Posts Tagged ‘review’

Factorising 86856527

March 21st, 2013 Comments off

Michael Brough’s 86856527 is my favourite of this year’s bumper crop of 7DRLs.  Admittedly I’ve not yet played all that many of the insane 147 successful games, but Brough’s brilliant byte-sized roguelike sets the bar rather high, and is very worthy of some close analysis.  If you haven’t played it yet, go do so, or at least watch UberHunter’s insightful Let’s Play video.

86856527 follows on in certain style from Michael’s streamlined 2012 7DRL Zaga-33. Aesthetically it’s very similar, and it is similarly on a much smaller playing field than most roguelikes. Even smaller than Zaga-33 in fact, and yet it has a lot more content packed in. The density of content within the 6×6 grid space is far far higher than I’ve seen in any other roguelike. For all its big icons and graphical charm this is a very complex game that is unforgiving to any who will not look deeply into its mechanics and systems.


You can see it all, but you have to look

You have 4 resources – health, siphons, credits and energy. Health is lost in battle, siphons are gathered and then used to draw out credits/energy from the map and abilities from the wall, and energy/credits are used to fund the use of those abilities. The siphoning of abilities from the walls summons enemies, which can damage your health and against which abilities are primarily used to defeat. It’s all beautifully weaved together. Complexity through interrelation.

I’ve seen both 86856527 and Mosaic referred to as having a board game feel to them. The big reason for this I think is the way in which they use the board itself, with grid squares counting as a resource and being a major part of the game. I’ve said many times on Roguelike Radio that I feel the map is too static in most roguelikes, that there’s too little interaction with the environment, and this was a big thing for me in designing Mosaic. 86856527 takes a very different route but achieves much of the same end effect. You care about every square, you analyse every grid.

This is reinforced by the enemies, which each have distinct differences. Individually they are not very interesting, but when combined in groups they can be trickily complex to defeat without taking damage. Terrain matters a great deal in how you can move around and how the enemies will move turn to turn. There is that lovely chess-like feel of always thinking a few turns ahead, considering the optimal options at each stage, and positioning, terrain, abilities and resources all tie in to those considerations.

And then there’s the score. Beating the game isn’t too hard if you play very carefully. But once you’ve done that suddenly score becomes an intensely important issue. The points come in discrete blocks that you have to spend resources and risk attacks to attain. They are sirens calling out to you, tempting you with higher positions on your high score table, yet frequently drowning you in a sea of enemies beyond your ability to survive. Riding the line between maximising score and retaining survival is thrilling and compelling, and the cause of many a YASD. The ease of replay and shortness of play sessions combine with this to make a very addictive experience. There is always the one more game to play. You’ll definitely beat that high score this time…

So what design lessons are there to learn from 86856527? Resources tied to terrain, individual enemy types, removal of numbers and density of content are all important. They are perhaps nothing new though, especially in the field of board games. Rather the novelty comes from their interrelation, the tightness with which they are wound together to form a solid core. No one element makes the game, and it is their fusion into a cohesive whole that makes this title really stand out. This is the real design lesson from Brough’s latest offering, that every piece of your game must bind together so tightly that the individual pieces can no longer be seen on their own. No single factor can be distinguished or removed without collapsing the whole.

Indeed, 86856527 cannot be so simply factorised. It is just too prime…

FTL – Rogue in the Starlight

September 16th, 2012 3 comments

So FTL is out, and this is good because it’s a great example of a Kickstarter actually paying off and doing so quickly.  Will that trend continue…?  It’s also good because it’s a fantastic game. If you have any respect for your free time or sleep then do not buy it! (Little tip – grab the DRM free version on their site and they’ll send you a Steam key too!)

Now in the roguelike community the usual ugly question pops up… is it a roguelike? And the answer is both “Duh, of course”, and “duh, no way!” depending entirely on your perspective.

