Gaming on a Timer

First Impressions – The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep

Full Disclosure: I was a backer for the game discussed in this post, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep, on Kickstarter during its initial campaign run in July 2015.

Note: A few clarifying statements should be made before this post, in the interest of avoiding misunderstandings.

Firstly – this article is being written from the point of view of a long-standing fan of both the genre in general and the Bard’s various Tales over the years in specific. While attempts have been made to keep everything as self-contained as possible,  a few comparisons to earlier games in the series were inevitably made – as such, I’ve done my best to explain said references whenever possible.

Secondly – Until time of writing, I’m only at around ten or so hours into the game (hence the First Impressions title), therefore the opinions expressed here are neither final nor representative of the entire game. I have streamed the entirety of these early sessions on Twitch, which you can find uploaded on my YouTube channel if you’re interested in seeing my time with the game “in person”, so to speak.


Nostalgia is a weird thing. In recent years, a growing subset of the gaming industry has come to the realization that certain demographics (mainly people between 20 and 40 years old) are extremely prone to nostalgia – thus, a near-constant stream of remakes, re-releases, remasters and repackaged collections have found their way into our collections and digital libraries.

It didn’t stop there, though. This heavy leaning into nostalgia eventually caught on in yet another recent trend: crowdfunding. Ever since the now-famous Broken Age Kickstarter campaign, a sizable percentage of crowdfunding campaigns (mostly on Kickstarter, more recently Fig and IndieGoGo as well) have been marketed and promoted with nostalgia in mind. This, in turn, has led to such success stories as Wasteland 2, Shovel Knight, Hyper Light Drifter and FTL (which has already been prominently featured in a multi-post Let’s Play in this very blog) – but does that success also apply to inXile Entertainment’s latest crowdfunded release, The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep?


I’ve always been a big fan of first-person dungeon crawler RPG’s. Be it turn-based or real-time, with grid-based movement or free-roaming, a good portion of my formative gaming years included the likes of Bard’s Tale, Ultima Underworld, Lands of Lore and so on and so forth.

There was something very appealing in the concept behind this sub-genre: the idea of creating a party from scratch, trying to have as many options as possible, then testing your mettle in giant multi-level areas filled with pitfalls, enemies and puzzles. Whether the whole endeavor ended in success or failure was usually only a minor, momentary consideration against “the journey“, all those steps taken up until that endpoint, all the traps avoided, all the enemies vanquished, all the mazes and puzzles navigated.

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The art direction in this game is quite well-done.

The Bard’s Tale trilogy was always a standout within its genre. Having introduced the concept of buffing your party via bardic song (the concept of persistent buffs to your statistics was not generally in use prior to the first Bard’s Tale, as far as I remember), as well as offering save transfer functionality across the series (similar to what the Quest for Glory series would also do a few years later) made this a well-regarded series at the time, as well as one of my favorite titles of that period.


How, then, does Bard’s Tale IV measure against the original trilogy? To be sure, it’s quite a different experience altogether: combat is now grid-based and gives emphasis to party member positioning, while an increased focus has been placed on exploration, dialogues and puzzle-solving. This might feel slightly alienating to old fans of the series (as is evident in a small handful of reviews on Steam and the game’s forums), but in all honesty I found it quite refreshing and enjoyable, if perhaps a little poorly-paced in the first few hours.

Bard’s Tale IV takes place in Skara Brae, as with all previous entries in the series. Set around 100 years after the events of the original trilogy, the game opens with the city (rebuilt after its destruction in Bard’s Tale III) being under occupation by a religious group called the Fatherites, who facilitate a crusade of sorts against adventurers, outsiders and non-human races. The player is tasked with resolving this crisis, relying on their wits, strength and companions in order to survive, while looking for clues as to who or what is responsible for these events.

After a short introductory cutscene, where we witness the execution of several non-humans and outsiders, we are given control of Melody, a pre-made Bard intended to be used until the character creation option becomes available. We are also introduced to Rabbie, a bard acting as leader to the now-outlawed Adventurer’s Guild and given our first quest: reach the Adventurer’s Guild.

Unfortunately, this is also where a few of the game’s issues start showing. The game suffers from extremely long loading times, as well as frequent dips in frame rates. These performance issues appear to be commonplace, as a quick browse through the game’s forums and the related Steam Discussions page will confirm. To inXile’s credit, there have already been three major performance patches released (the last of which coinciding with this post’s initial draft) and there have been noticeable improvements over each one, although the overall experience is still not entirely up to spec.

The game’s audio, on the other hand, is spot-on. A series of lore-appropriate Gaelic accents give BT4 a rustic, almost rural feeling, while the various songs and poems heard throughout Skara Brae have been thus far quite charming and well-written. I would have preferred a bit more in the way of background music (such as having your party’s Bard sing while out of combat), but apart from that and a few minor discrepancies in dialogue volume, I was quite pleased with the sound in this game.


On the subject of songs, I particularly liked how the developers implemented a sort of Metroidvania-esque system in BT4 and tied it to the Bard’s repertoire of songs. The level design follows a much more open-world philosophy, where you are expected to backtrack after acquiring certain songs and abilities in order to gain access to previously blocked paths or secret areas.

Within the first few hours the player is introduced to a series of songs that can be used for a variety of environment-altering actions, such as demolishing cracked walls; revealing hidden loot stashes; gaining the trust of fellow adventurer NPCs; and detecting enemies and secrets. In turn, this gives the game an air of exploration (as opposed to the original trilogy, where progress was much more linear) with frequent rewards for the observant player.

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One of the earlier forms of puzzles in the game, cog puzzles.

Complementing the exploration aspect is a heavier emphasis on puzzle-solving. There are various small but clever puzzles to be solved within the game’s first few hours, ranging from tests of the player’s spatial awareness (manipulating their immediate environment to create paths to otherwise inaccessible locations) to simple mechanical puzzles (such as mechanical puzzles where the player moves cogs on a board, in order to power gate mechanisms), to more difficult logic-based ones (like a series of Elven shrines, which require the player to decipher cryptic poems in order to find out what items to place on each shrine) – these provide great contrast and a much-needed “quiet time” in between the more hectic combat segments, something that the original trilogy’s combat-heavy design lacked.


Speaking of which, combat is another area where the game slightly deviates from the original designs. While it is still very much a turn-based affair, thanks to the addition of a positioning grid and character placement system, it now requires a good deal more thought put into every turn.

Within each combat scenario, both the player’s party and the enemies are placed in two opposing halves of a 4×4 placement grid. Abilities, spells and attacks all have specific ranges, depending on where each character is placed upon their side’s 2×4 grid, requiring careful consideration in placing each party member. This is compounded by the Opportunities system, a resource spent on moving, attacking or using abilities each turn.

This combination of limited actions within a rigidly-defined field leads to a lot of interesting tactical choices – especially when you gain access to abilities and passives that allow you to manipulate positioning and Opportunity costs. Even in the early stages of the game, these abilities and limitations presented some quite clever problems to be solved, almost puzzle-like in style and quality.

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The aforementioned grid-based combat system.

As an example, Fighters (built as a tanking character) gain access to the To Me! ability which, when activated, allows the rest of the party members to get refunds on used Opportunity if they moved towards the Fighter’s grid location horizontally or laterally. Similarly, the Trow Thief’s racial passive ability (which refunds Opportunity if a killing blow is made, once per turn) allows the player to neutralize weaker enemies and still keep applying pressure to their more powerful teammates.

Ultimately, this system allows for some very satisfying combat scenarios where combining abilities like the above-mentioned and pulling off advanced strategies utilizing them gives a great sense of accomplishment, not unlike solving a puzzle.


However, not all of my impressions were as positive as the above. The game sometimes has pacing problems – both due to the aforementioned backtracking* (which might have been less noticeable with a more in-depth fast travel system or a small number of respawning enemies) and the heavy reliance on dialogue trees in order to convey backstory and lore (something that might have been better relegated to an in-game journal or glossary), which tend to slow down the game noticeably.

*As a brief aside, I realize that backtracking is sort of a hallmark of the whole Metroidvania-esque design, but even the sub-genre’s granddaddy Symphony of the Night had certain systems in place (such as teleportation chambers and powers that increase mobility) to cut down on the annoyance of retreading familiar locations. As such, there’s no excuse to not have something like that in BT4 – perhaps utilizing the game’s save points as a sort of fast-travel target.

Similarly, some of the party’s voice lines become annoying over time, especially voice cues informing the player that an enemy you’re about to engage is way beyond your current power levels, which are repeated every time you face said enemies – there is an option to disable these but I would have preferred a middle-ground solution, perhaps some way to tweak the frequency these exclamations occur at.

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A sample of the constant nagging when the player so much as looks at high-level enemies.

Another, lesser complaint is also the large amount of typographic and syntax errors present in the game, with several instances of the in-game text not being capitalized properly; words being used in the wrong context (e.g. affect vs. effect); typographical errors (alter instead of altar); and so on and so forth. These, however, are easily fixed (which I fully expect to happen within the next couple of months, based on inXile’s response to the more serious performance issues displayed in the initial releases) and therefore I wouldn’t consider as more than minor annoyances.

Finally, a few minor nitpicks. The inventory system would benefit greatly from a sorting or filtering option (especially as you get multiple pages of items as early as the second major area); the save points system could use a revision, as certain areas are either too sparsely or too densely populated with them; and an option to reallocate spent skill points (perhaps at a price) would do much to encourage experimentation in building characters.


In the end, despite a few issues encountered in the first few hours of the game (both technical and otherwise), they were not enough to distract me from how clever and rewarding the combat and exploration aspects of the game feel. Assuming no major design missteps further on in the game, I can easily see myself having a very pleasant and enjoyable time with it in the foreseeable future.

What are your thoughts on this game and its genre? Did you play Bard’s Tale IV? Love or hate this genre? Feel free to discuss it in the comments section below!

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So, Let’s Talk About That Hiatus and Future Plans.

Part One – What On Earth Happened With You, Dude?!

This post has been a long time coming; to be precise, around five months give or take a week. My main issue with the majority of my drafts was how to explain the whole hiatus thing without coming across as overly defensive or apologetic – some drafts felt a bit too aggressive in tone, others too dramatic.

In the end, here’s a brief summary of What Happened In The Last Year™, so humor me for the next few paragraphs before we talk about what’s in store for this blog:


Overtime at work: This was the major cause for initially stepping away from blogging (and a couple of my other projects, like streaming and expanding my internet presence, such as it is) – as I might have mentioned, since October 2016 my workplace had been in a constant state of crunch due to severe issues with our database (the initial migration from physical to digital was done… poorly, to be charitable).

