Game Review: Sundered

A horrifying fight for survial and sanity.

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What is Sundered?

In the words of it´s creators, Thunder Lotus Games:

Sundered is a horrifying fight for survival and sanity, a hand­-drawn epic from the ​creators of ​​Jotun. [1]

Now, that does not tell you very much, so let me elaborate:

It´s a 2D platformer, with the ability-gated progression of a Metroidvania, sprinkled with some Roguelite elements. It´s main focus is fast combat, combined with exploration and a powerful atmosphere.
Also, the soundtrack is haunting and beautiful:

You take the role of Eshe, who is pulled into some kind of underground realm, where an ominous crystal (the Trapezohedron) welcomes her and offers itself to her as a weapon. After a brief tutorial you are left to explore this subterranean world and it´s (exclusively hostile) denizens.

Presentation

Image: Grasping hands in the fog.

So let´s get this out of the way first. In my opinion, the presentation of this game is absolutely top notch. The characters are hand painted and the animations are very fluid and dynamic.

I have tried to capture some of this in the GIFs attached here (while also learning how to record GIFs of gameplay.). For example this nightmare fog; I have looked at the grasping hands emerge from the gloom and dissolve again for quite some time before moving on. They grisly animals sound they emit is also very intimidating.

The soundtrack is led by eerie string instruments and evokes a melancholic atmosphere. It´s integrated into the world very well, and the sound effects are crunchy and punctuate the action quite nicely.

In addition to the handdrawn art, manipulation of palettes and different sprite sizes are used to mix up the environments and foes.
For example the cathedral looks bright, soothing and calm when first entered, but as you ascend further, sickly grey or greenish tones replace the original color scheme; suddenly it feels rotten and menacing.

Image: Grey tinted cathedral area "The Spires"

Gameplay – Movement & Traversal

I guess if I want to talk about the movement in this game I will also have to tell you a bit about the world you are moving through.

In typical Metroidvania fashion, some areas are blocked off and you can only access them once you have obtained an ability, for example the wall-run.
The starting move-set is very basic, you have a regular jump, you can bounce off of walls and you have a dash/roll to evade enemies.
As you progress through the game you unlock more abilities, which in turn allow you to access areas that were previously blocked off.

An interesting departure from the Metroidvania formula is the fact that there are no save stations / teleporters.
Instead, the game´s world is centered around the starting point, with the jungle and Valkyrie base to the south, the holy city of the Eschaton to the east, and the vast cathedral to the west.
You can return to the starting area whenever you want, and the even the most remote areas are about two minutes away from there (if you have opened the necessary shortcuts).

In the last third of the game, your moveset is extremely versatile. To me, it was one of the strongest movement systems I have experienced in a platformer in quite some time. Traversing the game world is satisfying in itself, just by chaining together double jumps, air dashes and the wonderful grappling hook.
In fact, if right now, a new game was announced with the exact same approach to traversal, flow and mobility, I would buy it blindly; just for the pure enjoyment of it.

Part of this comes from the way it is integrated into the combat.

Combat, you ask? Well, of course, as you leap and bound through ruined tunnels, sometimes, a distorted gong sounds, and swarms of enemies descend upon you.

Image: Eshe is chased by screamers and crawlers.

Gameplay – Combat

Just as with the movement, your combat options start out rather slim. You have a basic slashing attack which can be “combo-ed” into a heavy strike (think “1-2-3-4-boom”).

Fairly early in the game, tough, you receive the leaping device, which is a double jump, but with a twist.

Wait, why are we talking about movement again?
Well, as the game informs you with a loading screen hint: “Hitting an enemy resets the leaping device”. Plainly said, as long as you can land a single hit while in the air, you can remain aloft as long as you wish.

This is the key that prevents the game from becoming too centered on dodge-roll combat.
Instead of slogging through the crowds on the ground, fighting becomes this interesting airborne ballet, where you single out flying foes, flip-flopping between them with your extra jumps.
A rather unique take on platformer combat, at least I haven´t encountered this before.

GIF: Combat in the cathedral

I mentioned hordes. Here is the other departure from traditional Metroid style:
Instead of fixed enemy placement, the game lets you roam the procedurally generated rooms for a while, then the aforementioned gong announces the arrival of a horde.

Various creatures emerge from the edges of the screen, and as you fend them off, more arrive. Sometimes, there are a dozen or more enemies on the screen at once, which makes the action quite frantic, and keeps you on the edge of your seat.

On occasion, I found this a bit too crass, when you are fighting durable adversaries, these fight scenes can go on for a while.
This game has brought me to tears… and not due to the melancholic violins, the punishing difficulty or the ominous narrative, but because I didn´t blink for several minutes while being pummeled by lovecraftian monstrosities.

Regarding monstrosities, there are about a dozen a dozen bosses and mini-bosses scattered throughout the three main areas.
The three main bosses are mandatory, but can be tackled at a later point in time, in case you feel underpowered.
These encounters are quite stressful, the bosses are huge, screenfilling things, with complex attack patterns, and the blaring horns and war drums aid in unnerving you even more.

