Review: Final Fantasy XV

With The FFXIII trilogy not being particularly well-received and FFXIV being an MMO, Final Fantasy XV has been a long awaited as the next mainline single-player game in the much-acclaimed series. This review will have minor spoilers.

Story

FFXV follows the story of Noctis, prince of Lucis and his band of brothers (okay they’re not really brothers, but they might as well be). They’re supposed to be on a road trip to get Noctis married, but things happen along the way and eventually they have to figure out how to liberate their homeland from The Evil Empire. That’s the backstory.

The story as presented in the game has a few problems. There’s a lot of significant back story and goings-on that happen off-camera:

  • There’s both a feature-length movie (Kingsglaive) and a six-episode anime (Brotherhood) that expounds on the four main characters’ backgrounds and how the current political situation got to where it is
  • There’s supposedly a whole effort by minor characters like Cor to organize a resistance against the Empire, but we’re never really exposed to it
  • Then there’s Lunafreya, Noctis’ betrothed, who goes off and does her own stuff to try to undermine the Empire and supposedly help Noctis, but for most of the game it’s never really explained what exactly she’s doing or how it’s relevant
  • One of your friends, Gladio, goes off on a short sidequest of his own and vanishes for a while, and it’s never explained WTH that was about. Presumably it will be covered in a future DLC.

Another problem is that Noctis and the gang spend most of the game sort of lollygagging around enjoying their road trip without much sense of urgency. Understandably they wanted to present an open world this time (since much of the criticism of FFXIII was for its linearity), but the problem is that the open world is filled with a lot of frivolous things that don’t seem particularly urgent given the fate of the world being at stake. I mean, the party spends a lot of time camping out, cooking food, fishing, taking pictures, driving around looking for auto parts, and so on. The sense of urgency is not apparent.

I suppose the lack of urgency is an acceptable trade-off for the open world, but even for the supposed main story quests in the earlier chapters, it’s not immediately clear how they serve to help you overcome the Empire. I feel like there should have been more story quests related to helping establish a resistance and so on.

The later chapters narrow down the open world significantly, and the second half of the game takes place outside the main continent where there is significantly less freedom to explore. It feels a bit like they spent a lot of their design budget on the open world half and so just restricted the second half to the meaty story parts. Reminds me a bit of Xenogears disc 2!

One of the chapters near the end was also executed very poorly. To establish a sense of tension, most of the systems you had been relying on throughout the game are taken away from you. While this would have been okay for a short segment, the chapter goes on a bit too long and ends up being far too tedious.

I did find myself surprised by events leading up to the final chapter, although I felt like it was another wasted opportunity. The final chapter gives us a glimpse at a different version of the open world but never really let us see most of it.

The ending itself was bittersweet (and easily trolled haha), but I found it an acceptable ending.

Characters

While I found the main cast of Noctis, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto to have engaging personalities, they don’t really have much backstory in-game (most of the character backstories are in Brotherhood). In fact, later on, a startling revelation is made about one of them and none of them really bat an eye at all. It was in the sense of “hey, we don’t care about that, we’re your friends,” but it still felt like something that should have been explored further.

The interaction among the group is great though. They regularly banter and tease each other even during combat. It really felt like they were a group of long-time friends.

Combat 

I’m an old-school FF fan, so I’ll be the first to admit I miss ye olde active time battle. FFXV’s battles take place entirely in real-time, with the player controlling Noctis and the other characters controlled by AI. The AI control goes about as well as you could expect, they do fine against weak enemies but against tougher battles you find yourself constantly having to help them with potions or other items. You can command them to do special attacks when available, and they will participate in combo attacks when possible, but for the most part it’s just Noctis warping and striking.

Combat is fluid and there’s a lot of movement and jumping around and looking for opportunities to strike from behind. Early on you are discouraged from wandering around at night as the enemies might be too high level, but the combat system is set up such that most tough battles can be overcome simply by having enough recovery items around. I only got a game over once, early in the game when didn’t know what I was doing and I tried wandering at night and promptly got squashed by an iron giant.

The Open World

The open world gives the party a lot to do. There’s “hunts” dished out by people in diners (basically quests to go kill a specific bunch of monsters) and other side quests given out by various characters. There’s a fishing minigame, because apparently it’s a hobby of Noctis. The fishing minigame is okay, except I didn’t have the patience to try to get the most difficult fish.

Then there’s the photos and the food porn. A lot of pandering to the modern-day youths here, I’m surprised instagram hasn’t been invented in their world. Cooking is Ignis’ specialty, and the game renders each dish really well, sometimes enough to make you hungry.

And the photos are the specialty of Prompto. It’s one of those things that feels really frivolous in the game. Every time you camp you can browse pictures that Prompto has taken so you can save them for later viewing. A later patch provided a photo mode that you can control directly. There’s an entire reddit thread about how players have snapped more pics for this game than for their own vacations!

Anyway, I’m no exception. Exporting a lot of photos is a pain though, as there is no batch export option in-game. Here are a sampling of the photos I got (a bunch of them are from achievements):

View post on imgur.com

Achievements

Speaking of achievements, I was a touch disappointed with FFXV’s achievement set. I got the Platinum trophy, but I felt like it was a bit too easy, as there was still a lot of things to do in the game outside of the achievements. I don’t want annoying grindy achievements, but I don’t want them to be too easy and “no challenge” either.

Other stuff

They had this weird Chocobo carnival DLC that somehow takes place in another timeline or something LOL. IDK how it works.

