Video Games

LOG: God of War is not a good video game

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

Early in my opinion-having life, I discovered my thoughts were usually out of sync with everyone else. Some might say there’s something wrong with me. For whatever reason, you can reliably assume that out of the handful of universally acclaimed games or movies that come out, maybe half of those won’t jive with me at all. Consider it an inability to think outside of my own perspective or maybe I have an inherent desire to be a contrarian dick, but I don’t think either are true. Communicating your opinion is very difficult to do and if you haven’t practiced that skill it’s easier to rely on what other people have said. Sometimes this leads to you agreeing with things you don’t actually believe.

Imagine you play a game and hear a critic call it “the best game in years.” You hear that comment and you feel like you agree. The reason you agree is because that particular game did something you hadn’t seen in a long time and you really liked it. You feel the critic’s words accurately describe your general enjoyment of the game and specifically how it accomplished something that hasn’t been done in a game for years. You use the phrase “the best game in years” to explain how you feel because you can’t quite nail the specifics of your own thoughts. But in that phrase comes many other statements that you may not necessarily agree with. Is it truly the “best game in years?” Wasn’t there another game earlier this year you liked even better? Weren’t there several games you liked better? To the average person, this distinction doesn’t matter because the overall message they wanted to get across remains intact. They liked the game and it did something that hadn’t been done in years. This choice of words might dilute their opinion on other topics, but most people don’t dedicate a lot of time attempting to maintain critical consistency (which is totally ok).

In the reception I’ve read for God of War, many reviewers and commenters explain their enjoyment of the game by parroting empty phrases. Their assessment often lacks specifics and relies on vague language or plain descriptions without any real judgement of their merit. Consider IGN’s review that 1) refers to an “engrossing whole” made up of individual elements and 2) spends several paragraphs explaining what’s in the game without really commenting on why it’s any good. It’s easy to see why some people take this approach. God of War is a dense game with a lot of mechanics and many things going on at once. If you’re enjoying the game, it may be difficult to narrow down where your enjoyment is coming from, but that experience can be very different for other players who don’t like the game. See, I know exactly how I feel about God of War because despite dumping 30+ hours of my life into it, I didn’t have any fun.

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God of War is easily one of the prettiest games this year, but it’s successes end there.

Why did I play it?

This is a good question because I’ve never liked God of War. It’s always been a game that values spectacle over substance. This is the series that pioneered quick time events and large-scale boss battles. Sure, it looked cool, but the player interaction with the world was lackluster. I remember comparing the original 2005 God of War to Dynasty Warriors since it was a more stylish button masher, but that comparison never convinced many people.

So, I’m going to write some words to pin point all the ways God of War isn’t “an engrossing whole,” it’s actually a mess of a game that seems loosely tied together. It absolutely nails the spectacle thrills the series is known for, but that doesn’t make it fun.

How was it?

God of War’s remix on its old formula is transitioning the series to an open-world role playing game. The player can now traverse a large world at their own pace and Kratos has a progression system that unlocks new skills and higher stats. In addition to player progression, the open world gives players side quests and small-scale puzzles that reward success with loot that can increase Kratos’ lethality even further. This all sounds like a great deviation from the series’ formula. God of War was known for being a tightly guided experience. In the original trilogy, players couldn’t even move the camera since the developer thought it was essential to guide their attention to the action. If there was any risk for this team to take, it’s relinquishing that control and embracing the open world antics.

Unfortunately, the open world is the most obvious flaw of God of War because the level design was clearly crafted with the intent of directing the player’s experience which is antithetical to the appeal of an open world. In a typical location, the landscape may feel “open” either through its vastness or various crates nestled in the corners of the room but there’s almost always two directions: forward and back the way you came. Once you arrive at the specific destination you were intended to reach, the trail stops and there is nothing further. This can be frustrating for new players because open world games don’t typically feel as restricted as God of War. In any open world game, you can anticipate branching paths, little secrets in nooks and corners and a sense of freedom that you could go wherever you want but maybe you don’t want to just yet. God of War masks the rails of its experience by creating large environments the player can run around, but most of the deviations from the path end in nothing. If you’re like me, and you want to seek out those additional paths, the game can feel frustrating. There are many environments where it seems like you should be able to go somewhere new but that feeling never bares out to be true.