Have a look:

Image: Xea’sh’kaebt attacks Eshe with an array of ethereal fists.

Overcoming these is challenging, but not impossible, and you are granted Elder shard fragments/shards for each of them. These play into the “Resist or embrace” theme that is alluded to in the trailers.
You can use them to corrupt your seven main abilities, or decide to resist the temptation, and incinerate them, angering someone greatly…

This is one of the upgrade systems in the game; I should mention that there is also another one, dealing with passive upgrades.
After defeating enemies, you collect a crystal currency that can be spent in the main hub, on an upgrade tree.
This includes mostly minor, incremental upgrades to your damage, shield, health etc., as well as some major enhancements such as a talent that allows you to block projectiles with your attacks.
This system is functional, but ultimately, I think it is one of the weaker spots of the game. Due to the nature of these incremental bonusses, they feel like a bit of a “gear-check”, an unspoken barrier that prevents you from rushing through the game too fast, because you lack the damage and health to face the later, stronger opponents.

Themes/Story/Atmosphere – Resist or Embrace

Interestingly, the game only has a skeleton plot.
The protagonist, Eshe, is trapped in a subterranean realm and witnesses the aftermath of a clash between the Valkyries, using technology, and the religious people of the Eschaton.
On her journey, she learns about this, but must ultimately decide for herself which of the two sides is the right one.

So the plot is simple, summed up in one sentence, basically, however, the game has a rich atmosphere, the central conflict pits religion against technology and shines light on the actions of both sides.

While it is easy to say, yes, the Eschatons have allied themselves with terrible elder gods, they are the villains here, it is alluded to that the Valkyries also aren´t quite the nice and shining heroes. They´re presented as violent conquerors and destroyers, using their technology to create only weapons.
Most of the exposition is provided by an unreliable narrator, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think it´s an interesting viewpoint anyway.

The game oozes atmosphere everywhere, with little flavor texts on in the upgrade tree, and even an invented language. I just love the way the narrator pronounces the word “unbelievers” in the voiceover: “heresh!”.
As I mentioned before, the presentation here is worthy of high praise.

Image: Eshe ensnared by corruption

Critique / Negatives

As always, not everything is perfect, and there are a few things that could be improved, tough none of them is critical.

The first thing I must mention is the second large game area, the Holy City Of The Eschaton. While the starting area and the final area are very beautiful and have a large variety of enemies, the second area feels underdeveloped.
It consists mostly of samey corridors, and the enemies are rather basic. This could have benefitted from another design pass, with a bit more variation in the art department, and maybe one or two new enemy types.
I suspect this area was designed first (It was heavily featured in the original kickstarter pitch video and the announcement trailer.)

Something that amplifies this is the fact that the horde-style combat prevents the developers from designing encounters, as a traditional level designer (in the role of a dungeon master or director) would. Instead, the horde mode takes command. A little more curation on these combat scenes might have spiced this area up a bit.
The other two major game areas have enough diversity in terrain, and some special features (heavy wind, moving elevators) that mix up the encounters enough, so this is only a problem for maybe a quarter of the game.

While I mostly like the various skills and abilities the game equips you with, some of them feel a bit obsolete and underpowered.
The strength amplifier is too much of a “lock and key” mechanism – it allows you to break certain otherwise impassable barriers – and it´s utility in combat is rather limited (because you have to stand on the ground to use it).
The other one that immediately comes to mind is the cannon. It can also only be fired while standing, and its beam erupts in a straight horizontal line. With these limitations, and the fact that many of the passive powerups serve to increase it´s damage, you would think that it is powerful, but even in the late game, it does not really cut it.
A way to improve it would be allowing the player to shoot in different angles. A possible idea would be firing while airborne, tough it would require careful balancing of the recoil (preventing large sequence skips via quasi “rocket jumping”).
They could have made it worse, a smartbomb-effect would have undermined the sense of being overwhelmed by hordes, which I suspect the developer were aiming for.

One thing I am a bit torn on, is the way information is carried to the player.
On one hand, I really like that there is no “hand-holding”, the game expects you to figure out how to use your abilities yourself.
On the other hand, some of the concepts are not intuitive and should be shown. The major culprit on this is the double jump reset I mentioned above. It is an absolutely fantastic game mechanic, but if you don´t realize it´s there (after all, why press the jump button a third time?), combat becomes unnecessarily hard and frustrating.

A criticism that I have heard levelled against the game is that the boss fights are very confusing. The reason for this is that the camera zooms out very far, and Eshe becomes a tiny speck on the screen. Sometimes you lose track of where you are amidst a multitude of foes.
Personally, I only found this to be a problem on the boss “Dominion”, but I can understand if it detracts from your enjoyment.

Verdict

Overall, I am quite impressed with the game. It held my attention for three playthroughs (I wanted to see all the endings), and it compelled me to write a review, which not all games do. So it is for me, but is it for you?

I´d say if you like platformers, especially Metroidvania-style ones, you should at least take a look. Sundered is a fresh take on the genre, and instead of going full retro like some other have done, it adds some procedural elements to the mix.

