits, incentivizing exploration and discovery in a way the game hadn’t before.

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I made a dad joke! Do you get it? 1.3k people did!

With all that said, I did encounter two game-breaking day-one bugs that interrupted my play.

The first was a bug with the main quest; the quest wouldn’t allow me to warp to another system until I fueled my ship with antimatter. I would craft the warp fuel and fuel my hyperdrive only to have the quest reset and send me back for more antimatter. Good news: unlimited fuel. Bad news: no way to use it. I managed to un-bug the quest by purchasing another ship. I imagine it was something to do with the fact that I got a ship with a hyperdrive earlier than the quest assumed I would get one. Interestingly, I had a similar problem with earlier updates of No Man’s Sky.

The second occurred when only partially repairing some systems on my ship. The game didn’t like ‘partial repair’ so much that the next time I loaded my save game, the game initialized on a brand new world as if I’d started a brand new game, with no inventory, no ship, no upgrades, nothing. I fixed this with help from the No Man’s Sky Reddit and editing some junk code from my save file.

As of an hour ago, I’ve learned that both of these issues have been patched out, however. So as far as bugs are concerned, the only ones I’ve stumbled across are gone.

I thought I’d start out on normal mode, but to be honest, creative mode is looking really appealing. Check out this awesome cliffside base by ParagonHex:

I’ve played NEXT for about five hours now, and I have no desire to stop. I’ll have more to share in the coming days, but until then, consider this a tentative but glowing review of No Man’s Sky. I can’t wait to helm the bridge of my own freighter fleet and establish a sprawling base on a tropical planet. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to discover my first ruin and not get eaten by horrors.

Early Review: 9/10

My 10-Hour Tale – Tropico 4

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*sigh*

I’m going to have to talk about politics, aren’t I?

Nope, not going to do it. I’m going to talk about a really fun strategy game that’s themed around political intrigue, foreign relations, benevolent dictators that can make the rebellious “disappear” at any time, secret police, every citizen living below the poverty line, social security, free healthcare, free college education…

Nope. You can’t make me. I’m not going to do it.

Mmmm. Hmm-mm. Nonononono hmmmmmmMMMMMMM BOTH DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS ARE THE PROBLEM THE US WAS NEVER MEANT TO HAVE A TWO-PARTY SYSTEM CHANGING LAW SHOULD BE NATURALLY DIFFICULT BECAUSE OF MANY VIEWPOINTS NOT JUST TWO THE FREE MARKET SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO REGULATE ITSELF I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY MARIJUANA IS ILLEGAL ESPECIALLY FOR MEDICAL PURPOSES I SYMPATHIZE WITH WOMEN’S RIGHTS ON ABORTION BUT ADOPTION IS A MORALLY ACCEPTABLE AND LIFE-CHANGING OPTION FOR ALL INVOLVED ESPECIALLY FOR COUPLES WHO CAN’T HAVE CHILDREN RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE IS SELF-SABOTAGE AND NATURALLY LEADS TO FEWER JOBS ESPECIALLY FOR THOSE WITH NO EXPERIENCE EDUCATION SHOULD BE MORE ACCESSIBLE TO THOSE BELOW THE POVERTY LINE NO MATTER THEIR RACE OR RELIGION SCHOOL TUITION COSTS ARE RIDICULOUS AND SHOULD BE BETTER REGULATED BY THE STATES I ACCEPT MY WHITE MALE PRIVILEGE BUT UNDERSTAND THAT NOT ALL WHITE MALES HAVE PRIVILEGE EVERY LGBTQ+ PERSON CAN AND SHOULD BE WHO AND WHAT THEY WANT TO BE AS LONG AS THEY AFFORD ME THE SAME COURTESY BUILDING THE WALL ON MEXICO’S DIME IS A STUPID IDEA BUT THE U.S. SHOULD BE ABLE TO CONTROL ITS BORDERS WITHOUT SEPARATING FAMILIES WHO COME SEEKING ASYLUM THERE SHOULD BE TERM LIMITS FOR EVERY ELECTED MEMBER OF CONGRESS SENATORS AND MEMBERS OF THE HOUSE SHOULD BE FORCED TO LIVE IN THE DISTRICTS THEY SERVE TO KEEP THEM ACCOUNTABLE TO THE PEOPLE PRESIDENTIAL AUTHORITY TO USE EXECUTIVE ACTIONS SHOULD BE RESTRICTED I HONESTLY BELIEVE THE WEALTHY WOULD PRODUCE BETTER GOODS HERE INSTEAD OF IN CHINA AND OFFER BETTER PAYING JOBS DOMESTICALLY IF NOT FORCED TO PAY SUCH HIGH TAXES HEALTHCARE IS NOT A RIGHT BUT MODERN MEDICINE IS WOEFULLY IMPRECISE IF ADMINISTRATION FEES DIDN’T COST SO MUCH AND GOOD DOCTORS HAD BETTER PROTECTION FROM LAWSUITS MEDICAL COSTS WOULD BECOME AFFORDABLE ON THEIR OWN

mlezo

ERROR: OPINION OVERLOAD. UNABLE TO UNDO. (I was going to use the Scanners movie head explosion, but thought it a bit graphic.)

*pant* *cough* Sorry. Give me a minute.

There. It’s done. It’s all out there. I’m a strange specimen of libertarian/independent mixed up with a conservative upbringing. I have reasons and personal experiences for thinking all these things, as most people do, and I’m fairly flexible accepting well-reasoned arguments on both sides of any topic. I have a lot of respect for those that consider themselves classical liberals, trying to understand socialists gives me a headache, fascists are just plain wrong, and communists need to go live in 1970’s Cuba or 1960’s East Germany.

So why do I reveal these many political sins I call opinions in a video game review? Well, two reasons. First, because I must be a glutton for punishment, as I have the overwhelming desire to be part of a discussion I’m very unqualified to participate in (although you should never assume unqualified means uneducated). Second, because it’s games like Tropico 4 that make me wonder what it would be like if I threw out all of my beliefs about good government and became a dictator of my own resource-rich island out in the Caribbean.

Turns out, I’m pretty good at being a dictator.

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My very refined Presidente avatar. Yes, a pipe instead of a cigar. I was going for “the most interesting Presidente in the world” look.

Tropico 4 is, yes, the fourth game in the strategic Tropico series by Haemimont Games and published by Kalypso Digital where you take the reins of your own Caribbean island as a Fidel Castro-esque figure with an awesome voice actor. You can choose to be a fascist dictator that offers nothing but swift and terrible military action to your rebellious subjects or a benevolent presidente-for-life who offers free education, free healthcare, free housing, and free margaritas to all your loyal citizens. Okay, maybe not the margaritas, but you can certainly set up your own cabaret and celebrate the good life.

Having played the previous Tropico games, I chose this one to write about because it’s been my favorite. It’s also the best in the series right now, if reviews would have you believe. I haven’t played Tropico 5, but friends and many reviews on Steam say Tropico 4 did everything better. Tropico 4, like its predecessors, comes with a plethora of DLC (too much DLC, in my opinion, although I got them all in a bundle) that breaks down into the very-positively upvoted Modern Times and…everything else. You get additional islands and challenges along with a smattering of questionably useful buildings like nuclear bomb shelters and propaganda towers in case life in the Caribbean gets a little… fallout-y.

As dictator (or El Presidente!), it’s your job to balance the many goods and services your citizens need as well as manage the many different factions of people that arrive on your sun-kissed shores. These tasks can range from painfully easy to painfully difficult depending on the difficulty settings (yes, there are easy-to-use difficulty settings, huzzah) imposed by the level or by yourself in free play mode.

