Honkai: Star Rail

Well, I’ve played a bunch of Honkai Star Rail. tl;dr: Cute game, terrible leveling system.

I played some of their earlier big hit, Genshin Impact, which has the same cute anime characters, element-based combat, and gacha system, but is more of an open world. I kind of lost interest in it, but not because I ran into any barriers.

The pressing question is of course, what’s a Honkai? It’s 崩坏, which is Bēnghuài… for some reason Mihoyo, a Shanghai studio, likes to name its games for the West in Japanese. It means “collapse” or “breakdown.” Apparently the first Honkai game was a zombie shooter, while the previous one, Honkai Impact, is “post-apocalyptic.”

The Star Rail is pretty literal: there’s a train that goes around in space, you see, and you join its crew. That’s maybe the first clue that this is not hard sf. Also there are godlike beings called Aeons– one of them created the train. And things called Stellarons cause trouble for humans, which the crew is supposed to solve. All this of course gives you, the “Trailblazer”, an excuse to visit various planets, explore, and fight monsters.

There’s an introductory section on a space station where you wake up with Plot-Based Amnesia, and which is suffering a monster attack. You clean that up and then go to a planet named Jarilo VI, which is heavily based on Russia… pre-Revolution, apparently, as it’s divided into an aristocratic Overworld and a mining-based, oppressed Underworld.

The fighting is turn-based, which is awfully reminiscent of the 1990s, but hey, I liked the King’s Bounty games, and at least there’s no twitch mechanics. Different enemies have weaknesses against certain elements, and each of your characters specializes in one of those, so you want to pick the right team for the right enemy. It’s pretty satisfying if you can arrange the fight so the enemy doesn’t even get a turn. The four-character teams also make more sense here than in Genshin Impact since you see all four of them during combat.

I might add, don’t get this if you’re impatient. Turns take awhile, especially because your ultimates (which you will get several times per fight, for each character) each have a pretty long animation. (They’re also so bright that they hurt my eyes.)

Now, when I say you’d better get the team comp right, you’d better get the team comp right. Twice I ran into enemies (Svarog, then Gepard) who defeated me multiple times. Both have huge health bars and you absolutely need the characters that hit their weaknesses. If you lose a fight, the game will tell you the monster level, and if it says you’re too low, you probably are, and had better grind a bit.

Interspersed with the fights are little story missions. One charming bit is that your friends will send you text messages, often weird and baffling ones.

As you may expect, the major gotcha in this game is gacha. I haven’t had to buy anything, but to motivate buying things they’ve made the leveling system arcane and annoying. There is a plethora of special currencies or leveling-up items… separate ones for your own “Trailblazing Level”, your characters, and their “light cones” (repositories of extra stats). You can get completely blocked if you run out of one item or another, perhaps for just one character.

For the most part, there are ways to get to level 40, at least. I had to do pretty much every side mission. Plus, there are Golden Calyxes, little fights you can get into a limited number of times a day, but which reward you generously with the McGuffins you need to level up characters.

But now I’m stuck. You see, the next story quest has a level 42 monster that I can’t defeat. And there is literally no way to advance past level 40. You can’t just grind, you need to pass a certain story mission… one that’s after the quest I’m on. I can’t even buy stuff to advance, as it’s not gated to materials but to the story. This doesn’t seem intentional, or sane, so I filed a bug report, but for now at least there’s no use playing more.

(Also: in a normal game this would be fixable by turning the difficulty level down. But of course they won’t want you to be able to do that in a gacha game. So even though I can’t fix the problem by spending money, I’m still screwed by it being a gacha game.)

Edit: I got unstuck. First, some tweaks to my characters (leveling up all the accoutrements for everyone), I was able to beat Mr. Level 42. Second, it turns out that monster wasn’t necessary for the mission– it was only guarding a special chest. So I was able to move on, and even defeat Cocolia on the first try. Jarilo-VI saved, though for some reason there are a bunch of quests added after the main mission.


Minecraft: Un Dix-Huit

I have released a shattering wave of Minecraft videos– today I doubled my previous output. That is, now I have two.

