Particle Fleet: Emergence

Gemcraft wasn’t the only long-running originally-in-Flash series to get an update in 2020: the anticipated fourth entry in the Creeper World series was released, bringing its fight-the-ocean gameplay into full 3D and provoking the same sort of “Oh, so that’s how I was supposed to be picturing it!” reactions as other suddenly-in-3D games like Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time. I haven’t played it yet, but the release did spur me to try out Particle Fleet: Emergence, another similar game by the same devs and set in the same fictional universe. I found it satisfying and reasonably short.

The basic idea behind PF:E is that it’s like Creeper World, except that instead of the enemy being emitters that produce a slowly-spreading viscous substance that tends to pool in low places, the emitters produce particles that drift about the battlefield aimlessly and independently, weakly attracted to your own forces. To fit this, the battlefield is shifted into space — specifically, “Redacted Space”, a no-go zone chock-a-block with asteroids and shattered planets positioned to channel the mindless particulate in tactically interesting ways.

The main way this affects gameplay is a reduction of the scale of things, probably to keep that particulate from diffusing too much. Instead of building a vast army of autocannons to defend your border on multiple fronts, you have a fleet of about a dozen ships max. You can rebuild ships when they get destroyed, but you’re limited in what you can have under your control at a time — in-fiction, this is explained by your galactic empire being essentially corporatist, and your company’s fleet being constrained by license agreements. And yet, despite this, the game managed to get me thinking of the ships as essentially individuals, cooperating as a team rather than as an army. Again, the scale helps with this. But so does the way that most of the ships are unique in some way. Even just their shape can make them meaningfully different from one another: damage isn’t just a matter of lowering a stat displayed in a little bar graph, but physically carves chunks out of the ships where they were hit, block by block, disabling any weapons or engines mounted on the destroyed bits. There’s one ship whose chief virtue is that it has an extra-thick fan-shaped block of hull in front, and I frequently used it to shield the more fragile “Lance” ships as they moved in on an emitter. Afterward, if it survived, it would visibly be severely damaged by the battle, carved into a different shape than when it started. That’s character development.

For all that, it plays a lot like Creeper World! It’s all about advancing bit by bit, establishing a safe perimeter and then making risky sallies beyond it to seize important locations, with a big emphasis on supply lines, both maintaining yours and cutting off the enemy’s. In Creeper World, you were limited by your network of Collectors, which you could build anywhere, as long as you could defend them. Particle Fleet instead puts a fixed number of energy sources on the map, which, once claimed, provide healing and ammo to anything within a certain range. This gives the level designer more control over how you can advance, but the cadence of that advancement still has the same basic feel. It’s hard to capture in words, but I bet any strategy game made by the same people would feel this way.

Creeper World 3: Arc Eternal

Now that I’ve broken silence, I should probably say something about what I’ve been playing for the past few months. I pretty much skipped the IF Comp this year — I tried, but it was an especially big year, and I just wasn’t in the mood for it, and wound up playing less then 10 games total. Instead, I have to confess that I spent an enormous amount of time on Creeper World 3: Arc Eternal. Probably more than it deserved, but I found it a tremendously easy pastime to default to.

I’ve posted briefly about Creeper World and its first sequel before. All three games are basically novel real-time strategy games, in which you expand a network of nodes that carries the “packets” you need to build and power weapons to fight an enemy called “creeper”, which is a fluid. Creeper emerges from “emitters” and just kind of pools and spreads out until it starts damaging your structures. The third game is back to the top-down view of the first, but brings along some of the mechanical improvements of the second game: that you can harvest ore (if it’s available) to produce your own “anti-creeper” that physically acts like creeper but is on your side, and that you can actually destroy the emitters instead of just parking cannons around them to destroy any creeper the moment it gets emitted. Destroying emitters makes for a much more satisfactory and conclusive-feeling victory.