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Yes, that is farmland and a dump in the middle of my community. It can’t smell good, but it just works.

First, Tropicans need to eat (a variety of foods always helps the mood). They need proper housing (good housing is expensive) that is free of crime and gang violence. They need to worship God in churches and cathedrals. They need good medical care from clinics and hospitals. They want liberty of information through radio, newspapers, or television. Tropicans want good and meaningful jobs and education opportunities.

On top of all these things, Tropicans have opinions about how Tropico should be governed. Each belongs to a faction, like the religious faction who value faith and church availability above all else, the militaristic faction that values national defense, the loyalists which value independence from superpowers, the environmentalists that will complain against you for over-exploiting Mother Nature, the Capitalists and the Communists (duh), and the intellectuals who value education and wisdom.

Tropico 4 is all about maintaining a balance of all of these factors and somehow still make a tidy profit for your national treasury… as well as improve the financial health of your hidden Swiss Bank account. You’ll get foreign financial aid from the US and Russia as long as you remain in their good graces, but it’s never wise to go into the negative for very long lest your foreign relations deteriorate and almost everyone starts to protest (sounds familiar to modern-day politics, to be honest).

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Typhoon!! Everyone hide in your baseme- oh. Island. Right. Um, duck and cover?

So how do you make money? You can jump-start agriculture with cash crops like tobacco or sugar, mine iron or gold, raise cattle or llamas, or strike into the tourism business and establishing a few hotels and entertainment venues. Then, build factories to take advantage of your island’s natural resources, like cigar or weapon factories. In Modern Times, you can even establish chemical plants, concrete factories, and business offices to supplement your income. Most factories come with extra upgrades you can unlock by providing them with power from power plants or wind turbines, letting you improve the job quality for your factory’s workers or help you produce goods faster.

In fact, you’ll need power for lots of things, like movie theaters and hospitals. And giant rotating statues made of solid gold. You know, the essentials.

Establishing a fully-operating and well-oiled economy in Tropico can be tricksy. To help you navigate the dangerous political waters of life as El Presidente, you can pass certain laws or edicts to increase the people’s opinion of you… or remove any dissidents that would raise their voice against you. Edicts include social security for the elderly (the price of which increases as your island’s population grows older), declaring a national holiday (which changes some Tropicans into Loyalists or Nationalists), issuing tax breaks straight to each citizen (which is obviously great PR but pricier the more people live in Tropico), make housing free (which is great for public opinion but the capitalists hate it and cuts into your bottom line), establishing a literacy program (increase the rate at which workers gain experience in their jobs), and even printing money (which grants a ton of money but makes everything you build permanently more expensive).

Some of the more interesting edicts that I rarely played with until recently include legalizing same-sex marriages (which increases intellectual respect but lowers religious respect), call for an anti-litter campaign (which decreases pollution but also decreases liberty), and declaring martial law (in case crime gets out of control, liberty and all production is decreased). Modern Times brings a few entertaining edicts to the table, including banning social networks (increases production, but it also shuts off Tropico 4‘s social integration at the same time, lol), passing healthcare reform (increases the amount of people that can be treated at clinics and hospitals), and calling for a Festival of Love (makes a baby-boom population increase and boosts tourist spending for a few years).

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And you thought I was joking about the giant rotating golden statue.

So how do I play Tropico? Probably in the most ham-fisted way possible: the guy with the money makes the rules. Farming farming farming cash crops right away, leaving only a few farms to make food for everybody. Open the doors of Tropico early enough with an immigration office, and you’ll have all the labor you’ll need to see huge profits (or, as Trump would say, YUGE). Unless I start with a church, I tend to ignore them until I have a big enough checkbook to afford a high school first (as churches can only be run by educated priests). Buy a clinic; there is no choice here (people dying is the last thing you’ll want). If you’ve got lots of white sandy beaches, go for tourism immediately: even with few amenities, tourists will practically shower you with money in between the timed exports.

The intellectuals, the religious, and the loyalists usually hate me for a while, and a rebellion starts to form when you get to about 45% approval rating or lower. But by the time it gets down to about 43% or 42%, I usually have enough money to afford churches, entertainment, and a ministry to help me pass edicts like social security and my first tax break. From there, build even more farms and plantations, a college, an armory, and a few guard posts, and the paltry few rebels who’ve chosen to live alone in the miserable jungle will have no choice to accept the amnesty I offer when approval gets back above 50%.

I think Tropico 4 and the series in general is so funny (and fun) because while you can choose to be a communist “presidente” who does nothing positive for the people, you still have to rely on foreign markets, exports, and trade in order to progress. Why do you think embargos and sanctions work so well in real life? The money has to come from somewhere, and sorry Venezuela, but printing money only gets you so far when inflation rages. Education and healthcare might be free in Tropico, but all the farms, mines, office buildings, churches, restaurants, hotels, and tenements are all state owned and regulated as cheaply as possible. What’s an education in North Korea worth these days? Would you trust Cuban doctors to treat a heart defect or operable cancer?

Workers aren’t paid according to their skills; workers are paid on a scale of what the government thinks they should be paid, usually dependent on which jobs are needed most at that time. Which can be $1 a day, if you wish (although job quality will go straight down the crapper). Don’t want to be a teamster? Well, the teamster office is paying $25 an hour at the moment, even though it’s on the other side of the island. How many of us would drop our current jobs, abandon our homes, and remain nomadic depending on where the money goes?

Does that appeal to anyone?

If it does, imagine if your “presidente for life” was some politician you really couldn’t stand. *ahem* In real life, you may be able to vote in your country, but very few get to choose their dictator.

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Tropicaaaaaaans iiiiiiin SPAAAAAACE!

Tropico 4 is a fantastic game from El Presidente’s perspective. It asks the grand question, “What would the dictators of the world do with unlimited resources and man power?” Tropico‘s seemingly fantastic answer is: “What they’re already doing and then some.” I like to think I’d be a pretty benevolent dictator, if thrust into that position. But you didn’t see many people fleeing to communist Cuba during the 80’s and 90’s for its economic opportunities, religious freedom, and safety from political persecution. No, I’m pretty sure those rafts were floating towards Florida, not away from it.

Review: 9/10 for fun, 9/10 for making me research history and current events, 1/10 for making me talk about politics

My 10-Hour Tale – Into the Breach

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Release Date: February 2018

System: Windows (Steam, GOG.com)

Unto the breach? Into? Oh well.

Before I decided to purchase Into the Breach, I only knew one thing about the game: it was made by Subset Games, the same studio that brought us FTL: Faster Than Light. I haven’t reviewed that game just yet, but I can firmly say that it was one of the most difficult and enjoyable experiences I’d had with an indie “roguelike” title back in 2012. FTL’s systems were unique, varied without being overly complex, and an entire campaign could go south within the space of a single battle. At the end of your travels to warn the Federation of the rebellion’s impending invasion, you were either prepared to go up against the mighty Rebel flagship or you were not. And more often than not, I was not prepared. But that’s the fun of the RNG and exploration.

In like fashion, Subset Games brought a new grid-based tactical game into the world that shared the same kind of desperate upgrade-as-you-go can-they-save-the-world feeling. Into the Breach makes me think of Gundam or Pacific Rim set to the tactical system of XCOM or Final Fantasy Tactics, but with a twist: not only do you want your heroes to save the day by defeating all the bad evil monsters, you also want to do your best to save the civilian cities and buildings. In other words, the point of the game is to be opposite of a Michael Bay film. A pixelated Michael Bay-less film.

