Video Games

Log: Cultist Simulator – The dissatisfaction of unanswered questions

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Is solving a mystery inherently rewarding or is it a trick to catch your attention? That’s the question I asked myself while playing through Cultist Simulator. A game shrouded in mystery, where the rewards are doled out by your ability to uncover what the game has to offer. There was a point in my life where pursuing mysteries was rewarding for me. It wasn’t while playing Cultist Simulator or another game like it. It was when I was a kid and full of wonder. I’d feel a sense of discovery while traveling to new places or when I was confined to my room I’d delve into the large worlds found in games like Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls. I’d be amazed by what I found and questioned where else I could go. Asking those questions was rewarding because it didn’t take long to answer them. In a game like Elder Scrolls, I’d wonder “what’s in that house?” and with some lock picking or looking around I’d manage to get inside and find out. Or I’d drive down the San Andreas highway and ask “can I get on top of that mountain?” and with a small time commitment I would find out I could. As a kid I was followed my curiosity on my own terms and frequently saw my efforts rewarded. Cultist Simulator is not like those other games. It’s a game with a rigid structure, where success is clearly defined by the game but vaguely conveyed to the player. You have to work persistently to uncover how you’re supposed to play the game, and invest even more time to figure out why anyone would enjoy this experience.  Unless you’re a masochist or driven by mysteries, the more likely result is total exhaustion in the face of confusing mechanics and frustrating failures that feel unpreventable.

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Your table begins relatively sparse, but Cards and Verbs stack up very quickly.

Why did I play it?

Cultist Simulator was gifted to me. To be frank, if it hadn’t been a gift, I likely would never have given it a shot. The description of the game didn’t sound like something I would enjoy and the first impressions didn’t hook me. The idea of the game is you’re a ordinary person who delves into the world of the occult. Initially studying strange texts and having odd dreams, you eventually start your own cult and lead followers to go out on missions and  expand your influence while anti-cult detectives — known as the “suppression bureau” — seek out your demise.

The mechanics of the game are represented as a series of cards played on a table. Many of the cards represent concepts such as “health” or “money” or “dread,” and these cards are fed into “verbs” such as “work” or “study” or “sleep.” Combining the conceptual cards with the verb cards leads to your main interaction with the game. For example, one of my playthroughs started me as a physician at a hospital. I had a “hospital” card, which when I fed into the “work” verb, which would result in two “money” cards. It doesn’t require much of an imagination to figure out what that interaction represented. Other cards combinations are not as clear. Such as feeding an occult card into “speak,” which leads to your character delivering a sermon on a street corner about a particular cult subject to whoever will listen. The game has some UI tips that suggest what cards can be fed into verbs, but much of the game is discovering what can go where and the subsequent effects. Experimentation and discovery are a core component of the game, to the extent that there is no tutorial or any function that leads the player into the world of the mechanics, it’s all experimentation from the start.

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Organizing your table is an ongoing annoyance. Temporary cards cannot be stacked and the game has a habit of spitting new cards at you without any consistency of where they’ll show up. Examples: the “Fascination” card in the center is plopped on top of another card or the various “Mystique” cards are never placed near one another.

How was it?

Like any  human being, I was intrigued by the mystery of Cultist Simulator. We’re all driven by curiosity, so the presence of a mystery is inherently interesting. I played around with cards for a while and found I was making quick progress to starting my own cult.

Where Cultist Simulator falls apart is when you hit a hard wall once you get close to discovering the main appeal of the game. Just as you’re getting familiar with cult machinations, the game throws a series of obstacles at you, none of which give a lot of feedback on how to avoid them. Your character can fail in a number of ways. You can run out of money, get sick, be discovered by the suppression bureau, or accrue too much “dread.” That last one was the most common form of failure I faced and despite playing over a dozen characters across 10 hours, I never found a reliable defense against my dreadful fate. Let’s walk through how that might happen.

A “dread” failure means you have generated three dread cards that have been fed into a verb called “bleak thoughts.” Once you’ve fed that verb three dread cards, you have a limited amount of time to feed it a “contentment” card or else the playthrough is over. However, dread is one of the most common cards in the game. Reading about the occult, having a bad dream, some types of work and countless other random events all produce dread. Since dread exists everywhere in the game, you can’t adopt a strategy of “avoid dread,” because it’s inherent to the game. The secondary strategy might be “produce contentment whenever you can.” As far as I can tell, there is one reliable source of contentment with zero drawbacks, which is feeding the “health” card into the “sleep” verb. This can produce a good night’s rest and you feel content. However, there are four possible outcomes to feeding “health” into “sleep.” You can have a nightmare, you can have a decent night’s rest (no “contentment” card), or you can have a vision of the occult. Which means if you feed the health card into the sleep verb continuously the entire game, you’re only pulling contentment 25 percent of the time, which isn’t enough to combat dread whenever it appears. You can also obtain contentment by using “money” on sleep, which pays for a therapist or results in drug use. This is a more reliable function for combating dread but it also inherently leads to other fail states such as going broke or getting sick.

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This particular book was written in Greek and requires translation, but acquiring the necessary dictionaries isn’t straightforward.

The issue with the failure states of Cultist Simulator is there’s little feedback on how to prevent these untimely demises and in a game about stacking successive knowledge over a long period of time it’s incredibly deflating to have all your progress wiped by a mechanic you don’t understand. Each playthrough is framed as a new character taking their own dive into the world of cults. Which means any progress you made in a previous playthrough isn’t carried over into the new one. Which means if you spent some time buying books that teach you Latin or Arabic, that ability isn’t available to your next character. You’ll become very well acquainted with the starting moves of the game because you’ll have to do it every single time you start a new character.

