Artificial intelligence and more

We are definitely on the final stretch now. But once we have the strategic planning AI for HoMM, that is an AI that realizes every aspect of the game to give the best human players a tough but fair challenge, a lot of things are bound to change. And these things cast a long shadow before them.

A lot is happening in the background right now. I did talk a lot to people who do work related to AI, participated in a fair number of video conferences, and learned a lot about what part of my work people have difficulty to grasp. I have now a clear idea how AI needs to be demoed.

A lot of the talk was about concrete things though. I talked to talented modders who are in charge of a famous mod I am certain you have heard about. My AI will come to their game, it is a perfect fit, I'd even say more than Heroes V.

What also became a reality is setting up a development studio to give my work a proper frame, a home. This involves me moving to a new location (also in Germany), and sorting out the financing for the studio's first work which is a prototype for a strategy game that shares a lot of DNA with HoMM. More will be revealed in due time.

Heroes V

There isn't much news today, but there is a new map added to our strategic map pack. This map is Battle of Androna which gives you plenty to explore and conquer. Highly recommended!

Druidstone

What I also can recommend is another turn-based strategy game from the developers of Legend of Grimrock. It somehow didn't capture an audience like LoG did, but I enjoyed playing it quite a lot. It has charm but more importantly if played on the highest difficulty the turn-based battles are a lot of fun. Read on if you like to learn more why I recommend it.

Presentation

Druidstone does very well to invite the player to a grand adventure. Installation and launch is very smooth, with the start screen already setting the right mood, with lush visuals, tempting music, and an intuitive interface. Dispensing with the need for a manual is a plus, the player gets into the game immediately while the tutorial is kept to a minimum but covers everything the player needs to know. Which also says a lot about how good the UI is.

The visuals, art and animations do a great job to immerse the player into a lush and thematically apt fantasy world. The same can be said for the presentation of the game's systems and UI, it is always clear, functional and gives the impression of great care.

The sound effects and the music are mostly outstanding. The one exception may be the occasional switch to Metroidvania-style music during combat, which may appear jarring for some players, because it changes tone completely.

Writing

The story of Druidstone is mostly presented as text bubbles during conversations which works well because it draws the player in. What is said by the characters presents the story well. Though it is not your epic D&D style fantasy plot, it provides ample motivation for the player. The characters feel a bit like metaphors, but that does not diminish their deeds and struggles to do right.

As a slight warning, if you are put off by things like this, user reviews do criticize the story. But this is not necessarily a flaw of the writing. It is a valuable skill to appreciate a story and the art of the writing for what it is, to get the most out of it. Today too many people, particularly millenials, have become too attached to their own preconceptions of what a story is supposed to be, and feel entitled to criticize it. Though in truth, it is very difficult to satisfy these people, and even harder to come up with a story that reaps universal acclaim. Druidstone's story works fine for what it set out to do.

I personally think the story works just fine if you are used to the way a lot of the HoMM campaigns are written. Not too serious, but something that keeps you curious and going.

Player Agency

In principle the player proceeds through Druidstone's story by fulfilling missions which are relayed through an overland map. You can pick any mission that is available, and as the story proceeds more missions are added.

Between the missions you have the opportunity to upgrade your characters' gear and skills from the experience, gold and gems you acquire on the missions. The loot depends on how good you do on a mission, so the player is incentivized to perform well.

The difficulty is freely adaptable and missions can be replayed to improve the outcome.

Core Gameplay

The meat of the game is in the missions you perform. Each is a handcrafted map of a location. The maps are divided into tiles and you proceed in typical turn-based fashion by spending movepoints to move and action points to interact with objects and fight opponents.

Though there are no shrouded areas that you have to explore, the game frequently throws surprises at you like new enemies spawning and new mechanics adding to the gameplay. Thus you can't plan your way to victory in advance at the begin of a mission. Druidstone plays much more like a boardgame of a dungeon crawl during which you are subjected to unforeseeable rigors. You have to manage your combat resources smartly and on the higher difficulties make best use of the skills your heroes acquire.

Experience with turn-based tactical combat matters a lot here, with many users reporting that they find the game on NORMAL difficulty already unforgiving.

Design of the Challenge

All missions are handcrafted and offer challenging opponents from the get-go. The tactical options available to you are enormous, with your heroes possessing a variety of skills that allow you to tackle challenges in many different ways, from a simple guard mode that spends your last action point to attack the next opponent that moves into range to intricate spells and teleportation, position swapping and similar feats. The list of your skills grows as you progress through the game. In principle the game demands that you use your skills effectively, as the opposition has the upper hand in numbers and strength. Opponents are dumb in the sense that they beeline towards you, but their numbers make the game challenging nevertheless.

All missions are winnable by design, and if you were up only against the opposition present on each map at the beginning, you would breeze through the game. To make the game challenging, Druidstone spawns enemies frequently during your mission, opens hidden passages with more opponents if you pass a trigger, or throws other surprises at you throughout the game.

In principle it makes for a nice, unpredictable experience, like a dungeon run with unpredictable rigors at every turn. It's definitely no strategy game, but a truly challenging dungeon run has its own merits.

But as things are, the surprises the game throws at you can easily make your mission a failure. By design this is only a small setback, because you can replay the mission immediately or come back later with better skills, or gear that will help you succeed. The enemy spawns and surprises the game throws at you are identic each time you play one mission. So you learn what you have to avoid and watch out for. It's like a puzzle that you repeat with an increasing number of hints at your disposal. This sounds nice on the drawing board, but the experience you get from repeating missions feels like a grind that gets weaker each time, because the spice of the mission, the surprises that add challenges, play out the same and thus have lost their appeal. It feels like a grind with diminishing returns, because you merely memorize the mission design. What it lacks is the grand feeling of a predictable strategy game, where you have to assess the challenge, refine your approach, and ultimately can revel in having mastered a challenge by learning to play better. It would be better if repeating a mission would play out differently each time, or if the mission would be challenging without additional surprises. This is Druidstone's biggest design flaw, that the replay of missions feels like a diminishing grind, like a puzzle that gets easier with each try, not because you have learned to play better but simply because you know how it plays out.

Instead Druidstone offers elevation by mastering the challenges that it throws frequently at you, if you are smart enough to win each mission on your first attempt. That is where Druidstone is at its best.

I played Druidstone on hard difficulty and after realizing that mission replays are not desirable, I did my best to complete all mission objectives right away. In principle, if you make smart choices at level-up, preferably to select the skills that offer new systemic benefits, and choose high quality gear with an eye for the best combat options, your power curve vs the difficulty of the missions is improving to your advantage as the game progresses. You also learn what type of surprises the game throws at you. A third through the game, it feels if you use your limited skills conservatively and proceed with circumspection, you can succeed mostly always right away.

Verdict

Druidstone is no RPG (we should stop calling a game an RPG only because you can customize your combat build) and no strategy game, because it is unpredictable in its challenge.

Instead Druidstone is at its best if you love a dungeon run that throws challenging surprises at you, and if you manage to proceed without fail like a roguelike.

These days you should be able to find Druidstone on a good discount. It is a lot of fun.

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