Frostborn Wrath: Field Tokens

I’ve mentioned “field tokens” a few times, so let me explain what I mean. In every Gemcraft game except Labyrinth, battlefields are shown on the map as a sort of frame-like icon, usually in the same bulging triangle shape as a grade 1 gem. Gemcraft Chapter 0: Gem of Eternity, the second game, additionally used this frame to keep track of which play modes you had completed the field in, dividing it into segments and illuminating the ones completed. Chasing Shadows turned these indicators into glowing gems held within holes in the frame. But it also presented it as a literal token, a trinket that could be found in a locked chest or otherwise handed to you as part of your rewards on completing a level. How exactly a physical object grants you access to battlefields was left unexplained.

Chasing Shadows had four shapes of field tokens. You had your standard triangular ones with a circular gem slot at each corner, for normal fields. Vision fields had their special circular tokens with only one slot, shaped like flames. Then there were trangular ones with a sort of spiral pattern to the slots, indicating a field with a Tome Chamber that teaches a new skill, and square ones with stripes, for Wizard Towers where you have to unlock certain mechanisms before the last monster wave to win and unlock other benefits. (Usually adding more waves makes a field harder to beat, but in Wizard Tower fields, it buys you more time to destroy the locks.) I don’t think these meanings were ever explained explicitly, but it was an easy pattern to notice.

Frostborn Wrath, now. Frostborn Wrath uses the three token shapes from Chasing Shadows (excluding the one for Vision fields), as well as a couple entirely new ones. But it doesn’t have Tome Chambers or Wizard Towers. Their function as dispensers of unlockables is taken by locked chests, but locked chests aren’t indicated by the shape of the token; there are plenty of locked chests in fields with just the base token. What does the shape indicate, then? I have no idea. Maybe they’re just assigned haphazardly, but I’m not quite willing to believe that. Maybe even without Tome Chambers, there’s a token shape that indicates a field where you can obtain a new skill — but if so, the connection is a lot harder to notice than it was in CS, where skills were always linked to permanent environmental features. There’s probably a lesson in that.

Frostborn Wrath: Bombs and Wasps

Let’s talk bombs. Gem bombs have been around since the very first Gemcraft game, but I find myself using them a lot more in Frostborn Wrath.

Partly that’s because the slower advancement in power means I more often face the kind of odds where I need them. Gem bombs, as I use them, are mainly an emergency measure: when the monsters are about to close in on your Orb, usually bombs are the fastest and easiest remedy. Unlike towers, which take time to socket the gem and then fire shots that take time to hit their target, bombs are instant. The drawback is, of course, that they’re not reusable. Throwing a lot of bombs uses up your mana quickly.

Although not always! If a bomb kills multiple monsters, it can be a net profit. And this is something that happens more easily in FW than in previous games, due to an optional Battle Trait 1An extra challenge that improves the XP and loot for the level that causes every single monster to spawn a pair of Spawnlings on death. With that turned on, the later sections of the path frequently become a sea of Spawnlings, easy for bombs to take out en masse. You still wind up with less mana than you’d have if you had killed them without bombs, of course, but not necessarily less than you had when you started bombing them.

On top of that, bombs have simply become more useful over the course of the series. Chasing Shadows introduced the concept of “gem wasps”: little specks or sparks that linger after an explosion, drifting about and darting to hurt any monster that gets close. Suddenly bombs were not just instant effects, but a somewhat lasting defense! Gem wasps are not powerful, but they can be a practical last line of defense, finishing off the almost-dead. And in FW, they’re even better. Gem wasps are now weakly attracted to the mouse pointer. So if one Swarmling wanders off course in an open area, and you bomb it, you can lead the wasps to somewhere more useful. It just takes a little patience.

There are Achievements in both FW and CS for beating a level entirely with bombs and wasps rather than towers. This feels a bit like an Achievement for using only melee weapons in a FPS. It’s not the most straightforward approach, and certainly not the way that the game encourages normally, but it is demonstrably doable. I’d like to think that there are some Gemcraft fans somewhere who really like bombs and never do things any other way.

