On Original Sin

There were several candidate topics for today, but after playing this game on Monday, it took over most of today’s post. I would apologize, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be hearing about the others eventually.

Divinity: Original Sin

It’s looking like a good year for isometric RPGs. Shadowrun: Dragonfall came out in February and it is excellent. Pillars of Eternity is due out at the end of the year and I have relatively high hopes for it. In between those lies this game, that I completely overlooked both when it was on Kickstarter and later as it appeared on Steam Early Access. The most recent game in a relatively old series, Divinity: Original Sin is an isometric RPG with turn-based battles (similar to Shadowrun Returns or Wasteland 2 in that sense) and is a prequel to the first game in the series, Divine Divinity. (Yes, I think Divine Divinity is a silly title.) Set in the fantasy world of Rivellon, Divinity: OS places you in the role of a pair of Source Hunters, members of an elite group tasked with eliminating Sourcery (spelling 100% taken from Terry Pratchett). I don’t know much else about the plot at this time, but that’s really not what attracted me to the game.

With Friends Like These

Since there are effectively two main characters, the entire game can be played in co-op. If you are joined by a partner during character creation, each person will control one character, otherwise you’ll customize both before setting out. From there, the characters are tossed into the world, free to make independent dialogue choices and combat decisions. Actually playing this way was a lot of fun, and in cases where you and your partner disagree on a course of action, it’s resolved with Rock, Paper, Scissors which is influenced by your stats. You can even escape from combat without your partner, but you may have to locate a resurrection spell if things don’t work out.

Artes Magicae and Artes Militia

As one might expect from an RPG going for an old-school look and feel, there are a plethora of skills that can be improved, abilities that can be learned, and stats governing the use of those. In a slight break from D&D, the stats are Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Speed, and Perception, which mostly cover the things you’d expect. There are skills for each weapon type, five schools of magic (four of which cover the traditional elements), weapon special attacks, roguish things, and some more non-combat skills. These combine to determine the power of the abilities you can use in combat, like a charge attack that has a chance of knocking down things you hit (based on strength), or a spell that does damage and has a chance to blind (based on intelligence).

Putting the ‘R’ In

I spent several hours with this game on Monday, and I’m looking forward to the release date (June 30) so I can play through for real. Of those hours, very few of them were spent in combat. There’s just so much to do, and the writing is both odd and funny. If you’ve played other Divinity games, you may have some idea of what to expect. I haven’t played enough to speak to long-term balance or the overarching narrative, but if this is what we can expect from modern games in this style, I hope we get many more.

On Roles

I’ve noticed that whenever a game gets mentioned as a negative experience on Aggrochat, the game is usually Guild Wars 2. Occasionally it’ll be Champions instead, but these games share common issues. Both of these games suffer from group content being chaotic and uninteresting, because a group of players (in PVE) is not more than the sum of its parts.

The Problems

Both Guild Wars 2 and Champions forced players into moderately survivable builds for running around the world near their launches. For Guild Wars, this was a case of mob damage being incredibly high relative to health, so you needed to have a build capable of blocking/evading attacks or you were on the way to many deaths. Since dedicated healers didn’t exist, and defensive archetypes had no way to generate aggro, groups had neither. For Champions (which has more “traditional” mechanics), this was a case of over-tuning almost everything about the dame the day before launch, rendering completely offensive or defensive builds non-viable (unless you were spamming condemn). This meant that while tank and healer builds were supposed to exist, in practice they did not function.

In both examples, the group makeup for dungeons was 5 solo builds with maybe some attempt at support thrown in at the last minute. Also in both cases, provided you didn’t die too many times, the so-called “graveyard zerg” was a viable strategy. this led to an incredibly un-fun experience where the ideal strategy was throwing damage at bosses until they fell over, with some attempt to avoid or heal minor damage.

The Standard

The ideal thing to mention here would be Everquest (or if I felt like being a hipster, DikuMUD), but that’s before my time and so I’m going to respectfully acknowledge that and start with what I know. The first game I played that conformed to what is now the standard group makeup of 1 tank, 1 healer, and X DPS was World of Warcraft. I probably don’t have to explain how it works, but there’s generally one person trying to keep enemies under control by drawing their attacks, one person trying to heal any damage the group members take, and several people trying to do damage to the enemies without taking much damage themselves.

This is the standard for a reason. It gives everyone involved something specific to do, and people know what’s expected of them (roughly) from the outset. Despite many accusations of the aggro mechanic being “not realistic”, group setups like this mirror reality, with each person having a specialty, and all of them working together to accomplish a common goal in different ways. It’s not free of problems, with the usual accusations being that the number of DPS outnumbers healers and tanks massively, or that it isn’t fun to play a healer or tank. While I disagree with some parts of this, there are other options that can be explored.

