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The Stick of Truth: Shallow and Deep Theming

When I call The Stick of Truth a “South-Park-themed RPG”, I mean that it’s an RPG at its core and a South Park property on its surface. If you replaced the graphics, dialogue, and flavor text with something more like standard fantasy RPG material, you’d have a game that plays the same, but it wouldn’t be at all recognizable as South Park.

You might be tempted to say that this is simply how licenses of this sort work, that they’re always just veneers on top of an established genre. But it isn’t necessarily so. Consider how the gameplay of Wing Commander was clearly and obviously inspired by Star Wars, despite having a story and setting that drew more from the Man-Kzin Wars stories. The resemblance to Star Wars exists only at the level of gameplay, but was strong enough to draw comment at the time. And that kind of gameplay-level connection to the source material is what The Stick of Truth pointedly lacks.

Nonetheless, there are a few ways that the source material touches the game at a deeper level. The first comes at when you choose a character class, which, due to the LARP-within-a-game plot, is something that happens in-story, the choice presented by the character of Cartman. You have a choice of four classes: Fighter, Mage, Thief, and Jew. This both continues the Jewish jokes from the show and enables more of them in the game, but it isn’t just a throwaway gag: Jew is a fully fleshed-out character class, with its own special abilities based on more Jewish jokes. Naturally, this is the class I chose, on the basis that it’s the only one unique to this game. Then I thought: wait, it’s probably just Cleric under a different name, isn’t it? But it isn’t. I don’t really have a handle on what the specialization of the Jew is supposed to be — possibly it’s the generalist class, like Final Fantasy‘s Red Mage. It does seem to have some focus on abilities that become stronger as you sustain damage, which I suppose could be another tasteless Jewish joke, an encouragement to get your Jew beat up a lot.

If there’s no Cleric class, where do you get your healing? Largely from snack foods, but also from Butters. Butters is a supporting character from the show who I was unfamiliar with. In the game, he’s a Paladin who joins your party and can heal you with a laying on of hands, which he interprets as patting you on the back and saying “I got your back, bro” or similar sentiments. Again, skin-deep theming. Apparently the Paladin role suits the character’s innocence, but it’s just a mapping of an existing character to an independently-existing role. Eventually, however, you acquire other party members you can swap him with, and the first one you unlock is Kenny. If you know anything at all about South Park, you probably know that Kenny dies in every single episode, only to come back without explanation in the next. This inspires one of his powers in the game. If he falls in combat, rats drag his carcass away. A few rounds later, he just walks back in and resumes fighting as if nothing happened. So, here, we have gameplay drawn from the source material.

Then there’s the fart jokes. This game makes farts into one of your fundamental skills, both in combat and in solving environmental puzzles that allow you to bypass fights. This defies easy classification as deep or shallow theming. On the one hand, Cartman, who teaches you the secret of power-farting, refers to it as a “dragon shout”, specifically pointing out its resemblance to the Dragon Shout abilities in Skyrim. On the other hand, the game does use the ability in particularly South-Park-fart-joke ways, like letting you fart through open flames to create explosions.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

OK, apparently I don’t feel up to finishing This War of Mine right away, so let’s try something sillier and less stressful from the same bundle. The Stick of Truth, despite its South Park theming, is pretty much a conventional combat-oriented RPG, premised on a promise of inevitable progress and growth, and that seems a good antidote to TWoM‘s constant grim struggle to stay afloat.

I have to admit that I’ve never been a South Park fan. I’ve seen a bit of the show, I saw the movie, and I even played one of the previous South Park games — specifically, the 1998 FPS using the Turok engine, which, heretically, modeled the characters in 3D. But the whole thing always seemed too mean-spirited for my tastes, its comedy created mainly from the relief that follows the shock of the transgressive. And I do specifically mean shock, not just offense; the whole effect depends on things being unexpectedly offensive. I think in particular of the Terrence and Phillip show from the movie here: the humorous part wasn’t just their relentless profanity, it’s that they broke into it so suddenly and without warning, while not even seeming to acknowledge that it was happening. Even the animation style is designed to contrast with the content, putting the viewer off-guard by making the show look more innocent than it is. But to keep that working for any length of time, they have to keep ramping up the tansgressiveness. That’s a road that ultimately leads to Princess Hears a Strange Noise, and I for one am not willing to follow it that far. And on top of that, a lot of the characters talk in the sort of silly voices that people only use in real life to make fun of other people.

