As noted last time, I’ve been playing more mobile games than anything lately, so once again, I wanted to write about a few games I’ve played on my Android-equipped Samsung smartphone. I don’t know the model, it’s never been important to me; it was one of the “free” ones at Costco when I needed a new phone. It’s a smartphone, I use it to call my wife, text my family members and play games. It tells time (and even automagically updates to Daylight Savings times) and takes lousy photos, too.
So, first the disclaimer, noting that I will get back to Steam PC games, this is just a mobile detour since that’s where my gaming time is at these days. Also of note are the Humble Bundles that are all about mobile games. I picked up the latest one, and will be writing a bit about those games when I make the time to play them. I’ll probably need to play those on my tablet (another “free” model that came with my latest laptop… a Dell somethingorother), since it has more horsepower and screen real estate. Anyway…
I’m going through my Steam list (and then some, as it happens) alphabetically, picking up games I own but haven’t played to see what’s there. 15 minutes each is all I’m budgeting, but I reserve the right to get sucked into a cool game. Some I’ve played already, though, so I’ll mention them in passing here and there, giving them a rating like the other games.
I’ll be giving each of these Backlog games a rating of sorts, as follows: Regret (uninstall and forget), Remember (uninstall but wish for more time), Revisit (leave installed for later) and Recommend (wish for more time to play this right now). This is a squishy continuum of sorts, and deliberately imprecise. This isn’t an in depth survey-and-review, it’s Spring Cleaning of my video game backlog.
The games I’m taking a look at this time all have some things in common, and this means I get to point out some trends about mobile gaming in general. Some I like, some I don’t, but that’s how these things always go. One that I should mention up front is one that I mentioned in passing last time: The Gacha System.
I really don’t like gambling. When it’s “just a game”, I can fairly easily ignore it, but I don’t like the psychology of it, I don’t like the monetization of the gambling impulse, and I don’t like the leverage it gives skeevy designers, like the King people and their annoying Candy Crush game and games of its ilk. Most big mobile games use some variation of this Gacha system, where you can use in-game currency, purchased currency or simply purchase widgets that are then “opened” or cashed in to acquire a piece of gear or some other piece of the game. There are different rarities of said pieces, with different values for gameplay.
There is often a secondary currency in these games, obtained by spending real world money. Sometimes this currency has other uses in-game, and I’ll detail that a bit in each game, but this is also often used for the Gacha systems. One way or another, then, you’re taking a chance at acquiring something that may or may not be useful to you in the game. The vast majority of the time, however, the odds are very, very low for getting something good that will be useful for more than as vendor trash or upgrade fodder.
In Slingshot Braves, for instance, a game I mostly enjoyed but have since uninstalled, you could spend $5 for one of these Gacha items (a common price), and that item had about a 75% chance of being B-class gear that you would then just break down into upgrade components that were the rough equivalent of the rewards from 5 minutes of gameplay. They were not worth upgrading since A-class gear was far more powerful, even without much investment into upgrading it, and the B-class gear couldn’t evolve into the top tier SS-class gear at all. There was no point in sinking more than a few assets into them to make your team slightly stronger as you waited to score some useful gear.
The other 25% of the time you would get an A-class item, which could then be eventually (with a lot of in-game money and upgrade materials) upgraded to an SS-class item, which would usually last you for several weeks or more, as powerful as they are when fully upgraded. Even then, the A-Class item might be one that you would rather not invest in, since gear is gender specific (and the game insures you have two of one gender and one of the other in your party) and tied to a specific material type (one of five, though one of those is a “wild” type that matches with anything else). If you equip gear (you have one weapon and two armor slots) that is all the same material, you get a 20% boost to your stats, which can be crucial. There are also five weapon types, and some of them are clearly subpar in some missions and situations, especially since maintaining a combo can often be critical and some make that significantly harder.
The value difference between the B-class items and the A-class items is absurd, and spending money on a slim chance (not just the 10%, but the small subset of that 10% that is useful to you at that moment) just doesn’t stand up to cost-benefit calculations. This always wore at me with Slingshot Braves, but it was possible to have fun with subpar gear for a while. When the high end gear became mandatory for high level play, I lucked out by having a couple of spears that were very nice for a while, but then the developers drastically reduced the power of spears across the board, and I simply ran out of patience with the game.
