Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows

So, apart from your witnesses and undertales, what have I been playing for the last few months? Time-wasters, mostly. When I feel like I might be yanked away from a game at any moment, I choose ones where that’s no tragedy, either because I have low expectations for the game but just want to try it out to see if it surprises me, or because the game contains so little context that I’ll be able to jump in again without problems after an extended break.

Lately, the game that’s been wasting the largest portion of my time is definitely Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows. It fits mostly in the second category, but also a little in the first: I’ve played enough of the previous three 1Chasing Shadows is designated “Chapter 2”, but that’s because two of the other games are a “Chapter Zero” and a “Lost Chapter”. Gemcraft games to know pretty much how they work, and I think I’ve gotten bored with each before reaching the end. (I’m not completely sure. I might have finished the first one, but if so, the ending wasn’t very memorable.) I suppose this reaction is partly because they were free online Flash games, distributed via sites like Armor Games and Newgrounds, which made me value them less than Chasing Shadows in my Steam library, even if I did get it as part of a bundle.

The Gemcraft games are tower defenses, a form where individual games are still mainly distinguished by how they innovate on the formula. The original Gemcraft had two chief distinguishing innovations. First, it separated the towers from the weapons installed in those towers. The weapons take the form of enchanted gems in various colors, which can be combined to create more powerful gems. If you upgrade a gem a lot, and then realize that it would be more useful somewhere else, you can simply move it to a different tower, albeit with a delay of several seconds while it “resockets” to discourage you from doing this all the time. I find that this actually isn’t much of a force on me or my decisions during gameplay. It’s a nice convenience, but it fades into the background once you’re used to it.

The other and more interesting chief innovation was that you could earn bonus mana (for buying towers and gems on the current level) and XP (for purchasing permanent upgrades) by releasing waves of enemies early, or even releasing multiple waves at once. This makes it into something of a bidding game, like Bridge: you tell the game how much of a challenge you think you’re capable of handling at the moment, and if you judge right, you reap a reward that makes things easier later.

After three sequels’ worth of complications to the rules, there are now several additional ways to bid. You can sacrifice a gem to “enrage” a pending wave, making the enemies tougher and more numerous, which means you get more mana and XP for defeating them. You can turn up the difficulty for an entire level to get a large XP multiplier. And there’s a whole system of more specific and multi-tiered ways to make levels harder, called “battle traits”. For example, there’s a battle trait that decreases the time between waves, another that increases the number of Swarmling waves and also makes Swarmlings harder to kill, another that makes your earned mana come in lumps at regular intervals instead of continuously. My favorite battle trait gives you a number of “orblets” at your base, which basically function like the power cores in Defense Grid: if a monster manages to carry one offscreen, all mana gains from that point onward are reduced by 10%. New battle traits are awarded over the course of the game, just like new upgrades. Activating multiple battle traits at once seems to be the real secret to gaining XP quickly, especially if you turn up the difficulty level as well, which increases the XP multiplier for each battle trait.

I’ve seen things similar to the battle trait system before. For example, the idols in Bastion are essentially the same thing. But for some reason I was hesitant to use it at all there, whereas here in Gemcraft, I often overbid with it, activating too many traits at once and losing the level. Probably because the game is so repetitive. Once I’ve beat one level, I feel like I can easily beat them all.

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1. Chasing Shadows is designated “Chapter 2”, but that’s because two of the other games are a “Chapter Zero” and a “Lost Chapter”.

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