games


I like Minecraft, and I kind of like Torchlight, and it got good reviews, so I thought this would be great.  And it would be, except it has a third parent, which is Dark Souls.

mc dungeons

The idea is charming, and it looks beautiful. What it’s taken from Minecraft is the blocky look and the monsters– there’s absolutely no mining or building. But that’s fine; it’s pretty fun to kill hundreds of mobs, and knowing Minecraft you come in already knowing how most mobs behave.

The problem is– and this is really surprising for a game supposedly aimed at kids– it’s extremely unforgiving. You get 3 respawns, then you fail the entire mission. Which means you have to replay the whole thing, and the later missions are 20 or 30 minutes long.

The game is also extremely stingy with arrows, which are the best option against quite a few mobs, as well as some of the heavy mobs that will quickly overwhelm you.  You get a replenishing health potion, and can get a totem that also regenerates health, but when there’s a dozen bruisers or a boss bearing down on you, that’s not enough.

Now, I kinda get it. There are only 10 missions total, and the idea is that you keep replaying them, getting better gear as you go.  So in theory, if you can’t get through a mission (and I fail at what I think is the end of #9), you replay earlier missions again and again until you’ve leveled up.

Only, well, I’ve reached the “why bother?” stage. The gameplay is basically “click enemies till they die”– the only strategy seems to be knowing when to back off and heal. Even Torchlight felt like it had more options and alternatives, and it got tedious too. So replaying a level over and over is just not fun.

(Gearing up is important too, and it may well be that I’m using the “wrong gear”. But I’m at the mercy of the random number generator. To go on a mission at all, you have to have gear of a certain level, and you may not have found your favorite item at a high enough level yet.)

It’s a pity, because the game is very pretty, and the first levels are a lot of fun. But the design decision to limit respawns ruins it for me.  I don’t understand it… what would be so bad about respawning infinitely, as in nearly every other frigging video game?  If you really want a penalty, reduce the score or take away some emeralds or restart at an earlier checkpoint or something. Or, you know, don’t think you have to punish the player for playing your game.

You might have better luck, or a greater tolerance for grind.

I got this nearly a month ago, when it came to Steam, and my friend Ash and I just finished it. Overall: it’s big dumb fun.  Very Borderlandsy.  If you need big dumb fun during the pandemic, it will deliver.

bl3 amara

Yes, I pretty much always play the Siren

Now, it’s not as well written as Borderlands 2, not by a long shot. The jokes don’t always land or even get near the airport; the plotting is predictable; the Calypsos are no Handsome Jack, and the satirical elements are weaker than they should be. (The corporate dystopia element of the BL universe is more relevant than ever. But the game has nothing really to say about the situation, and it’s blunted anyway by two of the corporate scions being good guys.)

Tyreen and Troy are all right as villains. “Twitch streamer” isn’t exactly a rip-roarer of a theme, so they added “cult leaders” and “really really psychopathic”.  But that’s neither funny nor clever. The clever bit about Handsome Jack was that he really thought he was a hero and the players were bandits. That makes him interesting and provides plenty of hooks for stories and comedy.

BL3’s ideas for the Calypsos lean toward “add more psychopathy.” E.g. there’s a cameo from Penn & Teller, who play Calypso allies who specialize in torture and murder. That’s just not funny, and this bit is cringey when it was probably trying for edgy. The BL universe can be dark (cf. the whole Angel plotline in BL2), but the overall tone is way too jokey to support the sort of really uncomfortable humor of, say, “The Death of Stalin“.

The BL3 story does deepen toward the end, and not unsuccessfully. The game makes a little attempt to put distance between the two twins, which could be interesting but never goes very far.  The final twist works well enough, I think.

I don’t mean to be completely negative. BL understands that you want a strong enough villain to ensure that the player, and not just the player character, hates them. They do that. And there’s something to be said for doing just enough to tell the story, and then getting out of the way while the player goes pew-pew.  And they do that too, better than many a game does.

There’s also some material that lands pretty well.  The character of Vaughn, for instance, is a pathetic dweeb, and the joke is that he’s a very unlikely bandit leader. But, y’know, it’s a comedy, and he ends up funny rather than annoying. I think the team finally found out how to do Tannis right, too; they lean hard into her social awkwardness and science brilliance… it’s like after all this time, she knows herself and doesn’t try to pretend to be anything she’s not. (A minor weirdness is that she’s played by the same voice actress as Lilith, and the two sometimes have conversations… but the actress does very well at keeping them distinct, something that wasn’t always true in BL2.)