The game gets around this repetition by making many of the actions keyed off of randomness. For example, a core component of Cultist Simulator is your character going to a bookstore with strange books that act as a window to the occult (in other playthroughs you bid on books by attending an auction). You can buy an unlimited number of books, but you never get to choose what book you’re buying. So in one playthrough you may get a book that teaches you Latin, and a series of books written in Latin, and in another you’ll get a bunch of books in Greek without ever stumbling across the primer that teaches you how to translate them. In addition to the core randomness, each playthrough gives the opportunity for you to play as a different character. For example, after failing as a physician, I had the opportunity to play as a police investigator who was assigned to the case looking into my physician character’s occult practices. This is a bit of fun storytelling through mechanics where you can see the story of your cult continuing across multiple characters. In this instance, a police investigator gets so wrapped up in his work that he abandons his job and starts a cult of his own. From a mechanics perspective the randomness of each character succeeds at making every playthrough different and reduces the fatigue of repetition, but it actually makes the game more frustrating because you can’t always use your prior failures to ensure success in new playthroughs.

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Dread cards are a source of frustration and frequently lead to your demise.

Pacing in the game is dictated by a constant state of time that passes continuously unless the player hits pause, but you can also speed up the game if you want things to move by more quickly. Most of the verb functions take 60 seconds to complete, so the amount of time it takes to run through the opening moves isn’t an immense amount of time, but it’s still a lot of time dedicated to doing the same thing over and over. Additionally, the limited time window allowed for verbs to complete can create frustrating situations. Some occult rituals require certain cards like “glimmering” or “erudition” to be played into them. When these requirements appear, you’re often given 30 seconds or less to feed those cards into the ritual or else the moment has passed. Of course, obtaining “glimmering” or “erudition” requires feeding “passion” or “reason” cards into the “study” verb — an action that takes a full 60 seconds which is obviously less time than the 30 seconds you’re allowed. If you’re thinking “study the cards before the ritual then you’ll have them ready.” Well guess what? “Glimmering” and “erudition” only last 180 seconds. There’s no way to know if the ritual you’re doing will require them, so unless you want to take up an essential verb with repeatedly studying “passion” and “reason” — when that verb has a billion other necessary functions — it’s likely you’ll miss out on some ritual requirements.

I eventually got to the point where I opened an Excel document every time I played Cultist Simulator and created hundreds of “If X then Y” statements to help me get through the game. I found some reliable ways to gain cards I needed frequently and I managed to write down descriptions for cards that seemed to evade my understanding. This document assisted my playthrough of the game but after assembling this document over a few hours I realized that nothing about this process was rewarding. I was actively wasting my time by trying to salvage some modicum of enjoyment from a game that had effectively given me a series of errands to do.

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With persistence you can uncover strange occult interactions with the game, which can be rewarding, but often times how you got there isn’t clear and what to do next is even more vague.

Final Thoughts

Mysteries can be a powerful tool for hooking a viewer’s attention, but they can’t act as the main attraction. Unless you’re a magician, you need something else going on to please the audience. My motivation to dig into games like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto or Fez may be based in a desire to solve a mystery, but my enjoyment of those games are the other mechanics. Elder Scrolls’ deep RPG mechanics and storytelling, Grand Theft Auto’s inventive open-ended mission design and Fez’s tightly constructed puzzles. All of those games have a series of reward systems that keep you interested in playing them. Cultist Simulator is a game that dumps thousands of questions on you from the start and requires hours of commitment to answer any of them. The few answers you do find are supplanted by even more questions. I’m sure there are some people out there who love this type of structure, and they’re probably a huge fan of the later seasons of Lost, but I don’t find mysteries to be inherently rewarding. They can be powerful for catching your interest, but there needs to be something else going on. My question to Cultist Simulator was “what reason do I have to care about this game?” and I never found an answer.

2/5

Time: 10 hours played

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Log: Valkyria Chronicles – A sleeper hit with more potential than substance

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

There’s a mission in Valkyria Chronicles, a turn-based strategy game released in 2008 that has since developed a cult following, that encapsulates my feelings on the game. Main characters Welkin and Alicia, are lost in a forest. Alicia is injured in a cut scene which translates into gameplay with her receiving reduced movement speed. Welkin suggests he scouts ahead since he is more equipped to deal with problems, then Alicia can follow behind him after he’s cleared a path. Along the way, Welkin discovers special blue plants he can use to heal Alicia’s wounds. However, the player is only given three moves per turn. Meaning the player can move Alicia twice and Welkin once, or Welkin twice and Alicia once. The mechanics around the blue plant require Alicia — the injured character — to find the plant first. Then Welkin can use the plant on her. This means it benefits the player most to move Alicia twice and Welkin once. Which also means that the only way the player can progress in the level without wasting turns is for Alicia to limp ahead, scout the area and kill all the enemies then have Welkin follow behind her. Once you understand the reality of the mechanics, success is easy, but the rules around Valkyria Chronicles and its various challenges are neither intuitive nor rewarding to solve.

Why did I play it?