I mean, collateral damage is going to happen, and it may or may not be my fault, but heroes don’t have to worry about that, right? No. Wrong. Very wrong.

Oh, and time travel! That’s always good, right? Don’t worry, no terrible time loops in this story.

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It’s the leader units you want to look out for. These things are big meanies.

Giant Mechs Versus Giant Aliens

So as far as the narrative goes, here’s the gist of it: Earth in the far-flung future is being invaded by gigantic city-sized alien bugs called the Vek. An unnamed group of human and A.I. mech pilots are called upon to battle them with three giant robots armed with a variety of different weaponry and gadgets. The Vek multiply quickly, and the odds look grim for humanity… The only ace-in-the-hole our intrepid pilots have is the ability to reverse time and “start over” whenever defeat seems imminent. Through this mechanic, the pilots (and the player) can even reverse time once per battle, restarting a bad turn.

Into the Breach is a turn-based game in which the player will face increasing numbers and types of Vek in battles that only last about five to six turns (a turn being all the Vek move, then all your mechs move, rinse and repeat). This means the combat can be very fast paced if you allow it to be; this is not recommended, as speed invariably leads to making terrible mistakes. In reality, you can take your time, analyze the battlefield, and create the best solution to squish the Vek and keep them off of civilian population centers and important buildings and vehicles. Call it a side-effect of time travel.

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FAILURE: INVASION IMMINENT. EMERGENCY TIME TRAVEL PROTOCOLS INITIATED.

Future Arms and Tech

Your pilots will have a single mech team at the beginning. But unlocking achievements will help you unlock additional mech teams that can bring all new exciting tactics to the fight. For example, the Rift Walkers (your initial team of mechs) have pretty straightforward attacks, including the Titan Fist (which damages and pushes the target backwards), the Taurus Cannon (a long-range attack which has the same effect as the Titan Fist), and Artemis Artillery (which damages the center target and shoves all surrounding units one tile away from the center). Eventually, you’ll unlock mechs with weapons like Aerial Bombs (which damages and create smoke on the target, making the target unable to act), Flamethrowers (which damage units over time) and Acid Projectors (which inflict A.C.I.D. status on targets, doubling any damage the unit suffers). Better yet, every piece of weaponry will show you their effects when mousing over it, so there’s no confusion about their effects.

The point of all of this weapon diversity is to help you twist and manipulate the battlefield to your advantage. You see, the Vek emerge from the ground (which you can stand on top of to block their emergence) and they don’t act immediately after announcing their attack. This gives your pilots the ability to counter them before they act.

The Vek will attack your mechs, allies, or civilian buildings, and it’s up to you to choose whether to attack and kill them, somehow shove them out of the way of their intended target, or even shove your target into other Vek, damaging them both. If you’re clever enough, you can even turn Vek attacks against themselves, and there are achievements for doing so. If you’re even more cleverer and willing to take a risk, you can smash your own units into the enemy or push yourself with artillery explosions for a movement boost. The game encourages you to do anything, including self-sacrifice, to achieve victory. Don’t worry, though; the mechs are capable of self-repair, which you can take advantage of instead of attacking.

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Your first team: the Rift Walkers.

Be cautious, though: not only do your mechs have HP bars (and losing pilots means losing their valuable experience and abilities), you have an overall “Power Grid” that represents the health of the civilian cities. Damage to structures will remove bars on the Power Grid, and when it hits zero, it’s game over and time to time travel to an alternate timeline where you didn’t screw up. This sets up a conundrum you’ll encounter many times in combat: should I sacrifice my pilots to protect my Power Grid now, or should I sacrifice the Power Grid to save my pilots for the future?

Oh, and one more thing: your pilots aren’t the only ones time-hopping. Every once in a while, a “time-pod” will drop onto the battlefield that you can secure or ignore. Don’t ignore them for too long, though, or the Vek will also attack them. You won’t want to ignore them since they’re filled with goodies like new pilots and mech powerups… Unless you’re going for the achievement to ignore them, of course. Into the Breach is pretty achievement heavy when it comes to putting you at every disadvantage possible.

Not-Exactly-Paradise Islands

In every campaign, there are four island sectors ruled by different factions (including corporations, terraforming specialists, A.I. engineers, and scientists). On each, you’ll encounter different biomes which can work with or against your overall strategy. At first, you’ll only be able to go through the islands one at a time, but after you successfully defend each island, they’ll become available from the beginning of a campaign from then on.

Missions on each island will have special secondary objectives on top of simple survival. A successful “lightning bolt” objective will add to your Power Grid power rating. A successful “star” objective will grant the player a reputation point that they can spend at the end of the island on new pilots, fusion reactors (which power the weapons and defensive capabilities of the mechs), weapons, tools, and Power Grid power. If no weapons appeal to you, purchasing Grid Power is sometimes a good option as obtaining any power over seven will add to your “Grid Defense” rating. This is the percentage that civilian buildings will completely resist Vek damage. There’s nothing like losing complete hope only for a building to negate its own damage!

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Such a simple UI. It didn’t need to be any more complex than this.

After completing two islands, you’ll be able to play out the final battle at the Vek Hive island… If you think defending additional islands too risky, then, by all means, take on the final battle. The difficulty of the final fight will curve to how many islands you’ve completed, but you’ll probably be better prepared if you complete three or four islands. If you succeed in destroying the hive, you’ll get a happy ending, and your pilots will time travel to another timeline, ready to continue the fight (for eternity? Some lines suggest that your pilots have been in the fight for a very long time, relatively speaking).

Of course, it’s also possible for a fantastic run to be killed in the final battle. Or any battle, for that matter. Just like in FTL, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is a very distinct possibility at all times in Into the Breach.

Success and Failure

Into the Breach manages to be difficult without being overbearing (unless you want it to be, there is a brutal hard mode for expert tacticians). There’s an “every single move and action counts” mentality that makes the game feel a lot like the game of chess I never knew I wanted to play, complete with a time travel “turn reset” button in case I mess up somewhere along the way. The whole campaign isn’t very long, meaning it’s a great game to pick up on a lunch break, and failure isn’t ever permanent. In fact, I found that getting certain achievements depended on a bit of failure.

Deciding what each mech is going to do and how they will move is completely dependent on which type of mech they are and what armaments they have. Artillery with increased move distance makes them infinitely more versatile, melee mechs need increased health and a pilot that can make the mech armored (or resistant to single points of damage) and flying mechs never have to worry about water or acid pools. Of course, it’s completely up to you to upgrade your mech in every game. Utilizing every mech’s strengths and overcoming their weaknesses is where the true challenge lies. Each mech team you obtain has a completely different game plan, and it took me quite a while to get used to a team change.

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Of course, the Vek live in an active volcano. Where else do giant bugs live?

My personal favorite? Blitzkreig. A hook mech to reel enemies in, a boulder mech to squish and stop Vek from emerging from the ground, and a lightning mech to chain-electrocute close-up enemies (even through buildings).

My verdict? If you like tactical board games, you should definitely play this game. Into the Breach is slow enough for beginners to learn and enjoy, yet there’s nothing stopping a more advanced player from playing at crazy-fast speeds if they wish (there are speed achievements, too). Complete with an intuitive UI and tooltips explaining absolutely everything, I never had any questions about the effects of any weapon or gadget.

If you can learn chess, you can learn Into the Breach faster. In fact, the only thing Into the Breach is missing is a multiplayer “mech vs. Vek” or even “mech vs. mech” feature, which I think would put it over the top in my book. Co-op with two teams of mechs versus a mass of Vek on an expanded board would have been amazing.

And I just found out there are mods for the game. I think my brain just broke because of the awesome.

