Lessons Learned From AI War 2 With Arcen Games

For this extended interview, or light college course, I sat down with Chris Park and Willard Davis to talk about what is happening over at Arcen Games over these last few years working on AI Wars 2. We discussed game design and the changing market and perception of games, not just in the strategy genre. Chris spoke about the challenges of working on AI Wars 2 and teased what he has planned for the future.

The Looker

Remember The Witness? Remember how everyone loved The Witness?

What? You didn’t love The Witness? Are you it some kind of blasphemer?

Sure, it has all those smarmy tape recordings all over the place. Certainly, you never quite feel like you’re done with it. Absolutely, everyone has at least one puzzle they find maddeningly obtuse (mine was on the ship). But you gotta admit, the special category of puzzle was a work of genius. If you don’t know what I mean by the special category, um… forget I said anything!

Well whether you loved The Witness or if you think it Jonathan Blows, you might want to have a look at The Looker, a pitch-perfect parody that’s actually a pretty decent puzzle game in its own right. It’s rated Overwhelmingly Positive, and as a reviewer says, “If you liked The Witness, you’ll like The Looker. If you hated The Witness, you’ll love The Looker.”

It’s free on Steam, and only takes a couple of hours to complete!

Steam: The Looker ($0) via Dominic Tarason.

Apotris

Via MNeko on Twitter, Apotris (itch.io, $0) is nothing more than a really sharp and responsive clone of a certain tetromino-stacking puzzle game. It just feels good to play! It’s Game Boy Advance homebrew, and I can personally vouch that it’s particularly nice if you have the means to play it on a jailbroken 2 or 3DS.

Matt Sephton’s Blog, “Get Info”

Us remaining (or even new!) blogs in the distant future year 2022 have to stick together, so I feel it’s important to point you to the blog of Matt Sephton, which is on a variety of tech and tech-adjacent topics, including sometimes games!

The particular item of interest there that I want to point you to today is on the obscure Japanese handheld P/ECE, released in 2001, which is a lot like a foreshadowing of Panic’s quirky elite gamer fixation/lust object, the Playdate. It too was a purposely-monochrome device in an age of color, and it also hosts a range of quirky homebrew games. It even still has a website!

Re:

f special note is that it was a place that notable and prolific small-game homebrew design genius Kenta Cho, a.k.a. ABA (Twitter), released their wondrous work even way back then! And where else can you find a demake of Rez that pits you against a malevolent Microsoft Outlook icon?

Please, check out all of these far-flung and varied links!

Matt Sephton’s blog, Get Info, and its article on P/ECE.

Baba Is You XTREME

By now many of you are no doubt familiar with Alvi Tekari’s Baba Is You (itch.io, Steam, Switch, Android, iOS). The premise is simple. In a Sokoban-style world composed of discrete blocks aligned with a grid, you try to get a figure (usually the sheep Baba) to a goal (usually a flag). But nearly everything about this game world is malleable, according to special word blocks in each level. If a set of three blocks is arranged in a horizontal (reading left to right) or vertical (reading top to bottom) line, then that statement becomes true throughout the level. In fact, every level comes with certain statements already in effect: it is only because somewhere it says BABA IS YOU that you can control Baba, and if something else IS YOU, then you can move it too. And you can make new rules by moving the words to make new sentences.

Baba Is You became an indie darling from its game jam release in 2017, and in 2019 it absolutely exploded, being featured on several game stores including Nintendo’s eShop picks page. Its rules are simple, yet their implications becoming diabolically complex later on. Not to give away some absolutely amazing secrets, but there are very few games that get as hilariously weird as Baba Is You-or as difficult. Baba Is You is a challenge that will keep you going for weeks, but eventually pays it all off with one of the best end game sequences anywhere. If you haven’t played it yet, you really should. I did a Q&A with Alvi Tekari for Game Developer about the creation of Baba Is You, and I think it’s one of the best interviews we’ve done.

This is all to make sure we’re on the same page when I mention the sublimely ridiculous Baba Is You XTREME, a free parody of Baba Is You made by Baba Is You‘s own creator!

Baba Is You XTREME seems just like the original at first, right until you press the first key and discover: the game now has a completely spurious physics engine! Baba no longer snaps a step at a time centered in the cells of a Sokoban grid, but now moves around freely, with acceleration and friction. The same is true with all the other objects on the screen that are IS PUSH. Objects that ARE STOP are locked in place, though.

