Dawn of Andromeda (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

Real Time Strategy in space has always been a tough proposition. Mainly because space is big, and the early game of any such endeavour can, done “realistically”, have all the fun of watching paint dry, while the mid to late game can be plagued with doing a thing wrong, then not realising for a good hour (or until it’s too late, whichever comes sooner.) Dawn of Andromeda, sadly, is no different in this, despite a potentially interesting main campaign.

Pictured: an interesting *description*

Let’s talk about that campaign narrative a little, because honestly, it’s a feature I see very little of in the old 4X (eXpand, eXplore, eXploit, eXterminate) genre these days, and one involving multiple alien races in a grand tapestry of war, tragedy, and shenanigans? Sign me u-

Oh. Oh wait. I can’t find that mercenary I just hired and sent to kill a bounty for my current best friends, the Sython (Who the Terran Empire totally isn’t going to go to a long, expensive war with several times over the next few millennia before somebody else screws it all up.) Wait, I found him again, and… Wait, I lost a survey ship? When did I? Oh, while I was watching this guy half a galaxy away. Meanwhile, I’m debating which of the more far flung colony worlds I should try expanding to, in the hope I can actually defend them.

Space is not only big, but also rather sparse. This is something I’m not actually that fond of being reminded of in space opera games, for some reason.

What I’m getting at here, folks, is that Dawn of Andromeda is not the friendliest of games. There are three game speeds (not counting pause), and while they’re marked “Slow”, “Normal”, and “Fast”, I have different names for them: “Can actually see a fight happening”, “Can watch bars slowly tick up”, and “The speed I go at while I’m waiting for things to happen.” Pause is pretty much my default state while I try to work out what the hell is going on with my scouts and survey ships and, in one particular case, watching a bounty slowly, but surely, escape the guy I’d just hired to take it.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot to take in, adding to the “A lot of the time you will be paused.” Understanding an alien race enough to talk to them is a research project, taking time away from your research. Adding to a world’s power requires an infrastructure investment, which will cost you some money a turn until it’s done. You have an approval rating, which will cause rebellions if it’s low, and goes up and down based on… Factors. Decent living conditions help, as does an assigned councillor who isn’t an asshole. It’s not very colour blind friendly, to the point where, zoomed in to a point where I have two ships chasing each other in my field of view, I can’t actually see the things without straining my eyes (Drag selecting will only select the ship I directly control.)

It tries to help, really it does. It has “Zoom in here” icons in the planet tables, fleet tables, anomaly tables… But the main screen is a mess. The UI isn’t the friendliest. Ships can chase each other for a long time without fights happening, and ships attacking from the front will move toward said fast ship, then tail along behind it, losing it like the other poor bastards chasing it in the first place. Providing you have the foresight (and opportunity) to pull such a maneuver off in the first place.

Gripping [YAWN] Space combat. [YAWN] Honest!

I’m sure the game has some interesting things in it. I’m sure it has something, some potential. But I’m finding frustration in even the easiest of scenarios (Where I am informed, and tentatively agree, that even finding the alien worlds may well eat up the whole 2 years allotted for “survival”), boredom from the sparse universe, and quickly realising that it amounts to “Build lots of ships, point them at whatever enemy while holding your own worlds safe”, despite its other trappings. As I am occasionally forced to say, the game resists being played.

The Mad Welshman accepts that Space is big. But surely it’s more interesting than this?

Going Back: Dungeon Hack

Goodness me, that rhymed. Lovely. Well, anyway, once again, it’s time to set the Wayback Machine, and the interesting game for this outing to the groggy times of yore is Dungeon Hack, the only official, licensed Dungeons and Dragons roguelike. Which is highly amusing when you consider how much early roguelikes (And even some modern ones) have been influenced by 2nd Edition DnD.

Dungeon Hack, released just after another title I’ve briefly dealt with, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, uses an interface very similar to the Eye of the Beholder games. Similar enough, in fact, that I’m halfway convinced it’s the same engine, despite being developed by Dreamforge (Who, like SSI, created strategy and roleplaying titles, and did not survive 2001.) Nonetheless, it’s not the engine, so much as the visual style that impresses. There are several different level themes, all of them have a variety of different locks, tapestries, paintings, and gewgaws, and, if it weren’t for the rest of it, I would say that every run is a refreshing and different experience.

