I feel it’s pertinent that I get this out of the way before I start the review in earnest: Roguelikes give me the shits. I can understand the appeal that many find in them, figuring out a strategy to deal with whatever might come before you, however I really detest games that punish you with things that are completely out of your control. You get to a point where you think you’re doing great only to find that you hadn’t accounted for situation X which then proceeds to tank your game, forcing you to redo the entire section just so you can account for it. Whilst Gods Will Be Watching isn’t exactly a Roguelike (it describes itself as a Point and Click adventure, which it partly is) many of its gameplay elements take inspiration from the genre and, unfortunately, are the downfall of what would otherwise be a brilliant game.
Gods Will Be Watching is one of those games that started out as a entry to the Ludlam Dare game jam which received such wide acclaim that it then went onto a successful IndieGoGo campaign for development into a fully fledged title. You play as Sergeant Burden, a long serving member of the establishment who’s infiltrated himself into the idealistic rebellion group called Xenolifer. Your mission is to play along with them, gain their trust and hopefully limit the amount of damage they can do. However it becomes apparent that it’s not black and white when it comes to Xenolifer, or even your own organisation, and therein is where the real challenge lies. Can you protect everyone? Are you strong enough to make the tough choices at the right time? These are the questions you’ll be faced with and living with those decisions might be easier said than done.
Since the theme for the original Ludlam Dare entry was “minimalism” Gods Will Be Watching took the cue to use the current ultra-minimalistic pixelart styling that other games like Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery EP are known for. There’s not a huge amount of visual variety in the game with the vast majority of it taking place within a single frame for each chapter of the game. It serves its purpose however, conveying the numerous visual clues and other elements form part of the core game play. It all kind of blurs into the background after a while as for the most part you’ll be spending your time in menus rather than constantly searching for things that you need to click on.
As I alluded to earlier the gameplay of Gods Will Be Watching is a mix between a traditional point and click adventure and a Roguelike. Each scene has a specific objective that needs to be completed in order to progress to the next chapter. Usually this objective requires you to play with a set variables in order to achieve the desired outcome so the majority of your time will be spent balancing them all out. Sometimes these variables are obvious, given to you in plain numbers, other times they’re hidden in the form of visual clues that you’ll have to decipher. There’s also several different ways of dealing with the problem at hand, some of which will make your life easier or harder depending on the objective. It’s an interesting concept however I feel that the execution has let it down somewhat.
You see I get the idea that there’s variables that need maximising and that you probably won’t get everything to go exactly the way you want however the inclusion of randomization feels like a big middle finger to the player. They mention this at the start, forewarning you that failure is to be expected and that you should just keep on trying, however the randomization can and will completely fuck you over numerous times before you get it right. It’s not even a matter of strategy after a while as even the best strategy can get completely wrecked by the random number generator spurting out a couple unfortunate numbers in a row. In a decently designed game this would be a low chance occurrence but in Gods Will Be Watching it happens constantly.
I’d probably be more forgiving if failing a chapter didn’t mean having to start all over from the start again, giving RNGesus another chance to fuck me over. Take for instance the torture scene where you have to distribute damage between the two characters in order to make sure you make it through the day. If your begs happen to fail, or you don’t get the response that allows you to rest, you’ll likely end up killing one of the characters. This isn’t to mention the Russian Roulette scene which can completely fuck you over, even if you use every trick at your disposal. The desert scene is even worse for this as even when I was doing things nigh on perfectly I still got ruined by random events that were out of my control which is where I ended up leaving the game.
Which brings me to the real reason why the random elements piss me off so much: the story is actually intriguing and one where I felt I was crafting my own little narrative within the game. Looking over the forums you can see how varied everyone’s experiences is, something that I really admire in a game when its done well. However like many games I’ve played as of late the mechanics of Gods Will Be Watching are just so onerous that those tasty morsels of story are so few and far between that they are simply not enough to keep you going. It’s a real shame as after reading a couple other reviews I’ve found out there’s still 2 chapters to go but, honestly, I just can’t be arsed to slog through the numerous rounds of RNG roulette in order to see them.
Gods Will Be Watching is a game I really wanted to like as it had all the makings of other titles in the genre that I had considered good. The simplistic presentation and story with a some level of depth to it, coupled with the ability to craft your own narrative above that, has great potential. However the Rougelike elements destroyed any hopes of that happening, trapping the story behind too many RNG determined gates forcing the player to spend hours redoing content in order to get to the next chapter. I’m sure there will be many people who say I didn’t get the point of it or some other bullshit but the simple fact is that Gods Will Be Watching failed to provide the writer with a good game experience, hiding its moments of brilliance behind mechanics that are simply not fun to play.
Gods Will Be Watching is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 5 hours with 10% of the achievements unlocked.
The roguelike genre has always been on the periphery of my gaming world; sitting in the corner with its randomly generated levels promising me all sorts of wonders should I take the time to play through it. Of course it’s a fool’s gambit since the Roguelike genre dictates that your path in the game will be a slave to your computer’s random number generator forcing you to make the best of the situation that you’ve been dealt. I think it’s this exact reason that I avoided the genre for so long, I’m not the kind of player who likes being out of control of a situation especially when if a wrong move means I won’t be able to reload and try again. You’d then think that FTL: Faster Than Light wouldn’t get a look in but it overcame the barrier by being in space and having several recommendations from friends.