I remember purchasing Valkyria Chronicles the week it came out back in 2008. It was pitched as a strategy game, similar to grid-based tactics games popularized in the 1990s but without the grid. It was a modern take on a beloved genre that had gotten stale over the years. I liked the idea of the game but found myself bouncing off of it consistently. I never finished it, but remembered in fondly without really knowing why I liked it or why I stopped playing it. Since Valkyria Chronicles 4 is coming out later this year — and because Valkyria Chronicles 1 was re-released on Steam last year — I decided to finally complete my time with the original game.

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A typical level in Valkyria Chronicles has your squad attempting to capture base camps while navigating terrain and enemy positioning

How was it?

Valkyria Chronicles makes an excellent first impression. It’s design is slick and intuitive, the characters are original and full of life and the context of the game’s events are uniquely thought out for a video game setting. The game takes place in a stand-in for Europe, known as “Europa.” The continent suffered a world war a few years prior to the game’s events and now the continent is at the precipice of a second Europa War. The allegories to World War II are obvious, but the similarities stop there. The player takes command of Squad 7, a militia squad serving the country of Gallia’s military. Gallia is a smaller country getting dwarfed by an aggressor empire hoping to secure their resources. The political motivations of these countries are complicated. Gallia has access to a rare resource that can be used to build stronger weapons, but they’re typically a neutral nation with plentiful farmlands. They stayed out of the first Europan War while the Imperial Alliance in the east fought with the Atlantic Alliance in the west. Of course, now that they’re thrusted into conflict, the Gallian government is split between allowing the nation to be enveloped into the Empire or maintaining a hopeless struggle against an enemy with superior force.

Internally, Gallia has its own problems. The country is home to Darcsens, an ethnic group identified by their dark hair color, who are treated as second-class citizens. The country maintains ancient lore that suggests Darcsens are responsible for a century-old calamity that brought deserts to Gallia’s otherwise green and prosperous lands. With all this in mind, the characters of Squad 7 aren’t your typical Disney-inspired regular Joes fighting for a good cause. They’re a collection of misfits who know their country can’t realistically win the war, and many of them hold resentment for their fellow countrymen as the cause of their current misfortune.

The politics of Valkyria Chronicles makes the world feel real. It has a level of sophistication and thought that most video game stories neglect. Other than the main characters, Welkin and Alicia, most of the characters are not painted as true-blooded heroes. One of the central fights of Squad 7 is a bartender named Rosie. She’s easily the most capable fighter and loyal to the Gallian cause, but she holds deep resentment for Darcsens. Valkyria Chronicles imbues these personality traits into the gameplay through a system referred to as “potential.”

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Many of the “good guys” on the Gallian side are unlikable opportunists, while some of the “bad guys” on the empire have personal motivations that are easy to empathize with.

One of the best snipers I had on my squad had the attribute “Darcsen Hater,” which meant that their stats would decrease whenever I put them on a mission with a Darcsen squad member. This character had voice over quips about their prejudice, and they generally acted like an asshole the entire game, but the reality was they were one of the most vital assets to my strategies. That character, and others like him, made me reflect on the historical books I’ve read about presidents looking the other way when their generals were dismal moral deviants because their skill was necessary to win the war. Playing as the captain of a squad of misfits, you may find yourself making the same tough decisions between choosing morale allies or effective ones. Much of Valkyria Chronicles narrative story (told through cut scenes) and emergent story (told through gameplay) reflect the reality of armed conflicts in the modern era.

As much as I enjoyed the setting of Valkyria Chronicles, the strategy behind the game was repeatedly unintuitive for bizarre reasons. The game was designed by SEGA, a japanese studio that took obvious influence from anime story telling that directly impacts the gameplay. There is a big focus on throwing curve balls at the player. While one might suspect a traditional curve ball in a military-style game would be an ambush, or reduced supplies, or a pincer attack — Valkyria Chronicles deals in anime tropes. One of the earlier missions had my enemy assisted by a bloodline goddess who could shoot blue lasers out of a spear from across the map. This character could not be killed or damaged, it was something I had to deal with by avoiding her. Sure enough, my first playthrough of that mission resulted in failure. Once I knew to expect the curve ball and plan around it, the second playthrough became very simple. The entire game has these types of out of left field nonsense.

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Some tactics have inconsistent results, such as this plume of smoke that failed to prevent a Heavy Tank Gun from shooting with perfect accuracy.

These curve balls have become a bit of trope for many Japanese games, where the odds are stacked unfairly against the player and their best recourse for success is to adopt an even more unfair playstyle (consider a series like Dark Souls where cheesing bosses is part of the game). I quickly learned that viewing Valkyria Chronicles as a captain in charge of a realistic tactical battle was a fool’s errand. Rather than clearing out battles slowly and safely, it benefited me more to run past enemies and capture their camp — ending the mission successfully within one or two turns. I learned this lesson best from the enemy AI, who would frequently run past my troops to my empty camp and force my failure. Additionally, the game ranks each mission performance with a letter grade. The only metric for success is completing the mission in the fewest turns possible, regardless of if your characters were horrifically murdered along the way or if half the enemy force remains after you complete your objective.

Final Thoughts

Valkyria Chronicles is one of those games where the more you know about it, the less you like it. It’s a game with a lot of promise and intriguing concepts, but it’s lackluster design gets revealed with the smallest amount of scrutiny. The setting of Gallia and the complicated character motivations held my interest, but as someone who’s not a fan of anime, the narrative went in a whacky direction I felt betrayed the intelligence of its premise. Silly anime tropes could have been made up for with higher quality design, but as I got more adept at gaming the systems, I enjoyed the game less and less even though I found success more and more.