Despite the fact that the more action-oriented combat system is indicative of where SE plans to take the series moving forward, there’s still a significant amount of nostalgia in the game for old-schoolers to appreciate. Callouts range from Prompto humming the classic victory fanfare after the battle to 2d sprites in the store menus jumping up in down to indicate which characters can equip each item. Classic FF beasties like the Malboro still make an appearance (and are still a pain to fight!)

The weirdest thing overall has to be the Cup Noodles thing! They had some sort of tie-up with Nissin and Cup Noodles is one of the meals your party can have in the game and Gladio is obsessed with them. Later on you even get a quest to try to find a way to improve on Cup Noodles and it ends with the characters saying there’s really no beating the original since it has a perfect mix of ingredients already. I feel like the VA’s really enjoyed doing those lines haha.

Overall

Okay, I had a bunch of complaints and nitpicks but to be honest, I enjoyed the game. There was a lot of gameplay, some seriously though battles and some annoying dungeons that took forever, but I finished most of it and got the platinum in under a month. Nowadays for an RPG that’s very quick for me, an indication of how much I liked the game. There’s a bunch more content planned for it, including DLC story packs for each of the other main characters, and high-end boss fights and what not. Not sure if I’d still play those since there’s a lot more RPGs on the horizon (2017 is a good year for RPG gamers.) But if Final Fantasy XV is the next step for the series moving forward, I find it acceptable.

Scary Movies and Games

I’m not a fan of scary movies. I don’t appreciate the idea of paying money to get surprised by jump scares or whatever.

Back when I was a kid I remember my dad watching a Betamax copy of The Gate back home and me and my younger brother were watching with him and the movie seriously creeped me out. There was this one scene where a demonic eye manifested on the lead kid’s palm and that scene stuck with me for a while. (Maybe some latent form of trypophobia – don’t google it.)

Slasher movies I find a bit more acceptable – I watched a few of them in the 90s like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. But the really creepy stuff like The Ring and similar films I’m not particularly interested in.

For scary video games, we played a few of them back on the PC when we were young. The most memorable would definitely be Waxworks, a kind of point-and-click with first-person grid-exploration horror game. I remember my brother and I would play it late at night while the folks were out. There was one time we had to stop because we had been surprised at the sudden appearance of some bad guy in the pyramid stage. We had to turn off the PC and run out to the sari-sari store so that we had some people to talk to. We eventually managed to finish this game, but I think after that part we refrained from playing too late in the night. LOL.

I also played the original jump scare game, Alone in the Dark although I never got into the succeeding series like Resident Evil. These days I don’t bother with scary games anymore. Sometimes I consider playing stuff like Amnesia, but I’m sure even if I’m a grown-up I’d still get creeped out by some of the stuff and that’s not really how I like to be entertained.

 

 

Review: Duelyst

After Hearthstone, I tried out a couple of other digital CCGs: Spellweaver and Eternal, but neither one hooked me. The one I enjoyed the most and did pick up to play regularly was Duelyst. So this review is written from the perspective of someone who has played both Magic the Gathering (MTG) and Hearthstone (HS).

Hearthstone, Spellweaver and Eternal played like digital MTG with some advantages, as I outlined in the HS post linked above. Duelyst keeps many of the same elements and advantages, but adds an extra dimension. Besides being a card game, Duelyst is also a board game.

Board game

In a game of Duelyst your General (the analogue to Hearthstone’s hero) and his minions are played into a 9×5 board. Minions can only be summoned on empty spaces adjacent to one of your units. During your turn, each unit can either: attack an adjacent enemy; or move up to two spaces, then attack an adjacent enemy.

Having a board and unit movement greatly enhances the “positioning matters” mechanic as compared to Hearthstone. In HS, it only mattered whether minions were adjacent, to the left or to the right. In Duelyst, you can position minions to prevent enemies from reaching your General, or to restrict enemies from moving completely.

That means a number of spells and abilities care about positioning too. Each of the available Generals has a Bloodborn spell (BBS), the equivalent of Hearthstone’s Hero Power. One of the Generals has a BBS which allows her to deal damage to all enemy units in the same column as the opposing General. This means you have to be careful where you place your minions whenever her BBS is active! There are spells that affect a small area (2×2 or 3×3 and so on). There are spells that care about adjacency (“Destroy target minion that is not nearby any general”). And so on.

Factions and Generals

Hearthstone has different heroes, and each hero has a different card pool available. By contrast, Duelyst has factions and Generals. Each faction has its own card pool, and of course there is a global or “neutral” card pool as well. Each faction also has two Generals, each of which has a different BBS. The factions and Generals encourage a lot of different playstyles.

Some factions like the Songhai are more focused on spell-based damage and backstabs. The Lyonar focus on cheap, efficient creatures. Vetruvian has obelisks that can generate temporary minions. Abyssian focuses on swarm tactics and shadow creep. The Vanar rely on placement and trickery. My favorite General, the Magmar Vaath, likes to go toe-to-toe with the enemy General and punch him in the face!