The game is carried by rock-solid combat, strong atmosphere, beautiful visuals, and in case you missed it, a wonderful soundtrack.
Here is the launch trailer, which is surprisingly accurate (Yes, the game looks that good.):

The major thing that might push you away is the excessively long horde combat sections, if you do not like prolonged challenging combat, this might spoil the game for you.

I, for one, am looking for to a DLC that Thunder Lotus Games has teased, as well as their next full game.

Embrace the madness.

Footnotes

[1] Jotun had a free weekend on Steam at some point, and I played it for a few hours. I did not like it very much, it felt slow and plodding.

Game Review: 20XX

This is the Mega Man game that we have been waiting for.

20XX

In the year 20XX, a bad Mega Man clone called Mighty Number 9 was created. It was made to satisfy the craving for oldschool 2D platforming of Megaa Man fans. It failed on all accounts, with poor mechanics, weak controls, obnoxious cutscenes and uninspired level design. However, Batterystaple Games stepped in to counter Mighty No. 9 with their own take on the genre, 20XX.
— Not the intro for Mega Man 2

20XX header logo

So, 20XX, I have waited about two years for this game to come out of Early Access [1].
Was it worth it?

Yes! This is the Mega Man game that we have been waiting for. It has all the things that we want from such a game, as well as some spicy additions that are new to the formula.

What is it?

20XX is a 2D platformer that takes heavy inspiration from the Mega Man series, especially Mega Man X, and then spices it up with Roguelike elements.

On the Mega Man side of things, it has all of the staples that you would expect, dashing, wall-jumping, and charging your weapon. There are now two characters to play as, Nina, with the “arm-cannon”, as well as Ace, who uses short range melee weapons instead.

The roguelike heritage of the game manifests itself in semi-procedural level generation (Rogue Knight), random upgrades, item drops and shops (Binding Of Isaac), and a very light meta-progression, akin to Crypt Of the Necrodancer.

Interestingly, the original Mega Man arrangement still stands: Your fight 8 bosses in a non-sequential order, and you can obtain their weapons after defeating them. The order can not be chosen freely, but after each boss you can choose one of 3 levels, until you have beaten all 8 of them, at which point you progress to the two final stages.

20XX Gameplay - Platforming

Gameplay / Impressions

So far, I have put about 25 hours into the game. It is very well suited for medium sized gaming sessions (30 to 60 minutes).

Each level lasts about 3 to 5 minutes, which to me is a good size for a Jump&Run game. (This was one of the mistakes of Might No. 9, the levels felt very long, without having much actual content.)

The things that stand out most are the absolutely amazing soundtrack and the super crisp controls. Simply put, this play like a real Mega Man game, the right “gamefeel” is there, and in some aspects it is even better than the originals.

The available upgrades feel significant and make traversing the levels very enjoyable. Upgrades to jump height, running speed, and even things like air-dashes and double jumps are available, which makes hunting for upgrades feel worthwhile.

It also makes for some hard choices in the in-game shops. Do you take the cannon upgrade or the one that reduces your health but makes you faster?
Meaningful choices in games, good times. 🙂

The developers also managed to inject some longevity into the genre, most of which comes from the roguelike elements. The level generation keeps things fresh, and in case it becomes too easy, there are many modifiers that can be switched on to make the game harder, e.g. more enemies, longer levels, more damage from environmental hazards etc.

Did I mention the soundtrack? I guess I did, but let me do so again. The chiptune soundtrack by cityfires has passed my personal threshold of “Would I listen to this at work?”.
The tunes are driving the gameplay forward with simple but sweet melodies, just as they did in the 80s and 90s Mega Man games.

20XX Gameplay - coop

Critique / Negatives

Not all is perfect, I have some gripes with the game as well.

First are the special weapons that you receive from the bosses. Many of them feel superfluous, as they do not add anything except for an easy way to finish off the boss who has them as their weakness.
Also, their special functions could be explained a little better. I only learned that the Icicle cannon can freeze wall-mounted hazards by watching another player do it in co-op. An (optional) tutorial with a 10-second animation would work wonders here.

As it stands I usually only pick up and use two out of the 8 weapons, the rest seem useless. (But the basic weapons are powerful and fun to use, so this is not too bad.)

Secondly, there is very crass difficulty spike after defeating the 8 Robot Masters bosses. The ninth level is a series of bottomless pits with moving platforms, lasers and many enemies above it. Many of the jumps are very tricky, and having lots of enemies flying around only makes it harder.

The level feels a bit like a “gear-check”, as it is made exceptionally easier by having one or more of several upgrades (e.g. the double jump or hover boots, the anti-knockback body armor or many speed/jump enhancements.)

I think having such a level in the game is fine as it separates amateurs like me from the hardcore players, but I think it would have been prudent to move this to one of the “expert” modifiers that are optional, instead of having it in the standard level rotation. (I personally think the level is harder than level 10 and both of the final boss fights.)