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As much as the game pretends to be “open world” deviating from the intended path is rarely rewarding — instead it reveals the game’s deepest flaws.

Even as a guided experience, God of War can feel inadequate in its directions. Kratos has a variety of ways to traverse the terrain, but most of these traversals result in looking for button prompts in unnatural locations. Consider a game like Uncharted or Prince of Persia where there is a lot of climbing and swinging around, but the player always knows where they’re going. It can feel a little limiting at times since there’s obviously only one path forward, but the player still feels like they’re Nathan Drake or The Prince traversing the world. God of War never feels natural. There’s no visual theme to express where Kratos can climb and where he can’t. Often times you have to search for the large “X” prompt on screen, and if you didn’t have that as a guide you’d be completely lost. It doesn’t help that this prompt is often located off-screen from Kratos’ view. There’s no better way to take a player out of an experience than have them searching for a button prompt, but that routinely happens in God of War.

Even if you’re managing to get to your destination on track, the game has a habit of throwing in unreachable destinations or unsolvable puzzles without explaining that Kratos isn’t equipped to tackle these paths just yet. For example, Kratos eventually gains the ability to break branches by lighting them on fire. Before unlocking that ability, Kratos comes across a series of branches he can’t pass. This might seem like an obvious design choice to anyone who’s played a Metroidvania, clearly the developer wants to pique the player’s interest and once they gain the necessary ability they’ll remember this roadblock and eagerly pass it for more content. Except, God of War only has two or three of these mechanics and they are all introduced very late into the game. There’s no indication in the early game that you will unlock some item later one. Which means every time you pass a pile of branches in the first 10 or 15 hours of the game, it feels like you missed something. There’s not even a “I can’t do that right now” voice over prompt from Kratos or his companion. As a result, you spend a lot of the game lacking confidence that you’re where you should be.

Nothing encapsulates the lost feeling core to God of War’s experience like the introduction of side quests. The first side quests hit a few hours into the game and they’re both strangely designed. My first quest had me seek out a mystical storeroom. I arrived at the location and fought a few enemies that seemed little more difficult than the main story. I eventually got to a hugely difficult enemy with a massive amount of health that killed me in two or three hits. I decided this quest was meant to be completed later — although I wondered why such a guided experience would give me a quest I can’t complete? Many hours later, I returned to the quest several levels higher and with new gear and found the same enemy was still incredibly lethal and had a lot of health. I managed to beat him and completed the quest but the experience was mystifying. Why would they frontload the first quest with such a difficult enemy? Why would the game give me prompts telling me some enemies may be “above my level” when the enemy stayed just-as-difficult even after I gained additional levels? It’s one of the moments where you’re forced to reconsider your impression of the game. A studio like Sony Santa Monica has such a huge budget, clearly it must be well-designed, but this seemed like the sloppy execution found in eastern-bloc soviet games from the mid 2000s.

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God of War presents itself as an action game with solid mechanics comparable to Dark Souls or a character action game, but at its heart its still a button masher.

Perhaps the most revealing fact about God of War’s development is the implementation of the nine realms. Early in the game Kratos comes across a cloud of black smog that impedes his progress. He speaks to a witch who takes you aside and says “Ok, so here’s these nine realms…” In any other game, you’d assume this would be the framing device for the entire game. Clearly, we have to go to each of the nine realms. Maybe a bit excessive for a little black smog, but this is a video game after all so let’s do it. Sure enough the first realm you go to has a complex backstory and a “dungeon” with puzzles that lead up to a final boss encounter. It feels like a Zelda game, or maybe closer to Darksiders. But this one realm (Alfheim) is the only realm that has this much development. It turns out you only go to four of the nine realms, one of which is the realm you start in (Midgard) and another only has a small environment for story purposes (Jotunheim). Even with this in mind, a huge portion of the story is about your ability to traverse the various realms but you rarely interact with these realms in a direct sense. In any other game, the realms would be the centerpiece for the entire experience, but the majority of God of War’s exists entirely separated from these realms. You’re mainly in Midgard. It feels like the game was either meant to be guided through the various realms but creative direction changed, or God of War’s scope was so massive they were forced to cut it down due to resource constraints. All of this is to say, it isn’t really clear why God of War is open world in the first place. It doesn’t embrace any open-world mechanics and appears to prefer guiding the player to specific places and specific times. Even a loose open world like the ones found in Legend of Zelda or Darksiders is ignored in favor of a strictly controlled narrative.

