Dying in the Ruins of Shattered Planet
I had a hard time putting the Shattered Planet beta build down, even if some elements of it weren’t sitting quite right with me. There is definitely a specific way to attack the game’s challenges, as my many deaths will attest to. The learning curve is quite simple, though, and as it’s very easy to pick back up again after every death I often had to force myself to put it down in order to go to bed for the night. What may be most interesting about it is that there’s a lot of depth to the game, but only if you want there to be. If you’re looking for something to just pick up and play for a few minutes or something for longer sessions filled with challenges, Shattered Planet will fill that need. Even in beta, this game is looking pretty strong.
You’re a spacefaring clone, one of many who will be going out to die while exploring new worlds. The planets you visit are all created using randomized tiles, so each planet will be made up of certain types of topography, but laid out in different ways each time. All the items and monster layouts are also random, as I’ve run into some harder enemies early on but also laughed my way through barren wastelands filled with unguarded loot. The game keeps the enemies you fight limited to certain groups so you don’t get curb stomped until you teleport into later areas, though, so you don’t have to worry about it screwing you over too hard.
Still, you will get beaten at some point unless you know what you’re doing (And probably even if you do). You can walk around the game’s areas by clicking on the tile you want to go to, and your character will take whichever seems like the simplest path (Whether that’s a good idea or not, some times). For each tile that you move, the enemies around you can move a step or two as well, and this factors into moving tactically. When you get close enough the enemies will move in on you as well, allowing you to take some more creative steps to get them to walk up to you and give you a free first hit. Still, with a fog of war around any area you haven’t explored, you may not want to be taking large movements or else you’ll find yourself surrounded without being able to stop. I haven’t noticed any way to cancel a movement once I start it, so this can become an issue if you aren’t being careful. The areas aren’t exactly all that large, so you don’t need to be moving around in large amounts to get through the maps quickly anyway. Taking it slow and steady is definitely the best route.
Combat is pretty straightforward in that you just click on the space the enemy is on. That’s actually a key thing to be doing, as clicking on the enemies can result in hitting the wrong space instead of the enemy. For larger creatures, I often found myself clicking on my own square by accident since I was clicking on the enemy’s sprite instead of where it was standing, so I kept skipping my turn while I was frantically trying to kill a very dangerous enemy. I died from this mistake a couple of times as I kept forgetting about it in combat. It would be nice if clicking on the enemy instead of the tile became the norm when the game reaches release, but it wasn’t that much of an issue if I was paying attention to what I was doing while attacking.
Anyway, you just trade hits with the enemy, hoping that you kill them before they kill you. You can help yourself out in the simple combat by boosting your stats, which can be done by collecting the two types of items within the game: crystals and scrap metal. Scrap metal is the most common item and is lying around everywhere. You use the scrap metal to boost your personal stats when you die, creating a stronger character to send out into the wild for next time. Crystals let you build better equipment, which has a much larger effect on your character’s stats, but you don’t get to choose what kind of items you make with the crystals beyond a few healing items. You just throw the crystals into a machine and hope for the best.
There are two issues with these systems, and both of them work into the whole Free to Play model that’s so big lately. The scrap metal is plentiful and seems to be boosting your stats in a hurry, but the results are barely noticeable even after gaining a lot of points in any given area. I just loaded points into my strength stat, but even after gaining ten points, effectively doubling my original strength, I was only doing maybe another point or two of damage. Scrap metal is better spent on raising hit points, but even then, you only gain another possible hit you can take from the weakest enemies in the game. The pace of gains from scrap metal is positively glacial, but it seems more exciting than it is since you can collect scrap metal so frequently. That excitement of discovering a piece in the field is tempered a bit by how useless it is to boost your in-game stats.
This is because the devs at Kitfox Games want you to find crystals instead and using them to make equipment. Now, buying equipment is randomized, meaning you can throw either five, ten, or twenty crystals into a machine and get some piece of armor or weapon of a somewhat equivalent level to what you paid. More crystals tends to get you better items, and pretty much every item gives you a boost to two of your stats (Dodge % and strength. I haven’t seen an item that boosts HP yet) so it’s not so bad that the items are a bit random. This system allows you to get a piece of armor that boosts your attack power more than a weapon, so in a way it doesn’t much matter what you get so the randomization isn’t a huge issue. It just helps to get different pieces of armor so you can equip more of them, so there will be times when you’ll spend a fortune just to buy dozens of helmets, wasting your accrued crystals on stuff you can’t use all at once. Don’t expect to be able to trade that equipment back in to get any crystals back, either. You’re stuck with whatever the game gives you.
