Hello dear reader, and welcome back. My gaming time has really been divided of late, thanks to a healthy dose of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition roleplay, thanks to the wonder that is Roll20. If you and your group are struggling during this time of separation or even if it is just an issue with getting everyone together, I must encourage you to give this a try. There is definitely an adjustment period as the group gets used to gaming online but our patience has really paid off. Plus there are actually some really useful perks to gaming this way. Roll20 really deserves the plug, and it is a free service as long as you don’t mind a loading splash screen and a few “perks” that you don’t get to use with the free account, most of which involve coding your own buttons and scripts. Noting that there is of course no real cost to try it so give it a spin if you miss gathering around the ol’ gaming table.
So what has been running on my game systems of late? Well I finally gave the Nintendo Switch a try for this round of games and picked up a copy of Dead Cells and Slay the Spire. I did not really intend to tackle these in hand-held mode, but situations dictated me giving this a try. This has been a bit of a break through as I had never really thought I wanted portability in my gaming. My vision is not so great, even with corrective glasses and small, portable screens typically bother my eyes. The Switch screen is quite a bit larger though, and I have had no trouble with it. It has been awesome to be able to take gaming to wherever the family may be hanging out. It has even been handy during some random bits of downtime – say perhaps in the kitchen while prepping meals. A lot of that time is spent just waiting on things to boil or for timers to run out, after all. These make perfect spots to squeeze a few rounds of Slay the Spire in. This is going to be a huge factor in the future when I am picking out new games as anything I put on the Switch offers this portability versus my PC which pretty well locks me in the office.
So how are the games? I can definitely say they live up to their reputations:
Slay the Spire is my favorite overall. It blends aspects of a strategy RPG with a digital card game, all set to a “rogue-lite” board-game style map. I did not know how I would take a virtual card game. I had tried them in the past and found them either too “grindy”, leaving me forced to play more than I really wanted to earn more unlocks or cards or simply saw quickly that the game required a “pay-to-win” strategy that allowed one to pay for unlocks that would have taken hours or days or more to achieve normally. Slay the Spire is nothing of the sort. The unlocks come at a fair pace and there are not that many anyway. The game has plenty to learn in the beginning and by the time I get new unlocks I understand the game and their use well enough that I can immediately implement them. Now the game itself plays well enough from the beginning but in my opinion gets better with experience. There is a simple beginning to each act (of which there are 3 with a bonus 4th in later modes) – the player picks a room to begin which follows a path that is set down on the map so that one can basically see what is likely to be encountered. The player doesn’t know exactly what will be encountered, but the map shows whether it will be a battle, shop, treasure, event or an “elite” (mini-boss). Shops are obvious, but gold is typically quite scarce. I’ve not had a game yet that I could just buy everything I wanted. Treasures are typically potions which give one-time boosts and/or Relics which give permanent power-ups. Battles are fought in turn order with the enemy showing an icon that tells the player what they are about to do, whether attack, defend or use a power-up/debuff. They can even use combinations of these. It may sound too predictable with them telegraphing their intent but this is where the some of the strategy comes in. Rarely is the decision so simple that one can just button click through a battle without major damage ensuing. There is almost always a decision between risking more damage in order to defeat the enemy faster (or at all) or playing very defensively and risking that the enemy builds up to a strong attack later. Many enemies do become more dangerous over time, slowly building their power, which makes a balance between efficiently defeating them while properly protecting oneself a tricky tightrope. The player begins with a small, preset starter “deck” and every enemy defeated gives a set of cards to choose from as a reward. Shops also sell cards and as this is all random one never knows what strategies may present themselves to the player, requiring a willingness to experiment and try new things as play progresses. These choices regarding what to add to the deck is where the majority of the strategy lies, in my opinion. Sure you can play the game technically well in battle but it is the simple choice of what to take and when from spoils and treasure that will make the biggest difference in each run overall.
Upon completing the game for the first time each character unlocks an “Ascension Mode”, climbing through 20 levels of increasing difficulty. This has really been a blast to see how strategy and skill must evolve to meet the increased challenges. Overall my previous strategies were simply “survive til I can collect enough ‘good’ stuff”, but in Ascension Mode I have quickly seen that if I am not a bit more critical with my choices, a wrong card choice, a bad path decision or even a bad play can cripple or end a run up the spire.
The game has a set of modes that allow some pre-planned customization and even a daily run that gives a set of random alterations to the game. I’ve tried this mode less but it was quite fun and there are definitely some mods I will enjoy tinkering with, including a sealed-deck and “draft” mod that lets you alter the starting deck, which should be a fun change and challenge. Overall this game has loads of replayability and I doubt I will even be tired of it when I’ve managed to make it up the Ascension ladder.