One of something like… An absolutely *silly* number of potential locks.

Unfortunately, I’m not saying that. Every run is, in fact, a tedious nightmare that often ends on dungeon level 2, due to the mechanical aspects of the design. Procedural generation has come a long way since the days of rogue, ADOM, and the like, and Dungeon Hack shows one of the weaknesses of early experiments… It’s predictable, and the difficulty curve is not so much a slope as one of the cyclopean steps of Great Cthulhu’s abode. As is often the case with roguelikes, there is a single, playable character.

But many of the monsters in AD&D are, in fact, balanced around groups taking them on. A perfect example of this is the main monstrous feature of the second dungeon level: The humble Ghoul. The Ghoul is normally a cowardly eater of the dead, picking on things it thinks it can eat, and making corpses when… Well, the corpses it normally feeds on are scarce. To aid it, it has a paralytic venom in its claws and fangs. Now, to be perfectly fair to the developers of Dungeon Hack, unlike in Eye of the Beholder, when your character is paralysed, they can still move (but not attack or use items), whereas if a mass paralyse from a Beholder hit in EoB 1’s later levels, you were pretty much dead.

The problem arises, then, from the fact that it’s corridors… And rooms. And corridors predominate. Corridors in which the other monster type that always inhabits the second level, the Troglodyte (in 2E, a stronger, but less intelligent relative of the lizardman) are very likely to ambush someone who hasn’t cleared the way behind them, and, even then, may get surprised by a respawn. As a Mage, you may just about have fireball at this point (Requiring a rest after every cast to regain it… We’ll come back to resting), as a warrior, you don’t really have any recourse except that old first person RPG technique of the sideways shuffle (Exploiting the AI in… Er… A room… To, er…Well, crap, that sort of invalidates it in a large set of situations, doesn’t it?), and it’s only as a Priest that you get… Turn Undead. Which, on the one hand, you have an infinite supply of. On the other, it’s not guaranteed to work, and you’re not guaranteed to hit on the attack that will break the Ghoul out of its “OhGodsAHolySymbolRunRunRun” mode Turn Undead tends to put it in.

Ghouls. There are many words I have to say about a lone adventurer fighting even small groups of ghouls. The vast majority of it is unprintable, even here.

So yeah, the difficulty’s a little sharp. Adding to this tedium is the predictability of monsters. Yes, you will always encounter Ghouls and Troglodytes on level 2. Just as you will always encounter Goblins and Orcs on level 1, with only the occasional Out of Depth monster to liven things up… Usually in a rather fatal manner.

And then, there are the keys. I mentioned before that there are a variety of different locks, and hoo boy, does the game use as many as it can. Each locked door has a specific key type. I’ve never encountered a situation where the key was behind a door, but each level becomes a case of three things: A sweep and clear, not unlike those annoying missions in Hero Quest and Space Crusade (Remember those?) where the victory condition was “Kill everything”; A hunt for various keys (Ice keys, flower keys, gold keys, chrome keys, platinum keys, bone keys, missing bull horns… The list is quite large); And, another staple of first person games and DnD RPGs of the time, either being a Dwarf, able to sense secret doors, or looking at the map, noticing large empty spaces, and wondering which of the walls you’re going to try and walk into will, in fact, turn out to be illusory.

Fun! It’s interesting to look at a game like this, because it has a lavish (if overacted) introductory cutscene (Involving the sorceress/demigod/secret deity… I forget which… Who sends you on the quest, and Sir Not Appearing In This Game, possibly the biggest, dumbest adventurer I’ve seen since Lands of Lore’s Conrad “The Scones Are Still Intact” McAdventurerson), a lot of thought put into a lot of locks and tapestries and statuary and fun things that mostly don’t have any bearing beyond looking pretty (Which I approve of), and yet… Once you get past that, there’s almost no balance, a steep difficulty spike on the 2nd level, and even less context than Angband or Nethack, relative contemporaries (1990 and 1987-2015.)

…I smell a cutscene, VO so fine!

Would I recommend playing it for enjoyment? Oh, Mystra, no! Would I, however, encourage budding developers to look at it critically? If you’re into procgen, licensed RPGs, and step/tile-based first person RPGs, yes. Because it is, to me, interesting to examine. Even if the examination can be… Rather painful.