This in turn led to 12-14 hour workdays during the week, with additional weekends of paid overtime; in itself not a bad situation from a financial standpoint (every extra hour got paid at a premium) but it also meant that a lot of fatigue and stress got built up – especially since the project’s timeline estimate of 6 months eventually became around 17 or so months (October 2016 to February 2018).


During this time, I also went through a few changes in domestic status. Back in May 2018 – and after nearly a year of extensive research and inquiries with realtors – I finally managed to start renting on my own (where previously I had to rely on roommates to make rent, due to the ludicrous discrepancies between wages and rent prices).

The new apartment is better location-wise, much more recently-built than any of my previous ones and came with a series of perks, such as gated parking lots, solar panels for heating, climate control and various other quality of life improvements, which were certainly welcome.

As a result of the move (and subsequently having to actually furnish the place), I had to invest a large chunk of my free time into the apartment – which naturally came at the expense of updating the blog and other projects.


Meanwhile, I had also tried to keep up on my streaming schedule – this will of course be familiar to any of my readers that found out about this blog from my Twitch channel, but due to the above-mentioned reasons, my stream schedule went from a regular 2-per-week (plus Fridays for Gallant Gamers, a charity stream group) to a more irregular schedule of “whenever I felt I could be entertaining” – this manifested mostly once or twice per fortnight (or even less sometimes).

So, there you have it. There were certain times where I could maybe push in an update or two but the thing with a hiatus is that, the longer it lasts, the harder it is to get things going again. Therefore, we should now discuss what’s to come for this blog (and the various projects attached to it).

Part Two – Getting Things Rolling Again… Probably.

The plan, insofar as the term can be used in this case, is to aim for the following (yes, I like lists):


Update the blog at least once a week – subjects may vary so those little pithy taglines below the post header will be a bit more vague than they used to be. I remember getting quite into the whole “Let’s Play” aspect so perhaps more of those will be forthcoming (assuming I find a suitable game). Expect more achievement talk too, as I’ve always been quite fond of that particular facet of gaming (even though I preferred to not mention it as much in this blog).


Get a regular streaming schedule going again – I’m looking at two or three times a week, but no promises until I can figure out how to work it around my other obligations. I’d also love to get involved with the Gallant Gamers team again, though that is admittedly a bit further down the line… for now


Look into rebranding the blog. This is a major decision for me, as the domain name is not set to expire until May 2019, but it all boils down to a simple issue: the whole premise of “gaming on a timer” is problematic for me; I can’t quite sustain the entire blog around the idea of not having enough time to play games (ironically, being forced to adhere to a single theme each week ended up wasting a lot of time on thinking and planning topics and blog posts, whereas writing something that had currently piqued my curiosity/interest was a much faster affair).

The main idea is to fully embrace what I do best: being indecisive (or rather, having a few interests too many). For now, the site will remain under the GamingOnATimer domain, but eventually I’ll have a look into better alternatives. As always, suggestions are more than welcome below in the comments!


…and there it is. A whole new series of promises to keep (or break, possibly) – certainly not the most impressive of plans but, as I mentioned way back at the start of this, the proverbial ball is now rolling – perhaps it will keep rolling a bit further this time around, perhaps it will come to a stop after a couple of weeks. The important thing, though, is that it rolls – for now.

If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to watch.

On the Clock: Thirty-Minute Gamer, Summertime Edition!

In this bi-weekly column, we’ll be taking a look at some of the games I’ve been playing, on a limited time budget. Short cell phone distractions played over a half-hour lunch break? Longer, more “core” experiences played over several sessions in the weekend? Anything and everything in between? Let’s talk about them all! This fortnight, I escaped some rooms, tried doing sweet tricks with a skateboard and… mopped up some blood and entrails?

As with last time’s post, I’ll be skipping on a few of the games I’ve played in the last couple weeks, mainly due to either finding them too interesting (therefore warranting a blog post of their own at a later time) or not interesting enough. As such, honorable mentions go to Ziggurat, a clever if simplistic fusion of FPS and rogue-like mechanics with a medieval fantasy theme, Bioshock: Remastered, (which has been my go-to game for streaming alongside Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for the last few weeks) and Her Story, which takes a very interesting approach to non-linear storytelling (and probably something I’d like to talk about in more detail in the near future).

This week, I’ll also be adding a few useful statistics for each game played, mainly to help out anyone that is thinking of picking up these games but isn’t sure of the time commitment they require. Any comments, criticism or thoughts on this addition are more than welcome in the comments section below!

Game: Zero Escape – The Nonary Games

Genre: Visual Novel/Puzzle

Mood: Mystery/Drama/Horror

Theme: Sci-fi

Average Session Length: 45 minutes to 1 hour per segment (depends on puzzle-solving skills and reading speed, can interrupt play at any point during game)

The first game that’s I’ve been spending time on these last couple of weeks is Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, a remastered compilation pack of 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (originally released on the Nintendo DS) and its sequel Virtue’s Last Reward (which initially saw concurrent releases for the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita).

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Until The Nonary Games, I never thought it’d be this hard to not spoil something.

Mechanically, the Zero Escape games are a mixture of escape-the-room puzzle solving punctuated by lengthy visual novel sections. This constant change between story and puzzle segments works surprisingly well, both at establishing a good baseline for pacing and at providing frequent exit points to the player – something I find more and more valuable with my limited amount of free time.

Puzzles take the form of individual “rooms”, where a series of smaller riddles must be solved for the player to be able to escape. These are well-designed and sufficiently varied for each room to feel unique; aside from a disproportionate reliance on math-based puzzles (often requiring examining clues in different number bases, with the majority encountered in 999), the player can expect to experience everything from lateral thinking to sliding to mechanical puzzles during the course of both games.

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Still not a spoiler, promise!

Similarly, story segments (the visual novel part of the game) are well-written; barring a few minor plot holes I felt were inadequately addressed, both games in the compilation feature very good stories, primarily by building upon the supporting cast. Both games in the series feature an ensemble cast of nine individuals, covering a wide variety of archetypes, which are central to the plot.

Unfortunately, the above strengths of the games also make it hard to talk about while avoiding spoilers; I am finding it extremely hard to describe what makes the Nonary Games collection so good without inadvertently spoiling it for anyone reading. If you are interested in character-driven drama with certain science fiction elements and some really good puzzle design, I would highly recommend both The Nonary Games and their sequel, Zero Time Dilemma.

Game: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD

Genre: Sports (skateboarding)

Mood: Exhilaration/Exploration

Average Session Length: Around 2 minutes per run (career mode); free play option with no time limits available; certain optional modes between 1 and 3 minutes per run.

In between puzzle sessions, I’ve also been playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, the 2012 remake/mashup of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2. Impressions here were, sadly, not as good as the Zero Escape games; having been a fan of the Tony Hawk’s franchise back in it’s heyday, I found this newer offering to be a big disappointment.

Similar to the older games of the franchise, THPS HD takes place in a succession of enclosed, playground-like levels, tasking the player with completing a set number of objectives before being allowed to proceed to more varied and difficult levels. The levels in question are taken from the first two games in the series, with a slight emphasis on THPS 2 content and have the usual objectives – perform enough tricks to reach X score, locate certain collectibles, do specific tricks at specific areas of a level – on a two-minute time limit.

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Oddly prophetic trick name…

The foundation is, therefore, kept intact from earlier titles; players can have a lot of fun exploring each level, chaining tricks and trying to learn the best routes in each area for maximizing their points output – that is, when the game works properly. One of the biggest issues I’ve had is the seemingly-random appearance of glitches, mostly physics-related, which tend to mess up a successful run through a level.

Most prominent are clipping issues, with my skater often falling through the level geometry and off the map, especially when transitioning to flat surfaces from a jump. Further to that, a lot of the time the character will clip through rails (which you can grind on) during the initial grinding animation, which also seems to affect the skater’s speed (something that can mess up your routing – referred to in the game as a “line” – by causing you to overshoot/undershoot the surface, ramp or rail you are aiming for).

Even worse, these glitches serve to highlight the weird “respawn” mechanic that was implemented in THPS HD: in the older games, if your skater lost their balance and fell to the ground, there’d be a short animation where they’d stand up and keep going. Here, however, it has been replaced with a much lengthier, much more annoying fade-out/fade-in sequence in which the skater is placed back on whichever surface they initially were when they fell.

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Note the button prompts, also note that I had a controller plugged in at the time.

Aside from being visually off-putting, respawning doesn’t even seem to work properly, as in more than one occasion the game would return the skater to the very edge of whatever environmental hazard had caused my fall to begin with, setting up a vicious cycle of falling, respawning and falling again. In a game with a two-minute time limit, this is doubly aggravating.

Unfortunately, while these occasional problems would be easy to overlook in any other genre, in a game which requires efficiency, good timing and precision they only compound the problem further.

To add insult to injury, THPS HD also suffers from a plethora of other issues, such as button prompts defaulting to keyboard icons (with no provision for controller icons appearing at all), song select being mysteriously absent (which was a feature in the initial Tony Hawk games this version is based on) or that certain menu options (such as the Gap List, which provides a handy list of all the “special” jumps and gaps in a level) only being accessible if you’re not currently in a level. The list, sadly, goes on and on.

Which is a damn shame, because THPS HD would otherwise be great for short gaming sessions; the aforementioned two-minute limit provides ample exit points, while the modular structure of the levels means that you can hop in, get a few objectives done and put the game down without having to devote a lot of time to it, still getting a sense of progression and achievement.

Game: Viscera Cleanup Detail

Genre: First-Person/Physics Simulation

Mood: Comedy/Collectibles/Exploration

Average Session Length: Varies depending on player’s preferences; fully clearing a level (with 100% and above clean rating) takes anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hour 30 minutes; both manual and auto-save functions are provided at any point during a clean-up operation to break up an operation into multiple play sessions.

Finally, I’ve also been putting some time into Viscera Cleanup Detail. This game is… weird, but in a good way. The player takes the role of a “Space Janitor”, specialized in cleaning up the sites of disasters that are inspired by sci-fi staples, such as a laboratory where a bio-engineered plant got loose, or a space base in the aftermath of an alien invasion. The janitor is then tasked with cleaning up, most often by locating and scrubbing out blood stains, gathering and incinerating body parts and generally tidying up the levels.

Mechanically, the game is competently executed; as with most physics-based games, there are some minor annoyances, especially when attempting to move items that never seem to want to be moved. Thankfully, these issues are few and far between, leaving the player free to tidy up with impunity.

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Welp, time to tidy up…

The janitor is initially provided with only a few tools; a mop for cleaning up blood and residue, a scanner for locating problem areas and a clipboard that keeps track of your objectives in each level. These are complemented by a variety of in-site machines, such as an incinerator (for burning any body parts or other inconveniences they might come across) or a scissor lift (good for getting to those hard-to-reach stains and trash). Further into the game, more tools are unlocked, with a storage system used to ferry them between levels.

