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Rage and Relief: Great Rogue-like RPGs with Permadeath
FTL: Faster Than Light
You find a number of ships fleeing from a small space station. You hail them, asking what's wrong: "Help! We're being overrun by some sort of giant alien spiders!"
Send the crew to help immediately! Giant alien spiders are no joke.
Leave them alone.
FTL is set in a universe inhabited by several coexisting species of aliens on the verge of an all-out war. Your ship is tasked with intercepting a flagship after crossing 8 sectors of space, all with your crew full of rookies in a ship that usually starts out barely armed.
Each sector is a sprawling series of points to explore which may contain combat, environmental hazards, new friends, or even special events that can change the course of your entire playthrough. Sometimes, finding a special weapon or getting an unusually handy ship add-on will influence a decision to develop a completely different strategy.
The ships are highly customizable with different systems including weapons, drones, hacking, shields, cloaks and boarding party modules. You can further customize what weapons you use or which drones you like. Managing to collect systems that you can combo together for greater effects is very rewarding, but no single solution can solve every problem, so diversity of options is also key. For instance, my favorite strategy is using boarding parties to kill everyone on the enemy ship so we can loot it while it's still intact, but if we're fighting a satellite, there's nothing for them to board, so we have to try and solve that problem in a different way.
The combat can play out many different ways, depending on strategy and how well equipped you are. If you're heavy on guns, often your combat is a challenge of timing your shots to drop the enemy shields so that you can do real damage that accumulates and forces a win. For boarding parties, you're often trying to protect your ship while beating their crew up on the inside. A drone-heavy build will be aiming for efficient combat without using excessive drone parts, since those get expensive quickly.
The story takes place one node at a time across each system as you work to stay ahead of the approaching fleet which is always at your heels. While not particularly deep in terms of plot, each adventure contains well-written descriptions of hostile and friendly encounters as well as plenty of flavorful description of the place you're exploring.
Getting caught by the fleet is tough, but make a wrong turn and sometimes it's unavoidable. Usually, you'll have to fight off a ship that is much too difficult for the sector that you're in. The fights are survivable, but often not without fleeing. If you do happen to win the battle, you won't get much in return since you must flee before looting, lest another fleet ship engage you.
I bought this originally on a recommendation from a friend, and I must say, for $15 he was spot-on. Not only is it incredibly fun, the soundtrack and art style are great, as well as the replayability as you continue trying to unlock all of the ships.
"The aquatic devils have remade the poor girl in their image! She is their queen, and their slave!"
-- Darkest Dungeon, The Siren
Set in a dark and foreboding estate where your family did all manner of unnatural experiments, Darkest Dungeon is a story of redemption where you send party after party of eager adventurers into dungeons to reclaim your family's treasures. This world is one of sadness and weirdness, and as such, one of the primary mechanics is managing the stress of your party members. Over time, they'll get increasingly bothered by the things they have to do and may break and go insane, which in turn stresses out everyone else who has to go with them.
You treat their insanity by paying to have them locked away in a sanatarium, or by sending them out drinking or, for the truly strange, to church to pray away their bad thoughts. Over time, you can upgrade the abilities each adventurer has and what gear they carry. You'll collect occult items to equip them with which further morphs their capabilities.
In the end, even your best teams can be brought down by an unfortunate combination of enemies that you weren't anticipating. Sometimes, a strange event will present itself, and you'll have the choice to walk away, but this game rewards you for surviving risk, so you decide to go for it and lose everything. Or maybe you won't, who knows.
There are a wide variety of character types to choose from, each with it's own flavor and niche within a party's dynamic. That being said, you can only bring 4 at a time, so picking characters that combo well with one another is key. These characters will obtain quirks and benefits overtime that will shape how they perform. As a general rule, the bad things come more often than good ones, so getting their ailments treated strategically is an important layer of gameplay.
Permadeath isn't the end of the world in this game, but sometimes it feels like the sky is falling. Luckily, you can upgrade the stage coach that ferries in newcomers as well. I'm picturing the propaganda that lures these unfortunate souls in improving as you go from a recruitment poster drawn in crayons and fingerpaints to one picturing big muscular men and women being fed grapes in the brothel. (That's what people do in brothels, right?)
Each time the party encounters a new boss the story progresses with cut-scenes and a spellbinding narration that makes all of the heartbreak it takes to get there feel worth it. The actions you take during adventures sometimes get a bit of dismal narration as well, which really sets the mood for precarious dungeoneering.
Between the unique gameplay, excellent soundtrack and potent dark atmosphere, I consider this game a masterpiece. The slow pace can be daunting, however, and while they try and fix it with several different game modes, I still feel like it plays slow. That being said, I never feel compelled to rush and simply enjoy taking the long time it takes to finish a game.