Review: 9.3/10

My 100-Hour Tale – Realm Grinder

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Release Date: June 2017

System: Windows, Mac OS X (Steam), Online (Kongregate.com)

Clicker games are a relatively new concept. Well, ‘last six years’ new.

Wikipedia calls them ‘incremental games’, a game whose gameplay “consists of the player performing simple actions such as clicking on the screen repeatedly…to earn currency”. After enough clicking, there’s usually some mechanic (a ‘minion’, a ‘service’, a ‘structure’, or a ‘business’) that enables the game to ‘click’ for you, enabling you to earn immense amounts of the game’s currency over a certain amount of time. Multipliers are added into the mix, stacking higher and higher to the point where even a 28000% increase isn’t a drop in the bucket.

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Where it all starts. Again. And again. And AGAIN.

It’s inexplicable. I can’t describe it. There’s something about Realm Grinder that appeals to me, despite the very nature of the game. I shouldn’t like it. I shouldn’t like to waste time watching numbers tick ever upwards while watching Youtube videos. I shouldn’t like clicking on upgrades whose effects are soon lost in the flood of even more upgrades. Numbers increase exponentially to the point where I have to consult a chart to make sure they’re the numbers I want. Unless you’re a college physics major that deals with incredibly large numbers on a regular basis, I doubt you know how many zeroes are contained in ten-quattuordecillion… Or what that is in scientific notation. I sure don’t. I might as well be playing with my graphing calculator. At least that way, I could type the number I want immediately instead of waiting for some silly game to get there.

But then I wouldn’t get the serotonin rush from having reached that point over an achingly long period of time, would I?

The Gainful Grind

Realm Grinder is an incremental game (or an idle RPG, according to the Steam page) developed by Divine Games and originally published on Kongregate. In fact, that’s where I first played this time sink before discovering it was also free and linkable to Kongregate through Steam.

Do you like a game with goals? Trophies? Upgrades to go with those trophies? A ton of factions to choose from with different upgrade trees to suit your preferred playstyle? Then Realm Grinder is the clicky game for you!

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Happyville, tax rate: 49.13 undecillion gold coins per second. Talk about hyperinflation.

You start the game with very little money at first, building neutral buildings like farms, inns, and blacksmiths. These don’t produce much. In fact, without the right upgrade path, these units (businesses? Buildings?) will count for almost nothing. Then, for a small fee, you’ll choose a path: good or evil. The good side emphasizes a more active playstyle, while evil emphasizes idling and offline growth. The good path has honorable buildings such as castles and cathedrals while the evil side has slave pens and hell portals; either side you choose, you’ve got eleven building types to build, seven morally aligned and four neutral.

But we’re not done yet. Once you’ve picked good or evil, it’s time to choose the race you’ll align yourself with in that playthrough. On the good side, you’ve got the fairies, the elves, and the angels: fairies focus on boosting the output of the lowest tier buildings, elves focus on clicking, and angels focus on spell casting and mana regeneration (more on that in a second). For evil, you have the goblins, the undead, and the demons: goblins get cheaper buildings, the undead get increased production the longer the playthrough lasts, and demons increase the output of the highest tier evil buildings.

The more currency you collect, you’ll start to gather gems, which give you a base multiplier to all production. In order to collect your gems, you have to start your playthrough from the beginning, but you’ll have that base multiplier to help you out on your next playthrough. Play long enough, and you’ll gain the ability to reincarnate, giving up all of your gems to really start over with yet another type of base multiplier. And as you collect currency, you’ll increase your chances of finding faction coins, which allow you to gain additional multipliers in your current playthrough! Did I mention that each faction has their own spells which give you additional short-lived multipliers through the use of a slowly refilling mana bar (or quickly refilling, depending on your faction)?

But wait, there’s more! You can even spend real-world money on rubies, which can allow you to receive gems without restarting your playthrough, boost your multipliers even further, and purchase unique upgrades.

Oh, the multipliers. I told you this game is all about multipliers.

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Notice the red ‘Buy All Upgrades’ button. You’ll be clicking this a lot.

Play long enough and unlock their many treaties and pacts, and you’ll get to play as neutral factions like the Faceless, which become stronger over multiple playthroughs, the druids, which focus on magic and balance, and the Titans, which have multipliers for your multipliers. Advance even further, and there’s the good dwarves (which enhance the base good factions), the drow (which enhance the base evil factions), and the dragons (which enhance the neutral factions). And then there are the mercenaries, which allow you to take any perks and upgrades from any factions to mix and match them to your heart’s content.

“Oh, Don’t Worry, It’s Free…”

Can I tell you how much time I have in this game? Hint: not nearly as much as some of the reviewers in the Steam reviews have.

155 hours.

I won’t lie, a lot of that time was from me having left the program on in the background while doing other things. But I think an equal amount of time was me having my mouse hovering over the next upgrade, waiting for the currency to tell me when I could click. I don’t remember if I actually gave money to this game. I think I did. A dollar or two. Considering the amount of screen time I spent with this “free” game, I thought the developers deserved something from me.

I say “free”. Steam says “free”. But no. This game and the many ‘incremental games’ I have on my phone have cost me a lot of time. Was it time wasted? Perhaps. Was it time I would have wasted anyway? Maybe.

But man, can these games be addicting, especially in your downtime. It feels as though clicker titles like Realm Grinder take the most enticing thing about video games – slow and steady progression – and drip feed it to you just enough that the itch never goes away. I had stepped away from this game for about three months before writing this, and the game was just where I had left it, ever chugging its dozens of multipliers away like I’d never left. I’m not quite sure if it’s my computer or Kongregate’s server that logs my progress. Maybe it’s both.

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Oh, did I mention the excavations? More upgrades! More multipliers!

Either way, I’ll keep it installed. I never know when I’ll need something to fiddle with while watching my favorite streamers on Twitch. If you feel like it, give some love to GrandPOObear and MrLlamaSC, won’t you? I’ve just got to unlock the dragon faction. I just have to. Then I’ll uninstall this wretched game.

Maybe.

Review: 8/10

Backstage Tales – God Games: Imposters in the Pantheon

How does one program a God?

Yikes, religion on the internet!

Ha, funny. I’m talking about god games, simulators that give you power over a worldspace or the creatures and elements within it, typically on a massive scale. It could include such features as mass terraforming, devastating ‘miracles’ that can be seen as good or bad depending on the target, development of said powers from simple to overwhelming, and maybe even helping supplicants and acolytes grow to the top of the pack.

“A Mighty God Was He (or She)…”

I have very fond memories of Populous: The Beginning, one of the first god games I ever enjoyed. You start off with a shaman, the head honcho of the tribe through which miracles and spells are cast, and you wander the solar system gathering followers to increase your power and influence. If people won’t join you (as they follow other gods and their shaman can unleash the same powers as you can), it’s up to you to convert or destroy them. No peaceful coexistence in this universe. Your powers in this game ranged from summoning hordes of stinging insects to directing tornadoes to incinerating entire villages in fiery volcanoes. I’ll never forget that at the end of the game, you finally have enough power as a god to do the spell casting yourself without a range limit, and the resulting destruction of your enemies is incredibly satisfying.

You know, I never understood how the ‘swamp’ spell meant instant death to anyone who walked through it. Invisible crocodiles? Fast-acting trench-foot? Psh, I dunno, but man, it made for an effective deterrent.

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What a quaint village. Would be a shame if something… happened to it while the shaman is away.