The game, then, has sort of the opposite feel from Undertale. Where Undertale encouraged you to empathize with monsters and treat them as beings worthy of basic respect, The Stick of Truth treats all its characters with derision and contempt.

Despite an intro that presents the war between the Humans and the Drow Elves to control the Stick of Truth as something real happening in a fantasy realm, it quickly turns out to all be a neighborhood-wide LARP. And by LARP, I mean schoolchildren playing make-believe as an excuse to beat each other up. As a result, the game is kind of like a meaner version of Costume Quest. Not just because it involves wandering around a suburb with children in costumes, but because it blurs the line between reality and make-believe. You eat packaged snack foods to regain hit points, and your RPG-standard search for loot just means invading people’s houses and stealing stuff, but when you’re fighting, you really do have the magical powers and special abilities of your fantasy RPG character.

The combat is a great deal more involved than Costume Quest, though. There are a number of status effects to keep track of, both positive and negative. Your enemies can enter a Riposte stance, which makes your melee attacks backfire, or a Reflect stance, which does the same for missiles. Both attacking and defending prompt the player for timed button presses, often multiple presses in sequence. The result, for me at least, was that combat was, if not exactly taxing, then at least involving enough to keep my mind off other things, like how mean the premise is, and how crass the dialogue. This may be how the game is setting me up for sucker-punches to come, when it ramps up the transgressive enough to punch through my indifference.

More Thoughts on Undertale

I commented briefly before about Undertale‘s redemption narrative as applied to Dr. Alphys, but she’s hardly unique in the story. Nearly every major character in the game is defined in terms of their flaws and failures, at least at first. Toriel is overprotective, Papyrus has delusions of grandeur, Sans is a slacker, Undyne is excessively zealous, and so forth. I’ve seen a theory that maps the major characters to the different circles of Dante’s Inferno, and while the details of that were very much a stretch, it’s worth noting that there is a fair amount of disguised Hell imagery in the game. You are, after all, in an underworld full of monsters, and, as with Dante, the only way out is through. A focus on the charcters’ sins adds to this, even if it is mainly done for humorous purposes.

But if there’s one thing we all know about Undertale, it’s that it’s “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die”. They may be sinners, but that doesn’t make them bad people — or even if they are bad people, that doesn’t make them your enemies. I mean, they are your enemies for the most part, but they don’t have to stay that way. Going the Pacifist route means figuring out how to resolve conflicts without violence, and that means treating the antagonists like people instead of like monsters.

This applies to the lesser encounters as well — in fact, it applies better. A lot of the major encounters come down to “survive for long enough and eventually your opponent gives up”, but the random encounters are all about paying attention to the monsters and figuring out what they really want. Maybe a monster just wants you to notice what a nice hat it’s wearing. Maybe it wants to wash you, or get into a muscle-flexing contest. Monsters have weird obsessions sometimes, and I think this makes the whole thing work better than it would in a less-exaggerated setting. The modeling of their motivations isn’t terribly sophisticated — the mind of a monster is a simple state machine. Still, it’s significant that you can relate to them as more than just things that you harvest for EXP. After this, it feels peculiar to go back to playing conventional combat-based RPGs, where your enemies are more objectified.

Now, even for a Pacifist, combat isn’t just a matter of guessing the right things to do. In between your actions, you still have to dodge your opponent’s bullet-hell-like attacks. Some of the attacks are more abstract, some are more representational, but it’s worth noting that, within the game’s fiction, they’re always really attacking your soul rather than your body. It’s like a big metaphor for introversion and social anxiety. People approach you at random, and you try to satisfy them as quickly as possible so they’ll leave you alone and you can stop dodging bullets. Occasionally, with the major characters, the end result is that you make a new friend.

I’m tempted to say on this basis that social anxiety is the player character’s defining character flaw, but that doesn’t really fit with your role in the story in general. It’s worth remembering as a technique, though.