The objective here is, naturally, to clean up the mess. To this purpose, the game keeps track of everything the player has cleaned, with stuff as major as blood pools and body parts to trash as minor as a discarded soda bottle, being tracked separately and contributing to an overall completion ratio. If you are the kind of player that likes to explore areas and locating every single prop and item, this might be the game for you.

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Control? We’re gonna need a lot more bleach….

While I haven’t played much of Viscera Cleanup Detail, what I have seen is cleverly put together; each stain, each spent bullet casing, every body and prop, all are placed deliberately, with every location telling its own mini-narrative. Which is impressive in its own way, considering that the game is presented as a jokey parody of janitorial work.

The environmental storytelling is also extremely well-presented. As an example, let’s examine a scene presented in the game’s first level, Athena’s Wrath:

A couple of bodies, clad in military fatigues, are slumped against a wall. Bullet casings are strewn around their feet, with bullet holes peppered on the opposite wall where a weird green residue is splattered unevenly across its surface; evidence that these soldiers had fought in vain against the mysterious bio-engineered plant whose escape caused all this mess.

A crate nearby lies on its side, most likely having served as cover for the two unfortunate soldiers against the monstrosity before being toppled over in the ensuing attack; the edge of the crate is now soaked in the blood of the soldiers who, bereft of their cover, took one last, fatal hit.

A deep gash runs across the wall, where the soldiers were backed against, as the plant apparently slashed through both flesh and the metal surface behind in that final attack.

The above tableau conveys a lot of unspoken backstory, giving the place a sense of being, well, alive, in a way that most AAA productions fail to deliver consistently. The best thing? These are set up everywhere in each level, making it a joy to explore them and try to puzzle out what happened

In short, I feel that this game is a master-class (or at least, an excellent example) in environmental design and storytelling, which is even more impressive considering that the game never goes out of its way to draw attention to these visual vignettes.

Have you played the above-mentioned names? Found them fun? Crap beyond comparison? Somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

In The Spotlight – The Pacing of Persona 5

Ever played a game where a particular aspect drew your attention? Some specific minutiae you felt like talking about, to the exclusion of all else? In The Spotlight aims to discuss just that! This week, we’ll be checking out how the pacing of 2017’s JRPG smash hit, Persona 5, works.

In case you’ve never experienced a Persona game, here’s a brief breakdown: Persona 5 is the latest in the long-standing Persona series of JRPGs (naturally), best known for their use of urban contemporary settings (as opposed to the genre “defaults” of fantasy or sci-fi), with underlying themes based in Jungian psychology, as well as a focus on character-driven narrative.

In addition, main series games from Persona 3 onward have their game structured upon two main elements – dungeon delving (where the game follows the more traditional JRPG recipe of turn-based combat, stat-building and exploration) and in-between sections centered on the protagonist’s daily life (which borrows heavily from the visual novel genre and is where most of the dialogue and character development takes place).

These two elements are compounded by a calendar mechanic; the story takes place over the course of a single year, with each event or dungeon visit expending a certain amount of time. In Persona 5, this calendar is further broken down into individual days, which are usually split into three segments – morning (with scripted sequences where the protagonist attends school) and afternoons/ evenings (where the player gets to choose to spend either by visiting dungeons or focusing on social life aspect of the game).

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The calendar system, stylish as any other part of Persona 5.

With this baseline established, let me get on with the actual topic of the post: in my opinion, Persona 5 has some of the best pacing I’ve seen in a game lately. Over the course of 87 hours (which, with my current work schedule took around 3 months), the game rarely felt like it was struggling or rushing with its story and event flow; a major accomplishment considering how much there is to do and see (currently, gameplay length aggregate site HowLongToBeat clocks the 100% completion rate to around 160 hours – that’s a lot of content).

I believe there’s two reasons the pacing works so well.

First, the contrast created between the high-action, often frenetic combat in the dungeon segments and the mellow, almost relaxing day-to-day encounters with the protagonist’s friends and social circle (appropriately for a game themed around heists, each one of these is called a Confidant) ensures that game’s pace is kept in check, with quiet moments used to great effect in building up to the eventual action segments and those in turn allowing the player to appreciate the lulls in activity all the better (this, of course, is also aided in part by the game’s excellent soundtrack, a mixture of acid jazz and J-Pop that pack a serious aural punch).

Second, and as I’d argue more important, is the amount of agency  Persona 5 gives the player in moderating their own pace throughout the game. Utilizing the aforementioned calendar system the game is structured upon, players are left to decide their own timetable for each day – be it spending time with Confidants, exploring dungeons to strengthen their party, partaking in social activities such as fishing or working a part-time shift at the florist’s, the game lets them experience its content at their own pace (and yes, there are some time limitations, especially during unskippable events or deadlines for completing each story dungeon, but those are few and lenient enough to not cause particular annoyance).

 

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Combat is only half of the game.

This is especially noticeable for players with less free time to devote to a game – evident in my case, where I could only afford maybe half an hour per session, two or three times a week plus one or two hour-long ones during the weekend – as it allows them to tailor their experience to their needs.

Second, and as I’d argue more important, is the amount of agency  Persona 5 gives the player in moderating their own pace throughout the game. Utilizing the aforementioned calendar system the game is structured upon, players are left to decide their own timetable for each day – be it spending time with Confidants, exploring dungeons to strengthen their party, partaking in social activities such as fishing or working a part-time shift at the florist’s, the game lets them experience its content at their own pace (and yes, there are some time limitations, especially during unskippable events or deadlines for completing each story dungeon, but those are few and lenient enough to not cause particular annoyance).

This is especially noticeable for players with less free time to devote to a game – evident in my case, where I could only afford maybe half an hour per session, two or three times a week plus one or two hour-long ones during the weekend – as it allows them to tailor their experience to their needs.

Only have half an hour to spare before calling it a night? You can go explore the city for a while, maybe get to know your allies a bit better or work a shift or two at the local grocery to build up your cash reserves. Got an afternoon free for gaming? Might as well delve into that dungeon, grab some new gear and experiment with the game’s fusion system (a complex function where you can combine your summoned allies – Personae – into more powerful forms).

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Social interactions are the other half.

From my own experience with the game, however much time you can spare, there’s always something meaningful to do or see in Persona 5’s version of Tokyo.

So what is the key takeaway from all this? I believe it’s a high rate of modularity in the game’s writing and structuring. This is evident in the way that Confidants, activities and main story elements work so well together, but without depending on one another to a great degree – letting the player choose their own actions in the game without feeling like they’re missing out on part of the experience or being punished for not planning out their time efficiently enough.

Ultimately, I think there’s a lesson to take away from Persona 5 – with a bit of planning, there are ways to let the player decide the game’s pace, allowing them to enjoy the experience on their own terms by utilizing a modular approach during the design phase. If I had to make an assumption, I’d say that while it would increase pre-production time (in order to design the systems needed for such functionality), it should conversely save time during testing (i.e. tuning and tweaking the experience based on player feedback, as this seems to be a self-correcting system, provided it was planned correctly).

Addendum: If you’re interested in a more in-depth explanation on pacing in games, I would recommend this Extra Credits video, titled “Pacing – How Games Keep Things Exciting” (and in general, if you’re interested in seeing what makes games “tick”, Extra Credits is a very good channel to subscribe to).

What are your experiences with pacing in games? Got any interesting examples to share from favorites? Tales of pacing done badly? Share them in the comments section below!

Arguing The Point – The Use of Achievements

In Arguing the Point, I’ll be taking a look at interesting debates regarding gaming, discussing my personal take on the subject at hand. This week, achievements and the usefulness (or lack) thereof.

In recent years, achievements have been enjoying a steady increase in popularity; from big-budget triple-A productions to one-man indie passion projects, new game releases with at least some achievement functionality have become the norm.

Naturally, this increase in implementation has also resulted in the appearance in a fairly new category of player, which I’d call the “achievement hunter” – these are players that have made a meta-game out of achievement completion, often dedicating hours upon hours into getting every single achievement a game has to offer (and, in certain cases, competing against others in the sheer amount of games completed thus).

This blog post topic was partially inspired by a Twitter exchange between Dave Gilbert (founder of Wadjet Eye Games, which have been steadily publishing amazing point-and-click adventure games since 2006 or so) and Richard Cobbett, freelance journalist/writer/game designer (whose most recent work is featured in the procedurally-generated choose-your-own-adventure sci-fi game The Long Journey Home by Daedalic Studios West and who has also done extensive work for various gaming publications such as PC Gamer, RPS, Eurogamer and so on), seen below:

Now, while I’m personally a big fan of achievements – or at least, I used to be, before family and work obligations cut my free time a lot shorter – I can see where comments like these come from. Achievements, at a first glance, are mostly extraneous in nature; usually dependent on client software (such as Steamworks or PSN) and often added as an afterthought or with the intention of padding out a game’s length by having arbitrary requirements (such as the ever-present “Kill X Enemies” achievements).

However, I’d contest that this is mostly a symptom of bad design on the developer’s part, rather than an inherent flaw of these systems. In fact, I would go even further and argue that achievements are at least as valid a focus for players as graphics, story or gameplay elements are. Here’s why:

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post that, when done correctly, achievements can provide additional entertainment and value to a game. This added value might come from giving the player hints as to alternate outcomes to in-game events, acknowledging the player’s ingenuity, adding developer commentary to in-game actions and so on – there’s a lot to be gained with achievements, if implemented properly.

I believe that achievements should be seen and judged as features of a game, same as with any other gameplay mechanic, rather than the tacked-on annoyance that a certain part of the gaming crowd currently views them as.

Further, aside from the “added value” argument, there is also the question of implementation cost – arguably, even with the minimum of time taken to design, implement and maintain achievement systems, I’d argue that there is some effort required, which in turn means extra costs incurred during development (or rarely, during the post-launch update cycle).

Regardless of the length of time taken, there will be the need for a programmer to code the achievement triggers, an artist to create their icons, a writer to write, edit, proofread their names and descriptions (sometimes the same person for all three disciplines) – at the end of the day, any developer that makes use of achievements in any extent will have to allocate someone’s time (and consequently spend money) to make the dang things work.

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In-game achievement tracker from the excellent Gemini Rue.

Therefore, if achievements do impact development through their time/money costs and provide at least some value (however small), in the same way that story, graphics or gameplay features do, why not judge them in a similar way? Why not at least consider that some players will and do value a game’s achievements more than other, more traditional elements?

I believe that the “achievement hunter” tag should carry at least as much weight as other player categories; eventually, with more and more developers learning how to properly design and implement them, I would argue that they can become a major enough aspect of games to be included in the reductionist view of “graphics vs. story vs. gameplay”.