The Standard, Reloaded

While I’m 100% certain that players don’t know what they want, enough people seem to want to abolish the trinity that it might be worth looking into deeper. The most superfluous role happens to be my favorite, but when it gets right down to it, Tanks don’t need to be “tanks” to do the job they’re there for, which is controlling the enemies. It’s not hard to imagine some sort of heavy-CC class filling in this role, although classes like that aren’t really designed because of balance issues. Such a class is either overly strong or worthless in PVP and high-level PVE, depending on how many of their tricks work on players or bosses. But a class that could stun groups of enemies or possibly move mobs at will would make a tank unnecessary. There is the risk that if they themselves don’t incur damage from this, they also make healers unnecessary.

A different approach to solving the same problem is to have a defender type character that has some sort of damage redirection. In this scenario, it matters less that this person has the attention of everything, and more that they’re keeping the amount of damage the group takes controlled. An example of this type appeared in WoW, as the Red Drake in Oculus.

Healers are a bit trickier, as I play one far less and don’t know what makes the archetype appealing to people who are naturally drawn to it. An example that has seen some success is a character focused on damage prevention, which I’m told was stronger than direct healing in the first Guild Wars. The problem with this is an inability (or decreased ability) to recover from mistakes.

Oculus provides another answer here with the Green Drake, a healer who siphoned health from enemies and transferred health to allies. When I was playing WoW, I found maintaining a balance like this and using my own health as a resource was far more interesting than any “normal” healer. Potential balance issues still exist, but I’d like to see a game try this as a mechanic for normal players (even though it’s kind of hard to avoid giving it a “blood mage” theme).

I don’t have good answers for DPS. It’s already the role with the largest number of character types and the largest general interest, so I’m not sure much needs changing.

The Conclusion

What I think we need isn’t an abolishing of roles, but more options for them. The Tank options in WoW amount to three options for “dude in full plate” and a bear, all of which are increasingly mechanically similar. Healers tend not to have more complicated mechanics than “cast spell, watch health bar go up”, with possibly a choice between “efficient spell” and “fast spell” depending on the situation. More variety is needed, not the complete destruction of the roles themselves.

On Current Shooters

I’ve been caught up in WildStar, graduations, and other things, so I haven’t gotten a chance to play most of the various shmups (or STGs, as they’re sometimes known) that have released on Steam in some fashion recently. I made a quick attempt at a few of them recently, so here are some impressions.


Crimsonland is a top-down shooter reminiscent of Smash TV, or Robotron. Many different weapon types are used to kill hordes of zombie-like aliens, and there’s some progression that involves unlocking different weapons (which vary in terms of accuracy, fire rate, secondary effect, reload time, etc.) and perks (if these did anything at all I didn’t notice). It’s apparently a remake of a game that released for PC eleven years ago, but I didn’t know that going in. Of the games mentioned here, I think I enjoyed this one the least. The player’s movement feels incredibly slow (although there are speed powerups you can find in the levels) and the weapons just aren’t that interesting.

crimsonland_1 crimsonland_2 crimsonland_results


An Early Access game, this one’s more like Geometry Wars or Super Stardust. You fly around as an odd dragon-thing and use customizable weapons to shoot down flying saws. I almost wish I was making that part up. I got this one because it has co-op, but I tried with Belghast last night and couldn’t get it to work. The weapon customization is interesting, but I think this is one of those games that would be much more interesting in multiplayer. It’s a bit basic without, or at least it starts that way.

2014-06-21_00009 2014-06-21_00006 2014-06-21_00019


The “sequel” of sorts to Ether Vapor Remaster, Astebreed puts you in control of a flying mech with a giant sword. This (mostly) side-scrolling shooter is full of enemies and bullets, but has some additional mechanics, namely the lock-on and the sword. You can hold the fire button(s) to lock onto enemies and fire on them, but this reduces your ability to fire normally while it’s going on. The sword allows you to both make invincible dashes across the screen and to deal damage/destroy enemy attacks in a small area in front of you. The sword is a lot of fun to play around with, and it’s also quite useful and factors heavily into the scoring system. This one’s a little more expensive than the others on the list, but it carries correspondingly higher production values, graphics, and an actual story. (It’s crazy and Japanese, but it’s there.) If you have any interest in the genre, Astebreed is highly recommended.