I do appreciate that they have a different villain type in BL3.  I wouldn’t have been happy to see Handsome Jack again, nor to have the main villain a different corporate scumbag. Plus, of course, it’s fun to get to entirely new planets.

As for gameplay, in general they’ve smoothed things out and made things better than ever. Replaying BL1 and BL2 last year, I was struck by the uneven difficulty, and the Gearbox tactic of making a level harder just by throwing more dumb enemies at it. I didn’t feel that way this time.  It’s rarely very difficult, and never difficult for no reason.  (I’m looking at you, level-in-BL2-with-too-many-spiderants.) The BL3 fights I remember as hard should be hard: key boss fights, and an all-out assault by Calypso forces at the end.

Shamus Young found that the enemies were frustrating bullet sponges. I didn’t have that experience at all. Toward the beginning I re-specced my Amara build, realizing that I didn’t want to rush at enemies and brawl; instead I relied on her Phasecast tree, which is suitable for ranged combat and includes a hold-in-place ability much like Maya’s from BL2. I found good guns, and the mooks pretty much melted.

BL2 could sometimes veer into overload. NPCs were constantly calling you up, often while some other NPC is dropping some exposition. The current questgiver has notes, or Jack wants to chat, or Claptrap suggests that you do some missions, or you found a log that autoplays over an already talking NPC. BL3 is calmer, and better for it.

There are some nice quality-of-life changes:

  • You can fast travel from anywhere.
  • When an NPC helps you fight, they will revive you if you’re down.
  • You can set loot boxes to be individual, so you never fight over them. (I do miss pointing out good guns to Ash. But it makes things smoother as you can just grab everything.)
  • You can play with friends of any level, and everyone contributes and has fun. In BL2, you really had to be within a few levels of your friends to play.
  • Ammo machines offer a one-click ammo refill.
  • Marking junk, and selling it all at once, is pretty easy.
  • Guns that change elemental type are very useful. You should no longer have to keep one of each elemental type for each gun type.
  • The increased verticality is fun. You can climb all over the place.
  • After the first few ammo storage upgrades, I was pretty happy with the ammo situation. I was never too fond of BL 1/2 bosses that were such bullet sponges that you ran out of ammo.
  • Level design is good. It’s hard to get lost, and the visuals are always pretty.
  • BL 1/2 really required paying attention to quest level. I don’t think we ever hit a BL3 quest and felt underpowered.

Also a few things that are disimprovements:

  • Fast travel must have been designed by their dimmest intern. It has way too many levels to it and takes too long to set up. There was nothing really wrong with BL2’s list of locations. (Well, the addition of a map is good, but a schematic map would do.)
  • You can’t get badass ranks till you finish a playthrough.
  • Not sure I like the weapons that require warming up. Though they do tend to do great damage.
  • The 3-D maps are nice, but too big to easily consult.
  • I have trouble with some of the jumps. Games differ on whether you press jump early, or at the last possible moment, or somewhere in between, and there’s no feedback except dying.

I also have to say, I don’t like or get why the loadout slots are so stingy. It basically means you have to pick four of the six possible weapon types. What would be the downside of having six slots? Plus, I’m a little tired of multiplying damage by fire rate; why can’t the game calculate DPS for you?

Now, I like the series a lot, so I’m happy that they’ve added more planets and more story and that they didn’t ruin it. Storywise, it’s not as good as BL3 but far better than BL1. But do note that I make no promises about playing it solo. It’s a co-op game through-and-through, and far better when you play with a friend.

You know what you could do to pass the time at home during the pandemic?  Minecraft! Specifically, Skyblock.

I wanted to write about this more because I’ve gotten further than I ever thought I would. I figured I could never defeat the dragon alone. But look!

mc wings

Oh yeah, dig those elytra. They are way addictive, and fortunately I learned how to repair them, with phantom membranes.  In the early game, before I had a bed, I hated phantoms– nasty creatures that put the mare into the night. Now it’s like, come at me bro, I need your membranes.