The previous one is here, from a year ago, so the world here represents a year of work. The world is called Un dix-huit after the Minecraft version 1.18, which makes Minecraft worlds and caves much more vertical and pretty. It’s been updated to 1.19. so I have mangroves, frogs, and froglights. My early days in this world are described here. I talk about the castle seen in the thumbnail here. I find that static views don’t do Minecraft builds justice, which is why I made the video.

Minecraft is simple on the surface, but astonishingly deep. For instance, I only started working with beacons in this world. Using one, I started excavating an enormous hole beneath my base, which is one of the things that isn’t in the video. You get a beacon by creating a Wither, the only hostile mob you have to build yourself; the way to cheese this is to do it way underground and make half a dozen iron golems to help. 

I also played Skyblock Evolutions lately, a 1.19 version of Skyblock made by ImpulseSV and Skizzleman, which has the neat mechanic that your inventory slots are gated to achievements. You have to get three achievements to unlock each slot– which is strangely motivating.  

Some people keep their worlds around for years and years, making them insanely complicated.  But, you know, they just came out with a snapshot that adds camels and bamboo, and I had to try it.  So I’m actually working on that world. But more on that later…

Farewell to Shamus

I’ve mentioned Shamus Young a few times. A couple of months ago I was shocked to read that he had died, of cardiac arrest, at the age of 50. I didn’t know him personally, so I can’t say much about him as a person, except that 50 is way too young! I knew him from his site, twentysidedtale, which is full of stuff related to programming and video games, and interesting enough to be permanently in my bookmarks bar. I thought the best tribute to him would be a little tour of things I liked.

If this is your first glimpse of his site, note that you may not escape for awhile. The dude wrote a lot. Grabbing links, I noticed how much I haven’t read. So check it out, this is by no means all the good stuff. There’s also podcasts and music and even a novel.pixelcity2_lighting7

Pixel City, Shamus’s procedurally generated city builder 

I first ran into his site with DM of the Rings, his retelling of Lord of the Rings as a D&D game… a game with flaky players, an incredibly pedantic DM, way too many orcs, and way too few opportunities to go into town to sell loot. It’s a brilliant idea and very funny, at least if you like both LOTR and D&D.

He then more or less extended the idea in Chainmail Bikini, with cartoon art this time (by Shawn Gaston). The idea was that this was the same DM and players from DM of the Rings, but a new campaign. Sadly, it petered out after about 50 strips, but it’s good D&D humor, and anyway Shamus will explain how it would have ended.

He also reviewed video games, in depth. In much depth. No, way more depth than that. This Mass Effect retrospective is in 50 installments. I kid, but if you like a game, it’s a pleasure to see it analyzed in detail, with attention to gameplay, art, and above all story. Shamus loved a good plot, and hated a bad plot, and would take all the time it needed to explain what went wrong. This element doesn’t bother me as much as it did Shamus, but it’s still interesting critical work; he’s pretty insightful about what does and doesn’t work and what a game can and can’t get away with. Other series of note: Arkham City; Saints Row 3, Jade Empire, Oblivion, Borderlands 2, Black Desert Online. And there’s more; I focused on games I’ve played, though I’ve also read through some of his entire series on games I never played, like Spider-Man.

He also made programming projects— they rarely turned into finished games (though Good Robot is an exception; you can buy it on Steam), but he knew what he was doing and his progress reports are fun. I liked his Pixel City project, his blocky world, and his terrain builder, among others.

I didn’t always agree with him on games, but his opinion was always interesting, and he was a kindred spirit, in terms of just putting out content on the web for years and years just because you want to. I’m sad that we won’t get his careful, acerbic dissection of future games.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

I love the big dumb fun of Borderlands, so I picked this up as soon as it was on Steam. My friend Ash (an indispensable part of the series) and I just finished our second playthrough. It’s very Borderlandsly.

