Friday, November 07, 2014

The Last Court

There's a particular type of weird feeling that I think most of us have experienced at least once. Imagine you're going out to lunch with an old pal from school. A friend from work comes into the restaurant and heads towards you. You're about to introduce the two of them, but they greet one another and act like old friends. A little part of your brain explodes: "How do you two know each other?! You belong in separate universes!" It's a disorienting feeling, but also a really pleasant one, to realize that awesome folks know each other and do stuff together.

That was pretty much exactly the feeling I had upon hearing the announcement about The Last Court, the heretofore-secretive collaboration between BioWare and Failbetter Games. I've loved BioWare's games since the original Baldur's Gate, have thoroughly immersed myself in the world of Fallen London, and more recently been actively helping to beta-test Below, Chris Gardiner's story-rich roguelike StoryNexus game. When I heard the details of the project - it's a StoryNexus-based game written by Chris Gardiner set in Orlais during the time leading up to the start of Inquisition - I instantly started salivating. The fact it's integrated with the Keep makes it all the better.

(And, yes, I totally called it!)

Based on the chatter I've seen in online forums, it looks like there's a very respectable crossover of fanbases between BioWare and Failbetter. That shouldn't be surprising. I'm pretty sure that BioWare is the most narrative-driven AAA game developer, and Failbetter has a similarly intense focus on narrative from an indie background (albeit focused on slightly different genres). The early reaction seems to be very positive. Frankly, we're all starving for some Dragon Age, and The Last Court is doing a fantastic job of providing a peek into another part of Thedas, some tantalizing lore about old and new characters, and also giving us a chance to play as a different type of character, actually making political decisions that shape the nature of your realm (something that previously was only briefly touched upon in Dragon Age: Awakening).

For those of you who haven't played StoryNexus games before, you're in for a treat! They're vaguely reminiscent of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story, but much more game-like. You have various stats and items, and can often choose which of several storylines to pursue at any given time. Each "storylet" is a bite-sized standalone narrative chunk that lets you make a decision and experience the results, which might also tie into a larger overarching plot. So, it's the sort of thing that's perfectly flexible based on your available playtime: you can squeeze in a couple of storylets while standing in line at the grocery, or sit down at your computer at the end of the day and play for a longer stretch.

The mechanics of the game bear some similarities to free-to-play games... wait, come back! There are microtransactions in here, but they're absolutely not necessary to play or enjoy; no content is gated behind a paywall, and paying is just for the impatient. The Last Court uses a virtual currency called "Dawn" (unlike the "Nex" in other StoryNexus games) which you can use to play more frequently; I haven't bought any (sorry, guys!) and am pretty sure that I won't. But, again, I don't need to - I'm enjoying the savoring of this game, so I wouldn't want to rush through it anyways.

One aspect that's very different about TLC compared to other Failbetter games is the addition of a real-life time factor. Every 24 hours, another "Market Day" occurs, which spins up another aspect of the story and provides in-game rewards. There's a limit, though: you only have seven Market Days to prepare for a major event that ends the game. This means that I can't pursue my standard strategy of solely focusing on grinding up stats in the early phase of a game to overcome the challenges later on: sure, you can improve stats, but you can't just do that, you also need to start work sooner rather than later on accomplishing your goals. I appreciate that, and I also appreciate how it puts a de-facto time limit on this game. Free-to-play games often get the bad rap that they never end and only exist to string you along on a treadmill. There's no treadmill here, just a path, and once you reach the end of that path your journey is over.

I still haven't beaten it yet, but I think I've gotten a pretty good handle on the mechanics. Here's what I've gleaned so far, a mixture of observation, second-hand reports, and deductions. I'll try and update this post as I get further along. No plot spoilers here.

  • Your character's primary stats are Rulership, Scholarship, Derring-do, Woods-wise, and Cunning. These can only increase, although raising them is usually slow or expensive. Raising them will increase the odds of success for many choices you can pick on cards.
  • Serault's stats are Dignity, Freedom, and Prosperity. These can go both up and down. You'll often deliberately "spend" some of these stats in order to increase some other stats or gain items. It's generally better to keep these high, although in some certain circumstances lower is better.
  • If one of Serault's stats falls to 0, you'll draw a new un-removable card that effectively lowers the choices in your hand from 3 to 2. If two of the stats fall to 0, I think you lose the game (haven't tried yet).
  • Your "menaces" are Peril, Twilight, and Rumors of Revolution. You'll generally want to keep these as low as possible. When they rise too high, certain choices grow more difficult and you'll start seeing harder/worse options on cards. At 75, you'll start drawing negative cards related to this menace. At 100, you'll unlock very risky but profitable choices.
  • Clues are a very common resource. They can be used to start hunting quests, to increase stats, and sometimes to gain favors.
  • Bags of Royals and Authority are less common. They can sometimes be traded for other resources, favors, or to get easier options on certain cards.
  • The ultimate goal of the game is to accumulate a large total number of Secrets, Viands and Trophies. You can earn these by completing Hunting quests or spending other resources. You will rarely use these.
Some general things I've noticed so far:
  • Your primary stats will rise a fraction of a point when you succeed or fail at a challenge ("Rulership is increasing."). It takes many actions to raise a stat this way.
  • If you accumulate Clues, you can gain 3 points in a stat by spending your current stat's value in clues on a corresponding card. For example, if you have 20 Cunning, you can pay the Outlaw 20 Clues to go up to 23 Cunning.
  • You can also spend Clues to increase Serault's stats or lower Menaces in the same manner, although this seems like a waste, since there are far easier and cheaper options to improve these.
  • The options on some cards played from your hand can be random. (These are often, but not always, accompanied by the icon "The Way of Things.") If you don't like the options on a card, you can try playing another one first, which can change the available choices.
  • And, if you don't like any of the branches on a card, you can click "Perhaps Not" to back out. It's sometimes better to do this than to fail at a challenge.
  • It seems like there are many options to recruit Counsellors, and far fewer for Bodyguards and Accomplices. Since Favors are expensive, you'll probably want to plan ahead of time which one(s) to pursue and go after them.
  • Once a day, you'll draw a "Market Day" card that gives you a significant advantage and/or kick off a new storyline.
  • There's a limit to certain stats: 100 for Serault's stats, 5 for Authority, and 3 for Favors from any particular person. If you're already at the cap, trying to exceed it will be a waste. 
Ideas for gaining resources:
  • By the last day, you'll want a total of 50 items. It sounds like all three types are valid, but getting a mixture may give you more flexibility (haven't verified this yet).
  • Trophies are very easy to collect by Hunting with a decent Woods-wise skill. Pursue the Boar and take the Hounds.
  • Viands can also be collected by Hunting a Stag, although this is a little more challenging.
  • Secrets are best collected by doing the Market Day pinned cards.
  • All three types of resources can be collected by trading Favors with certain recruited advisors; or by raising one of Serault's stats to 100 and then spending 50 points in that and 25 Clues; or by spending Bags of Royals. These are the most expensive methods.

Have fun! I'll probably make another post about the plot after I've finished the game and can speak to the story. I will say that so far I'm having a blast. This is a true peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate situation, and I'm loving the offspring of these two wonderful developers.

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