Keywords

As expected, many of Duelyst keywords care about positioning, and thus have no meaningful equivalent in either MTG or HS. Namely:

  • Airdrop – minions with Airdrop can be summoned anywhere on the board
  • Backstab – this unit deals extra damage when attacking from behind (yes, even facing matters!) and doesn’t receive a counterattack
  • Blast – attack hits all enemies in the same row or column
  • Flying – may move anywhere on the battlefield
  • Frenzy – normal attacks hit ALL adjacent enemies
  • Infiltrate – gains bonus effect if its on the enemy’s starting side of the board
  • Provoke – somewhat like HS’s Taunt. Adjacent enemies cannot move and must attack a Provoke unit if there is one nearby
  • Ranged – can attack from anywhere on the board
  • Shadow Creep – this is a modifier that can be added to board tiles. An enemy standing on Shadow Creep takes 1 damage at the end of the Shadow Creep owner’s turn
  • Zeal – gains bonus effect as long as it’s next to the General

Duelyst also has a number of keywords that are analogous to abilities in MTG and HS. Rush is the same as MTG’s Haste and HS’s ChargeOpening Gambit and Dying Wish are the same as HS’s Battlecry and Deathrattle. (I worry that at some point new cardgames will run out of names for “enters the field” and “leaves the field”.) And so on – no need to cover everything here.

Skill Level, Competitive Play and F2P

The added dimension of positioning means that Duelyst is strictly more skill-based than HS. This is obvious if you note that there are a lot more choices for where to place minions. Hearthstone is also more reliant on RNG than Duelyst is, although I can’t say that will hold for the future. I enjoy some level of RNG as it creates variance, but the randomness means a higher chance of losing due to bad luck.

I find competitive play on the ranked ladders for both Duelyst and Hearthstone to be about the same. I’m not saying either meta is healthy, but as I see it there are more viable decks in Duelyst ladder as compared to HS.

Since I’ve already spent a bunch of money in MTG, I don’t like spending money on digital card games. So for both HS and Duelyst, I am strictly free-to-play (F2P). Both games offer similar monetization models (pay money for booster packs/cosmetics) but I was able to get further up the ladder in competitive Duelyst.

In my first full month (December), I was already able to get to Duelyst’s Gold Division. This should be similar to around rank 10 in HS. After a lot (and I mean a lot) of grinding from Diamond rank, I managed to hit the S-Rank Division last month. This is the equivalent of HS’s Legend rank. The highest rank I ever got in HS was around rank 6 or 7.

If I think Duelyst is more skill-based than HS, why did I find it easier to get to S-Rank than HS’s Legend rank? Two reasons come to mind:

  1. I found Duelyst games more fun. This means I was playing Duelyst on a daily basis since it started. At the start, I played regularly because I wanted to get Steam Achievement completion. But I found myself enjoying the game and continuing to play even after that. There are also a lot more variance in decks being played on the Duelyst ladder. By comparison, HS ladder seemed to be almost 50% the one best deck (used to be Midrange Shaman, nowadays Pirate Aggro…) while the other 50% are trying to beat it.
  2. It was easier to get the powerful cards and build the tier one decks in Duelyst. The pricing of packs is about the same (100 gold), but on average I could earn around 100-150 gold per day from Duelyst’s quests, compared to 40-60 for HS. The drop rates for Legendaries (highest rarity in both games) is higher in Duelyst as well. Unlike HS, Legendaries in Duelyst are not restricted to one per deck, you can play as many as three. This meant you need more of them, which annoyed me at first. But I think that’s counterbalanced by the higher drop rate. For comparison, I’ve been playing HS for more than a year and have only gotten two premium (golden) Legendaries. Three months into Duelyst and I’ve opened the same amount of premium (prismatic) Legendaries. (Well, this comparison may be skewed since I open more Duelyst packs due to the increased gold rate.) Another factor was the Bloodborn expansion, which you could complete by playing enough to grind 3900 gold. That expansion came out in December, and I completed the set early in January. This set gave me access to many useful cards that were important in the meta. This allowed me to build a tier one deck and reach S-Rank in January. Even after that deck was nerfed, I was also easily able to shift to another tier one deck from another faction. In HS, I still haven’t found a new competitive deck after Midrange Shaman.

The Future

At first I told myself I would stop playing Duelyst after I completed the Steam Achievements. Then I said I would stop playing after I got to S-Rank. But I’m still playing it now. By comparison, I now launch HS once or twice a week, and I don’t clear the quests.

Duelyst is still a young game – the second expansion just came out last December. So in the future it may yet be plagued with the problems Hearthstone currently has. The developers have shown themselves to be responsive in nerfing problematic cards and shaking up the meta though. Whether they are able to keep this up remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’m willing to keep playing as long as the game is still enjoyable.

 

Gaming Walkthroughs

Old gamer rants follow.

Gaming has changed a lot over the years.

For one thing, there’s the internet now. If you got stuck in a game, you just head on over to GameFAQs or some other site and someone on the message boards will tell you how to get unstuck. Or you can even watch Youtube videos on how to do it! (Side note: I dislike having to watch Youtube videos to figure stuff out. I read really quickly so I prefer some descriptive text.) (Side note #2: I have amazingly written about the youtube thing back in 2006)

Back in the olden days of gaming, there was no internet. All you had was word of mouth and lots of free time for trial and error. There was this guy we knew where whenever we came over to his house he would have some new Super Mario Bros. 3 tricks for us, we had no idea how he figured them out.

Sometimes you’d be lucky and you’d have a friend who had an issue of Nintendo Power or something and there’s a whole lot of secrets in just one issue and you wanted to show off to your friends so you tell them all these tricks. That’s how word of mouth happens.

