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The Druid Problem

The newest Hearthstone expansion, Knights of the Frozen Throne, launched two weeks ago, and early indications were that Druids were the strongest class in it. You always have to take these early metas with a grain of salt (ask me about N’Zoth Paladin being the strongest Whispers of the Old Gods deck), but today Vicious Syndicate released their new meta statistics and the results are not pretty. Druid is far and away the strongest class, with multiple archetypes that blow away the best decks of the other classes. Token Druid is the strongest aggro deck, a machine that’s nearly impossible to dislodge from the board via other aggro decks or midrange decks, and Jade Druid has a stranglehold on the late game, with the ability to outlast and outvalue even the greediest control decks. It’s obviously not a healthy or fun place for the format to be.

So how did we get to this point? After all, before the new set came out, Druid was just one class of many in what had been a very diverse metagame. It’s natural to look at the new cards for an answer, but while there are several good ones in the set I don’t think any of them are single-handedly pushing the class from “strong, but reasonable” to “obscenely overpowered.” Rather, I think that Malfurion the Pestilent and Ultimate Infestation just represent the tipping point for what has been an ongoing problem in trying to balance the Druid class in Hearthstone.

Problem #1: Mana Ramp, and Blizzard’s Approach to It

Hearthstone is basically a derivative of Magic: the Gathering. Blizzard has as much as admitted this, and several of their designers and developers were poached from the Magic: the Gathering team. Essentially, Blizzard took the structure of Magic and did to it what the company had previously done to NetHack, Command & Conquer, and EverQuest — streamlined it, making it more user-friendly and accessible. To this end, they made three major changes to the way Magic plays: 1) Instead of having to draw and play resource cards, you gain resources automatically at a fixed rate; 2) You can’t play cards during your opponent’s turn; and 3) The attacker makes combat decisions, not the defender. There are very good reasons to make all three of these changes: Mana flood and screw has long been the most frustrating way to lose a game of Magic; not requiring both players to be active simultaneously at all times is ideal for a turn-based game that can only be played online; and if you can’t play cards on your opponent’s turn, it makes some sense that you shouldn’t make any other decisions either. However, a lot of the initial design for Hearthstone was cribbed from Magic without much considering how those three major changes affected how the game played. Charge, for example, is a fairly innocuous mechanic in Magic (where it’s called “haste”), but has long been one of the most problematic mechanics in Hearthstone. The fact that the defending player has very limited avenues of interaction on their opponent’s turn and the fact that the attacker decides where damage goes and how creature trades happen means that charge is much more powerful in Hearthstone than haste is in Magic. A lot of cards which would have been utterly worthless in Magic have needed to be nerfed in Hearthstone merely because they enabled obnoxious one-turn from-hand combo kills which would not have been possible in a world that contained blockers or instants.

Mana ramp is in a similar spot. It exists in Magic, most commonly in the form of creatures that can tap for mana as long as they’re on the board and spells that can search your deck for lands (the mana-generating resource cards) and put them in play or into your hand. Basically, you’re converting one resource, cards, into another, mana. When Blizzard was designing Hearthstone, they poached the mechanic, in the form of cards that give you empty Mana Crystals and cards that give you temporary ones. Since this mechanic evokes growth, they decided to center it almost exclusively in the nature-loving Druid class.

So far, so good. The problem, though, is this card:

200px-Excess_Mana(520)

Now, this isn’t actually a collectible card. Rather, it’s a card that generates if you try to play Wild Growth, the most basic mana ramping card, at ten mana, which in Hearthstone is the cap. (In Magic you can generate as much mana as you have resources to produce it, but in Hearthstone you can only have a maximum of ten mana available to you on a turn before you have to spend some of it.) In Magic, if you draw a Rampant Growth with thirteen lands on the field, that fourteenth land might not help very much, but by jiminy, you can cast that Rampant Growth and it’ll still do exactly what it says on the card. Wild Growth doesn’t have that advantage — if you play it at ten mana, it would do literally nothing except waste two mana. On its face, this is a user-friendly little anti-frustration feature, the kind the game and the company are so good at — you’re at ten mana and you draw a card that does nothing to help you, since you can’t increase your mana any further. So the game lets you cash it in for a random card off the top of your deck, and your day is a little brighter. Nice, right?

Well, not quite. See, the fact that mana ramp is bad if you draw it after you already have sufficient mana isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. It’s a balancing factor for ramp. Sure, maybe you can push out a turn-four World Breaker if you get a little lucky, but the drawback to those kinds of hot starts is that sometimes you’ll be in topdeck mode, hoping for any live draw that can save you, and you’ll draw Llanowar Elves instead. That’s not a problem; that’s the game working as intended. By including this little bonus, this little mitigation of the downside potential of ramp spells, Blizzard is undermining the opportunity cost of playing ramp, making it so that there’s no reason not to play it, if you can. This is frustration that should exist in the game, not be sandpapered away.

Maybe this wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Wild Growth was the only card that did it, but Blizzard has made a habit of ensuring that all the ramp spells have alternative modes or uses if you draw them off the top in the late game. Wild Growth and Nourish draw cards, and Mire Keeper produces bodies. Jade Blossom ticks up your Jade count in the early game and is a huge, efficient body if you draw it late. Even Innervate, historically the most worthless of the ramp cards on its own, has applications in the late game — you can play a ten-mana spell (*cough* Ultimate Infestation *cough*) then Innervate and use your Hero Power, Wrath, or make a couple of Jades with Jade Idol, or it can be used to “go off” with Gadgetzan Auctioneer as a free spell that enables more spells and more cards.

Speaking of drawing cards, that’s another major issue with the way Blizzard handles ramp in Hearthstone. Another weakness of ramp as a mechanic is that it costs cards. Wild Growthing on turn two is a low-tempo play — it means you’re down a card and haven’t developed the board any, potentially allowing your opponent to get ahead of you. The idea is that you make a “down payment” by playing your ramp spell, which then pays off on later turns when you get to play more powerful stuff earlier than your opponent. However, if your more powerful plays get dealt with somehow, that’s supposed to be a problem — you dumped all these resources into ramping out Ysera and she got Siphon Souled as soon as you passed it back? This is another intended weakness of the ramp strategy — but it’s meaningless if the ramping player can easily draw more cards, which Druids have been able to do since the beginning of the game and are even better at now. Ancient of Lore was the original way to compensate for the card disadvantage inherent in ramp, but after it got nerfed they simply turned to Nourish and Azure Drake and Fandral + Raven Idol, and after Idol and Azure Drake rotated they simply added in Gadgetzan Auctioneer packages, and then Ultimate Infestation got printed and they didn’t even need that overpowered engine.

Blizzard nerfed Ancient of Lore because it was so common in Druid decks, but even now I don’t think they quite recognized why it was so common in Druid. It wasn’t because it was just a generically strong card — I mean, it was, but so are Ancient of War and Druid of the Claw, and those fall in and out of the meta. It was common because it allowed Druids to circumvent one of the main weaknesses of their most powerful strategy. If ramp is going to be a core component of Druid’s identity long-term, then drawing cards in large numbers just can’t be. Those two abilities are too powerful in combination to be part of the same class.