astebreed_chaos astebreed_cutscene astebreed_results


A port of an arcade game which was ported from a Japanese indie (or Doujin) PC game, Crimzon Clover replaces Jamestown for me as the best scrolling shooter on Steam. Sitting squarely in the Bullet Hell category, Crimzon clover has more traditional aesthetics than the other games here, featuring a spaceship firing many bullets at other spaceships, as well as a “bomb” button (more on this in a bit). As a bullet hell game, you have a tiny hitbox, the screen is filled with bullets (both yours and the enemies), and the difficulty is through the roof (even on Novice). Instead of having a stock of bombs to deal with the swarm, there’s a “break gauge” that governs bomb usage. When over a certain point, pressing the bomb button uses a bomb, which clears the screen of bullets and damages all enemies on screen. If it’s full, you instead enter “Break Mode”, which massively increases firepower. If filled again while in break mode, you can enter Double Break Mode for further bonuses. This is extremely satisfying, and the resulting spray of stars and colors looks awesome. I have a hard time recommending this game to anyone unfamiliar with the genre (Jamestown is my recommendation for getting into it), but I think this might be the best shooter on steam right now.

cc_ship_selection cc_break_mode cc_continue

One final Note…

Yesterday, Rae completed a Blue Mage Ashgar chibi, which is now found both here and in the site’s header. I think it’s awesome, and you should check out her site for more.


Now that I’m getting more into WildStar, I started seeking more information about it, and I’ve found an annoyance with some of the class guides I’m seeing. I found a few that completely dismiss a number of skills that “don’t do enough damage”. Specifically DoT skills, like Annihilation, Devastator Probes and Ignite. These spells get ignored in favor of spells that cause big numbers, like Gamma Rays and Charged Shot. There are some problems with this approach, and I’ll be specifically focusing on Medic here. Spellslinger math gets weird because of their innate.

When I was playing an Affliction Warlock in World of Warcraft (this is back when Soul shards were items in your bag, and Siphon life was a spell that you could actually cast), I was introduced to the concept of Damage Per Execute Time (DPET), a metric used to determine if an ability is worth casting, or in what order to prioritize things in cases where multiple abilities come up at once. The basic idea is that you want to spend the most time casting the things that do the most damage, so you can use this metric to make that decision.

When looking at raw numbers, the Medic’s best skills in terms of DPET are Devastator Probes, Annihilation, Gamma Rays, Nullifier, and Quantum Cascade, in that order. Gamma Rays and Quantum Cascade have the additional consideration of their actuator cost, forcing you to (usually) use the very low DPET skill Discharge in order to continue to cast them, so this must be taken into consideration.

It’s not completely cut and dry, since AMPs and ability points can change this significantly. Also, because you have to decide which abilities you want to take, the total amount of damage an ability can do over a fight is also worth considering. I don’t have any great advice on how to set up a level 50 bar (except that it probably needs Paralytic Surge on it), but I’m just trying to fix the perception that the DoT skills are a “waste of a GCD”, when most of them do more damage than the medic’s premier single-target ability.

Fiesta Time

I managed to finish my playthrough of FF5 for the draft group (I was second to finish, behind Tam), but I’ve been a bit lazy about uploading the videos for it. This is just in time for the actual Fiesta, where my party is Knight/Berserker/White Mage/Berserker. Hopefully this goes smoothly; I think I have enough experience in the game to carry even this physical-heavy party through the whole thing.

On Breath of Fire 3

Today’s post was originally going to be about an annoyance I’ve found with WildStar advice, but I haven’t finished doing the required math for it yet, so I’ll pick a different topic rather than trying to talk math and being wrong.

A little over a week ago, it was suggested that the Breath Of Fire series might align with my interests. I picked up Breath of Fire 4 on PSN, and played through the intro, but it was recommended I play 3 first. (Breath of Fire is a little bit like Final Fantasy in that the games aren’t direct sequels, but they do share more than most numeric Final Fantasy entries.) The problem is, Breath of Fire 3 isn’t on PSN, and the PSP version was never released in this country. Despite that, it was fairly cheap, so now I’m the proud owner of a PSP copy of Breath of Fire 3. I immediately ripped it and stuck it on my PSP Go.

BoF3 Title Screen
Starting Breath of Fire 3 is certainly interesting, I won’t spoil it for people who haven’t played it, but it’s not your usual “first battle against nonthreatening enemies with your main character” that so many JRPGs use. Soon after that, you do pick up as the main character (default name: Ryu) and things are a bit more standard. I just started playing recently, and I like the way the party is shaping up. In addition to doing decent damage with a sword, Ryu also has healing and protective spells. Teepo has a very similar stat spread, but instead picks up offensive spells. Sometimes party member Rei is both faster and stronger than the other two due to his natural stats and his higher starting level, but he leaves the party on occasion during the start of the game. I suspect the other two will have caught up by the time I get him back.

