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.

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: Enemies

The Gemcraft series is pretty minimalist about its creeps. It uses just three archetypes: normal enemies called “reavers”, weak but fast and numerous “swarmlings”, and tough but slow “giants”. Any wave will consist of just one enemy type, with their appearance randomized from wave to wave, probably to help justify their increasing stats. Sometimes a wave will have randomly-assigned special powers. And that’s it, for regular enemies.

But there are also special monsters. Gemcraft: Labyrinth, the third game, had various special bosses like Arcane Guardians on key levels: you’d think you’re done because the last numbered wave is over, but then something large and glowing and very hard to kill would start making its way very slowly down the path. The final level was protected by a Shadow, a creature made of particle effects that moves outside the paths and has a fairly complicated repertoire of behavior. Also floating free from the paths were the ghostly Apparitions, which are kind of like the saucers in Space Invaders: they don’t attack at all, but you can shoot them down for a bonus. Apparitions aren’t bosses. They just appear at random from time to time.

And it’s these random appearances that Chasing Shadows adopted as the basis for all of its special monsters! There are no bosses per se here: special challenge levels are instead done by giving you special tasks, like destroying locks or activating ancient devices. But we get random appearances from boss-like creatures. In particular, the Shadow from Labyrinth, toned down a bit, becomes just another thing that happens once in a while.

The most interesting randomly-appearing boss-like enemy is the Forgotten. A demon that manifests sometimes as a tentacle monster and sometimes as a woman with skeletal arms, the Forgotten is the main antagonist of the series, but doesn’t appear in the game levels until about halfway through Chasing Shadows. In fact, she arguably doesn’t appear in the game levels even then. She appears to be in some way outside of the game, like the player. When she appears, you just see her silhouette on the screen, as if she’s passing in front of a movie projector, which would place her in the player’s physical space.

Because the Forgotten isn’t inside the scene where your gems and spells have their effects, she cannot be fought. When she shows up, she just takes a semi-fourth-wall-breaking action and leaves. Sometimes she enrages some of the upcoming waves, making them tougher to beat, which frankly never seemed all that bad to me — as I noted previously, I was enraging most waves myself by the end, so when the Forgotten does it for me, all she’s really doing is sparing me a little effort and expense. Ah, but the other thing she can do is fearsome: sometimes she takes control away from the player. For about the duration of a single wave, all the controls are simply removed from the screen and all you can do is sit and watch events unfold. Which you normally spend a lot of time doing anyway, but you usually at least have the ability to spring into action if there’s a sudden need, and she temporarily takes that away.

All special monsters, including the Forgotten, are heralded at least a wave in advance by glitches and flickers, as if their eldritch presence is interfering with the magic you’re using to view the scene. So you at least get some warning when the Forgotten is about to show up and mess with your plans, a trick that the game uses to make you blame yourself for the outcome.

Faerie Solitaire: Final Thoughts

This has been a very busy time for me, as you might have guessed from my lack of posts. It isn’t really the case that I haven’t had time to play games, but I haven’t had time to play games and blog about them. And so I’ve got about a third of the new achievements in Half-Life 2, which I got off the Stack three years ago when it didn’t have achievements yet, and I’ve gotten maybe a quarter of the way into the latest Gemcraft sequel, Gemcraft Labyrinth, which isn’t on the Stack because I haven’t paid for it. Gemcraft Labyrinth is a game you can play it for free on the web, but certain optional features are locked until you pony up some dough, and the UI pointedly reminds you of this every time you begin or end a level, so it’s likely that I’ll break down and pay at some point.

Still, I can’t ignore the Stack completely, can I? And so I spent a little time this weekend polishing off the game I was closest to completing, Faerie Solitaire. There are still two Challenge levels that I’d like to complete at some point, and I’m missing enough of the fairy pets that I doubt I’ll ever bother to catch ’em all. 1Update: See the icon for the “collect each pet’s adult form” achievement (it’s at the very bottom). That does not describe me right now. (It’s still not clear to me if the eggs that the pets hatch from are granted at random, or if they’re under specific spots in specific levels. The latter would make hunting the last ones down more appealing.)

I don’t really have a lot to say about the game that I haven’t already said. The final levels didn’t reveal anything new or transform gameplay in any unexpected ways, especially considering that I had already purchased all the power-ups. When you finish the last level, you get to passively listen to the hero describe confronting an evil wizard, and then there’s a sequel hook. Which has got me speculating: what would I put in a sequel if it were up to me?

I’d want to elaborate on the game mechanics, obviously. I felt that the gameplay didn’t even really support a game of this length, so definitely I wouldn’t want to keep things the same in a sequel. Probably I’d try to figure out some way to make the layouts more relevant, less prone to devolving into a bunch of independent columns.

I’d want to do more with the pets. At the very least, I’d give them spot animations to make it seem more like you’re collecting creatures rather than portraits of creatures. Also, they’d be more interesting if your choice of current pet had some kind of effect on the game beyond bringing it closer to its adult form. Certain pets could give you bonus gold, for example, or turn additional cards face-up. Even if it’s undesirable for pets to affect the main game this way, they could at least affect the pet system: pets could make it more likely to find specific resources. There’s all sorts of unused potential here.

Finally, I’d want to give the fairies more of a voice in the story. Now, the story of Faerie Solitaire isn’t the most relevant part of the game. It’s pretty much just tacked on. But it’s tacked on poorly. We have all these fairy pets, we have constructions in Fairyland, we have cards with pictures on them, we have fairies as an ostensible unifying theme. I’d want to see this stuff become relevant in the story. In what we have, the story is instead about a journey to defeat an evil wizard, with fairies as a mere MacGuffin, not as characters. Fairies have the potential to guide the hero or trick him, to set quests, give hints, keep secrets, misunderstand your intentions, cast spells that help or hinder the player. Zanzarah, still the best fairy-themed videogame I’ve played, felt a lot more like a story about fairies, even though it didn’t do much more with them than Faerie Solitaire does — the fairies there are mainly treated as tools, not characters, and never really have agendas of their own. But at least it has wild fairies that attack you spontaneously, which makes them seem self-willed.

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1. Update: See the icon for the “collect each pet’s adult form” achievement (it’s at the very bottom). That does not describe me right now.