Gemcraft: Frostborn Wrath

I’m currently a solid 20 levels into Gemcraft: Frostborn Wrath, which means I’m up to the point where I have to go back and grind previous levels at higher difficulty to get the XP I need to make progress. My main first impression is that it’s very similar in look and feel to Chasing Shadows. It’s got a higher resolution and faster framerate, which does change the feel of the thing viscerally, but it’s a lot more like its predecessor than any other game in the series. For example, in the first Gemcraft, the enemies moved by just gliding continuously; then in the next game they moved in strides, fast then slow; then their bodies deformed as they moved, stretching and squashing like inchworms; and finally in Chasing Shadows they had fully articulated legs to creep around on. Frostborn Wrath is the first game in the series that doesn’t make a change there. The reason that the game has higher resolution and faster framerate is that it’s the first game in the series to run natively under Windows, instead of through Flash. I’m guessing that the effort involved in just porting the whole thing to a new platform put limits on how much they could innovate.

And yet, it does change stuff, just in ways that aren’t obvious in the first ten minutes of play. Endurance mode works completely differently now. There are no Visions, but their special quality, that they’re bespoke scenarios where you don’t have your accumulated skills and have to make do with what the level gives you, is now simply the highest difficulty setting for every level — in effect, every field can be played as a Vision field. Bloodbound and Poolbound gems have been streamlined out; every gem has the equivalent of Bloodbound and Poolbound baked in. I’m pleased to report that the developers apparently agreed with some of my UI critique: the gem inventory is far less huge and empty now, and the process of making gems is much more like what you’d expect from a normal Windows program. Something about Flash always seemed to encourage people to get fancy and experimental with UI design — probably just the fact that it didn’t have much of a UI library built in.

Most significantly, though, the devs have rethought progression. I spent much of Chasing Shadows playing every new level I encountered at the highest difficulty setting, and then continuing in Endurance mode after winning, to max out my XP earnings in minimal time. Frostborn Wrath simply doesn’t let you do that. You have to beat every level in “Journey” mode first. And Endurance mode isn’t just an indefinite extension of a level. It starts out as a mere 30 waves, and every time you beat it, it extends the limit by 5 waves. In short, the whole thing is designed to slow you down. To keep you from gaining XP too quickly, like I certainly did in the previous game, and to keep the basics challenging longer. I spoke of the effectiveness of Chasing Shadows as a power fantasy, but it’s probably better this way. There’s a paradox that I’ve seen compared to “the paradox of tragedy” (that people will choose entertainment that provokes emotions they normally avoid): that players will choose games that they expect to be challenging, and then, when playing them, do everything they can to make them easier. Chasing Shadows perhaps didn’t fight this tendency enough. Frostborn Wrath may be doing better. But it’s early yet.

It seems to be a smaller game, though. At least, the overland map doesn’t extend as far, and that may let it keep things more controlled. Accordingly, it’s not a numbered chapter: it’s another “Lost Chapter”, like Gemcraft: Labyrith, and apparently occurs simultaneously with Chasing Shadows.

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