I’ve read about some people who chip in money here and there to a game that uses a Gacha system, in an effort to support the developers. This is, to me, a bit like giving a tip to the devs. I think that some developers are counting on this impulse, especially when the odds of useful Gacha items are so low. They probably count much more on the gambling impulse, but it’s interesting to me that there are those who know full well that the system is rigged, but who give money anyway. These players appreciate the games for what they are, but can’t find a better way to give the developers money. This seems like an oversight and opportunity to me, but perhaps it’s just that there’s no good solution.
I am not opposed to giving money to game developers. I worked in the industry for almost a decade, and we always appreciate it when we actually get paid. What bugs me though is that there’s not really a good feedback system. Incentives matter, and when a developer or publisher sees that players spend money on some piece of their monetization, it’s only common sense to find ways to keep that trickle of money flowing. There’s no “tip jar” or comment field for purchases, no face to face “hey, I like that part of the game” interaction, just the Gacha purchases (or other annoying systems).
That’s why I don’t really want to give money for what I consider to be a “tip”, since it’s going into a Gacha system that I think is bad value. I don’t want to send the signal that it’s a monetization vector that I appreciate.
For most of these Free to Play (F2P) games that I play, I do appreciate that I can get a taste of how the game functions without a cash investment. Ultimately, though, I would much, much rather pay them a reasonable flat one-time purchase price, and have the gambling acquisition elements eliminated from the game design. That’s not going to happen, but it does keep me from giving most of these developers money, despite the fact that I like their game design. That’s undeniably stingy of me, though not spiteful.
I’m voting with my wallet, in a way, choosing to play and support games that I consider to have good core game design, like posting about them here, but with an asterisk about how I spend my money. I’ve long since divorced my appreciation for a game from my appreciation or lack there of for its monetization. MMOs were really the big impetus for this, since I detest the subscription model, even while I appreciate the design of some of the games. I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due, pointing out good design and art while also noting problems as honestly as possible.
So, long-winded aside aside, it’s time to take a look at a few games that I’ve been having fun with lately. I Recommend all of these, which is worth noting up front, so any pros and cons that I note ultimately settle out in favor of these games. Despite my reservations about some elements of these games and annoyances with monetization, noted in each mini-review, there really are some good-to-great bits of gaming to be found here.
Last time I grabbed screenshots from the internet, but this time I’m using screenshots from my phone. Other images are from the internet, here and there.
Pokemon Shuffle is one of my favorite match-3 games. Puzzle Quest is still on top, followed by Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, Bilging and Gem Spinner 2, but depending on my mood, Pokemon Shuffle can fit anywhere after those two Puzzle Quest games.
I have this on my GameBoy 3DS as well, and it’s mostly the same, though the 3DS seems to run a little faster and smoother. Some live events are different, and the mobile version seems to be a release or two behind, but the gameplay is the same.
The beauty of this game is two-fold. One, it layers the solid Pokemon “collect ’em all” approach and intricate element “rock-grass-steel-lightning-bug-dark-psychic-etc” web on top of the match-3 core. This by itself would provide for a solid game, or at least a solid management layer over a bog standard match-3 design. The real joy of this game, though, are the small design tweaks on the matching board.
First and foremost, you can swap any two Pokemon icons; you just grab the one you want to move, plunk it anywhere else on the board, and it changes places with the one you moved it to (and if you’re moving it to an empty space, the place where it was is emptied, and those above fall down). You do still have to make a match with a move, but you no longer have to scour the board for two neighboring tiles that happen to play nice together. You have as much time to make your move as you’d like, in turn-limited puzzles… or there are the time-limited puzzles that let you move anything anywhere except on top of obstacles. You don’t have to make matches in these, and often benefit from setting up the perfect combo or long match, so long as you can do it quickly.
This freedom (and the enhanced freedom of placement in timed puzzles) brings fun back into the genre for me. I’m not sure if any other games do this, but it’s really, really nice. Yes, it makes things easier in some ways, but it also means you’re more able to optimize your moves and even plan better, since you don’t have to rely as much on the luck of the board layout. More freedom and better planning built into a single core design change? That’s a major bonus in my book.