Plus you get such a good view:

mc vista

The End is pretty freaky, and fortunately it isn’t skyblocked.  I say fortunately because I lost my spare pair of elytra and had to find another End City to get another pair. I got some other great loot there, but the best thing besides the elytra is shulker boxes and ender chests– the closest you can come to extra inventory slots.  Plus the first diamonds I got in Skyblock.

With wings, I was able to take this place on:

mc mansion

That of course is a Woodland Mansion… basically three floors of monsters, including some specially nasty ones– evokers, which create dangerous flying monsters. In Skyblock, the most valuable thing here is the mansion itself, a treasure trove of wood and bookshelves.

Besides this, I’ve been working on the advancements list. This involved learning some new things, such as: in Skyblock, husks drop sand and drowneds drop clay. Great!  But how do we get husks and drowneds?  Well, husks spawn in the desert, so you find the desert and build a mob farm. For drowneds you need an ocean, so you can build one. (There is also an Ocean Monument, but that’s a scary place and I haven’t taken it on yet.)  Sand and clay allow you to take on a very time-consuming challenge: create wool, concrete, and terracotta blocks in each of the 16 possible colors. I just got that one today.

If you’re at all interested in Skyblock, I recommend Impulse & Skizzleman’s series. They know what they’re doing, and I learned a lot from it. They create all sorts of machines to do the work, and you can download the initial and final maps.

I may be close to done on this run, but I’ve thought that before.  I have to express some admiration for Minecraft: it’s really surprisingly deep, yet it’s simple on the surface, and you can have fun not knowing 90% of what’s there. You can learn as you go. Though kind of sadly, you’ll have to learn most of that arcana from the wiki or Youtube; there’s no in-game way to learn e.g. what a particular object can be used for.

But then: there’s also Borderlands 3, which is now out on Steam, and 50% off for the next few days…

Well, that took only a year and a half.  Waiting for Act V, the conclusion, I mean. And that’s if you discovered KRZ when I did.  If you got it when Act I released, it’s been seven years.  Still faster than Black Mesa!

krz-five

[Reassuring meow]

As ever, the storytelling is innovative. It’s a full 3-D environment this time… well, it mostly always was, but in earlier acts it generally posed as 2-D. After the beginning cutscene, you can wander around… as a cat. When you come upon people, you can stop and listen, and occasionally contribute a meaningful meow.

The clever bit is that as you wander around, things happen that you don’t see. So you keep going (the map is basically circular), and projects advance, people intermix, things happen.

Now, the last episodes got somewhat dark, so I was curious what they’d do for the finale. So, besides the death of–

Oh, yeah. Spoilers.  I won’t give away any story elements, but I will talk about the overall feel of the last act, so if even that’s too much, come back after you’ve played it all.

Also, I didn’t replay Acts I-IV, but maybe you should. I was forgetting a few of the characters and what their previous dilemma was.

Anyway, they didn’t go grimdark; they chose a low-key, reflective ending, with an air of elegiac melancholy. They basically leave it up to you to seek closure or not. That is, the little choices you get in the dialog can imply either a sad and dissipating ending, or a more hopeful one. I really like this… the events you witness go the same no matter how you choose, but you give them the meaning you want to. And what I wanted was to give this little band of misfits a chance at community.

I will say that it’s not as weird as some of the previous acts. The surrealistic elements are muted.  They do open up the story a bit– there are new characters with their own implied stories. But it was probably a wise decision, and fits with the overall character of the game, which has a keen sense of the quotidian.  These characters bond– if you let them– doing mostly ordinary things.

The political themes are muted too, though as with the surrealism they don’t go entirely away. The place you’re in has basically been ruined by the evil corporation that’s been dogging the characters all along. There’s no resolution to that. But it’s background noise by now, and there’s a hint of escape.

Anyway, if for some reason you read all this and haven’t played it and were wondering if you should: yes, please do. It’s not quite like anything else in games, and if you’re interested at all in game design, it’s a rich vein of techniques and ideas. Yet it doesn’t leave me with a list of regretful complaints as some experimental games do. It does things in its own deliberate way, but once you’ve adapted to that it’s very satisfying.

I picked this up because it’s made by Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy, which I loved. You can definitely feel it’s made by the same person– it’s cute, unusual, and full of a certain goofy benevolence. And wonky controls.

wattam

On the whole, unlike every review I’ve seen, I mostly didn’t like it.