Rules like SKULL IS DEFEAT might seem insurmountable, until you turn to the power of ROCK

The addition of physics makes the execution of any move into a challenge to itself. The rule system is still in place, some old words have much weirder implications, and there are even some new words to explore. There’s only 11 levels (it is a free game, after all), but around level seven you’ll be scratching your head. But one implication of the physics is that words that are in a corner aren’t completely impossible to shift like they were in a grid setting, so with some dedicated pushing it’s possible to break some troublesome sentences here that would be impossible in Baba Is You‘s Cartesian cosmos.

This physics make this a much trickier puzzle than it would be in Baba Is You

It’s completely free, so if you’re a fan of BIY it’s worth checking out. And if you haven’t tried Baba Is You yet, it is worth a look too!

Baba Is You XTREME (itch.io, Windows)

The Last Sunshine Developer Interview

For this cast, I sat down with Jonathan White who is the developer of the Last Sunshine and the recent re-release The Last Sunshine Rekindled. We spoke about his background and developing a combination of a shooter and a roguelite.

Salt and Sacrifice is a Sidegrade Sequel

DOUBLE THE SALT

Salt and Sanctuary by Ska Studios was one of the more solid 2D attempts at making a soulslike along with metroidvania progression. While the game wasn’t perfect, the mysterious world, disturbing character designs, and challenging gameplay made it a highlight of the year. With Salt and Sacrifice, the developers have experimented in a new way that unfortunately does drag things down a bit.

Mage Madness

The story finds you in a completely new area from the original. After being imprisoned for a crime, your only options are to either rot in jail or become an inquisitor who hunts mages. Taking the latter, you head towards the land of the mages, and in typical soulslike fashion, you’re killed within 30 seconds of playing. Revived via the pact you made, your only way to get free of your pact is to find a cure and take out every mage you see along the way.

The basics of the first game are here, as you are free to customize your character from a variety of weapons and gear that can be found or crafted. The original’s massive skill tree has been expanded with more classes and options. The class and armor perks are required for you to use weapons and armor pieces of certain levels respectively. Unlike the first game, your “eastus” flask here can be upgraded via crafting as opposed to specific nodes on the tree.

Right away, a lot of the more archaic aspects of the first game are gone. The faction/idol system of the first game — where you could set up bases for different groups by using consumable items is no more. But the real twist, and major gameplay difference between the two games, come with a new focus.

Monster Mage

The first game easily fit as a metroidvania soulslike, but with Salt and Sacrifice, the developers have taken inspiration from Monster Hunter. Instead of one hugely connected world, the game is split between different self-contained zones. While there are still major upgrades that add new tech hidden throughout the world, progress is now locked via “mage doors.” To open these doors up, you need to find, kill, and consume the heart of a certain number of mages.

The mages themselves act like the monsters from Monster Hunter — they will randomly go around the area causing trouble. Each mage has a set of attacks and summons they can use. As you do damage to them, they’ll warp around until you’ve done enough damage to trigger the boss fight. Killing the mage will reward you with the heart the first time you kill them and droppable resources. Like Monster Hunter, there is a random assortment of goods that will be given, and this is a part of a greater focus on crafting.

Most of your gear will come from crafting them out of the resources from mages. Killing a mage can also reward artifacts that come in different rarities and levels. As you explore each zone, you may also come across a book that will allow you to set up repeatable hunts, but the mages will also show up randomly as you make progress.

Boss fights range from easy to incredibly annoying to fight due to the combat system

Your two forms of major progress will come from unlocking more areas and finding inquisitor tools that take the place of the brands as your metroidvania unlocks.

All this adds up to a game that feels different than the first, but Salt and Sacrifice also shows the limitations of the mechanics and not in the best way.

Ragdoll Rage

The original’s combat system was good and served the purpose given the mechanics at work. With Salt and Sacrifice and the changes made to the overall pacing, we can see some major pain points with the transition to hunts.

Stamina, which is used for attacking and defending, feels very low compared to the first. It is very easy to run out even with a few basic attacks or dodging at the start considering how much gets thrown your way. The mages themselves fight with random patterns, but said patterns are not equal. Many of them have attacks that require your full attention to dodge, and the AI has a habit of spamming this attack several times in a row — making it near impossible to dodge everything or get in for a hit.

Here’s the big point, when your character is in the air or standing, their hitbox will take every attack that connects; you are only immune to damage when you are lying on the ground. For spam attacks, if one hits you, there is a good chance the next five will hit as well. Anytime the player is knocked into the air, you cannot always air recover out of it, and more than likely, you are going to take more damage while you are helpless.

It is very easy in this game to go from full health to dead from a single attack that either stun locks you, or all the individual projectiles connect and wipe you out. Fortunately, mage health does not regenerate when you die outside of the actual boss encounters, but the rest of the enemies come back.