Dead Cells is conversely a fairly fast-paced action-platformer-metroidvania. It has a very “Castlevania”-like feel to the setting, eerie and foreboding. Lots of zombies and mutants to be seen on the island on which the game takes place keep the pace snappy. Weapon choices are largely dictated by what drops randomly, and this causes one to have to adjust combat strategy accordingly. Bear-traps and bows one game may have to evolve into twin-daggers and bombs the next. The combat is easy to learn and while I cannot say “forgiving”.. I can say respawning is handled efficiently! Dead Cells runs actually feel like they last longer than most rogue-like games I have played, so one does have enough time to comfortably settle into a strategy before encountering tougher bosses. One aspect is that the game seems to give new hints and clues as to what exactly happened on the island with each pass though, with slight “evolution” occurring with each attempt. This definitely keeps the game interesting and fun. Bosses are tough and while there is a certain element of simply “overpowering” them via attrition, the fights definitely become more winnable as skill level increases. By all means don’t underestimate the importance of dodging and parrying in this game as they are key to survival.
There are so many unlockable skills and weapons that I’ve barely skimmed the surface of Dead Cells, so I may have to revisit it in the future with a better understanding. One of the most enjoyable choices I make each game is that of which “mutations” I take. These are permanent changes that the character takes on that adjust some aspect of the game. Want your attacks to heal you? Perhaps you’d like a faster cool down on your grenades? More ammo? Maybe just an “extra life”? So many choices! Lots of them mingle with one another to create some really interesting mixes and “combos” which really adjust how one will play through that particular run. Oftentimes the mutations can influence which weapons are most useful too. Some very low ammo weapons, for instance, may really need the extra ammo mutation while fiery attacks can benefit from mutations that produce oil spills.
Also of note, while the game is not precisely a “metroidvania” in the usual sense, it still has a feel of one to me in some ways. The way the game adjusts and new areas are accessible with continued play-throughs harkens back to that style of game, even though technically areas cannot be revisited once left within each attempt. Thus, there is definitely a feeling of progress even when the player is in the middle of frustrating failed attempts. Never fear! Likely with continued practice and unlocking of new skills and abilities that challenge that is causing trouble now will be easily handled in a future run.
Dead Cells has also been nice to play in hand-held mode. Its color and graphics are vivid enough that the only things I miss are likely meant to be a bit obscure anyway.. like areas that are hiding wall-chicken or runes that might be breakable. This one is intense enough that my better runs are still played on the big screen though, as I find the Pro Controller a better fit for action-platforming games. Still, the option is there and nice to have.
Finally I have to make mention of an odd little mobile game I picked up on a slow day at the clinic. Meteorfall could, by appearances, be assumed to be somehow connected to Adventure Time, that silly little fantasy cartoon that delved way deeper than its goofy animation would lead one to believe. This game is also a strategy-based rogue-like card game. This one takes the card game aspect to another level, using an event deck to allow the player to choose what happens each turn of the game. Most decisions are between two choices, save shops and deck alteration events which usually allow a view of the entire player deck contents (which is separate from the event deck). This allows a simple left or right swipe motion to cover most of the games control needs. A compass on the table at which the game is played shows how close the next “boss” is, which will be a tough battle, thus allowing the player to plan accordingly. Deciding between resting and battling is fundamental to this game as there is a desperate need to power up quickly without pressing so hard that death results. When battle occurs play is quite simple. One is given a set number of actions, with most cards requiring one action to “draw”. Cards are played with either stamina for physical attacks or charges on the card for magic. Stamina can be regained by skipping cards (resting) and magic charges can be restored by playing cards that do just that. Spellcasters require some balancing and I have struggled with them so far as they have to keep an eye on the charges left on spells to be sure they don’t end up with loads of dead draws in addition to watching stamina. Most spells are quite strong, though, and there is a payoff in what they do versus the simple direct damage of the more physical attacks. There are lots of equipment pieces that give ongoing bonuses or abilities as well. The game is quirky, the art is silly and the game is quite fun. It is really the first mobile game I have felt comfortable actually playing on the “phone”.. it is just strange that we even still call them that… In any case it was really picked on a whim and mostly because the art amused me. As a bonus the game’s silly humor has brought a few smiles in my down time and it is engaging enough to be fun while easily set aside when breaks are over.
Peculiarly I find myself writing and thinking a lot about the mobility offered by both the Switch and phone and marvel a bit that I am so slow coming around on this aspect. I have joked with Grant that this is a little like the costumes in Mario Odyssey and the Dye Shop in Zelda: Breath of the Wild.. I didn’t know I wanted them as part of the gaming experience until I had the opportunity to try them out. Now I find it strange to think that I would not want to change the color of Link’s armor or adjust Mario’s costumes as he travels the globe. This perk is a bit more tactile, though, as I have enjoyed being able to hang out with Grant while he played his games, much like our old game/computer room that housed both of our PCs and game systems all in one spot (we had a really spacious basement at that time). It also gives me something to do in between sketches and D&D notes when one needs a little time to let ideas stew before putting them to paper. My gratitude to Nintendo for breaking the mold yet again in the Switch’s design and even more so for getting all of these cool indie titles on the eShop.
Until next time..