Archive for August, 2020

Frostborn Wrath: Story and Speculation

As a so-called “lost chapter”, Gemcraft: Frostborn Wrath is a side-story in the Gemcraft setting, with a different protagonist: a wizard who has been frozen in ice for years, possibly centuries, and who is awakened at the story’s start by a mysterious thaw. This nameless wizard has a different perspective than our familiar nameless wizard. He remembers the Forgotten. He remembers the time before, when the wizards were engaging in increasingly daring and dangerous rites to bind demons to their will. And he warned them. He warned them all, and they didn’t listen. He explores the aftermath not just as the ruins of a bygone age, but as the desolation of his own world.

None of this has any real effect on the gameplay. You’re still doing the same things, working your way through a branching series of battlefields, setting up gem-powered defenses to slaughter waves of incoming monsters before they can destroy your “Orb of Presence”. But the expository text keeps reminding us of his perspective. When he starts encountering Apparitions, and we’re told that they’re the ghosts of wizards slain by the Forgotten, there’s an unstated “These were my brothers. That could have been me up there, drifting aimlessly over the world, awaiting release.”

But of course he was awaiting release, just in a more literal sense. And that makes me wonder about him. The Gemcraft series loves ironic endings where all your efforts throughout the game turn out to be either wasted or actively harmful.

Apparitions aren’t the only ghosts. I’ve talked about the Shadows before, although I haven’t encountered any in this game. There are also also Spectres, explained here as wizards who remember enough to know that gems are important, and who thus try to steal them from your towers. And new to this game are Wraiths, described and depicted as ghosts that are somehow made of flesh. They circle the battlefield like vultures, increasing the damage resistance of all monsters until you shoot them down.

Maybe the ironic twist is that the player character actually didn’t survive the apocalypse. That he’s undead and doesn’t know it. A ghost from the ice. Frostborn wraith.

Frostborn Wrath: Random Musings

I’m making slow progress through the levels of Gemcraft: Frostborn Wrath, but I’m racking up Achievements at a pretty good clip. I’ve even somehow gotten the “Kill a monster with shots blinking to the monster attacking your orb that would otherwise destroy your orb” Achievement that eluded me in Chasing Shadows, and done it without trying. That’s how I’ve gotten most of my Achievements so far: without trying. CS was like this in the beginning too, but I think FW is moreso. It has 636 Achievements to CS‘s 418, and where something like half of them in CS were “Field” Achievements, obtainable only on specific levels, FW doesn’t seem to have any Field achievements at all. So it has a great many things that you have the opportunity to stumble upon in any level.

Also, I’ve gotten far enough in to unlock some genuinely new stuff that wasn’t in the previous games. In addition to Towers and Traps, there are now Lanterns, area-of-effect towers which apply their socketed gem’s effects to everything within a radius. Then there are Pylons, which don’t have gem sockets at all. Pylons are basically shot batteries. You charge them up by having gems in towers fire at them, and then they produce very powerful shots of their own. In the process, you completely lose the special powers of the shots used to power up the pylon. I talked before about how all the gem types in Gemcraft fire in the same way and are distinguished only in their effects, but with these new buildings, FW gets the same sort of variety as a more typical tower defense.

In a way, it reminds me of Portal 2. Portal 2 introduced a bunch of new puzzle elements — laser bridges, excursion funnels, gels of various sorts — and apparently there was talk among the designers of basing the game entirely around these things and leaving the portal gun out. But in the end, they decided that the portal gun was essential to the series identity, and so instead of having the new mechanics supplant it, they made the new tech use it, rely on it. The portal gun became the means by which you interacted with everything else. Similarly, FW gives you new toys, but to maintain the brand, everything has to rely on gems in some way.

One thing that I thought for a while was an exception: Shrines. Shrines are mechanisms for dishing out lots of damage to lots of monsters at long intervals, and they’ve been around since the second game. The details beyond that have varied, but until FW, shrines were operated by sacrificing gems. The more expensive the sacrifice, the more powerful the result. In FW, there is no sacrifice. You just click on the shrine when it’s ready and it does its thing. This was the source of some panicked confusion when I first tried to drop a gem on a Shrine and nothing happened! Nonetheless, Shrines are still linked to gems: their power is determined by all the gems you have in play. This removes some of the tension. You’re no longer choosing whether to use a gem in a shrine or a tower if putting it in a tower is what empowers the shrine.

Similarly, “enraging” monsters no longer involves sacrificing gems. Instead, there’s a slot where you can place a gem to enrage all incoming waves, but you can just remove the gem from that slot whenever you want. I suppose the devs noticed that people didn’t like giving up gems and were reluctant to use powers that made them do it. Just one way of wasting gems remains: dropping them on the battlefield as bombs. This is something I usually only do as an emergency measure, bombing the creeps that managed to sneak past my last tower when I don’t have time to erect a more permanent defense. It’s sometimes necessary as a compensation for not quite being able to stretch your resources as far as you want, but at the same time, it consumes resources inefficiently, and that makes it tactically interesting.