Second, each Pokemon has its own special ability that can occasionally trigger when it’s matched. Some are nice, like the ones that remove board obstacles, others are just extra damage, while others do things like boost their kin in combos/cascades or boost the “Mega evolve gauge” for the Pokemon that leads the team. This isn’t something to plan around, really, given random activation, but it’s nice to give each unit more flavor and possibly push a team over the edge in a tight puzzle.
Third, that “Mega evolve” Pokemon system provides for a significantly more effective special move for some Pokemon. The one that leads your (usually) four-unit team has the potential, if you have the appropriate evolution stone, to change mid-puzzle into a better version of itself. It doesn’t get an attack power boost as far as I know, but most Mega evolved Pokemon gain the ability to clear the board in some way. Some clear columns, others clear rows, others clear obstacles, and others simply have local or pattern-based clearing. This is a great way to clear up logjams in the board, and often provides a bit of extra punch as the cleared icons can add to the attack power of the match that triggered the clearing. Lucario’s vertical clears are usually very effective, for instance, clearing all rows that are in line with any match you make with its Mega evolved icons. Gengar’s Mega form clears out all of its other icons, effectively making the other Pokemon more common on the board, meaning more combo/cascade potential. It made a 97-hit combo happen for me once, which is equal parts absurd and awesome.
Fourth, there’s a curious little “hitch” or “hiccup” in the gravity of the game. Icons that should fall down due to matches clearing space below them will make a brief stop in the space directly below them before falling the rest of the way. If this brief stop means a new match is made, it triggers instead of the icon falling the rest of the way down to where it would be destined to in pretty much any other game of this type. It’s occasionally annoying, but I’ve learned to use it on to make some matches happen that otherwise wouldn’t, and it does make extra steps happen in combos sometimes. It’s a curious design decision, but it’s a nice little quirk that gives the game some personality.
Fifth, since it is Pokemon, you can try to catch the Pokemon that you defeat. They are easier to catch if you solve the puzzle in fewer moves (or in less time on some levels). This makes smarter play more satisfying beyond the score and self-directed impetus to do better, as you’re rewarded for doing better by making it easier to expand your Pokemon collection. This collection is key to being able to field the perfect team in any given matchup, as you’ll be needing Pokemon of every type to really maximize your efforts. …OK, “Normal” type Pokemon still get the short end of the attack web, but they still scratch that collectible itch.
Sixth, you can purchase boosters like five extra turns or increased attack power, or more importantly sometimes, an improved Pokeball for capture attempts after you beat a Pokemon’s puzzle. These aren’t as powerful or interesting as the game-swaying abilities in a Puzzle Quest, but they do make some levels easier, or at least less frustrating. They cost Coins, which are earned at a trickle through play or via exchange of the secondary currency.
Seventh, there is an Optimize function before each puzzle, which is a really nice touch, given that the attack web is fairly complex, and your collection will grow to over 100 units without much trouble. If the Optimize doesn’t get you want you want, there are tools to search for given types of Pokemon and even a “Super Effective” tag that refines the process as well. It’s just a nice bit of streamlining that still gives you control if you want it. I appreciate this, though some will certainly bemoan it as an appeal to “casual” players instead of elite hardcore players who do it the right way, uphill both ways in hip-deep snow.
On the downside, there are some puzzles that are very heavily biased in favor of the enemy (Mega Mewtwo and Mega Gengar in particular were very annoying for me). The boosters help with these, and it’s hard not to be reminded of Candy Crush’s gatekeeping levels that almost demanded boosters, pushing people to buy the secondary currency, but I was less annoyed with these levels than the equivalent in Candy Crush. I’m not sure if that’s a pacing issue in favor of Pokemon Shuffle, the greater ease of obtaining boosters in this game, or just me mellowing out over time, but hijinks along these lines seemed less annoying in this game.
All in all, there are a lot of little things that I like in this game that add up to a very nice core design with few caveats. Play feels more like I’m in control than most match-3 games, and I appreciate that. Long combos can happen, and they are bonuses, but most puzzles seem to be paced so that you can get through them with smart play and only a little luck to push you over the edge if you can’t quite get there on your own.
As with so many mobile games, Pokemon Shuffle uses a Stamina system that throttles your ability to play as much as you’d like. The Stamina system equivalent in this game is a set of 5 Hearts. Each puzzle attempt costs one or two hearts (so far only some special event Pokemon have required two in my experience), and they regenerate at a rate of 1 per 30 minutes. This doesn’t lend itself to marathon playing unless you buy more Hearts, so it’s really only something I play in small bits here and there, but that’s not uncommon with mobile games.