One thing that doesn’t come back is your resources. For this game, your healing flask and ammunition for your range weapon require you to gather resources and craft them. In the first game, your flask would also be restored back to its capacity at checkpoints. This system is an odd choice given the difficulty and how easy it is to drain them. But these decisions emphasize a point about Salt and Sacrifice’s design changes and how it is far more grinding than the first game.

Grind Souls

The first game had grinding in the traditional sense of getting enough salt to unlock levels and get upgrade materials. Here, the amount of grinding has been increased. Not only do you need to grind areas for basic resources, but you need to grind mage encounters and their spawns for upgrade materials, along with different ones for the various weapons.

While the game will track a named mage during a hunt, you cannot set it to track wandering mages while you are exploring a zone. Good luck keeping track of one if they decide to warp while they are just slightly off screen from you. This could be forgiven if not for one major problem — the game has no in-game maps or guide markers. Trying to remember where all the heart doors are becomes frustrating when you start having multiple ones at different thresholds. When you die, there is no indication where your death spot is, and if you die from a fall, the drop point shows up where you landed, not where you fell.

Each biome only has one warp point at the start of it, and you can only do leveling up and gear upgrades back at the hub. I do like the shortcuts that you can open that allow you to quickly get back to certain areas, but there is still a lot of backtracking that will need to be done.

Feeling Salty

Salt and Sacrifice despite being the sequel feels like a step back and shows the limitations of the combat system. If you haven’t played the first game yet, I easily recommend that one for your 2D soulslike fix. This isn’t a bad game, but it just feels like two steps forward and three steps back.

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Indie Store Page Review for the Last Defense

Besides reviewing indie games, I also review store pages and provide help with marketing indie games. I’m always looking for store pages to review if you would like me to check out yours, please get in touch. For this episode, this is the game The Last Defense

Unexplored 2: The Wayfarer’s Legacy

Today is the launch date of Unexplored 2! (Steam) The sequel to one of the more interesting roguelites of recent years, the original simulated a game world with a lot of depth, and played a lot like a real-time version of a classic roguelike with updated graphics.

I did a Q&A with the makers over on Game Developer a couple of months ago! (I can’t seem to find it right now, though….) They also have a dev blog over there if you’re interested in its creation!

So. Um. Have a trailer!

Godot Wild Jam

We live in a golden age of game jams, thousands of people every month make little games in absurdly short amounts of times, and surprisingly often those games are even interesting! What that says about the nature of game creation is very interesting, but not the subject here. That would be Godot Wild Jam (itch.io), a monthly themed and judged jam where the thread of continuity is the use of Godot, the amazingly small yet feature-packed free and open source game development system.

Since it’s monthly, and I’m writing this three weeks ahead of time, I don’t really know who’ll win the one currently in the offing. The previous jam as of this writing was won by Stranded on Ice. You can look through all the entries on Godot Wild Jam 44’s itch page, or ALL the entries throughout the jam’s history by browsing through itch’s #godotwildjam tag.

Rogue Legacy 2 is a Roguelite Return

THE ORIGINAL ROGUELITE

Rogue Legacy is the game that popularized what would become the sub-genre known as “roguelite” — the idea of having a focus on persistence as progression in a roguelike. Since its release, the roguelike and lite genres have blown up across the board. With all these new flavors, Rogue Legacy 2 has recently left early access and now asks the question: can the original roguelite show these newcomers some new tricks?

The Liter Side

The basic gameplay of the original returns with a new story. A Kingdom has fallen to a mysterious corruption, the guardians have been taken over by a strange force, and you once again sign away your life and your descendants to Charon to figure out what’s going on. The upgraded visuals are impressive, with improved lighting that makes everything pop.

If you missed the first one, the progression of the game comes in the form of your estate/castle. Gold, earned by killing enemies and finding treasure chests can be used after a run to add additions to your castle. These additions become progressively more expensive, but they will unlock new classes, raise stats, add new quality of life features, and more.

In runs, you can find blueprints that can be used to acquire new equipment pieces with a set bonus for wearing them all. Unlike the first game, your major improvements this time come in the form of heirlooms that are placed in each biome. Once unlocked, they stay active for the rest of the game. Runes, that offer passive bonuses, are still locked to completing a variety of puzzles and mini challenges throughout the world. A new unlock is in the form of “scars” which are bonus challenges whose resources can be used to unlock additional features and boost your stats even higher. The roguelite nature of Rogue Legacy 2 is on full display, and I can just see people attempting level 1 challenges or “low level” runs.

the persistence is back in full force

A new resource “resolve” acts as a reserve used to equip relics that provide a variety of passive bonuses that can be found in a run. Once your resolve gets less than 100, further drains will reduce your max health. These relics can be worth it and with the right ones can easily break a run.