My relatively normal Spore Warden. Ash likes to randomize his appearance

First, the rapturous parts. BL2 had a D&D parody– Bunkers & Badasses– as a DLC, which turned out to be a big hit. Tiny Tina, the explosive(s) expert, turns out to be a great dungeonmaster… sorry, bunkermaster, and it just works to add a light fantasy overcoating to the BL formula– a very light coating, you still mostly use guns. Wonderlands expands the idea into a full game.

There are lots of quality of life improvements. You can customize your character’s appearance and sex; you can multiclass. The basic mechanic of examining loot and deciding what’s junk is pretty streamlined by now. Though the Gearbox formula for deepening encounters is always “add more monsters”, it’s never as out-of-control as in BL2; things are rarely overwhelming even in boss fights. Three classes at least add companions, and these can revive you– a nice touch since it’s easy not to notice if your co-op partner is down. As in BL3, you can either divvy up loot or let each player have their own uncontested stuff. The game doesn’t wait too long to give you your full gun slots, and it’s generous with ammo.

The game is extremely pretty… also it highly taxes my machine. They’ve toned down the hard-edged cartoony BL look: it could be almost any fantasy game, and has some really beautiful environments. (As something of a joke, the game has you blow up the ocean, which allows half the game to be set in a very unusual post-undersea environment, full of weird coral blocks and sunken ships.)

You can read guides on how to develop your character… but really, just put your stats where you feel like. I liked the classes with companions, but do what you think is fun. (Oh, and don’t bother with sniper rifles: the levels are rarely large enough to make them worth it.)

BL’s humor is always hit or miss– if one joke doesn’t land, maybe the next one will. Some of the best bits are direct parodies of the D&D situation– the game even provides you with two advisors, fellow players who don’t actually appear in your game but provide commentary and annoy Tina with their complaints and bickering. There are callbacks to previous games– e.g. Brick appears as the “Fairy Punchfather”, and Claptrap is there at his most annoying level. Some nice bits, in flashbacks, show how Roland taught Tina the game. Other quests are parodies of various fantasies from the Smurfs to the Witcher to Don Quixote… these are kind of Mad Magazine level at best, and interminable at worst. (The joke of the Witcher parody is that the Witcher is an insufferable jerk; the joke gets old fast.)

I was surprised to read in a review that some people find Tina herself annoying. I like her a lot, especially with Ashly Burch’s performance… she’s intended to be an over-the-top hypermanic teenager, and it fits that she is really obsessed with Bunkers & Badasses, and capricious as a DM.

The main quest is, well, also hit or miss. The villain, the Dragon Lord, sometimes talks to you– mostly to complain about Tina. He’s better than the horrible Calypso twins from BL3, but the story arc makes little sense. Spoiler:

He’s Tina’s own former character, turned into a villain, and he resents it and wants to take over. “NPC realizes he’s an NPC and resents it” would be a good one-off joke, but the artificiality of the concept makes it a big miss.

Now for the biggest complaint. You defeat the Dragon Lord, you get a big bunch of loot, and… that’s it. There is no True Vault Hunter mode: you can’t replay the game with your equipment and high level; the loot-and-shoot loop just shuts down. This is baffling and kind of enraging: didn’t they realize that that continuing loop is what makes BL what it is? The whole idea is to use your new loot for enhanced pew-pew. If anything this made the second playthrough more annoying, as toward the end you start to realize that the looting, grabbing coins, and levelling up wasn’t going to pay off any more.

I’ve put 66 hours into the game; I’d happily double that if there was a Vault Hunter mode. I’d also feel a little better about the $51 price. And that’s with a discount, it’s normally $60. I don’t feel like a third playthrough from scratch would add much.

And the second-biggest complaint: the levels are beautiful, but also repetitive. Too many encounters are just “enter a generic area and pew-pew everyone in it.” Instead of Vault Hunter mode, there’s a “Chaos Chamber” which is… one randomized encounter after another. Not the same thing, Gearbox. (We didn’t do any of the DLC, partly because they are apparently just more quick dungeons.)

Not quite a complaint: some side quests are really really long. Like, you get the four doohickeys, and then you need to get the five foobars, and then you get a boss fight. And then maybe another boss fight. It’s fine, a little unpredictability is good, but if nothing else, sometimes we’re starting to wrap up the evening and want to just knock out a side quest, and it takes an hour instead.