Even with my complaints it’s easy to see how Valkyria Chronicles developed a following. It offered something unique and rejuvenated turn-based tactics in a way that held promise for the future of the franchise. Unfortunately, the series has been plagued by poor management decisions since the first game was released ten years ago. A forgettable portable sequel and a low-budget follow-up were largely ignored by the press and public for valid reasons. Luckily, Valkyria Chronicles 4 will be released later this year, which looks like a proper full-budget sequel. I was happy to refresh my memory on the series and remind myself of the potential it possesses, even if its first entry wasn’t all it could have been. As it stands, Valkyria Chronicles is an interesting game to remember and exciting series to follow, but the original game might not live up to your expectations for it.

3/5

Time: 40 hours played

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REVIEW: Pyre delivers and disappoints

Supergiant Games have had a pretty good run so far. Their first two titles, Bastion and Transistor, were met with critical acclaim and instantly created a community around the studio’s work. In some ways Supergiant had become the poster child for the best of the game industry. A small crew with limited resources created two of the most stylistic and unique games in recent memory. Those two games capitalized on the team’s strengths and although they had differences in the details, the broad strokes were largely the same. Very few people had anything but praise for those two games at the time. Instead, another worrying question emerged: Is Supergiant capable of diverting from their established formula?

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Pyre is the third game from Supergiant and the concern for distinguishing itself from the other two titles seems apparent. The core mechanics of Pyre are a huge departure from not only Supergiant Games, but all of the industry’s current trends. These departures make Pyre an intensely unique experience, but Supergiant’s reliance on its signature touchstones make it difficult to shake the feeling that the game could’ve achieved much more.

Like all of Supergiant’s games, Pyre’s gameplay is tightly intertwined with its story. You play as an outcast of the Commonwealth, a society that has outlawed reading. As a reader, you’ve been banished to a redemptive land called the Downside where various outlaws compete in religious rites to win their way back into high society. These rites take the form of a mystic sport similar to Basketball where the objective is to score a ball into the opponent’s goal. Each side has three teammates but only one person can move at a time. There are various attributes that effect each player’s role in the game. For example, a larger character may have a wider presence to block opponents from advancing, but they’ll also be significantly slower. Alternatively, a quick character may be able to sprint across the field with ease but the amount of points they can score will be less than other characters. There are a few different dynamics in play and it’s best to see gameplay yourself to get a better grip of how a typical match plays out.

The mechanical depth isn’t merely tweaking the values of traits like quickness (how fast you move), presence (how wide of an area you occupy), or glory (how many points you score). New characters tend to be unique races to the world of the Commonwealth. These party members have playstyles that expand on the gameplay’s depth and backstories that fill in the lore of the world. For example, Pamitha is party member from a race of bird people who have allegiance to a nation historically against the Commonwealth. Her great wings allow her to fly over the map with increased mobility. Another character is a talking tree with revolutionary tendencies. His movement is quite slowly but can teleport short distances and leave saplings for defense around the map. These different races also appear as your opponents in the game. Different teams have varying strengths and weaknesses meaning that there’s rarely a strategy that works for all of them. It also helps that Pyre encourages experimentation with your roster by having characters gain “inspiration” when they sit out a match, which allows them to gain twice as much experience when you use them again.

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As the story progresses, Pyre introduces more elements to keep the gameplay fresh and these elements will be familiar to anyone who’s played another game made by Supergiant. Each teammate can be equipped with a unique item that alters their stats in some meaningful way. These items can be found in the world, purchased at a store or unlocked through a character-specific challenge. Later in the game the player has the option to make each match more challenging by fighting under specific religious constellations that give buffs to the opposing team or debuffs to your own. These additional elements are fine on their own but they contribute to the feeling that Pyre is more of the same since all of these mechanics were present in Bastion and Transistor. A good sports game doesn’t necessarily need a new twist every 30 minutes to keep the player’s interest. The cascade of well-worn gimmicks act as a distraction. In the later matches I focused more on discovering what team/item composition broke the game instead of improving my skill with the core mechanics.

At some point it becomes apparent that the gameplay was not intended to be the focus, as made evident by the overbearing amount of dialogue and storytelling. On its own, the writing and world building of Pyre is fantastic. The player directly interacts with most characters instead of reading about them in description texts, a welcome departure from Supergiant’s previous approach. The various personalities come to life with these one-on-one interactions but there is simply way too many of them. For every ten minutes of gameplay there’s an accompanying 30 minutes of talking to party members or advancing the story by pressing X over and over until your input is needed again. Sometimes you’re given options on how to respond to character inquiries or make decisions for the group, but many of these “choices” seem half-baked since none of these choices have a narrative or mechanical consequence. The strangest example of this is when the game prompts the player as if they’re being tasked with deciding the future of the groups’ journey, but there’s only one option. These moments give the impression that Supergiant planned for worthwhile choices, and perhaps branching paths, but chose not to pursue it.

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Narrative choices would have gone a long way to remedy how boring the game becomes when it starts unloading its story on the player. It’s bad enough that Pyre has a very slow start, but it never gets into a groove of leapfrogging between action and story. Eventually I found myself so overwhelmed with party members wanting to talk to me that I skipped through a lot of the tangential dialogue. In the past, Supergiant has woven a lot of its story in its gameplay. Transistor masterfully tied gameplay experimentation with revealing more of the world by tying each individual abilities to a backstory of a specific character. In Transistor the more you used an ability, the more story you got. That’s not the relationship in Pyre. Clicking through character text unlocks even more text via the religious book the party keeps with them at all times. I tried my best to read a few pages of this codex but gave up around page 15 (there’s over 50 in total). Supergiant’s past games have had their own worlds with deep backstories, but it was always optional for the player to explore if they wanted to. In Pyre, everything is front and center.