First, what is it? You start as the Mayor, a green cube who’s unhappy because he’s all alone. Soon he discovers a rock, so he’s not alone. This is only the first in a large collection of objects. There is an underlying story about how they all got separated long ago.

You can control any of them; most of them can only walk around, jump, and hold hands, but some have special powers– e.g. the Mouth eats other objects and turns them into poop; the Mayor can remove his hat and cause a small explosion that throws him and anyone nearby up in the air.

Very roughly, the game is like an extended play session with a one-year-old. The objects all sound like babies or toddlers. They’re either giggly and happy, or wailing in tears, which means that one of the objects has a problem you have to solve. The sushi above, for instance, has lost their fish roe, and you have to find them.

Now, this could have been a whimsical romp like Katamari Damacy or Untitled Goose Game. There’s two reasons it wasn’t, for me. One, it is so overbearing, like a pushy kindergarten teacher who bellows, WE’RE GOING TO HAVE FUN NOW. The game is highly linear: you have to do something, and you’re rewarded with a cutscene, a few new objects, and a new goal.

You can, I suppose, ignore the prompts and play with the characters. But the tools you have are so limited.  It’s really not a deep model of friendship to allow you to make two objects hold hands.  Plus, if you ignore the current puzzle the soundtrack is going to be dominated by the object who’s wailing inconsolably.

The other problem is the wonky controls. There’s one task that’s about as annoying as anything else in video games: a doll has lost her facial features and is freaking out. You have to chase after her as the Mayor and beat her with a plastic sword. (I don’t think the subtext there was very well thought out.) While she’s stunned, you find one of the facial features, click on it to switch to it, run to the doll and up her face to get into position. There’s a short timer, the characters are slow, and climbing things is extremely awkward. It’s no Dark Souls, you’ll do it in a few minutes, but there’s a lot more failure than there ought to be. That and a few other tasks would probably be hard for children.

Plus, the game doesn’t tell you how to use the sword.  Or rather, it tells you once, but the keyboard tips screen doesn’t mention it. I figured it out but I’ve forgotten again– all I remember is that it’s the same key as one of the Mayor’s other actions.

Sometimes you need a particular object, and it’s on another island. Some objects are large boatlike things than can swim between islands. So you hit Tab to find the object, maneuver it onto a boatlike thing, zoom out, swim to the island you have to get to, zoom in, click the target object again.  You’ll be tired of all this the second time you have to do it. You can make a game where moving from point A to point B is an interesting challenge (Mirror’s Edge, Dishonored), but this isn’t it.

I often think about whether a game would be better as a movie. When a director mostly wants to tell a story and doesn’t trust the players to come up with one, they might be better off going the movie route. I think Wattam comes close. Actually playing it does not really add much to it; it might have done quite well as an anime along the lines of Kemono Friends.

Alternatively, I think the comparison to Goose Game suggests approaches that would make it more of a game. Basically: less handholding, more toolbox. More objects with strange powers; more ways to solve a problem; a little more mild mischief.

Against all that, the game is colorful and nicely animated, and I respect it for trying something different.  It definitely has its moments– the bit where the Mayor turns into a noir detective, for instance.

 

I’ve noticed that some video games create stories– not the developer’s stories but the player’s. PUBG was like that when it was new: players wanted to tell the stories of their intense escapes and successful firefights or, more likely, agonizing losses.

Skyblock is like that too. In general it has a compelling story of expansion from near-nothing. You start with this

sb orig

and end up with something like this:

sb vista

This is not the same Skyblock world I had before. I restarted with the same map Impulse and Skizzleman are using, largely because it contains a very useful change to vanilla Minecraft: zombies can drop gravel blocks. You can turn dirt + gravel into coarse dirt, which you can then hoe to form regular dirt. This makes dirt into a renewable resource, enabling the vista above, where I’ve built out the entire path from the starting island to one of the far ones in the distance.

The pool goes all the way there, so you can travel by boat. It’s lined almost entirely with bone blocks, obtained from skeletons.

The mushroom to the left is part of my village. How do you get a village when all you start with is tiny islands with one tree each? Oh my, that’s a tale.