It then adds some new mechanisms of its own, steadily increasing the complexity by introducing new things you can build and the conditions that make them necessary, as is customary in RTS campaign modes. There’s a “forge” that lets you mine “aether” to research upgrades, terraforming machines that slowly reshape the land per your instructions, and so forth. I particularly like the “guppy”, a flying non-combat unit that carries a cargo of packets to a designated landing spot. This lets you leapfrog past creeper-infested areas and build in areas disconnected from your base, enabling tactics otherwise impossible. I suppose it’s the game design pattern of “Impose arbitrary restrictions, then grant the player special powers to overcome them”, but it’s a well-done example of it.

Still, even as the mechanics get more complicated, the winning strategy remains more or less the same. Rush to grab as much land as you can defend. Defend it. If you have enough power to keep a stable border with the creeper, you can spend any excess on building what you need to break the stalemate and grab more land. Levels vary what challenges they present, and what resources they provide to meet them, but the rhythm of the game remains constant.

Until Farbor.

Farbor is the second-to-last level in the campaign, and it makes you hurry. In it, a number of enemy drones are collecting ore — the same ore you use to create anti-creeper — to build a monstrous invincible spacecraft, Sinistar-style. You only have so much time to stop them. You can build weapons to shoot down drones and slow down progress, but some of them are are out of reach, and you still have to fend off creeper while you do it. It seems utterly impossible to do everything fast enough. In fact, it’s not as difficult as it seems, because it moves the goalposts a couple times. If you fail to keep the ship from being built, you’re told that it’s going to go over to another building that will power it up and make it unstoppable. And if it reaches that building intact, you’re then told that it will take a full twenty minutes to power up. But the first several times I tried the level, I quit and restarted well before that point, when all seemed lost. And I remained in that state for a couple of months.

During those months, I tried the bonus levels. And that’s where it turned from a game to a habit. By the time you reach Farbor, you’ve unlocked two distinct sets of bonus levels: Tormented Space, which consists of ultra-hard levels, and Prospector Zone, which has fairly gentle levels full of collectible nubbins. And in both cases, there are many, many levels to try. I’ve barely made a dent in even the Prospector Zone, let alone Tormented Space. Probably because of the quantity, there’s a certain sameness to the maps after a while. They vary on a limited set of axes: map size, whether or not there’s ore and aether, whether the map is fully-connected or broken into islands, what enemies you’re facing in addition to mere creeper. The standard strategy still applies, without a lot of the frills they added to the main campaign. But the fact is, that seemed to be what I wanted at that point. I could always make progress. I could always sit down at night with a level I had never seen before, and finish it. And that apparently appealed to me while I couldn’t do the same with Farbor.

Also, the predictability makes it oddly satisfying for a game about warfare. Especially in a large level, you tend to set up your weapons and just leave them alone for a while, operating as a big machine, packets zipping along their lines, guppies sailing back and forth on their errands. Sometimes you place a bunch of weapons in one part of the map and then turn your attention somewhere else, and then when you look at the weapons again, they’ve done their job and cleared all the creeper out of an area, which is highly gratifying.

Eventually I decided that I had gained enough expertise to tackle Farbor again, and learned what I’ve already said, and finished the game. And I might have stopped there, except that completing the campaign unlocks the Alpha Sector. This is another set of bonus levels, also large but not as large as the others. But these levels were made by testers during the game’s development, apparently before they had established standards of style or balance. So they’re not as polished as the other levels, but by the same token, not as uniform. One person will have a bunch of small levels clearly made by just scribbling around in the level editor. Another will have a meticulously-planned puzzle, where only one approach works, or even just use the scripting system to make a puzzle that has nothing to do with the usual mechanics of the game. Others take things to extremes, giving you a map that’s vaster than what you’ve seen before, or one that starts both you and the enemy off with far more power than you’re used to, or that bombs you with waves of creeper spores every second instead of every couple of minutes. Some levels are jokes. All of them feel personal. And that makes them fascinating to me. I can’t always sit down and win a level, because some of them are just unduly hard — the game specifically warns you that there’s no guarantee that they’re all even possible. But I can always sit down and see something new.

