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Crystar is a game that is profoundly split between two halves: the story and atmosphere it wants to evoke, and the bog standard gameplay that just isn't compelling. I like it, but I am genuinely struggling with it. It's your standard third-person character battler. Left stick to move your character, right stick for camera, X to attack, repeat until the enemy is dead. I'm frustrated to say it doesn't differentiate itself despite its various mechanics. You can level up, equip different gear, swap between characters in combat, use special moves and ultimates... yeah. There's nothing special here, so it turns into a kind of tedious chore - moreso because the level design isn't. Every map is a tileset arranged in random ways - you could tell me they're all procgen and I'd believe you. Go through corridors to the arenas and fight, collect loot, repeat until stairs or a boss.

When I'm feeling charitable I call Crystar a chill game, perfect for podcasts. It's a relaxing tedium with clearcut goals, and it feels fine. When I'm cranky, it's just mediocre to bad.

The other half of the game, the reason to play it, is everything else. The premise of the game is that our teenage protagonist's sister is dead, and her soul is trapped in Purgatory. For unexplained reasons, our protagonist (Rei) is there too - and she takes her sister's hand and tries to lead her out of there. They're attacked by a monster, and to Rei's eternal regret - she lets go of her sister's hand. Her sister falls deeper into Purgatory, and is probably doomed to die permanently. Except! Two mysterious girls appear and make a deal: if Rei agrees to fight and kill lost souls in Purgatory for them, they'll revive her sister. She agrees...and wakes up.

The game proceeds in this structure: while Rei is awake, you're in the menu/her bedroom. Choose which level to play, manage equipment, read tutorials... play with her dog, answer texts and calls from other characters. There's the implication that she's spending some time outside in the real world - walking her dog, eating food, avoiding everything else, though. She's skipping school and not talking to anyone. Rei is profoundly isolated, with nary a family member to be seen.

When Rei is asleep, you enter Purgatory. Leaving aside the gameplay, this is where you meet characters and talk to them - and because you can move Rei around here, in a way it feels more real than the real world. Not that it's ever a jrpg - this is linear. It really is a visual novel stapled to an action game. I know it's a common pairing, but usually it's a better synthesis.

Still - the artwork and style is incredible. It's a beautiful game with great character designs, and I was in awe the first time I stepped into a level and was greeted with really strange, otherworldly levels. It's a genuine treat every time I play. Which isn't as often as I'd like, because so far the levels are just 10~ minutes too long, which means I can't hop in, do a bite-sized level and leave - I have to commit to half an hour of repetetive gameplay to get at the good story bits. Still... I'm compelled enough to keep pushing for more sessions, and I want to see where the story goes. I'm also hoping I can beat this game before digging into the sequel Crymachina! That one seems to be only thematically related, and is otherwise set in a new setting with new characters (robots!) - but I hate leaving prequels unfinished. - 11/9/2023

Silent Hill

Silent Hill is an outstanding game with interesting flaws, and I think it's worthy of some high praise.

First: my personal history with the franchise. I've played a little of three, a little of four, and none of the others. I've seen multiple LPs of Silent Hill one, at least one of two, none of three, and two of four - and at least one of several of the spinoffs. I have an odd affection for the franchise, but I've never actually played it until now.

Alright, you say. What's Silent Hill? It is a survival horror video game for the Playstation and it did well enough to get multiple sequels and spin-offs as well as a movie. It's known for a focus on psychological horror and being set in America despite being made by Japanese developers. There's more, of course - lots of details I'm leaving out, but let's stay focused.

Silent Hill itself is fun! You sit down at your playstation, fire up the game, and watch a cutscene that first warns you of violence and gore in this game. Second, lovely music plays, you're told "The fear of blood tends to create fear for the flesh" and then you get a lot of incoherent scenes of various people and places. The one you need to remember is the one of the guy driving the car down a dark road while his daughter sleeps in the backseat. He sees a girl in the road, swerves to avoid her, and... crash!

Harry Mason is our protagonist, and we open the game as he walks away from his wreck. His daughter has already escaped the car and is walking into the fog towards the town of Silent Hill, and well - that's the main quest! Find Cheryl, his daughter. That remains the core of the game, the human heart beating as you keep pressing into nightmare.