A third problem with ramp in Hearthstone is a lesser one, which is that you can’t interact with it. This is a lesser problem because I’m not sure you should be able to interact with it, or how you’d be able to do so without also gimping the other eight classes. Hearthstone doesn’t need Stone Rain. (Arguably, neither does Magic.) If ramp cards are allowed to be duds in the late game and if Druid’s card draw is reduced, I think ramp becomes risky enough that you can put up with not being able to Bolt your opponent’s Birds as you can in Magic, but it’s another axis on which this mechanic is far stronger in Hearthstone than it is in Magic.

Problem #2: Class Identity, and Blizzard’s Approach to It

Magic has something called the “color pie.” It’s a system of thinking about the game’s five factions: Each color has a philosophy that it believes in, and that translates in game terms into things the color is good at, things the color shares with the other colors, and things the color can’t or won’t do. This (in theory) maintains balance between the factions, keeps all five colors from becoming unrecognizable blobs who all work the same save flavor, and works in tandem with the game’s mana system in an interesting way. The mana system encourages players to play with only one color for the purposes of consistency, but the fact that all the colors have weaknesses encourages you to play more than one to cover those weaknesses. It’s up to the player to decide which is more important, and (again, in theory) there’s no absolute right answer as to which is correct.

Blizzard has implied in the past that they view Hearthstone’s nine classes along similar lines, but they mostly allow their decisions to be driven by flavor. Hearthstone, unlike Magic, is a spin-off product for an existing franchise, so it’s important that all the classes feel like their incarnations in other media, and abilities were parceled out based on what classes “felt like” they should have them rather than in terms of balance or fairness.

Magic’s designers talk publicly and at length about how the colors work and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and when they make internal changes to what color gets a game mechanic they’re usually pretty transparent about their process and line of thinking. Hearthstone’s designers… less so. Mostly you have to intuit the classes’ capabilities based on what Blizzard decides to print. Sometimes this works (anybody can play Divine Shield minions, but if you want a good Divine Shield minion, you play Paladin; most classes get burn spells, but if you want good burn spells, you play Mage; etc). Other times it’s more awkward (Rogues need healing mechanically, but they can’t heal, because if they could heal or stack armor, they’d just be Paladins or Warriors). Still others it doesn’t work at all (Druids can do anything).

Okay, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not by very much. The through-line Blizzard took with Druids when concepting the class was to build on their shapeshifting abilities. In World of WarCraft, Druids can change into different animal forms depending on the situation, so Blizzard decided that the Druid in Hearthstone should be mechanically focused on versatility. Their unique mechanic, Choose One, allows the player to pick between two effects depending on the situation. They have a large array of spell effects, and their minions are very strong. They can ramp pretty much without repercussions, as discussed at probably unconscionable length above. Even their Hero Power splits the difference between the Rogue’s efficient board control tool and the Warrior’s efficient defensive one.

The idea behind this emphasis on versatility was that Druid would have to pay more for their effects than a more limited version in another class… but Blizzard has mostly not bothered with this, and even if they did the fact that Druids can easily ramp would mitigate it anyway, so that’s out. Intended weaknesses for Druid are supposed to be that they’re bad at destroying high-health minions and bad at dealing with swarms, but… Naturalize is in the base set and Mulch was around for years, and Swipe’s a basic card and they just printed the ultimate swarm-stifler in Spreading Plague, so that’s out.

So I don’t know, honestly. I think Blizzard is just going to have to take a good long look at Druid’s kit and say “Druid doesn’t get this effect, not at any power level, not at any price” to some of it. “Versatility” is a very dangerous strength to give to only one faction in your nine-faction game. One class doesn’t need ramp and card draw and good individual creatures at every mana cost and taunt and individual creature buffs and team creature buffs and taunt and Beast synergy and poisonous and fatigue inevitability and healing and armor and removal and spell synergy and no weapons or Secrets to be hit by other decks’ tech cards. It’s just too much. They’ve allowed their flavor justifications (“Druids are versatile, surely they can do this”) to override the game’s mechanical need for all the factions to have weaknesses. Something needs to go. Otherwise, you’re either going to be in a situation where you can only print good Druid cards once a year, or you’re going to have Druid dominating the metagame whenever a critical mass of good cards builds up.

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Blog-a-TOG

Yesterday, the full spoiler for Whispers of the Old Gods, the newest Hearthstone expansion, was finally released. By the time the set (henceforth TOG) launches, it will have been nearly half a year since the last time new cards have been added to the game — longer than Blizzard supposedly likes, but it was to a purpose. Alongside TOG, Hearthstone will be launching its new rotating format, Standard, which features only the Basic and Classic sets along with the last two years worth of new card releases. This addition will mark the first time that cards have been removed from the pool of legal cards as well as being added, which makes it an exciting time for people like me who enjoy constructed Hearthstone but have found the ubiquity of certain cards, decks, and strategies to be stifling in recent weeks.

The set looks very cool, and the stream that revealed the new cards (which itself is highly recommended viewing) made it look like an absolute blast. I’m absolutely excited to start cracking packs and building in the new format. If there’s anything I’ve learned from following card games for twenty years, though, it’s that people are absolute rubbish about predicting what’s going to be good and bad and how the format will change, so I’m not going to bother with a card-by-card review. You can find those anywhere, and why should my impressions be any more accurate? However, I do see some more general trends in both the set and the recently-announced nerfs to twelve Basic/Classic cards that make me a little wary. I suppose it’s fitting for a set about trying to harness the power of ancient and incomprehensible gods that for every aspect of the set and the new format that I’m excited about, like wishing on a monkey’s paw, there’s a flip side that makes me somewhat wary. So I’m going to talk about those trends instead.

1) There is much less pressure to not get overrun in the early game…

The very first thing I noticed after absorbing the full TOG spoiler was how bad the two-drop creatures are. Only one of them is truly excellent, I feel (Rogue’s Undercity Huckster), and there’s one more that seems fine but only a specific strategy (Beckoner of Evil — more on her and the rest of C’Thun’s gang later).

This is a continuation of a trend that’s been going for almost a year. There really aren’t very many good twos remaining in the format at all. Previously, the class of the neutral twos was Knife Juggler, but it’s getting nerfed, so it becomes more along the line of Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Wild Pyromancer — something that you save so that you can maximize its ability, not necessarily something you throw out on turn two to start the beatdown. Haunted Creeper, the other generically good neutral two, is rotating along with the rest of Curse of Naxxramas. Shielded Minibot, Mad Scientist, Mechwarper, and Nerubian Egg join it in its working retirement in the Wild format. Even useful twos like Gilbin Stalker and Goblin Auto-Barber, which were theoretically powerful but largely pushed out by other options, are leaving.

Of the remaining cards, the best neutral two that doesn’t require either a specific deck or a specific boardstate may well be Flame Juggler, who is only slightly stronger than a vanilla creature. There are a few decent class twos — Totem Golem most notably, but also Darnassus Aspirant and Dark Peddler — but no class has more than one, and some classes don’t have any. Dragon decks can turn to Alexstrasza’s Champion or Wyrmrest Agent, if they’re of the right class. If the body is less important than the value, you can use Loot Hoarder or Jeweled Scarab. A few of the lesser-used cards from The Grand Tournament like Fallen Hero or King’s Elekk might enter the scene. Perhaps old standbys from vanilla Hearthstone like Amani Berserker, Faerie Dragon, or Acidic Swamp Ooze return to widespread use.