I’ll get you, Ghouls. And your little frogs, too…

Endless Space 2 (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £26.24 standard, £33.73 Digital Deluxe
Where To Get It: Steam

Since the inception of Amplitude in 2011 (An event I remember with some small fondness), the studio have experimented with 4X genre constraints with their Endless series of games (With a little side trip into the roguelike/tower defense genre with Dungeons of the Endless.) They’re an interesting studio, with an interesting model, and, as a result, their games are often interesting. Not always standing the test of time, but often putting new ideas into the game development community.

Political Parties, new to Endless Space 2!

Endless Space 2, so far, is shaping up to be no different in that respect. As such, it’s already a somewhat different beast to the original Endless Space, taking what they’ve learned from Endless Legend to fiddle with the space 4X formula. And the five factions currently available, a mix of the rejiggered old, and completely new, demonstrates this quite aptly.

It also demonstrates that sometimes I don’t get on with aspects of the experimentation, as the first new faction, the Vodyani, demonstrates.

In the Endless Universe (Now rebooted, in a sense, for Endless Space 2), the Vodyani are one half of the uplift philosophies of the two “Endless” precursor alien groups that have left their mark on the universe, the Virtual. Virtual beings seemingly made of flame, the Vodyani are slow burners on the game front, due to their core mechanic: Both population growth and colonisation are tied to Essence, which can either be extracted from Dust (Tying up your production queue) or from other life forms (Tying up your military and souring diplomacy pretty much everywhere they go.) They can move from system to system with their Arks (Heavily armed and armoured space Titans), and it’s only when they attach themselves to a world that they colonise it. Or, you can go with their slow as molasses population growth

Dun Dundrrrun dun du-du-du-dun DAA DAA DAA DA DA-DAAAA DA DA-DAAAA!

But when they do, unlike other races, each counter of population applies to each planet they can colonise. They’re this strange mix of strong and fragile, as I discovered when I found the Ark… Couldn’t defend against a ground invasion. Cue one lost game. One of many.

I’ve had a much better time, by contrast, with the slightly more conventional factions: The United Empire, The Sophons, and the Lumeris (I’ve never been good at playing Cravers, but they seem largely unchanged from ES1, in the sense that being penned in is the worst thing that can happen to them, and conquest is the major victory type.) Each one has a different focus (Industry with the UE, Science with the Sophons, and Dust with the Lumeris), and each faction in general has something to bring to the table. For example, the Lumeris buy their colonies, and can trade them if they so desire, while the Sophons research faster if nobody else has the tech yet, allowing their research to… Far, far outpace their industry, if you’re not careful. The main problems right now (I’m almost certain this is subject to change) is that the AI is a little timid once you’ve built up enough force, and doesn’t seem to play the Rock-Paper-Scissors game with beam, energy, and missile weapons so well… Although they’ll still kick your ass on a ground assault without the numbers on your side.

The United Empire: Now much more clearly Not Good People.

It’s entertaining, there’s no doubt about that, as the questline feature from Endless Legend is applied adroitly to each faction (For example, the UE is about the paranoid emperor trying to find and quash dissent), and the new political system, if your economy goes well, can allow for some drastic shifts in focus, although I often find, due to my playstyle and the fact that war empowers them, that the Militarist party is most often in power regardless of faction, although minor races having their own political affiliation helps. The UI is simple and clean, the battle mode has some clarifications and upgrades (Although not full ship control, which I know turns some folks off) …

… But right now, even though I’m finding it fun a fair amount of the time, it’s also oddly frustrating in portions. When a game goes badly, it goes horrifically, depressingly wrong, but when it goes well? I find myself running out of things to do, to build, and so, by about turn 100 on a good game, I’m finding myself hitting the End Turn button twice, once to try, and once to confirm that yes, I’m not building anything in those five or so core systems because my industry has outpaced my research, or there’s nothing that I particularly need at this point. Your mileage, obviously, may vary there. Something that may get fixed before release is that the battles seem to calculate slower as the game goes on, and this can become a bit annoying, and, as the final screenshot shows, some of the faction colours may be a problem for colourblind folks to read.