I then played a game later in my childhood called Black and White, a game made by one of my favorite now-defunct studios, Lionhead Studios. Admittedly, I really couldn’t get into this game. At all. Why in the world would an all-powerful god put so much time and effort into training a giant creature who, for all intents and purposes, does nothing but annoy your villagers, cause property damage, and poop everywhere? I’m sure they can be trained to not do that, as I have seen insisted on many a website touting the game as a masterpiece. I never got very far in the game because I couldn’t figure out what to do with the leashes and my creature would inevitably go off and cause trouble, getting itself killed in the process (despite me nailing its super-extendo-leash to a tree near my village).

Interesting that this game is yet to make a debut on GOG.com or anywhere digitally. Sad day. (Not that I would buy it again. I distinctly remember having terrible troubles with it on my first PC… A trend that future Lionhead Studios games would follow.)

So What Changed?

So, getting both good and bad as a kid, why do I believe that god games like Populous still haven’t tapped an incredibly deep well of potential?

It’s because of how broad of a subject ‘god games’ have become these days.

If you search on Steam under the tag ‘god games’, you’re going to see a lot of different types of games, from RTS (like War for the Overworld) to sandbox games (Like Universe Sandbox) and even casual pixel games (like The Sandbox). Spore and its expansions are on this list, and while I could make a joke about a ‘god game’ featuring evolution, I’ll skip it. They even have the gall to put in the glorified screensaver that is Mountain, and the philosophical Everything. Games that I would consider to truly be ‘god games’ (complete with the spiritual and mystical aspect, the miracles, and the followers) are often not well received, with the good ones showing up few and far between (good examples are Reus, which I plan on reviewing soon, and From Dust, which is an excellent game despite belonging to Ubisoft and their terrible Uplay system). I don’t like this broad idea that if the game gives you complete control over your own little population or worldspace, it’s automatically a ‘god game’. If so, that makes Civilization or Endless Space 2 ‘god games’. It makes Planetary Annihilation a ‘god game’. It makes The Sims a ‘god game’.

These aren’t ‘god games’. Strategy, yes, but not ‘god games’.

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In From Dust, you play as a god. Ergo, this is a ‘god game’.

A Simulated Example

But this doesn’t mean ‘god games’ have to always be large-scale fire-and-brimstone destruction-fests. Let’s shrink the concept of the all-powerful ‘god game’. Imagine if The Sims were still all about the home-building and decorating, but you had no control over your sims in the slightest. What if they lived their own lives based on a list of their likes and dislikes, developed relationships with other sims all by themselves, and developed their skills without any input from you? Sounds boring? (As boring as Mountain? I digress.) Well, what if, as some malevolent or benevolent spirit or ‘god’, you could become the sim’s conscience? What if you could ‘train’ your sims to take a unique path through their lives, being the angel (or devil) on their shoulder as they live day-to-day?

What if they could ignore you if you gave them a command that didn’t match their ‘code of ethics’? This could be for good or evil, as simple as influencing a child sim to disobey their parents or as complicated as attempting to persuade a burglar sim to give back his hard-earned loot. What if, through your subtle influence, you earned enough ‘god points’ to start influencing your sims in more supernatural ways, such as through dreams, through strange ‘coincidences’… or perhaps through frightening ‘bumps’ in the night? These could give major bonuses towards future life goals, and grant convictions, changes of habit, or even phobias. What if your sim came into a choice that happened because of your influence that could change their course forever, maybe even other sims’ life courses, and they didn’t have the ‘attributes’ necessary to make the ‘correct’ choice, for good or ill?

What if you could drive your sim to become a shining beacon of humanity? Or drive them into an insane asylum after hearing self-destructive voices?

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Yes, a wholesome modern family, with a spirit from the netherworld influencing their every thought and choice. Doesn’t sound too far from the original game, to be honest.

Okay, maybe only I’m intrigued by this new Sims game. Maybe this sounds too similar to the actual game. Maybe it would give a programmer an aneurysm. But you have to admit, it’s an interesting idea that giving the player less control over their subjects can simultaneously give them more in terms of results variation. This could lead to the possibility of more replayability because of unexpected and entertaining results. This isn’t even talking about actual religious doctrine, although I suppose it could be seen that way. I see it as more of a balance between total player control (which is fun for a moment but doesn’t last long) and a complete uncontrollable game of chance (which is fun until you don’t win). And it’s all about maintaining the fun factor.

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My, aren’t you rotund.

A Line of Separation

In my opinion, ‘god games’ put a fine line of separation between the player and his subjects. In Populous, if you lose your shaman, you couldn’t cast miracles until she respawned. In From Dust, you don’t have a mystical ‘hand of god’ to save your subjects from floods of water and fire; you can issue simple commands, but you have to bend the elements to protect your followers and wait for them to brave the treacherous wilds themselves to reach relics and settlement beacons which strengthen your miracles. I think this is where Black and White went wrong for me: it put one too many lines in between the player and the population in the form of an annoying giant mascot. A good ‘god game’ will balance the influence the player has with the characters onscreen, not too separated that the player feels like they have absolutely no control, but enough that it doesn’t become ‘The Sims’ where the player can control everything. You can ‘simulate’ being a god, but not every strategy game is a ‘god game’.

Does that shrink the genre into obscurity? Maybe it does. But I think people want a ‘god game’ with this philosophy in mind, one with some element of choice and ethical dilemmas, but one with a fine line of separation that makes the game rewarding and challenging. Breaking my own rules, you can see how excited audiences were for the very recent release of Frostpunk, a game where you have to make life-or-death decisions for a population living in a steampunk arctic hell. I’m surprised that isn’t a ‘god game’, according to Steam. (I want to review it as well, it looks ridiculously difficult.) I would love a ‘god game’ that limited your influence over a small isolated community to small ‘miracles’ that grew more powerful as faith in you increased. One where morality could go either way.

And yeah, I’m going to say it: maybe someday we’ll get a god game that isn’t hyped to hell by Peter Molyneux. *cough* Godus. *cough* Spore. *cough* *sneeze violently*

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I’m ashamed of how much game time I have in Godus. Like all ‘Molyneux Specials’, I didn’t know it by its reputation before I bought it.

I want to see another really good god game like Populous appear again. A more complex From Dust with enemy tribes and tough decisions to make, maybe. Different belief systems and powers related to them. A few of the other games under the ‘god games’ tag in Steam look intriguing enough to make me want to take a look, so maybe in the future, you’ll see a god game review where I adjust my perceptions of the genre. Until then, I’ll take any suggestions on how I can change my viewpoint, as I feel disappointed in my love for this very specific niche itch I can’t scratch.

My 10-Hour Tale – Planetary Annihilation: TITANS

First of all, I’ll say something that I’m probably going to say about a lot of the games I want to perform a 10-Hour Review on for Chains and Tales: I have a lot more than ten hours of game time with Planetary Annihilation. This is due to the fact that the original game (just Planetary Annihilation) came out before Planetary Annihilation: TITANS, and I played just under 40 hours of that. So, you could say I spent 10 hours playing with the big Titan toys. I’ll always be forthcoming about how much time I actually spend with a game, as I feel that reflects how much enjoyment and replayability a game has.

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PAT

Release Date: August 2015

System: PC, Mac OS X, Linux (Steam)

The term ‘spiritual successor’ is usually a positive term in the video game industry. It usually invokes the idea that a game has taken the theme or mechanics that one game had and built upon them to create a more refined experience. One example that gets thrown around a lot on the internet is that Bioshock is the ‘spiritual successor’ to the game System Shock: both are first-person-shooter dystopian survival and exploration games with deep atmosphere and one heck of a plot-twisty end-of-act-two. Another is that Undertale is a ‘spiritual successor’ of Earthbound in graphics, gameplay, and the wide range and contrast of emotions the characters and story produce.