There's a lot of the game I can describe: how Harry travels to the local elementary school, meets a local cop, is given a mysterious quest in a church - and it's all going to sound disjointed and dreamlike. Which is the point. The game and story structure of Silent Hill is aggressively dreamlike, to the point where one of the scrapped endings was that the entire game was a dying dream as Harry is in a fatal coma from the car crash. At no point is there a quest log, at no point is there a real explanation for the events of what's happening - only clues and strange dialogue. Even the major optional sidequest that offers more hints as to what's going on can function as a red herring to what's going on. It's the kind of storytelling where you're meant to carry the pieces in your mind and think about how they fit together and come up with theories.

The gameplay structure itself is from an older era as well: the really unintuitive adventure games that came before. For example, when the game opens up after the cafe? You walk out into the foggy streets of Silent Hill with only a mark on your map to guide you: go back to the alley in your nightmare and look for clues. Once there you'll find a note written by Cheryl that says 'to school', so you think to yourself, alright, the school is marked on the map. I'll go there. You swiftly find that the roads are out - but as you check all of them, one has bloody papers strewn around that say 'doghouse, levin street'. You search all the dog houses on Levin Street, find a key, use it on the nearby house and... find a door inside locked by three padlocks, and a map next to it with weird markings. You go to each marking, and find keys, and so on - simple, right? But already weird. The logic is askew; why would this random house have that padlock? Why are the roads out? Why are there skinless dogs attacking me all the time?

But I said unintuitive. Yeah. Inside the school you find the other 'half' of the game - it's kind of structured like overworld map / dungeons - and the school is one. It has a detailed floorplan, lots of weird roadblocks you need to solve, and puzzles. This turns into stuff like 'to enter this one room, you need to enter this bathroom' - and we're not even touching the puzzles, which range from doable to completely silly. To be clear, I'm not trying to say Silent Hill is difficult (it is and it isn't) but that you can tell the design of it is based on something older. It mixes oddly with the ongoing survival horror combat; you're trying to find a key but it's through a room filled with monsters, and you have limited ammunition.

I played on normal difficulty and never ran out of ammo. I alternated melee combat with guns, tried to save my ammo for when I was in real danger or at a boss fight, and ultimately had more than enough. My advice to anyone playing it is to not really worry. Like, don't shoot everything, but don't hoard bullets. If you have a hundred, use them! Remember: health drinks are limited too, and if you're saving ammo by taking hits while fighting with the pipe, that's draining your finite health drink supply.

I have a lot more to say about this game and I'll return to it later. But I refuse to leave this write-up unfinished! -12/9/2023

She did leave this write-up unfinished! Mostly because there's a LOT to say and it's all stuck in the doorway, and due to that strain I've been unable to write anything for this site at all. So it will remain unfinished, sadly. Oh well. Hopefully new stuff soon! - 5/10/2024


Beat this today! It's been eating my mind for the last forty hours and spurring all kinds of monomania. I want to play the sequels, I want to play everything else the dev has made now.

Avernum is a classic rpg with an emphasis on tactical turn-based combat. It has an interesting setting, a well-written if thin plot, and thoroughly addictive explore-fight-loot-sell/talk-repeat loop. It feels, in a lot of ways, like a computerized version of sitting down to play a tabletop rpg with your group; specifically the classic Dungeon and Dragons. (No, I don't know which edition. I am, alas, not into D&D enough to care about editions.) You can practically feel the DM rolling the dice behind his screen, going 'uh oh' with a smile and then telling you that your party feels like it's being hunted. Same deal with 'you arrive at the goblin fort!' as he sets out the hand-drawn maps with the tokens and asks for initiative. This also applies to the plot structure - it's effectively the DM saying 'here is the setting, here's the worldmap, where are you going?' and it's very modular. Arriving at town A, you find out that they're under siege by zombies. Arriving at town B, you find out they have problems with the mayor's missing necklace. Solving these problems can be done in any order, and it doesn't really change the setting much, so to speak? This is not a linear narrative that has you eager for the next plot beat, it's a roadtrip as you decide to find out what's over there.

This is not to say that it's without a plot or coherent setting! This is not to say it lacks character! I am being clear about what Avernum is, and this game specifically feels like the developer wanted to share his really good D&D campaign with you - but not in the sense of "look at my special OP protagonist with dual blades and a magic panther!" but in the sense of "I wrote the BEST adventure but all of my players are out sick :( will you let me run it for you? please? I even premade character sheets!"