This problem plagues the combat as well. Kratos has his own progression system where he can unlock new abilities by expending “XP” (experience is treated like a currency rather than a metric of progress). He also has several attributes that can be increased with gear. Strength and defense can increase Kratos’ damage or resistance to damage while others like “runic” increase his abilities and “luck” increases the chance of finding more gear. But none of these systems actually matter. Regardless of whatever items or attributes you possess, it always feels like you’re doing the same exact amount of damage to enemies. There may be some minor alterations, but the progression is so slow and so gradual that you never feel like you’re progressing at all. I have to imagine this problem stems from the developers’ desire to control the experience. You never get an overpowered weapon that deals an immense amount of damage, or some random loot with ridiculous stats. Everything is very minimal and gradual. You get new loot primarily from the game’s NPC blacksmiths who unlock new equipment with story milestones. Much of the gear from sidequests is lackluster at best, or in service to collecting the parts needed to create gear unlocked by main quest milestones. You never feel an incentive to take on these sidequests or look for more loot because it’s all so inconsequential. I often forgot to level up Kratos for many hours because it seemed insignificant.

It doesn’t help that the combat lacks the fidelity of other action games. The best way I can describe my problem with God of War’s feel for combat is how it treats dodging. In a game like Dark Souls, or any character action game, if an enemy is swinging their sword at you but you run away from their reach, you can see them whiff in the air and hit nothing. In God of War, enemies will close the distance by gliding toward you and land their attack unless you hit the dodge button at the exact moment the prompt flashes on screen. This seems like an incredibly stupid design decision, especially consider many enemies can attack you and you can only press the doge button at the “right” moment once. Other games like the Arkham Asylum or Assassin’s Creed series have shown how dodging can be done right even with lock-on enemies, but God of War lacks the fidelity of those games. As a result, the combat lacks the feeling of grace found in other melee combats pioneered in the past five years. Instead it feels like a very pretty, nicely stylized, button masher.

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Kratos’ relationship with Atreus is unique, but even that relationship has spots of hamfisted dialogue emblematic of the entire game’s lazy storytelling.

Which brings me to my last point which is whatever God of War does “right” is totally separated from its ability to be a decent game. A lot of reviewers marveled at the one-shot camera gimmick or the presentation of the game, but to me these are totally inconsequential. I have to imagine creating a continuous shot across the entire 30-hour game proved to be a logistical nightmare at times, but that creative decision provides no value to the player. So why did they spend so much time perfecting it?

Some have said the story of God of War is what makes it worth playing and I have to wholeheartedly disagree. It is true that the dynamic between Kratos and his son Atreus is an interesting relationship that games haven’t explored before, but whatever good comes out of their frank conversations about responsibility and purpose is greatly overshadowed by the boring snoozefest of the overall plot. In fact, I’d call God of War a narrative without a story. The characters float from one location to the next while the player is inundated with Norse mythological lore that no one actually cares about. It feels like the writers got lost in world-building without thinking about how to anchor the player’s interest in this fictional world they created. Kratos and Atreus have their own personal motivation that begins their journey, but that motivation is often left by the wayside to explain petty feuds between gods that only exist off-screen. Consider that Thor, Odin and Tyr are talked about for the majority of the game and the player never meets any of them. Most of this information is conveyed through a talking head lecturing about their history. I often found myself mindlessly wandering from McGuffin to roadblock, mystified what my objective was meant to accomplish other than extend the length of the game. It’s fitting that the game ends with two “twists” that basically amount to “Look! MORE LORE!” It’s a game that doesn’t know what motivates players to connect with a story and instead offers mass information dumps.