So, when I say that Planetary Annihilation is the spiritual successor to a game entitled Supreme Commander, I really mean it. Like, really really. I mean it so much that I think Planetary Annihilation might have ‘spiritually succeeded’ more than a few game mechanics directly from Supreme Commander. Fortunately for Uber Entertainment, there’s a reason they didn’t get sued or anything. It probably has something to do with the fact that Jon Mavor, the lead designer and programmer for Planetary Annihilation, was also the lead programmer for Supreme Commander.

On August 15, 2012, Uber Entertainment kickstarted Planetary Annihilation with a goal of reaching $900,000. They well-surpassed that amount, reaching $2,228,000 via Kickstarter and an additional $101,000 through Paypal. Having earned the title of the 11th Kickstarter project to reach over a million dollars, was the investment worth it?

The Steam review boards are ‘mixed’. Actually, they’re currently at ‘mostly negative’.

For the base game, I mean.

For Planetary Annihilation: TITANS, the reviews are glowing and positive.

Because I had the base game, I was given TITANS for free when it was released, I believe. Or maybe it was the other way around. It isn’t DLC or an expansion, I guess; it’s technically a whole new game in my library. Why the base game is still available when the more advanced and updated TITANS is around is beyond me. There doesn’t seem to be any difference besides the missing Titans and an appropriately lower price tag.

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“YOU’VE NOT ENOUGH MINERALS.”

What makes Planetary Annihilation: TITANS into a ‘spiritual successor’? Just about everything, plus planet-hopping! But we’ll get to that.

Planetary Annihilation is a ‘massive scale’ real-time strategy game where you play as one of the titular commanders. These commanders are gigantic mechs that can build basic buildings and feature anti-air and anti-ground weaponry for fending off basic-to-mid game threats. Your goal is to destroy enemy commanders until you’re the last one standing (or your team is; there are also team battles as well, if you don’t like fighting alone). If your commander is destroyed, it’s game over. Oh, and all commanders explode in a nuclear blast when they die, so that’s fun. When failing, fail hard, I always say.

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Legate Junius go boom.

Unless you have a pretty beefy machine, playing with more than eight computer players on a map can really start to lag, so I can’t imagine doing it with human players. But it’s incredibly fun to struggle for territory on a tiny planet against two to three other opponents… At least until you can get into orbit and rain down lasers from the sky.

There exist many different types of units, organized by the way they travel: vehicles ride on wheels or treads (strong but more expensive than bots), bots walk (cheaper but weaker than vehicles), naval units float on water, aircraft fly (but are very vulnerable to anti-air), and orbital units orbit in their own sphere above the planetary battlefield.  They all have their own strengths, weaknesses, and counters, although I’m a huge fan of aircraft if you can give them the muscle they need to puncture through enemy flak cannons and missile launchers. Every type of vehicle has their own builder unit, too, so it’s not like Starcraft where you have to rely only on ground-based builders for all the hard work. It’s another reason I love air constructors in particular: they can go and build almost anywhere. But they’re excruciatingly fragile. There’s no bigger bummer than twenty or more aerial constructors all being shot down by two or three tiny enemy fighters in mere seconds. Basic constructors can build advanced factories, which can produce advanced builders that can build even more advanced structures and units.

You know where Planetary Annihilation borrows from Supreme Commander the heaviest? The economy system. Just like each other, there are only two resources to worry about: metal and energy. Metal is mined from specific points on the map, and energy is created through generators that can be placed anywhere. You can technically spend more than you are making in Planetary Annihilation. This will, however, decrease the speed of your unit building and structure construction accordingly, and possibly do you less than no good. You will be tearing across planets trying to reach for and defend every single metal extraction point possible. Why?

Because bigger guns.

Meet the Titans.

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Good morning, sunshine! Zeus says hello!

These mean machines are bigger than mountains (especially when built on particularly small planets) and can wreck shop like crazy. My particular favorite is the Zeus, essentially a gigantic floating fortress with a giant ball of electrical energy in between its arms that can decimate entire bases on its own. Get three of these and you can say goodbye to any enemy commanders who are dumb enough to share the same planet. The star-like Helios can teleport entire armies from orbit and deal with any orbital defenses on the way. The gorilla-like Atlas jumps once, and entire armies (and hemispheres) fall down. The Ragnarok is a giant drill that burrows down into the core of a planet and drops a very potent explosive that evaporates the planet (not recommended for home worlds). They’re awesome. They’re expensive. They’re awesomely expensive, and, for some reason, oddly fragile against prepared players. Even Titans must be utilized strategically.

I’ll repeat this again: why Planetary Annihilation had to be re-released as Planetary Annihilation: TITANS instead of including these units in an update or $10 DLC package is still strange to me. So if you’re planning on picking it up, make sure it’s TITANS. Maybe it was a Kickstarter tier thing.

Even with the Titans, Planetary Annihilation ‘spiritually succeeded’ Supreme Commander. But did it succeed? I remember playing Supreme Commander: Forged Alliances and having a ball with the Aeon Illuminate’s experimental units, especially its flying CZAR fortress. Every faction in that game had four, making for very unique gameplay. But no matter what faction you play in Planetary Annihilation, you’re stuck with the same Titans as everyone else.

But then there’s the aspect that sets this game apart from its predecessor: it’s set in SPACE. There’s no flat map here. Scroll your mouse wheel, and you can go from ground level to a view of your solar system. If you’re playing on a map with multiple planets, all it takes is your orbital builders to construct a teleporter on another planet, and you can zip your units there to continue the fight.

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If you can’t tell, the tiny ‘1’ and ‘2’ are landing zone locations on a single planet. That’s a lot of zoom.

On particularly small moons, you can even build Halleys (named after the astronomer and the comet). These are giant rocket engines that can alter the trajectory of the moon to crash into another planet, wiping out all life (and opposition) on both orbiting bodies.

But my favorite way to ruin someone’s day?

If you can play a game with a metal planet somewhere in the system (think the Death Star, only ancient and covered in ‘metal deposits’), all you need to do is construct five ‘Catalyst’ buildings around the planet’s northern hemisphere to activate it as a planet sized superweapon. Think ‘Starkiller Base’ from Star Wars: Episode Seven (although admittedly without the actually star-killing). The speed with which the ‘Annihilazer’ recharges is insane. I’d love to see other human players all struggling for control over the thing while simultaneously trying to stop other threats like the Titans or nuclear weapons from destroying them.

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Does this make us the baddies? Surely not. Mega-laser pew pew!

Oh yeah, there are nuclear weapons, too. And anti-nuclear weapon defenses. Kinda lost them among all the talk of Titans and super lasers.

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Nuclear weapons are RAD! And very expensive if you plan on launching more than a few at the same time.

Planetary Annihilation: TITANS is a giant game of chess set in space, and it’s the kind of RTS that’s still really fun to play single player. Yes, as I stated in my XCOM 2 review, I am a wuss, and yes, I like to play where I have 5 times more resources than my enemies just to crush them with an Annihilazer. But – and dare I admit this – I even like playing this game when the computer has more than a fighting chance. And I didn’t even mention the Galactic Warfare game mode that plays like Risk across a map of the galaxy with army upgrades and unlockables you can find to use in future campaigns. While yes, there is Galactic Warefare, the one way it fails to succeed Supreme Commander is a lack of any story mode or campaign. This game was made for multiplayer. In fact, Galactic Warfare was a stretch goal for Kickstarter, and while fun, it’s not much of a replacement for a Starcraft story mode experience.