Of course, not all features are created equal; achievement systems are, by design, an extraneous, optional feature (as they depend on the existence of other features to fulfill their intended function), but as argued above, there is untapped potential here; I feel that, with time, these systems can mature into a feature that can complement and perhaps augment a game’s overall user experience.

What are your thoughts on achievements? Do you aim for 100% completion in games, or do you view them as unnecessary additions? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

 

Gotta Go Fast! – GDQ Fever 2017

GDQ, or Games Done Quick is – as the title implies – a bi-annual week-long event centered around speedrunning games (that is to say, completing them in the least amount of time possible). In recent years, both the summer and winter versions of this event – titled AGDQ and SGDQ (Awesome Games / Summer Games respectively) have exploded in popularity, with tens of thousands of viewers tuning in from all around the globe to watch streamers run their favorite games almost 24/7.

I’ve always found speedruns fascinating – to “run” a game requires a lot of practice and skill on the player’s side (the speedrunner, or runner for short) but, more importantly, it also demands an intimate knowledge of the game – break points, potential glitches, a very good understanding of level layouts and gameplay mechanics…

These are basically people that can break a game down and make it dance to their own tune. 100-hour long JRPG completed in under 3 hours? They did that. Old-time classics from your childhood destroyed in under 20 minutes? Ditto. Competing against other speedrunners in themed races to see who can complete a game the fastest? Done, done and done.

For me though, the best thing about GDQ isn’t the actual runs (since the event is planned around a strict timetable, the speedrunners tend to play it safer to avoid restarts or other unfavorable states, so “event runs” aren’t usually as flashy as their world-record-pace ones) but the amount of knowledge and insight there’s to be had by watching.

Nearly every runner is more than happy to explain the ins and outs of their game of choice, all the little breaking points they exploit to shave time off the clock, engine quirks and faults, the minute differences between movement types and which ones work best depending on the level in question. Coupled with “the couch”, where other runners provide commentary while each run is ongoing, there is a lot to learn here.

Even better, all this knowledge is eventually archived in the event’s YouTube channel, making it a great way to acquaint oneself with the concept of speedrunning in general.

Finally, as with my other favorite marathon streaming event, Desert Bus for Hope, Games Done Quick directly benefits certain charities; in SGDQ’s case, this year’s donations and bids go towards Medecins Sans Frontieres (a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) so viewers can both benefit from the veritable treasure trove of knowledge and do good – something that the gaming community has time and again proved to be one of our most positive attributes.

It’s also worth noting that the previous event, Awesome Games Done Quick (Jan 2017), managed to raise over $2,000,000 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

If you want to check out this year’s Summer Games Done Quick, you can head over to their Twitch channel, where the event is ongoing until the end of this week. Additionally, if you’re interested in a specific game, you can find a timetable here, adjusted for your local time.

What are your favorite games to watch being ran? Have you ever tried running a game yourself? Drop us a line in the comments below! And as they say… gotta go fast!

On the Clock: Thirty-Minute Gamer, Relaunched!

In this bi-weekly column, we’ll be taking a look at some of the games I’ve been playing, on a limited time budget. Short cell phone games played over a half-hour lunch break? Longer, more “core” experiences played over several sessions in the weekend? Anything and everything in between? Let’s talk about them all! This forthnight, I watered some crops, fought some eldritch abominations hell-bent on destroying humanity and…. force-fed a fish?

I recently came to the realization that free time is something that should be managed carefully, especially when it’s in such short supply. This was brought on, in part, by my recent return to “regular” streaming (for now, Tuesday evenings and a weekend evening, family obligations permitting), as it gave me a handy point of reference around which to structure a gaming schedule, so to speak.

As a result, the last couple of weeks have been… interesting, in regards to the games I’ve been playing.

For the sake of brevity, I’m only going to be discussing my most played games of the last couple weeks – leaving out any titles that I feel I haven’t played enough to comment upon. Therefore, honorable mentions go to Persona 5 (which I’m loving so far, even if it’s going to take forever to finish), Bayonetta (the PC re-release, for streaming purposes, also a very fun spectacle game) and Dead Cells (which I feel merits a post of its own, possibly under the “A Rogue’s Journals” heading).

So, to begin with, the last couple of weeks I’ve been playing an old favorite of mine, the cult horror game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Initially I played it as part of a throwback stream, but soon that changed into playing both on- and off-stream, mainly because it’s just that damn good.

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A skeletal hand holding an eldritch tome? Doesn’t seem too dangerous…

For those unfamiliar with the game, Eternal Darkness came out in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube, as far as I remember to critical acclaim. At its core, it’s a 3rd-person survival horror game, with controls and presentation being reminiscent of the first few Resident Evil games – featuring levels with mostly fixed camera angles, an awkward combat system and an emphasis on resource management (although, contrary to Resident Evil, items are not quite as important in Eternal Darkness).

However, Eternal Darkness differs in a few key aspects; aside from certain superficial differences (combat being more melee-friendly, having the ability to use spells created via a simple “crafting” system, the ability to save anywhere as long as you are not in immediate danger), its biggest departure from the Resident Evil formula is its theme, story structure and – uniquely –  the way it takes advantage of its interactive medium to really mess with its audience.

Story-wise, the writers went with a more non-linear presentation; the game, taking heavy inspiration from the works of Lovecraft (most notably the Cthulhu mythos), alternates between present-day segments starring the game’s protagonist Alexandra Roivas and chapter-long flashbacks that go from as far back as the Middle Ages to as modern as the Gulf War era. These chapters star Alex’s ancestors and certain other individuals that are closely involved in the game’s story and make up the bulk of the game’s story.

More importantly, while the game’s cast and time periods are numerous, the actual locations you visit are very limited – a cathedral in France, a temple complex in Cambodia, an underground tomb in the Persian deserts and the Roivas estate (a mansion, naturally) – but visited throughout different time periods. This, aside from being a clever way to save up on file sizes, affords the story both a feeling of continuity and an excellent way for the developers to exploit the player’s expectations for dramatic effect.

Indeed, throughout the game the player will revisit a location seen in previous chapters, only to discover that the passage of time (and the influence of the antagonist(s)) has changed things in subtle but significant ways. A door might be blocked by a cave-in in a further chapter, a small sanctum will have been expanded into a maze of tunnels, an underground chamber might have suffered from ground erosion  – it all adds up to create that nagging feeling at the back of your head that things aren’t quite as you expect them to be.

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Join the army, they said… See the world, they said… No one ever mentioned the ancient horrors, though.

Adding to the unease is the sanity system, where each character has a meter depicting their mental health; this sanity is often depleted by in-game events, such as being seen by enemies or witnessing a particularly disturbing vignette. When it drops to certain thresholds, the game’s insanity effects begin kicking in – at first something as mild as a statue’s head turning to track your character’s movements or a painting’s contents changing to become more disturbing.

Later on, the loss of sanity begins to affect the game in more profound ways – triggering effects such as a character exploding if they try to cast a spell or enemies growing to gigantic size when you enter a new room – only for the screen to fade to white and the character finding themselves back outside the room, gasping and whispering to themselves that “this can’t be happening!”.

Taken to its extreme, the game even begins to directly mess with the player – from warning screens emulating game crashes to a fake cliffhanger ending  followed by a trailer for a sequel, the game makes sure that the player is never once left at ease while playing.

Combined with the story’s structure, a distinct lack of jump-scares (saved for a few key moments rather than being used and abused constantly) and a generally good level of writing, I feel that Eternal Darkness is a true classic, one which demonstrates that horror can also be a cerebral, rather than a visceral, experience.

If you’re interested in seeing the game in action, you can find an archive of my previous streams here (series is ongoing, with one full playthrough already archived and two more to come).

In between Eternal Darkness sessions, I’ve also been… tending to a farm. Calling Stardew Valley a Harvest Moon clone feels a bit unfair, but is frankly on-point; the player, as the new owner of a dilapidated farm inherited from their grandfather, is tasked with restoring it back to its former glory, while trying to balance exploration, combat, farming and a social life.

Disclaimer: I’ve only played Stardew Valley for a handful of hours, which I suspect is not nearly enough to scratch the game’s surface; below opinions are based solely on the first 5 or so hours of the game so some of the things I mention may well change radically further into the game.

Stardew Valley should feel familiar to Harvest Moon veterans; all the staple systems are here – growing crops, tending to livestock, trying to be on good terms with your neighbors, the occasional wilderness exploration segment – complemented by a lightweight combat system that tasks the player with exploring a multi-level dungeon and fighting its denizens for a chance at gaining precious ore and metals (as well as other useful items).

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Just call me Farmer Gore…

So far, if I had to describe the game in one word, it would be “relaxing”. There’s an almost zen-like feeling to be had from following the day-to-day routine of farming, visiting the village, partaking in a few side activities (such as fishing, foraging or exploring) and repeating. Pretty soon I found myself subconsciously planning out fields according to crop type, slowly unwinding as I played the fishing mini-game, quietly relaxing as I settled into my new farming life.

I bet this is how cults get started.

Joking aside, there’s certainly a lot to like in Stardew Valley,  though it isn’t without its flaws; combat feels slightly forced upon the player initially, as it’s the main source of minerals with which to upgrade your tools and craft some of the more advanced farm facilities – I constantly kept wondering if there’s a less aggressive alternative to gathering said minerals, since combat directly clashed with the aforementioned feeling of relaxation.

Furthermore, while the game does a good job of teaching the player the basics (via a series of introductory quests), it feels as though a lot  of the more advanced functions go unexplained – for example, stuff like where to buy livestock or what produce you get from some of the more advanced structures (and yes, I am aware of the existence of wikis but it is a point in the game’s favor that I don’t want to be spoiled by out-of-game material).

What I find most interesting, though, is how good the game is for short gaming sessions; unlike Eternal Darkness, which is structured in chapters that might take upwards of an hour to complete, Stardew  Valley has its most prominent exit points occur every 5 to 20 minutes, depending on player actions (going to bed at the end of the in-game day); an ideal amount of time for those of us that are either unwilling or unable to devote longer periods of time during gaming.

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Oddly… specific there, Stardew Valley.

Coupled with its relaxation effect, the ability to have short play sessions should appeal to anyone gaming on a busy schedule, yours truly included.

Which brings me to the third game I’ve been playing these last couple of weeks, Magikarp Jump!. This is a cell phone game recently released by Nintendo, in which you are tasked with catching, training and eventually entering the titular Pokemon Magikarp (plural) into high-jump tournaments.

Magikarp Jump! feels very simple, both in presentation and mechanics. Gameplay revolves around your Magikarp’s Jump Points stat, which determines how high it can jump. Feeding it or putting it through training raises this JP up to a predetermined maximum limit (which in turn, is raised the further you progress in the game), with higher JP allowing you to advance further in the aforementioned high-jump tournaments.