" They have shark steaks plucked from the sea. This slices of cavern-tuna, translucent and delicate as paper. Little crimson cakes flavoured with cinnamon and coated with poppy seeds. Devilled pork kidneys on crusty bread.
"Leave with juices dripping from your chin."
-- Sunless Sea, The Chapel of Lights
Somewhere beneath the surface of the Earth is an ocean called the unterzee where pale men and women with thick accents try to hash out a living without ever seeing the light of day. This world is a strange one, where maps are dubious in their accuracy and men's souls, gems and coffee can count as currency. This is the world of Sunless Sea, and despite the world being made of mostly cold blue and gray, the picture the narrative paints is a vivid one.
As with all of my favorite rogue-likes, your adventures on the zee will be ones of paranoia. Often, you will survive through no fault of your own, even as you do seemingly dangerous things, and then one day when you're too comfortable, an adventure you thought you would surely rise to the challenge of will get the better of you and everyone will sink into the ocean with almost certainly no recourse.
Except, if you've managed to have a child and pass on enough of your stories to him/her then you'll have a scion, someone to take up your legacy and continue on. While your days are over, your child can become your next captain and gets certain bonuses from having you as a parent. Life is hard, but sometimes there is a silver lining. Just be certain not to offend the gods Salt, Storm and Stone, or other unseemly things may befall your progeny.
The world map is always similar, but always different. The islands move and so each game is one of feeling around in the dark and often being surprised that an island isn't quite where you left it on your last character. The events on each are always the same, but the stories they tell are riveting and often involve strange commerce from trading crew members to be eaten for information, trading coffee for being allowed to spy on a hostile government, helping discover the secrets of the enormous, yawning pit beneath the post office.
Over time, upgrading engines and guns on your ship will be essential to your survival. There are several different classes of ships you can change to as well, as your need for safety increases and your appetite for violence becomes more bold. From experience, I can say that getting beefier fighting ships feels nice, but there are limits to everything. There are certainly fights that can't be won predictably even with a good fighting ship, and caution is advisable.
Your ship also has several officers, each with their own strange backstory and personal quests. As you help them along, they become more fleshed out and eventually, if you can complete their personal storyline, they get a substantial upgrade. Or sometimes they die. The ending of their story isn't always a happy one, as with all things under the Zee.
"Oh, come on!"
-- Me Every. Single. Time... I swear.
Xenonauts is a tactical turn-based shooter coupled with a base-building and no-fly-zone management game. Basically, it's XCOM: UFO Defense reskinned and tweaked for optimal sensibility, which means right out of the gate it's a good thing. The best things are left in, and some of the weird interface problems from XCOM are fixed or at least made better.
In Xenonauts, you are a private military company tasked with defending Earth with government funding from any nations you can manage to keep safe from the alien incursion. You start out with a could of dumpy fighter jets and a troop transport, and guys armed with m-16s which feel a lot like bringing a knife to a plasma gun fight. Your first combat will separate the wheat from the chaff and everybody's friends will die, but the survivors will come back stronger.
And you'll hire more dewey-eyed kids to replace the dead soldiers and some of them will live too. Meanwhile, the scientists you hired sit around drinking coffee and experimenting on any technology you manage to recover, which is pretty much everything the enemy brings into a fight. You can reverse engineer anything to make it usable by humans, which after a few months will begin to really expand your gun and armor options as well as make new fighter jets available and interesting battlefield vehicles like hovertanks and rocket tanks to help chase those damn floaters out of the warehouse rafters. (There's always one more somewhere, floating around in a warehouse.)
Meanwhile, the aliens are responding to your movements and making moves of their own. Always, at the worst possible time, an alien warship lands in the middle of a huge city and begins killing everyone. You don't have to go help, but if you don't, your funding is going to get cut severely. The sad part is, it'll probably get cut a little bit anyway in the beginning, but the 2/3rds of the world I usually manage to defend successfully in the beginning really loves me and pays me more.
My favorite thing about the game is the fact that all of your soldiers have names, they have stats which pretty much tell you what kind of fighting they're good at, and that gives them a sort of personality. Each has a portrait and, even though they're expendable heroes, you still feel like they're heroes. There's a personality to the teams you build, even though it's just implied and not expressed directly, and I tend to make certain types of commando teams, but my friends all make completely different strategic groupings of dudes and I love that.
I would have listed the new XCOM games, since they're pretty and also really fun, but they don't capture the feeling of the original which I still think is more fun. In the newer XCOM titles released over the last couple of years, I feel like I'm actively being cheesed to death at times and I never got that feeling in old XCOM or Xenonauts. Sure, sometimes you get unlucky, but it's never outright bullshit. I still play them once in a while, that being said.