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 changes 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.

Gemcraft: Grey Trees Wimpout

I finally broke down and got hints about the Grey Trees. I suspect that most of the 5.2% of players who have the Achievement on Steam did the same. I won’t spoil it here — you can find the answer plenty of other places online if you want it — but it turns out to be less a riddle than a gateway to learning about the game’s cheat code system. Getting the Grey Trees achievement consists of activating a mod that makes all the trees in the game grey. There are other mods.

So, that was anticlimactic, but really only because I had built it up so much in my mind. Anyway, at least I got the satisfying puzzle I wanted from the mysterious compasses. I still have two in-game Achievements left, but I’m not really inclined to go for them, at least not right away. It’s time to move on to Frostborn Wrath. Which means that, for once, you’re going to see me blog a Gemcraft game from the beginning.

Gemcraft: Feelings of Incompletion

I said that I had reached the ending of Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows a while ago now, but this isn’t a game with a clean and definitive ending. There’s a climactic confrontation, but there’s no roll of the credits or unlocking of New Game + mode, and although the antagonist stops interfering with you, she’s still at large afterward. And it’s clear that there’s still more to do.

I had thought that I’d stop playing once I beat all the fields, but the Vision fields proved tough. Then I thought I’d just go for all the Achievements, but not all of the Field Achievements were accessible, and it seemed like the remaining ones were locked behind Visions. But then I actually started winning more of the Visions. The winning tactic for most of them, it seems, is to eschew fancy plans and just pour as much mana as you can into building up a single very powerful gem — which is kind of disappointing, but it’s at least consistent with the rest of the game. Anyway, once I was down to two Visions and still hadn’t opened up any more fields, I started thinking maybe I was wrong.

It turns out that most of the missing fields, as well as others I hadn’t anticipated and several more Vision fields, were locked behind compasses. I had been putting off doing anything with the compasses, because I suspected they were connected to the Grey Trees riddle, but I finally broke down and figured them out. I won’t go into details, but there’s a certain operation you can do with the mysterious compasses that gives you more field tokens, and you can perform this operation three times before it gives out. After the third pass, the compass icons disappear from the overworld map. The compasses are still present and clickable in the fields, but they no longer do anything but spin.

And that puts me in a bit of a quandary, because it now seems like the compasses aren’t connected to the Grey Trees riddle after all. They were my only promising lead. If it’s not them, what is it? I’ve been searching for grey trees in the fields I know, hoping they’ll be clickable, but the ones I remembered don’t really match the achievement icon: they’re grey because they’re bare of leaves, which the icon isn’t.

I now feel like I could get out from under this game if only I could solve the riddle. But who knows how I’ll feel once I do? I continue to make sallies at the remaining Visions, just in case I decide later that I want to finish them all.

Gemcraft: UI

While I’m grinding out the last few Vision levels, let’s critique the UI! The UI in Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows has a general look of rectangular slabs of lightly-mottled grey stone. One part of it is even identified as made of stone in the game’s fiction: the “wave stones” in an endlessly-rising column along the left side of the screen. These stones depict and describe upcoming waves, with a texture indicating whether it’s a reaver, swarmling, or giant wave, and icons for any special powers — with more specific stats and details available from a pop-up on rollover.

On the opposite side, you have your main control panel and gem inventory. You’ve got a grid of 12 rows and 3 columns to hold any gems not currently in play, and it’s nearly always empty or close to empty, because why would you create gems and not put them into play immediately? If I’m not going to use it right away, I’d rather have the uncommitted mana. I do like to keep one gem on hand, because there’s a hotkey for “duplicate the first gem in the inventory and use it as a gem bomb”, and that only works if there’s a gem in there. But I basically feel like this is one of those design decisions that doesn’t really mesh with the gameplay, like the desktop customization in Hypnospace Outlaw.

Creating gems is a little unintuitive: you select a color, then you click on the inventory, and the grade of gem you create is governed by the inventory row you clicked on. It’s a familiar system, going all the way back to the original Gemcraft, although you didn’t have any control over the created gem’s color there. But it still feels a little weird. There have been other weird-feeling experiments, such as the skill upgrade menu in Gemcraft: Labyrinth that had you select a number by dragging up and down without a visible slider. But such things don’t usually stick the way the gem creation UI has.

Along the top are buttons for casting spells. These also have hotkeys, as do most of the buttons in the UI, but I have to admit that, even after playing this game for longer than it probably deserves, I use hotkeys sparingly. It took me forever to even start using “W” to build walls, and that’s one of the few really useful ones, because when you build walls, you usually want to build a lot of them. Building mode puts a transparent overlay on the screen showing exactly where you can and can’t build, which unfortunately also does bad things to the framerate. Gem-bomb-dropping mode is even worse. I usually pause the game during such operations. Somehow it’s less painful that way.