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Battle and upgrade from star system to star system. Fun to play, but simplistic.

Despite this, one factor of a game’s success I’ve noticed is its ability to maintain its price point through a long period of time. Planetary Annihilation: TITANS came out in 2015, and it still goes for $39.99 on Steam. That should tell you a lot. I’d say pick it up immediately, but the Steam Summer Sale isn’t too far away, and I bet it’ll be there.

So, is Planetary Annihilation: TITANS a successful ‘spiritual successor’? The more I use the term in this article, the less I like it. My judgement is clouded because I see both strengths and weaknesses in Planetary Annihilation: TITANS and Supreme Commander. And succession almost sounds like the previous game has perished, never to be played again. And that’s just not true. In fact, TITANS makes me want to pick up Supreme Commander again.

Either way, despite tight hard drive space, I’ve reinstalled TITANS at least a dozen times since I’ve owned it just to play a round. If you love RTS games, pick up Planetary Annihilation: TITANS.

It’s just fun.

Review: 9/10

My 10-Hour Tale- My Time at Portia

I have hundreds of games in my Steam library, and I’ve only actually reviewed… two. Including this one. Sad, I know. So I’ve decided to dedicate at least ten hours per game and give my thoughts on what I think is good and what needs (or needed) improvement. From early access to AAA games, here’s Chains and Tales’ first 10-Hour Review!

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Release Date: January 2018

System: PC (Steam)

I saw My Time at Portia come up in my Steam queue a couple of times before I decided to pick it up, though it was mostly from being poor that I didn’t pick it up sooner. As of now, it has a “very positive” rating and equally positive reviews. I liked the fact that some of the reviews hinted to the fact that calling it a Harvest Moon clone wasn’t quite fair, and from what I’ve seen so far, I agree with that sentiment. While you can farm, the game has a lot more going for it than just farming.

Kickstarter

While I’m generally wary of kick-started projects with great ambitions, it seems like this one is a success.

My Time at Portia was kickstarted successfully at 146,697 dollars of a requested 100,000, and while it was a little late on delivery, I think it hit the mark really well considering its influences were Animal Crossing, Dark Cloud 2, Harvest Moon, and the Miyazaki animated films. That’s what I like about it: it’s a mixture of my favorite design styles and gameplay mechanics.

The closest comparison I could make is a three-dimensional Stardew Valley. Is it as complete as Stardew Valley? Well, it is in early access. Considering it’s only been out since January, this game has an amazing amount of design polish that I haven’t seen from other early access titles. In fact, in the ten hours I’ve played so far (and going in blind without assistance from guides), I can genuinely say that this is one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had with an early access game.

It’s not without its problems, of course. Once you get past the playful and cheery art style that really reflects well on the game, one of the first things you might notice from the opening scene of the game is the voice acting. Some of it is okay.

Some of it is… a bit cringey.

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Mei’s voice wasn’t bad. The voice of the bartender named Django was… memorable.

Some Steam reviewers had issues with the main character having a voice. I had no problem with it. The option to turn it off is available in the character creation screen, just for those people that like the strong and silent type. And for the rest of the NPCs, there’s always the volume controls. In my mind, however, an early access game with dozens of fully voiced characters is impressive. Maybe needs a bit of polish before an official release, but not game breaking. I don’t personally mind it.

Of course, as any farm game begins, your Pa went and disappeared, leaving you a ramshackle workshop and home of your own to develop from scratch. Will our hero ever discover his/her father’s whereabouts? It is unknown! When introduced to our rival, who is currently the wealthiest builder in town, of course he’s a snobbish jerk. Does he get a redeeming character arc beyond snobbish rival character? Not sure yet. I’d be surprised, but then My Time at Portia has already surprised me a few times.

Like any game that involves resource management and crafting, My Time at Portia features a system that takes a bit of getting used to. It can be a bit grindy, especially in those first few in-game days… Or whenever you realize you don’t have enough wood to fuel your stone furnaces. Stamina management is a bit dull in those first days as well, and like Stardew Valley, I found myself having to cut my days short just to sleep and restore my stamina.

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Home sweet home, after the holes are patched. I found the couch in an old ruin. The Ancients didn’t need it.

When it came to ruin delving and acquiring my first bit of copper and tin, I was actually a bit surprised that mining was actual underground tunneling, complete with a jetpack for escaping deep holes and x-ray goggles for finding the really good stuff. This game was suddenly Minecraft with cheat codes on. Considering the world in My Time at Portia just recently suffered a cataclysm of some type in its recent past and the local church is confiscating and destroying what it calls ‘forbidden’ technology (including those oh-so-valuable data disks you’ll dig up in the ruins), it sure lets its explorers have some fun toys.

The game starts off slow with quests and character progression, but I think it already has a good balance once you get past the initial hurdles. Pretty soon you’ll be drowning in quests from the NPCs living in town, and I found I could complete many of the minor ones simply by building up my manufacturing capabilities. Grinders make pipes and parts, civil cutters make boards, skivers make leathers and fabrics, and your assembly station makes all your heavy equipment. You’ll go from copper axes and pickaxes to bronze and then iron, all the while making larger trees and rocks harvestable.

And then there’s combat. Remember when I mentioned that My Time at Portia felt like a three-dimensional Stardew Valley? The combat is very similar. You can dodge for a chunk of stamina and swing your sword in front of you. That’s about it. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. Your character can be upgraded with perks as you level up to increase loot drops, damage, healing rate of items, and other bonuses, although leveling can take a while. Fortunately, everything you do counts towards leveling, from slaying llamas to chopping down trees.

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Give me your fur, your meat, and your fleeeese!

In fact, while going about my business slaying llamas for their fur and experience, I came across one of the children NPCs, a boy named Toby, walking around outside of town. Normally, I don’t think twice about NPCs, children in particular, because in many other games children are a bit of a letdown in the character development department. But in my quest to get everyone in town to like me, I talked to him. To my surprise, instead of the normal conversation menu appearing, my character spoke up (as in, the voice actor for my character spoke up) and asked Toby what he was doing. The kid responded (fully voice acted) that he was going to pick apples from the trees outside the walls. This started a simple quest to kick some apples down from the trees for the kid for some experience, some pocket change, and a relationship increase. This simple interaction surprised me; not only did the developers take time to record actual dialogue with voice actors for such a simple quest, I might have overlooked it completely had I had chosen not to interact with Toby at all. All of a sudden, as a player, I feel more obligated to talk to NPCs on the off-chance they may have something for me that’s simple to do but worth my time.

This is a challenging and time-consuming aspect of game design for a developer, but so vital for player retention. Place the burden of success on the player. Once you reveal that rewards can be found in unlikely places, the player is going to continue to search for them.

It’s one of the main reasons I love farming/role-playing hybrid games like My Time at Portia and Stardew Valley; characters in the world are allowed more time to be given a personality, likes and dislikes, and not just a few repeating chat lines. Don’t get me wrong, My Time at Portia has repeating chat lines. But simple interactions with NPCs like this gives the believability of a populated world.

A populated world, multiple monster-slaying dungeons, crafting, farming, marriage, and more. And this is an early access game, remember, and only my first ten hours in the game.

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Do da jerb, get da rewards. Repeat ad nauseam.

Overall, my first ten hours with My Time at Portia has been very enjoyable. I’m interested to see where else the game will go, and how else it plans on surprising me. If you like would like a laid-back adventure in colorful if a bit unpolished and incomplete world, you could definitely do worse.