Still, the writing of the game so far is pleasant, if somewhat stereotypical in places (Space Shark Mafia are quite literally a Mafia, Crime Families and all, for example), the art and ship designs are gorgeous, the music is calming for the most part, and the rebooted universe of the Endless still, somehow, feels fresh.

I just wish I really understood how the Vodyani played, even if I love Sciencing the crap out of people as the Sophons.

The Sophons know, like all good space-dorks, that Science Is A Verb. 8D

The Mad Welshman fully understands the Sophons’ joy. I mean, there’s nothing quite like writing your name on the moon with a giant death laser, is there?

Clockwork Empires (Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Official Page

Clockwork Empires is meant to be a survival management game (Like Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld, or the like, where orders are indirect and resource/building management is important) set in a lovecraftian, jingoistic steampunk world based on a satire of Victorian Britain. Unfortunately, not all of that satire on drudgery and misery is intentional. So… Let’s talk about housing. And cabinets.

Pictured: A sensible decision - Harder biomes need you to succeed in less hard biomes.

Pictured: A sensible decision – Harder biomes need you to succeed in less hard biomes.

Mood is an important factor of Clockwork Empires, as happy labourers and overseers will work an extra shift, whereas despairing ones will slack off, and fearful or angry ones will be actively counterproductive. Obviously, this at least partly means housing them, and making that housing appealing. The workplace must also be prettified, or production will suffer.

There’s just one small problem with this, and the game doesn’t bother to inform you of it: Cabinet Tax. Let us assume, for a moment, that you have 2 labourers, and give them a 3×3 house with 2 windows, a door, and a bed. They aren’t happy with it, they aren’t unhappy with it… But you may have noticed the population count go up by 6. Because each of those houses can add population. So, when those labourers inevitably turn up, you build 6 more of these houses. And now you have many more labourers than you know what to do with, eating your food. Each building has a Quality Level, and this is, effectively, based on cabinets (and shrines for houses) in the early game. So, building individual housing? That’s… 12 cabinets to build to make them happy. The situation then becomes more clear when you turn to the workplace. Let’s use the carpenter as an example. You need a workstation (for cutting wood, making paper, etc), an assembly station (To build other workstations), and a décor station to build wood decorations. Y’know, like cabinets. But each of those workstations beyond the first reduces the Quality of a building, making workers unhappy. And when you try and build your first labourer housing more efficiently (7 beds, for the two workers you have, and the 5 you’ll eventually get.) you realise that this applies to houses too (For lo, the bed is a workstation as far as quality goes. I can understand why, few folks enjoy bunking long-term.) So your efficient solution still requires 12 cabinets for maximum happiness (6 for the extra beds, 6 for max Quality)

Not only have we a rare example of a nasty thing happening, you may note I don't have enough cabinets.

Not only have we a rare example of a nasty thing happening, you may note I don’t have enough cabinets.

So, for a good, efficient first labourer house, you’re looking at at least a 14 x 10 building (Space for beds, and space for at least two windows, and 12 cabinets/shrines. After that, it’s a little easier, as you’re only catering for 4 or 5 labourers at a time, but as it is, you have a minimum “happiness tax” on all your buildings of 1.5 logs x (Number of Workstations/Beds -1) , and, obviously, the extra time and labour to make them. And no, you can’t just make more work buildings of the same type to get around this, due to the Overseer system, limiting both your number of workshops, and the number of job types you can do at any one time. Labourers just allow for more of the same job type once assigned, or, in the case of single jobs like mining or farming, doing it quicker. And yes, individual farms count as a job.

The in-game help hints at some of this. Specifically, the overseer job limitation, the fact that mood is affected by decorations, and that houses have conditions (That you won’t know until you build them) on extra population counts. Gee, I hope you found some sand, or can trade for it, because otherwise you’re in big trouble later on!

…Or, of course, you could not know this, and play for several hours, and an in-game month, and watch as your labourers and overseers become less efficient, before you realise what’s going on. It’s not very intuitive, and it may take quite a while for you to realise how badly you’ve made mistakes. Considering that a month of in-game time took me something like 3 or 4 hours to play out, it’s the kind of unfriendliness that turns me off playing for the long periods of time the game obviously wants me to play.

