I did that thing that many video game players get made fun of.
Just yesterday I had performed Vipassana meditation on two separate occasions, for an hour total.
I had tapped into loving-kindness for a brief moment, wishing well my friends and the hope that their dreams would come true.
And then I grabbed a beer and played Remnant From the Ashes, and I…freaked out. I got upset, very upset. So upset that I began to debate the quality of the game. Was it me? Was it this game? And the more I thought about the experience, the more I began to disdain it, not just for the playing experience, but also for the core tenets of what the design hoped to express.
I had been playing Remnant From the Ashes since Epic Games Store gave it away for free earlier this month. It’s a three player co-op shooting game that combines elements of Dark Souls with some rerolling randomized dungeon crawlers like Diablo. You play through a campaign that lasts about 8 or 9 hours, which would most likely take a group of friends a week to play. Then, the whole design of the game intends that you “reroll” the campaign, and when you do there are supposed to be many changes to the experience that make it replayable.
For starters, the worlds you move through are procedurally generated from a selection of “tiles.” These tiles are handcrafted and feature a similar thematic feel depending on the world you’re in. These tiles are fitted together like a puzzle randomly, so each playthrough will look familiar artistically, but novel functionally.
The items you get in each playthrough are randomized as well. You can shoot two weapons, wear three pieces of clothing, and wear two rings and an amulet. Each provide certain values that fluctuate and can even be grouped together to form synergies. Outfits in particular work better when you have the matching pieces.
The bosses you fight are also randomized. There are more bosses total than however many you encounter in the game. Play one session and you’ll see only a handful. The idea is that you get a new selection each time.
For a first time runner, like me, this hardly matters. But it wasn’t until I had reached Yaesha that I discovered some problems that I think speak to the hindrances with this level of randomization, and also bode ill for indie developers as a whole. Either that, or I am simply not cut out for this type of experience.
Boss Design 101
If Remnant From the Ashes has consistent criticism from reviewers, it has been in their boss design. Fighting the bosses has a very similar structure, regardless of the type. You fight the big bad guy until he reaches a certain point on his health bar. And then he/she runs away, and a bunch of little guys show up that you have to fight off. Sometimes the big bad guy comes back and you have to juggle the two.
For a solo player, this experience is very tedious and anxiety inducing. All the little guys do is prevent you from learning the boss’s behavior. Many have compared this experience to Dark Souls 2, the weakest in the series, where each fight simply added more people to fight against, which did not make the fight enjoyable. The only time this has really gone well in Dark Souls history has been the infamously difficult fight between Ornstein and Smough. And the reason for it going well was how rare that occasion was. The rest of the fights are dedicated, strange, and harrowing engagements with a single entity, one that has a history and place in the universe for being there.
In Remnant, I was fighting my next randomized boss in Yaesha on a bridge.
This boss, Ixillis XV, broke me.
The fight is akin to the Moonlight Butterfly boss in the original Dark Souls, a gimmicky fight that was more about tone than complexity. Ixillis XV is a flying creature that hovers at a similar height as the bridge and takes shots at you with a large lance, or will summon little wisps that track you down and explode on you. Ixillis can also stun you by making a loud screeching noise, and can shoot a lance beam that you have to dodge.
Halfway through the fight, similar to Dark Souls 2, a second Ixillis shows up on the opposite side of the bridge. Ixillis XVI has the same exact moveset. Suddenly the juggling of the fight with one enemy becomes a two-sided venture.
We need to talk about this boss for a long time. I apologize for being so tedious, but it is necessary when speaking about so many other things in the game.
First of all, this boss fight breaks a similar rule to the 180 degree rule in film. As a solo player, I could never see both of the bosses on screen at the same time, which means I could not predict their moveset. Instead of predicting the impossible, I needed to get hit and take it, so that I could recover with a health item and move on. Second, these bosses are only able to be damaged at range. Imagining a melee character doing this fight would be impossible, as they could never hit. At least in the Dark Souls Moonlight Butterfly fight, the boss would occasionally get in close for a character to swing their sword at. In the case of Ixillis XV and XVI, that never happens. Third, many of the attacks layer on top of each other with just one of these bosses. The lance swing can occur after a stunning screech, where you are still reeling and unable to move. The lance beam strike tracks your player movements, so you must dodge at the right time. But if you find yourself stunned from one of the wisps conjured earlier, you take the hit. With just one of these, it is difficult, but with two? It was exceedingly frustrating as I found myself unable to predict the next stunning blow. Attacks happened so frequently that I ended up running back and forth the bridge at random, my fight or flight responses triggered so hard I was spamming my keyboard over and over. Fourth, and this is particularly frustrating, was that the player can fall off the bridge. Once Ixillis knocks off the supports with its lance, one wrong step and the character is gone. Not only that, but many of the attacks from the bosses have a knockback, particularly the lance beam, which sends the character back a couple of feet. This is an instant death. Three or four attempts were stymied because I was knocked off just before the boss died.