It works. It absolutely works and it oozes charm to the point where I forgive the rough edges and some of the glaring balance problems.

So, details! Jeff Vogel, our sole developer and DM, released this game in 1995. It was called Exile. It had a top-down perspective, a rough (antique) UI, and it sold well enough that Vogel went into gamedev as a full time career. He made Exiles 2 and 3, other games, and then in 2000 he fully remade Exile into Avernum. New engine, it's isometric perspective now, a decent UI, etc. I personally think this was a great idea: at the rate of technological progress, Exile looked antique when it was released, and no one in 2000 wanted to touch it, let alone buy it. It also couldn't run on then-modern systems. The remake made it marketable again - and vastly easier to play. Like, to be completely honest Avernum still looks rough. You can tell it doesn't have the AAA polish even for the time and genre (compare and contrast Baldur's Gate from 1998) - but unlike Exile it looks solid. You're playing indie, not something from the early 80s.

Vogel goes on to remake Exile 2 and 3, makes more games, then makes a sequel to Avernum! Avernum 1-3 are now followed by 4-6 for a full saga. Vogel then decides in 2011 to shake things up and gets a brand new engine... and yes. He remakes Avernum. Avernum 1-3 are remade, and... I'll be honest. It's a full top-to-bottom remake, but not the major upgrade Exile to Avernum was. It's nice to have them available on tablet for mobile play, but... well, personal preference. I don't like that the new Avernums feature less in-depth skills, they changed how secret doors work, etc. The graphics are - instead of straight better, they're different. It's the same style, and honestly you can overlay the games and they're close. The script remains the same. I personally believe that the early 2000s Avernums are better to play, BUT if you told me you started with Avernum 2011 I'd be happy anyways, it's the same game and we're picking flavors. Anyways. In conclusion, Vogel remakes Avernums! But not all six, just the first three. He makes more games, and as of this writing he's working on remaking his Geneforge series and making a new game, and I'm looking forward to them.

Avernum! The plot, the setting, is simple: evil Empire has conquered the entire planet, rules with iron fist. There's a huge cave system underground called Avernum, and the Empire decides to make their own underground Australia and exile criminals there. They run around sealing up all of the entrances and exits, declare it off-limits, and use a magical portal to send people on a one-way trip to the caves. Your party of four (six in Exile) is the latest set of criminals, and the game opens as you stumble out of the portal. The starter town gives you basic gear, tells you about nearby cities, and warns you to be wary of Nephilim and Slitherizaki and Bandits. You step out into the overworld, and the game begins proper.

See, even from the start, you can go basically anywhere. Go left and find a town. Go north and find a fort, or skip it and find a cave. Or bandits. Or.... well, it's one of those overworld maps that encourages you to poke around and just fill out the minimap. I think it does a great job balancing "go explore!" with "you found a dragon that bit your head off" by using the excellent worldbuilding. The starter area? It has bandits, sure, but they're low-level. You're safe poking around as it's a quote-unquote civilized area of Avernum - local soldiers have swept out the worst monsters. They'll set up camp near rough spots and warn you (sometimes) if there's something awful. (Later on, for example, you can try to go to a cavern but soldiers will warn you there's a bandit fort in there, and they're setting up an ambush. Either help them or leave.) Using common sense and paying attention will keep you from certain death - area full of skeletons? Weird pink monster spotted on the map? Maaaybe turn back - or better yet, save. Saving in Avernum is free and highly encouraged. Keep multiple saves, explore, and that way if you do mess up, you're not redoing too much. But, right, the setting - leaving the nice farmlands and towns and going into the unexplored area leads to high-level encounters. It's simple but it works super well.