This War of Mine: Starting to Lose

I’ve only played a few days more since my last post, but things are already getting more desperate. I’ve taken in another survivor, because I figure you have to at least make some attempt to be the good guy, but it means one more mouth to feed. I’ve suffered a couple more raids, this time losing more stuff — clearly the game wants me to make weapons and fortifications, but how can I do that when it keeps taking the necessary materials away?

On top of that, a patrol stopped by to deliver the game’s first big moral dilemma: they’re looking for people who attacked a humanitarian aid convoy, and are willing to give me a whole bunch of loot if I rat out my neighbors. I took the loot, on the basis that if I’m not attacking humanitarian aid convoys, no one else should get away with it either. But my guys became Sad as a result. Sad is a status effect like Sick or Wounded, and I assume that it’s similarly fatal if left untreated.

I feel like I’m falling behind, and I’m seriously contemplating starting over so I can do better. Just one thing stops me: the sense that I’d be missing the point. That things are supposed to be falling apart, because that’s is the way the story goes. If I’m not willing to watch my people suffer, I should be playing some other game.

This War of Mine

The latest Humble Monthly — yes, of course I’m a Humble Monthly subscriber, I’m exactly their target audience — contained a couple of games I had been curious about, including This War of Mine. I’m currently one week into it, in terms of game time.

The basic concept is that it’s a story of war from the point of view of noncombatants without a lot invested in the outcome, who just want it to end. You get a team of three (to start with) displaced people, sheltering in a bombed-out house, which you see in a sort of dollhouse-like cutout view. During the day, you direct them to resource-management and crafting tasks, trying to make their improvised space more livable, feeding them and tending to their wounds. During the night, you go on scavenging missions to other dollhouses, to find more food and crafting materials. How aggressively you scavenge seems to be a matter of choice: there are places where you can take other survivors’ possessions, by stealth or force. A mere week in, the game has not yet pressured me to take the dark path. I’ll admit that I did some stealing at one point, mainly because I didn’t fully understand what I was doing, but I haven’t even tried to craft weapons yet. That may prove my downfall. Always in games with resource-management aspects, like Civilization, I tend to overprioritize research and production and underprioritize defense. And this game is in some ways Civilization played at a much smaller scale.

It’s unusually slick for such an obviously political game. This is no Papers, Please, made of cartoony pixel art, but a current-generation-console-looking work, all done in the desaturated tones and light blooms that console gamers seem to think signify “serious game for grownups”. Except that this time it might be true.

Only, I keep asking myself: Is it really so different from a zombie apocalypse game? I’ve certainly seen zombie games with very similar underlying crafting-and-survival mechanics. War is presented here as just a flavor of natural disaster, something beyond anyone’s control that destroyed these people’s lives to the point that they have to start over. And while that is a considerable statement in itself for a game to make, it also makes it seem like choosing war as the thing that destabilizes civilized life was a little arbitrary.

Undertale is Garbage

Something I was thinking about recently that doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of attention in the voluminous writing about Undertale: the repeated theme of garbage and its redemption. Like how Bratty and Catty, two shopkeeper NPCs found in an alleyway, sell you things they found in the garbage, including the second most powerful weapon and armor in the game, or how Napstablook, a depressed ghost, invites you to “lie on the floor and feel like garbage” together, which results in visions of the universe. Spoilers ahead.

There’s a garbage dump in one area, which isn’t notable in itself, except that the ending of a Pacifist run keeps returning to it: there’s a bit about going to the garbage dump for a date, which leads to a conversation in the epilogue involving the line “OH MY GOD! YOU’RE GOING BACK IN THE TRASH!!!”, which results in everyone else saying that they want to be in the trash too. And why not? They really are rubbish monsters: even the most formidable of them failed to take down a small child without any EXP who wasn’t even fighting back. The same scene has them admitting that they’re all losers — but that being defeated by the player character was the best thing that happened to any of them.