The point, though, is that none of those cards have the resilience that make the twos in Wild so difficult to manage. One of the reasons Paladin’s fabled “perfect curve” is so powerful is because it’s so hard to clear any of them with one card, and even if you do, those cards are positioned poorly against the next drop in the chain. A card that beats Shielded Minibot is generally not a card that manages Muster for Battle well, and the cards that beat Muster are in turn poor against Piloted Shredder. If you were not able to effectively interact with your opponent’s board in the early going, you would frequently get tempo-ed right out of the game, as even the powerful area-of-effect sweepers usually left behind some deathrattle or divine shield leavings that allowed your opponent to continue pressuring you, and if your opponent dropped a swing play like Mysterious Challenger or Savannah Highmane or even Defender of Argus while you were still trying to clean up his early junk, you were sunk.

In Standard, this may no longer be the case. Of all the useful twos, the only ones that don’t die one-for-one to a cheap removal spell or the front half of an early weapon are Totem Golem and Wyrmrest Agent, the latter of which requires a specific draw in a specific strategy in a specific class. This is a far cry from Hearthstone previously, where if your opponent coined out a Minibot or a Creeper, even if you had a removal spell or an early creature of your own, it would frequently not be able to trade cleanly. It may once again be possible for a large early creature like an Innervated Yeti or a Circle of Healing-ed Injured Blademaster to rule the roost for a few turns, or for a slower deck to seize back board control with a well-timed sweeper, or to trade cards one-for-one in the early game and then pull ahead later with value cards or combinations. Considering how efficient curve decks were at pressuring slower, value-oriented decks out of the game, this should open up a wider variety of strategies and potential gameplans.

…but games might get a lot longer.

This sounds all well and good, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that some aggro and tempo decks are healthy for the metagame. Without these decks, it encourages players to be greedier and greedier, including more and more late-game bombs, removal, and stall cards. Like a good pitchers’ duel, matches between these decks can be fun in moderation, but if every single game is like that, it becomes boring, no matter how skill-testing it is. If you’ve ever watched a Control Warrior or Freeze Mage mirror, you were likely bored out of your skull — the game these kinds of decks have to play when they encounter each other barely resembles Hearthstone at all.

Aggressive early creatures are necessary to keep these kinds of decks honest and force them to interact. The way to beat them is to constantly pressure their life total, make them use their removal in suboptimal ways, and not give them a chance to make pure value plays, because if they ever stop fighting for the board, they’ve lost. This is much harder to do in the absence of sticky, removal-resilient minions, specifically aggressive twos, that the control deck can’t cleanly remove. It’s an open question right now whether a Standard-legal beatdown, tempo, or midrange deck (aside from Aggro Shaman, which is seemingly in good shape) can consistently break an Ice Block before Alexstrasza comes down, or burst down a Warlock before Reno Jackson restores him to full, or kill the C’Thun player before the big man himself comes down as a 25/25 to wipe their whole board and put them at 9. If they can’t, the environment has a chance to be just as stale as it was when Secret Paladins and Aggro Shamans were at their worst, just from the other direction — and with the added problem that even a loss takes a lot longer to play itself out. If Aggro Shaman gets the god draw against you, you’re dead in six turns. If Freeze Mage gets the god draw against you, you’re still just as dead, but it’s going to take fifteen or twenty turns before you actually take the lethal damage you can’t do anything about.

2) C’Thun is a cool design and an interesting alternate strategy for beginners and budget players…

One of the issues with Hearthstone is that if you’re a new player, or one on a budget, you have essentially one strategy available to you: Play well-statted creatures and attack your opponent with them. This is a decent plan for new players, as the game’s hard enough without throwing Mill and Freeze Mage and Handlock and Patron Warrior at them right out of the gate, but the time between when the player gets bored of simple aggro/midrange creature strategies and the time when they have a big enough collection to explore other possibilities is still too wide. For quite a while, if you were just starting and wanted to try a control deck, you were shit out of luck, because those decks tended to require a boatload of expensive legendary finishers that you were simply not going to be able to get unless you had the luck of the Buddha opening packs. Classes like Warrior and Druid were out of reach for a new player, as too many of their staple cards were epic. The Adventures are a decent compromise here, as each one contains at least one legendary creature who is at least a decent stopgap finisher until you can get your hands on Ragnaros the Firelord or Lord Jaraxxus or Ysera or Tirion Fordring, but even those can take weeks to get if you’re not willing to drop real money on the game.

With TOG, Blizzard made the inspired choice to simply give a free copy of C’Thun, the set’s signature legendary, to anyone who opened a pack of TOG. This was because a good chunk of the set is dedicated to cards who specifically interact with C’Thun, many of them at common and rare, and it was decided that it would be kind of a bullshit move to make players craft a legendary just to interact at the most basic level with one of the set’s most ubiquitous mechanical themes. This decision makes him available to anyone, and it’s not like he requires a lot of expensive support, either — again, most of the cards in his deck are commons and rares, which are relatively easy to get even for beginners.

In addition, C’Thun enables a type of deck which simply cannot be created with the Basic set and a few Classic packs. His deck, regardless of class, requires a concession on the part of the player that they are building towards a longer game plan, rather than taking each individual turn as it comes. When playing with C’Thun, you know he’s going to mess some shit up if you can get him out, so playing a survival game and interfering with your opponent’s game plan become more important than they are with the kinds of basic decks most beginners have access to, which have no greater ambition than to kill their opponent as fast as possible. These lessons are ones that are important to teach players who are just beginning.

At the same time, though, C’Thun isn’t that complicated. Most of his support cards are totally reasonable well-statted minions who pump him either when they come into play, or when you do something that their class does a lot. As such it’s tough to build — or play — a C’Thun deck “wrong”: The novice’s C’Thun deck may not be strictly optimal, but if they play all the common C’Thun minions, two copies of Disciple of C’Thun, and a Skeram Cultist or two, they’ll be able to build a huge C’Thun and turn him loose, and they won’t have to open their wallet or play Face Hunter for six months solid or go infinite in Arena to do it.

…but he may be too inevitable.

And that may well be a problem.

Another issue with Hearthstone is very recent, and that is the genericization of late-game plans for decks that want to go into the late game. Brian Kibler made the observation on stream that Elise Starseeker and her Golden Monkey gimmick, while fun, was almost too good, because there wasn’t really a reason to play any sort of other late-game plan when you could just play her instead. Elise is a lot more effective for the late-game decks because she doesn’t require you to spend your precious deck slots on dedicated late-game cards that might be useless if you draw them too early or if you don’t have control of the board — rather, she lets you play more defensive cards to exhaust your opponent’s resources, then convert any remaining ones into a win condition. There’s not a lot of incentive to go with Control Warrior’s traditional glob of high-value legendaries or a swarm of expensive dragons when you can just do that instead.