You can spend money to acquire Jewels, which can then be exchanged for Hearts or Coins. Hearts allow you to keep playing, Coins allow you to purchase boosters or Pokeballs. I can wait for Hearts to regenerate, and I like the challenge of playing without boosters, so I’m not too bothered by either, and neither seems too abusive. The highly difficult puzzles seem like obvious pushes for Jewel purchases, but I ignore the impulse and try again later, trying to play smarter.
One nice touch is that Hearts that you acquire through Jewel conversion go into a separate pool of Hearts, instead of being capped at 5 like the standard regenerating pool.
All in all, the monetization isn’t all that annoying or pushy, and that’s appreciated. It’s one that I’m more comfortable thinking of as a “tip” instead of a ridiculous Gacha system, at any rate.
Soul Hunters is a game that seems to be engaged in a curious sort of brinksmanship. It seems to want to give away as much as it can in the form of in-game currency, gear, characters and other oddments in an effort to make the game feel more generous than its competitors. It’s an interesting approach, and it earns some goodwill points from me. It should be noted that I’ve only played it for a couple of hours overall, so I don’t know if the pacing crashes later on, but so far, it’s been prolific in barraging me with goodies.
As you play, at least in the early levels I’ve been through (two chapters of the campaign, of which 14 have been released), there is a small avalanche of things that happen and gifts that are given to you. It’s the only game that I’ve played in the last year or so where I got tired of playing before its stamina system kicked in. in fact, the game lets you bank extra stamina in the form of drumsticks (or something like it) with no limit I have reached so far. It looks like I have a limit of 65 or so that would regenerate (I think, anyway, as I’ve never dipped into that reserve), but given all the treats the game has tossed my way, earlier today I had about 400 of these stamina-like points, and as I use them up to play through levels, I just accrue more.
The game looks like what might happen if Blizzard absorbed the Capcom Puzzle Fighter art team, then made a single-player pocket-sized WoW dungeon runner. You control five units in combat through three waves of enemies, proceeding left to right in an effort to crush your foes and steal their stuff. Each of your units has a special ability that charges as they deal damage, and activating them at just the right moment can mean victory in a tight spot.
To me, it feels very much like controlling a team of adventurers through a small WoW dungeon, where each unit has a single hotbar skill. (As a minor digression, I also think that the skills might benefit from time-based activation on cooldowns, especially healing… but as most waves are finished in less than a minute, it’s not a big deal to try again if you fail.) You have “tanks” out front, damage dealers crowding behind, and a healer tucked in the back. This is enforced, more or less, by having each unit associated with one of the three rows (front, middle or back) simply as part of what they are. You can’t place your fire witch in the front row, for instance. You can shuffle around which units you’re using, but they settle into their designed rows and roles.
There are no taunts or aggro, just attacks and rows. Foes have to cut through your front row to reach the middle, and through the middle to reach the back. Some attacks can pierce every row and strike everyone (ballistas, for instance), some are area attacks that tend to be lobbed over the front row to hit the back, others are sneaky Rogue-like attacks that start up front but sneak around back… but most foes are just simple grunts that either have a simple melee range attack or a ranged attack. All in all, it’s fairly balanced as far as damaging your whole team over time, even though some levels’ foes certainly pound on the front row with more vehemence… and once that front row collapses, your squishy middle and back rows die fast. That’s a big part of why I think healing is perhaps a bit weak, but generally speaking, just playing through the game, you’ll probably only fail a few times if you pay attention to timing, especially with heals, stuns and big attacks. You’ll need to cut through your enemies’ ranks, or use your own abilities to blast bosses hiding behind their mooks if the melee rows are clogged up.
Each unit’s skill is useful, and each also seems to have a passive effect or two that happens as they just blast away at enemies as they go through the levels. The healer I wound up with (I’m assuming it’s the one everyone gets, though it looks like there are 30-some units to unlock and recruit later) has a second-rank (there are four ranks) passive skill that “charms” a foe and turns them on their team. I love that skill, though I wish I had control over it. I also want to keep playing and see what happens as my team unlocks more ranks of skills, to see just how well they feel like they grow over time.