Rating: 8.5/10

 

Difficulty Over Fun – XCOM 2

XCOM-2

Release Date: February 2016

System: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux (Steam)

Don’t get me wrong – XCOM 2 is a killer game. I mean, REALLY killer. As in, you will die playing this game. Many, many times. I mean, those aliens really love slaughter!

From the very ‘tutorial’ level of the game, you realize the aliens who revealed themselves in XCOM: Enemy Unknown are officially in control. Not only did they finish invading our planet decades ago, they’ve set their image as benevolent ambassadors from the stars, acting as a worldwide government and enforcing peace with their technology and strict laws. The stakes are high for the organization known as XCOM. Once a reasonably strong resistance force fighting against the mysterious and frightening alien menace 20 years ago (supported by the many governments around the world, in fact), they’ve come to be regarded as nothing more than terrorists. Not only do you start your experience in XCOM 2 incredibly outnumbered by the alien authority, you begin severely behind technologically, just as you were in the original XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

I love what story I’ve been able to see — our heroes, enduring insurmountable odds, fighting to bring freedom to the oppressed. The turn-based strategy of XCOM 2 is, for the most part, a joy to play with. The developers even improved the aiming mechanics to the point that your snipers can’t shoot through three homes and two car engine blocks at 100% accuracy. The return of the base-building mechanic in your massive flying airship is absolutely welcome (did I mention your base is a massive flying airship?) And the fact that said airship can be forced down by UFO interceptors is a really neat mechanic, leading your soldiers to defend the ship until it can be repaired. The many class specialties have changed a bit since the first game, mixing up the possibilities; while there are the traditional snipers and heavy-weapons-guys, you also get machete-wielding rangers for close combat and techie specialists equipped with awesome hover drones for hacking computers and healing the wounded. Finally, the many researched upgrades, armors, and weapons make the strategist in me grin madly. Ever played Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare or that one sci-fi movie with Matt Damon? Yeah, you get that kind of modern heavy-duty power armor. With missile launchers attached. Oh yeah, and the myriad types of enemies you’ll encounter will make your eyes bulge out of your head and make you immediately wonder “how the hell am I going to take that thing down?” Can you say Sectopod?

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Okay, all the good stuff, great. No, really — everything that made Enemy Unknown excellent is all there and much more.

But you know what really kills the game for me?

The game’s difficulty.

XCOM 2 has many difficulty modes, ranging from rookie to legend. When I played the very first time, I selected rookie. I wanted to see the story before the challenge, see what enemies I would be facing in higher difficulties, which tactics and upgrades would be best to pick as the game went along.

A few battles in, and I’d lost all of my most experienced soldiers (three rookies dying immediately in the first fight), and the aliens were halfway to developing their ultimate weapon. That ultimate weapon (called the AVATAR project) doesn’t immediately herald an automatic game over once completed (it gives you a 20-day limit once it finishes), but it does make the game feel like a frantic sprint to an unknown finish line instead of the progressive tactical experience I expected and experienced in the first game.

You see, the missions required to delay that the AVATAR project would often spawn too far away from my current world position — to travel to different sections of the globe, you need to have the necessary amount of communication stations in your base to contact the resistance factions in each area. Not only is it very difficult to find the resources necessary to construct these comm stations, it became even more so with the demands of R&D research into improved weapons and armor. Resources and supplies feel too little and too far between, especially with the amount of time required to ‘pick them up’, while in Enemy Unknown, you’d get a monthly paycheck of sorts you could use right away.

But oops, don’t research those weapons and armors too quickly, though — the aliens will quickly advance above you, ensuring the upgrades don’t feel half as effective as they should. Obtain gauss weaponry instead of traditional firearms? Alien HP bars double. Obtain power armor? Alien weapons will tear through it with ease. I know similar progression existed in Enemy Unknown, but the upgrades still felt like upgrades… Not gateways into a more painful experience.

You’re going to lose men and women. Repeatedly, and sometimes randomly, no matter their experience. So what’s the use of upgrading a soldier when the chance of losing them before they become interesting is so high? I feel like I’m sacrificing rookie soldiers as an unholy offering to the RNG gods just to make one or two high-level soldiers survive and thrive. Then, if you lose them, there goes the whole game.

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And then there’s the timers. THE TIMERS.

In Enemy Unknown, a few missions required you to complete an objective in a set amount of turns. There’s weren’t many of them, and their inclusion was a challenging but enjoyable change of pace.

In XCOM 2, almost every single mission is timed. And not slowly timed, either — like, you have seven turns to complete an objective point and evac all your troops. Sorry, but this makes the sharpshooter class one of the most difficult classes to use effectively, especially when snipers were so enjoyable in Enemy Unknown.

Did I mention the entire game has a big ‘ol ultimate weapon countdown timer? Everything in this game feels so desperate.

Yeah, I get that’s the theme of the game, in both story and gameplay.

But we’re still talking about rookie difficulty.

I know that I might be outside of this game’s demographic when I say this, but I enjoy simple tactical gameplay and lower stakes. Yes, I’m one of those that selects rookie mode over legendary, even over normal mode. I like to experience the story. I like seeing the soldiers I’ve spent time with grow and develop. Maybe I’m too chicken to play this game the way it was intended.

Ever play Final Fantasy Tactics? Sure, there’s always the possibility of losing two or three characters over the course of the game, but it’s a challenge to lose your entire party in a single fight (barring the late game battles) once you know what you’re doing. Here in XCOM 2, it’s not rare to lose an entire party of rookies in the first real fight. And the second. And the third. Then you spend your hard-earned resources on more rookies. Etc.

Lead developer Jake Solomon did an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun and spoke about the game’s difficulty:

The difficulty is actually one of those things that can be traced to a particular conversation pretty late – very late, actually – in development. I had been pushing the mantra for a long time that we need to make Normal or Veteran difficulty basically an ‘I want to see the cinematics’ mode, an ‘I want to see the story’ mode, and the player can get through it and it shouldn’t be that difficult. But very, very late in development everybody was playing the game, all the team was playing the game and they were coming back saying “yeah… it’s fun. But it’s pretty easy.”

…It definitely happened by late, but I think when the game got more difficult then you started to see people engaging, you felt that spark of life. ‘Ok, I do want to try again.’

…There are cases where it’s difficult to imagine getting through a mission without somebody dying. Some players can get frustrated by that, and that’s something that we’ve been thinking about quite a bit later. Obviously some people respond really positively to the difficulty and others say ‘it’s too much’, and that’s something we’re thinking about. How do we please both players, basically?

How to please both kinds of players? Well, make rookie difficulty actually rookie difficulty, for one.

There’s a balance between having fun playing a game and playing it for the challenge. Both should obviously exist. But in my opinion, XCOM 2 decided to take the difficulty over the fun. If it was during the late stages of development, I understand that perfecting these systems to balance out is difficult. But if the game was fun and too easy to begin with, I feel the pendulum swung a little too far towards difficult and unmanageable.

And that ‘spark of life’ the early players felt to try again and again? I just don’t feel it with this game like I did with the previous title. Even with modding options to raise the limit on those awful timers, I don’t feel like I’m progressing with the difficulty of obtaining resources and useful upgrades. And I still get torn in half by the aliens, killing my soldiers and my desire to play.

The game is praised almost universally by players and critics alike. And I can understand why. But XCOM 2 lost me. I didn’t want it to, either. I love blasting aliens. But I can’t finish the game on rookie mode. Maybe I’m not a true gamer.

And that makes me sad.

EDIT: I have BEATEN the game by modding out the timers. A couple of times, now, in fact. It’s quite the learning curve, and I haven’t even gotten the DLC for the game yet (which I hear raises the difficulty to incredible heights). So, yeah. Git gud, right?