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Import Report – ‘Heroes,’ Gacha, and Gambles

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Fire Emblem: Heroes has been out for two weeks now. This week’s Import Report explores the good and the bad about it, and the capsule machine-inspired genre it comes from.

It’s been roughly two weeks since Fire Emblem: Heroes launched on iOS and Android, and with it came another new attempt at pushing the gacha genre onto a Western audience. Gacha follows a lot of the same principles as most other free-to-play mobile games by enticing the customer with short, but addictive, gameplay that is eventually stunted by some kind of wall. It could be as simple as running out of turns in a match-3 game or as elaborate as a difficult boss fight in an RPG. There have been some successful attempts at localizing gacha titles outside of Asian territories, like with Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, but the brunt of controversy surrounding these games is still mostly overseas. One gacha game in particular saw a man spend roughly 6k trying to get an unlock which in turn led to a lot of backlash and regulations being brought upon the market. Heroes takes a slightly less greedy approach to the gacha formula though, and it’s these particular choices that will help it stand out in a sea of similar-styled games.

The gacha genre of video games is one of the only ones out there defined by how it makes money rather than how it plays. Gacha is named after the word “Gashapon,” a Bandai owned trademark for capsule machines in Japan. Gacha games work similar to capsule machines in that content is locked behind randomized drops from some kind of micro-transaction machine. These types games also tend to have timed special events. Certain limited gear or characters can become easier to unlock for a short amount of time, or those same characters are only available for that short amount of time before vanishing indefinitely. It’s an easy way to get whales, the minority of players that spend more than the average of the majority, to actively invest in the game.

Gacha sounds like a bunch of crock, right? Gacha games often do a lot of things to offset their paywalls, such as being entirely free-to-play. One could realistically get through all of a gacha title without spending a single cent, but at some point or another, the player is going to hit a wall that will require time to grind up their resources. The idea is that everyone has a threshold, you just need to place it high enough where the investment of time can be rationalized with the investment of money.

Fire Emblem: Heroes isn’t the first gacha title to be released in the West, but it is a great example of some of the best and worst parts of the genre. In general, Heroes does more right than wrong. Its stages are short, level progression through the main game doesn’t feel stunted, and most of the story missions are manageable with even the weakest units when played properly. There’s also an ample amount of stages and scenarios to replay to grind out levels and resources quickly. Things like quests also facilitate continued play and give a way for the player get even more rewards that are otherwise unobtainable. It’s a healthy system, where players are given enough options in what to do that things don’t become boring unless you find the base gameplay boring from the very start.

Orbs serve as the coins for the gacha machine in Heroes, and they’re easy to obtain, at least while the game is still in a honeymoon phase of sorts. The entirety of February is filled with opportunities to gain orbs, from a daily bonus to special event maps that hand out 6 total each. This early-to-adopt inflation gives a player about 3 extra rolls in the machine, assuming you use the 20 orb max when you roll. It’s a great incentive for people who grabbed the game on launch day to keep playing, but it’s not nearly as forgiving to those who start later. There’s still plenty of opportunities to gain orbs if you’re a late adopter. You can gain 1 per-story mission when you first clear it, but those extra free rolls could be the difference between getting good party members or a bunch of weak ones.

Orbs do more than just fill in for gacha currency though, they’re also needed to get experience upgrades and even refuel other limited resources if the player is too impatient to wait. This kind of stuff is really par for the course when it comes to gacha games, as you really want to stress the inflated importance of paying to play more. Imagine you’re on a hard level, one laid out to be unfair and unforgiving to the slightest mistake. It takes a 1/5th of your limited stamina bar to play this level and you’re near zero now after binging for about an hour. Your last unit dies to theirs, and now it’s going to be a 2-hour wait for your stamina to recharge for you to try again. In the heat of the moment, you’re given the offer to trade in 1 orb to continue on the spot and have all your units come back at max health for a guaranteed victory. Logically, you should just hold off and patiently wait for your stamina to restore, but there’s always going to be more people who hit “try again” in the spur of the moment for their singular orb. These decisions stack up over time, and what started as one orb to continue quickly becomes 10 or 20, where you’re at the point of losing your free character rolls.