  1. You’re given enough obsidian to get to the Nether. Build a portal.
  2. Find the tiny little Nether fortress. (I more or less found it at random: it was visible while I was building a path from the portal.)
  3. Blazes spawn at the fortress.  Good luck, you’ll need it. I ended up building a path protected with handrails (so I couldn’t be knocked off), trapdoors (so zombie pigmen wouldn’t rush me), and frequent cobble towers to hide behind. Even so it was a major struggle to kill a blaze and get close enough to grab the blaze rod.
  4. Use that to create an alchemy station.
  5. Now do it all again to get another blaze rod. Turns you you power the alchemy station with blaze powder, made from blaze rods.
  6. Craft a fermented spider eye from an unfermented spider eye, sugar, and brown mushroom. Use the alchemy stand to brew a Potion of Weakness from the fermented spider eye and a bottle of water.
  7. Add gunpowder (finally a use for this drop!) and brew a Splash Potion of Weakness.
  8. Go back to the Nether and farm gold by attacking the Zombie Pigmen. My trap doors and handrails helped a lot here; I also had a magic bow so each one only took 2-3 hits. This may take a bit as most pigmen drop only a gold nugget, and 9 are needed to make an ingot. You need 8 ingots.  Craft with an apple to make a Golden Apple. (An advantage of all this grinding: you get better with the bow, and the Blazes get less scary. I have a bunch of blaze rods now.)
  9. Keep going back to your mob farm till you get a zombie villager. Carefully kill the rest of the mobs to isolate him, and protect him with blocks. Light him up so no more mobs spawn by him.
  10. Throw the Splash Potion of Weakness at him.
  11. Give him (right-click) the Golden Apple. This produces the most satisfying sound effect in the game, a sort of crash of thunder. Red squiggles appear. He is now being cured.
  12. Wait.  He will still attack if he can get to you, so keep him secured until he’s cured.
  13. Bingo! He is now a regular villager. Use walls, or a boat, to lead him to a bed and workstation. You now have a village.

Here’s one my patients undergoing a cure. Isn’t he cute?

sb zombager

I didn’t even realize, playing vanilla Minecraft, that there’s a whole thing of villager management. I thought they only bought zombie flesh. Turns out only cleric villagers offer that trade. And they expand their trades as you keep trading with them– this is a godsend in Skyblock as they will produce many many things you can’t get without them. There are many kinds of villagers; you produce each one by creating a workstation for them.

You can breed villagers too, with stacks of carrots. But curing them from zombie villagers– zombagers?–  is best, because then they are grateful and give you a steep discount. In fact, you can purposely let a zombie kill one, then cure it, in order to get a discount.  This was a major comedy of errors when I tried it. Once I killed the zombager while trying to kill the zombie that bit him… once all the villagers got loose and then got attacked by zombies… once the damn zombager killed me.  I restored from a save until I got it right.

A villager has a random selection of trades, and sometimes it’s advisable to destroy and redeploy their workstation till they give you something you need. This is particularly useful with Librarians: you’d really really like to have them sell you Silk Touch.

From Skyblock I learned about applying spells to weapons, and combining enchanted weapons, with anvils. To do this you need shitloads of iron. But you can’t mine! Zombies occasionally drop iron, but even with a mob farm you’ll be lucky to have six ingots on hand. But villages, after a point, create iron golems!  You can murder them to get iron. (I was really nervous the first time I did this, but you just have to stay out of their reach. It doesn’t anger the villagers, nor other golems.)

Eventually I had so much iron that, just for sheer extravagance, I built a railway to another island. You can see it here, approaching my main base:

sb rails

You can see one of my mob farms to the left, and in the distance below right, another mob farm at a lower level. Both use water to push mobs to a drop. The first one just weakens them, so I have to periodically go kill them, but that’s good as it gives XP (which you need to use the anvil).  The second is tall enough to kill most mobs; it has chests to capture their loot.

There are so many little tricks to learn… many I picked up from Impulse. E.g. the mob farm let out kid zombies, which were annoying, till I learned to block them with a stone wall. Though this leaves a gap to kill them, the game considers it 1.5 blocks tall, so it blocks the kids.

I also carefully followed Impulse’s recipe to make a bubble elevator. More Nether trips, as you need soul sand.

I’ve been to the End, but immediately die there, even on Peaceful mode. Apparently you need to be well stocked with regeneration potions. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do it in solo mode.