Other features

Some features that have been cropping up in many Roguelikes are also present:

  • Daily and weekly runs with a fixed random seed (everybody plays the same generated run).
  • Leaderboards for these runs
  • Boss rush mode
  • Online Co-op mode (I only tested this briefly)

Verdict

This game is more fun than both Mighty No. 9 as well as the Mega Man Legacy Collection. I say, if you enjoy this type of Run&Gun games and have no problems with “random” levels, go for it, it´s a great game!

Footnotes:

[1] Early access: I personally don´t like it. I do not drive unfinished cars, I do not eat half cooked food, so I certainly won´t bother with unfinished games.

 

All images taken from 20XX press kit at http://batterystaplegames.com/press/

Nephilim – Chapter 5: Acquistion

(Disclaimer: This is a synopsis / battle report of a session within our Nephilim RPG campaign. It serves to give some context to the fiction I post, as well as simply practicing writing.)

Chapter 5: Acquistion

Synopsis

Last time we saw our heroes, they have secured an Earth Plexus in a cave/sewer network beneath Berlin. Having secured the Earth Plexus, our protagonists are presented with an unexpected situation by Skaro.

She has obtained information about two manuscripts that might contain more modern writings about Golems (not the clay prototyp developed in 17th century Prague), but they are part of a private collection that is being auctioned off.

Two sets of two invitations are granted to the group, and they will have to get creative in order to get the fifth person into the venue.

Skaro has also provided funds, 400.000€, and an additional 25.000€ in cash.

Arrival at the venue

The auction is held at a private mansion, and the group arrives fairly early.
Finistur summons her kabbalistic sword and armor and deposits them in the group´s jeep, “just in case”. With a bit of magical assistance from Gealach, Sil’Faron, in his identity of Bernd Schiffer, manages to dupe the doormen that the 17 year old Kek is actually his son. The bouncers are quite dazzled by the charismatic display, and let them all in.

Sha Naqba Imuru and Sil’Faron have received bidder numbers for the auction, while the others are only present as their aquaintances.

Once inside, our protagonists survey the list of items that will be auctioned off.

  • The two manuscripts by R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz they came for
  • Three paintings of archangels (Jophiel, Raphael and Gabriel)
  • Three french books
  • A horrendous looking sculpture of a melting person
Photo of the auction programme and list of items
Photo of the auction programme and list of items

Lounging & Socialising

Before the auctions are starting, the group socialisies with the other attendees, finding four other Nephilim among them. This makes for a total of nine Nephilim present, a staggering number, considering how far apart they are usually. An illustrious gathering indeed.
They approach all of them, to find out where they stand regarding the acquisition of the manuscripts.

Surprisingly, Joris, who is known to the group as Tanja, is present. She wants to spy out the humans, to find out which ones belong to secret societies. She´s also here under a fake identity, Anna Michalska.

Finistur meets the englishwoman Caitlin Sanders, a Fire Nephilim incarnated into an elderly woman. She is interested int he sculpture and the painting of the Archangel Raphael, and also wants the other items to go into Nephilim hands, as opposed to the grubby fingers of mundane humans. She claims to be willing to destroy the merchandise otherwise.

Gealach has a brief chat with a dark-haired woman named Francesca, a Moon Nephilim.
She appears to be a direct competitor for the two Schwaller manuscripts.

Kek, and later Gealach, engage in a Poker game in the mansion´s Gentleman´s Club, with a young man called Eduard Miller. He savagely cheats at the game, using concealed magic to embarass a player to leave the game during a large pot. Afterwards, Kek approaches him to find out about the auction. Mr. Miller first claims to only be here “for the people”, but later admits that his patrons are interested in one of the french books, Der Kampf ums Dasein am Himmel, which contains only “beginner level” arcane knowledge.

There are also a number of notable “regular” humans among the crowd of about 50 people present, some of them obviously not interested in the occult. Sil’Faron manages to talk a pompous man named Marco Probst, who obviously has no appreciation for literature, into believing that the Schwaller manuscripts are not originals.

A few guests seem to have suddenly become quite sick, requiring an ambulance. A coincidence? Too much sparkling wine? Spoiled hors d’oeuvre? Unlikely.

Auction round one

The first round of auctions starts, and the group silently observes the proceedings, without any interest for the french books. Two of these go to Eduard Miller and his associates, the third to an unremarkable collector.

They make a bid for one of the Angel paintings, but it goes to Mrs. Sanders, as does the disgusting sculpture. She seems pleased, and so does Mr. Probst, who buys the two remaining paintings.

Kek notices a man and a woman who appear to be more interested in the guests than the auction themselves, taking pictures of the high bidders. He shadows them for the remainder of the evening.

Sil’Faron is approached by the woman named Francesca, who offers a bounteous 100.000€ simply for him not bidding on the manuscripts, but he declines, knowing how important these books are for the group.

Before the manuscripts are auctioned off, there is a dinner break, and Gealach manages to confuse Mr. Probst with her alchemical arts. He is now more interested in indulging in the sumptuous buffet than the auction.

blog_auction_map
A map of the auction venue, the mansion of Katrin Frueh

Auction round two

This is the main event, the Schwaller manuscripts are up. Quite a number of bidders is missing from the room, due to mysterious illness and sudden hunger flashes.