The biggest crime of the oppressive story is it diminishes your time with playing the game. Pyre is easily the most mechanically dense game from Supergiant, but just as its true potential is revealed the game ends. There is a local versus mode offered in the game, but without any competition or consequence it’s not enough. Had the game included traditional modes available in sports games — such as tournaments, challenges, or online multiplayer — the thirst to play more of the game may have been quenched, but there’s none of that. On the other hand, the narrative is never truly explored either. Pyre’s world has conflicting nations, racial tensions, political plots, unique backstories and complicated relationships but they all have to be condensed into one minute dialogues. It feels like Supergiant finally struck gold and found a concept worthy of spending more time on, but they cut it short. I suppose Supergiant could feel flattered that the biggest critique of their game is that it seemed like it could have been even better, but it also means it’s hard to walk away from the game without feeling disappointed.

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The individual elements of Pyre are fantastic. The clean visual style creates unique vistas for the landscapes of the Downside. Every party member and stage has their own soundtrack that adds a sense of character to the entire world. Political intrigue and individual motives draw the player into the intriguing storyline and the memorable cast give reasons to care about the outcome. Mechanically, this is Supergiant’s best work. Pyre is an easily recommendable game to anyone with an appreciation for video games, but the question that shrouded Pyre’s release is not answered after its completion. Can Supergiant move on from their well-established formula?

4/5

12/26/2017 – a few grammatical errors corrected

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REVIEW: Stellaris Shows Promise For The Future

For many people, Paradox Development Studio’s games are that nut that refuses to crack. You can go to Twitch or YouTube and find endless videos of people streaming games like Victoria II or Hearts of Iron III and see people entrenched in these amazing stories of warfare and political intrigue, yet playing the games for yourself never seems to turn out that way. Paradox games are infamous for their deep and layered systems that scare new players who get intimidated by so many mechanics without a sufficient tutorial to guide the way. The studio has seen more success with its recent games, Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II, but the steep learning curve critique remained. That’s likely what led to many of the design decisions of their newest game Stellaris, a grand strategy game set in space. Stellaris ditches the overbearing historical baggage of Paradox’s past work and with it goes a lot of the depth of those games, but as a result the studio has succeeded in making their most approachable game yet.

In Stellaris you rule over an intergalactic space empire with ambitions to rule the universe. At the start of the game you select which race you want to play. This is a great way for Paradox to hit you with an immense amount of information that you don’t understand. Each race lists a tremendous amount of information about itself. There are different traits per race, as well as preferred planet types. Each government has different types of elections, in addition to ruling ethics that shape the way their society is formed. There’s also a variance on how each empire’s ships are designed, whether they use warp, hyperlane, or wormhole travel, and if they use kinetic, laser, or missile weapons. All of this is very overbearing so it’s best to just pick a random one and dive in.

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As it turns out, which race your pick first doesn’t actually matter because failing at Stellaris is the most fun you’ll have with the game. Whereas games like Crusader Kings II suffered from frustrating questions like “How does trade work?” Stellaris exclusively deals in questions such as “What’s the best way to stop this robot uprising?” Stellaris’ user interface is easy to grasp, and whatever concepts you don’t understand are easily explained by an advisor who can quickly explain it to you (or you can turn them off). You’re always tackling the challenge of the game, as opposed to struggling to decipher the user interface. Tumbling down the rabbit hole of discovering what each system in Stellaris does is how you’ll spend most of your time with the game. Almost all of your playthroughs will end with you losing or choosing to start over because you know you can do better.

Once you get a handle on the systems, the real marvel of the game starts to shine. For example, when defeating an enemy empire in war, you take their planets. This will grant you a new planet, more resources, and more population… but that population is a completely different race than yours. This newly conquered race doesn’t necessarily want to be conquered by you, so what can you do? Well, lots of things. You can relocate all the new denizens to your current planets and integrate them slowly. Or you could pass an edict on your newly acquired planet and hail it as a “land of opportunity,” which would cause your own race to flock to it and speed up integration. Or you could open the “Factions” panel and bribe the Separatists faction and hope they stop spreading propaganda that seeds unhappiness. Or you could create a vassal state of this new planet and not worry about it. Or you could pass a Xeno Leaders resolution, elect a governor to the planet who’s the same race as those new denizens which would massively increase happiness. Or hey, you could also enslave all of them. Or better yet, why not just “purge,” them all, which is Stellaris’ nice way of saying “commit genocide.” Yes, in Stellaris you can totally be a Space Nazi.

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There’s a huge amount of options available for each scenario and depending on how you want to rule your empire there’s different approaches to take. These playstyles are encouraged by the various systems in the game. For example, those ethics and governments? If you want to be a Space Nazi, you can select “Fanatic Militarist,” and “Xenophobe,” which will increase your army’s effectiveness, and your tolerance for slavery/purge. In addition to that, you can select the trait “Decadent,” which will reduce your race’s happiness unless they’re ruling over slaves. On the other end of the spectrum, you can also select the ethics “Pacifist,” and “Xenophile,” which will increase the number of embassies you can maintain with other empires, and lower the amount of food your race consumes per population. These ethics directly affect what type of government each empire has, which drastically affects the AI behavior of the various empires you encounter across the stars.