Anyway, I got a little tired of grinding, so I started a vanilla world. This was originally a disaster. I discovered two villages, and managed to kill off all the villagers. Not directly: it turns out that the player is a mob magnet, and the mobs will kill villagers as they go after you.  Plus I triggered a raid, and that was absurdly hard. I restarted the world and tried again, this time making it a priority to protect the village.  A fence will do!

mc new town

After Skyblock, it’s kind of a luxury to see all that sand.

Naturally I’ve been cultivating villager trades here too. I actually have too many villagers, because they’re confused by my bed. They can’t reach it (they’re too stupid to climb the ladder), but because there’s an extra bed in the village they keep breeding more. I feel sorry for the one who can’t find a bed, so I build him one.

I mislearned something from Skyblock. Animal mobs regenerate regularly there, and I thought they would in vanilla Minecraft too.  Turns out, no.  (They respawn but VERY slowly.) So I killed off most of the local wildlife. I did manage to get sheep and cows, but no pigs. Finally I found pigs at a long distance, penned them up, and figured out how to bring them home: boats. Most mobs, including animals, will get into a boat and stay there. And you can pilot a boat on land, though only downward. But that got me and my passenger pig to within walking distance of the village.

Finally I got chickens: one came by randomly, and one came from an egg. Yet another fun fact: if you throw eggs, some of them hatch into chickens. I’m still short on leather, which is a pity because I like to make maps of the world…

 

I should talk to you about Mesopotamia… but a late stage of the Minecraft fever hit me, so I want to talk about Skyblock instead. This is a map where you start on a tiny little island in the sky. After watching Impulse and Skizzleman turning their Skyblock into a major empire, I had to try it.

2019-11-13_22.24.46

The picture is far from the initial state. This is after getting trees and wheat growing, and getting a load of cobblestone.

I had to learn how to do backups, because there are so many ways to ruin the game. It took me a few tries to figure out the cobblestone generator. You use water and lava: if you do it right, they generate a cobblestone block which you can mine, and then repeat forever.  But it’s easy to do it wrong and get obsidian instead, and/or lose your water or your lava.

Then you need trees. You start with one, which you mine… but if you don’t get a sapling out of it, you’re toast.  More frustrating was when my lava set fire to my tree…

There are other islands far away that you can build a bridge to, and have additional resources. One is especially useful because it allows you to reach the Nether (which also starts you out on a tiny block). Some of the stuff I haven’t figured out. Like, what do you use the lily pad for?  Also, the trader is worthless so far– he doesn’t want zombie flesh as ordinary traders do, and the one trade he’ll make requires golden apples, which I don’t have yet.

I spent a lot of time creating a mob farm.  The first one was never very productive– not as much as just letting them spawn on the bridges. But now I have an awesome one. Here’s its business end:

mc-mobs

Sometimes there’s a dozen mobs in there– the sound they make when you hit them is terrifying.  I didn’t make it tall enough to kill them with fall damage. That’s not the design flaw I ran into, though.  The design flaw is that I forgot to light the roof.  So mobs spawned on top of it and started invading my base…

It’s weird to play for hours without a scrap of iron. I now have two bars of iron, so I feel rich.  Both were provided by zombies.

I’ve learned a bunch of new stuff as well. E.g. I didn’t know that you can crouch in order to move freely over a block without falling off– this is essential in Skyblock as falling into the void is easy and also fatal. I also only just learned that saplings can be used as fuel, which is great– I was using wooden shovels.

There’s no shortcut for building below the current block, but there is a method: create a waterfall. You can go down the water and lay cobblestones as you go. You’re supposed to be able to swim back up, but I haven’t figured that part out… I just respawn.

Also, I learned how to make snowballs, which turn out to be great for knocking mobs off those narrow bridges.

That’s enough for now. I really want to go back and add another wing to my mob farm…

Edit: I forgot to say why this mode is fun. Mostly it’s the challenge— doing without iron and gold, turning precious single resources into chestfuls of stuff.  Plus it’s neat to start with so little and end up with a little empire.

I did redo the mob farm, which involved cleaning it out first. So… many… spiders.  But it’s easier to open up the roof and hit a mess of spiders than it is to lure a single spider into range and get one or two string each time.

 

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