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1. An extra challenge that improves the XP and loot for the level

Frostborn Wrath: T4

I’m basically finding Gemcraft: Frostborn Wrath to be an improvement over its predecessor in every way, but one of the improvements that I find particularly pleasing is in “Trial Mode”. This is the equivalent of the “Vision” fields in Chasing Shadows, in that it makes you pass a level without your XP or skills, instead giving you a pre-set selection of abilities. The chief difference is that Vision fields were special ones, set apart and not playable the normal way, whereas Trial Mode can be applied to every single battlefield. But on top of that, I’m finding that FW is more willing to use Trial Mode to create bespoke puzzles with specific solutions.

I just hit a particularly good example of this: field T4. In Trial Mode, your starting condition is: You have a single grade 6 red-yellow gem. This is an unusually good thing to start with, capable of holding off an army all by itself if placed well. However, you have only 30 mana. This is not enough to create a tower to put the gem in. You gradually gain mana over time even if you don’t kill anything, so if you could wait long enough, you’d have enough to build a tower. You cannot wait that long. The monsters will destroy your base first.

At this point you might think “I’ll just cash in the gem!” — you can destroy gems to recover 70% of their value, and a grade 6 gem has a base value of over 9000 mana — easily enough to buy a tower and a slightly less overpowering gem to put in it. Except you can’t do that. Every battlefield has a subset of the gem colors you can create from scratch. In field T4 in Trial Mode, that subset is: none of them. The only way to make a new gem would be to spend 9000 mana to duplicate the one you have.

So at this point, I was wondering if it was a bug. It seemed absolutely impossible. But it wasn’t! I won’t give the solution here, but there was a clever application of the rules that let me win rather easily. This is a much better experience than the Visions, where, as I noted before, the winning approach was usually brute force, just sinking as much mana as possible into making a single hero gem.

Now, most of the Trial Mode fields are not like this. Most of them are fairly sedate and fall to familiar tactics. But even there, I think the experience is enhanced by knowing that they could turn out to be special.

Frostborn Wrath: World Map

I said before that Gemcraft: Frostborn Wrath seemed shorter than Chasing Shadows, because I had already reached the extents of the world map, but this didn’t really jibe with other observations, like the greater number of Achievements. It turns out I was simply mistaken. I had reached the left, right, and top edges of the map, as indicated by a decorative border, but, unlike CS, the map here is taller than it is wide. It’s like a scroll of unknown length. This makes progress feel more linear: where my explorations in CS spread out in all directions, in FW they mostly just go downward, with minor branching. The original Gemcraft did something similar, but scrolled horizontally.

The map in CS was made of hexagonal tiles that you unlock over the course of play, each tile being a grouping of several levels, which also have to be unlocked individually. FW is similar, but its map tiles are shaped like 60-degree diamonds in a hexagonal tiling pattern, thematically resembling snowflakes when six come together at a point. In both cases, the tiles seem a bit superfluous, giving the player nothing but an extra layer of stuff to unlock on the way to unlocking new fields. Still, completing a level and seeing a new tile appear gives a sense of progress, and dividing the levels into subsections this way gives you permission to feel a small sense of accomplishment whenever an entire tile is completed.

Still, I have to say that my favorite world map in the whole series is that of Gemcraft: Labyrinth, which didn’t use tiles at all. Instead, it put all the battlefields on a 13×13 grid, and identified each field with grid coordinates. The key thing here is that the fields were connected. Every monster path coming in from the edge of a field matched up with a similar path on the neighboring field on that side. Hence “labyrinth”: the whole game was a single connected maze. (Well, apart from four secret levels in the corners, inaccessible by normal means.) It was a compelling conceit, and made the whole game feel more like a real space, rather than just a collection of isolated levels selectable from a map-shaped menu. And I just love that sort of thing, when disparate pieces gel into something cohesive.

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 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.

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.

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