As soon as the first manuscript, The Temple Of Man, is presented, Gealach creates a visual illusion of water damage upon the book, which scares several more bidders off.

Sil’Faron gets the high bid, with 105.000€, which leaves the group with 325.000€, and the hope that they can pay in cash or leverage some Sil’Faron´s private savings.

Having conserved so much cash, they win the bid war for the second manuscript, The Temple In Man, as well, with Francesca being the only serious contender.

She stomps off angrily, and the two frenchmen seems to follow her to the parking lot. Kek notices this, and he and Finistur decide to take a shortcut over the terrace, while Sil’Faron and Sha Naqba Imuru retrieve their acquisitions.

Trouble at the parking lot

Francesca speeds off in her sports car, completely oblivious of the fact that she is being followed by the two strangers.

Kek holds them up at their automobile, demanding to know why they took so many photographs, but the situation rapidly devolves into violence, as one of them draws a gun.
Kek drags the driver from the car, throws him against the next vehicle, and goes to cover.

The second stranger seizes the opportunity and tries to escape with the car, but she did not take into account the presence of Finistur, who has retrieved her kabbalistic blade from her Jeep. The entire left backside of the Peugot is sliced apart, including the axle. This car will not drive anywhere anytime soon.

The suspects are quickly knocked out and stuffed into the jeep´s trunk. Tanja arrives, and after a quick surveying of the situation, returns to the house to get the rest of group.

Four things are in possession of our heroes now. The two manuscripts, which hopefully contain enough knowledge to construct a working Golem, as well as two unconscious people, whom Kek suspects to be Templar operatives…

Gamemaster´s Perspective

This was an interesting session to prepare. I had four goals in mind when I did this:

  • Advance the main plot, by bringing more of the Golem related knowledge in reach of the players
  • Have only one event in a session, not multiple
  • Provide a setting where the non-violent characters can show their strenghts
  • Introduce some actual human NPCs, instead of too many Nephilim

Preparation was interesting insofar as I wanted an interesting set of bidders present, as well as the opportunity for the players to screw themselves up by being greedy. I intentionally did not make up a bidding strategy or similar things, only a list of “high-profile” bidders that would compete for the four important items of the auction.

The players showed remarkable restraint in their bidding, which allowed them to have enough money left for both manuscripts. For me personally, this meant that there was a foregone conclusion: I knew that none of the NPCs could beat the player´s on the final auction, which took out a bit of tension for me, but the players assured me that they didn´t notice. 🙂

On the flip-side, some NPCs have powerful artifacts in their hands now as well, which might become relevant at a later time. The disgusting statue is actually a focus for a very powerful Fire spell.

What I did not like was the fact that I had to juggle too many NPCs, and thus could not flesh out their characters too much. I´ll have to work on that.

Between this session and the one before, I also had solo sessions with two of the players, which advanced several side-plots that were opened up during the beginning of the campaign. I will not discuss them here, as there is too much character knowledge in these, that I want to separate from player knowledge 🙂

Party.San 2017 impressions

Party.San 2017 is over and except for the weather it was great, my personal muscial highlights were these:

Humiliation

Humiliation from Malaysia were not a surprise to me, I knew of them beforehand, but what did surprise me was their exceptional live performance. They were headlining the tent/underground stage and absolutely deserved it.

Bolt Thrower (RIP) has left a tank-shaped hole in the Death Metal scene, and here is an aspirant for the throne, at least in the live department.

If you like groovy, mid-tempo Death Metal that is very reminscent of mid-to-late era Bolt Thrower, check them out:

Nile

The Sultans of Swing? Nope, the Pharaos of Death Metal. Nile played a short, but very sweet setlist, with a surprising focus on old material. “Sacrifice Unto Sebek” has become a classic by now.

The highlight of this one was “Unas, Slayer Of The Gods”. Due to the length of this song the band very seldomly plays this live, so I was very pleased to hear this. The blaring war horns in the middle of the song are so powerful live.

Check the song and album out here:

This would have been the best gig of the festival, but it was simply too short. I would have liked an encore with a faster song, like “Lashed To The Slavestick” or “Winds Of Horus”. On the other hand, I am glad that they have finally decided to leave “Black Seeds Of Vengeance” off the setlist. The chorus is good, but the rest of the song lags behind other offerings from the gods of egyptian Death Metal.

Demilich

Sadly, I could not convince my friends to watch Demilich with me. This is a fairly unknown band from Finland, who released exactly one album, “Nesphite”, about twenty years ago.

They played a mix of songs from that album and it was great. I feared that the sound would be muddy, due to the complexity of the material, but they pulled it off rather well.

Look here for dangly riffs and vocals in the lowest guttural register, to my knowledge, this release contains their entire back catalog, said album and the demos:

Cryptopsy

Aaaand another Death Metal quartett. I went into this concert with very low expectations, because I do not like their newer material very much. So I was positively suprised when they simply played my preferred album, “None So Vile” (1996) almos t from end to end.