Come to think of it, the Alpha Sector is a bit like an RTS version of Cragne Manor. It’s even more like the fan-made levels that lots of games collect, I suppose, but enshrined as somehow special. Context makes it feel less like a user-made DROD hold and more like the rejected puzzles in an official hold’s Mastery area.

Some followup

It’s been nearly a month since the Steam sale, so I think it’s about time to wrap up. But first, I want to revisit a couple of games I mentioned previously.

I had some harsh words for Loot Hunter. Well, it turns out that a recent Humble Bundle contained a strikingly similar game called Windward. That is, Windward doesn’t abstract ship-to-ship combat into a match-3 the way Loot Hunter does, but the rest of the game is fundamentally similar. In both games, you explore an age-of-sail world viewed at a large enough scale that your avatar is a ship rather than a person, and you attempt to make enough profit to upgrade your ship by trading goods between ports, doing quests, and fighting off pirates. But Windward does it all so much better. It’s designed more like a MMORPG. The quests are often elaborate multi-stage affairs, even if they are obviously procedurally-generated. The world is divided into zones geared towards different levels. If you’re too low-level for a zone, you’re allowed to go there, but none of the towns will trade with you, and that gives you a strong motivation to go back where you belong. This division lets the designers better control the pacing and keep multiple upgrade tracks running in parallel.

Now, I haven’t given all my sale purchases an honest try yet, but of those that I have, the one I’m most satisfied with is Creeper World. I played through the whole thing pretty quickly, including the bonus levels (which seem to be the part that differentiates the “Anniversary Edition” from the free online Flash version), and then was pleased to discover that it has a couple of sequels. I purchased the first sequel while the sale was still going, and now I’ve played through that as well.

Creeper World 2 pulls the same strange trick as the second Zelda game: it takes a game in a top-down view and turns it on its side. The battlefields this time are systems of caves and underground tunnels, exactly as wide as the screen but many times taller. It’s still basically a game about fighting a fluid called “creeper”, but instead of just spreading generally outward, it flows downward if it can, filling cavities. When completely enclosed, it can become pressurized, spurting out and expanding at an alarming rate when it finally dissolves a hole in the wall. The most effective way to combat this is to build up some pressure of your own to resist it. In other words, you can generate your own creeper this time around. Once you have this ability, it almost seems like an oversight that it wasn’t in the original game. Here it is, the game’s most distinctive feature, but wasn’t something that the player could do. Being able to create your own creeper gives the game a greater sense of completeness, in the mathematical sense.

For all these big changes, the tactics are fundamentally similar to the first game. It’s still primarily about finding the opportune places to cut off the enemy’s creeper flow so you can move in on the things generating it. One change that’s kind of mechanically trivial but makes a big difference to the feel of the game: In the first game, you couldn’t actually destroy the creeper generators. You could effectively disable them by clearing the vicinity of creeper and then parking a blaster near the generator, so that it would destroy any creeper the generator emitted the instant it appeared, but that’s as far as you could take it. (And even then, there was the risk of forgetting that you needed that blaster there, and moving it with disastrous results, as happened to me more times than I’d like to say.) In Creeper World 2, you have a new device that actually destroys the generators.

And it is this ability that made me think: This is a lot like fighting a Tar Mother in DROD. I mean, it’s not identical, sure — Tar Mothers make all the tar in the room expand, while these creeper generators are just point-sources of the stuff. But in both cases, I’m cutting my way through a mass of viscous blue stuff to kill a thing in the middle that makes it keep expanding. And with that said, I think it’s time to get back to DROD.

Fluid Armies

OK, obviously I was going to take a little break from DROD when the Steam Summer Sale came up. Like last time, I’d like to take a brief look at a few of the things I bought for cheap.

As usual, I started by just getting the cheapest things on my wishlist — and from the results, I think I must have really been nostalgic for xbattle recently. This is a game I remember playing back in college, at a time when online multiplayer games were only easily played at an academic computing lab. Apparently there are multiple games called “xbattle”, so I should specify that the one I mean was a primitive RTS, named for its use of the X11 windowing system, and notable mainly for its high degree of abstraction. The battlefield was a grid of squares (or hexes, but we mainly played it in square mode), and any troops were represented by a colored square within that, the number of troops indicated by the size. Certain points on the map produced more troops at a steady rate for whoever captured them. You moved troops around by pointing squares at adjacent squares, causing the color to slowly drain from one to the other over time at a rate governed by their size difference. Consequently, the game was mainly about supply lines, each player trying to keep troops flowing efficiently to the front and interfere with the opponent doing the same, to keep them from pumping in reinforcements as fast as you.