I had said earlier that you can get through most parts of the game with the weak units, which is true, but there’s no real way to get the strongest units outside of getting them through the gacha process. Each unit in Heroes has a star rating from 1-5, and then “5 focus” as an added 6th tier, and exclusive to the gacha machine. The more stars a unit has the better it’s base stats, skill pool, and ability to gain skill points becomes. Units can be upgraded at level 20, and with enough patience, you can turn any 2-star unit into a hefty 4-star in a few play sessions. The one thing you can’t effectively do right now is upgrade a 4-star unit to a 5-star. Each upgrade requires two separate resources of feathers and badges, and the badge required to go from 4 to 5 is not easily obtainable. This is where the grind kicks in, as suddenly you have to start doing more and more expensive side-missions in a power struggle to continually promote your units to make them stronger. Is it bad? A little, but the satisfaction of promoting a unit to 5-star ranking feels great since badges and feathers cannot be purchased or replaced by money. Players with dedication to specific characters will get way more out of grinding and playing the game than they will by lightening their bank accounts.

The ability to turn weaker units into stronger ones is one of the main things I like about Heroes. Rolling low-stat units always feels bad, but it doesn’t feel like complete garbage when you can turn them around and make them into stronger fighters with a little dedication. The maps in Heroes also lend to making its grind feel shorter. Most stages can be completed in a matter of 3-5 minutes, while it could sometimes take almost an hour in certain mainline Fire Emblem titles. The experience upgrades pay off as good investments since they too speed the process up and let you climb the training tower faster for rarer badges to make promoting units easier.

Fire Emblem: Heroes isn’t that different from your average gacha title like Granblue or Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius, but its legacy lies in its brand. Fire Emblem is a solid strategy series, and its gameplay translates well to mobile. The franchise has a huge roster of characters to choose from, which makes its biweekly roster roulette much easier to update and differentiate from week to week to keep players coming back. Heroes might not have had the same initial launch success as Super Mario Run or Miitomo, but it has the opportunity to outdo both of them. With a healthy free-to-play game structure and simple gameplay, Heroes has set itself up to be one of the better mobile games with longevity in mind.

Taylor is a writer from Atlanta, GA. His passion for games extends across genres and generations. When not playing or writing about games, he's probably reading science fiction.

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10 Years Later: ‘Mass Effect 2’ is An All-Time Sci-fi Classic

Mass Effect 2 didn’t just nail the formula for a successful sequel, it tied together one of the greatest science fiction tales ever.

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Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect launched in 2007 as the boldest science fiction project ever conceived for consoles. The complex mythology, history and the many alien races, each with their own political/religious beliefs offered a depth rarely seen in the medium. Only a game as ambitious as Mass Effect 2 could not only match the pedigree of such a massive project, but surpass it in every single way imaginable.

Released 3 years after the original, a full decade ago, Mass Effect 2 set the benchmark for not just sequels but for science fiction gaming as well. Few sequels are able to overcome the weaknesses of their predecessors with such perfect accuracy while also doubling down on what made them good in the first place.

The first task that fell to Bioware was to refine the combat. The original game had more of a strategic angle to it but that strategy meant the game was constantly stopping and starting, stuttering the action and ruining the flow of the game. By streamlining the combat into more of an action RPG experience (emphasis on action), Mass Effect 2 created a much better sense of tension in battle sequences. Aiming, using techniques and issuing orders also flowed more smoothly with these changes.

Mass Effect 2

Another major change was the removal of the Mako, an exploratory rover the player drove around alien planets with. While a novel idea, the Mako often lead to aimless wandering as the player sought out resources on the many planets of Mass Effect. Instead of driving to their destination, players were now warped directly to the area they would be exploring. Resource collection was overhauled as a result.

While few players will talk about the thrill of spinning a globe around and aiming a reticle in order to collect resources in Mass Effect 2, the simple speed by which this process was streamlined offered a hefty margin of improvement over the original game. Resources that might have taken a half hour to collect in the first game could now be found in 1/10 of that time. Resource collection, while a vital part of the game, was never meant to be the time sink it was in the original Mass Effect, and by speeding up this process, Mass Effect 2 allowed players to get back to the meat of the game: doing missions and exploring the galaxy.

Of course, these aren’t necessarily the most significant changes that players will recall from their time with Mass Effect 2. The story and character roster were also expanded considerably from the first game, and these are without a doubt the biggest improvements that this sequel is able to mount.

Mass Effect 2

While Mass Effect had seven playable characters, Mass Effect 2 expanded that to twelve. Not only was the amount of characters an improvement, though, the quality of the characters on offer was also much stronger this time around. A full nine new characters were introduced for players to utilize in combat, strategize with and get to know throughout the game. Among them were badass assassin Thane Krios, dangerous convict Jack, morally dubious Miranda Lawson, and hivemind robot Legion.

In fact, the cast of Mass Effect 2 is so good that it has rightfully become a benchmark for the creation of a compelling cast of characters in RPGs, and video games, in general. The sheer diversity on display in the looks, personalities and movesets allowed for the cast is awe-inspiring, and this is without even considering the trump card that Mass Effect 2 flashed throughout the experience of playing the game.