Angular, razor-sharp riffs, mixed with mosh-parts and bass slapping, go here:

Misc

Other than these, I greatly enjoyed Candlemass (gotta get those first albums at some point Oo) and Mantar (two guys were enought to fill out the big stage), and for some reason the weather was so bad that I am starting to get a cold right now… blargh.

Hearthstone Arena 3: A priestly taste of frozen thrones

Knights of the Frozen Throne is out, and I tried my hand at Arena for my first two runs.

Both of them were Priest, and I went 3-3 and 1-3, so not a good start. Here´s my first impressions

New cards I played

Necrotic Geist

I played with and against this in 5 games, and in 4 of them it produced major value and board presence. If played into a double trade situation you can basically force your opponent into killing it or face an army of replicating 2/2s. Not bad, but a little clunky.

Devour Mind

A bit weaker version of Cabalist´s Tome. I think it´s weaker because the variance is greater. On the other hand, you learn about 10% of your opponent´s total cards, which is valuable. Write them down, always.

Embrace Darkness

Horrible Card, as expected. The 4 mana discount off of Mind Control is not worth the pile of disadvantages this brings: It does nothing the turn you play it, it can be silenced before it goes off, your opponent can trade the minions away, and when you finally get it, it has summoning sickness. This last one kills the card, and I think you should avoid drafting it.

Tomb Lurker

You will find yourself in a situation where you topdeck this and think “Hmm, which deathrattle guys died this game?”. This is basically a late game card, because on-curve it loses to 2-drops and there is little chance for deathrattlers to die beforehand. Value-wise this should be okay if it triggers, even if you only get a Mistress of Mixtures or something.

Grim Necromancer

Filler card, Pick it if you must, but it´s nothing special. See Dragonling Mechanic

New neutral cards I played against

Bone Mare

A nightmare! This is one of the cards I expected to shake up arena play, and so far I´m not disappointed. 9/9 worth of stats, half of which has Charge and Taunt? Sign me up.

This is very similar to Firelands Portal in terms of value and tempo gained. You can go from one weak minion on the board to two threatening ones with only 7 mana.

Right now, Heartharena is not yet updated, but I suspect this will be above 90 points, which is really high for a neutral common.

Cobalt Dragonscale

5/5 for 5 is always playable, and if this triggers it´s a big pile of stats. And the opponent is forced to trade into the buffed minion. Good card.

Bone Drake

6/5 for 6 and drawing a card seems strong. With this and Cobalt Dragonscale, I am wondering if the dragon density is high enough for the Dragon Gamble  in Priest draft :take a medium strength dragon such as Midnight Drake or Faerie Dragon early in the draft, to try and get Drakonid Operative / Netherspite Historian going.
Just an idea at the moment, probably a bad idea.

By itself, this card is obviously good value.

Mindbreaker

This seems decent and reminds me of Saboteur, 7 worth of stats for 3 mana and locking out the next hero power use of your opponent. Just make sure you can trade it away or work without your own hero power on the next turn.

Corpse Raiser

Also a strong card. This is somewhat similar to giving a minion divine shield before trading it. I think playing this on curve and simply trading 4-mana guys is actually really strong.

Class cards encountered

The class cards I encountered so far were nothing special.

Doomerang seems okay until you realize that you have to play weapon cards, most of which are bad.

Druid Of The Swarm might be good, 1/5 aggro stopper or soft removal in the late game.

Runeforge Haunter seems pointless. Again, do we really want to draft Weapon Rogue? 🙂

Breath of Sindragosa might be strong, it kills many 2- and most 1-drops. Need more data.

First thoughts on the Meta

My first impression of the meta is that again, long term value play is rewarded. Between the Taunts and the new lifesteal mechanic going for an aggressive strategy seems risky.

 

Hearthstone Arena 2: Arcane Intellect is a bad card!

Pyroblast is a real card nowadays.

Last time, I said that I am having more fun and success in Arena since Standard Arena was established, here´s why:

Philosophy: The long game

My favourite win condition is actually Fatigue, it means that I have managed to beat all of the 30 cards in your deck with all of mine.

Assuming that both players survive the early to mid game, let´s say to turn 7. Now it becomes a matter of

  • a) bringing your opponent to 0 with a swift push (this usually means they have run out of answers / have mismatching answers to your threats). It often means that you have to take a risk (but the reward is the game)
  • b) grinding away the card in their hand so that you can leverage inefficient value spending to gain complete board control. At this point, the risk becomes minimized, since you only have to fear their next topdeck card, which often is just a river crocolisk.
  • c) Play the value game to the bitter end. Lure out their answers with your threats. Portion out your threats in a manner that prevents the opponent from gaining too much value, but also try not to get tempo-ed out.

The last one is my favourite style, but it requires careful planning and is not possible with every deck.

For example, if you look at all of your remaining cards, there should be sufficient answers left to deal with multiple big threats (Bog Creeper and similar road blocks.). If you only have one *hard* removal and your opponent has 15 cards left in their deck, chances are that you will have to deal with more than one big threat.

