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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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?

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Endless Space 2 (Review)

Source: Cashmoneys
Price: £34.99
Where To Get It: Steam, Humble Store

Endless Space 2 is big. I mean really big. I mean, you may think it’s a long walk down to the chemist’s, but that’s peanuts compared to Endless Space 2!

Joking reference aside, Endless Space 2 is, as far as turn based strategy where you eXpand, eXplore, eXploit and eXterminate other alien races, most often while playing an alien race yourself, actually quite good. Even if I’m somewhat salty about Amplitude following the current “stance” of “Who even plays hotseat?” (Hi! I do! And so do quite a few of my friends!)

Making this clear right now… The Sophons are totally not my… Adorkable, irresponsible, space babies. Nope.

So let’s get that out the way right now: Multiplayer is online only, none of the playing-with-yourself or risk free theorycrafting shenanigans you’d be used to in some other… Well, quite a few other strategy games, up till relatively recently. If that’s a turnoff, I understand. Let’s get on to the good stuff.

In Endless Space 2, there are eight races, and they all play somewhat differently. This has pretty much been the charm of Amplitude games since the studio arose in 2011, and it’s a skill they’ve been steadily honing through their company life. The Unfallen, for example, with their “branch” system of colonising, are extremely interesting. They can only colonise in lines from the homeworld, and instead of sending a ship full of people, they send a ship that lures space-vines from the homeworld, entangling a system, and then they send the first colonists through the space-vines. On the upside, this means they can stretch out a web of influence, and colonise systems quickly once they have the technology to actually live on the bloody things. On the downside, if somebody happens to conquer a system along that branch, whether there were nice treemen living there or not, everything further down the branch is lost, and, unlike every other faction except the Vodyani, if you lose your homeworld, that’s it. Game over. Caput.

But interest comes in many flavours. A returning faction from the first game, the Sophons, are my dear little science babies, not because they have a different colonisation method, or because they’re game breaking, but because they have accepted that Science is a verb, a noun, a preposition, and… Look, they really like science… Often to their own detriment. And I love them for it, which leads nicely into the narrative end of things.

And it definitely isn’t because they acknowledge as objective fact that Science is a Verb.

Endless Space 2 has race specific questlines. The Sophons, for example, have found themselves in the unenviable position of having created the universe’s first (known) Super-AI, called ENFER, have plugged it into everything they can, and now have to answer a very difficult question: How the heck do we keep it happy? Everybody has their thing, and nobody is very nice. The United Empire, under very Stalinist propaganda, are influence wielding warmongers, the Riftborn just want to live, their perfect, ordered universe having been destroyed by our chaotic, quantum-fuckery filled one (Which, if you think about it, is very much Cosmic Horror), the Horatio (A race of clones) want to make things perfect (IE – All Horatio, because Horatio is perfection), the Cravers are perfectly happy being hungry murderbugs designed to devour entire planets (or are they?) , and…

…Look, there’s a lot of stories here. Not just the eight racial stories, but the stories of individual heroes, the universe (The fallout of a war between two ideologically opposed Super Races who appear to have killed each other, but may not actually be dead, is one familiar to science fiction fans, but is excellently implied), and even of specific worlds, come together in a well written and engaging universe that’s well worth looking at on its own. The UI is mostly friendly and clear (The research “circle” is a little confusing at first, as is how to get to ground force management), the ships have real polish and difference to them, and the music… Electronic heaven, whether its somewhat ambient, as in the title screen, or the more “Ohcrap, things are happening” of the combat tuneage.

Both ground and space combat, for returning Endless players, has had some improvement, with extra choices and tactics at the beginning, but remains “You make choices about range and tactics, then watch the pretty lights and explosions.” Or don’t.

Essentially, if you want to eXplore space, eXpand into new worlds, and eXploit and eXterminate new civilisations, Endless Space 2 is another good one to go for. Like Master of Orion 2016, its difficulty is fairly adjustable, and, as noted, my main bitch with the game is the same one I have with this genre all over in recent years… I just want to have a chill time smashing spaceships and aliens together, by myself, and nobody’s letting me.

The Mad Welshman can’t actually pick a favourite faction. They’re all moustache twirley in their own way, and he loves them all equal- AHAHA SCIENCE FOR THE WIN, YOU CAN’T OUTFIGHT ME IF I OUT-TECH YOU EVERYWHERE!

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