Age of Wonders: Planetfall (Review)

Source: Hard parted with Cashmoneys. Worth it though.
Price: £41.99 (Look, there’s DLCs and a Season pass…)
Where to Get It: Steam

Space Opera is, in a way, a high fantasy all of its own. Want space elves? You can have space elves. Want space dwarves? Sure, no prob. Want a monolithic evil empire? Well, we all have those days. So Age of Wonders: Planetfall is not, strictly speaking, that big a leap from the fantasy shenanigans of previous games. Spells are now Tactical Operations, roving monsters are often NPC factions (Not all of which have a player faction equivalent), and overall? There’s a lot of interesting changes here, all of which seem to improve that AoW experience.

I get the distinct feeling we’re naming them, rather than using their names…

For those who don’t get the fuss about Age of Wonders, it’s a long running 4X franchise which has boasted many factions, asymmetric gameplay elements in later instalments, and some cool worlds of high fantasy. Well, now it’s science fiction. Turn based, with a hex based combat system when you get into it with units, and… Well, let’s talk systems.

As noted, there’s a lot of changes, but the two biggest, to my mind, are the Mod system for units, which extends the utility of units, especially Tier I units, quite a lot, and allows a fair amount of customisation, and the ability to research both your military and social researches at the same time, which… Really streamlines play, and I like that! In addition, factions and classes further mix things up both in the unit and research side of things (Species who choose the Voidtech class, for example, get Void Walkers, beings who can clone themselves before a seemingly unwinnable fight, and if they die? Well… Their clone is now them, because they were time travelling, and you had the bonus of doing damage to a creature outside of your current strength)

There’s many enemies, always enemies. But they will fall before the superior meld of biology… And technology

The system of base building has also been rejigged, and I also quite like this. Before this, it was done in a slightly more traditional 4X manner, with building cities, expanding them, and the main difference was in Outposts (to extend your territory without building another city) and Watchtowers (Extend the vision range of whoever owns them.) In Planetfall, it’s a collection of territories, and expansion is through exploiting a sector within range (preferably connected), and then building an exploitation on that point. Forward Bases can pre-emptively claim a territory, although anyone who wants to either destroy that or take that claim for their own can certainly try, so defending forward bases is… An interesting dynamic, since the game doesn’t generally encourage hordes of units, overall.

It’s somewhat refreshing, after the hullabaloo (enjoyable hullabaloo, but hullabaloo nonetheless) of Age of Wonders, to see the turns just… Glide by, relatively speaking. And it helps that, aesthetically, Planetfall is very much on point. The UI remains the same, and is mostly readable and well organised (occasionally, there’s a button or two that confuses a little, but it’s easy to learn), the music is fitting and gets the mood going along with things, and the worlds are, again, clear about what’s what. There is also hotseat, always a favourite of mine, for anything up to 12 players (Which is a fair bit more than the current number of factions, but the existence of a DLC Season Pass implies, as with Age of Wonders 3, that more is planned.)

I do enjoy a good warrior woman. Almost as much as my queer readers do.

So… I don’t really have any gripes about Age of Wonders: Planetfall. Some folks might get turned on by the extra login (as they might have done with Age of Wonders 3), but many a 4X or Grand Strategy player already has a Paradox account, so… Overall, it gets a recommendation for 4X players, with the only advice for those new to AoW being “Save often, but especially before fights, so you can learn how it all works without as much frustration.”

The Mad Welshman is torn between factions. So he spends most of his time with Planetfall banging his toys together and making “pew pew!” noises in Hotseat. He absolutely will not apologise for this. More 4X’s need hotseat.

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Thea 2: The Shattering (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I appreciate modular difficulty sliders. I appreciate the ability to customise one’s experience somewhat. I appreciate survival, and I appreciate 4Xs. What I am not, strictly speaking, so fond about, however, is when the percentage of your “Normal” difficulty is 150% difficulty. That, and needing to survive 100 turns on “Normal” difficulty, are a fair portion of my irritation with Thea 2: The Shattering, a survival 4X that I had taken a look at in Early Access.