This is what happens when you don't have enough cabi- No, not the communism, the *Despair* ... Can't blame communism on the means of production, friend!

This is what happens when you don’t have enough cabi- No, not the communism, the *Despair* … Can’t blame communism on the means of production, friend!

And this is a damn shame, because the game is visually kind of nice, the music fits the mood very well, changing with events. Unfortunately, the game is best described as “plodding”, “unintuitive”, and “frustrating.” I can’t select things behind buildings, even with the walls visually turned off. If I want to know what kind of mine I can build on a survey point, and there’s anything in the way, well… Good fucking luck without clearing the obstruction, mate!

And eldritch things and events. Oh, how those make me sad. Just before release, I had played a full month, and, while some eldritch things did happen, such as an invasion of moon-balls, another of eldritch cuboids and polyhedrons, and at least seven or eight obviously occult things dug up, the one death was from… Bandits. And that was because I hadn’t switched to my better weaponry because I hadn’t properly understood that 1 set of stone pellets equalled about 100 rounds. Meanwhile, the entire time, said eldritch gewgaws, such as a canopic urn that was actually a klein bottle, sat happily vibrating or lurching awkwardly in spacetime in between the maize chowder, some planks, and some coal that had eventually been put there by my heavily depressed people.

It's such a shame that their normal reaction isn't "Try and break it" or "Try and worship it", but "Put it next to the paperwork." On the one hand, very British. On the other, very little drama until *much* later on...

It’s such a shame that their normal reaction isn’t “Try and break it” or “Try and worship it”, but “Put it next to the paperwork.” On the one hand, very British. On the other, very little drama until *much* later on…

When the game goes well, it goes really well, and you can build up some serious cities in the limited space allotted to you, researching cool things, arming your soldiery with lightning guns (Leyden Weaponry) and clockwork armour, oppressing the fishy natives, and generally being the colonial asshole you may have dreamed you are. But to get there, you have to struggle with odd limitations, an AI that isn’t entirely sure if it’s coming or going, and a UI that makes the increased busywork from more colonists more and more a matter of hitting pause and checking things, slowing the game’s pace even when things begin to get interesting. And I’m really not certain I’m up to that.

The Mad Welshman liked his new Shining Trapezohedron. It set off the Crystal Egg, the Green Soapstone bookends of unknown providence, and the Eldritch Tomes he’d been collecting from the book club. Just another day…

Clockwork Empires (Early Access Review)

Source: Early Access Purchase
Price: £22.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Official Page
Version: Beta 54.

I love me some Lovecraftian fiction. Yes, he was racist as hell, and a lot of his horror stories were based on that, but they’re enjoyable nonetheless. Similarly, I love me some fictional jingoism. Real life jingoism? Sucks. I mean, you only have to turn on the news to see sabers being rattled to see that. Finally, I love me some Steampunk, despite the fact that, often, it’s classist as hell. You rarely see the working man in such settings, only the rich idle going on adventures. But it’s an interesting aesthetic done right.

As such, your first instinct, considering Clockwork Empires contains all three, would be to say that I like this game. Eeeeeehhhhh…. Sort of. It’s like a banana-curry-chocolate cake, in that it contains things I like, but the whole? Not so much. Let’s start with the fact it’s somewhat unfriendly to new players.

There's a lot going on here. Not a lot of it is explained well.

There’s a lot going on here. Not a lot of it is explained well.

Now, yes, before you say anything, it’s a survival strategy game, those tend not to hold your hand, but while the tutorial does indeed teach well (This is your early game order, etc, etc), the UI… Needs work. For example, you may wonder, if you play the game, how to stop seeing a farm’s statbox. Farms are, apparently, offices… So it’s the office button next to “Work Crews.” Some things work just by mousing over, such as the population and food button, others stay up until you left click the “Cancel” button that appears at the top, and there don’t appear to be keybindings in the Beta of Clockwork Empires.

Basically, it’s busy, it’s not very well explained, and as such, it makes a game in a genre that’s already quite slow even slower with all the pausing I’m doing. On the upside, the people are fairly readable. If they’re clomping around, they’re particularly annoyed. If they’re doin’ the Strut, they’re happy, if their heads and arms are down, they’re sad, and if their arms are waving and they’re on fire, something has probably gone wrong. Y’know, as it often does in such games. Of course, all that stops when they actually start a job, which is a shame… But at least you have some warning.