With all that said, Ixillis is not a good boss. Not under any circumstances. You could make the argument that in cooperative play, the players could communicate attacks, but good luck trying to say which is which, trying to keep the angle and perspective of your fellow players in mind, and trying to announce with enough time so that the latency of your internet connection doesn’t prevent you from getting it right.
What amazes me more is the fact that this boss is a totally opposite design from what people have mentioned before. While the other bosses have little guys to mess with you, these wisps that Ixillis conjures are easily disposed of (though there are a lot) with a single shot. This boss has little of the charging melee attacks of the others, as this is a ranged and statically floating enemy. It seemed like the game tried to be different, to create variety, and the result was worse than the other aspects of the bosses.
I could not believe how painful that experience was. In a game that I was mostly breezing by while listening to some YouTube video or podcast, this boss came out of nowhere, and it gave me an opportunity to see the game from a different light. One that, sadly, I think has prevented me from playing more.
Top-Down Decisions in Remnant
Once I had that awful experience, I began to think about my experience as a whole. Boy, where to begin?
What’s Random, What’s Not?
For starters, the game is a “reactive build” style of game. In many roleplaying games, you pick a class and you build up the style of character you want to be because of your choices. These choices amount to different skills and abilities, not to mention inherent traits or perks, that gives your character a personality. You feel some ownership of your character because you have made decisions that are dramatically different to your friends. In Remnant, there are three classes, and while each of them offers substantial weapon and armor differences, they are very similar trait-wise at the outset.
As you play the game, you are given new “traits,” which are the stats that you upgrade each level. Each one provides passive bonuses: maybe in one you have more health, or another you can reload your guns faster. These traits can become quite complex. So for example in my game I was a sort of conjurer, where I would summon pets to come fight with me. Eventually I did this enough times that I got a trait called “Invoker” which gave me +1% summon damage each level. This would be a good example of the game rewarding your playstyle. This is no different than forming neural pathways in the brain: the more you do something, the better at it you get. Simple enough.
The problem is that the world does not cater to this similar design. In fact, they are opposite.
I played the first half of the game with a friend of mine, and one thing I noticed was that while the world was “randomized” for us both, it was the exact same for both of us together.
For example, we both saw the same outline for the first world, Earth, and we both got similar loot from the experience in the form of the BAND OF CASTOR, a ring which offered extra melee damage and weight reduction for our armor. This ring helped me more than my friend, but since it was the first ring we found, we both put it on.
At first this seems innocuous. It makes sense that each player should have the same experience.
The problem is that this is true for everything. Every boss you kill drops the same item for everyone. And whether you choose to use that or not is up to you, but the game offers that to all players. In typical roleplaying games where there is loot, there is a big emphasis on the storytelling of differing experiences. We love when something happens for our friends, or something happens to us, that does not happen vice versa. This spurs along gameplay, where we hope that the particular loot-moment occurs again for our partner. Or for ourselves.
The irony of my cooperative playthrough with my partner is that, although I started as a melee focused hammer-swinging brute, and my friend was a magic spellcasting character, we both ended up as summoners of dogs and flying skulls.
That is because the game only randomizes at the back end. It will randomize the layout, but not the loot. It will randomize the bosses, but not the weapons. As we played we got the same rewards, and we used those rewards to better our character in the same way.
The problem with the neural pathway design of traits, and the upgrade paths of weapons and armor, is that each new piece has a harder and harder time justifying itself when compared to the robust stature of starting items and equipment leveled up so high. Unlike in games like Borderlands or Diablo where the randomness of the items is an upgrade in and of itself, and so the baked in nature of the loot has you scrounging like a meth addict for the next hit, Remnant favors the more Dark Souls approach to weapon design. I have nothing necessarily against this design, but unfortunately Dark Souls is far more meticulous and handcrafted, and so the design of the game is such that each weapon, armor piece, and item is designed to be there, whereas with Remnant, the game becomes at odds with itself for what it chooses to be there or not.
Critics might suggest that the trait system is enough of a variance to encourage alternating styles. But the traits offer such little bonuses with each level that either this does not occur until the campaign is over and it is time to re-roll, or until the player has spent many many hours investing into its systems. That would suggest that the game really plays well after replaying it, but I have some problems there as well.
I think what most delighted me at the beginning of the game was the enemy design. Each one felt so different as to be approachable in different ways. The minions in the game had a rush that you had to dodge just right, while ranged enemies took cover, dodged, and returned fire to create some great shootouts. There were teleporting enemies that could flank you if you were not careful, exploding enemies that left a poisonous cloud that had area prevention, and even enemies that blocked shots with swords, forcing you to flank them.