Although these playstyles seem to be encouraged through the mechanics, the victory conditions of the game send a clear message: domination or bust. The only two ways to “win” at Stellaris are by ruling over all the other empires, or by colonizing 40% of the planets in the universe. Both victory conditions are insurmountable, so it may be that “winning” the game isn’t exactly the point (previous Paradox games did not have “victory conditions”), but the game reaches a stand still after a few hours. Once you expand your borders to their limit, and research everything possible, you get to the point where you either have to start blowing people up or start over again. If you rolled as a Military Dictator this might sound awesome, but there are a variety of playstyles that are specifically punished for declaring war or for being in wars at all, even defensive ones.

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Replaying the game will also lose its intrigue after game four or five once you really understand all the systems, and specifically what is more or less effective. Once it dawned on me that the game really prefers you play as a military role, I didn’t see the point in playing the more diplomatic or scientific governments. Stellaris doesn’t have the luxury of a “map” like Europe, but the absence of one leaves Paradox in an awkward position. In Europa Universalis IV, there are well-known challenges, such as playing as Ireland and taking over all of the United Kingdom, or spreading Christianity across the Middle East. These might be obscure for people who never played those games, but they offered reasons to keep going back, and multiple attempts would yield multiple results. Stellaris tries to replicate them through random encounters such as robot uprisings or inter-dimensional invasions, but they don’t occur consistently enough to make every playthrough unique.

Paradox’s reputation for supporting their games after launch may put these concerns to rest. In fact, I was going to add a paragraph about the bugs I experienced while playing the game, including one save game that was stuck since I couldn’t conclude a war, but when I loaded the game today after a patch the bug was fixed. In addition to that small fix, there were small user-interface changes, and this is only a few weeks after release. Paradox continues to support games like Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV multiple years after their release, with DLC and small patches every few months.

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With this in mind, it’s easy to see Stellaris as the base of a game that hasn’t reached its potential yet. As on now, learning the mechanics of Stellaris is certainly enjoyable. It’s easy to summarize in a few paragraphs, but in reality I spent well over 40 hours with the game before I got a grasp on the mechanics. It takes a long time to understand the game and that process of discovery is worth having. If you’re an experienced Paradox veteran who’s looking for the next level, or if painting the map with your own brand of imperial Stormtroopers doesn’t sound appealing, I’d wait until an inevitable expansion is released. On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s wanted to get in on the Paradox bandwagon, but found the previous games too complicated, then Stellaris is a great entry point.

3/5

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Video Games

Impressions: The Witness

The Witness is receiving rave reviews from every outlet that reviews video games right now. Personally, I’m experiencing a lot of frustration because after the first dozen puzzles I find the game impenetrable. This is likely more a commentary on my intelligence than it is on the game’s design, but I made a video of myself trying to solve an early puzzle and maybe you can see for yourself. I’m sure I’ll look at this video later and cringe at my inability to overcome a simple puzzle, but for now it’s completely beyond me.

Just so we’re clear, this isn’t meant to be a “review” of the game. I would never review a game that I’ve only played one tenth of the content. However, I do think it’s fair to say my experience with the game so far would lead me to say I can’t recommend it, because it hasn’t been a very positive experience so far. I won’t say that’s my final opinion on the game, because I intend to spend more time with it, but that’s where I’m at right now. Check out the video for a more nuanced opinion.

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Video Games

Top 10 Games of 2015

Many people believed 2015 would be the next landmark year of gaming. They hoped it could be mentioned within the same breath as 1998, 2004, and 2007. One of those years where the developer and console cycles align and a boatload of quality comes out in the same year. 1998 saw the release of games like Half Life, Ocarina of Time, Stacraft, and others. 2004 had San Andreas, Metal Gear Solid 3, Halo 2, etc. 2007 brought us Mass Effect, BioShock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, among others. Looking at my list, and the other games of 2015… I don’t think it holds up to those years. I think 2015 was the year of surprise. Like: SURPRISE! Games are actually good for some reason. After the absolute bum year that was 2014, the industry has rebounded with gusto. My list itself has a lot of surprises, mostly because it features games and genres that I typically don’t enjoy. Overall I believe 2015 is setting up and even greater year: 2016, but we’ll see how that works out. Before we move onto the future, let’s take one last glance at the past. Here’s my top ten favorite games of 2015:

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10. Massive Chalice

This year was the year of the XCOM clones and my first run in with one was Massive Chalice. Originally slated to be released in 2014, Massive Chalice got pushed back into summer of 2015 and sort of got farted out in a way that made everyone forgot about it. The game is a mix of family name building akin to Game of Thrones, along with “defending of the realm” storytelling, combined with XCOM combat if it focused on melee units. I felt this game could’ve done achieved more if it had taken it self seriously instead of the established goofy tone of Double Fine (which may be why lead designer of Massive Chalice, Brad Muir, has since left the company to work for Valve) but I still enjoyed well over thirty hours with this game.

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9. Invisible Inc.

Hey another XCOM inspired game! This time from Klei, the talented developers behind Mark of the Ninja and Shank, also known as the best games I’ve never finished. A problem I didn’t have with Invisible Inc, but that’s probably because one playthrough only takes 2-3 hours. The game relies on randomized environments and campaign conditions and it’s highly encouraged you play it multiple times as each playthrough unlocks another character or item to alter your play style on the next run. I liked the style and tightness of the world in Invisible Inc and gave it a good 4-5 runs in the middle of the year. Some people have called it the best designed game of the year. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s certainly one of the stand outs from what I played in 2015.