Class diversity has been given a facelift with more classes, more special powers, and of course, more whacky traits. The traits were a big part of the original’s charm, with characters having traits that affect their run but can also earn you more gold for taking them.

Everything about Rogue Legacy 2 brings back the charm of the original, but it also brings back the issues I had as well.

Floaty Fighting

Of the variety of action roguelikes I’ve played, both Rogue Legacies feel the most inconsistent in terms of movement and combat for several reasons.

While it may not look like it, there are aspects of bullet hell in both games in how you must dodge attacks. Many enemies can launch all varieties of projectiles at you, some that track, some that can go through walls, etc. One of the biggest annoyances with the game is the lack of standardized alerts about oncoming attacks.

Some attacks the game will warn you that the enemy is about to do them, others they won’t. The same goes for incoming projectiles off-screen — some of them the game will let you know, other times you’ll get hit with no warning. It becomes very frustrating when you are trying to keep track of things and you can have three different projectiles and no way to tell how they behave. You have no invincibility frames while dashing (only one class gets an I-frame dodge), and it’s very common to have a situation where dodging one attack puts you right in front of another.

The enemy physics is one of the most frustrating aspects of the game, to the point that I’m glad that there is an assist option to disable damage when coming in contact. Many classes have attacks that don’t push the enemy back when you hit them. This can lead to issues of enemies that you’re trying to attack, and they just fly or dash straight into you and do damage. For classes that can crit off dash attacks, it is far too risky to use this move on the later areas as you’re increasing the chance of you taking more damage.

Since enemies don’t respond to attacks, you can dodge all their projectiles, get into melee range and start hitting, and they’ll launch an attack with no tell and hit you without any means of dodging. Many of my deaths came from situations where it felt like the game was just not giving me a way to succeed — rooms where projectiles come from all angles, with enemies of varying tells, that all hit like a truck if I run into them or their attacks. I found that range attacks can break the difficulty in a lot of the later areas simply by not having to try and duck and weave around projectiles while trying to hit enemies.

The Daily Grind

Rogue Legacy 2 is certainly a roguelite and is by far one of the most grind-heavy out there. Every form of progression will take time to gather the necessary resources to upgrade. As with the first game, the general positioning and difficulty of the biomes don’t change, which means that your best way of grinding resources is to always go to the hardest area you can in order to maximize the gold you find. Just like with the first game, and with roguelites in general, you’re going to have a lot of throwaway runs that are just there to grind resources before having your “serious runs.”

skill is still the primary factor in winning fights

The biggest hurdle to progress much like the first game is just how tanky the bosses are. Expect to spend a lot of minutes dodging the same patterns as you whittle down their health bars. A new feature that allows you to gain bonus damage requires you to hunt down clues in each biome. Damage is the most important stat, as killing enemies fast prevents them from firing back at you obviously. Because the cost of all upgrades gets progressively more expensive as you spend, it’s very easy to make things harder for you by getting upgrades that aren’t directly helping you but increasing the cost of everything else (the game has been patched with a recommended upgrade path). For people who do finish the game, there is an extensive array of post-game content and progressive difficulty if you really want to keep the rogue-lite-ness going.

A Family Reunion

Rogue Legacy 2 is the bigger, better-looking version of the first game. If you enjoyed the first game through and through, this is certainly more to love. If you were hoping for some refinements to the design and pain points, then this action family tree simulator still has some thorns to deal with. This is still the quintessential roguelite on the market and a must-play for fans of the original.

This was played with a press key provided by the publisher

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Audacity Games Releases Circus Convoy

Audacity Games is Activision co-founder, not to mention the creator of Pitfall! and A Boy and His Blob, David Crane, along with former Activision designers Garry and Dan Kitchen. They’re getting back into the games business with a new Atari VCS/2600 title now available, after three years of development: Circus Convoy!

With hardware acceleration, lots of crazy tricks are possible, as demonstrated in the recent post here on homebrew VCS carts. David Crane himself helped pioneer this approach with his seminal Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, whose original VCS version used a special chip to help make possible its many tricks. Well, Circus Convoy is notable in that it doesn’t use such tricks! It doesn’t use “hardware acceleration,” although I presume it still uses tricks like bank switching and additional RAM.

Take a look at the features and play guide pages on their website, and if it looks interesting to you and you still have a working Atari, maybe buy a cart? The prices do seem a bit high for a new VCS game in 2022, with the cheapest offerings at $55-60. But I’m sure there are hardcore VCS enthusiasts out there who are interested.