Final Thoughts

I’ve never liked God of War, so maybe this game is hitting a note I can’t hear, but its fundamentals look deeply flawed to me. It’s one of those games where its faults are so obvious I wonder if people see them and don’t care or if it’s a case of valuing parts of a game I have no interest in. It’s true that God of War looks really pretty. The environments are gorgeous and some of the large-scale boss fights look incredible. To some, it may be enough to play a game where they can experience that sense of scale. They can get lost in the spectacle and feel a fictional world come to life in that way. Maybe that’s why people like God of War. For me, I need mechanics to hook my interest. A video game world is only as interesting as my interaction with it. In that regard, God of War is a sterile controlled experience. It wants you to do specific things at specific times and never deviate from its vision. Unfortunately for me, and I suspect many others, its vision is fragmented. It’s an open-world game that doesn’t feel open. It’s a progression system with no sense of progress. It’s a plot without a story. It’s a game with limited interaction. I commend the developers for trying something new, but the developer’s attempt to translate their formula into the language of a new genre reads as a jumbled mess.

1/5

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Video Games

LOG: Spider-Man does what only Spider-Man can

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

Video games are the best medium to convey what it feels like to be another person. Other storytelling forums can make narratives more engaging to follow, but video games immerse a player completely into a fictional world. This amazing feature of the interactivity can result in wildly different experiences across games, but in practice most video games play identical to one another. This is especially true for open world games, which tend to adhere to unstated presumptions about what players can expect to do in their game. There’s always a large map, towers to reveal more of the map, an upgrade system that uses collectibles as currency, half-baked side missions — often with some form of “timed” element — and the game generally throws boatloads of content that you don’t have to engage with at all. This repetition across games in the same genre is a common criticism of open world games, but I’ve never minded familiar concepts. For me, I’m much more bummed when the concepts are haphazardly inserted into a game without translating them into the reality of the character we’re playing. After all, the ability to feel like the hero you’re playing as is one of the essential strengths of video games as a medium.

Spider-Man has been shrugged off as “just another open world game,” and although the familiar mechanics may make some players remember similar games in the genre, the game’s greatest success is providing the undeniable feeling that you are Spider-Man. No matter the task, whether you’re climbing towers or rounding up collectibles, it always feels like you’re playing as Spider-Man. You solve problems like Spider-Man, you move like Spider-Man, and you live the life of Spider-Man. It’s an accomplishment most games don’t even consider and it’s what makes Spider-Man unique.

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Traversing New York City stays fun throughout the entirety of the game

Why did I play it?

I have no love for Spider-Man 2 on the PlayStation 2. I only owned a GameCube at that point in time so the hype for Spider-Man passed my notice (although I do have a distinct memory of seeing Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3 in the theaters). Which is to say I wasn’t very excited for Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man. I got access to the game on a whim and decided to give it a whirl with very low expectations.

How was it?

My descent into the Spideyverse was slow but I ended up really loving this game. The beginning of the game doles out introductions at a steady pace. The game begins with you in a main story mission that’s more than a glorified tutorial, it’s closer to an actual mission with some quick lessons taught along the way. As such, it takes a little bit longer than you might expect to complete but it doesn’t feel like a mandatory tutorial. By the time you beat the first boss you have a good handle of all the mechanics and you’re unleashed into the world. The game wastes no time introducing an oppressive number of collectibles that you can choose to start picking up right away or save for later. Of course, being the crazy person that I am, I almost always immediately went to collect every single one of these optional completionist goals once they were available. There are a lot of them. Backpacks you can pick up, towers to unlock, photography landmarks, combat challenges, web-slinging challenges, a plethora of “research stations” — which could be anything — and many more.

The reason it’s so easy to fall into doing these collectibles is 1) web-slinging around the city never gets old 2) the challenges are likely more difficult than the main story which is by-and-large, stupid easy. I played the game on hard and had some difficulty with the boss of the introduction level, but otherwise I breezed through the game rarely dying at any point. This isn’t a game about challenging your ability, it’s about being your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

All of the content in the game reinforces the fact you’re playing as Spider-Man. Many open world games tend to rely on genre conventions for mission design. It doesn’t matter if you’re a ghost in Shadow of Mordor or an assassin in Assassin’s Creed, these games almost always end up playing the same way. There’s a stealth functionality that you typically open with but once you fail stealth you fight guards for 35 minutes by parrying them endlessly. Spider-Man has its own stealth, combat and parrying, but it has a Spider-Man edge. For starters, it’s always a viable option to utilize the openness of the world and web-sling far away from your opponents. Attacking a base and screwed up a stealth takedown? Zip down a few floors and chill out for a minute, then come back and try again. In combat and need a breather? Put some distance between you and the bad guys by zipping away several hundred yards.  In addition to web slinging, Spider-Man has access to an impressive number of gadgets you can upgrade. Web shots, spider-bots, electricity surges, concussive force and levitators are some of the abilities available to you. All of them utilize strategies that realistically seem like how Spider-Man would fight and move around.