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8. Prison Architect

Prison Architect was the game I eyed almost daily for months. It would announce a new update, or go on sale every few weeks. Each time it seemed more enticing. What might as well be called “Prison Maker Tycoon,” had everything I could want from a builder game, and the developers seemed dedicated to updating their game and not only improving it but adding more content for free on a regular basis. The game finally saw an official release this year after multiple years of Early Access on steam so I didn’t delay to start playing it (if it isn’t clear, I refuse to purchase Early Access games and wait for official release). It turned out to be everything I imagined. The campaign mode gently introduces you to all the mechanics and eases you into your own prison, and there’s even different play styles and “types” of prisons to construct, such as one that values punishment versus one that values rehabilitation. These play styles give you a reason to keep playing after you’ve reached max capacity with your first prison. I’ve had a lot of reason to get cynical about Early Access in 2015, but Prison Architect was a shining example to stay optimistic.

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7. Until Dawn

If there was a “surprise of the year” award, I would undoubtedly give it to Until Dawn. I never would have thought that a horror game, that’s closer to an “interactive drama” than a game, would turn out to be one of my favorites of the year. Until Dawn proved itself a lot smarter than its premise as “a dumb B-movie horror game.” I was genuinely impressed with how the design led me to make decisions that progressed the story down interesting paths. The contributions they made to the Quantic Dream formula such as the personality meters, and relationship statuses gave insight on how I should act in certain scenario. It also helped that the cast they picked for their motion captured characters had the charisma needed to stay memorable long after I had finished the game. Until Dawn could’ve easily ended up as something forgettable, or a cluster of good ideas that never land right, but a series of good decisions led to a really marvelous outcome… just like the game itself.

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6. Ori and the Blind Forest

I’m not that huge of a fan of “Metroidvanias,” so it takes a lot for me to put one on my Top 10 list. The fact that Ori is on this list at all, should be a sign of its quality. Ori’s not just a game that looks pretty and dazzles audiences from thinking rationally, confusing them into giving it praise. Its design is genuinely impressive, on top of being one of the most beautiful experiences of video games. Take this small change for example: In most games there are checkpoints artificially placed in the world, typically before difficult parts of the game. Sometimes players run into frustrating sections when there is no checkpoint at a section they’re stuck at. In Ori, there are very few pre-made checkpoints, because the player can make their own at any time by holding B. This is balanced because making a checkpoint expends “energy” that the player has to collect in the world. Which means instead of artificially choosing which parts of the game the player will need more help with, you can choose where you think you’ll need a few more retries, or you can save all day if you think you’ll need it. It’s just one example, but I think it’s a good example of the developer’s forward thinking led to making Ori one of the most intuitive games I’ve played in years. It might be called “hardcore difficult,” but it never felt that way because it taught the player how to master difficult strategies so well. The rest of Ori’s strengths speak for themselves. The impressive animation, beautiful music, Disney-esque story, and memorable set pieces. If you like this genre at all, Ori and the Blind Forest is perfection.

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5. Fallout 4

Man, can the world decide what it thinks about Fallout 4? I feel there are two camps and people keep jumping between them. Either Fallout 4 is a good game or Fallout 4 is too similar to Bethesda’s previous work and therefore a disappointment. I have not played the maximum amount of hours (I’m hovering around 27-30 hours right now) but my opinion right now is that Fallout 4 is pretty good. I think it’s leagues better than Skyrim, and any comparison before that is hard to quantify because Fallout 3 was a long time ago (seven years!). One thing remains true: the great thing about Bethesda’s game design is that they put a focus on the writing of the games.

One of the reasons I didn’t like Skyrim is because the quests were uninspired. I remember finishing the Thieves Guild quest line and being told that was “the best part of the game.” I was unimpressed, so I turned it off. I was already disappointed with what I had seen and if I had just passed the “best part,” why bother? In Oblivion, I was always surprised, every quest added something to the world or filled in some personality to the town or faction I was working within or for. Even if I had passed the best part of that game (The Dark Brotherhood) the other quests had something to offer. I feel that way with Fallout 4. I’ve had some five star quests, some four star quests, some three star quests, but they’ve all been really enjoyable and have helped fill out the world. That’s what Bethesda games are supposed to be about. I can see the criticisms that Bethesda didn’t evolve the mechanics enough, or that the base building doesn’t actually do anything, but for my money, and for what I wanted Fallout 4 to be, I got what I wanted. No one makes a game like Bethesda can, and until that changes, I can never call one of their games “disappointing.”

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4. Cities Skylines

Praise the publisher Paradox for sheparding the developer Colossal Order to release Cities: Skylines and saving the genre of city builders. After the disaster of Sim City I think everyone was ready to call it quits on ever seeing that franchise revived. Out of nowhere came this little game and in no time I found myself lost in thirty hours and down several metropolises. The best praise I can give Cities: Skylines is it’s so easily streamlined, you wonder how anyone could’ve gotten it wrong. Just a few weeks ago I loaded Cities: Skylines up again, after not playing it for months, and all the concepts and tools came back to me within minutes, it was simple. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Cities, and who knows, maybe it’ll inspire other developers to make a competitor that’s worth a damn.