Equipment really is what this game is all about, though, as that’s the only time I saw appreciable gains on my defense and attack. Equipping even one new item can have a dramatic effect on your stats, so even spending a couple of crystals on a single item every time you go out is a good idea. It’s clearly the only way you will make any kind of progress in the game, as the regular stats don’t seem to do all that much in this beta build. Since you can buy crystals using microtransactions I’m assuming this will be the case for the full release. I wasn’t all that comfortable with that fact when I first noticed it, but the game is still quite playable as is. As I said, one piece of equipment can make a big difference in how easily you can move through the stages, so a handful of easily-earned crystals will get you enough of a boost to make some decent progress.
The other issue with equipment is that when you die, you lose whatever you’re carrying. So, that fancy helmet you just bought disappears with your corpse, taking your earned crystals with it. That’s another thing that ties into the whole microtransactions aspect, forcing players to continually earn or buy new crystals just to replace the constantly-lost equipment, but again, a single useful item will help you make some decent progress. You can store items for later use rather than taking them on your next run through the dungeon, so you can build up a stockpile using smaller runs before you attempt a major run at the dungeon. It’s a little more challenging than games like Azure Dreams, but you can still earn at least enough crystals for a new item pretty much every time you go out. It’s slower than buying your way through, but it hasn’t been rendered unplayable to force players to buy crystals. It’s a very careful dance that Kitfox Studios is executing, but they seem to have handled it well and made a game that is still fun but can be enhanced by buying stuff. I’m still not a fan of microtransactions, but these ones are handled well.
As for the game itself, your main job is to explore areas to find new items and progress through teleporters, and this doesn’t change over the two game types: Explore and mission. For exploration, you’re just supposed to go as far as you can into the game, getting better rewards depending on how many different areas you can reach. Naturally, enemies get harder and treasures get better as you go, but there’s no way to back out once you’re in so you always need to be moving ahead. Only your crystals and your scrap metal will come back to base when you die, so there’s no sense in being stingy with the items you pick up while playing. As for mission mode, it works in pretty much the same way except there is a specific goal to complete while you’re out, and once you pass it you get a substantial crystal reward.
You’ll spend quite a bit to get to the end of these missions as they get pretty hard very fast, but they also provide the best rewards so I found it to be the most worthwhile of the two modes. It’s still fun to see how many levels you can move down, though, so exploration mode is still fun for someone who just wants to play for a few minutes. Exploration feels more like it was for casual players who just want something to pick at, whereas the more hardcore, dedicated players can find better challenges and rewards by playing missions. It’s a little something for everyone, and both are fun enough for anyone who’d pick them up.
While combat sounds simple, there are a couple of neat things that have been added to spice it up besides playing with stats and equipment. There are added summons you can get on lucky drops, and these let you have an AI ally to help you out. The AIs are a little hard to control, mostly doing their own thing somewhere in your immediate vicinity, but you can walk around in such a way that they start attacking the enemies. It’s a bit annoying when you want them to attack something and they won’t, but considering the alternative would probably mean an overly-aggressive ally that attacks things that aren’t a threat, I’ll take this minor inconvenience.
There are also lots of items and point of interactivity on the maps, giving players something more to do than just thump monsters on the head. The items on the map are always a huge bonus, although the various potions you can pick up got on my nerves a bit. Certain colors seem to do specific things, but I never found a reliable way to identify them in-game. This meant I made a lot of mistakes as I tried to remember what any given potion did the last time I used it. It would have been nice if the game gave me a description of potions I’d used on the next time I picked them up, as I find it really annoying to find that the potion I thought was healing turned out to be poison or fire. The only way you can find out for the first time is to try it out on something, and while I hate healing a monster while testing a potion out, it’s doing it a second time that drove me berserk. Some better indication would really help.
The interactive points add some surprises. They often drop interesting items when you correctly choose an action, but they can be complete death traps if you fail. It’s really guess work when you choose to click on that shaking bush and then pick whether to coax the creature out or wait, and the stakes are pretty high if you pick wrong. It’s exciting, but if I was on a serious run I might not bother with them. Then again, you get some incredibly good items and allies from doing it, so the risks can be worth it. It’s an exciting addition that I liked a lot even when it was making me furious.
The cardinal rule of free to play is that the game has to be fun in and of itself, and Kitfox Games have made a fun game in Shattered Planet. Even in the beta, the combat is good (if simple), controls are solid, and the randomized equipment system adds a little challenge and spice to the game even if it’s not a system I entirely like. I still enjoyed even my short runs out on the randomized planets, though, and as something I’d play just to goof off with every once in a while, it’s a solid game with some cool ideas. I’m interested to see if anything changes once the game reaches its full release, but for now, I still think it’s fun and well worth your time.