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.

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: 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 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.