The monumental suicide mission to raid the Collectors’ base and save humanity is the impetus for the entire plot of Mass Effect 2, and the reason for which the player is recruiting the baddest mother fuckers from all over the galaxy in hopes of success. It isn’t just a suicide mission in name either, many, or even all, of the cast can die during the completion of this mission, adding a layer of suspense and finality to the final stage of Mass Effect 2 that few other games can match.

Mass Effect 2

To this end, players were encouraged to get to know their crew through loyalty missions specific to each cast member. By undertaking these optional missions and completing them in a way that would impress or endear themselves to the character in question, players were able to ascertain the unquestioned respect and loyalty of that character, ensuring they wouldn’t go rogue during the final mission.

Still, even passing these prerequisites with flying colors wasn’t a guarantee for success. Players also had to pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the characters when assigning tasks and making split second decisions. Who you would leave to recon an area, repair a piece of equipment, or lock down a path, could make the difference as to who was going to survive the mission. Further complicating things, the characters you wanted to take with you to final branches of the mission might be the very people best suited for these earlier tasks.

Getting everyone out alive is a truly Machiavellian task, requiring either a guide or multiple playthroughs in order to get it precisely right. To that end, my feeling is that it’s better to go at it honestly the first time around, dealing with the requisite losses that this experience entails. After all, it isn’t really a suicide mission without a couple of casualties right? Even with all of my preparations and foresight, I lost Tali and Legion in the final mission, but for the fate of the human race, these losses were an acceptable cost.

Mass Effect 2

Even outside the strength of this fantastic cast and the monumental undertaking of planning and executing this final mission, there were other key characters and elements introduced as well. The Illusive Man, voiced by the great Martin Sheen, emerged as a necessary evil, saving Commander Shepard from death but asking morally complex decisions to be made as the cost of doing business. The relationship with, and the choices the player makes, in regard to The Illusive Man have far reaching consequences for the remainder of the series, and as he emerged to become a primary antagonist in the final game of the trilogy, the considerations to be made were vast and insidious by their very definition.

With so many factors working in its favor, Mass Effect 2 is the rare game that is so perfectly designed that both its predecessor and sequel suffer by comparison as a result. While the improvements of ME2 make it hard to go back to the original game, the scope and ambition of an entire cast that could be alive or dead at the end of the journey also neutered the third game, causing many of the best characters in the trilogy to be excised from the final leg of the trip.

Truly, Mass Effect 2 isn’t just one of the greatest science fiction games of all time, but one of the best science fiction experiences in any medium, full stop. Like The Empire Strikes Back before it, Mass Effect 2 is the best exemplar of its universe and what makes it compelling and worthwhile in general.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘Speaking Simulator,’ ‘Iron Danger,’ and ‘Wildermyth’

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Iron Danger

PAX South brought an extremely diverse lineup of games to San Antonio, and in this next roundup, it’s time to look at another diverse assortment of titles. These include Speaking Simulator, the surrealist take on the art of speaking, Wildermyth, a beautiful new RPG based on D&D, and Iron Danger, a surprisingly player-friendly take on roleplaying.

PAX South

Speaking Simulator

When asked why he was inspired to develop Speaking Simulator, the developer promptly responded, “I don’t know!” That was exactly what I felt while playing its demo at PAX. It left me mystified, amazed that it exists, overwhelmed by its complexity, and delighted with its absurdity. Speaking Simulator follows a highly advanced android tasked with assimilating into human society in order to gain world domination – and to do that, he’ll need to learn how to speak first. Players are thus tasked with controlling every aspect of this android’s face and guiding it through increasingly difficult social situations.

Speaking is an awkward art for many people (including myself), and Speaking Simulator is just that: awkward. You can control nearly every aspect of the android’s face. You can move its tongue with the left stick and its jaw with the right, while manipulating its facial expression, eyebrows, and more with other buttons. This leads to a delicate balancing act where complete control feels just barely out of reach so that you must always be alert and able to sufficiently direct your mechanical face.

PAX

During each conversation, you’ll have so many different moving parts to consider. You’ll have to follow prompts about where to move your tongue, how to adjust your mouth, how your face should look, and so on. The more complex the conversation, the trickier it is to speak. Scenarios during my demo included a date, a job interview, and the most normal social situation of all, speaking to a man while he’s using the toilet. And of course, if you don’t perform adequately in these conversations, then your face will start to explode – which is only natural for awkward conversations, after all.