Visually, it’s much like the UI: Busy, lovely to look at in places, but not overly readable as a result. This, by the way, is nothing to do with the colourblind function (Which is a nice touch), but just the sheer amount of things and textures on view, and how a fair amount of it actually is useless. Add in the houses and workshops, and the fact that you can’t click on colonists “behind” them even if you have the walls off, and you start to have problems. Happily though, the music is fairly calming, and helps lower the irritation factor. Somewhat.

"We need Graveyard Space [But we decided to stop flattening terrain because we're workshoppers now...]"

“We need Graveyard Space [But we decided to stop flattening terrain because we’re workshoppers now…]”

In any case, as you might have guessed, the game is all about tough choices. Day 4 of my colony saw a bandit group incoming, and I was several days away from a Barracks for soldiery. I was a few weeks away from giving them decent weaponry. So I decided to let them raid a little. In other games, I made friends with fishmen (Which is bound not to go sour when home finds out, eh?), discovered an ancient idol, and had a meteor from the moon disgorge… Something. Which thankfully, was beaten off by a warlike Overseer with a stick.

Of course, being a complex game in Early Access, bugs are bound to happen. One to watch out for currently is the infinite workshop job bug, where having more than one workstation in your workshop with the same job can mean that one job correctly registers the job being done, while the other… Doesn’t. In the case of “Minimum X of items”, this can mean you’re building planks forever and ever, whether you need them or not.

I feel kind of sad, actually, because there’s a lot of interesting events, and yet… Bureaucratic bumf and a flawed system bar me from getting to those interesting things. For example, I currently have a bandit corpse lying in my kitchen (Most unsanitary, I think you’ll agree), and yet… I can’t build a graveyard because it has a set space requirement, and nobody seems to want to flatten the terrain. Being a pastiche of Victorian Brits, the workers take a break at tea-time, do not burn the candle at both ends, and, once assigned a job, seem to pursue it with a single mindedness that bars common sense. And, of course, when it rains, it pours, as a day later (Corpse still there, ground un-flattened), the grass and rocks start singing eerily, which may have nasty effects if I don’t clear the ground nearby (A different job in and of itself.) This, basically, is to do with the Overseer system. Rather than have jobs be individually between workers, there are Overseers (Who pick what job there is) and Labourers (Who are assigned to Overseers.)

Bandits and Selenians. The only time I've ever seen a colonist attack something rather than gesture angrily at it.

Bandits and Selenians. The only time I’ve ever seen a colonist attack something rather than gesture angrily at it.

It’s a very management heavy game, even for a strategy survival game, and, honestly? It’s leaving a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, as everything appears to be going wrong. A little late, I realise… Oh, yes, becoming a Workshop Overseer disables all other jobs. A rhythmic “Whud… Whud… Whud…” floats across the colony, mixing with the sound of flies buzzing around a corpse, and the eerie singing of rocks and grass. It’s the morning of Day 8.

In the afternoon, a bandit raid occurs. In the evening, a grimoire is uncovered while trying to make room for the graveyard. Ohhhh boy…

Right now, Clockwork Empires, sadly, feels clunky, unintuitive, and unfriendly rather than challenging. Which is a shame, because I’d like to see more of these strange events and cool things, but the game itself seems to be resisting any pace above plodding with some very hard limits on what can be done, and a lack of useful explanation for many of its systems and trees. It doesn’t help that some systems appear to have more than one “method”, and it’s unclear which works (Is hunting via the Naturalists’ Office, or via the Hunting labour? And are we not able to hunt before we achieve some sort of iron ranged weapon and the ammunition at all? I wasn’t able to find a clear answer.)

 

Cue nothing happening as a result of this. No, really, it's still there, in the graveyard, an in-game fortnight later.

Cue nothing happening as a result of this. No, really, it’s still there, in the graveyard, an in-game fortnight later.

The Mad Welshman sighed, understanding why the jolly old bureaucrat at the Foreign Office was so delighted to send him on this job. He whiled away his time thinking of synonyms for “Feckless”, “Moaning”, and “Children of Low Breeding” these days…