Part 49: Bonus Update 2: The Great Evil King and Fixing Ash of GodsBonus Update 2: The Great Evil King and Fixing Ash of Gods
I've been noticing that the more I get into the nuts and bolts of this game the more disgusted I get with it. One of the turning points was the general demand for people to explain the dialogue in Chapter 3 and my realization that this is an incoherent mess, and the other is having to replay all the combat and go "actually yea this was never good." This is not helped by my recent Fire Emblem: Three Houses purchase because that game gets what this game is trying to do and does it right.
So today's bonus update is going to be focused on the combat mechanics and the characterization.
Prelude: What does this game do right?
I'm going to head off non-existent complaints about how negative I'm being by praising the art and music. The art is on point and is very well done, the characters look very distinctive, and the soundtrack to this game is amazing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seBdOUMtvOY
Unfortunately, everything else sucks.
Combat: What are we trying to do, and why doesn't it work?
I have said a lot about the combat in this game. I'm going to let the developers defend themselves a bit.
Please read this.
Got it? The devs wanted to remove randomness from battle but then add random cards so that
Ash of Gods devs posted:
At some point I was even afraid that he would punch me for the phrase To experience vivid emotions. Well, when youre using a card in Ash of Gods, its a chance to intervene in the global battle rules and it can sometimes be very annoying. It may seem bizarre but the best sign that were on the right path was when we started swearing. Those shouts of your friends: What a f ng bastard you are! when youre playing the card Hypnotism and, if youre the lucky one, exchanging your semi-dead unit for the headliner of your enemys team That was the best indicator of what were trying to do. To piss you off but not to the degree that would make you quit. For instance, sometimes you can win in the battle where you have only 2 units against 6 given that your team was lucky with the cards while your opponent made minor mistakes. Or you may win in a situation when your opponent is completely sure that fortune is on his side. In such situations, all those offensive and obscene shouts are the drug that makes you want to continue.
Now, Hypnotism didn't make it into the final game, which is a shame because it sounds more interesting than literally every other effect available to the player. Look how swingy this is. It's not a design that rewards you for interacting with the game because at any time your team could be blown up by some random card that completely screws you over. Look at the example where you win 2 on 6 despite your opponent making only minor mistakes. Hilariously this gives you the advantage due to their IGOUGO system anyway, so I don't know what the deal is, but screaming at the screen because you got randomly screwed despite playing perfectly is a sign you have made a terrible game. Even XCOM gives you things like grenades and psykers to get around the RNG and the real challenge is using resources, not constantly missing 1% shots and getting eaten by Chrysalids.
Please God help me posted:
But I just love breaking canons. The battle turns out to be dynamic and sharp and you feel as if youre in a slasher game when youre dealing with the level boss. In that type of game you have to decide: should I hit harder or will this guy get me? In our game, in turn, you have to decide next: should I spend some of my health to hit my opponent with maximum force and kill him, or isnt it worth it? Should I choose defensive tactics or throw my units forward and suppress the enemy? The abilities of your units push you towards impulsive decisions. For instance, the archer is able to kill almost any of your opponents characters with just one shot but the price for this will be almost 90% of his health. One shot. From a distance of half the battle field. Isnt it tempting? At the same time, we were very eager to constantly demonstrate the price of each mistake, when wrong steps made at the beginning end up leading to defeat. So, in story mode it will lead to a situation when your archer wont feel at his best and if your party has no strixes (the stones which are the global resource in the game and which provide the defense against disease which the Reapers are sending), the archer will die in story mode. And I will always say it, even the main protagonist will die if you let him fall in battle without resources or time to heal.
Now, this is also not true because the archer cannot 1-shot people. Ignoring that this is completely fucked by random cards that could undo all your mistakes, none of these trades are present in the game at all. Thorn, Lo Pheng, and Hopper all have negligible costs to use their abilities - and Hopper even regenerates energy on attacking! Hopper's abilities are solely energy based, so he does not need to worry about any resource tradeoffs. Meanwhile, the rest of your units do - so while Reet is in the corner blowing off half her health for a killshot, Lo Pheng just killed 4 guys with the lost of 4 health or some other trivial cost.
This applies to enemy units as well - minor unmarked spoilers ahead. There is an enemy we have not seen called the "Ense warlock". They have 2 abilities - they can meditate to restore energy, and they can spend that energy to use a hilariously powerful attack called "Pillar of Ash" that hits a target at long range for 300% of the warlock's attack modifier.
I would trade the entirety of Thorn's party for one of those assholes.
This is including that the enemies on higher difficulties can go below 0 on these resources to fire off abilities and you end up with an arbitrary shackle where some units are shit because they have to interact with the game mechanics, and other units are good because you can ignore it.