(I should add, if you play it, do explore the side quests; all of them are worth playing at least once, and doing them puts you in a much better place for the final boss fights.)

Now, in a lot of co-op games how much fun you have depends a lot on your co-op partner. My longtime BL partner is Ash; we are exactly on the same page in terms of how many loot chests we open, how much time to take messing with inventory, what side quests to do, what jokes to make along the way, etc. In short, try to play with Ash and you’ll have a good time.


I haven’t done a Minecraft report in awhile. I’m still playing in this world, though I’m eagerly awaiting 1.19. I’m pretty happy with this castle:

You may notice some blocks that look like lodestones, on the facade of the castle. They’re not lodestones; they’re map art. That’s great for posters and such, but it’s also very nice for decorative blocks. I tried the same idea before, but this came out much better.

The castle on the right isn’t entirely original– it’s inspired by the astonishing BDoubleO. The palace on the left is my design, based on a Renaissance palazzo. I’m not that happy with it, but I do like the contrast. In between the two buildings is a drop into an enormous cave. Here’s another view:

I mostly made this in creative mode. It’s nothing that couldn’t be done in survival, but it’s not like I have any Minecraft friends to impress, and it’s far easier to build very large structures in creative. Not only do you avoid the grind, but you can redo things. E.g. I built the palazzo in sandstone and granite, and decided that it looked terrible. It still takes plenty of time to make something nice… e.g. the map art alone took about three evenings.

Minecraft 1.18

I’ve been playing the 1.18 release for the last few weeks. If you haven’t played Minecraft for years, it’s worth checking out, because it completely revamps terrain generation. First, everything is a lot more vertical:

The world used to generate from level 0 to 256, with sea level at 62. Now it generates from -64 to 320. Mountains (and player builds) can go far higher, and of course caves go far deeper.

More spectacularly, caves are now far bigger. Also more varied, with dripstone caves, lush caves, etc. Just look at these things!

You can wander around in them for hours, and probably will, to gawk and to mine. A helpful hint: use Night Vision potions. The effect is shown above: without them, the caves are dark and scary. (Night Vision is brewed with water bottle + nether wart, then a golden carrot, then redstone dust. The latter increases the duration from 3 to 8 minutes. I take 9 potions on an expedition, which is more than an hour of caving. Bring shulker boxes, or if you haven’t defeated the dragon yet, an ender chest.)

You can still do branch mining– diamonds are now concentrated at level -59. But why bother? Mining efficiency depends largely on how much surface area is exposed at once, and simply walking through a cave will expose far more blocks than you can with mining.

One drawback to the new world generation, perhaps, is that biomes are now so large that it takes a lot of exploring to find some of the rare ones. One trick: find your world seed (type /seed in console) and make a new Creative world with it. In Creative, you can use /locatebiome to find a biome you need. I looked for a mesa biome for instance, for the cheap terracotta, and it was over 2000 blocks away from home.

You also have to watch where you walk a little more. A hole might drop you an immense distance now.

A Minecraft post wouldn’t be complete without sharing a pic of my base. Here it is so far:

This was the first picturesque mountain I found in the first hour or so. The chaotic contraption at left is a mob farm. I first tried a traditional mob farm (four arms with a water feed and a central drop), and it produced nothing. I’m not sure why, but probably there are so many mob spawn locations nearby that it was just bypassed. (My base is atop some of those huge caves.) This one has 10 floors, with an AFK spot far above, and it works pretty well.

One thing missing here: a village. I noticed that about 75% of the time in my last game, I would just stay in my village, grinding resources and trading, and I wanted to get out of that loop. It’d be nice to eschew villagers entirely, but I use them anyway to get spell books– as I need specific ones and in quantity, enchanting books is too slow.

Changing up your playstyle is nice– now I’m motivated to actually use the diamonds I mine, and you can get some pretty good gear even with 10-15 levels. I may have to figure out how to do an XP grinder though…. I’m spending a lot of time getting to level 30 so I can enchant something, and it’s kind of frustrating.