The garbage dump collects refuse from both the underground and the world above, the world of humans. As such, it’s where the monsters get all their human technology. You get to it by falling, an echo of the fall into the underground in the game’s beginning. Thus, all of monster civilization is as a dump to the surface world. The humans regarded the monsters as trash, so they swept them into a cave where they wouldn’t have to look at them.

This is echoed in one other area, the True Lab, located far under the Underground just as the Underground is far under the surface. This is where Dr. Alphys ran away from her guilt by sealing away the wretched products of her mad experiments: disturbing things that glitch up your screen and put the wrong text in the wrong places during combat. In fact, the entire atmosphere of this sequence is one of wrongness, and the wrongest part of all is the monster named Amalgamate, which can’t even attack you properly: it instead makes pathetic gestures towards what would be an attack if it were being done by something less messed-up. But at the end, all the creatures in the lab are freed and reunited with their families, who accept them.

Dr. Alphys herself spends a lot of time at the dump. I suppose that makes sense with the dump’s connection to technology, but it also has to do with her sense of worthlessness, of having failed as a scientist and as a person. She was tasked with something bigger than she could handle, and she lives with the weight of the consequences. There’s some subtle suggestion of a suicide attempt. She’s so convinced of her true worthlessness that she engages in the always-disastrous ploy of trying to fake being a hero, repeatedly creating the appearance of danger so she can come to your increasingly unconvincing rescue. This plot thread is designed to make the player annoyed with her, but annoyance is defused once you recognize the hopelessness that inspired it.

The really striking thing about Alphys, though, is that when she’s first introduced, she seems like nothing more than a comic character, a socially-awkward anime-loving nerd stereotype. And she never actually stops being that, even as you come to understand her better and feel sorry for her. Forget redemption from guilt. It’s the guilt that redeems the character from being just a joke.

In fact, that’s a general feature of Undertale‘s style, and of Homestuck‘s style before it. (Toby Fox, creator of Undertale, is one of the main members of the Homestuck Music Team.) Characters and plot elements are introduced in a mocking way that makes you not take them seriously at first, but you wind up gradually caring about them as you learn more. Even the music often has a pattern that fits this notion, starting off with chiptuney square waves and then introducing richer sounds and realer instrumentation once the melody is established. Heck, the very first thing you see in the game is a mockery of all manner of awkwardness in old games: a picture in what I think of as “CGA Palette 2 Brown” over the text “Long ago, two races ruled over Earth: HUMANS and MONSTERS.” Accompanied by what sounds like the soundtrack of a NES title, but which eventually turns into the most significant and emotional theme of the game. Garbage redeemed.

There’s actually a second theme twined up there: Memory, a theme first heard from a music box under a forlorn horned statue in an unregarded passageway under a leak that’s raining water on its head. This statue isn’t in the dump, but it’s in the same general area. You have no way of knowing its significance, or even if it has any significance at all, when you first encounter it. It’s only much later that you find a “Royal Memorial Fountain” containing an awful statue of the local TV star Mettaton that was installed only a week ago to replace an old statue of Prince Asriel, and can put two and two together. Asriel is the game’s chief villain and also its chief victim, a dead child infused into flower by one of Alphys’s experiments, as forsaken as his discarded statue, with nothing but determination where his soul used to be. “Flowey”, as Asriel now calls himself, does his best to provoke you into violence throughout the game, but the best ending can only be achieved by showing compassion to everyone, including him, the character who deserves it the least but needs it the most. And the statue foreshadows that: by showing it a little kindness, protecting it from the underground rain with an umbrella obtained from a garbage can, you start the music box playing, giving you the musical clue you need for a puzzle that conceals a powerful artifact.

You don’t actually get the artifact, though. Your actual reward for your compassion: dog residue.

See, this is one of the game’s big participatory jokes. When you try to take the artifact, you’re told that you can’t, because there are “too many dogs in your inventory”. Checking your inventory, you see that there is an “Annoying Dog” in there that wasn’t there before. When you remove the dog from your inventory, it immediately runs to the artifact and absorbs it, leaving behind only some “Dog Residue”, which is variously described as “Dog-shaped husk shed from a dog’s carapace”, “Dirty dishes left unwashed by a dog”, “Jigsaw puzzle left unfinished by a dog”, and various other randomly-chosen descriptions. Using this item fills up all the empty space in your inventory with more dog residue. Except sometimes it also yields some “dog salad”, which is a healing item. So your reward looks like garbage, but it’s really free unlimited free healing items, provided you’re hip enough to this game’s themes to not just throw it out. You can even sell the extra residues for free unlimited cash, if you can find a shop that will take them.