Speaking Simulator is the definition of controlled chaos. It shows just how difficult it really is to be a human – controlling the face alone was far more than I could handle, as my frequent face explosions during my demo showed me. Playing Speaking Simulator was an equally hilarious and surreal experience, one that I can’t wait to experience in full when it releases on Switch and PC at the end of January.

PAX

Iron Danger

Iron Danger was one of my biggest surprises at PAX South. When I arrived at the Daedalic Entertainment booth for my appointment with Iron Danger, I didn’t expect to enjoy it half as much as I did. As a western-styled, point and click RPG, Iron Danger was outside my comfort zone. Yet the game is explicitly designed for players like me, who can feel intimidated by the immense amount of strategies and decisions that the genre requires. This is thanks to its core mechanic: time reversal. Perhaps this mechanic isn’t entirely unheard of in RPGs (Fire Emblem: Three Houses comes to mind as a recent example), but the way it’s implemented in Iron Danger makes all the difference.

It begins simply enough for an RPG. Your village is under attack, and as you attempt to escape to safety, you have the misfortune of dying. But death is only the beginning: just as you fall, a mysterious being blesses you with the ability to rewind time at any moment you’d like. That means that if you ever make a wrong move during combat, then you can reverse that decision and try something else. Time is divided up into “heartbeats,” which are measured in a bar at the bottom of the screen.  If you want to go back in time, simply click on a previous heartbeat. There’s no limit on how often you can use this ability: battles become a process of trial and error, of slowly rewinding and progressing as you discover what works. If you end up walking into an enemy trap, simply click back to the heartbeat before the ambush, and try a different strategy.

Iron Danger takes the stress out of roleplaying. RPGs are all about making decisions, and typically, making the wrong decision comes at a high price. But thanks to the time-reversal mechanic, Iron Dungeon gives you the room to experiment without consequence. As the developers at the booth explained to me, the ability to undo your actions turns Iron Danger into more of a puzzle game than an RPG. It’s all about evaluating your situation, the abilities at your disposal, the locations and actions of different enemies, and so on. And if everything goes wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about.

That doesn’t mean that Iron Danger will be too easy, however. Current indications point to the opposite. After I played through the tutorial, the developers took over and showed me an advanced, extremely complex level from later in the game, filled with deadly enemies and dynamic environments to consider, with fields that can catch on fire and explosive barrels to throw at enemies. You’ll have to constantly skip forward and backward in time only to survive. This combination of player-friendly mechanics and hardcore roleplaying combat is an exciting mix, extremely appealing for someone like myself who loves RPGs but doesn’t enjoy the stress that often comes with them.

Wildermyth

Wildermyth

In addition to video games, PAX South also had a substantial portion of the exhibit hall devoted to tabletop games – including, of course, Dungeons and Dragons. But if you wanted to experience D&D-style action without leaving the video game section of the expo, then Wildermyth perfectly fit the bill.

This new RPG is a hybrid between DnD storytelling and worldbuilding with XCOM-esque combat. Like D&D, it allows players to forge their own adventures and stories. Decisions during story events can impact everything from the way the larger story plays out to the weapons your character can use in each battle. Story sequences play out randomly, with events occurring differently depending on which enemies you’ve faced, which characters are in your party, which regions you’ve explored, and so on. It’s an extremely variable story, but with such adaptable writing, each story sequence feels natural, despite its apparent randomness. Instead, it should encourage replayability, to experience every possible story beat there is.

Wildermyth

Combat plays out in a grid-based strategy style, similar to games like XCOM. Each character is decked out with unique abilities of their own, and can interact with their environment dynamically. My favorite ability to experiment with was with the mage character, who can imbue environmental objects with magical abilities, such as attacking enemies who get close or inhibiting nearby enemies with status debuffs. I loved exploiting my surroundings and constructing the best strategies during my demo, and cleverly using special abilities like these will likely be key to strategically mastering combat later in the full game.

Like so many other games at PAX, Wildermyth also boasts of a visually distinct art style. The entire game is framed as a storybook; narrative sequences play out in comic book-like illustrations, and environments and characters consist of flat paper cut-outs in 3D surroundings. Pair this with a muted color palette and a simple, hand-drawn style, and Wildermyth has a quaint, comfortable art style that really supports the fairytale feel of the whole game. Currently available on Steam Early Access, the full game is set to release later this year.

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Indie Games Spotlight – Pastels, Parenting, and Pedestrians

Check out five of the most creative and compelling upcoming indies in the second Indie Games Spotlight of 2020.

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Indie Games Spotlight

Indie Games Spotlight is Goomba Stomp’s bi-weekly column that shines a light on some of the most promising new and upcoming independent titles. Though 2020 is already scheduled to have several of the most anticipated indie releases of the last few years, this time we’re going to focus on games coming out in the immediate future. From vibrant brawlers to daughter raising simulators, you’re bound to find something that tickles your fancy in the coming weeks.