Staus Screen w/ Ryu and Teepo
The actual systems are somewhat interesting. It’s fairly basic stuff, with each combatant acting in battle according to their speed. Characters who are fast enough (mostly this means Rei) can actually get an extra turn in an “EX round”, taking two actions for the enemies’ one. An interesting thing is that in addition to abilities learned naturally, you can use the “examine” command in combat to attempt to watch enemies and learn their skills. At this point I’ve managed to pick up a fire attack from a slime-like enemy (Does every game have these?), a bite attack from a guard dog, and a jump attack from a giant chicken. These skills can be transferred between party members with the use of an item. I like that the actual battles are fought in the normal areas, without transitioning to a separate battle screen (although characters do reposition as enemies spawn in).

Teepo casts Simoon
Overall, this game reminds my why I liked the PS-era JRPGs. It’s fairly simple, looks good, and is fun to play. It might get overly bogged down in plot and lose me later, but I’m enjoying it so far.

On Second Opinions

If you’re heard prior week’s Aggrochats, you may have heard my opinions on WildStar, which (prior to launch) ranged from dislike to indifference. As of last weekend, my opinions have reversed pretty significantly, and I have to say that the game is quite fun to play. it’s not perfect, but I could see myself playing this game for a while.

The Problem

The primary problem with WildStar is that the early levels are terrible to anyone somewhat familiar with MMOs. On the Arkship and moving into the starting zones, you have very few abilities. (In all cases this is a spammable ability, a resource consumer or cooldown ability, and an interrupt of some kind.) I’ve mentioned that the default control scheme doesn’t completely mesh with the nature of the combat. Initial quests and challenges are fairly boring, with most of them being “go kill these things” without much window dressing. Enemy abilities are relatively simplistic, with at worst a cone or point-blank AOE to get out of/interrupt. Until you hit the real zones, enemies have little enough health that there isn’t much of a challenge. This state of affairs is what led to me being bored and quitting every singe time I picked up the game throughout beta. A friend on the 7-day trial is having the same experience.

A Break in the Clouds

The narrative I kept hearing was that the game got better at level randint(12,20), and for the most part that’s true. Around 12-13 you get access to the first shiphand mission, which is a small instance that scales for groups anywhere from 1-5 people (soloing this is somewhat difficult as a beginner). Mobs start to have more interesting mechanics around level 10, forcing you to pay more attention in fights. “Prime” enemies start appearing that provide a significant challenge for an individual player once you get out of the starter zones. Challenges get more varied and sometimes more interesting. (Quests mostly still don’t.) Crafting unlocks at 10, which is a giant black hole if you’re into the different mechanics of each profession. Housing unlocks at 14, and I’ll let Bel and Penny Arcade say all that’s necessary to say about that.

This seems appropriate.
This seems appropriate.

Decision Tree

All of the above got me a bit more into the game, but the key experience for me so far is the Adventure that unlocks at level 15, Riot in the Void. For those who are unaware, Adventures are instances for a full group (5 people) that involve some decision points, and can play out different ways depending on what the party chooses. I got a chance to experience this one twice over the past two days. The first time I was DPS (as a medic), none of us knew what we were doing, our tank got press-ganged into service, and it was a very hectic experience. I tried to take as much in as possible, and I learned some things for the next run. The next run, I was the healer, the tank was someone with a bit more experience and gear (Ok, it was Bel) and I got to see how things changed. The impact of the choices made in the instance is non-trivial. The first time, Esper-type enemies appeared after the first stage of the instance and proceeded to cause a lot of annoyance with their shields, knockdowns, and healing. The second time, we shut down the espers in the first stage (which was harder than the first stage task we had on the first run) which caused them to thankfully not appear anywhere else in the instance. However, because we didn’t shut down the cannons, we had cannons shooting at us during the final boss.

Image shamelessly stolen once again.
Image shamelessly stolen once again.

I didn’t expect this sort of experience in a level 15 instance, in what’s supposed to be the “introduction” to group content. If the rest of the content can maintain this level of quality, I’ll enjoy group content in this game a lot. In a way this would be the opposite of Guild Wars 2, in which our playgroup hit the first piece of group content, found it unfulfilling, and stopped playing the game almost entirely. This one looks like it may hold me for a while on the strength of the group content. It even got me to play a healer again.