Even fighting games like Street Fighter II, when they first came out in the arcades, the machines didn’t have movelists or anything like they do now. We had to guess. People figured out how to do fireballs by word of mouth. I remember the first time I played it in the arcade, I was jiggling the joystick randomly trying to figure out how to dragon punch. I had to read an issue of GamePRO to find out how many different throws Zangief actually had. Then GamePRO did an April Fools article where they claimed that there was a secret character Shen Long in the game (based on Ryu’s poorly-translated win quote “You must defeat Shen Long to stand a chance”). The article had screenshots and everything. What a cruel trick to play on a playerbase where secrets spread by word of mouth.

I finished Day of the Tentacle Remastered  on PS4 a while back. It was great. DoTT was one of the first PC games I ever played. I was in 3rd year high school when I played the first game Maniac Mansion at a friend’s house. Back then we didn’t have walkthroughs or anything so we could literally be stuck for days on one puzzle or whatever. We had to try all combinations of inventory items with verbs and environment items. The Remaster even had a command to highlight all interactible items in the environment, that would have been a big help back in the day! I don’t know how long it took me to finish DoTT back then, but I loved it so much I installed it in a secret directory on one of the computer labs in high school (we were the first batch to actually have a computer lab!). The Remaster I finished it in around 3-4 hours. I didn’t need a walkthrough to finish the game (I still remembered a lot), but I did for getting all the achievements (some of them were very obscure).

I’m actually surprised with how well the point and click adventure game genre is doing so well lately (what with Telltale leading the charge and all), as you really have to be disciplined with trying to avoid walkthroughs, otherwise what’s the point? Well, you could enjoy the story I guess, but it’s a point of pride to finish without a walkthrough, kind of. I’m still stuck somewhere on episode one of Telltale’s Back to the Future. I think I had to open a door or something. If only achievements could detect whether you used the internet to cheat.

When GameFAQs first came out, I was very active on those messageboards. In fact, I probably contributed to a few walkthroughs myself. The great thing about these sites is that they build communities of people actively trying to find secrets and explore every nook and cranny of a single game. I don’t have the time nor patience to do that sort of thing anymore, but I’m glad that kind of culture exists. It’s that culture that enables people to push games to the extreme – speedrunners, extreme challenges, etc. can be very entertaining to follow.

It’s actually a bit ironic that walkthroughs are more commonplace now, given that games are certainly a lot less difficult than they used to be. “Nintendo-hard” games are few and far between and appeal to niche audiences only. In the older Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy games you often had to walk around and talk to every available NPC until you find the guy who will move the story forward. These days that guy has an exclamation point over his head and a marker on the minimap and you can fast travel to him too.

To be entirely fair, when we were kids we didn’t really need walkthroughs because we just had so much damn time. I mean, we had enough time to try to hit every single brick in that stage of Super Mario Bros 3 that was basically pyramids full of bricks, just to see if any of them held secret coins. (Later we found a glitched cartridge that showed us where hidden blocks were, that sped things up a lot.)

I used to have a strong sense of pride when playing video games, I almost never used walkthroughs when playing through RPGs for example. But things change when you’re an adult playing computer games. You have real world stuff to do and not enough time, so you just say screw it when a game makes it too difficult for you. Either you give up on the game or you youtube that stuff.

There’s some sort of mystery lost when you’re playing a game and you know that anytime you get stuck you can just google as a fallback. Well, that’s the tradeoff I guess. In exchange though, we get a lot more online gaming content these days, not just walkthroughs: we get let’s plays and livestreams and speedruns and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes you don’t even have to be playing a game to enjoy the content, so that’s kind of cool too.

And you can still finish a game without a walkthrough…you just need the discipline to stay away from the internet.

 

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles X

Just in time for the end of the year, I finally finished Xenoblade Chronicles X, which I started playing around the first week of August (5 months!), with 120+ hours of game time. The game doesn’t have the best graphics (WiiU, etc), but I really like how it looks and how the world is built and all the different environments and the weird and sometimes absurdly large beasts.

There’s a whole lot of stuff to do in-game. It plays mostly like a single-player MMO, with party members that act on their own and most skills on a cooldown. There’s a ridiculous number of quests and items to grind for, I’m even tempted to still continue with the post-game content (if only I didn’t have FFXV waiting for me!), as I’m only at around 70% completion.

The story was okay, at many points well-told and hitting a lot of emotional highs (although some of the characters felt a bit over-acted). The ending was… well, kind of sequel-baiting. A mixture of disappointment and confusion and hope haha. I don’t imagine that they’ll have a sequel set in the same universe/timeline, so it felt a bit like they made up a ridiculous explanation that would attempt to explain some of the nonsense that happens in the game.

Here’s an imgur album with some stuff I screen-grabbed along the way:

Hearthstone vs MTG

Totally different yo
Totally different yo

I am of course a long-time Magic the Gathering player. Over the past year or so I’ve also been playing Blizzard’s digital CCG Hearthstone (limiting myself to free to play since who has money to spend on two CCGs?) and I’ve been thinking about the design parallels and differences between the two. If you’re a Hearthstone player, you’ve probably read a lot of these things before, since many well-known pros play both MTG and HS. This is written more towards the Magic player in mind to get to know Hearthstone.

Mana system and Mulligans

Like most modern successors to MTG, HS does away with the concept of “mana screw” by automatically providing one generic mana to each player per turn. It’s really MTG’s big weakness and what turns off many players. MTG Head Designer MaRo tries to justify the existence of mana screw here. HS’s mana system is much simpler, and has no concept of colors or mana screw or color screw. One disadvantage of this is that all costs are the same, and they have to restrict deck access to cards via another method – class-specific cards. This makes it impossible to have the equivalent of a “multicolor deck” like in Magic, which means there are theoretically fewer possible deck archetypes in HS for a comparable set of cards.