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And now, for something completely different.

Jump! seems to have gotten a lot of inspiration from idle and/or clicker games, one of the more recent trends in gaming; in a nutshell, these are games that require little input from the player – and even then, it’s mostly limited to “housekeeping” actions such as purchasing available upgrades or deciding what statistics to raise, while the game does all the progressing by itself.

This is evident in the similar gameplay loop these games share with Magikarp Jump!; a cycle of starting fresh, raising stats as high as they’ll go, reset progress so that your next cycle can progress a bit further, rinse and repeat. In this case, once you’ve reached your ‘Karp’s maximum JP, you then retire it, receiving experience for it (which, at certain milestones, raises the maximum JP your next ‘Karp can reach) and start over with a new one.

Of course, there’s a few supporting systems as well; an achievement system with in-game rewards (mostly currency, which is used to upgrade your JP-earning capabilities), certain randomly-triggered vignettes that play out between events, some small degree of customization and a few other collectibles to keep track of, ancillary mechanics meant to fill in the gaps between training and competing in the tournaments. As fun little distractions, they work pretty well; both their length and occurrence rates feel fine-tuned to neither be incredibly rare nor outstay their welcome.

I’ve found that, ideally, Magikarp Jump! is best suited for short sessions, perhaps 10 or 20 minutes at a time – perfect for lunch breaks or during downtime – with just the right amount of engagement to be an enjoyable, if slightly forgettable, experience.

On a side note, I’m also impressed by how Nintendo integrated micro-transactions into the game; it’s all done in a way that feels respectful of their audience, with little touches like limiting the maximum lifetime amount of currency you can purchase to around $50’s worth, or the inclusion of easy-to-read, simple-to-understand warnings regarding purchases (no doubt aimed more at the younger parts of their demographic). It’s great to see a company of Nintendo’s magnitude setting a positive precedent here; I only hope that other companies take note and follow suit.

So there you have it; the games I’ve been playing on a tight schedule for the last couple weeks. Have you played any of the above-mentioned games? Got some recommendations to make? Feel free to leave a comment below!

 

A Rogue’s Journals – FTL: Faster Than Light

In this column we’ll be exploring one man’s adventures in a variety of rogue-likes and rogue-lites. Adventure! Intrigue! Drama! Spaceships! This week, the final battle is upon us!

The Last Stand –  Rebel Flagship Detected

The Kestrel beams our authorization codes through the exit node, receiving clearance to jump to Federation-controlled space almost immediately. On arrival, things quickly become hectic; Admiral Tully, the highest-ranking Federation officer still alive, greets us personally from aboard the Federation HQ high-orbit station while all around us Federation cruisers take up defensive positions.

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The Last Stand.

The Admiral wastes no time with pleasantries – indeed, ever the military man, he homes in straight to the point:

“Did they take the bait?”, he barks, his holo-image staring at Downs.

Downs immediately snaps to attention at the sight of the admiral on the Kestrel’s holo-screen and replies in the affirmative.

“Then you know what to do”, comes back Tully’s voice, a split-second before his lips form the words on-screen, one of the annoying quirks of current-gen projection technology. His orders relayed, communications channels go into radio silence mode, no doubt to prepare for the battle to come.

Downs, adopting a more at-ease stance, turns and addresses the crew. They will be upon us momentarily, she says, and they will be trying to take the Kestrel down at all costs. Federation forces, the remnants of our once-proud military, will engage and attempt to distract the Rebels – all while we, the final hope for ending this war, must do all we can to engage and take down the Rebel Flagship. If this bitter war is to end, it must be destroyed at all costs!

And thus we come to the finale of this run, The Last Stand. This sector works a bit differently than any previous ones; we have nearly no “events” playing out at nodes, aside from the occasional hostile Rebel ship. Our goal: to bring the Rebel Flagship down, by taking it on in a three-stage battle, while trying to keep it away from the Federation HQ.

There is a unique “gimmick” to this sector – aside from the Kestrel, the star map will display two other entities – the Federation HQ (which is a static node) and the Rebel Flagship (which moves around the map in a similar way to the Kestrel, but at a slower rate).

Our objective is two-fold: prevail in combat against the Flagship in all three stages of the fight, while also making sure it doesn’t spend three consecutive “turns” at the HQ node. If we fail to do that, the HQ is destroyed by the Flagship and the game ends in defeat.

The rest of the nodes in this sector are either empty, contain encounters with Rebel fighters or are repair/shop nodes. At this point, it is much more preferable to engage as little as possible with the fighters, as any damage we take there is going to be a handicap against the Flagship. 

The initial layout for The Last Stand is good this time – we get two repair nodes within close vicinity of the Base node, which means we can easily retreat to a “safe” node and repair if things go south during any the Flagship fights. With that in mind, let’s go seek out the Rebels…

A few jumps take us through the battlefield that this sector is quickly becoming. Federation cruisers put up a valiant fight at every turn, allowing the Kestrel to slip by unnoticed, giving us a few crucial moments to get through the enemy’s lines, getting closer to the Flagship. Before long, we blast off towards the node nearest to the Flagship’s last known location and…

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Kestrel Vs. Flagship – Round 1…

A monstrosity of weapons and metal approcches the Kestrel as soon as we exit the jump node. The Rebel Flagship is upon us!

The battle is joined!

Downs urges the Kestrel onward, weaving and dodging around the laser fire coming from the Flagship. Plasma is thick in the space around the two ships, as both ships fire everything they have against their target. The Kestrel seems tiny in comparison against the Flagship, which bears the designation NTC Nemesis, but its size is also its advantage; such a small profile is proving difficult to hit with the Nemesis’ weapons.

Meanwhile, our sensors provide us a crucial detail; the operation rooms for each of the Flagship’s massive weapon arrays are separate from the main structure of the ship! Young Robert is the first to realize that, with our newly-installed Teleporter, we can take out these weapons without interference from the Nemesis’ crew!

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Robert, you will be missed…

Without so much as a second thought, Robert rushes to the Teleporter room and punches in a series of co-ordinates – almost immediately, he is beamed off towards the Nemesis, materializing in the missile array’s operations room. With a few quick surprise slashes, he takes out its operator who keels over, a mixture of panic and surprise in his features as life drains from them.

With the operator dealt with, Robert begins destroying the control interface for the missile banks – the effects are almost instant, as the Flagship’s missile launchers go silent, providing some much needed breathing room for the Kestrel.

This is one of the Flagship’s more easily exploited weaknesses – the four front-facing rooms, which house the weapons systems and the crew manning them, are isolated from the rest of the ship’s rooms. Thus, a well-placed crew member (Mantis being the best choice due to their higher damage vs. crew) can easily take out the crewman stationed there and destroy the weapon, taking it out of commission for the entirety of the fight (we will examine this below, but any of the Flagship’s dead crew won’t get replaced between combat phases).

In this first part of the fight, we mostly have to worry about the four powerful weapons the Flagship carries:

  • An Ion cannon that does 3 shots of 1 Ion damage each.
  • A Missile Launcher that fires 3 shield-ignoring missiles of 1 damage each (with a low chance of breaching hull or starting a fire).
  • A Laser that fires 3 shots of 1 damage each (again, with a low chance of starting fires or breaching hull).
  • A Beam that does 2 damage per room, but with a sizable range.

Obviously, taking out Missiles and Ion is my first priority, one that Robert helps achieve quite wonderfully. Beamed into first the Ion, and then the Missile room, he manages to destroy them and the crew that would otherwise repair them. 

This leaves the more easily avoided Laser and Beam weapons to deal with – since Beams only deal one less damage per level of shields on the target, as long as I can keep dodging/shooting down two out of three shots from the laser, I am relatively safe.

And this is where it kinda went wrong…

As the Nemesis’ weapons slowly power down, a sure sign that Robert is successful in his infiltration mission, the Kestrel begins pushing back our dreaded enemy. Volley after volley of laser fire punches holes in the Flagship’s shielding, allowing the Halberd beam to inflict massive damage upon the Nemesis’ hull. At that moment, tragedy strikes.

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Phase one, complete.

Sensing their imminent defeat, the captain of the Nemesis powers their emergency FTL drive and jumps off, but not without causing part of their ship to crumble under the stress of the jump. To our horror, the starboard side of the ship is left behind as the cowardly Rebels attempt to escape our wrath – the same side that Robert had been beamed to a few moments prior.

One final transmission, a scant few seconds in length, arrives from Robert – a last farewell and the declaration of pride at having served on the Kestrel alongside such remarkable crew.

Then, silence.

This was a mixture of bad judgement on my part, and extremely bad luck on the game’s part – I had left the Flagship at a measly 2 hull damage, waiting for my Teleporter to recharge so I could return Robert to the Kestrel before pushing the fight into phase two.

Unfortunately, just as I was ready to return him (and having queued the final laser/bomb salvo that would destroy the Flagship’s first form), a lucky shot from their lasers managed to get through my defenses, taking out the Teleporter and stranding Robert on the Flagship as it escaped.

Robert will be missed, but thankfully a store is right next to our current node; with the scrap gained from defeating phase 1 of the boss encounter, I am soon able to replace Robert with Rebekah, another Mantis crew member.

Admittedly, two Mantis crew would have been even better but, at least, this wasn’t the huge setback that my two previous losses became.

We waste no time in mourning our fallen comrade; the fate of the Federation hangs in the balance! We give chase to the Rebel Flagship, stopping only briefly on our way to intercept its course to repair at a nearby Federation depot.

 

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Cutting it way too close…

Admiral Tully is one step ahead of us in this – at his orders, a female Mantis named Rebekah is ready to join us at this depot, bringing our crew back to full strength. As she boards, she murmurs her condolences for our recent loss, assuring us that Robert’s memory will be well-honored by her people – if we succeed.

A quick repair later, we manage to catch up to the Flagship – this time, it seems to have activated a previously-dormant Drone Bay, which spews out a series of drones against the Kestrel!

Phase two is… difficult. The Flagship now has access to drones, which are a much harder threat to counter than the guns. Specifically, I see two major threats here.

Firstly: the Boarding drones the Flagship keeps sending – as we are low on crew, it gets harder and harder to pull people from their stations to fight these off before they take out vital systems. Secondly (and perhaps, more importantly), the Flagship now has an ability called Power Surge, which will spawn six drones split between Combat and Beam varieties, which will keep harassing the Kestrel.

The problem is that, without any reliable way to counter these drones (since they come from the Power Surge ability, they won’t go offline if I damage the Drone Bay), my shields will become less and less effective against the Flagship’s remaining weapons -Missiles, Beam, Lasers (the Ion gets destroyed during their escape in phase one).