C’Thun might have the same issue. When he was first revealed I think that I and a lot of other people underestimated just how easy it would be to get him really huge. If he’s 10/10 or 12/12, he’s a big swing, for sure, but a manageable one. It doesn’t seem like it would be any issue at all to get him to 20/20 and beyond, though, and once he gets there he’s really hard to deal with. The random shots when he enters the field have a fair chance of completely destroying all but the most resilient of boards, and if you don’t have a board — for example, if you got Flamestriked the previous turn and have only one or two creatures to play afterwards — he has a fair chance of just killing you outright. And again, it’s not like there’s a huge opportunity cost to playing him — his support cards are totally reasonable well-statted minions. Priest and Warrior get huge heals attached to minions once C’Thun has been buffed twice or more. (In the aforementioned stream, Frodan has nothing going on for the first several turns of the game but is able to hang around for an absurdly long time just on the basis of the large heals enabled by Twilight Darkmender. That’s a show match between two decks that are both on the C’Thun plan, so it doesn’t necessarily indicate the kind of time C’Thun decks are going to have in the wild, but it does indicate just how tough it’s going to be to bring down a C’Thun player if they build their deck right.) It is tough for me to imagine how a deck that plans to win by grinding out value here and there, like a Midrange Paladin or Mage variant, is going to be able to compete once C’Thun comes to town.

Moreover, even if C’Thun is not the optimal control strategy, he is still going to be omnipresent. I’m predicting that C’Thun is Standard’s version of the Mech deck — everyone has a Mech Mage that they use for grinding quests, and one common strategy if your collection isn’t very large is to just throw the neutral Mech core into whatever class you need to win with and try to grind out a few wins on the basis of pure synergy and tempo. C’Thun might end up the same way — add C’Thun, add C’Thun’s cultists, add removal and class cards, go complete your quests with a deck that might not be amazing, but at least you’re pretty sure isn’t horrible.

Now, I’m not making the argument that C’Thun is unstoppable — there are lots of answers for him, assuming he doesn’t kill you outright. Silence him, destroy him with a kill spell, Hex or Polymorph him, turn his power or toughness to 1, Entomb him, let him do his thing and then throw two Fireballs at his controller, etc. But the fact that he can kill you outright, and can easily crush your board when he doesn’t, and cannot be interacted with prior to him coming down outside of killing his controller (which itself is tougher to do given #1, above), means that he flat beats a lot of decks which are otherwise reasonable and fun. And if you like playing those kinds of decks, you’re shit out of luck, because he’s going to be everywhere, even at low ranks or in casual, just because he’s so easy to build and win with. That might be tough to swallow, once the novelty of machine-gunning down your opponent’s board wears off. The Golden Monkey at least plays out differently every time and can make for wild stories and videos; but C’Thun goes the same way every time: Play out efficient minions, get to ten mana, play C’Thun, erase your opponent’s board, and demand they answer your huge man right now or lose. I could see it getting old.

3) Rotating Curse of Naxxramas and Goblins Vs. Gnomes out of the format removes a lot of the staple cards and forces innovation into the metagame…

The release of Goblins Vs. Gnomes in late 2014 was one of the most interesting times to be a fan of Hearthstone. It seemed like you could turn on any stream or queue into ladder and see an entirely new deck that hadn’t been possible before, and even the existing decks had to greatly adapt to the new cards and new decks entering the meta. So even if you tuned into someone playing boring old Handlock or Midrange Hunter, chances are they were testing a build that only somewhat resembled the decks that came before.

No subsequent release has really recaptured that magic. Blackrock Mountain made a fairly serious error, I feel, by basing the set around synergy but requiring you to have the whole set before you could really build decks around that synergy. (Blackwing Technician comes out Week 2 — the card might be good, but who cares, because it needs Dragons and the good Dragons don’t come out until Week 4.) I remember being annoyed one week because a new wing of BRM had come out but I couldn’t find even one stream using the new cards.

TGT was no better. The set was actually a good deal stronger than its reputation suggests, but it had two major issues. The first was that its major theme, hero powers/inspire, completely bombed in constructed outside of a few cards here and there. After a week or so, you never saw dedicated inspire decks; couldn’t tune into a stream to watch the streamer experiment with a new build. The second, and more serious, was that its good cards (except for Mysterious Challenger) didn’t enable any new decks; they simply supplemented existing ones. Argent Horserider is a good card, but there aren’t Argent Horserider decks — it just goes into the same face decks that have existed since the game’s inception, not so different from Wolfrider in the end. The coolest new card, Justicar Trueheart, enabled exactly zero new decks despite seeing loads of constructed play — it just made Control Warriors and Control Priests harder to kill and gave Midrange Paladin a late-game value tool. Those decks existed before TGT came out, and she didn’t change them, just made them a little stronger in some matchups.

The underlying issue is that the more cards you add, the harder it is for each individual one to make an impact. It’s tough to make a mid-game taunt that people will play instead of Sludge Belcher. It’s tough to make an early drop that people will play instead of Zombie Chow. It’s tough to try and supplant the Minibot/Muster curve with a new one. Blizzard, wary of power creep, largely didn’t try. Instead they tried to open up design space in other ways, and despite some small successes here and there (most notably in the League of Explorers set, with Reno Jackson, Elise Starseeker, and the discover mechanic), they were largely unsuccessful in dislodging the established decks that had had years to refine their lists.

Removing cards is really the only solution. There’s no longer a default mid-game taunt, so decks have to experiment with new ones, or go without. There’s no longer a default healing option, so decks have to stretch to include Reno or explore their in-class options. The introduction of Standard looks to be the biggest change to the game it will ever have, as not only do we get a new set to play with, but the sets that previously had to exist under the shadow of the early sets might be able to climb into the sunlight for the first time. It’s almost like there are four new sets, rather than just one. Is it finally time for the Jeweled Scarab or Dragon Consort meta? Only time will tell.

…but doing so causes a lot of the annoying holes in the Basic and Classic set to rear their ugly heads again.

It’s hard to remember after months of Secret Paladin being the scourge of the ladder, but back in vanilla Hearthstone, Paladin was largely agreed to be the worst class. It couldn’t really do anything better than the other classes aside from healing its hero, it had no early game to speak of, and was incredibly reliant on a turn four Truesilver Champion or Consecration turning the game around. Despite the best class legendary and some useful removal tools like Aldor Peacekeeper, Equality, and the aforementioned Consecration, it was rarely played on ladder and almost never in tournaments.

Thing was, though, Blizzard recognized this, so they showed Paladin some love in the first expansions. Shielded Minibot and Muster for Battle gave Paladin early plays that could interact with the board before turn four. Coghammer was a powerful early tool that could be used both on offense and defense. Quartermaster allowed Paladin to quickly rebuild after board wipes. Even cards like Seal of Light and Bolvar Fordragon, which ultimately didn’t pan out, seemed like honest attempts to bring the class up to par.

Now those expansions are gone, and Paladin is back to being bad again, with all its previous weaknesses intact. It no longer has any useful early interactions and is back to hoping that turn four Truesilver or Consecration can correct a bad board. One of my early ideas for a post-TOG Standard deck was a Reno Paladin build, and I started running out of viable choices with ten cards still left to fill in the deck — a far cry from previously, when every single class had enough viable cards that they had to cut reasonable cards when building a Reno deck.