There are a lot of characters to recruit, though not as many as the 170+ units in Pokemon Shuffle. There are tons of loot items to collect, many of which are fodder for upgrading your units. Some gear is crafted into other gear, so far at a ratio of 3 lower-tier gear bits to one higher-tier item. A third tier item, then, would require 9 low-tier bits, unless you happen to pick one up from a fallen foe.. Some items are simply sold to the local vendor who randomly stocks items for you to buy if you feel so inclined. From gear to Experience potions to character boosts, they run a decent little shop, though it doesn’t seem necessary just yet.
All in all, it’s a curious blend of almost Tower-assault sort of gameplay, filtered through a WoW sensibility and standard RPG tropes of building a team of adventurers and helping them grow over time. Even your starting hero bears a striking resemblance to a certain Azerothian prince-later-Lich-King. There are some bog standard mobile game monetization vectors, like a Gacha-like gear acquisition system (with a free “pull” every 48 hours, whee!), the stamina system and the ability to directly purchase the in-game gold. None of this seems necessary, though, at least not at this point. I’m disinclined to buy into a Gacha system, though, so it’s nice to see that there’s the periodic free hit to keep the potential acquisition of useful gear in play. On the other hand, there’s really nothing that I would want to spend money on. I might pay for a stamina-free offline version, but that’s about it.
Still, between the generous reward system, a fairly large selection of unlockable functions and characters, and a simple but fun core gameplay loop, it’s been fun to play the game so far. The gameplay itself is a bit thin compared to games I have more fun with like Terra Battle, but it’s easy to pick up and have some fun with, and there are moments where smart timing matters, so I can’t fault it too much. The passive abilities characters can earn as they progress do help keep things interesting, though I do wish the design was more ambitious, allowing for more active abilities. Maybe they decided to just keep it simple for the learning curve’s sake, and to keep it from being too demanding. That can be important in mobile games… even though my gaming tastes run more to the Final Fantasy Tactics vein, where there’s a bit more meat on the bones of the game.
…48 hours later, and I did play a bit more of the game, and it does hit a bit of a wall around the 4th chapter, where the difficulty curve is only surmountable with grinding, so it’s not a smoothly paced game, but even then, it’s still fairly generous, even if the stamina recharge is 6 minutes per point, which is the slowest I’ve seen. I’ve also found that there’s a really nifty little “gear finder” system that lets you select a missing bit of gear you want to upgrade a character, and the game tells you where it drops from enemies. Two clicks later, if you’ve unlocked that area in the campaign, you can be in that dungeon, trying to collect the gear.
Also noteworthy are the “Sweep” tokens that let you go back to any level you have cleared with a maximum three-star efficiency, and just use the ticket to “finish” the level again and grab a bit of loot that you might have found if you actually played through. It’s a nifty little time saver, though I’ve found that it’s best to use them on the elite-class levels, since they are much more generous with the item drops.
One other really nice bit is that while the game does have quests as you’d see in an MMO, they are pretty passive affairs, keeping track of you, waiting quietly on their own, and notifying you if you happen to complete them, ready to throw goodies at you. If a mobile game can do this, why in the world can’t World of Warcraft or other AAA MMO games?
And then there’s Final Fantasy Record Keeper. I can’t help but like this game given my long history with the series (going on 22 years now), but if you want to skip the rest of this particular review, I’d just note that it banks heavily on nostalgia while having a decent simplified bit of gameplay at its heart. It’s not an amazing game, but it’s good fun if you’re a fan of the series.
At its heart, it’s little more than a bare bones nostalgia romp, a Pokemon-like “collect ’em all” sort of trip through most of the Final Fantasy games, grabbing characters from those games and employing them in a variant of the ATB combat engine that’s common in the series. If you’ve ever wanted to see what would happen if you took some of the core design from early in the series and shoehorned all of the other games through that pipeline into a katamari-like mashup, this is a good game to dig into.
It plays a bit like Final Fantasy 1, with limited ability/spell usage, it looks a bit like Final Fantasy VI, with all the various characters rendered in that game’s sprite style, and sounds like, well… all of them. If nothing else, it’s a sweet little minimalist jukebox, with tunes from all of the games. That’s really what trips the nostalgia factor for me, since I have a lot of the game soundtracks, and often listen to them just because I like the music.