It’s worth noting that all UI elements are demarcated with the traditional Windows-95-style beveled borders, just a little darkening of the mottled stone along two sides and lightening along the other two, giving things a raised or inset appearance. This is something that’s fallen out of fashion lately, which is a shame, because it’s such an elegant way to communicate a whole lot about how the UI functions. Someday UI designers will rediscover it, and it’ll be a revelation to the world.

Gemcraft: The Few Remaining Achievements

I currently have all but six of the 418 in-game Achievements in Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows.

Steam recognizes a 419th, for beating the game in “Iron Wizard” mode. Obviously you can’t get that in a normal game, so it’s not part of the in-game list. And I don’t think I’ll be going for it, or at least not soon.

One of the six that I don’t have right now is the “Grey Trees” riddle achievement I described previously. I’ve made some progress on that, figured out how to use the compasses to unlock a secret level, but I’m holding off on taking things farther, because getting that achievement as the last thing I do in the game just feels like the right way to do it.

One has the description “Kill a monster with shots blinking to the monster attacking your orb that would otherwise destroy your orb”. This seems like a very difficult Achievement to get, but I imagine you could set it up carefully if you know what you’re doing. Which I don’t; I don’t fully understand what “shots blinking to the monster attacking your orb” means, and without the text of this Achievement, I wouldn’t even have known that it’s something that happens. The “orb” is your base; when a monster reaches it, you automatically expend a certain amount of mana to “banish” it back to the start of its path, unless you don’t have enough mana, in which case it “destroys your orb” and you lose. So I’m guessing that “shots blinking to the monster” means shots targeting the monster at the moment it reaches the orb strike the monster instantly. But that’s just a guess. All I can easily observe is that the shots disappear in mid-flight.

The remaining four are all in the “Field” category, meaning that they require beating some specific level in a specific way, or with some particular constraint. And they’re all for fields that I can’t access and haven’t seen.

I assume they’re behind Visions.

Vision fields are the special ones I mentioned before where you don’t have your skill enhancements and thus actually have to work to beat. The overmap is divided into lettered regions, with (usually) seven numbered fields in each region, named with a letter-number combo: A5, J3, etc. The Vision fields are scattered throughout the regions, and all have the letter V instead of the letter of their region. As representations of visions of the past or future, they’re frequently repeats of maps from previous games in the series, although changes in the game mechanics mean that they don’t quite play the same, and sometimes they have other alterations besides. There’s one Vision that’s just the first level from Gemcraft: Labyrinth, but with the addition of a Shadow. Recall that a Shadow was the final boss in Labyrinth, and this is basically showing you what that game would have been like if the Forgotten didn’t secretly want you to win. It’s basically the only Shadow fight in the game that’s a real struggle.

Anyway, one of the possible rewards for beating a field is that one or more additional fields get added to the map. And although most Vision fields are leaves in the progress tree and don’t unlock new fields, some do. So my previous plan of “win all the normal fields, or at least enough of them to get all the Field Achievements, but leave the Visions alone” is not an option. I had been thinking of Visions as optional bonus challenges, but they’re as tied into the structure of the game as anything else. It makes me suspect that I really wasn’t supposed to have risen in power as quickly as I did. A more timid player might struggle with all the fields in a region equally as they’re discovered, Vision and normal alike.

Gemcraft: The Shadows I’m Apparently Chasing

I mentioned before that there’s a type of randomly-appearing monster in Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows called a Shadow, described as an “avatar of the Forgotten”. A bigger Shadow was also the final boss in the previous game, Gemcraft: Labyrinth; the smaller Shadows have fewer hit points but are otherwise basically unchanged from the original. (It reminds me a little of beating the Slayer at the end of DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold and then facing “Slayer trainees” in its sequel.) Shadows have by far the most complex behavior of any enemy type in the game. They drift around the battlefield, ignoring the path and all obstacles, constantly increasing their armor as they go, occasionally pausing to execute one of their various abilities: spawning spawnlings, firing projectiles at your base, buffing other monsters, healing, turning temporarily invulnerable — each power accompanied by morphing into a different shape. And it all seems a bit of a waste, because by the time you start encountering them, you can pretty much one-shot them. There’s a Vision level or two where you have to defeat Shadows without your skill upgrades, and that’s pretty much the only opportunity to have a real shadow fight.

There’s one particularly notable thing about shadows, though: they’re capable of moving while the game is paused. They’re greatly slowed down, but not immobile like most things. This is the sort of real-time game where you can keep on interacting with the UI while it’s paused, and I frequently do — most of the time, when I want to effect any change on the battlefield, I pause the game while doing it, so that the time spent just moving my mouse around won’t count against me. So it’s really fairly alarming to realize that it doesn’t quite work on everything.