This is the issue with leaving Basic and Classic intact as an evergreen set rather than mixing up its contents the way (say) Magic: the Gathering used to. The Classic set was fun, but it never bothered balancing the classes and had — and still has — lots of holes. Part of the design goal of the early expansions was to fill those holes, and now those sets are gone and the holes are back. Paladin is hardly the only victim here; Priest has it almost as bad, with no early plays and its best sweeper gone. Warlock has no viable spot removal between Mortal Coil and Soulfire at 1 and Syphon Soul at 6. Warrior has no good weapons between Fiery War Axe at 2 and Gorehowl at 7. There is no longer any way to interact with spells, for any class (Counterspell aside, but it’s tough to imagine that card seeing play in the absence of Mad Scientist). Some classes got new healing options to replace Antique Healbot, but others didn’t, and will have to settle for Earthen Ring Farseer and Refreshment Vendor.

It’s good that the format-defining cards are leaving, as it opens up space for new decks to emerge. But a lot of basic tools are leaving as well, cards that the later sets were designed around being present and didn’t think to replace.

The really annoying thing is that this looks to be a permanent issue unless Blizzard bites the bullet and alters the Classic set. Classes like Mage, Warlock, and Hunter have enough of their staple cards in the Classic set that they’ll rarely have to worry about any given rotation gutting their decks. Paladin, Priest, and Shaman, on the other hand, will need to have their inherent Classic weaknesses shored up anew every year if they’re going to be competitive, which is a problem for both Standard and Wild. Every card Paladin receives in an expansion to make up for its poor Classic cards goes on to make Secret Paladin that much more ridiculous in Wild.

And on that note…

4) The Basic/Classic nerfs and the rotation remove some annoying strategies and open up new design space for the developers…

With the TOG patch, Blizzard will be nerfing twelve cards. The goal with most of these nerfs seems to be to weaken burst combo, make large creatures and buffs more difficult to cleanly remove, and to make some cards that were omnipresent in their class more of a choice than a requirement. There was also a smaller class of cards that were nerfed not necessarily because they were too powerful in and of themselves, but because they were preventing other cards from being printed by their very presence. Blade Flurry, it’s generally agreed, got hit with the nerf bat because it was preventing Rogue from getting any good weapons or weapon buffs, and Master of Disguise was slightly weakened in order to remove the possibility of giving infinite stealth to a minion with a strong passive ability. Big Game Hunter, and to a lesser extent silence, meant that large creatures and creature buffs would never be able to establish a foothold in constructed.

Other cards being removed from the format also fit this criteria. Secrets, for example, can only be so powerful as long as Mad Scientist is around to cheat them out. Blizzard must tread cautiously around powerful repeatable spell triggers as long as Spare Parts are easy to attain. Mechs in general have a chance to become absurdly powerful if one or two more good ones are printed, so as long as the current Mech core exists, they never can be. In theory, with the offending cards always either nerfed or on a collision course with Wild eventually, Blizzard can push the envelope with these effects in new and exciting ways.

…but TOG honestly doesn’t make much use of it.

They didn’t, though, at least not in this set. I’m fairly certain that this is a temporary rather than a permanent issue, as I’m convinced that the TOG design, the Standard format, and the Basic/Classic nerfs were not worked on simultaneously. TOG, in particular, seems like it was probably finalized before Standard was a gleam in anyone’s eye, as it looks to be designed around the idea that it would just be thrown into the pool with the rest of the cards the way all the previous sets were. In addition, Blizzard was saying as recently as a few weeks ago that they had not yet finalized what cards would be nerfed or in what way, so it seems unlikely that there was any knowledge of the nerfs during the TOG design process or playtesting except in the most general sense. Telltale signs like Rogue’s nascent deathrattle theme being continued despite the fact that it was largely cut off at the knees with Naxxramas and GVG going, the curious lack of twos and threes for most classes, and the aforementioned missing basic effects indicate that it wasn’t intended to introduce Standard until fairly late in the process, possibly after it was already done. The departure of Mad Scientist opens up design room for Secrets, yet the set contains no Secrets. The weakening of Blade Flurry opens up room for weapons and weapon buffs, but there are no Rogue weapons and the only buff is somewhat unwieldy. This smells like a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and I suspect that the other two sets of 2016 will be designed with fuller knowledge of the environment they will be slotting into and the tools they need to provide.

That’s all I’ve got on Hearthstone for now. I’m looking forward to Tuesday!

Undertale and Dark Souls: 2015 in Review

Undertale came out last year. It was a little JRPG-styled game for PC, made by one person. Although retro in its graphics and presentation, it was innovative for its option of nonviolence, its subversion of typical JRPG plots, and its use of a bullet-hell influenced battle system. Rave reviews and fanart have swarmed Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube since the game released. For a period, it had the highest Metacritic score of all time (and may still; I haven’t checked recently). A lot of people named it their game of the year. It won GameFAQs annual best game of all time tournament.

I didn’t play it. As time goes by, it becomes increasingly likely that I will never play it.

This is odd, because normally this kind of game would be right up my alley. I love JRPG-style games, and have been stumping for years for more non-Japanese developers to try their hand at it. The hook of the game was interesting to me. I didn’t buy many new games this year for financial reasons, but Undertale is only ten dollars, so I could have easily squeezed it into my budget if I felt like it. And for a while, I thought I would. But I didn’t.

A game I did play — not all the way through, but some — this year was Dark Souls. I’ve been making tries at Dark Souls (and its predecessor, Demon’s Souls) for years now, without making much headway. The problem is that I’ve never found myself hooked by that game. I boot it up, and I play it for a while, and it’s fine… but once I turn it off and move on to other things, I feel no real urge to start it back up again and continue. But I keep trying at it, every six months or so, just because everyone tells me what a great game it is.

And make no mistake, that is the only reason I keep trying. I had always told myself that I needed to sit down and finish Dark Souls some day just because it was so popular and influential that I needed to know what I felt about it, one way or the other. If I liked it, fine, I could join the crowds singing its praises, and playing the sequels, and being hyped for new games. If I didn’t like it, I needed to know why, so I could defend my controversial opinion. I needed to be able to state clearly and consistently why everyone else was wrong about this series and why I was right. Simply not having an opinion about something that was having such an effect on this hobby I’ve loved since I was a kid was not an option. Like MOBAs and cover shooters and aimless open-world games and every other trend in gaming whose effects I despise, I needed to know why this thing, despite being popular, was in fact bad.

And it wasn’t until Undertale came out, and I began to have the same kind of reactions, that I realized why this was such a stupid thing to do.

One of the big problems with our society presently is that everyone has to have an opinion about everything. There’s no longer any room for people to simply say “I don’t know enough about this, so I don’t have an opinion” or “I do not care about this, so I don’t have an opinion” or “This is not important to me, so I don’t have an opinion.” If something happens, you have to be ready, willing, and able to weigh in on it, regardless of how important it is or how it affects you or how qualified you are to do it. I feel like a lot of the clashes and demagoguery inherent in our system is simply because people feel compelled to stake out their ground and defend it from all intrusions, real or perceived.

And really, who gives a shit if I don’t like Dark Souls? The people who like it are going to go on liking it. Nobody is forcing me to buy them and play them. Even if I ignore every single Souls game and every game that tries to piggyback off the success of Souls, there will still be more games out there than I can ever play. I bought Brandish: The Dark Revenant on sale the other day, and in playing it for two hours, enjoyed myself more than the hours I’ve spent trying to figure out what my opinion is on Souls. I can stick to my own little corner of the gaming universe and be perfectly at peace with the world, Souls or no Souls.