So far so generic, right? Towns, farms, caves, bandits. But it's all nicely fleshed out with lots of text: visit towns, talk to people. Find out that the farms are mushroom farms, and the mushrooms exist because a mage modified the species to be sustainable food for humans. The towns are ruled by mayors who sit on a council headed by a king. This society takes whoever the empire exiles and integrates them freely - settle down with a farm, become a merchant, become a soldier, whatever. Those who don't want to fit in become bandits - or, in a fascinating reflection - are exiled from Avernum to an even worse part of the caves. You can visit these exile settlements too, and meet people who just don't fit in - either by being evil or disagreeing or... yeah. Avernum is not a utopia, it's basically a struggling civilization desperately surviving in a harsh environment and you get this interesting juxtaposition of normal generic fantasy town, but the blacksmith is there because people need weapons more than they need their horses shod. (Not that they have horses...) The setting is well thought out and interesting, and supported by interesting, charming dialogue. I never felt like I was wasting my time talking to everyone in town - partially because I read fast, but partially because it's a good read. Nothing that will make you go "this is Shakespeare! I must write an English essay on it!" but instead stuff you smile at or think about and just, y'know, good.

Additionally, I really like how the setting handles mages. It fully embraces D&D magic: anyone can learn magic and cast spells... and most wizards are assholes. Why is this random pair of pants cursed? Wizards have no sense of right and wrong! Most mages are at the Mage Tower, and you'll find all kinds of people - mages who want to help, mages who are power-mad, mages who are just weird. Some are involved with the big plot, some aren't.

Wait, big plot? Oh yeah. It's a slow build, but in the true tabletop rpg style there is an overarching villain and you do build up to defeating him. I won't spoil this - but like, the king has a quest for you. So does at least one mysterious wizard in their tower. And doing these quests gets you closer to finding a potential way out of Avernum - which is your overall goal, after all.

This brings me back around to game design. The overworld has dungeons as well as towns, and you're incentivized to explore them not just for the experience and loot - but because in every single dungeon is at least one item or piece of info that you will need for the big plot. Is goblin fort locked? Another dungeon has the key. Wizard needs something? A dungeon has it. Not everything is in dungeons (explore towns! talk to people!) but you never walk out of a dungeon feeling like you wasted your time grinding. (You CAN grind, if you want, the overworld spawns enemy groups you can fight repeatedly!) I love this. I love feeling focused like this, even as we're zipping around looking everywhere.

And I do mean everywhere. I won't lie, I had my partner with a walkthrough nearby so I could be all "I can't find the dragon's key :(" and they could answer "you should search the throne room again" - or be vague or explicit. I can't offer you my partner, alas, so you can't get custom hints, but I can tell you that Vogel is SNEAKY and finding some of the plot-crucial stuff in the endgame especially was a nightmare of "I've been looking for X and you mean it was THERE how was I supposed to figure that out" - but hey. This is end-game, and you've been trained the entire game to look for secret walls and check, because in most cases Vogel DID put something where you thought he did.

The game ends with some really satisfying plot beats and setpieces and it really works. I love it.

I've neglected one final piece of the game: the combat, and how it's unbalanced. It's fun, by god it's fun, but it inherits a lot of problems from stealing from D&D wholesale.

Combat takes place on a grid and everyone gets an amount of action points during their turn. It's surprisingly similar to X-COM, but instead of guns we have wizards. Now, the game's character creator has a point system - you can pick a pregenerated class, or you can dive into assigning all of the points yourself. Make a fighter, put their points into strength, endurance, melee weapons and maybe a point into luck, pick a perk, there you go. In combat they have a lot of hitpoints so they can survive walking up to an ogre and hitting it. Fighters are straightforward: crank stats, give good weapon, walk up to enemy and bonk it until dead. But the other classes - I'll be honest. You have four character slots, you need specific skills just to survive, I defaulted to the standard party: fighter, thief/rogue, mage, priest. You can multiclass freely and teach your fighter spells, but for the most part I stuck to these archetypes.

As the victory screen rolled, well, how was it? Was my party balanced? Yes and no.

The Fighter: vital, 10/10, perfect. Having a really strong tank who can take and give hits for free was SO useful that in some points they made the mage seem useless. I love this. I love breaking out of wizard supremacy - not all the time, but having a solid meathead was vital to my victory. The game also has at least one magical sword, so having someone who could use that sword was huge.