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3. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Talk about a surprise. For anyone who knows me, I have a begrudging relationship with Metal Gear. I’ve played every game in the series and I don’t think I’ve liked a single one of them. That changed this year with The Phantom Pain. Phantom Pain practically dropped the “Metal Gearness” of the series, which is to say there’s far less hour long cut scenes and way more emergent gameplay. Granted, there’s still plenty of insane characters and bizarre cut scenes, but it all takes a back seat to the action. For once I can say that Metal Gear is the game I turn on when I just want to screw around in a world and see what happens. My appreciation for the depth of Phantom Pain’s mechanics really expanded in the second half of the game, when specific missions strip away your loadout preferences and you have to rely on strict stealth, or start with no weapons at all. These missions made me play the game in different ways I had never tried before. These latter parts of the game really opened my eyes to the depth of the systems at play in The Phantom Pain. I still don’t like the story, and I’m pretty sure I skipped past a lot of the cut scenes, but for once they made a game I actually really enjoyed.

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2. SOMA

Up until now Frictional has only made games that I’ve aspired to play but never actually do. Penumbra and Amnesia have really high praise in my circle of friends but the controls and the early moments of those games do a good job of convincing me to “nope” out of there real quick. SOMA was different. SOMA had a far different set up than the previous games, and the sci-fi backdrop intrigued me more than their dungeon horrors of the past. There were still times in SOMA where I wanted to hit escape, quit out of the game and never play it again, but I stuck with it. The groundwork laid in the first hour hinted at questions that I had to have answered. What was going on? What happened to my character? How am I going to get back? The rest of the game does not disappoint. Since finishing SOMA I’ve been relentlessly pleading others to finish the game so I can discuss the ending. I’ve even started asking non-gamers about tangential topics just so I can have some form of conversation. It’s a game that’s plagued my mind in more ways than one, the way a true horror should. I may have some reservations on “getting lost” every now and then, but I can’t deny how completely SOMA has taken hold of my life since completing it. For that reason I have to acknowledge it as one of the best experiences I’ve had this year.

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1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

When Witcher 3 came out, there was a lot of praise. I heard my trusted sources talk about it and they said they liked it. At one point someone said “some people are calling this one of the best games of all time,” to which someone responded, “I feel like those are the same people who said that about Witcher 2.” I remembered that I played Witcher 2. Twice. Both playthroughs are sitting at the 12 hour mark, just after the first encounter with the main villain. After that fight I lost all interest in ever playing it again. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I remember when Witcher 2 came out there was high praise when it was released, then it dimmed, then as the year went on people forgot about it. By the end of the year Witcher 2 was not remembered as “one of the best of all time.” I decided after hearing this conversation that Witcher 3 would go the same way. But, it hasn’t.

After hearing continuous praise for the game throughout the year, and seeing mainstream praise from outlets like The Game Awards and GameSpot, I decided I needed to play Witcher 3. I bought the game sometime last week and I’m now thirty hours into Witcher 3. Every moment away from the game I’m constantly thinking about it. This is my acknowledgement that I haven’t finished the game, but it didn’t feel right awarding my #2 or #3 pick with the top spot. Witcher 3 feels like it earns it placement for a variety of reasons.

One of the stand out differences of Witcher 3 is a fundamental approach of how the game chooses to spend the player’s time. In games like Fallout, or even Metal Gear’s side ops, the quests amount to errands. “Go pick up some stuff for me.” Maybe there’s a dialog wrapped around it, but there’s not a lot to it. All of Witcher 3’s quests are exactly that, involving, story intertwined, quests. Every interaction Geralt has with someone in the world feels like it matters. I feel like I’m in the world of the Witcher, instead of just logging more hours into my playtime of a game. I feel like I am becoming Geralt, and the actions I want to perform are generally allowed in the game world.

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Pictured: An enemy who’s buddy shot him in the back of the head.

I’m also far more impressed with the combat system this time around. The mix of swordplay and spells continues to be cool. You’re practically a Jedi with things like a pseudo “force push” or a fire spell, but even just the randomness of the fights themselves lead to humorous results. A common arrangement of foes is a sword enemy, a shield enemy, and a bowman in the back. In one encounter I force-pushed the shield opponent to the ground. The sword opponent approached me, then suddenly his health dropped to near-zero, because his bowman buddy had shot him in the back of the head. This emergent randomness can happen all the time. Every fight becomes a question of “what’s going to happen this time?” I love finding out the answer every time. There isn’t a single fight that becomes a slog or “alright let’s do this now.” It’s always fun, it’s always uncovering what the game’s engine will allow next. Even the tougher enemies are always a fight for survival without being brutally difficult.

And the world building is better now than any previous game in the series. I can attest to the fact that the first few hours of any Witcher game had always felt like an encyclopedia of foreign terms being dumped out of characters’ mouths as they referred to characters and conflicts from lands I’ve never heard of before. This game has a personal scope. It expands into grander conflict the further you dig into your own personal story. As you meet each new character that’s completely different from the one you met before, you suddenly realize you’ve met nothing but characters you’ve never seen before, and realize how unique this world of the Witcher really is.

When every quest feels like it’s important, every fight feels like a fight to the death, when digging into the world is rewarded with deep character backstories and a unique world, it’s hard not to be in awe at the game. I understand this game has been patched several times since launch and maybe at release it was in a completely (more embarrassing state) than it is now, but the game as it is now, is a bewildering force of quality. Any moment before now I could’ve told you that the previous Witcher games were overrated, but this time around they really did it. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is my game of the year.

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