This is not including the fact YOU CANNOT TRADE UNITS. If a unit goes down they take an injury, and at 4 they permanently die. You cannot heal injuries without burning in-game time and strixes. You do not want to do this for spoiler reasons in Thorn's party.
Ash of Gods Devs posted:
Obviousness of a characters archetype and behavior. If the player faces a certain class for the first time, he must be aware of what he should expect from this class and how to use it and he has to choose this class consciously. He must understand how to build effective mechanics during the battle with the help of this class.
Modification of a characters tactics during the battle. This changes a characters tactics after a few turns, depending on previous actions, both yours and your opponents. It allows us to make the battle picture more diverse and avoid boring one-button classes. The Swordsman class is one of the archetypes where this principle is exaggerated.
Transparency of the consequences of your decisions. Youre thinking about the action and, even before you apply it, receiving the information about the possible consequences of this action. You dont have to spend your time calculating it by yourself.
The possibility of counteractions. You can set an action for your character which will affect the next turn of your opponent. The Guardian class for instance is the living embodiment of this principle: he moves forward, constantly attacking, and at the same time shifts to deep defense or counter-strikes each time somebody attacks him.
These are the design goals they've set for their combat system. You'll notice that 1 and 2 are completely contradictory, and they don't mention the Banner Saga at all despite that game pioneering the "HP=Attack Power" concept they're so desperately trying to ape. 3 is completely violated by their unholy lust for random battle cards, but I will concede 4 because there's no actual way to take away a unit's turn. Reading it it's clear they think battles are supposed to be longer than they actually are, because what really happens is you buff a unit to unholy levels and run around 1-shotting people. You will not get to the point where the warrior has 20 attack from stabbing fools, Lo Pheng will Altar his ass to death.
So what could we do instead? I'm going to take a page from Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark (an actually good game), Tactics Ogre, and FFTA2 and just suggest a health bar with regenerating mana. You have your full health bar, and that goes down when you get attacked. Then you have an MP pool where you start at 0 and gain some amount - probably 5 - every turn. Your attacks cause mana to use so you basically have a count-up to being able to use them. We can keep the deal where you can attack both mana and health so that you have the option of either emptying a unit's mana bar to prevent them from using their hard core attacks or just straight up killing the unit. This gives us a way to have classes with distinct abilities whose tactics change by the round as they regain mana to allow them to fight, it allows us to interact with our opponents by taking away their attacks, and it forces us to think about positioning to keep our characters out of attack range until they're ready to strike. You also have to actually think about the big attacks - if I use it now, will I pay for it later?- but you don't need to worry about blowing off half your health shooting a bow.
Under this system, the double HP damage at 0 energy disappears. It's just going to overly incentivize energy attacks, and it's a clumsy patch for the fact that attacking energy in Ash of Gods doesn't actually shut down most enemy attacks. There are probably flaws with this system (because I thought it up 5 minutes ago) and it doesn't appeal to "breaking the canons", but the ultimate proof is that people like Fell Seal and gave the developers money and Ash of Gods is somewhere on the fringe with meh reviews at best. There, I said it. Fight me.
Characterization, or why I don't care about any of these people
Tell me about Brett. What does he like? What doesn't he like? Why is he here? This game suffers from the fact that most of these characters are superfluous and unnecessary. Can you tell me the difference between Mushom, Ake, and Stein? Ake is maybe kinda dumb, Mushom likes vagina, and Stein is...there. How about Flitt and Brett? No? Look, I get it's a tactics game and you're going to have a fair amount of characters, but there's a reason you can hire generic units in most of these games. Flitt is a nerd who likes to read books, Brett is a guy being prepared for...something (warning: something might be stupid), but they're both archers with literally identical abilities. Krieger and Sopp are supposed to be different - one is a fuckup drunkard who should not be in charge of anything, and the other is an elite royal bodyguard - but they again have the same abilities and Sopp's animations are literally the same as the generic warriors', down to the buttscratching.
But OK, we have loads and loads of characters and I'm nitpicking at the supporting cast. Let's take our protagonists Thorn and Hopper.
I have spent enough time denigrating Thorn, but I honestly cannot tell what he is intended to be. Is he supposed to be an Achilles like nigh invulnerable hero with a fatal weakness for his family? Is he a legendary commander who inspires faith in the kids to get them through this? Is he the relatable everyman just trying to get his family through this (no). This is what makes him hard to fix - we know he's a surly asshole who has seen some shit and is protective of his family, but this is interspersed with the niggling feeling he's a developer self-insert as Mushom achieves climax rhapsodizing about "Mad Thorn." He married into nobility and everyone respects him and he won like 50 sword tournaments and the king acknowledged him as the best swordsman ever (that is seriously in his backstory bio).