I’m a fan of Hearthstone’s mulligan system – selectively sending back particular cards from your opening hand – as opposed to Magic’s sending back the entire hand. Unfortunately, Magic is already balanced around the current mulligan system, and it will probably have issues if you only have one chance to mulligan and still draw no lands.

Hearthstone Limitations

Hearthstone is definitely a more limited game than Magic because it follows one important rule: you can’t interact during your opponent’s turn. This has the benefit of streamlining matches and making them go faster (no need for concepts like the stack and priority from MTG) , which is important for a game played online. The disadvantage is a greatly reduced design space which HS has to compensate with in other areas.

There are some other limitations to streamline/simplify gameplay:

  • No graveyard (well, HS has a concept of “minions that died this turn” or “minions that died this game”, but there is no visible graveyard zone). This means Magic’s graveyard-based mechanics such as Flashback or Unearth can’t be translated to Hearthstone
  • No manual searching through the deck. When an effect pulls something out of the deck, it’s always random
  • At most 7 minions (creatures) on the board on each side

Strengths of the Digital Format

Despite the above limitation, HS does earn some additional design space since it takes advantage of the exclusively digital format in a number of ways not available to Magic, such as:

  • Damage to minions not healed at EOT – in Magic, this would not have been practical since it’s a lot of effort for players to track the damage to individual creatures. For a digital game it’s easy since it can be done automatically. This also provides some mechanics that can’t usefully translate to MTG: the Enrage mechanic and effects like “Draw a card for each damanged minion”
  • Effects can generate new cards – both spells and minions. Magic can do this too, through the use of “tokens” (but only for permanents, not spells). Magic’s tokens however are “second-class” permanents since they are not real cards. In HS, the generated cards are real cards that can be returned to hand, shuffled into your deck, etc. Furthermore, the generated cards can be either existing cards (whether you have them in your deck or not – Discover mechanic or effects like Piloted Shredder) or cards that are not even available for deckbuilding such as the Spare Parts generated by some mechs
  • More randomly generated elements – Magic has some RNG too, but not nearly as much as HS. I believe that in both games, serious competitive players don’t like too much RNG.
  • Effects can permanently boost cards not in play – this includes effects like “all cards in your deck get +1/+1” or “reduce the cost of this card for each turn it is in your hand”. This is possible since we can trust the game engine to correctly process and track hidden information
  • Board position matters – minions can grant bonuses to adjacent minions, or effects can target the leftmost minion, etc. Actually, Magic can do this too, but given that they’ve moved away from “graveyard order matters” because it places too much effort on the player, I suspect they are not likely to do this for similar reasons
  • Easily balance existing cards – Blizzard hasn’t done it too often, but they do issue nerfs to cards that are too powerful. Before the introduction of the Standard format they even nerfed some core cards to free up future design space. In Magic they try to avoid functional errata because they have no way of ensuring the ifnromation is propagated to all owners of previous printings of the same card

Hearthstone Mechanics

Hero Power – each hero has a power that costs 2 mana. The great thing about this it reduces the effect of “cost screw”, i.e. drawing high cost cards early, since your hero will always have a low-cost play available no matter what. There’s also some design space there they started using in earnest with The Grand Tournament expansion, such as the Inspire mechanic or effects that modify hero powers.

Secrets – to compensate for not being able to interact during the opponent’s turn, some classes have access to secrets – these are spells that generate effects during your opponent’s turn, based on particular triggers. The opposing player wouldn’t know

Taunt – the equivalent of Taunt in MTG is “Blocking”. Since you cannot do anything on your opponent’s turns, blocking the same way as MTG is impossible, so they have this mechanic to replace it. Currently, HS has no way for minions to bypass Taunt without removing the Taunt minion itself – there are no evasion mechanics.

Charge – the equivalent of MTG’s Haste. However, it is stronger here in HS since your opponent cannot interact during your turn. This means Charge creatures essentially get a free attack unopposed and can throw off your opponent’s combat math. This makes effects that grant Charge particularly strong. An example was the infamous nerf to Warsong Commander because granting Charge to other creatures enabled one-turn kills.

Divine Shield – no equivalent in MTG, but I think something can be worked out if needed. Something like:

Divine Shield (This creature enters the battlefield with a divinity counter on it. Whenever it takes damage and has a divinity counter instead remove a divinity counter.)

I’m actually a big fan of Divine Shield as a mechanic, it’s more interesting and a lot simpler than Magic’s defensive mechanics Protection or Regeneration

Windfury – this is basically the same as Magic’s Double Strike, except Magic is limited by the rules to two strikes, while HS has one card that has Mega-Windfury, allowing four strikes

Overload – this is HS putting its’ simpler mana system to good use. Overload allows you to “borrow” mana from the future to reduce the costs of your cards. The downside is you have less mana available next turn. The closest equivalent is probably Magic’s Echo mechanic or the “Pact” mechanic from the Pact of Negation cycle, although neither are exactly the same

Combo – this is the Rogue mechanic in HS, it grants an additional effect if at least one other card has been played in the same turn. This is easily implementable in Magic:

Eviscerate 1R Sorcery Eviscerate deals 2 damage to target creature or player. Combo – Eviscerate deals 4 damage instead

It’s no different than Magic’s other “enhancing” ability words like Morbid or Kicker which grant additional effects depending on certain conditions

Stealth – this is the same as Magic’s Hexproof, except Stealth wears off once the minion attacks, and stealthed minions can’t be attacked. The usage is generally the same – to protect your minion until it can actually gain you some value.