Super Crush KO; Indie Games Spotlight

Be John Wick for a Day in Super Crush KO

The neon-tinged shoot ’em up Graceful Explosion Machine quickly became one of the best indies on the Switch in 2017. Almost three years later, the same crew at Vortex Pop is back again with Super Crush KO, a fast-paced brawler set in a vibrant, near-future city. Despite the change in genre, however, it’s clear that Vortex Pop haven’t lost their design sensibilities in the slightest.

Super Crush KO plops players into a pastel world full of evil robots and cat-stealing aliens. Such is the situation of protagonist Karen when she’s rudely awoken to find her fluffy, white-furred pal catnapped. Thus, she embarks on a mission to punch, kick, juggle, and shoot anyone trying to keep her from her feline friend. Just like with Graceful Explosion Machine, the goal here is to clear levels with style, rack up high scores, and climb the leaderboards to compete with players around the world. Super Crush KO is out now for Switch and PC.

LUNA: The Shadow Dust Rekindles Lost Memories

Luna: The Shadow Dust is an absolutely stunning, hand-drawn adventure that follows the quest of a young boy who must restore light and balance to an eerie, enchanted world. This lovingly crafted point-and-click puzzle game originally began as a Kickstarter and is finally seeing the light of day after four long years of development.

Beyond its frame-by-frame character animation and appealing aesthetics, LUNA also promises to offer all manner of environmental puzzles to keep players engaged. Control will be split between the boy and his mysterious companion as the two gradually forge a bond and try to uncover the boy’s lost memories. With emphasis placed on emergent storytelling and atmospheric mastery, LUNA should be well worth investigating when it releases on February 13th for PC. Don’t miss trying out the free demo either!

Georifters – An Earth-Shattering Party Game

Genuinely entertaining party games are shockingly hard to come by in a post-Wii world. Georifters looks to fill that gap by offering a multiplayer-centric platformer centered around spontaneous terrain deformation. Players will be able to push, flip, twist or turn the terrain to overcome challenges and battle competitors in hundreds of stages in single-player, co-op and four-player multiplayer modes.

Of course, multiplayer will be where most of the fun is had here. Each character boasts a unique terrain-altering ability to help them attain the coveted crystal in every match. This makes character selection a serious consideration when planning a winning strategy against friends. To drive this point home even further, there will even be dozens of unique themed skins for players to customize their favorites with. Just like the original Mario Party titles, get ready to ruin friendships the old fashioned way when Georifters launches on all platforms February 20th.

Ciel Fledge; Indie Games Spotlight

Master Parenting in Ciel Fledge: A Daughter Raising Simulator

To say the simulation genre is ripe with creativity would be a massive understatement. Ciel Fledge: A Daughter Raising Simulator takes the Football Manager approach of letting players manage and schedule nearly every aspect of their daughter’s life; classes, hobbies, time spent with friends, you name it. The week then flies by and players get to see how their decisions play out over the weeks, months and years that follow. To keep things engaging, extracurricular activities and school tests are taken via a fascinating blend of match-three puzzles and card-based gameplay.

Just like in Fire Emblem: Three Houses, it’s easy to imagine the strong bonds that’ll form after investing so much time and energy into Ciel’s growth into an adult. Better yet, Ciel Fledge is filled out by what Sudio Namaapa calls “a cast of lovable characters” for Ciel to befriend, learn from, and grow up with. Prepare to raise the daughter you always wanted when Ciel Fledge: A Daughter Raising Simulator releases on February 21st for Switch and PC.

The Pedestrian; Indie Games Spotlight

The Pedestrian – Forge Your Own Path

The Pedestrian puts players in the shoes of the ever-recognizable stick figure plastered on public signs the world over. From within the world of the public sign system, players will have to use nodes to rearrange and connect signs to progress through buildings and the world at large.

The Pedestrian is a 2.5D side scrolling puzzle platformer, but the real draw here is the puzzle aspect. The core platforming mechanics are on the simpler side; players can jump and interact with different moving platforms, ladders, and the occasional bouncy surface. The possibilities of where this novel concept can go will all depend on how inventive the types of signs players can navigate will be. The character is also surprisingly charming; it’s inherently fun to guide the little pedestrian man through buildings and environments he wouldn’t normally find himself in.

Whether you’re a puzzle fan or simply appreciate the aesthetics, be sure to look out for the full journey when The Pedestrian launches on PC January 29th. Get an idea of what to expect by trying out the free demo too!

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