No, the only reason to force myself to have an opinion on Souls is so that I can then present my opinion to others. So I can pick a fight with the people who have a different opinion, or receive validation from the people who agree with me. And dear god, that is so pathetic that I winced just typing it. I turn 30 this year. I’ve got a lot on my plate. I’d like to think my days of looking to beat my chest about my controversial gaming opinions on the internet are behind me. Gaming should be something that makes me happy and fills my down time, not something that I can use as ammo in a pissing contest with the entire world.

As a result of that, I’ve started to shy away from games where merely playing them is an opinion piece. I heard so much about Undertale after it came out, even trying to avoid spoilers, that I could never play it on its own terms. Just like Dark Souls, I’d be affected by people telling me how much I’ll like it, and the specific reasons I’ll like it. I could never get into Dark Souls because I had everyone else who’d ever played the game hanging over my shoulder telling me how to react, ensuring I could never have a genuine, spontaneous reaction to it. And Undertale is all about generating a genuine, spontaneous reaction.

And that’s not even getting into Undertale’s somewhat unique position as a weapon in the obnoxious culture wars that are currently consuming gaming. Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t a South Park-ian “the truth is in the middle” thing. I’ve been very consistent in wanting games and the community that surrounds them to be more open and inclusive, so you won’t catch me trying to denigrate Undertale as “not a real game” or “SJW propaganda” or whatever. But if I play Undertale, and didn’t like it for whatever reason, suddenly I’m allied with that crowd, whether I like it or not. I’d have to constantly preface any criticism of the game with an assurance that I’m not one of those people. You can’t just evaluate Undertale as a game; your opinion of it instead says something about you. And I hate that.

So my New Year’s Resolution for 2016 (at least regarding games) is to play what I want and enjoy myself. If I ever catch myself playing something just so that I can have an opinion, punch myself in the face and load up Hearthstone instead or something. And that means that “touchstones” like Dark Souls and Undertale are not on the agenda.

Sonic Colors: Final Thoughts

The thing about Sonic Colors is that I have no idea how good I am at it.

I mean, I beat it and everything. I saw every level and got a bunch of As and Bs for my rankings. But I’m not sure if that’s due to my skill, because for much of the experience it seemed like the game was playing itself. People moan and groan about games like Metal Gear Solid or JRPGs trying to pretend to be movies, but you’ve got something like Sonic Colors which (refreshingly, given this series) has no pretenses in that direction, yet still manages to be an on-rails, autopilot kind of game.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s loads of fun to watch Sonic zip through the levels, and it’s really evocative of the Genesis games, no so much in how they play but in how we envision they played. It’s a kaleidoscopic rollercoaster of a game. However, sometimes it feels like it’s impossible to lose, even if you leave the game for a few minutes to fix up a sandwich. Dying is effectively a non-issue, since there are checkpoints all over the place and each level is only a few minutes long at best. Sonic can homing attack from practically across the screen and it’s trivial to become almost invincible at any moment. The game is actually full of situations that are kind of bullshitty — untelegraphed drops, surprise enemy placement, points of no return, paths and items that are only visible after you can no longer reach them — but because the penalty for failure is so light, it never annoys in a way that a game like Donkey Kong Country Returns sometimes can.

And I’m not sure how I feel about that, honestly. I’m not the sort of super-hardcore gamer who needs constant abuse to feel engaged in his games, and I’m all for games that make the complex seem easy, but Sonic Colors feels content to let me sleepwalk through it, and there’s little satisfaction in conquering such a game. It’s for that reason that I didn’t bother collecting all the little doodads and extras that are part and parcel of the platforming experience these days. In New Super Mario Bros. Wii and DKC Returns, I couldn’t rest until I’d collected every miscellaneous object littered throughout the game, but with Sonic Colors going back for red rings seemed almost like too much trouble.

I bet it would be fun to set aside a week or so and spend it getting S-ranks on every level and collecting all the red rings, but I simply wasn’t in the mood for it right now.

Final Fantasy Tactics is overrated.

I’m not quite done with the game yet, but I am close enough that I’m willing to call it.

A couple of disclaimers that colored my experience with the game, here… First, I am absolutely smack-dab in this game’s target audience. I’m not some guy who bought the game because he liked Final Fantasy VII, nor am I the guy who picks up anything with the Square-Enix logo on it. I love tactical RPGs. I’ve written more words about Fire Emblem than any one man ever should. I put more than a hundred hours into both Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games. I’ve got three more tactical RPGs on the docket after this one. If FFT is aiming for anyone, it’s aiming for me. I love strategy RPGs, I love political fantasy, and I love job systems… How could you go wrong? Frankly, it’s stunning that it took me this long to get to the game.

Secondly, I’ve had people telling me for literally years how great this game is and how none of the sequels measure up. I’ve dropped in on any number of “what is the best Final Fantasy” threads only to have people drop “FFT” like it’s a killing point, and it seems to be more or less universally beloved, while the sequels are more divisive. Given how much I enjoyed the sequels (despite some obvious flaws), I figured this meant I was in for a hell of a time.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I came to the game expecting to be blown away, and I was massively disappointed. Good? Sure. Worth playing? Absolutely. Best FF ever? Clearly better than its sequels? Top ten game ever? No fucking way.

What I think happened here is similar to the original Legend of Zelda, where the original game prominently featured some elements that its progeny, for whatever reason, mostly discarded. The people who were drawn to the original FFT for its ambiguous political plot or extremely flexible job system resented that future games didn’t really follow up on either, and began holding up the original as an example of model game design despite some fairly obvious and fairly severe flaws, in the same way people who think that Zelda should be about unrestricted exploration and punishing combat hold that the original game is the pinnacle of the series. And I understand that sentiment, I really do. But I had more fun with the FFTA games — far more — by any metric you care to use.

When I think of the FFTA games, I think of picking up the game for a few minutes only to play for hours; afternoons or even whole weekends lost to them; experimenting with every class; finding every secret; grinding for the sheer joy of it. When I think of FFT, I think of becoming so beset by frustration or tedium that I frequently had to just set the game aside and play something else for awhile.