I kind of suspect that this behavior was originally a bug. It’s the sort of thing that would happen if, say, they keep Shadows from colliding with things by putting them on the UI layer, and then can’t completely stop the UI layer and still have it interactive, so instead they just give it a very small but positive time scale. I have no idea if that explanation is at all close to how it happened, but it’s the general sort of thing I expect. Regardless, even if it was a bug at some point, the designers definitely embraced it, as reflecting the sort-of-fourth-wall-breaking nature of the Forgotten, whose avatar the Shadows are. This is an important part of game design: When things don’t behave the way you want, a good designer asks “Is this better or worse than the intended behavior?”

Gemcraft: What Grinding Means

Now, I said before that the shadow demon known as “the Forgotten” appears at random once you’ve made sufficient progress in Chasing Shadows. But I just noticed that it’s been a while since I last saw her. Which makes sense! Once you’ve reached the end of the game’s story, she no longer has any reason to bother you. Her monsters still attack, but we can take that as more or less automatic. It just means she didn’t bother turning off the monster spigot when she moved on to the sequel.

But wait. That means that the post-game here is diegetic. It’s not just the player revisiting earlier parts of the story, it’s the player character, the wizard seeking to contain the Forgotten, continuing to wander the battlefields after he has nothing more to gain. The player has motivations: achievements, completion, finding all the game’s secrets, particularly the secret of the grey trees. I suppose that uncovering secrets is a suitable motivation for a wizard as well. But the rest?

The main thing that the PC gets out of it all is power, in the form of XP from defeating monsters. This has lore implications if we take it seriously. Is all your magic fueled by death? Moreover, the PC isn’t just killing monsters out of necessity in this case. You’re deliberately goading them to attack, setting battle traits to attract more waves, using gems to enrage the waves so there will be more of them to kill. The PC is the aggressor, the instigator of completely unnecessary violence.

And in a lot of games, I’d make comments about ludonarrative dissonance here. But in Gemcraft, it fits the story pretty well! This is a dark fantasy, set in a bleak wasteland, long abandoned by humans. The sole great task of the wizards is to deal with the consequences of a terrible mistake they made long ago — not even to correct that mistake, but just to limit it, keep it from causing any more harm than it already has. And that’s a battle they’re losing. And if the story as a whole is one of punishment for hubris, pushing the PC into morally questionable activities in the pursuit of power is hardly out of place.

Gemcraft: Environmental Hazards

I said before that I like to keep a tower dedicated to demolishing Beacons as they appear. One nice powerful yellow gem with its targeting priority set to Structures, positioned where it can hit most of the screen — I’d say all of the screen, but it’ll hit creeps when there are no structures to target, and you really want to give the mana-leeching gems first crack at them. However, some levels have elements that try to convince you not to do this.

Basically, there are structures that can be harmful to hit, and which gems will only target if they’re set to prioritize structures. One is inherited from the previous game in the series: sealed tombs, which, when cracked open, emit dense clouds of monsters, palette-swapped to pure black to reinforce the impression that they’re not so much individual creatures as a contiguous mass. These are really not so bad for the high-level player, though. Each tomb holds a finite set of monsters, and once you’e wiped them out, the tomb holds nothing more to fear.

This is not the case fore the spawnling hives. Spawnlings are basically the same as swarmlings, just outside of the normal enemy waves. One of the random special powers sometimes assigned to a wave of giants is “spawns 3 spawnlings on death”, which isn’t that big a deal as long as you have multiple killing points along the path. These hives, though, are something else. They emit spawnlings when attacked, and the more they’re attacked, the tougher the spawnlings get. Understand that a high-grade gem can fire over a hundred shots per second. If you set such a gem to prioritize structures and put it in range of a hive, you can wind up with ultra-powerful spawnlings, ones that you don’t have a prayer of killing, before you realize what you’ve done and correct your mistake.

Then there’s the corrupted mana shards. Mana shards are environmental features that are basically like mines in an RTS: firing at them with gems gives you extra mana until the supply runs out. Very often there’s also a crust you have to break through before you can start harvesting them productively. Corrupted mana shards are similar, except for two things: they never run out of mana, and they eat away at any gem that fires on them, making it do less damage and, consequently, harvest less mana. As far as I can tell, the result is that harvesting a corrupted shard just isn’t worth it. The amount of mana that a gem can get out of it before it’s rendered useless is always going to be less than the cost of the gem. They’re not as disastrous as a spawnling hive, but still best avoided.

Accommodating these things is a nice little extra puzzle in the few levels where they appear. You want to cover as much ground as you can without accidentally hitting them, and that means placing towers where their circles of effect will leave just the right gaps. I wish the levels did more of this sort of thing.

Older Posts »