FTL puts you in control of a small federation ship that has intercepted a data packet from the rebel fleet that’s hell bent on taking your empire down. This data could prove to be invaluable in stopping them so it’s up to you to get back to your fleet in order deliver this information. You’re a long way away however and the rebel fleet is hot on your heels, forcing you to venture through some sectors of space that you probably wouldn’t have gone through in the first place. Indeed space seems to be a rather hostile place as you’ll face many obstacles along your way and even upon reaching your final destination there will still be many challenges for you to overcome.
In typical roguelike fashion FTL eschews modern graphics, instead favouring pixel art styling for everything. As far as I can tell they’re actually vector based images as rendering them on my 1680 x 1050 screen didn’t give me the huge pixel blocks that I usually get with titles like this which is a pretty great achievement. The simple, clean art style also helps immensely with the game play as it’s much easier to distinguish everything on screen, something which can be crucial when you’re in the middle of a battle and clicking wildly. The UI elements are also straight forward and their functions clear further adding to FTL’s overall usability. It really pleases me when a game manages to get the graphics and UI right without being too over the top as I can’t tell you how many times a bad interface has soured me on the whole game experience.
FTL’s game play is your run of the mill Rougelike dungeon affair with you moving from beacon to beacon, each of which is randomly generated and contains things like an event, an enemy ship or simply nothing. Depending on the choices you’ve made in what to upgrade, what kind of crew members you have and even what weapons you have equipped the events (and the way they play out) will change which means that no two play throughs will ever be a like. This is both a blessing and a curse of the genre as whilst you’ll never be playing the same game twice this does mean that you’ll often find yourself in situations that you’ve never been in before and should you make the wrong choices you’ll be doing it all again in no short order.
For the most part you’ll spend your time fighting other ships with varying levels of weaponry, configurations and additional abilities that are sure to make your life far more difficult than it should be. Whilst the combat occurs in real time there it’s still in essence turn based thanks to the time limits placed on all actions you can take. In the beginning the scales are most certainly stacked in your favour as you have several times the hull of any enemy ship and can usually take them out with a well placed missile, leaving you to clean them up at your leisure. This doesn’t last particularly long however and you’ll soon find yourself waging a battle on several different fronts.
The combat system is actually quite detailed with many viable strategies available. The initial ship you’re given, The Kestrel, is a pretty typical “blast them until they stop moving” type of craft which is optimized for taking out their shields with a missile and then pummelling them with your laser. Other ship configurations, which you unlock by completing certain achievements, focus on different ways of taking out the enemy. The first (and currently only) ship that I unlocked uses an ion canon to disable enemy systems whilst a single drone wears them down. Others focus on boarding parties where your crew is teleported to the other ship to wreck havoc which usually requires careful micromanagement to pull off correctly. These are just the main types of combat as there’s a lot more variation if you include the different types of weapons and drones, each of which can have devastating effects if used correctly.
I spent most of my time on the Kestrel, favouring to upgrade my shields initially to prevent most of the early hull damage whilst looking for some kind of weapon to give me the edge. I’d usually end up keeping one missile around in order to disable their shields so I could then unleash with my other weapons but I did have a lot of success with 2 lasers and 1 beam weapon which would usually let me drop their shields before doing a lot of sweeping damage to them. The issue with this was that it was something of a one trick pony and direct hits to the shields or weapons systems usually left me rather vulnerable so it was always a race to disable their weapons first before they could do it to me.
Now I know this is probably going to sound like I’m missing the point of the roguelike genre but the fact is that a good chunk of this game (I’d say about 50% or so) is pure, unadulterated luck. There were several times when after my first jump in a new game I’d find myself in an asteroid field or next to a sun that’s about to go nova which would do enormous amounts of hull damage to my ship before I could escape. This then put me on the back foot as I’d have to use my scrap for repairs rather than upgrades which usually meant even more hull damage and thus the cycle goes. Sometimes it swung the other way with FTL coughing up a weapon that was seriously broken for when I got it, effectively enabling me to take down all sorts of foes without having to pay too much attention to strategy. Many will argue that this is part of the fun but I’ve got one story that I feel proves my point somewhat.
So I had gotten to the final stage with an amazing ship, nearly full compliment of crew and all the missiles and hull I could want. Not wanting to lose this game I hunted around for the save game files and copied them off (yeah, yeah, I know) before heading off towards the final mission. Upon reaching it I did pretty well but didn’t make it past the first phase and so I reloaded it and tried again. I did this no less than 20 times and whilst I got the first stage down pat it appears the second stage still eludes me. Without doing that I would’ve had to have invested a lot more time to get to that point and there would be no guarantees that I could get there with a similarly decked out ship. Essentially, if I was playing the game normally, I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to learn the boss fight if I hadn’t jacked my save game which irritates me. I know a lot of people enjoy this kind of challenge but after a while I have to say the hour long build up to inevitable demise started to wear on me.
Despite my misgivings with the Rougelike genre I really did enjoy FTL: Faster Than Light for what it is. When I started off just getting around without dying was a challenge but later on it was easy for me to get to the final stand without too much hassle. Of course how I did from there was completely dependent on how much the RNG liked me that day but that didn’t stop me from trying time and time again. I’ve still yet to get passed the second phase of the final boss fight but you can rest assured I’ll keep trying. I might not go the whole hog every time (I still have that game saved) but there is a certain satisfaction in playing from start to finish and I’m sure that’s what keeps everyone coming back.
FTL: Faster Than Light is available on PC, OSX and Linux right now for $10. Game was mostly played on the easy difficulty setting with around 7 hours total play time.