Gemcraft: Stopping for now

Even though I’m most of the way through Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows, I think I have to hang it up for a bit for the sake of this blog’s recovery. I need to play something I can finish, and this game isn’t really designed around finishing. It’s designed to be a lifestyle game, like Candy Crush Saga or the Elder Scrolls series — something that you keep dipping into over a long period of time. That’s how I was playing it before I started blogging again: at most a battle or two a day, and not all of them victorious. New unlocks, new ideas, were sparse. Mostly it was just new battlefields. There’s well over a hundred maps — more than I’ve ever seen in a tower defense — and the systems of level-specific achievements and harder difficulty levels that net you more XP are all trying to get you to play them more than once. People online talk about beating Endurance mode, which I didn’t think was even theoretically possible.

But I do want to come back to it (or keep coming back to it). It’s insanely polished, especially in comparison to previous Gemcrafts, to the point where I fear it will spoil me for other tower defenses. I can see this being the game that I play between other games this year.

Gemcraft: Some Vague Math

OK, I started talking before about how the exponentially-stronger enemies in Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows inevitably overtake the player. That’s a good safe way to design things where the numbers get arbitrarily large; it’s the cornerstone of the Clicker genre, for example. And this is certainly a game where numbers can get large. After you win a battle, you have the option to keep going in “Endurance mode”, which means letting additional waves keep coming for as long as you’re capable of fending them off, the better to rack up lots of XP. In this mode, I’ve seen it get to the point where it’s expressing enemy hit points in scientific notation.

I’d like to go into more detail about the efficiency of gems, and how it’s possible to keep pace with the exponentiation for longer.

First of all, more powerful grades of gem are created by fusing gems. In general, you make a grade n+1 gem by fusing two grade n gems. There’s a hotkey for upgrading a gem, but using it is exactly equivalent, in both effect and cost, to creating a duplicate of the gem and then fusing them. Creating a grade 1 gem and fusing two gems are both primitive actions that cost a fixed amount of mana. Creating a grade n gem from these primitives would require 2^(n-1) grade 1 gem creations and 2^(n-1)-1 fusions.

Now, the damage that a gem does per hit varies with the color of the gem, but one thing is consistent: the damage per hit of a grade n+1 gem is less than twice that of a grade n gem. Given that the cost of a grade n+1 gem is more than twice that of a grade n gem, it may seem like it’s always worthwhile to deploy multiple low-grade gems rather than a few high-grade ones. But there are several confounding factors. For one thing, there’s only so much space on the board. I’ve been routinely getting my strongest gems above grade 20 lately, and there’s no way to deploy 2^20 grade 1 gems, because that’s more than a million gems. Also, high-grade gems fire more shots per second than low-grade ones, although there’s a cap to that. Sometimes you need to do lots of damage in one hit to punch through armor or overwhelm regeneration effects. There’s a trick where you cast a beam spell on a mana-leeching gem to get lots of mana-leeching done at once, and you need a high-level mana-leeching gem to get the most out of that.

Regardless, the cost of gems rises exponentially with level, and the damage they do also rises approximately exponentially. I haven’t crunched the numbers, so the “approximately” there could be hiding a significant factor, like a penalty that increases with the grade. but let’s assume it doesn’t and say that the two exponentials cancel out and the resulting damage-per-second-per-cost is basically constant. That means that the damage you can put out is proportional to the mana you’ve collected.

Yellow gems increase this by doing critical hits some of the time. In the original Gemcraft, with its overall lower numbers, critical hits were simply triple damage, and the chance of getting a crit increased with the grade of gem. But triple damage doesn’t mean a lot in the exponential world of Chasing Shadows, so it works differently: the grade increases the crit multiplier. (The chance of a crit still increases with grade, but caps out at 80% before too long.) The multiplier increases in the same not-quite-doubling way as the base damage, so the overall damage from yellow gems is proportional to the square of the mana you’ve collected. This is clearly going to track the increases in enemy strength for longer.