I could write at length about the nuts and bolts of the game, but, well, it’s a RPG where you use the FF ATB combat to plow through dungeons that evoke key bits from the main games, collecting characters, gear, abilities and money along the way. It’s paced with a stamina system and monetized mainly with a Gacha system. If you haven’t played a Final Fantasy game with the ATB system, just go play Final Fantasy VI. It’s available on Android and in several other places, and it’s a better game in almost every way. It’s really best with a TV and console, but it’s playable on Android.
If you’re familiar with the series, though, FFRK is a good little time burner comprised of a tight feedback loop of clearing dungeons for experience, money and loot (gear and orbs used to make abilities). Gear acquisition is based on a Gacha system that has free daily pulls and awful odds of getting any significant gear. You can earn the in-game currency at a snail’s pace playing through the highlight reels of the main games, and events allow you to earn some more. There’s almost always a special event running, based on one of the main games, wherein there’s a subset of the Gacha system that does have better odds of getting useful gear, but it’s still all too often throwing money at a wall, hoping a flake of gold falls off.
It costs 5 Mithril (acquired one at a time through play and sometimes as login bonuses) or 100 Gems ($1, more or less) to get one bit of gear. Gear comes in five different rarities, from almost useless one-star gear to really strong five-star gear, with the occasional character-based super awesome five-star bit of gear. (Any character who has the ability to use that class of gear can use character-based gear, but specific characters get nifty new “soul breaks” from these spiffy pieces of gear.) The free daily Gacha can be any rarity, but the Mithril/Gem purchases are guaranteed to be 3-star or above. The thing is, once you’re past the first day or so of play, it’s really only good to keep four star or above gear and invest in leveling it up to make it stronger. It’s almost never worth the investment to “combine” gear. There just isn’t a smooth power curve, with the five-star gold gear being overwhelmingly more useful than anything else.
This is the game that really made me think of this “playing for tips” concept. I haven’t spent any money on the two other games in this article, but I did buy $4 worth of Gacha gear attempts in FFRK, one each in four different event subGachas. I thought for a while, as I noted someone else did earlier, that I was OK with giving these guys a bit of money for capturing a nice slice of the Final Fantasy experience and history. It’s just… I don’t like sending the message that the Gacha system and the gear tiers are something I approve of, especially enough to signal for more.
There’s a lot to like about this game for a nostalgia-ridden FF fan like me. The extremely limited two-ability-per-character system (five characters in a party) does grate on me now that I’m running into more complex fights, and there’s a significantly steeper curve when it comes to making your team more powerful after what I think is the midgame. The five-star rarity system applies to abilities, too, and making four-star abilities is all but impossible for teams below the level cap, and five star abilities require a team well above the level cap. (You can break the cap per-character if you participate in the events and acquire the right items.) It’s one of those catch-22 sort of situations, where you really only need those abilities to get to the point where you can make those abilities.
There are awesome little niceties, like “realm synergy”, where characters and gear who belong to the worlds you’re playing through getting bonuses (your team is almost never comprised of a single game’s cast; you usually have a mix of heroes from various FF games), and the events can be fun bursts of activity. The Optimize function is really, really nice, though I’ve hit a point where I tend to override it with item-specific vetoes more often than not to take advantage of quirks like Cloud’s extra damage from swords, since the game likes to give him knives sometimes. Overall, though, it’s a really nice little function that lets you jump in and play without endlessly navigating the slow menu system. There’s also a nice wiki system that SquareEnix seems to be at least marginally in charge of.
FFRK brought me along for a good little romp through the ages of the series, but it buckled under the need to monetize the game with a Gacha system and the stamina system. I do Recommend it to fans of the series or anyone with an itch for some solid-if-shallow RPG play, with the caveats that it really does benefit from nostalgia, and the Gacha system isn’t for everyone. I’d happily pay a single purchase price for this one if it could have faster menus, more music with a Jukebox mode, a smoother power curve, and ways to alleviate the catch-22 of ability and gear progress. I’d pay extra for a third ability slot for all of my characters.
Almost 5700 words later, and three games reviewed. That might be a new record for me, and that’s even trying to keep some parts brief…ish. Thank you for stopping by! Next time, I’ll be posting again about the Tinker Plastic Dice, but then I’ll get back to some Steam games, I think.