The Thief: sighs. You NEED points in tool use, because there are a LOT of traps in the game and they do not screw around. I had more total party KOs from opening a chest wrong or stepping on the wrong floor tile and failing the trap check, because traps can be 'you've been poisoned' and oh no, guess I'll cast cure, but more often they're 'a knife flies out and impales you!' and suddenly someone is dead. Or, worse, higher level explosion traps where everyone takes 40 damage three times in a row. Traps are bullshit and if you can't neuter them with tool use, there's a giant difficulty spike. Now, since you can't split tool use among the party like some other skills, it has to be piled on someone. Now, without checking, I believe it also gets a bonus from dexterity, so - well. I can already see myself doing a new character build where they're a second fighter with more DEX than STR, but no no, let's stay focused. I built my thief around DEX, Tool Use, and Bows. This, hm. It meant that they were surprisingly flimsy, so if anything got into melee range my priest would be tied up healing them. Bows range from exceptionally good to "oh man c'mon" depending on your luck and ammo. Ammo. It's manually tracked and there's no free refills. Early and mid game this was fine - I'd pick arrows off of enemy archers to keep my quiver full. I even hit points where I found out you can only carry 100 arrows in a stack. But - and this got to me - you can sometimes pick your arrows out of corpses after a fight, but it's never 1:1 to you're always running at a deficit. Which meant as the game got harder and less full of archers, it became common to run out of arrows and then I'd have a squishy thief standing around being useless in combat. Which - well - being an archer is great! Ranged attacks are amazing, especially as you run into mages who will summon waves of rats to prevent your fighter from reaching them. But without ammo, well, I ultimately decided to multi-class. My thief got points in endurance and pole-arms, and while they never caught up to my fighter, they were at least able to stand next to them and take blows and dish out decent damage. (Numbers: Fighter would hit an enemy for 70, Thief would hit for 40. That varied, but that was the gap I was working with.) It worked out well in the end - thief was real good at sniping mages and used their spear on melee dudes - but it's something to keep in mind if you try to go pure archer... and if you're going to spend that many points into tool use.

The Mage: lol, lmao, what's game balance. Mages are OP and if you do not have one you will not keep up with the enemies and you will die horribly. Why? Because this game has haste and slow. Yep. Your fighter may have a billion hitpoints and hit like a truck but they will die when an enemy mage slows them repeatedly, hastes their allies, and even rats will chew you to death if you never get a turn. If you are not keeping up with haste/slow, you are going to lose. Sometimes entire fights would be determined by my ability to counter slow. Now, I'm not sure if you can mitigate this by giving your entire party basic mage training so they can all cast haste/slow themselves, but having a focused mage has other benefits. Mages have about 20~ spells ranging from utility (cast light!) to mass damage (lightning spray) to crazy buffs (arcane shield) to - wait for it - summons.

Summons are so important they're getting their own paragraph. In the game of X-COM where cover is important and you want clear shots at the enemy mages, you quickly realize Avernum has no cover, kind of. You can hide a mage behind a wall sometimes as DPS spells need line of sight, but that's never guaranteed, nor are chokepoints. Your fighter can tank, but there's no taunt skill. The solution then is to summon your own minions. Early game summons are trash. Useful trash, but they die in one hit to anything and meh. I ignored summons because of this. But mid-game - as enemy casters are beginning to come into their own - even the trash became useful. Having six rats on the field as the enemy casts lightning spray... well, it can only target so many people, and if it chooses even one rat instead of your mage, there you go. This goes doubly for slow, or even worse late-game debuffs. Now, well. As your mage levels and finds the higher level summoning spells, the game balance flies out the window again. You can summon your own mages. Your summoned mages can then haste/slow... or summon their own critters. Yeah. None of your summons are controllable so there's a chance they'll spend three turns in a row casting fireball at an enemy immune to fire, but since there's no limit to summons, just summon another mage. In some very silly fights I wound up with three summoned mages who would summon their critters and my party was able to basically sit out the fight and then pick up the loot afterwards. Yeah.

Mages' DPS isn't anything to sneeze at either. Remember fighter hitting for 70, thief for 40? Mage cast lightning spray and did 40 to the entire enemy group, and then since they were hasted they could do it twice in a row instantly. This is silly. Mages are broken, wizard supremacy, etc. Except... except. And here is the balance that keeps the Fighter relevant: mana. MP. There is no way to regain it in combat outside of potions, the big spells are expensive, and since most dungeons are sieges where you need to chew through a lot of enemies before you can rest and regain mana again, there is a serious element of resource management going on. A mage without mana is kind of useless, and I didn't really put any stats into strength or endurance outside of enough to keep them alive. Making it to the boss of a dungeon as your mage is out of mana is really bad. You also have to do some big thinking as you choose between keeping their mana reserved for haste/slow and summoning and DPS and well, I really like that your mage is a big useful toolbox but you have to think about how to deploy them.