This, for example, has a better chance of happening. Which, considering how few folks you start with…

And, just to make this clear, the game has improved from last time, in several important senses. But in terms of feeling whether the devs actually want me, someone who isn’t dealing amazingly well with Thea’s particular brand of conflicting desires, to see more of its content? Thaaat’s not so hot still.

So, let’s back up a second, quick recap: World’s Nordic in flavour, pantheistic, got a bit of a problem with the world maybe ending sometime in the near-ish future. And your deity has chosen you to lead a small group of folks to grow, to expand, and hopefully to survive long enough to find out what the Darkness is, and, best case scenario, how to defeat it. And, being fair to the developers, they have introduced more to help deal with that. An extra modular difficulty setting, allowing you to autoresolve conflicts more easily (or with more difficulty.) A lumber building that gives wood, even if there’s no wood nearby. That sort of thing.

A new deity is useful, it’s true. But it takes about 400 odd turns of good play per deity to get one…

But, in the end, here’s the thing. As I mentioned right at the top, unlocking more things is a royal pain in the ass. I need 9 God Points to get a new Deity to try out. I need at least 5 to get new potential starting bonuses (At least some of which are locked behind their respective Deities.) I will, if I do well on “Normal” difficulty (Surviving at least 100 turns, completing various events) gain… Maybe 3. For about an hour and a half worth of play, maybe more. And “Normal” difficulty is tough, not least because of conflicting desires.

It wants you to move from Island to Island. It wants you to do events. But it also wants you to hunker down, because this adds its own benefits. It wants you to spread, but gives a pittance of children and growth, slowly depleting the resources, and increasing the hostility. And, in essence, the games feel the same, because they tread along the exact same path. Here, the Witch’s hut, and gathering food, and finding a settlement. There, the Cmuch prince, the Wisps, the Demon Games. That very sameyness means that, to unlock more Gods, more things that maybe help you get further, you have to tread the same path over, and over, and over again, and…

It’s well written. But it’s also something like the 20th time I’ve seen it.

…Thea 2 has some interesting ideas. It has an interesting world. But I’ve never really felt like the game wants me to explore that world, to look down its path. And, even with the narrative conceit that yes, the world is hostile, it is not a game that resists being played in a fun way. It merely resists, struggling against being enjoyed, and that saddens me.

The Mad Welshman wants games to be enjoyed. Sometimes, the games themselves don’t help.

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Thea 2: The Shattering (Early Access Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £19.99
Where To Get It: Steam

Survival 4X. Not words you generally hear, those. And a big part of that is that a 4X, itself, isn’t easy to balance. Adding survival elements, narrative elements, and quest elements can make that process more painful.

Such, so far, is the case with Thea 2: The Shattering. A sequel to Thea 1, which had similar mechanics and themes, Thea 2 is a 4X where your small group must survive, grow, and survive as long as possible, hopefully to find some solution to the Shattering, the death of the world.

Yeah, about that… Good luck with it. See, there are two mandatory types of resource for survival, and if you do not have those anywhere within range, your options are fatally limited.

The upside is that this is potentially a pretty good site. The downside , however, is that one of my four team-members is already dead, and morale is so terrible some of the others won’t help. WELP.

You start with some food, and surviving for enough turns on Normal difficulty will earn you God Points, which can be used to get extra benefits on start, but even with those… Currently, surviving even the early game is a painful, frustrating slog. Sometimes, it’s because you can’t find a good camp-site anywhere nearby, and have to subsist, while the world and its inhabitants do their best to wear you down through random events (often hostile), wandering monsters and lairs (most hostile at night), and events that you want to complete for better resources, but not winning those events will likely lead to the death of group members, which, considering how few events give you group members (even fewer if you are all of one gender, as sometimes happens), is a lingering death sentence all of its own.

Find somewhere to camp, and, on the one hand, you now have somewhere to stay, that can support you within its (limited) range as you scavenge and adventure. The downside being that you still have the hostile events, beasts, limited replenishment, and whatnot, with not being able to take everybody adventuring, and… Well, should you lose adventurers out of range, well, that’s a different kind of slow, lingering death.

Both of these tasks are difficult. And even “Choose not to participate” may have results. Choose very carefully (and make sure you know your stats and abilities early on, otherwise you probably won’t choose wisely.)

