Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Equilibrium of Divinity

With possibly one of the most uninspiring names for a turn based RPG, I was still intrigued by the promotional media available on this title and the level of depth that seemed to be on offer.

Let me list the important "attracting" factors:

  • Procedurally generated levels
  • Resource collection and crafting
  • 6 adventurer party that was fully customisable
  • turn based exploration and tactical combat
  • elaborate magic school system
  • Progression in stats, combat skills, profession, support skills & magic
So I thought "why not?"

Everything screams "homebrew", but, once inside the game you can see this is a labour of love, and has a depth behind the streamlined interface. You start with an empty party, and can customise your 6 adventurers to your hearts content, saving off specific loadouts/starting skills as templates if you wish. You can swiftly embark, or you can precisely specify what starting equipment to take with you.

You can tailor the difficulty, and you have the option to turn "Ironman" mode on or off. This is basically party permadeath, with a single save - so no save scumming!

A quick embark gives you some food and potions, but leaves you without weapons so your combat effectiveness seemed lacking to begin with, until you had some resources gathered to build rudimentary weapons. This felt like a party based survival game on my first Ironman mode run through.

The procedurally generated levels are intricate enough to have you eager to explore them, but they are not overly complex and opaque, so once you've uncovered the "fog of war", you'll be able to get around pretty swiftly, and will already have your goals set for the next level - whilst you scoop up the remaining resources and bonuses.

The movement of your party is smooth and animated which really helps in investing your concern for the adventurers. Traps, doors, enemies, alters of various effects and loot chests are all uncovered as you explore - roguelike style.

But when you come across an enemy, you enter a tactical combat screen reminiscent of the (Heroes of) Might and Magic series.

Here's where things get interesting.

Each of your party, based on their stats and skills, have an initiative and they are numbered accordingly. The enemy also has an initiative, and it is displayed and interleaves with the adventurers turns, so the combat rounds are reconciled based on this.

You then step through each of your party and choose an action, whether to attack, defend, cast a spell, use an item, equip an item, shift party position in the formation etc. The actions and targets are laid out in a very visual way with coloured arrows (each adventurer gets its own colour).

The combat then plays out, when you Start the Battle and all actions and consequences are listed in a prominent combat log, below the list of enemies and their statuses. Whilst the animations are minimal, you are given the information in a pleasant and engaging way, and that "plan and see" cycle gets more and more intense as the rounds play through.

You can assess your enemy at any point in the proceedings, but you often need quite a high Mythology skill to determine any information about them that might be useful in your decision making process. Here you can see the basics but anything about the Dwarven Militia's abilities, Resistances, or Magical capabilities are masked because my party Mythology skill isn't high enough.

If you can tactically pull off the win, you should be rewarded with XP and some loot.

Your party collects the loot, and any resources it can scavenge from the level, even chopping down trees, looting berries from bushes, milking goats and cows or salvaging weaponry, hair and pelts off your foes.

All resources are valuable if you need to craft your equipment and survive your exploration. This is where the game takes you away from the fantasy combat and pulls you into a more desperate survival game. You need to kill things to get the raw materials, but also to get the XP to level up your crafting skills, to be able to make useful weapons, armour, tools, jewellry, potions or food. Your progress depends upon it, because you don't start out with much in the way of equipment, even if you choose to spend the 50 gold coins before embarking.

The loadout is remarkably easy to organise, although some inventory management needs to be done, depending upon which character in your party does the looting.

The UI is very easy to grasp (which kind of leads me to think it might have been planned as a mobile game at some point). Left click a character to get to Crafting/Loadout screens, Right click a character to get to progression/level up controls for stats, weapons, professions, skills and magic. Very easy to use, but surprisingly deep customisation for such an indie title.

Here are the progression screens:

Weapons showing what has been spent so far, with handy notes on who is the most skilled character in this weapon (so you can spread weapon use/damage type around), as well as having auto-level checkboxes, with the maximum number of points or set a reserve you want keep for future tweaks.

Professions, showing a similar UI setup, but conferring the crafting disciplines employed by each character.

Skills, detailing the general areas of support interests that each character pursues. Mythology helping identify enemy types and their weaknesses. With bonuses like perception for spotting traps and hidden/stealthed enemies, or trap disarming and lockpicking for neutrilising danger and opening up them tough loot chests.

Magic, a gloriously depicted magic school display where you spend experience points into disciplines to open up the layers of the spells available. The system seems quite flexible, and if you sacrifice skill points in other areas, you can adopt two or three magic schools to a certain degree, but from what I can gather, the level of expertise in a particular magical shool determines what spells and how many times you can cast them during battle. I don't think the game adopts a normal "mana" based casting mechanism. It's more limited activations/uses.