The Priest: vital, no notes. Going without a priest is suicide. Even if you're winning a fight you're taking damage and that has to be healed. Debuffs are plentiful and nightmarish. On top of that, priests deploy some insanely potent buffs that can boost your damage to ludicrous levels - or slap on some magic armor that keeps your squishy mage alive. And then! And then, because priests are awesome, they do the highest damage spell to undead - it's cheap to cast, huge DPS, and can multi-target - AND priests can do some summons. In other words, priests are busted and you should have one. Now - why am I not complaining about game balance here again? Because unlike a mage/haste/slow/summoning-other-mages, I think you could probably get through the game without a dedicated one. Huge challenge mode, you will need a huge amount of potions and someone should learn at least the level one priest spell heal, debuffs are gonna suck - but I think you could do it. Don't, it won't be fun, but - yeah. Priest summons, by the way, while great, will not cast spells.

If I had to play Avernum again right now I wouldn't replicate my party exactly but I'd still need the same set of four. Someone has to fight, someone has to cast haste, someone has to heal, someone has to disarm traps. There's not much wiggle room there, and I think this is a reflection of how Avernum reduced the party count to four - Exile had six, originally. Oh, well. It works, and there's enough flexibility and loose skill points that I could probably build a solid trap disarming mage.

That said, there are some hard skill checks through the game that you just have to roll with. You will need to be able to make a potion to finish an important quest, so someone needs at least a few points in potion making. Stuff like that. It's not sign-posted, it's - well, it's a symptom of what kind of game this is. You're either up for this or you aren't.

Last bit: potions and the economy. In general this works great. You're tight for money so you're incentivized to pick up loot to sell, but you're never so tight for money you're scraping all the heavy armor off the floor to sell for a pittance. I got very good at skimming the loot window to go 'ah silver ring that's light and sells, that's just another shield heavy and not worth it' etc etc. As you do more quests and get better loot you'll begin to swim in money - but buying new spells is very expensive (and worth it) so it evens out. There's also a cap on how much money you can carry, so you're encouraged to make regular trips to buy spells / items / etc. My only complaint here is that arrows are expensive and you can't carry enough. And I mean expensive to the point where part of the reason I dual-classed my thief was so I wasn't spending hundreds of coins on arrows after every major dungeon. Right. So. Potions. Lifeblood of the mage, and the only way to cure some awful debuffs. I did not hoard enough of these. Putting points into potion-making is not meant to be a dump stat: the game is balanced around you actively making and using potions, and I challenged myself by not doing this for a long time. I damn near made the final boss fight impossible because I didn't stock enough potions. (I won anyways, but BOY it was hard!) Potion-making ingredients can be harvested in the wild for free, respawn, and are so useful. Please do not make the same mistake I did!

Overall.... yeah I loved this game. I've talked too much about it already. I could keep going - boy I want to talk about Erika, or the Spiral Pit, or Dumbfound, or what I think about the dragons - but really? Avernum is good and it deserved no less than two remakes. It deserves to be popular and played by people who dig it. That eager, enthusiastic DM who wants to show you his module just shines with passion and excitement and interesting ideas. I finished this game happy, and I'm thrilled there's five sequels. - 12/10/2023

Age of Fear: Undead King

Necromancer Campaign; spoilers for said campaign

Finished another game! Well, campaign. But - regardless! I feel great! I have a tough time sticking to games (even ones I love) long enough to beat them, and here I am seeing the thing through. Even better, it's the kind of game where once you beat it, it puts you in the open world so you can keep playing if you want.

Age of Fear is a tactical turn-based strategy game featuring a top-down perspective and free movement. Think Phantom Brave or Makai Kingdom and you're there - but with a European fantasy aesthetic instead of anime. It's a game made by one man named Leslaw Sliwko, and he turned it into a series with multiple sequels, DLC, and plans for more. I like small-scale squad tactics, building my army and leveling them up and figuring out how to distribute my resources (equipment, potions, etc) and then the puzzle-solving element of trying to figure out how to defeat levels - so yeah, this game is for me.