Eventually I manage to survive by the smallest of margins; I am left at four (4) hull when the final laser shot lands on the Flagship, forcing it to escape yet again. Talk about a close call…

The battle is fierce, but we eventually emerge victorious – a couple of well-placed shots make it through the cloud of drones and debris to tear through the Nemesis’ shields, forcing its captain to once again order emergency FTL activation. This time, it’s the port side of the ship that tears away from the forces of the jump, taking most of her crew with it.

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Most fortuitous encounter, ever!

Downs quickly initiates jump procedures, attempting to chase the Flagship before it can mend its wounds. Our attempts are halted, however, by the appearance of an unmanned drone – deployed, no doubt, by the Flagship’s captain in order to stall us long enough for repairs to be completed on his ship.

With 4 hull left, I am in no shape to fight the Flagship a third time. Since our store of scraps was spent on last-minute upgrades in the last sector, I can’t even afford enough to repair at the nearby shop, so I must make a gamble.

 I jump to a nearby unexplored node, hoping for an easy combat encounter against the Rebels, in order to gain enough scrap to patch up the Kestrel. The gamble pays off as we are engaged upon arrival by a two-shield automated drone – probably the best enemy we could have chanced upon, as it’s practically unable to damage me with it’s current weapons, all while I proceed to tear it to pieces.

I defeat it swiftly (and painlessly) and the resulting 55 scrap we gain as reward immediately go into repairing our hull at the nearby shop, before we move again towards the final confrontation with the Rebel Flagship.

It’s moments like these that are truly memorable – the kind of experience that only rogue-likes can offer. Gambles like this can often go bad in a hurry, but if you get lucky, it’s so worth it.

The automated drone is no match for the Kestrel and we soon emerge victorious; with a few pieces of scrap collected from the wreckage in a hurry, one more stop for repairs is enough to bring us back to good shape. Soon, we find ourselves against the Flagship in what feels like their last stand!

As the Kestrel emerges from FTL speed, the Nemesis comes into view – and what an ugly sight it is! The two emergency jumps it performed have left it mutilated. Both port and starboard sides have been reduced to metallic stumps, trailing the occasional piece of debris and wiring as the Flagship itself drifts through space, slowly bringing its remaining weapons to bear.

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Will you just DIE already?

More worryingly, the captain seems to have activated their last resort, a fully functional Zoltan shield! The green energy field, a by-product of Federation research assisted by Zoltan scientists, is the most formidable defense available in this part of the Galaxy!

The final phase is probably the most difficult one – the Flagship loses its Beam weapon, but gains a crew Teleporter, a Zoltan Shield augmentation and the Power Surge ability to either recharge the Zoltan shield or fire a volley of 8 lasers.

Zoltan shields have not come up previously on this run, so here’s a brief explanation of their functionality: the Zoltan Shield augmentation creates an additional, overlaying shield bubble over a ship (players can find one such augmentation very rarely in shops or from specific events, most frequently encountered in Zoltan systems).

This bubble will absorb any and every kind of object that tries to penetrate it, from shields to beams to bombs to even missiles and teleported personnel (though in this case, the player doesn’t lose their crew member(s), they are just unable to select the shielded ship as a teleport destination); once this protection is depleted (by absorbing a certain number of hits), the ship can be attacked and boarded normally.

Naturally, this means that I’m going to have to waste a lot of time bringing the shield down before I even start taking away the Flagship’s regular shields. Thankfully, while the Zoltan shield is a problem, I have at least made sure to neutralize the second threat; the Teleporter.

Throughout the first two stages of the fight, I’ve been systematically targeting the Flagship’s crew – aided in no small part by the Small Bomb – leaving only one enemy alive inside the Laser room (which, if you remember from previous phases, is isolated from the rest of the ship).

If you’re wondering why, it’s simple – if the entire crew dies, an on-board AI will take over repairs and handling, effectively increasing the Flagship’s efficiency (this is a feature unique to the Flagship, sadly). By leaving one person alive and isolated from the main body of the ship, I ensure that no repairs can be made to systems I target, that no crew is available to use their Teleporter and that the AI-activation event will not trigger.

Sans crew, I’m focusing on hitting the Zoltan shield as many times as possible to bring it down quickly; once that is done, it’s a matter of disabling as many systems as possible before the Power Surge re-initiates the Zoltan shield.

Downs quickly recovers from the shock and acts on instinct; the Kestrel jumps forward with a sudden lurch, dodging the initial laser salvo from the Nemesis. Kusy begins bringing our own weapons to bear; slowly but surely the Zoltan shield begins to fade, the sickly green hue surrounding the Flagship dissipating under the combined firepower of our arsenal.

Eventually, the shield completely shuts down – the crew is ready for this, with both Rebekah and Kusy teleporting to the Nemesis’ engine room; from there, they manage to wreak enough havoc to the nigh-unmanned ship to bring the engines and shield generators down!

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The Kestrel’s final stats.

Defenseless, the Nemesis is now at our mercy – with one final salvo of laser fire, an explosion rends its hull asunder, splitting the remains of the monstrosity in two. Rebekah and Kusy are safely beamed back at the last possible moment, the Kestrel finally emerging victorious!

The destruction of the Nemesis is slow, befitting a ship of its size and importance – a series of explosions rips the hull to pieces as large chunks of metal fly off in all directions. One final explosion obliterates what remains of the Flagship’s hull, the final exclamation mark in the bloody conflict that nearly destroyed the Federation.

Eventually, I manage to bring the Zoltan shield down; with it gone, our victory is a foregone conclusion. Teleporting the two least-useful crew to the now-unmanned Flagship allows me to quickly take out their shields and engines, lowering their defenses to near-zero.

It’s kind of anticlimactic, I know, but in rogue-likes it often pays to take the less glamorous, but more effective options in order to win.

Epilogue

With the Nemesis gone, the Rebel Fleet was immediately immobilized- thanks to the neural links established with their Flagship, its destruction sent out a catastrophic neural cascade that blew out every single system in every single Rebel ship across the Galaxy, leaving them as easy pickings for the Federation forces.

Within a year, the Galaxy was firmly back under Federation control – peace once again restored and rebellious elements quelled.

The Kestrel was enshrined in a museum on Terra Prime, our homeworld, now a part of history itself. It would remain on display for many, many years, a proud example of the tenacity and willpower of a select few individuals that changed the course of history.

As for the crew itself…

Downs, the fearless captain, remained in service and quickly made it all the way up to Vice-Admiral rank, directly under Admiral Tully’s command; upon his retirement, she went on to become the youngest Admiral the Federation had ever seen.

Kusy, the tireless weapons engineer and operator, capitalized on his experience with weapons systems and was immediately commissioned by the military to help spearhead their R&D efforts; even now, the newer Federation Cruisers coming into production all carry improvements designed by him and his team.

Kadreal, with his technical know-how, returned to Engi Prime where he retired from public life, spending his days as a simple shield mechanic in service of trading ships passing through his space depot.

Baars, the brilliant Zoltan engines specialist, eventually found employment as engineer and co-pilot of experimental low-orbit racing schooners. He eventually met his end trying to optimize a schooner’s engine output while it was still racing.

Rebekah, the hand-to-hand Mantis specialist that joined as at our last stand, made good on her word; she made sure to collect young Robert’s personal effects, taking them to the Mantis Home Worlds and giving him a hero’s send-off. After that, she enlisted with the Federation again, going on to become one of its most highly decorated officers, eventually rejoining Downs aboard the Red-Tail – an upgraded version of the now-retired Kestrel class of ships.

This concludes the series of Let’s Plays for FTL – it was a very enjoyable experience, writing the fiction behind the Kestrel’s adventures. A post-mortem style post will be coming in the following weeks, where I’d like to give my thoughts on writing this type of mixture between fiction and analysis.

For anyone interested in statistics, this playthrough was done on Easy difficulty (for higher chances of actually reaching the end), and took an average of 3,5 hours to prepare per post, over a period of 7 weeks –  for a grand total of 25 hours, ~17500 words and around 30 screenshots. My actual time for the run was around 3,5 hours, slightly longer than my average owing to having to take screenshots and keep notes for writing these posts.

So, what’s next? I have absolutely no idea, though I am interested in perhaps doing another sub-genre of rogue-like. Maybe a new column on a different genre altogether – I’d love to do a comedy piece or perhaps return to that forgotten Sorcery! playthrough like I’ve been meaning to for a while now.

Hope you enjoyed this series as much as I did; the only thing that remains now is to explore the stars – and perhaps, with enough luck, get that damn Rebel Flagship down on Normal difficulty for once!

Next time – Who knows? The stars remain…

A Rogue’s Journals – FTL: Faster Than Light

In this column we’ll be exploring one man’s adventures in a variety of rogue-likes and rogue-lites. Adventure! Intrigue! Terror! Explosions! This week, we prepare for the final challenge…

The Seventh System – LV-4A15, Engi Fringe System

We drop from FTL speed hard and fast, the Kestrel quickly coming to a halt at the entrance node to this sector. Post-jump checks are quickly completed – the sense of urgency renewed with the knowledge that the final hour is close at hand.

The sector we find ourselves in is largely Engi-controlled; in our immediate jump range, we get readings on a ship bay, where we are sure to find someone to repair our damaged hull. More importantly, two beacons within one jump of our location are broadcasting emergency distress signals, putting us in a dilemma: where to go next?

Tough choice, right off the bat. On the one hand, I really, really need to repair the Kestrel as soon as possible; having our hull integrity drop below the 50% mark puts us at a disadvantage versus any encounter we might have to escape from (since in any such scenario we’d still need to take hits while our FTL drive charges up).

On the other hand, however, it is much more efficient to do the distress signals first, as it’d give us extra scrap and/or items to sell, as well as save up on fuel; after last sector, I’m also worried that I won’t get another chance to visit a store before the final sector.

The crew decides, after much deliberation, to respond to the closest of the two distress beacons before heading to the shipyard for some much-needed repairs. We quickly charge up our jump drives and blast off towards the beacon’s location.

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The final stretch, and it’s a good one!

In the end, I’ve decided to try for at least one of the distress beacons. It’s risky but, barring an extraordinary stroke of bad luck, it’s probably going to be just fine…

We are immediately hailed by a Federation ship, parked within an asteroid belt, as soon as we emerge from FTL. They identify themselves as the UFSC Andromeda – a deep-space research vessel on a top-secret mission.

The source of their plight is immediately apparent: their engines have been taken offline by a wayward asteroid from within the belt, leaving them unable to dodge and evade the oncoming space rock. Without our help, they are sure to suffer catastrophic damage to their hull!