To me it’s a good game which shares a lot with roguelikes, and this is in many ways more interesting and worthy of analysis than just a very good traditional roguelike. Rather than caring what shape hole this particular peg should fit in I’d rather do some close analysis of its gameplay features in relation to roguelikes:

Permadeath. This is the biggie. There is no restoring from saves, and game over really means that. And importantly it doesn’t do this in an arcade or multiplayer style. It does permadeath the way roguelikes do permadeath, and the game is all the more tense, exciting, frustrating and exhilarating because of it. It immerses the player tremendously, makes them mourn every death and celebrate every close encounter. There are many many personal stories floating around right now of close shaves in FTL. A great way the game plays with this is giving you a “restart” option on the death screen, automatically putting you back with the same starting options – this is a feature more roguelikes should have.
Random content. It’s not particularly procedural, mostly being pure dice rolls, and there isn’t that element of exploring areas and interacting with the environment. It does have that unpredictability to it, but perhaps less so than a roguelike. Once you’re in battle there are no big surprises. It also has random loot drops and such, and these add a big element of luck to the game – too much in my opinion, but it does force you to think on your feet and react to what you find, a bit like in Brogue.
Time to think. It’s not turn-based, but you can pause at any point and issue commands when paused. This gives you the time to think and plan ahead, and it shares that big element with roguelikes in that the most tense moment is when there’s nothing happening on screen. These are the moments you’re sitting still, looking through all of your options and thinking through all the possible things that might be about to happen. The control of time adds a huge deal of tension to the game, whilst also letting you tactically plan your game. This is a thinking game, not a reaction game. Without the integrated control during pause FTL would be a lot less enjoyable. I just wish it had an auto-pause feature :/
You are the ship. In roguelikes you are generally the adventurer, and the procedural content, field of view and permadeath all wrap together to really put you in the seat of your character. In FTL you have several crew members, but these are not *you*. You play as the ship ultimately, with your crew being interchangeable, and the lose condition is through losing all of your crew or losing all your hull. Your inventory is the ship’s hold. Upgrades are to the ship, improving and tweaking and expanding your abilities. The crew are just a form of resource, like magic points to be spent on the necessary abilities. In this game the ship is the rogue, with the depths of space taking the role of the dungeons of mystery.
Resource management. There are several resource types to juggle in FTL, but the most important is scrap, a generic resource that can be turned into almost anything. The really interesting way FTL plays with this is making the currency of the game also the experience points. Scrap is needed to repair damage, buy new missiles, but also to upgrade shields, fit new parts and hire extra crew. How you allocate this resource plays hugely into your success in the game. It would be interesting to see more roguelikes toy with this idea. However FTL does have problems with this – if you don’t get to the stage of efficiently winning battles early on you’ll quickly get stuck behind the power curve as you spend more on repairs/replenishment than upgrades. It’s debatable if this shows that a separated xp and resource pool is best, or if the design just needs a little tweaking.
Hunger clock. In FTL the rebel fleet is constantly advancing, pushing you forward. It’s perhaps a bit of a crude implementation of Rogue’s hunger system, but it does the job of keeping a constant sense of threat whilst also keeping you on the move. The ghost in Spelunky fills an analogous role. The way FTL does this is a bit like causing the dungeon in roguelikes to slowly collapse, reducing your available moves and forcing you to the secure area around the stairs. Now who else thinks that would be a very cool game feature to have? :)
Simple representation. There is no ASCII mode, alas, but all the icons used are immensely simple. Pretty, but primarily functional. You’re never left wondering what is what. This is just good game design of course, but it’s a very important tenet of roguelikes. The space in which crew move is also grid-based, and in combat especially this becomes important. There are grid-related tactics that arise not dissimilar to some roguelike tactics.
Many solutions. Overpower their shields with burst lasers, or use missiles to bypass them? Asphyxiate the enemy by blowing out their oxygen, or teleport some crew over to attack face to face? Use crew to put out the fire, or open the air locks to the vacuum of space? Use a drone to protect against their missiles, or an ion cannon to lock down their weapons systems in advance? The game has multiple solutions to many problems, and just like that thought of “should I use the healing potion now, or the wand of fire?” FTL will have you thinking and inventing new tactics all the time. There is real emergent gameplay here, with ambiguous decision making. And when you make the wrong choice and die it really drives you back into hitting that “Restart” button again. Sleep can wait… ;)

I’m not really sure what my point here is, other than to analyse the mechanics for what should inspire other roguelikes. Obviously a lot of the game is left out here, like the condition-based dialogue choices, the unlocks, plus the polish stuff like nice graphics and cool music that really make it a sellable game. But the big thing is its integration of features – how it takes these traditional roguelike elements, puts its own spin on them, and still keeps them working together to make a constructive and compelling experience.

Awesome game, far too addictive, don’t buy it ;)