At the very beginning of the series, we've got the Undead King: a game with two story campaigns; the necromancer campaign, then the human one. You don't have to play them in order, but story-wise the necromancer comes first. So that's where I hopped in, and I think the premise is neat: you are Krill, a thoroughly evil necromancer in training. The story opens with him murdering his necromancer-teacher, and he never ever turns good from there. How do I say this without sounding like a sociopath... it's kind of nice to play a story where you're evil? There's no choices, no way to redeem Krill, he's just an asshole who wants to raise the dead and then slaughter villages and revel in his mad power. I also appreciate the writing for - well, it's not deep, but I also appreciate that it doesn't go grimdark? It's almost cartoonish, in a way, all the joy of being evil and doing harm without any of the consequences. And frankly, I'm into that. It sells the fantasy and gives a fun flavor to the gameplay mechanics.

See, Krill's army starts with just him and maybe a skeleton or two. But as you get rolling it's Krill and zombies and skeletons and upgraded skeleton types and ghouls and vampires and a whole undead legion of units that you've created by raising the corpses of the people you've killed. This is in the story - there's an early mission where you kill a human knight, raise him, and get a named skeleton rider who obeys you completely - and this is in the game, where you go into a random mission on the open world, find an enemy hero unit, kill it, raise it, and voila your own named skeleton. Later in the game you're so full of random skeletons that you just delete them to get army space back. It really sells the idea that you're a necromancer, raising the dead, and... the dead are disposable.

You only get one other ally hero unit: Noea, a banshee. She seems to have decided that Krill is IT, and neither he nor I get it, but that's alright. I think, in the hands of a writer interested in doing more with either character, there could have been an interesting arc of corruption or redemption or something - but here, nah, she's just a bit of flavor. Which is okay! It works out, and I think this helps with the game design too - because she's mandatory, you have to use her, and this introduces you to how important support units are. Buffs and debuffs are very powerful, magic and morale manipulation are great tools - you go from 'why would I want a banshee' to 'I want two please' and it's great!

So yeah, the plot is basically Krill goes here, finds trouble, kills it, gets into more trouble, kills it - light fare, fun. I appreciate the attempts at foreshadowing (Krill has nightmares and visions), and I appreciate how the main thrust of the plot begins when Krill dies. (Scripted battle, no win situation, basically a cutscene!) He dies, is revived as a Lich, and is told he's now a part of the Undead King's legion. He decides 'no I am not' and begins the main quest to kill his boss. It gets spicy in the final two missions where you find out the Lich King condones demon summoning; Krill has exactly one good bone in his body, and it's that he HATES demons and does not want Hell on Earth. A real Joker versus the Red Skull kind of moment, but - hey. Krill kills the demons, the demon summoners, the Undead King, and... yep. It's all a cycle. He's the Undead King now, firmly in charge and doing evil... and he has a vision of a human hero rising to stop him. You can feel the smash-cut to the human campaign.

I like this. It's not deep, but it's fun and even - dare I say it - a bit clever. You've enjoyed the fantasy of being evil, you stop a greater evil, and it ends promising that you will be defeated someday.

Gameplay wise, I HATE this. HATE. HATE. HATE. AAAAA! I hate fighting undead versus undead! I would have been thrilled if we'd spent the entire game fighting ANYONE ELSE. LORD.

Okay so the deal is, undead armies are divided into halves: you have your disposable units that you cannot re-raise from the dead. Skeletons and all of their varieties, basically, alongside anyone still living. You then have your reusable units, such as zombies and their varieties, vampires, lichs, and a few others. So in some ways leveling your skeletons (easy to get, cheap, fast to level) is a waste of time because they die and whoops there goes all that investment. And the army cap for going into battle is capped at around 10~, so there's no way to bring in your 20+ skeletons. You need to bring in a hand-picked group that can defeat whatever's on the field. In fights against basically anyone else (humans primarily) this is fine - kill even one of their dudes and you can raise them and inflate your army. In undead fights, you cannot raise their dead. Lose a skeleton, you can't replace it.