I still keep discovering things about the game. Quite by accident– I was decorating an alchemy building and thought a redstone torch next to a dragon head would be atmospheric– I found that when you power a dragon head, it animates, opening and closing its mouth. Neat!


I have a huge Minecraft world I’ve been working on for over a year… but I got kind of bored with it. I played Skyblock again, and then decided to start yet another world. Since the idea was to occupy the gap before version 1.18, I called it Interimland.

Bases are hard to show off in still pics, so I decided to make a video about it:

Oops– I just noticed it’s only 360px, though I recorded it in 1920×1080. Probably I rendered it wrong, though since it took an hour to upload, I’m not going to correct it. (Edit: it’s fine.) Also, I really don’t like hearing my own voice, but I can’t really change that, so you’re stuck with it.

The most interesting bit, perhaps, is the ravine build I start out with. I turned it into the kind of cité-puits that Moebius used to love drawing. Or the beginnings of one; it could use multiple levels.

I find that I’ve been doing more and more automation. My base currently includes these things:

  • AFK mob farm
  • regular old mob farm
  • XP blaster
  • cow & pig farm
  • wheat/carrot/potato farm
  • chicken farm
  • kelp farm
  • sugar cane farm
  • cactus farm
  • dripstone lava farm
  • concrete maker
  • apiary

All this produces so many emeralds I don’t know what to do with them all. I used to buy glass and arrows, but the mob farm produces too many arrows and excavating desert for the ravine city gave me an excess of sand (for glass). So I mostly buy XP bottles for the XP blaster.

Really, at this point villages kind of make Minecraft too easy. There is always something to do, but you can get just about everything there (diamond gear, colored terracotta, arrows, glass, quartz, spell books, blank maps). When 1.18 comes out in a few days, I may try avoiding villages, at least for awhile.

Sable: ugh

Negative reviews are kind of annoying; but I’m a bad mood and might as well express it, and maybe draw some game design lessons.

I’ve been looking forward to Sable for years. I tried it tonight and bounced off it so hard I got a refund.

From pictures, it looked like it took a lot of inspiration from Moebius. In-game, it’s not quite as impressive: it’s all flat colors and the overall effect is to turn a complicated 3-D scene into simple flatness. And the cutscenes for some reason are low-FPS. For what it’s worth, Moebius usually modeled his shapes with meticulous linework and subtle coloring. But eh, not a big problem.

The big problem is the terrible UI. This is foreshadowed by the moment you get control. You’re in some sort of temple, facing a big sculpture of a face. You can walk around, climb the face, stand on top of it looking outside through a hole in the roof you can’t get out of. Turns out you’re supposed to ignore all that and walk out the other way. Lesson 1: when you highlight something with details and lighting, players will think it’s important and spend time on it. Don’t waste those cues on nothing.

I walked out and ran into a child who offered something I was told I wanted, in return for some beetles. Fine, it’s My First Fetch Quest. You can talk to other people and they’ll give you a vague hint where the beetles are (“go east”). Fine, only…

  • There’s no indication of where east is. It turns out you need a compass, which you get later on.
  • I went east and saw no beetles. The compass highlights points of interest, but there was nothing to indicate where the beetles are. It’s a big world, you can lose insects in a lot of places.
  • Everyone you talk to will give you that same option to talk about the beetles, which you can’t skip.
  • Since I’m in a bad mood, I might as well complain that no one explains why I want the thing the child is offering. Is it a side quest, or something I need to advance the story? No idea.

Lesson 2: Playing hunt-the-pixel was tedious even back in the ’90s. Don’t be mysterious about what you want from the player.

Next, I talked to someone who was supposed to have a glider for me. Cool, supposedly this is the key to the whole game. It’s not ready yet for some reason… fine, it’s a multi-stage quest. But the first step is, he wants you to ride a beater glider to test it out (i.e. preview the skills). The conversation implies that it’s right next to him.