There’s a lot of slow, lingering death here, is basically what I’m getting at. And part of this feels like conflicting directions of play, neither of which, at the present stage, feel balanced or complete. Quests demand that you wander, as does diplomacy with the other factions present, but once you settle down, your ability to complete those quests safely drastically goes down, even as you have achieved relative safety for your camp. At the same time, proper crafting and gathering, cooking, researching and rituals all demand a campsite, but that diminishes your ability to further the storyline. The game wants to deal with a small group, that much is clear. But it also wants you to roam free, which is only do-able after a lot of safety ensuring at the campsite to start with.

In essence, each play direction (both necessary for completion) brings down the other. And the frustrating part is that I’m sure there could be a balance between the two that changes it from what it currently is (Slow, frustrating, and often involving slow deaths where it’s much easier to cash in what few God Points you have, if any, before the game finishes its slow descent into “Everyone has died.”) to something genuinely interesting.

Tooltips are very helpful here, but the main thing you need to know here is that everyone except the house demon is dead, Dave. Everyone.

And, make no mistake, there are hints of something interesting here. There’s an interesting, Russian myth inspired fantasy world. There’s some solid hand-painted visuals, and, aside from the camp screen being a little cluttered and hard to decipher at first, it tooltips well. Its controls still have some issues (Mostly movement/selection frustrations, and the practice of making a second group a little more tedious than it needs to be), and, being an early access title, there’s been some particularly odd bugs (such as scavengers vanishing from trying to harvest a resource that simultaneously exists on the map, but presumably doesn’t in the code somewhere), but it shows promise. The problem being that the promise is currently obscured by imbalanced play goals, “Normal” difficulty still being a pretty harsh early game (Once the early game is passed, it gets somewhat easier), and nothing that prevents or even ameliorates a death spiral that I can see.

As such, Thea 2 is currently a game I want to like. But it’s not really letting me.

The Mad Welshman doesn’t really have much to add, unfortunately. It’s interesting, but distinctly unfriendly right now.

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Oriental Empires (Review)

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

A key to good 4X design, I’ve often found, is understanding. That seems like a simple thing, but sadly, we’ve seen it proven time and time again over the years that it’s not. Oriental Empires is a strategy game set in ancient China, and its UI is… Not the friendliest.

The latest heir of my empire, being annoying and blocking my authority/culture meter.

In fact, the game as a whole isn’t very friendly. Considering that games don’t exist in a vacuum, this… Is kind of a big deal. Small text, smaller tooltips, and further information behind easy to miss subtabs left a bad taste in my mouth.

A bad taste that, sadly, only worsened when I found out about Local Factors. Hidden behind about three layers of interaction (Click banner, click unrest icons for general unrest details, click Dissatisfaction) is a number, contributing to your chance of revolt… That cannot be directly affected, and changes over time because… Well, to all practical intents and purposes, because reasons.

There’s not so much a tutorial as “A 40+ page in-game manual and an advisor that will tell you about things after you’ve worked out how to do them.” The actual effect of buildings and research (Outside of combat related improvements, it generally boils down to “Gives Happiness”, “Gives Authority”, “Unlocks a resource exploiter”, and “Makes some bad events less bad.” ) are hidden under popups (The wee texty bars lookin’ icon shows or hides that.) Occasionally, those popups will obscure information that you need, such as when an Heir comes along, randomly, and covers up the Authority and Culture meters you need to, for example, judge how many settlements you can build without added resentment (A brief irritation, but one of, as noted, quite a few.) Does it play well?

Okay, so I want you and you to flank so as to cut off retr- Which part of “Cut off Retreat” did you not understand, soldiers?