Add a white component, and you have an additional factor, which is harder to analyze. White gems give an additional multiplier to both damage and specials — which is to say, on a yellow gem, it increases damage twice, once as a bonus to the base damage and once as a bonus to the crit multiplier. However, this multiplier increases only linearly with gem grade — which is to say, it increases logarithmically with the mana you’ve invested in it. It also increases with the size of your mana pool, but that also only increases at exponentially increasing intervals, so let’s call the end result log(n)^3. It’s a bonus worth getting, but in the long run, it’s going to be insignificant compared to the quadratic and even linear increases from just upgrading ordinary gems. I’ve seen it said online that the multipliers from black gems start outstripping white gems at around grade 30, but I haven’t got there yet.

Orange gems increase the rate at which you collect mana. Each hit from an orange gem gives you a fixed amount of mana that increases with the grade of gem at a less-than-doubling rate, just like the damage does. So with orange gems, your rate of mana collection is proportional to the amount of mana you’ve collected? Wouldn’t this yield exponential growth, potentially disrupting the Clicker-like guarantee of eventually losing that I described earlier? I suppose that as long as the enemies are getting tougher at a faster exponential rate than your mana collection, they still win. But it seems risky: all it takes to make one exponential function greater than another is a sufficiently large constant scaling factor, and the rules here are complicated enough that it doesn’t seem unreasonable that a player could figure out some trick to provide it.

Gemcraft: Achievements

Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows has 419 Achievements.

One is awarded for winning the game in “Iron Wizard” mode, a harder version of the game that becomes available when you reach experience level 100 in regular mode. (Not as big a deal as it sounds — I’m well over level 500 currently.) Iron Wizard doesn’t seem to be the no-failure-allowed ruleset that other games call “Iron Man”, but it removes the experience system, which makes skill points much harder to come by. At any rate, I won’t be able to get that Achievement in my current playthrough.

The other 418 are a varied lot. Some are outright impossible to not get. Some require special effort. Some are tutorial-like, using the achievement system to point out non-obvious things about the rules, like the fact that building an Amplifier right next to your base helps reduce damage to it. There’s a whole set that require beating particular battlefields under arbitrary constraints that you’re unlikely to do unless you’re specifically going for the achievement, like “Harvest 24,000 mana from shards at field K5 before wave 18 starts”, or “Don’t build anything at field H1”, or “Use only armor tearing gems at field R4”, injecting a little extra variety into proceedings.

The one consistent thing is that every Achievement applies to a single battle, and you must actually win the battle for it to count. Even in the few cases where the condition for the achievement is something that happens outside the battlefield, like “Upgrade all skills to level 5 or greater”, you have to actually play out a battle in that state to get credit for it.

No matter what’s in the achievements, they all seem quite achievable. I have the majority of them already, and I’m making a serious go of getting them all. This is clearly what the designers want. These are not your tacked-on Achievements concocted at the last minute to satisfy console certification requirements. These achievements are deeply integrated into the game. Achievements give you extra skill points — it’s a fraction of what you get from leveling up, but every little bit helps. And there’s a very nice in-game Achievements menu that lets you filter them by various attributes, including the attributes of “locked” and “unlocked”. This is useful for planning which Achievements you want to go for in your next battle. Sometimes I can find several that naturally go together.

In fact, the game goes a step beyond that. It lets you access the Achievements menu in the middle of battle. I really didn’t see the point of this at first — it seemed like a case of counting your money while you’re sitting at the table. But the battlefield version of the menu shows bar graphs where applicable, letting you track your progress towards that “Kill 150 Cursed monsters using the Beam spell” or whatever. Better yet, it adds a few new filter attributes, letting you look at just the achievements that are still achievable in the current battle.

So basically, the developers have put a lot of effort into catering to the achievement-mongers among us. The only game I know of with a more capable in-game Achievements UI is Team Fortress 2, which lets you display progress towards selected Achievements on the in-game HUD. TF2 is also one of the few games I’ve played that has more Achievements than this one.