The glider isn’t there. All that’s around him are a few boxes. You can wander around camp or the surrounding desert… there’s nothing that looks like a glider. You can talk to people… no hints. You can bring up the compass… nothing points to a glider. You can talk to Glider Guy again, and he explains where the beetles are, then tells you he won’t talk to you till you’ve flown the glider which he won’t tell you where it is. There is no option to skip the beater glider and get the real one instead.

I looked around for awhile and gave up. If it’s a bug, it’s pretty bad that it makes the tutorial fail. If you’re supposed to wander around the big area available to you until you find it… come on. Lesson 3: don’t hate the player that much. When you’re obviously gating further progress to a task, don’t fucking hide the thing in some non-obvious location.

I did read a few reviews, and obviously some people are progressing easily enough. That’s nice. But to me, the time I spent with the game told me one of two things.

  • Maybe the developers really do hate the player– it’s supposed to be a frustrating grind. In which case, I’m glad I found out within the refund period.
  • Maybe the developers didn’t test their game. Like most developers, their idea of testing was “I ran it once and it didn’t crash.” They know where the damn glider is, so they don’t see a problem. Did they try watching someone else play their game? Even for an indie studio, that level of non-testing is not acceptable.

I’m mildly curious, but very mildly, where these things were. But that’s lesson 4: put the frustrating bits later in the game. Once I’m committed to a game, I’m willing to put up with grind. (It’s astonishing how much time I’ll put into grinding in Minecraft.) But the first hour or two of a game is key to making me feel committed. At that point, you’re still selling the game. Make it interesting and don’t make it impossible.

One more thought: a game can decide that a particular quest item shouldn’t just be highlighted on the map, but there are alternatives besides “randomly hide the thing in a large area and don’t show any clues at all.” E.g. the minimap in Borderlands will highlight you the area where you should hunt. Dishonored had the Heart which gives you the distance to the sought item; by heading to where it beats faster you get the direction. Minecraft has you locate strongholds by throwing an item which will point in the right direction.


This pretty much made my day:

You can see a better view of the picture here.

What is all this? Well, Hermitcraft is a shared Minecraft server whose members all post videos and/or stream on Twitch. They do amazing builds, but they also make games together and interact with the instincts of natural comedians. As the kids say, it’s incredibly wholesome.

When each Hermitcraft season ends, you can download the world map, which I did yesterday. It’s fun to fly around and see things in detail. And of course you can do whatever you want with the map, including adding items. So the joke here is that I added a tiny, ugly shack to Keralis’s beautiful city. And the meta-joke is that it’s not a noob shack made of dirt blocks; I took some time with it to make it really ramshackle. Making your builds far more detailed and interesting than they need to be is something I learned from the Hermitcrafters.

My Minecraft library

My book news is that I’ve been working on the index, and an alert reader’s long list of typos. Then I have to clean up the Sumerian grammar. So naturally I’ve been relaxing with Minecraft.

I feel like I’m getting to be a good builder. Here’s my latest building:

I’m really happy with the detailing. I’ve learned a lot from (though I’m miles short of) Keralis and Bdubs from the Hermitcraft server.

Here’s the inside:

Really nice Minecraft building is a matter of adding completely unnecessary details. Dig the bookcases and the lamps and village bell hung from chains. (It’s also a matter of using blocks for their looks rather than what they’re supposed to be. E.g. that white balcony up above is made of snow.)

I’m trying to make my huge builds actually useful, and this is a trading hall for my Librarians. You can see a couple of them moved in, and now I actually have about eight of them. The pros often lock their villagers into a tiny space, but mine have the run of their magnificent building.

Getting them here was a chore. When I’d moved #2, he got lost. I looked all around and under the building, wondering if he’d been killed by a monster. Finally I found him: he’d gone up my ladder to the roof, where he just stood around humming, unable to find his way back. I rescued him with a boat.

If perchance you want to do this sort of thing, my other bit of advice is to try out builds in Creative. It’s a lot easier to work out block choices and architectural details there, rather than trying to decide in Survival, where changing your mind (e.g. using orange rather than brown terracotta) means wasting resources.