Honestly, not really. Outside of combat largely seems like an afterthought, especially in the early game, where resources are rare, and you are both encouraged to land grab and, er… Not exceed your Authority (which controls how many cities you can own without dissatisfaction) for fear of rebellions. Buildings have a high upkeep, so you’re rarely dealing with that, conquering things is a bad idea, due to that aforementioned Authority issue…

It makes the early game painful, in more senses than one. It doesn’t really help that combat, also, doesn’t feel like you have all that much control over it. Simultaneous turns means that you may well have trouble pinning down your opponent for a fight, and when you do get in a fight? Well, enemies will escape, so you have to start the whole palaver again, having multiple battles in a single round with a single force if you’ve preset your movement right, or fighting over multiple turns if you don’t (The correct method, generally, seems to be “Into the enemy and past them in the direction you think they’re most likely to run for as many movement points as you feel you can manage.) It doesn’t particularly feel engaging, especially as multiple fights are likely to break out in a single turn, and combat tactics are limited. Why did my units mill about aimlessly for most of a combat with a charge, but efficiently (if extremely widely) flank when I asked them to? No idea. I’m not told. Oh, and no, cutting off retreat with just the units you have is not an option. The enemy will retreat. Multiple times.

Really, these problems, these lack of clarity, kill the game for me, and it doesn’t particularly help that, visually, it doesn’t feel all that interesting either. The music is fitting, at least, but it doesn’t really redeem a game that will sometimes tell you useful things after you need them, sometimes just not tell you, and has many a turn passing with… Well, nothing of note happening. Kind of saddening, really.

This rain turned red as blood, and almost caused a rebellion. Funnily, most bad things seem to be “Causes unrest.”

The Mad Welshman finds no happiness here. 

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Stars In Shadow + Legacy DLC (Review)

Source: Review Copy
Price: £18.99 Base Game, Legacy DLC £3.99
Where To Get It: Steam

I’d missed Stars In Shadow the first time around, sadly, but, thanks to a nice, cheap DLC introducing a new race, hey, I get to review it! Isn’t that nice? Wait, a cyborg race worshipping a computer that comprises most of their planet? Even better!

Awww, wookitdawiddle religious murderbots!

So, for those who, like me, missed Stars In Shadow, the basic idea is that it’s a relatively simple, very friendly to play turn based strategy game in space, where you raise an alien species (or, y’know, humans) with differing specialities and flaws to the stars in a micro-universe. Usually, it must be said, through building lots of ships and tanks, murderising the heck out of everyone else, while researching ways to keep your economy going and build better, murderier tanks and ships.

Okay, so there’s maybe other victory conditions too, like allied victory and winning the galactic presidency… But blowing ships up is, honestly, a skill you’ll need throughout. Also it involves building your very own Dread Star, and how many can turn that down?

Because this is mainly to do with the DLC, however, let us note that the majority of my playtime has been with the Tinkers, the cybernetic race who possess the upside of not needing food, and the downside of… Well, tying up an entire planet’s resources every time they want to increase their otherwise slow to grow population. Dagnabbit, game abstractions! They also convert population by, effectively, borging them, which is a shame, because they otherwise seem like very nice theocrats who worship a planet computer.

The Herald, who, sadly, had to make bank off someone else… Who got the sweet, sweet technologies I didn’t.

Which is a sentence I never thought I’d say. In any case, even if the Legacy DLC just involved a playable faction, it would be reasonably priced, but there’s also an added NPC race (The Arda Seed, who are treefolk), and… The Herald. The Herald’s an interesting one, as he flies about the galaxy, visiting pretty much every race, and offering them a leg up, research wise, in exchange for materials. It adds a bit of much needed spice.

There’s actually a fair bit added for the price, and that’s somewhat nice, because, as is, Stars In Shadow is very streamlined. It’s friendly enough that I would certainly recommend it as an entry point into Space 4X games, and the turn based combat is pleasant, as is the ship design system, but… I freely admit I have a little trouble saying much because I’m rather used to different fare by now. Is Stars In Shadow good? Alas, not for me personally. But, as mentioned, it’s a friendly and mostly accessible entry point into the 4X genre, and games are relatively quick. A 50 star game can be finished in a couple of hours, either to victory or defeat, and when it does end in defeat, it’s usually pretty clear what you had problems with. And the Legacy DLC? Well, it adds a bit more depth, a bit more challenge, and an entirely new race to play with for a very reasonable price.

A good example of an early game mistake: Taking on space pirates with only starting weaponry. So consider this “1 turn before Bad Things Happen.”

The Mad Welshman likes robot factions. It’s one of the easier ways to his heart.

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