Second, necromancers and lichs have a skill that lets them touch an undead and take control of it, with a 90% success rate and a two turn cooldown. This is balanced by how fragile they are, and you can't cast magic while standing next to enemy units, but... it's not balanced at all! For either side! Stealing a whole unit is huge! This can go from "that's my skeleton now and he's suiciding into your abomination" to "my vampire now heh heh" and yeah. All of the fights against the undead feature necromancers who can do this. If you do not bring your own, you will lose most of your army and it turns into a mess of "aha my ghoul is finally next to that mage, they'll kill them next turn - oh nevermind he's an enemy now" - so you're balancing that with raising your dead, and we come back to skeletons. You can't raise them, so they become key to destroying on both sides, as once they're gone they're gone.

Third, undead armies are naturally built around destroying morale and spreading disease. Undead armies are also mostly immune to destroying morale and spreading disease. I think you see where this is going. Banshee wails at massed knights, they all panic and you can pick them apart. Banshee wails at massed skeletons, nada. Waste of a turn. Undead are the perfect counter for undead.

What this all means in practice is that the final set of fights in the game had difficulty multipliers beyond anything I had faced elsewhere in the game. Fighting random armies against any other faction in the open world? Tough, but doable, and you walk away feeling satisfied. Fighting the Undead King? I'm dead again, this is awful.

From looking at the steam forums and the dev comments, and from thinking about it on my own, I think the intended way to take these fights is to bring a mixed army of units from other factions that can counter this undead nonsense, and bring your own necromancers so you can steal their units. But it seems that going pure undead is not intended? I could be wrong, but BOY I struggled here, as I was invested in my vampires, abominations, liches, etc. I figured it was the undead campaign, and I wanted to use undead. (sigh) Do not be me. Please play smarter than I did, and don't be stubborn. The open world provides a lot of avenues for different units.

But ultimately I was stubborn, so - yeah. I ground my way through it, somehow pulled these fights off, and made it to the final boss. And... I'll be completely honest I think this fight is too hard. I had the difficulty on normal the entire time, and was trading some units with every fight, but overall it felt solid. Tough but not impossible. Undead King? He had himself, multiple Liches, multiple demon summoners, lots of units already, and it was a clusterfuck of desperately trying to tear apart his army before I was inevitably destroyed. The liches would raise each other. They'd raise and/or control my dead. The demons are just tough.

My confession: I wanted to cheat. I didn't cheat. I didn't change the difficulty. Instead I wound up breaking and using save-scum around turn 30 to find the narrow path to victory. I hate doing this, I want to iron-man my way through battles (if not campaigns), but... yeah. I confess defeat. But... heck with it. I did it. My army ground down his, and it was just Krill and Noea and I was ready to restart the whole thing when one of the demons went rogue. This demon killed the liches, I began to raise my army back from the dead (again) and slowly - bit by bit - we worked until it was just Krill and the Undead King. And either a ghoul or abomination for him to be distracted by.

The Undead King is some nonsense. He is a clone of Krill but with better stats and skills, basically. He raises the dead, has an aoe melee attack, has other spells, and when you attack him his armor does an automatic damage to you... even if you miss. I never got a melee hit chance on him higher than 10%, even with back-stabs. There was no way for me to single him out in combat earlier on and kill him - instead I had to get him alone, then slowly whittle him down. And if I messed up at any point, he'd swap targets, zoom to Noea, and one-shot her. But she had to be in range enough to keep casting ice spells at him, as they had a full 20% hit rate! plink plink plink

If I were a more patient person I'd go back and rearrange my entire army and hire more units that can heal (as you can't really heal undead...) and so on, but... via save-scum/time travel and luck I killed him. And it sucked and I hope the other campaigns aren't as frustrating. I want a challenge, not a 'your entire army is built wrong try again' challenge.

Yet here I am - still fully ready to recommend the game and dive into the sequels. If you're the type to actually want to play this and keep going through the first half of the game, you're the type who will enjoy solving the undead vs undead problems in the second half. A lot of the game is being handled useful tools and having to figure out how to assemble them into a winning machine, and I like that. I really enjoyed solving that, and I can see myself coming back at some point to use Krill to stomp around in the open world killing random other armies. An undead army in full motion is a beautiful thing, terrifying the enemy and raising their fallen, and it's so much fun to play. - 12/12/2023