Gemcraft: Dominant Strategies

OK, so I basically called Gemcraft boring in my last post. And yet I’m still playing it. “Boring” and “compelling” are not always contradictory qualities, but in this case I think it’s because Chasing Shadows is doing a better job than its predecessors of keeping things varied, and of keeping a sense of forward progression. It’s not just that the battles keep getting bigger or that numbers in general are going up (although that’s certainly a factor). It’s that the bigger numbers result in changes in the dominant strategy.

To explain what I mean, I’ll have to describe the details of the game a little more.

Gems come in nine colors, each with a different special ability: blue gems slow down enemies they hit, yellow gems have a chance of doing critical hits, purple gems reduce armor, and so forth. You can combine multiple colors in a single gem for something that does more damage and has all the special abilities of its components, but isn’t as good at them as the pure gems — unless one of the colors is black or white, which are special colors for enhancing other colors. Gems with a black component are called “bloodbound”: they become more powerful with the number of times they hit enemies. Gems with a white component are “poolbound”: they increase in power every time your mana pool levels up by hitting certain exponentially-increasing thresholds of accumulated mana. (In the original Gemcraft, you had to pay large amounts of mana to upgrade your pool. Here, the only cost is opportunity: if you want your pool to gain levels, you have to refrain from spending all that mana while it builds up. This, it turns out, is enough of a cost.)

There are a few things you can do with gems besides putting them in towers. You can drop them as bombs, but this struck me from the very start as a big waste, getting a little temporary damage out of something that could otherwise dish out damage continuously. You can use them to enrage waves, as I mentioned before, although in the early part of the game this struck me as even more counterproductive than exploding them. And you can put them in traps, an alternative to towers that requires monsters to walk over them (more or less). Traps don’t do nearly as much damage as towers, but they’re much more effective at the color abilities.

Now, not every color of gem is available on every level. Most of the early levels have only two or three colors. But you can unlock skills that let you upgrade the effectiveness of specific colors, and any color that’s upgraded will be made available everywhere. This is part of what lets strategies dominate.

The first really effective strategy I found was to fill the pathways with green gems in traps. Green gems are poison: in addition to their normal impact damage, they do damage over time that ignores armor. Putting them in traps not only made them more poisonous, it also solved the big problem with poison gems in towers: that they tend to target the same thing over and over until it dies, at which point the next thing hasn’t taken any poison damage at all. Traps all along a path spread the poison around among everything on that path for maximum efficiency.

After a while, though, this approach can’t keep up with the increasing hit points of the enemies as the number of waves per level keeps going up. I haven’t really analyzed this, but I’m pretty sure that the general monster stats increases exponentially with the wave number — the base of the exponent is close enough to 1 for it to be a long, slow exponential curve, but it’s exponential enough to eventually overwhelm any non-exponential strategy.

My current strategy is powered by orange/white combination gems. The power of orange is mana-leeching: every time an orange gem damages an enemy, it gives you a fixed amount of mana, which increases as you upgrade the gem. I had more or less given up on orange gems early on as wasteful — they’re the least damaging gem type, and they never seemed to make their own cost back at the lower levels. But once I had both orange and white available everywhere, I realized there’s a neat little feedback loop to be exploited. Leveling up your mana pool makes the orange/white gems more effective, which levels up your mana pool faster. Eventually you want to make some gems that specialize in damage rather than leeching, but by that point, you’ll have loads of mana to do it with. The exponential enemies do overwhelm eventually, but I can hold them off for well over a hundred waves this way.

In fact, this is the point where I had enough of a mana surplus that I started experimenting with the things I had earlier dismissed as wasteful, like gem bombs and enraging waves. And it turns out they can be quite effective, once you can afford them.

The big question is: Is this the final dominant strategy that will last me the rest of the game? Or will it fizzle out like the poison paths and force me to discover something new? And I don’t know the answer to that. There’s still an entire difficulty level I haven’t unlocked yet. Maybe when you last to wave 200, the bloodbound gems start being more effective than the poolbound ones.

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