As my choice of words here indicates, it feels a lot more like a game about fluids than a game about armies. Supply lines visibly have a pulse — we sometimes called it “the pulsing squares game” back in the day. Directing troop movement is a matter of opening and closing valves.

Of the games I’m recognizing as xbattle-like, Five Elements, a casual game with slick production values, is the closest and clearest. It uses a semi-randomized freeform graph of nodes instead of a grid, but it the essential mechanics are the same: opening spigots from node to node, pouring substances to fight. If anything, it’s a purer expression of the idea than xbattle is, because it makes no pretence that the fluids are armies. The battles are called “meditations”, and are supposed to be taking place inside the player character’s head. The enemies are aspects of his mind that he’s trying to subdue, such as Laziness and Fear and Anger, with appropriate special abilities. Instead of troops, you’re channeling abstract essences drawn from traditional Chinese alchemy, the five elements of the title. These are bound up in an extended rock-paper-scissors cycle of vulnerabilities and resistances: water beats fire, obviously, but also water “devours” metal, meaning that attacking an enemy’s water node with your metal node will strengthen it. Every pair of elements has one of these relationships — either one destroys the other or one devours the other. I find this difficult to keep track of, in part because the visuals don’t suggest the elements very clearly. The UI provides some help here, displaying an icon indicating what you’re in for before you open a spigot, but it’s still hard to make long-range plans under time pressure when you’re querying every possibility this way. Perhaps for this reason, the levels tend to be small. There’s a lot of them, though. This is clearly meant to be played in little bits over a long period of time, and I don’t know if I’ll want to keep up with it to the end.

Energia, a shortish lo-fi indie piece, also uses a freeform graph, because the graph is one that you build yourself, by placing nodes and blasters and linking them up to pre-existing power sources. It’s basically a tower defense, and it doesn’t much feel like you’re piping fluids around — it goes for more of an electricity feel, with energy leaping through nodes of the graph instantly. But I count it as xbattle-like for two reasons. First, it’s largely about maintaining those supply lines. Attackers can come in from any direction and sever your graph at any point that isn’t adequately defended. Secondly, it’s extremely abstract. This is a not really a representation of a battle, and the game takes advantage of the fact when serving up variations. For example, one level is based on the idea that the battlefield is constantly scrolling to the right. Your base is fixed in place on the right side, the enemy’s base is on the left, but everything else, including anything you build, moves past you and then is lost. Playing this level feels like trying to walk up a descending escalator. Another level puts all the power sources on a pair of large rotating circles. Basically, the game’s greatest strength is the variety it can get away with because it’s nonrepresentational.

The highly satisfying Creeper World is mechanically similar: it’s basically a tower defense in which you build a network of nodes that rely on their connection to your main base to receive power. “Energy packets”, for construction and ammo, visibly flow along the lines of the graph, giving it a little bit of that fluid-and-pipes feel. The part that really feels fluid, though, is the enemy, called “creeper”. Creeper is quite visibly a liquid. It’s like you’re fighting the ocean. It’s viscous enough that it takes a while to level out and can even pile up around its outflow pipe, but it quite visibly flows like a liquid, ripples when you drop a mortar shell into it, fills up holes in the ground in preference to advancing toward your base — elevation is key in so many ways. (A note in the game says that it’s actually modeled on heat flow, but physics has a way of repeating itself in different contexts.) As a result, you get to play offense in the supply-line game. Cut off all the inlets into a lakebed, and it’ll dry up, at which point you can claim it for yourself. That’s one of the more satisfying things in the game: painstakingly cutting through a crucial stretch of creeper and seeing sudden and dramatic effects.