Kadreal is the first to spring to action – he heads to the drone bay adjacent to his shield generator station and types a few commands in the drone control mainframe. Moments later, our Defense II drone springs to life and blasts off towards the battered science vessel.

Downs is quick on the uptake; she immediately figures out Kadreal’s plan and starts maneuvering the Kestrel so that we soon find ourselves adjacent to the Andromeda. As we approach them, the drone’s AI begins targeting and destroying asteroids left and right, leaving only showers of space dust in its wake.

Meanwhile, Kadreal explains his plan to the rest of the crew via intercom. As the Defense drone is programmed to protect the area around the Kestrel, rather than the ship itself (calculated via some advanced spacial extrapolation algorithms that scan for solid objects within the drone’s radius), he figured out that if we were close enough to the science vessel, the drone would assume that it was now part of the Kestrel – and would protect it as if it were protecting us.

The crew is quite impressed by this amazing feat of logic and they state as much, but their chatter is soon cut off abruptly. As the asteroid belt thins out, a wayward chunk of rock manages to smash into the drone, destroying it and scattering unrecoverable parts all around the two ships. With the drone gone, the Kestrel takes a slight beating; our sensor array is knocked off alignment and another asteroid’s impact manages to start a fire in one of the empty compartments to the aft of the ship.

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Our final setup for this sector – looking good!

Thankfully, this is to be the belt’s parting shot; the drone has valiantly thinned the asteroids out enough for the immediate area to be safe. We move to make repairs and put out the fire, while Downs hails the Andromeda – their captain, profusely thankful for our assistance, immediately sends a cargo drone over with a large quantity of scrap and, upon hearing of our mission, a prototype Hull Missile weapon module ripped straight from their own weapons bays.

This was probably the best outcome we could hope for in this event. The “Asteroid Belt Distress” event has a lot of different outcomes, some of which are more beneficial than others – thanks to our Defense II drone, however, we got access to a blue dialogue option that gave us a large quantity of scrap and a weapon in exchange for 4 pts. of hull damage.

The Hull Missile is… probably not the most useful weapon we could’ve gotten, but it’s not too shabby either. It can do two damage per shot, has a small chance of starting fires or hull breaches (which drain away oxygen in a room) and also has the special ability to double it’s damage output if you target empty (no systems in them) rooms.

If push comes to shove, we can always sell the Hull Missile, and the scrap we’ve already received are going to come in handy when we jump to the shop.

Thanking the captain of the Andromeda, we prepare to jump to the shipyard, with the intention to trade our newly-acquired scrap in for some much-needed repairs.

Even more tough choices – as it stands, we have around 90 scrap to spare, not counting another potential 16-32 depending on which of our two missile launchers we’ll be selling. My problem in this case is that a full hull repair would cost 80-odd scrap, and this shop has a lot of things I’d love to buy, chief among them a Pegasus Missile and yet another Halberd Beam.

I quickly rule out the Halberd, as it requires 3 power and with my current setup I can’t power both Halberd weapons and another weapon to take the enemy’s shields away reliably. The Pegasus is a harder choice: it has the unique ability to shoot two missiles for the cost of one unit of ammunition, effectively doubling our stockpile of missiles.

The problem is, once again, its power cost – for 3 power, we can’t charge a Pegasus and a Halberd at the same time, which puts us at a disadvantage against enemies that are protected by Defense drones or have high evade rates, so eventually I decide against buying that one either.

There are also a few systems available here, but the Cloaking one costs 150, way above our current scrap balance, while the Crew Teleporter is barely affordable at 90 scrap, but we’d be sacrificing some crucial repairs to get it.

One other option remains, and I eventually decide to go for it: a Small Bomb weapon is also available for 45 scrap. Bombs function a bit differently than other missile weapons; they cannot be shot down by defense drones and do not deal hull damage as a regular missile would. However, they excel at doing systems damage, which would help me take down enemy shields, and can deal a moderate amount of damage to crew (a tactic that will come up again in the final “boss” fight, if we make it).

Trading in both my missile weapons (Artemis and Hull), I can just about afford the Small Bomb, a full repair, and two or three units of fuel to help me explore the sector a bit more. I also briefly consider selling the Drone Recovery Arm, but quickly decide against it – for now. If we happen to find a second store in this sector, I might just sell it off, since it’s usefulness greatly diminishes during the finale.

Our visit to the shipyard is short but fruitful: we go through a major refit, making use of the missile launcher the Andromeda has furnished us with to barter with the store owner. The Kestrel undergoes repairs, its hull integrity restored by the yard’s repair bots, which also install our newly-purchased Small Bomb.

With our business concluded, we jump into the unknown once more.

Our next jump brings us close to a space station, the source of the second distress signal we received when we first entered the sector. As soon as we arrive, we receive an urgent message from the station.

“Stay back! I don’t know who you are, but we are not in control of our base’s defenses! If you come any closer it’ll target you and we can’t do anything to stop it!”, barks the voice, clearly in distress.

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In outer space, glitches still manage to mess everything up…

Making sure the Kestrel is parked well outside their weapons’ range, Downs and Kusy start communicating with the station; their security chief, a female Rock named Ruby, explains that a glitch in their base AI has sent their automated defenses in an uncontrolled frenzy, targeting friendlies and hostiles alike.

More problematically, the glitch has also caused their oxygen generation systems to malfunction and, the control units being situated on the outside of the station, they could not send in any repair crews for fear of being annihilated by their own defense systems.

“The way things are going”, Ruby says, “we have maybe another two or three hours before our oxygen supply runs out and we suffocate.”

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Blue to the rescue!

Kusy quickly comes up with a solution – we ask Ruby to have a repair team ready to deploy and then, bringing the Kestrel within weapons range, we fire upon the defense system with our Ion Cannon.

Our plan works – the ionic interference caused by the Cannon is enough to take the base defenses offline for a few crucial minutes. This gives the repair crew enough time to reach the control unit and reset it, which returns both the oxygen generators and the defense systems back to normal operation!

This is a great stroke of luck since, thanks to our Ion Cannon, we have received an excess of 80 scrap and some fuel/missiles for practically nothing in return. Usually, getting this event without any of the blue responses is risky – you get a chance of receiving hull damage if you fail – and the default rewards are mediocre even if you succeed.

Fortunately, by using either the Ion Cannon to disable the defenses or an Engi crew member to remotely hack it (both blue, “special” responses), you can bypass the dangers of failing and get a nice pile of rewards at zero cost instead.

Ruby is grateful and shows it, both verbally and materially – a cargo shuttle deposits a large amount of scrap in our cargo hold, along with a couple of fuel cells. With a last message of thanks, we engage our FTL drive and jump once more towards the nearby nav beacon.

The next few locations are relatively peaceful; a Mantis ship, apparently allied with the Rebels, engages in combat – thanks to our superior firepower and crew experience, they are quickly disposed of. We collect any salvage we can find from the wreckage and blast off again. Our next destination, yet another shipyard.

This time, the crew gathers to discuss our options. We are getting close to the Federation HQ and, with the Rebel Fleet’s pursuit not letting up, we have to consider the very real possibility that we might be endangering the Federation by leading our enemies right to our home.

Downs takes a deep breath; she reaches for her holographic display, presses a few buttons and inserts her authorization code. With a flicker, the holo-displays in front of the other crew members start displaying schematics – this is the data we’ve been carrying to the Federation HQ, the secret weapon against the Rebel forces!

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Final stats before jumping to The Last Stand.

The light of understanding shines in the crew’s eyes; the Kestrel was not acting as a courier of top-secret information – instead, we are bait, meant to lure the Rebel fleet to within the Federation HQ sensor range! We have been leading the Rebels into a final stand, one last confrontation between the two forces that will decide the fate of the Galaxy!

The reason for this subterfuge is soon revealed – apparently the Rebel fleet has one big flaw inherent in the design of their ships. This is why the Rebels have been so effective at combat from the start, why Federation has been fighting a losing battle.

The Rebel Flagship, the seat of their power, is neurally linked with every single Rebel ship in the Galaxy.

This explained everything; their ability to gain knowledge from all theaters of combat in a single moment, their superior tactics formulation on the fly, their response speed to any and every trouble zone… The thought is quite horrifying to the crew.

But such technology comes at a heavy price. In becoming the brain behind the combined might of the Rebels, the Flagship has also become their biggest weakness. After all, Downs explains, take out the head and the rest of the body will surely crumble.

Thus, the Kestrel was chosen as a decoy, the final gambit of the Federation against its’ foe. With a few rumors spread about a new “prototype Rebel ship-killer”, we managed to worry their leadership enough for them to send the Flagship itself to stop us.

With renewed purpose, the crew returns to their duties – we now need to prepare for our final destination, the showdown between Federation and Rebel forces!

The shipyard’s stores have little of interest to us, save a Teleporter module for our ship. We end up purchasing it; a few hours later it has been installed in the Kestrel, along with a few minor upgrades to our sensors courtesy of a passing Engi repair ship.

Buying the teleporter is a bit of a gamble, so close to the end of the game. I can barely field enough crew to use it efficiently; when used, it will teleport up to two crew members to a room of my choosing at the enemy ship.

Naturally, this means that two positions will remain unmanned for the 20-odd seconds that it takes for the teleporter to recharge, depriving me of their crew bonus in their respective rooms.

However, the Rebel Flagship also has a unique layout: its four weapons are housed in individual, isolated rooms of the enemy ship, which means that sending a couple crew to kill their operators separately will take those weapons out for the duration of the fight.

Still, it’s a risky move, which I hope will pay off.

Our visit to the shipyard complete, we immediately jump off to the sector’s exit node. Our anxiety is palpable; the final hour is upon us, one last, great battle between Federation and Rebels for survival.

Downs nervously opens communication channels and hails the beacon’s auto-operator. We receive confirmation almost instantly.

Our next stop… End of the line: The Federation Base

This is it. The big test. Every decision I’ve made is potentially coming back to haunt me once we make the jump to the Last Stand. Every bit of good luck and misfortune will add up; the Kestrel and her crew’s fate up on the balance.

I am reasonably confident about our chances – between our Burst Lasers, Halberd Beam, Small Bomb and Teleporter, we have a good set of tools with which to try and outplay the Flagship. Shields could have been a little higher, but the cost in upgrading them would have deprived us of a lot of our other tools, so I guess it couldn’t be helped.

Another one or two crew members would also have been highly beneficial (since we are now fielding a Teleporter), but at least here the fault for that sits squarely on my shoulders – and makes the loss of Cubbin and Fenn all the more profound.

All in all, I am glad that this run went as well as it did; an average run through FTL does not guarantee reaching Sector 8, with bad luck being equally at fault as bad decisions.