In this case it´s often not wise to enforce the long game.

This is especially true against Priest and Paladin, they have many cards that provide value in addition to being large threats, not so much against Rogue or Mage (Warrior and Druid have lots of fat ones as well, but are currently severely underrepresented).
Against Rogue, going for the option b) is usually the best way, as they often grind down their own life total, and you can find a window of opportunity to just kill them.
Conversely, depending on your own class, Mage can sometimes burn you out over two turns, from life totals as high as 18.
Pyroblast is a real card nowadays.

With the classes I am comfortable with (Paladin, Priest, Mage, Rogue), I will usually try to keep an answer in hand that catches the worst-case card my opponent could have.
For example, keeping a silence effect against Spikeridged Steed, or a hard removal for Mind Control.

Drafting Mage

So what does all of this mean for our draft? Let´s take Mage as an example.

Mage has the most (and sometimes best) removal/answers of all the classes, but it does not have many really good threats in it´s class cards. Water Elemental at common and Steam Surger at rare are the only “win condition” type minions for the class. The rest is removal, decent minions and card generation.

“Win condition”? I consider any minion of 4/5 and above to be a win condition. Smaller minions are usually just ground up in the trenches and seldomly do more than trade 1:1 or chip away 3 HP and then get caught in mass removal.

For our Mage draft, this means that we will have a plethora of removal and we need to get our win conditions from the neutral cards. Sturdy minions like Nesting Roc, Frost Elemental and Sated Threshadon are some of the things that we need.

Any card that doubles as removal and win condition is gold, if we can make it work (in the rare slot, Spiked Hogrider, Servant of Kalimos and Steam Surger are good examples.)

If you can make the Elemental deck work, do it, it´s a good option.

Card draw is bad, card generation is good

And here´s the big one: Card draw is bad. Arcane Intellect is not a good card. I will often pick a supposedly “weaker” card, and am happy with that.

The card does actually nothing. It is negative tempo. It reduces your deck size (fatigue is real), it means that you only have 29 real cards to beat your opponents 30.
So the only effect that it has is providing us with more options.

When playing Mage, I will often have six or more cards in hand. In which situation do we want to play Arcane Intellect (or Acolyte of Pain, or Gnomish Inventor)?

In the early game, when we need the tempo? Can´t afford 3 mana to spin the wheel for random cards.

In the very late game? When we are starting to hover the mouse over both decks to see who will fatigue first?

I would often rather have a vanilla minion than this.

Of course, not all card draw is bad. Excessive, repeatable card draw sometimes provides so many options that we can intentionally bleed value in bad trades because we know that it drains our opponent faster. Cult Master is an example

Card generation on the other hand, is king. Stonehill Defender, even if it only fetches you a mediocre card like Stegodon, provides additional value beyond your 30 cards. (A 1/4 Taunt is the additional value, not the discovered card, because we would not play Silverback Patriarch by itself.). You can also hit the jackpot (Soggoth).

Two more specific exceptions:

Arcanologist

Arcanologist is actually a good card (if we have a secret in the deck), despite what I said above.
On-curve, it provides us a 3-drop (not optimal, but sometimes Mirror Entity is enough). We also know which card we will draw, which is often important when planning mid-game turns. It thins the deck out of secrets so that we have a marginally increased chance to draw answers or threats later.

Bright-Eyed Scout

This is a wonderfully designed card, in what allows you to do:

On turn 4, it is a below-average minion, but it draws you a card that you can play on-curve in turn 5.

On 9&10 mana it guarantees that you draw a card that you are guaranteed to play.

Sometimes it produces a sick tempo advantage for turn 5. The times where you draw a 4 or less cost card are not too bad either. Just imagine that you drew the next card instead, at some point you can just chuck out the bad 5.

Knights of the Frozen Throne

Looking at the currently spoiled cards, Coldwraith seems to be the onlyMage common card yet, its a Spider Tank with upside, so we auto-pick it if no top tier cards are present.

Ice Walker seems like a good rare, it can protect itself and might get out of control.

Cobalt Scalebane (5/5 for 5, at end of turn give a random friendly +3 attack) might be the new best friend of all the good 3- and 4-mana taunts.

Bone Mare (5/5, Battlecry give another minion +4/+4 and Taunt, for 7 mana) seems like a really sick card, and it´s a neutral common. This card will wreck you so many times.

So far, nothing super-fast is spoiled, so for now, the long game might be safe.

Winter is coming in mid-August, brace yourselves. 🙂
– Rane2k out.

Nephilim – Chapter 4: Sinister Machinations

(Disclaimer: This is a synopsis / battle report of a session within ourNephilim RPG campaign. It serves to give some context to the fiction I post, as well as simply practicing writing.)

Chapter 4: Sinister Machinations

Synopsis

When last we left our heroes, they had successfully liberated Sil’Faron´s stasis, an icon of fertility from his first life, in ancient Egypt. All five of them are in possession of their stases now.