On Things That Turn Into Other Things

Everyone has their preferred character archetypes. In D&D terms, everyone is familiar with the traditional Fighter, Mage, and Thief, so most games try to provide player characters with options along those lines. Other games expand a bit more, with a healer archetype (sometimes a variation of the mage) or an archer archetype (sometimes a variation of the thief). More classes are usually created by combining these in some way. The Barbarian is a combination of the swiftness and light armor of a thief with the power and strength of a fighter. My favorite archetype is a different sort of combination: the shape-shifter.

In a way, shape-shifting characters are usually a combination of the thief and mage archetypes in that they are (usually) magic-users with tools to adapt to a variety of different situations. More generally, it’s characterized by the ability to switch between archetypes. The stereotypical example is the Druid, which is usually given a variety of nature-based spells to heal or harm, and the ability to turn into animals when spells aren’t an appropriate solution. There are other characters that fit this archetype that aren’t the druid, like the lead character of the Breath of Fire series, who turns into a variety of dragons.

There is the lesser example of things with a single alternate form, like most depictions of werewolves. In games, this usually manifests as some sort of temporary power up or super mode (which I like a bit less), but it’s sometimes an alternate form with different strengths and weaknesses from the “base” form. League of Legends likes this model a lot, using it for Nidalee, Elise, and Jayce (sort of).

Balancing this character type has historically been difficult, and for good reason. If one person can duplicate the jobs of three or four at a moment’s notice, it risks eliminating the need for the more focused characters. The traditional tradeoff for this is usually decreased effectiveness at any one role, but this leaves the shape-shifter marginalized in any situation where a single task is valued. “Alternate form” types tend to fall into this trap especially often, where the strengths of one form do not sufficiently cover for its weaknesses, leading to use of only one. (Nidalee in League is perhaps the best example of this.)

Some games balance the ability to do everything by forcing a choice of role, and decreasing the effectiveness of other forms or roles. WoW is the best example here, but D&D Next seems to also use this approach. An alternate approach is limiting the ability to transform in some way. Breath of Fire 4 has both a transformation and a perpetuation cost, so you can’t stay a dragon forever. (I think BoF1 only had a transformation cost, but I haven’t played it in a while.) These have shown to be acceptable ways to balance the power level of this type of character, and I wish more games would use them rather than declaring it too difficult and leaving my favorite archetype out.


As a final note: It’s the final day to make donations for The Run, influencing what jobs two members of SDA will use when playing through FF5. I’m still working my way through as well.

On Launches

You would think that there would be some good solution by now for turning the servers on and letting people in to these online games. But time after time, games launch with troubles. All things considered, WildStar’s launch wasn’t really that bad, but it still creates a lot of frustration when everything doesn’t go smoothly.

First, they dramatically underestimated the number of players who would be interested in playing on a PVP server. As a result, all of the PVP servers at launch had queues, some of them several hours long. In addition, the number of English realms for EU was too low in general, so those also had long queues. More servers and free server transfers seem to have addressed the problem over the weekend, so it isn’t all bad.

Despite the complaints, it really isn’t all that bad. SWTOR had similar queue issues, but it’s a better illustration of a different problem. After launch, there were too many servers, leading to server merges and the general unhappiness that accompanies that. FF14 (Realm Reborn version) had numerous issues on launch, including not having queues (so you had to retry login until it worked) and during head start, having the instance servers (which were required for quest and character progression) frequently fail to work entirely. WildStar is at least ahead of both of these cases.

On the other end, ESO’s launch had fewer issues. Quest bugs were particularly bad during the first week, but at no point did I ever have trouble logging in to play. WoW’s original launch wasn’t great, but their expansion launches are pretty good at this point, even though the rush is usually at least the size of a typical MMO launch [citation needed]. TSW also managed to remain mostly functional (again with quest bugs) during its launch. I think the traditional servers are presenting scalability issues for games that use them, and something else (like TSW) might serve better in the long run.

Aggrochat and More

This week’s Aggrochat is out, and the usual cast is missing Rae, but joined by Tam. About halfway through we switch to discussing massive spoilers for Transistor, so I recommend stopping there if you haven’t finished it. (We don’t talk about anything else after.)

As an additional note, registration for the Final Fantasy V Four Job Fiesta is now live, and you should sign up for this wonderful charity event. Ongoing documentation of my pre-fiesta run is here, on YouTube. If you are in Alliance of Awesome, you should take a look, as there is an extra bit of charity money riding on your registration. (If you’re not, you should still register, and then consider poking into what AoA is doing in various games.)