But each world seemed to have their enemies split into two parts. They had basic bitch enemies, which were all the same. And then they had novel enemies, which varied less and less the further in I went.
Each world has an enemy with two swords and does a lunging swipe attack. It happens each time the exact same way. Only after the frustrating boss fight did I notice this. Each world has a character that throws a spear or an axe. And each world has a mobile shooting enemy that fires and then repositions.
These are the basic bitch enemies, and they are more or less there as padding. I do not want to discredit their eccentricities. In the swamp, the smaller rushing enemy can go underground (underwater? undermarsh?) and then leap out at you when they are close. But the overall experience of fighting on each world I found to be dramatically more similar even with these changes than I realized.
Chinese Water Torture
What is the end result? A game where you wait for your character to be blessed with an item that you know for a fact exists out there, but doesn’t arrive. Eventually, if the game doesn’t provide it, you change your build. Your build depends on the luck of items arriving, rather than your explicit choices. At least in Dark Souls, the game committed to giving you the option to fail at making your character. You could invest your souls however you wanted into the stats of your character, and upgrade the weapons and armor however you wanted. But if you failed, you failed. In Remnant, you are not given the option to fail so much as you are rarely given the options to succeed. That is a very minute difference, but it turns out to be everything.
I think I have become such a stickler for design. In Remnant I see competing problems vying for your attention. You have a game where they want people to have different builds, but they provide equanimity in the world generation that everyone must have the same experience regardless. The game wants diversity of enemies, but the limitations of the handcrafted guns, items, and armor, combined with the unknown re-roll of the campaign, means that each enemy needs to be tailored and have their corners cut to suit all playstyles and at what point they fall in the first, second, and third acts of the campaign. Why couldn’t the enemies on Earth have a very distant sniper, or an enemy shooting mortars, or a rocket propelled grenade? Imagine a solo melee character attempting to close distance? Why couldn’t the game provide bigger “troll” like enemies to serve as tanks and provide a sequence as harrowing as the cave troll from Lord of the Rings? Smashing and maneuvering around the characters in a clumsy and dangerous way?
Because many of the randomized tilesets are designed for six-foot tall humanoids, and the trolls wouldn’t be able to fit through the doorways. So that idea is out too.
The end result is a game that feels remarkably similar, regardless of the world and weapons, and the attempts to diversify it either are not enough or too much. The traits are so minuscule and flat, and once you commit to being a summoner, you can’t simply switch to something else later on.
And then the opposite, where the game tries to be dramatically different. Think about that Ixillis boss fight. Had it not been for my summoned creatures, I do not know how I would have beaten it. It is whiplash in that game all the time.
What I see in game design recently has been developers attempting to assuage weaknesses rather than take risks on strengths. Destiny players are constantly complaining about how the game is held back by PvP balance when so few even care about the competitive element of that game. Rather than ditch the competitive mode, admit its failure, and instead double-down on what people love about the Destiny games, which is its shooting, art design, and late-game content, they constantly play nurse, giving out band-aids to mishaps that they created. This amounts to weapon balancing that addresses competitive play, but disenfranchises cooperative players mightily.
In an attempt to placate a group of looter shooter fans to find meaningful and deliberate content, while at the same time providing replayability for coop fans, Remnant in my opinion achieved neither.
The grab bag of design decisions from game developers needs to take a more measured and considerate approach. No one, and I mean no one, looks to Diablo and Borderlands primarily for their story. Players of that genre know they are looking for loot, grinding, and good coop experiences. Players of God of War and Spiderman do not primarily play for the loot. At least those games know and have the confidence to invest heavily in a certain type of experience.
I admit that I wanted Remnant From the Ashes to succeed. B games have sort of dropped off a cliff for some time, due to the higher fidelity requirements and the raised skill ceiling of designing for multiple consoles in a far more competitive market. In this game, like others in different genres, was the hope that indie developers could start to distinguish themselves in 3D environments, which is harder to do. Some developers, like those behind the buggy and feature incomplete experiences like Insurgency: Sandstorm, are proving that they may have done great work with modding previously established games, but they are out of their depth when taking on an engine like Unreal. Other game developers, like Tarkov, are so dedicated to the 1% of their fanbase that they fuel a system that chases new buyers who got excited by watching streamers, rather than listen to the players they already have.
Remnant plays well and feels good, but it is in the high-level decisionmaking that this game falls short. Unlike other indie developers like Supergiant Games who have the confidence in their style and substance, Remnant combined the wrong systems, and it did it poorly.