Here’s a list of things that I can’t believe actually made it into a retail release of a strategy RPG in this day and age:

  1. Unskippable cutscenes. The localization (in War of the Lions, at least) is superb, but I don’t really need to read it every time I restart a battle.
  2. A complete inability to back out of a battle once it’s been initiated. There’s no retreat option, no forfeit option, no ability to quit back to the menu, no soft reset. I come from a school of strategy-RPG play (no doubt initiated by my upbringing with the Fire Emblem games) where it’s no chore at all to retry a fight over and over until it goes exactly the way I want it to, but FFT offers no means to do this. To restart a fight once it’s been started your only recourse is to quit back to the main PSP menu and reload the game. There are a number of situations in which you haven’t technically lost yet, but you still don’t want to continue (for example, if one of your party members is crystalized), but the game makes you go through the motions of getting a game over before you can try again. This is unspeakably annoying, especially when combined with…
  3. Laughably frequent, and laughably difficult, random encounters. In the FFTA games, random encounters are visible as units running around on the same map as you, and you can avoid them or run from them if you don’t feel like screwing with them. In FFTA, random encounters are truly random, having a chance of occuring whenever you step on a spot on the map that isn’t a town. They’re supposed to have something like a 30% chance of occurring, but in practice it’s more like 80%, so making a journey of any distance usually involves at least three or four fights. If you want to level or build jobs in FFTA there are always a number of quests at your disposal; if you want to level or build jobs in FFT you run circles around the town like it’s 1985 again. The random battles also get progressively more dangerous as the game proceeds and their levels scale to yours, so if you fight too many of them you simultaneously transform the main story into a joke while making the random fights into deadly struggles. But they’re never interesting; it’s always just monsters, who tend to blur together. Unless you’re looking to grind JP fighting random battles is almost never profitable, but you get the impression that the developers wanted it to be 75% of your total playtime. And again, the only way to get out of a random fight if you don’t want to deal with it is to reset the game…
  4. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the game didn’t see fit to send you galivanting across the map at the slightest pretext. Certain towns specialize in certain kinds of equipment, so if you’ve changed classes and need to update your heavy armor or got your weapon rent and need to replace it, it’s back six or seven spaces for you. Away quests require you to send your characters on jobs for weeks at a time, time that can only be passed by wandering the world map and getting into fights. (Oh, and the FFTA games allowed you to finish an away quest at any bar; FFT of course does not do this, forcing you to return to the town you started the quest from.) And one town (which is of course an out-of-the-way backwater which isn’t close to anything) is the hub for the game-spanning sidequest and requires you to return there four or five times throughout Chapters 3 and 4, fighting all the way.
  5. The camera is awful. It’s impossible to keep the action fully on screen at once no matter what angle you set it to. There are a number of maps which are shaped roughly like canyons, with high terrain on either side and a crevasse in the middle; it’s nearly impossible to see what’s going on in the crevasse. This appears to have been accounted for not at all.
  6. Those are all just annoyances; the real problem comes back to the battles. For one thing, you can’t take back moves, which is a staple technique in, oh, pretty much every SRPG ever. Usual strategy is to select a likely square, send your character there, and see if they can do anything profitable there. If they can’t, call them back and send them somewhere else. But no, FFT locks you into a space once you’ve moved there, so if you send a character to a space only to find that they have no good actions from that space (legion were the times I accidentally sent a character to a space diagonal of the one I intended thanks to camera issues), you’re fucked. Don’t cry difficulty or strategy here; FE10 lets you call back moves and it’s way harder and more strategic than FFT just the same. It’s just a poor design decision. But okay, you’ve learned that lesson, and can compensate…
  7. If not for the fact that small details can completely derail your strategies. Certain skills are rendered useless by small height differences. Certain skills are useless anyway except in the most favorable cases. Zodiac compatibility can slash your accuracy or damage unexpectedly, enemy characters will be inexplicably immune to certain techniques, the AI blatantly cheats… it just goes on and on. Essentially the game is punishing you for not already knowing it inside and out but resists your efforts to learn it, since so many of these are corner cases that only come up once in a while.
  8. Certain jobs are worthless. Is there any reason to play an Archer? How about a Dragoon? Or, really, anyone besides a special character? Others, like Orator or Mystic, are so situational it’s difficult to envision carrying their skills over more straightforward abilities. In addition, you have to spend time in a lot of these classes because they’re prerequisites for other, better classes. In FFTA if you needed to run a character through a mediocre class real quick in order to open up another class, you equipped them with a 100 AP weapon and sent them on an away mission. In FFT, you’re stuck actually using that useless class until you’ve got enough JP built up that you can leave it behind.
  9. Moreover, certain skills don’t work the way you’d expect them to. Concentrate makes skills guaranteed to hit, except when it doesn’t. You learn a skill called Brawler that lets every class fight as effectively barehanded as a Monk… but it doesn’t actually, because Monks have a high PA that other classes don’t, so sticking it on a mage to let them get in on the action (a la FFV) doesn’t work.
  10. Balance issues… Brave/Faith is borked, as Faith’s a double-edged sword in a number of respects but there’s no drawback at all (except in a few corner cases) to having a high Brave. This makes physical fighters generally better than mages… except for Arithematicians, who snap the game in half, and not even in a fun way. (I had to stop using my Arithematician simply because she was ruining the game for me.) The CPU continues to use beginner classes like Knights and Archers well into the endgame, so the super-flexible class system is put to waste somewhat because not only will the computer not really use it against you, you don’t even really need to use it to beat the computer.

Now, the game has its merits… It’s got a genuinely interesting story backed by a fantastic localization, with multi-dimensional characters and real depth and weight to its world and plot. There’s a ton going on behind the scenes that is only tangentially related to the main plot, and that’s a level of detail you don’t often get in games. It’s too bad it degenerates into magic rocks and sealed demons by the end, but Matsuno’s games usually do, so…

Its class system also seems better than any of its successors. The major problem with the FFTA games is that subdividing the classes by race limits the amount of potential combinations you can try. (This is especially bad in FFTA2, where the classes are ludicrously specialized and a couple of races only have four.) FFT is a lot more open, both in that any unit can spend time in any class and that skills can be learned in any order (although this tends to homogenize your units, as certain skills just aren’t worth getting, so everyone tends to look the same after a while).

The game’s visual design is also excellent, with lots of lovingly detailed sprites and other small elements that really give the game life. One of my favorite scenes in the game is early on, when Wiegraf is putting the screws to his underling in a windmill while a nameless Thief leans against the wall with his arms crossed. You don’t see spritework like this anymore.

(People tell me the soundtrack is an all-time great, but to be honest I’m having trouble clearly recalling a single tune on it, aside from the astoundingly catchy tutorial theme. And I love Sakimoto!)

Really, in the end FFT is a game that I wish would get an honest-to-god remake (as opposed to the straight port + new stuff which is WotL). I can tell that the core of the game is solid gold, but it’s hampered by all this other stuff to the point where I can’t get at it. Strip out the garbage and the tedious bullshit and fix the balance issues, and then we’d really have something to talk about. Until then, I guess I’ve got another game to wonder about when other people start raving. Onto the list with Zelda 1 and Cave Story with you, I guess.

Thoughts on what I’m playing: The return

1) I beat Mega Man Powered Up using Mega Man after letting it lay fallow on the final stage for almost a week. I had fun with most of the game, but the final stage is such a trainwreck it sapped my will to continue. It consists of a long, twisty corridor with a lot of enemies that takes forever to weave your way through, a moving platform with a jump that is literally pixel-perfect, and a boss which is almost a complete roll of the dice. Some of Wily’s attacks seem literally undodgeable, especially Oil Slider, and others might as well be in certain configurations, like Fire Storm or Ice Slasher when Wily is moving towards you. Your only hope is for Wily to use the harmless Time Slow a lot. There also seems to be a way to keep him locked down in hitstun, but if there’s a rhythm to doing it indefinitely I wasn’t able to work it out. And hey, if you run out of lives you can always spend the next twenty minutes faceplanting into spikes again.

I toyed around a bit with some of the other characters, but by that point I was pretty bored with the game and ready to set it aside.