Battlecry and Deathrattle – in Magic, these are simply triggered abilities “when the creature enters the battlefield” and “when the creature dies”. If these were named keywords in MTG, it would open up some additional design space that HS already uses. MTG does use this design space sometimes, but the templating is difficult, see Torpor Orb. More complicated abilities like “Battlecry: Trigger another minion’s Deathrattle effect” would not be worth the effort to implement in MTG unless similar keywords are defined to make templating easier.

Spell Damage – this mechanic increases the damage dealt by burn spells. In Magic, such spells are almost exclusively red spells, so I’m not sure how likely it would be to keyworded in Magic. This design space has been used in MTG on occasion, but it’s mostly damage doubling instead of incrementing.

Choose One – I actually wasn’t aware this was a named mechanic until they took advantage of it with Fandral Staghelm. Magic’s modal mechanic has never been used in such a way, but imagine an effect like “Whenever you make a choice for a modal ability, you may choose one additional mode” – makes your Cryptic Commands way more awesome!

Silence – this is basically “remove all abilities” in Magic. To be truly equivalent, it should also remove power/toughness boosts and auras attached to the creature. Seems perfectly doable in Magic, although it might have memory issues, unless it’s as an aura.

Freeze – frozen minions can’t attack the next turn. It’s mechanically and thematically similar to tapping effects often found in blue and white cards. Freeze effects in HS can easily be replicated in Magic. The main difference is that frozen Taunts in HS can still “block” so Freeze can’t be used offensively to get rid of the “blockers”


Hearthstone is a pretty young game compared to Magic, but as far as I can tell it’s doing pretty well. It provides a fun, streamlined experience and takes advantage of the strengths of the digital format to overcome the weaknesses brought about by the streamlining. The monetization model is friendly enough that even cheap f2p players like me can appreciate it. So far Magic hasn’t had a real competitor in the paper space, but HS is a serious competitor in the digital space since it makes MTG’s digital offerings look terrible by comparison. Hopefully both games can learn more from each other and grow more in the future.

Stellaris (Review)

Or “How Did A Ceramic Pot End Up In Stellar Orbit”?

20160514022357_1Stellaris is a 4x space strategy game available on Steam. The game is created by Paradox, well-known for a number of other grand strategy games mostly with a historical basis such as Crusader Kings. I’ve owned Crusader Kings II for a while now but never got into it too deeply because (a) it’s just a bit too overwhelming; and (b) I find the combat way too obtruse. Stellaris was supposedly a simpler and friendlier version of Paradox’s other grand strategy games, which piqued my interest. Reading a few posts over on r/Stellaris was enough for me to impulse buy the game last week. Review summary: game is great and adds a lot of interesting stuff to the 4x genre, but there are some flaws that will hopefully be improved upon in succeeding patches.

The gameplay framework is basically similar to other 4x space strategy games such as Master of Orion: “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”. You’re in charge of a burgeoning galactic empire. You send out science ships to survey nearby and distant star systems. You build colonies and outposts to extend your reach. You assign scientists to research new technologies that help you improve your empire. You encounter other starfaring alien races and either build fleets of spacecraft to bludgeon them into submission or use diplomacy to make friends, form alliances and eventually a federation. You can also encounter primitive alien species who have yet to make it off-world and choose to either observe them passively or try to speed up their development or uplift them to become new allies.

Story

I’ll start with this because it’s my favorite thing about the game. It’s kind of weird to be talking about story in a 4x strategy game, they’re not really well-known for that, Civilization stories about Gandhi’s warmongering aside. It’s one of the trope inversions Stellaris has done. There are abundant special event chains to be encountered and some of them are hilarious really. These are reminiscent of Crusader Kings’ own event chains, the part of that game I found the most enjoyable. Combined with 4x strategy games penchant for emergent user stories, this means there will often be a lot of stories to tell about how your empire achieved galactic domination.

This is why you shouldn't let your officers drink on duty
This is why you shouldn’t let your officers drink on duty

Victory 

Sadly there are at the moment only two victory conditions available in game: Domination (control 40% of all habitable planets) and Conquest (be the last independent empire standing). That being said, there are a few options to achieve both goals; they need not be achieved through warfare, but can be done through diplomacy. You can ally and eventually form federations with other empires and share victory conditions with them, which means you can achieve Conquest through alliance-building.

Diplomacy

Speaking of diplomacy, you can do the usual resource trading and asking for border access and offering alliances or non-aggression pacts and such. But comparing it to their other games like Crusader Kings it’s admittedly quite shallow. Even some more complicated options that are available in simpler games like Civilization V are surprisingly unavailable. There is no way to bribe other empires for alliances or border access or maybe even declaring war on common enemies. I also wish there were special event chains or technology choices that involve diplomatic relations. Hopefully they can improve upon these things as they iterate with future patches.

I don’t know therefore aliens

There are a variety of alien races available to play, and you can customize your species at the start of the game. There are a number of customization options: you can control what type of climates your species can easily adapt to, what ethics your race follows (which can affect your diplomacy and sometimes your research options), and add other special traits that give bonuses to happiness, resource acquisition, etc. All other empires in the galaxy will feature procedurally-generated species as well. At the start, each empire is only inhabited by one species, but as you encounter more and more alien races, your planet populations can become more a mix of your native species and foreign species and maybe even robot workers.