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Many enemies require an awareness of environmental opportunities that can’t be ignored

The satisfaction of the side missions is shared in the main storyline. Pretty much everything about the game is designed with Spider-Man in mind. Consider the concept of a “heavy” enemy that’s very popular in games. These are bruisers with more health that dish out immense amount of damage. Pretty much every game in existence handles these enemies in the same way. For the “heavy” enemy, you use the “heavy” attack button. Press it a few times and that big guy is no longer a problem. Spider-Man has no such button because it doesn’t make any sense for Spider-Man to have a heavy attack. Instead, bruisers are dispatched by outmaneuvering them, or webshotting them until they’re incapacitated. It’s a solution that only Spider-Man could perform and it not only makes sense, it’s a lot more fun. The best example of this design choice is when Spider-Man faces off against enemies with jetpacks. These encounters often end with the two combatants hitting each other in the air, chaining combos, for a decent amount of time. Juggling enemies in the air feels unique, like it’s something games haven’t done before.

While the combat is easily the main draw of the game, the story is surprisingly well-written. The main antagonist seems to have an explainable motivation and seems more like a tragic tale of revenge rather than a moustache-twirling villain who basks in the misery of others. Spider-Man’s voice actor is great at selling the charismatic jokester personality of the character, and he also portrays the empathetic earnestness of Peter Parker. There are only a handful of characters, but each of them have a distinct personality and purpose for being part of the story. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game’s plot is how it handles law enforcement. Spider-Man has a congenial relationship with the police, since they’re both committed to keeping the city safe. This — of course — is wildly different than the depiction of police in modern day America. The police officer characters feel like they’re out of time from another era, like a post-9/11 view where all police were valiant heroes. I don’t have a political view on if this depiction is “correct” or “problematic,” but it certainly stands out.

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There’s probably an interesting read on Spider-Man plot based on its creative decision to depict police officers as unadulterated good guys and prisoners as objective bad guys

Final Thoughts

I ended up 100 percent completing Spider-Man, which is unusual for me. I like open world games a lot but there are usually a handful of activities that are too annoying to put up with. Spider-Man didn’t have any of those annoying side missions or brutally difficult challenge rooms, so it makes it very easy to consume everything completely. The relative ease of the game shows how far developers have come since the mid-2000s when plenty of games had notoriously difficult sections that turned players away. We’ve reached the point where you can simply enjoy a game for the experience and not get bogged down by random spikes in difficulty.

I originally viewed Spider-Man as a “good” game, a solid four out of five. It’s better than most, but misses the “wow” element that I usually need to give full marks. Since that initial assessment, I’ve spent some time considering other games from this year and I’ve realized how quickly we’re departing from straight-up fun in favor of other ambitions. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War want to pretend to be cinematic epic tales, with gimmicks like continuous camera shots or misguided mechanics in service of “immersion.” I’ve always hated games that lack the confidence to be good games first, then try other things. A game like Mass Effect 2 is an incredibly engaging RPG, that also uses black bars and camera angles to look like a space opera. That’s the example I think of for how games should be, but instead we get games like Red Dead Redemption 2 where you don’t do anything for the first five hours other than watch cut scenes and long animations.

Spider-Man might not swing of the stars, but it doesn’t have to. That “wow” element I was looking for is a misnomer. As it stands, Spider-Man is the most fun I’ve had with a game this year. It actualizes the world of Spider-Man and it accomplishes design choices that are unique to the genre. It’s a testament to how good games have become and the skill of developers who can provide a reliably balanced experience. It’s a huge accomplishment and worthy of praise on its own, it doesn’t need to be anything else.

5/5

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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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Video Games

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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Video Games

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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Uncategorized, Video Games

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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