2) Speaking of frustrating bosses, Ys. I picked up this game because it looked Zeldaesque, and I’m a sucker for anything that even remotely resembles Zelda (except, apparently Okami — at my current rate of progress I’ll probably beat that game sometime in 2040). And it’s fun… mostly. The bosses, though, appear to be exercises in frustration. The first one just had an exceedingly demanding pattern with little room for error, exacerbated by the fact that Adol apparently thinks jumping isn’t cool and will occasionally decline to do it even if you press the button. The second one could disassemble you in seconds and was only balanced by the fact that it was pretty easy to do the same to him.

The third one, though, is absolutely stupid. It doesn’t seem possible to outrun it, it follows you too tightly and quickly to avoid it, and trading hits with it will only take you so far. Even dialing the difficulty down as far as it would go didn’t seem to help — its movements appeared unaltered. I did eventually beat it, but I was clinging to a sliver of health at the time and I have little doubt that it was mostly luck. This is the third boss. How am I ever going to beat this game?

3) In my spare moments I’ve been fiddling around with Maria mode in Symphony. Maria’s an interesting character because she provides a markedly different playstyle than either of the other two playable characters in the game. She lacks both Alucard’s survivability and Richter’s sheer damage output, but she’s by far the most mobile character, able to fly through the rooms at warp speed.

With Maria, the game becomes about not killing monsters, but dodging them. She doesn’t level up, so there’s no need to kill anything. Her attacks deal so little damage that clearing a path is both dangerous and takes forever. She’s got a double jump, a slide, a super jump, a glide, and a single-button infinite-use air dash, though, so if there’s empty space between enemies and the walls chances are Maria can worm her way through those spaces somehow. Stopping to kill an enemy becomes a calculated risk that you do only when you have to, rather than the central aspect of the game, which is a very different flavor of gameplay and one which platformers don’t often take. It reminds me a little of NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, where the PC was slow, sluggish, and nearly useless on the ground, but possessed almost perfect mobility in the air, which switched up the platforming gameplay considerably. I’d like to play a full, fleshed-out game designed around avoiding enemies in a 2-D space rather than just slicing your way through them.

4) I’m nearly done with Final Fantasy Tactics, but I’ve kind of stalled out near the end… I’ve reached that dead zone where my characters are about as good as they’re going to get and I just have to muster up the willpower to force my way through the last several chapters. It would be good to do it soon, too, because I’ve got Tactics Ogre, Jeanne d’Arc, and Wild ARMs XF waiting to go as far as tactical RPGs, and I can only focus on one of those at a time.

This is probably its own post, but I wasn’t as absorbed by FFT as I’d expected I would be, especially after having my life devoured by the Tactics Advance games. Everyone keeps telling me how much better the original is, and in some ways it still stands far above its progeny… but in others, it’s almost unbelievably primitive. As in, “I can’t believe they didn’t fix this shit when they were remaking it” primitive. Far too often I felt like I was fighting the game engine and user interface rather than the game itself, and that’s an awful feeling to have.

5) Bizarrely, the game I’ve spent the most time on recently is the one I thought I’d “beaten”, Dissidia. Weird thing is, I don’t really have a goal here, either. I’ve experimented with Labyrinth mode… played around a bit with quickbattle… exploited custom rulesets to powerlevel some level 1 characters… even given some thought to tackling the brutal postgame. The game has great pick-up-and-play value, and basically all my gaming these days has come in the form of picking up and playing.

Despite the fact that he’s my best character, I set aside Squall for a while (mostly because using him makes the game too easy) to focus on exploring some other character options. Surprisingly, I fell in love with Terra; her ranged game is a lot of fun and her difficulty killing things fades away once you learn Ultima, which is astonishingly easy to hit with. Yuna, too, becomes amazingly easy once she learns Megaflare, which the CPU opponents seem completely incapable of dodging.

I’ve put a few levels here and there into Cloud and Zidane, who are fun to use even if I can’t quite get a handle on how they’re supposed to play. I’ve tried out the Warrior of Light too, but he completely baffles me — I have no idea how his attacks are supposed to fit together, which is especially infuriating given that the computer flows through these long, graceful combos. I also want to learn Firion, Shantotto, and Prishe, but haven’t touched them in a while.

Here’s how disconnected from the gaming mainstream I feel.

I’d been having such a good experience playing the late-adoption game with the PSP that, when I heard about my quarterly bonus, I considered trying it again with one of the HD Twins. After all, people have been telling me for years that the Wii is a stupid baby system with no games, and if you’re really serious about the hobby, the Xbox 360 or PS3 is where it’s at. Before, I hadn’t been able to support more than one system+portable combination at once, but with the Wii on life support, the DS nearly dead, the 3DS not having a compelling library yet, and PSP games being so cheap as to be nearly worthless, why not close this hole in my gaming experience?

So I went to Metacritic. (Which, yes, I know is not the be-all-end-all, but I still consider it a good resource for figuring out what games I should be aware of and making sure I don’t overlook anything really important.) And proceeded to become incredibly depressed.

The PS360 library is just shooter after shooter after shooter, with the occasional tournament fighter and plastic instrument game thrown in for spice. Even games which, you know, aren’t really shooters (like Portal and Mass Effect) use an FPS interface. I have zero interest whatsoever in shooters, and even less in shooters that look like the sidewalk after a rainstorm, which appears to be all of them, currently. The thing about the PSP was that it was a niche system that clustered around games and genres I liked a lot — RPGs, tactical RPGs, and platformers. The occasional shooter or God of War game was just a bone thrown to the Sony faithful. The Xbox 360 and PS3 are almost the exact opposite, being built on a foundation of games I have almost no interest in and engaging me only on the fringes. Even at cheap, I don’t see a lot there.

To get my money’s worth out of an HD system I’d have to soften my stance on games from “no shooters” to “shooters that are good enough to make me overcome my distaste for shooters”. I mean, you don’t have to get too deep before you’re starting to look at things like Sands of Time HD and the Team ICO collection as potential gets, and I don’t really want to buy a new console for ports of ten-year-old games, even ones I haven’t played and probably should.

“Dusting off the Wii” is so common that it’s become a cliche, as the system is infamous for long software droughts (like the one it’s currently in), but I have a feeling that if I’d gone all-in on a PS360 at launch it’s a cliche that would have applied to me. If you’re cutting out first-person shooters, third-person shooters, survival horror, open-world sandbox games, tournament fighters, and music games… the HD systems start to have a pretty barren release schedule themselves. I’ve no doubt that the systems have deep and varied libraries for many, and perhaps most, people, but they don’t for me. I’m not really looking for people to say “What? No, I had tons of fun with my Xbox, don’t put words in my mouth” or give me recommendations; I’m just trying to express how I feel.

The worst part is that this appears to be the way the industry is headed, if E3 is any indication. This stuff sells, and has become what the “core gamer” expects out of the experience. Even Nintendo appears to be retreating back to this crowd rather than compete for the casual crowd with Apple’s McGames, as every game they announced for the WiiU looks to be of this set — gritty, “mature” action games and shooters with a muted color palette and not an ounce of originality or life between them. If this is where we’re going, where does that leave me, a gamer with no interest in this? I still love games — I don’t feel like I’ve outgrown the hobby or am ready to leave it behind. But I also don’t feel like I should be forced to play genres I hate just for the pleasure of moving characters around a screen and interacting with a game world.


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