Investigations

In the following weeks, not too much happens. The ruckus around the Pergamon Museum has died down a bit, and Sha Naqba Imuru, in his role as Markus Vogt, the police investigator, is monitoring the situation. He wants to see if any evidence turns up which might incriminate him and his friends, or if he can find any information regarding the possible appearance of a sixth Nephilim.

At home, he makesa few attempts to open or activate the enigmatic bronze cube he Harvey had given him.
It briefly reacts to a spell he casts, and one night he discovers part of a technical drawing etched into the surface of his kitchen table… Has he interrupted something?

The huntmaster arrives

Theseus has come to Berlin, and a meeting has been arranged in the court of Justice.
They can not meet atop Skaro´s tower, because Theseus refuses to take the same oath that the group has sworn.

Sil’Faron and Skaro have worked out a deception tough; Sil’Faron appears in the form of Skaro, with the aid of a spell that allows her to speak and act through him. He also takes on her metamorphosis; Golden eyes and fully grown Angel wings.

Theseus arrives and falls for the ruse.
He has returned from a hunt for gryphons in south america, together with a young Nephilim called Vashiko in tow. No pleasantries are exchanged, he announces his business in Berlin to the gathering:
They tracked a transgressor of the Devil Arcanum and want to bring him down.

Theseus demands warriors to stand ready for the time that he has cornered his prey, and he also orders Kek to find and secure an Earth plexus.

Before he and his friend can depart he is challenged by Eresh Szat, who had been watching the proceedings, to “open” his two-handed hammer.

An orichalkum short spear is revealed, hidden with the hammer´s shaft, and the judge makes it very clear that whoever uses this forbidden weapon to destroy another Nephilim would have to stand trial before the court of Justice.
Even the Devil transgressor should receive a fair trial.

Meeting Theseus in the Court of Justice
Meeting Theseus in the Court of Justice

After the greek warrior has left, Vashiko joins the group in the Dojo above the court, and with Theseus gone, she seems liven up a bit. Gealach and Finistur arrive as well, and the find out that Vashiko, going under the human name Ashley is actually a Nephilim in her first incarnation, born a mere two years ago.

Going underground

The group decides to venture out for an Earth Plexus, without Ashley, as they do not fully trust her. They seek the plexus for themselves and postpone the decision wether to tell Theseus about it or not.

Finistur has a spell ready, with which she triangulates the position of the nearest Earth Plexus, which seems to be underground, but at least within the city of Berlin.

They venture into the sewers, prepared with spells, lamps and a summoned troglodyte, where they find a breach in the wall, leading to a cavern system… and are ambushed by two horrifying alligator-like creatures, sewn together from human body parts and bones. Their smell is overpowering, and sinewy tentacles sprout from their sides.

After a brief skirmish, they follow the tunnels leading away from the canals, deeper into the bowels of the earth, where a large grotto opens up before them,.
Again the rancid stink of rotting human flesh is in the air, and another battle ensues.

This time the flesh puppets are shaped like huge scorpions, with vicious stinger tails, and a layer of armor made of human bone fragments.
Finistur manages to sneak up on one of them and cut off the tail before it can react, but as the battle starts, more enemies enter the fray.
Emaciated human shapes dash out of the shadows and attack Kek with their claws.
One of them lets itself onto his back with a nasty kick.
Isolated from the group, who is busy hacking and shooting the bone scorpions apart, he takes several wounds before the troglodyte arrives and finishes off the last of these sordid beings.

session4blog2
Earth Plexus cavern

Rest

As the adrenaline from the battle subsides, the group has time to take a look around. They are within an Earth plexus, Ka energy flows freely here, and some of them begin to recharge their stases.

Kek´s wounds are tended to, by magical and mundane means, and the group ponders wether they can venture deeper into these caverns, or if they should stay until their stases are refreshed and then leave…

Gamemaster´s Perspective

Again, the session took too long (in excess of 5 hours), as we started too late with the actual playing. I´m hard at work on moving the solo play and character development to actual solo sessions, which would have saved about one hour in this sitting. This hour could have been used to actually finish the journey into the caverns. (The caverns continue at 15b in the picture above, while 16a is an exit (the players could have arrived from here).

Combat also took longer than expected, especially the first encounter. 

Two notes I have for myself and the players here: Make more quick decisions, some minor decisions took very long (which is okay for important tactical decisions), which takes a bit of excitement out of the action. The second one is: Don´t argue about mechanics too long (“Can I parry the scorpion´s claw attack with my boots.”).
I made a snap decision (follow the rules as printed, which denies it) to keep the game flowing.#

On the plus side, I think everyone had fun, I learned that Finistur, the character of which I assumed it is the weakest (unfortunate rolls during character generation), is actually, if properlay prepared, an indestructible death machine with her summoned sword,armor and the troglodyte. 

Fun fact: The troglodyte summoning spell is named differently in each version of the source book I found. “Those who hit the scorpions”, “Those who hit like scorpions”. The first one was apt in this battle.. 🙂

Looking forward to the next session!