One last sector to go…

Next time: The Last Stand – Federation HQ vs. Rebel Flagship

A Rogue’s Journals – FTL: Faster Than Light

In this column we’ll be exploring one man’s adventures in a variety of rogue-likes and rogue-lites. Adventure! Intrigue! Terror! Lots and lots of ion interference! This week, we find ourselves where no man has been before….

The Sixth System – Unknown Location, Uncharted Nebula

The FTL powers down as we arrive at our destination; the huge, sensor-inhibiting ion clouds currently serving as our hiding spot are part of a larger nebula – one that has not been charted yet by Federation or Rebel forces.

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Once more unto the breach.

We hope this will give us breathing space, some time to plan ahead and restock. While the Rebel fleet will surely be slowed down by all the sensor interference, we must remain vigilant, lest we squander this hard-earned advantage.

Stock-taking happens quickly, methodically, efficiently. Fuel supplies – low, as we currently do not have enough to reach the exit beacon for this sector. Ammunition – much better, with a full complement of missile pods and drone parts currently in our stores, helped in some part by our Drone Recovery Arm. Scrap stockpiles – satisfactory, perhaps slightly less than what we’d have wanted but still plenty to help improve and maintain our systems.

With our inspection completed, we then begin procedures to push further into the system. Our plan is simple: we’ll initially put as much distance from the Rebel fleet as possible; then, once far enough, focus on exploring as much as possible of the immediate area and accumulating as much fuel as we can before the Rebels catch up to us.

It’s a one-in-a-thousand shot, but we need to make it work.

Fuel is getting to be a real problem – between all those “dry” nodes and failing a couple events, we are now at the point where we do not have enough to reach the exit reliably.

My next move is very risky, but it’s probably our only viable course of action at this point – I intend to go straight towards the exit for the first few jumps, then spend the remainder of my fuel exploring around there for refueling chances.

The reason for this decision is simple: if your ship runs out of fuel at any time, you can no longer jump between nodes – and therefore cannot outrun the Rebels – but you are instead forced to “wait”, with each turn spent waiting having a small chance of triggering an event.

Thus, by putting a lot of distance between myself and the Rebels, I can afford a few more “wait” turns, therefore raising my chances of survival. This is not without its risks, though; sometimes you’ll get no event for multiple turns, and there’s always the chance that the Rebels will catch up before you can refuel.

Fingers crossed for some good luck…

The Kestrel switches to short-range FTL mode and a few moments later jumps to the nearest available nav beacon.

Once we drop from FTL speed, we encounter a rebel ship, scanning for Federation stragglers within the nebula. Thankfully, our Halberd beam is more than a match for its shields and a few minutes later, we emerge victorious. We manage to extract a Defense II drone schematic and, even better, a fuel rod from the wreckage of our foes – it might not be much, but it will do… for now.

A Defense II drone is incredibly useful but, as I don’t currently have the power to actually use it, I am postponing the explanation to a later encounter within the sector. Patience, as they say, is a virtue…

The next few jumps are uneventful, until Downs notices a faint signal coming from our short-range scanners. While the interference makes it hard to tell, our experienced pilot is almost certain that someone is following us – or rather, shadowing us in an attempt to avoid contact.

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Special dialogue options are a safe bet to victory.

After some deliberation, the crew decides to investigate the signal; if it’s a friendly ship we might be able to bargain for some fuel, if it’s hostile we’ll at least be getting the first strike in.

The minutes pass agonizingly slow while the Kestrel slowly drifts around to face the source of the signal. We have killed all but our emergency thrusters, so as to minimize our chances of detection, so they are unaware of us until we enter their visual range.

Slowly, we approach the mysterious ship. One minute to visual, then thirty seconds, then ten… And finally, we can see our stalker with our own eyes; by the looks of it, a pirate ship – it’s markings matching a few of the less combat-oriented gangs of the area, according to young Robert. In other words, they are most likely smugglers, trying to avoid detection while delivering their illicit cargo.

The crew of the smugglers’ corvette realizes they’ve been caught but it is too late; we are nearly upon them. Kusy begins charging our Halberd beam in a bid to gain the initiative when suddenly static bursts through our ship comms. Before we have a chance to recover from the surprise, it is replaced by a gruff voice, which begins:

“It’s a fair cop, guv’nor”, it states with a weird accent,” but how about you don’t do something we’ll both regret, eh?”.

Downs responds immediately, demanding that the owner of the  voice identifies himself.

“Me name’s McLean, and smugglin’ is me trade”, the voice replies.

“I would be much obliged if ye stopped chargin’ those beam weapons that me sensors tell me yer havin'”, it continues, “and by my word, I’ll be sure to repay the courtesy most handsomely.”

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Bribes are also good, though.

The crew debates this hotly over the intercom for the next few minutes; Kadreal explains that this McLean character is well-known around the local systems. Apparently, he’s gained quite the reputation for being honorable in his dealings which, in his line of work, is both unusual and shrewd as a business tactic. He further advocates that we should trust him, as McLean is sure to pay dearly for his ship’s safety.

Downs does not agree with this, though – and not without reason. Trust was the reason we lost two of our own not long ago – a trap sprung by pirates not unlike these had robbed us of Fenn and Cubbin in the blink of an eye. Her grief quickly gets the better of her; she refuses to assent to parley and, before long, the intercom meeting devolves into a shouting match.

Vital time passes, with each insult, each shout bringing us closer and closer to a new crisis, perhaps giving McLean time to flee or, even worse, retaliate while we sit undefended. It is Kusy that finally defuses the situation. He has managed to make his way to the piloting module during the argument, where he attempts to reason with Downs.

There is a hitherto-unnoticed hint of… familiarity in their voices, a kind of mutual understanding – even, perhaps, a sort of affection borne of adversity. Kusy keeps talking in a soothing voice, giving confident assurances to Downs, explaining how we need to do this, for Fenn and Cubbins’ sake. Surely, he reasons, they would not want their deaths t to have been in vain? Failing our mission so close to its conclusion would dishonor their memory, he adds.

Slowly, Downs manages to regain her composure. She nods at Kusy, takes a deep breath and…

With the crew now in agreement, we accept McLean’s proposal. To our astonishment, he keeps his word to the letter. A few moments later, a cargo bot docks with the Kestrel, unloading a few fuel cells and a large chunk of scrap, our bribe for letting the smuggler go.

While Downs is still not quite happy with the idea of letting the smuggler live, there is no doubt that this act of benevolence has bought us some time, a few more jumps in which to complete our mission.

While we’re still hitting a lot more empty nodes than I would like, this event is a godsend – with sufficiently advanced weaponry (in this case, the Halberd beam) you can get a special dialogue option (appearing in blue text) to intimidate the smuggler into submission, which nets you some freebie rewards.

In this case, we have now gained a good deal of scrap and, more importantly, another two units of fuel. While not nearly enough to see us through, it will extend our reach by a couple jumps – which, hopefully, will be enough in the long run.

Amusingly enough, I got another of the same smuggler event in the very next jump, which has given me another four units of fuel, for a grand total of six! I’ve condensed both encounters into one single vignette, but this might just be the break we needed to survive the sector.

The Kestrel jumps once again with renewed purpose, our fuel levels finally above critical thresholds. A chance encounter with a Rock Fighter almost ends in disaster, but our eventual victory furnishes us further with another four fuel cells – we now have enough to see us through the sector and further.

Our surplus of scrap now allows us to further modify our shields to produce even stronger force fields; a similar treatment goes towards our reactor as young Robert reports that we have achieved even higher power output thanks to his modifications. This extra output, in turn, will be very useful in powering the defensive drone we received in one of our previous entanglements.

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Defense Drone II Get!

However, a new problem arises: we have yet to locate any traders in this area. The Kestrel is starting to show signs of adversity across her hull – we must find a repair depot, and soon.

Dramatic exaggeration aside, despite the beating we took  – a problem that is only getting worse with our weird luck in shop placements – we are more or less doing OK.

Over the course of this session, we have finally hit our goal of getting to three shield points. We have also upgraded our other systems enough that we can power the Halberd and two of our three other weapons at the same time, as well as enough energy and drone bay levels to field that Defense II drone we looted earlier.

This is a major upgrade for us, as the Def. II drone will shoot down incoming missiles and laser shots, which will help immensely with our survivability. On top of that, with a few more strategic upgrades to our engine (and owing to our Mantis crew member already being adept at handling them), we are now at around 50% evade rate, yet another important element of our continued survival.

Spurred by this new emergency, we jump once more into the unknown. The next few jumps only serve to exacerbate our problem; we encounter a few automated patrols that the Rebels had deployed in the nebula previously. Though we emerge victorious, we have not managed to do so without our hull taking a beating.

It is not for lack of trying though; our crew has, through constant adversity, honed their skills to the point where the Kestrel can dodge and weave between shots as if she were a skiff, such is Downs’ ability to pilot her, with Robert squeezing every little bit of power from the engines to facilitate such speeds.

One jump later, we find ourselves facing yet another automated Rebel drone – fighting these has become more a chore than a true crisis at this point. We collect our just rewards, tend to any damaged systems, then jump once more – this time, bringing the Kestrel to the exit node.

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Pretty decent upgrades for such a “dry” run.

No time to waste – one last sector remains between us and our destination. Without hesitation, Downs sets our course for the nearby Engi system. The FTL drive reaches full capacity and discharges, propelling the Kestrel towards its penultimate challenge….

While not quite the run I was hoping for, this sector went pretty decently, overall. Between the upgrades, the new defense drone and all the scrap we’ve accumulated, we just need one more average-to-good session in the next sector to be able to hold our own during the last stand in Sector 8.

Our fuel levels are decidedly better than when we entered this sector; our missiles and drone parts have also accumulated quite nicely throughout this system, giving us a lot of offensive capability in Sector 7. In fact, with such an abundance of missile ammunition, it might be  prudent to start thinking about investing in a better missile launcher – that is, assuming that we actually encounter a store.

For the next sector, I’m aiming to get as many offensive options as possible. Upgrading our Ion Cannon and Artemis Missile Launcher are priority number one, while getting something along the lines of the Automated Re-Loader augment (-10% weapon charge rate) would also help immensely.

Defensively, I’m now also looking to get an anti-personnel drone if I can; boarding parties are a constant threat during the Rebel Flagship fight(s) and this will help deal with invaders in a more efficient manner. Dodge rates are pretty decent for the time being, so the Stealth Drive is no longer a priority.  

On an unrelated note, you’ll also notice that this post is slightly more sparse than the previous ones – as feared, I owe this to a higher-than-normal appearance rate of empty nodes. Unfortunately, short of having a Long-Range Scanner augmentation (which would give me a general idea of what to expect in each node before visiting it), we can’t really do much except hope for better spawn distribution in the next system.

Next time: The Seventh System – LV-4A15, Engi Fringe System