Thorn's story is about a man who is trying to save his family and the people he feels responsible for, in that order, so let's start there. I don't have qualms with our introduction to Thorn initially. Shopping for his wife's birthday is an excellent way to show how devoted to his family he is. We're just not given a reason to know or care about him. The reveal that his wife has been butchered - and we don't even see her face - has no impact on the player because we don't know Thorn and we don't know his wife. What does get revealed - through menu choices - is that Thorn is (or can be) an incredibly violent and impulsive man. Remember how we were going to strike Tenner to chastise him and killed him outright? Notice that we can rob all the merchants? Remember this?
That's not just a throwaway line, the game will force you to sacrifice a non-Gleda character to give Gleda strixes to avoid a minor injury.
So the game and the other characters would have us believe Thorn is the greatest character that ever lived, but he comes off as more of a character who will do anything, no matter how monstrous, to protect his family. That's not a bad protagonist at all. Fiction is full of characters who carry out monstrous actions to save their children, and protagonists don't have to be "likable" to engage the reader. The problem is that the game wants us to believe that Thorn is simultaneously a golden god whom everyone looks up to but also has the heart of a monster, and doesn't want to engage this contradiction. People can sense that kind of darkness, hell, Gavin de Becker wrote an entire book about it. If you're going for that, you should have some characters clearly unsettled by Thorn - not just calling him "Mad Thorn" in awe of his sword prowess, but being very afraid of getting on his bad side. Little things - maybe Flitt freaks the hell out when Thorn calls him a nerd, or people discussing a vague uneasiness because they know he has a temper - which he's demonstrated when we killed Tenner. He's a good sword fighter because he's vicious and people actively avoid fighting him in tournaments because he goes hard and is barely restrained. Or just get rid of one of these - maybe he is just Sir Lancelot trying to live up to what he knows is right, burdened by an earned reputation for being a capable commander, and have him struggle with what the fuck to do. As is, he ticks all the bells of being a crappy male self-insert. Just...don't do that.
You can also solve a lot of the problems of people talking about the shit he did offscreen by including some flashbacks. It's certainly more valuable than talking to Brett about how he's secretly Batman. There is nothing wrong with a competent protagonist, but the flawless surly god is boring and I may just end up showing off his death.
Hopper is his own can of worms. He is supposedly atoning for all the people who died 700 years ago because he forgot to stab himself with the knife that can kill Reapers (instead of just stabbing the Reapers in the face) yet after saying this to Amma this goes completely out the window and is replaced with annoyance at being cursed. Constantly. A better writer might have had him wonder if he didn't deserve this curse as a form of survivors guilt, but he's also an immortal being who worked for actual, literal gods. Rather than giving him perspective he just comes off as a childish asshole (berating the minstrel, having Ake attack James) unable to tolerate momentary inconveniences. He is used to exposit about the plot by virtue of having lived through it, but it is layered in so many allusions it comes off as a bad JRPG script. Unfortunately the Hopper Rouley Riddle Extraordinaire is essential to determining what ending you get so my initial suggestion of "cut him and his useless friends" won't work, but you can't write him as the Great Moralizer (saving children, lecturing people on morality), simultaneously write him as a petty asshole, and have no one comment on that. Either emphasize the petty assholery as a bored immortal, go in on the guilt and the desire to atone, or do something with him besides having him exposit about Enses in another story line while Flitt and Reet have already given us the lowdown.
Lo Pheng is the only one of the three I can see having a clear storyline and characterization (hiding his abusive past behind stoicism but coming out barely when shown empathy) and thus wins Best Protagonist by default.
A few words on plot
So far we have finished three chapters of 10 and not a lot has been accomplished or stakes have been set. Lo Pheng defeated a Reaper but that is meaningless. Thorn left the doomed RPG hometown and is now wandering without a clear goal. Hopper is...following riddles...for...reasons. There are a lot of words but nothing is being conveyed. The Reaping is bad and you can't fight it, but it's also not very threatening, the Reapers haven't done anything, and all of the characters are protected. As far as the actual plot goes, this feels like a Chapter 1 for each character:
-Thorn's wife died and now he left his ruined town
-Lo Pheng quit the service of Pelko Soturi and picked up a bunch of women looking to him for protection
-Hopper is following Thorn to lift the curse and because he's curious about how Thorn survived the Reaping
These could have all been set up in one chapter. Hell, the Lo Pheng updates are short enough to have been 1 chapter, and there is not enough being conveyed by the writing - in either prose quality or content - to justify shit like that Coronzon conversation in chapter 3. We have a vague inkling that Chila is plotting something, but we have no inkling what the Reapers actually want other than "they're evil and playing with people like children lol", and the game hasn't set things up enough for me to care. There's no overriding mystery making me want to uncover the answer and the prose is shit garbage I don't want to read. We're getting to the end of this, I promise you all, but I can't promise a good game.