Research and Technology

Research and technology is split into three fields: physics, engineering and biology. These technologies will unlock new ship components (allowing you to design new ships Master of Orion style), improve your empire’s capabilities and provide new building and station options. Unlike Civilization’s technology trees, research options are dealt at random. You are given 3-4 alternatives to choose from every time, and sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to have a rare technology as a research option. In the late game, there are even dangerous technologies that provide significant benefit but can lead to your empire facing one of a few late-game crises.

Mid to Late Game

While the game is fun to play, it starts to get weak in the mid to late game when most of your exploration is already done. More often than not, other empires will hamper your mid to late game exploration, and your science ships will have precious little to do in the later stages except maybe analyze debris from your space battles. The game also needs more special event chains in the mid to late game as it descends into long stretches of building things interspersed by the occasional war. It’s something they’ve roadmapped for the next few patches, to add more events specifically for colony-related events, so that’s something to look forward to.

There’s also a need for more resource sinks in the late game, as your empire has caps on how many of each resource you can store. In my most advanced game, I was at the resource cap all the time despite spending as much as I could on buildings, stations and spacecraft.

But the biggest problem is a technical one. As the number of planets and spacecraft under your control increases, the game encounters noticeable slowdown. At this point, the fastest speed is only slightly faster than the normal speed near the start of the game.

I’ve owned the game for a bit less than a week and have managed to bring three different saves to the mid to late game but finished none of them. You are able to delegate most of your planets to AI sectors (in fact you have no choice as there is a limit to the number of core planets you can directly manage), but empire-building and expansion can still become tedious in the late game given the normal size of the generated galaxies.

Bugs

I also encountered a few bugs as I played. Nothing game-breaking or crash to desktop stuff, but things like quests becoming impossible to complete under certain conditions, or supposedly stone-age species owning starships, that kind of thing. Steam achievements also seem a bit buggy, I think they stopped firing after a certain point in the game. They’re planning a number of bug fixes within the next couple of months so hopefully most of these problems get addressed.

Conclusion

There’s a lot more to touch on as I’m pretty sure I’ve only scratched the surface of Stellaris, but this review is already way longer than I thought it would be. Stellaris is a fun, great game, providing a few good twists on the 4x genre, and very much like the Civilization games, there’s a strong tendency to play for much longer hours than you were planning to.

But there are still some flaws especially in the mid to late game. Paradox has a good track record of improving their games incrementally with free updates (I recently reinstalled Crusader Kings II after a couple of years and was happy to find a few features that weren’t there before), so hopefully many of these problems get ironed out in the next few months. I’ve already played way too much of this game than I expected, so I think I’m going to set it aside for a few months and come back to it later.

2013 – Books and Games

It’s the end of the year, so it feels like a good time to look back at the books and games I’ve gone through in 2013.

I guess it’s my lack of focus really but my reading rate has really gone down over the past few years, I guess in favor of TV, comics and games. (I guess comics count as reading too, but I’m talking about full-length novels.

For 2013 as far as I can tell I only finished reading the following novels:

  • Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov) – I only read up to Second Foundation, I’ll get around to the later books sometime I guess
  • A Memory of Light (Sanderson/Jordan) – been reading the Wheel of Time for years and I’m glad Sanderson was able to bring it to a decent end
  • Shadows in Flight (Orson Scott Card)

I suppose I should make it a new years resolution to read more books. I have a reading list that I have stored on Dropbox that I’m trying to work through. I think getting more paper books helps – most of my reading the past few years has been mostly e-books but having at least one paper book around that I can pick up without worrying about a charger or something is also good. I’m around halfway through a copy of Dune I picked up at a used bookstore.

As for games, this is the hobby that takes up most of my free time, however my backlog is horrendously large. Inspired by a NeoGAF thread, I’ve started tracking purchases and finishes/completes.

Here are the game purchases I made in 2013:

  • Starcraft 2 Heart of the Swarm (PC retail)
  • FTL (humble bundle)
  • Humble Weekly Sale: Telltale Games (8 games)
  • Humble Bundle 8 (9 games)
  • WB Humble Bundle (9 games)
  • Borderlands 2 + season pass + mech/psycho dlc (GMG + Steam)
  • Civilization 5: Brave New World (GMG)
  • Morrowind GOTY (Steam)
  • Oblivion GOTY (Steam)
  • Legend of Grimrock (steam)
  • Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 (steam)
  • Tales of Graces F (PS3 retail)
  • Injustice (PS3 retail)
  • The Last of Us (PS3 retail)
  • Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix (PS3 retail)
  • Final Fantasy 13-2 (PS3 retail)
  • Tales of Xillia (PS3 retail)
  • Capcom vs SNK 2 (PS3 via PSN)
  • Ni no Kuni (PS3 via PSN)
  • Speklunky (Vita via PSN)
  • Guacamelee (PS3/Vita via PSN)
  • Marvel vs Capcom 2 (PS3 via PSN)
  • Shin Megami Tensei 4 (3ds retail)
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link between Worlds (3ds retail)
  • Persona 4 Golden (Vita retail)
  • Disgaea 3 (Vita retail)
  • Street Fighter x Tekken (Vita retail)
  • FF9 (PSN)
  • Persona 3 Portable (PSN)

And the games I finished in 2013:

  • Starcraft 2 Heart of the Swarm campaign
  • Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014
  • Borderlands 2
  • Injustice story mode
  • Mass Effect 3
  • The Last of Us
  • Tales of Graces F
  • Tales of Xillia (Milla side only)
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link between Worlds
  • Persona 4 Golden
  • Disgaea 3 main story
  • Civ5 BNW (I’m going to go ahead and count this since I’m sure I got more than a full game’s worth of it already)

So the count is at -41 or such. It’s pretty bad, but also around what I expected lol. I’m fairly close to finishing a number of those games (I’m at the SMT4 final dungeon and the last chapter of FF 13-2 right now). A lot of the backlog is due to me randomly picking up Humble Bundles which increase the count significantly. Hopefully I’ll be able to have a much smaller backlog in 2014 – but there are already a number of release I’m looking forward to, not to mention the possibility of picking up a PS4 early next year.

 

Handheld Gaming 2013: Playstation Vita vs Nintendo 3DS

I wrote some stuff about Vita vs 3DS in a Reddit post, I thought I’d expand on it here.

I have access to both a first-generation 3DS with ambassador status (this is actually my brother’s but he doesn’t use it much) and a PS Vita which is only a couple of months old. I use the Vita a lot more because reasons:

  1. The screen is very very nice, especially compared to the 3DS screens. My eyes hurt a bit after a while of using the 3DS (even with 3D off). The Vita games also look a lot better compared to 3DS ones. The visuals are more crisp and colorful, especially for games like Persona 4 Golden or Disgaea 3.
  2. I’m a Playstation Plus subscriber (and I have a PS3), which means my available Vita library gets bigger every month without me spending additional money. And with the PS4 support coming, it’s even better.
  3. No online account for the 3DS means I’m not going to make digital purchases off the eShop, which limits my available library. I’m not interested in making eShop purchases that are tied to the machine; I’m worried about losing or breaking the system and losing access to all my purchases. This is a severe limitation of the 3DS in this age of digital downloads.
  4. I just find that I like more games on the Vita. I like Mario and Zelda on the 3DS (I’ve finished NSMB, Mario 3D Land and Ocarina of Time; the new Legend of Zelda will probably be the next game I play on 3DS), but aside from that most of the library is meh for me. I played Tales of the Abyss and Paper Mario Sticker Star on the 3ds but both got boring for me after a while (I’m probably at around 80% of ToA and gave up on Sticker Star at the first boss). I might try out Fire Emblem, and if there’s a new Advance Wars I’d jump on that. Etrian Odyssey looks interesting but there are dungeon crawlers on the Vita too. On the Vita so far I’ve been playing P4G, Disgaea 3 and Gravity Rush, with some Street Fighter x Tekken thrown in every so often. As soon as I get a bigger memory card, I’m going to get into Blazblue Continuum Shift;  then there’s Uncharted and Final Fantasy Tactics and I heard Zero Escape was good, and I want to try Guacamelee, and one of these days I’m going to give in to impulse buying urges and get Xenogears off the store, oh and if LBP Vita went on sale I’d get that, etc. People who say the Vita doesn’t have games might just be uninformed; in terms of the number of games I’m interested the Vita is slightly ahead, and that whole PS1 classic back library puts it leagues ahead.
  5. Achievements/Trophies. I realize a lot of people don’t care for them and don’t “get” people who like them and that’s fine, more power to you. But I do like them, though I’m not like a platinum hunter or anything like that.

The only real downside of the Vita as far as I can tell is that the memory cards are helluva expensive; but maybe that will change this week.

And…that’s it. Just thought I’d write some gaming stuff since E3 is happening in a few hours. 😀

Street Fighter IV: The Answer Lies in the Heart of Battle

For the record, I purchased an original R1 copy of Street Fighter IV for the PS3 last Tuesday, and we’ve been pretty much playing it whenever we had free time at home. The one time I came in late to work during the month of February was because of Street Fighter IV.

Street Fighter IV came in with ridiculously high reviews for both the XBox 360 and PS3 versions, the PS3 version garnering a 94 (universal acclaim) on Metacritic It can’t be denied that it’s an awesome game, although not everyone agrees. I’m not going to discuss all the details of the game, you can click through the links above to read more.

One thing we always judge our fighting games on is the “random fighter selection” feature. SF3: Third Strike didn’t have it, but CvS2 and we played that a lot more than SF3 (and we would have never played SF3 had our PS2 not given up on our CvS2 disk). SF4 has a random fighter selection feature, but it’s a bit substandard since (a) You can cancel out of whatever selection it randomly gave you and (b) I got six Dhalsims out of seven randoms today! That’s insane. Also, in versus mode you have to move the selection cursor back to the random slot when choosing the next fighter (mildly annoying)

Another neat feature: during versus matches, the game keeps tracks of continuous wins! Street Fighter sessions at home are generally won in a “five-in-a-row” basis, i.e. the first player to win five bouts in a row is considered the winner and the session ends. So this feature is pretty useful for us.

We’ve tried playing online, although as usual connection is crap between BayanDSL and PLDT players, and the majority of Pinoy players seem to be on PLDT. Surprisingly, my brother was getting good connection ratings for opponents from Japan! The matching features are okay, despite not having double-blind character selection (this more accurately reflects the arcade experience though!) One thing that seems neat although we haven’t tried it yet – when playing in arcade mode you can allow other online players to challenge you at any time, just like a real arcade game!

One last thing: Cammy’s ultra is pretty sw33t.