With the complexities of each of these systems, the ability to customise your party pretty much how you want it, and the procedurally generated levels, I can see this game providing avid adventurers quite a lot of replayability and longevity.

Once you have fully explored and harvested everything you can from a level you get a summary that scores you and rewards you on how you have done. Before moving you onto the next harder level as you continue your quest.

The story elements may be light on the ground, but there is enough here to keep budding Wizardry/HOMM fans coming back for more, and the game is streamlined enough for you to play it in short bursts and thoroughly enjoy the tinkering, exploration, harvesting and crafting side of things.

If you enjoy your tactical party combat and want a challenge that adds survival gathering and crafting into the mix, you can't go wrong with this title. A shiny gem that flaunts its streamlined cheekiness!

If you're interested in the game, its well worth checking out the feature spotlight videos on Youtube.

Or keep up to date with the devs Twitter feed.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Cosmic Star Heroine

Cosmic Star Heroine is a step back into the world of 16-bit JRPG's, but with a eye to the future of streamlining the mechanics for modern era players. This retro turn based party jaunt is deftly illustrated to invoke nostalgia, but also to unnerve the player into thinking the old ways have somehow been refreshed and renewed. This structural contrast is only enhanced by the 1980's science-fiction cyberpunk futuristic theme of the game.

Developed by Zeboyd Games (veterans at turn based party RPG's such as Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World and Penny Arcades Precipice of Darkness) kickstarted the game in early 2014 with an estimated delivery in December 2014. A total of 6,400 people backed it for around $132,689. This is obviously a genre that fans want.

After a some lengthy development, the game was finally released in April 2017, and I'm so glad it made it! Onto console as well!

Cosmic Star Heroine is a JRPG with all the usual emo pontification and nonsense removed. It delivers a straight laced but clever Sci-Fi / cyberpunk / spy story hosting unique likeable characters with endearing personalities and tailored skill sets. There is a diverse cast of eleven characters on offer with a maximum of four in your party at any given sequence.

The tactical choices available are numerous, with a variety of elemental attacks, stuns, disarms, poisons (for organics), hacks (for robotics) to name a few. The characters have specialised weapons, affinities and elemental preferences, whether they are melee brawlers or ranged attackers, you can mix and customise your party to provide a tailored composition for efficiency or survival.

I am really drawn to "Gunmancy" the magical art of summoning firearms and laying down a hail of fire. 

One of the more appealing features is that the turn based combat simply opens into the existing area where you engaged the enemy. This does away with the immersive jolt of being whisked into a separate almost unrecognisable area to deal with each battle. You actually fight, in the place you've just been travelling through. It doesn't have a massive impact on the tactical game, but it does shift the flow of combat to a much smoother experience.

There are no random battles, you will see the enemies in the world, before you choose whether to fight or not. Each of your abilities can usually only fire once, unless you recharge your skills which takes a turn. The mechanic plays into a rotation mindset where you have to plan the sequence of characters skills to drop in the most co-ordinated way, to hopefully boost each others effectiveness and also to cover the downtime and outages caused by the recharge. There are two other interesting combat features that play into this cyclic method: "style" which builds as you use your abilities, and which makes subsequent actions more potent or spend it all in a burst attack! and also "hyper" again on another almost bio-rhythmic cycle of boost and bust, builds up over a couple of turns, and when it comes to fruition affords double damage on your attacks or a better chance that your spoiling actions land. Juggling these three mechanisms whilst marrying your attacks between different characters in the party setup is the key to dominating the enemy. 

Some of the action is choreographed well and drops surprises on you in terms of scale and presentation. One of my favourite early moments in the game is where you battle a giant robot, and then pilot the robot yourself. This pushing of the expected boundaries into areas where all you can do is lean back, say "Wow!", and marvel at the spectacle of it all. The unexpected novelty coated in the comfortable familiar 16-bit paintwork is truly worth the price of admission.

The pixel art is stunning, it's hand crafted with animated cut scenes, intricate cyber-streetscapes and harsh sci-fi complexes. The planetary exploration never feels like a chore, its an adventure in just how to craft something using older technology to captivate the player.

Soundwise its an over the top homage to 80's cyberpunk electronica and it really sets the tone for the game as a whole. You can listen to the HyperDuck SoundWorks previews on Soundcloud.

The game is a real pleasure to play, as long as you enjoy party based tinkering and working the unique combat system in clever ways to triumph over your enemies.

However, be warned, it will give you a thirst for Cyberpunk and you'll spend the rest of your year searching for other games that will deliver the same dystopian buzz.

For everything Cyberpunk be sure to check out Neon Dystopia, a news and opinion site that keeps you up to date with the latest and greatest cyberpunk content.