Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald

Free, short, amusing. The game has 10-20 minutes of content and does not pad it, so it would take me longer to talk about the game than it would for you to play it. You’ll know whether it is for you within the first two rooms; the concept doesn’t really change, although it escalates. The Steam description alone gives you a sense. I would say I am avoiding spoilers, but this game is especially difficult to spoil. Due to a mix of role-playing and trolling, the discussion, guides, and even the official content is a mix of helpful and completely misleading. It is unclear whether people asking about subquests that do not exist are confused or playing along. It is unclear whether people who say the game itself does not exist are confused or playing along.

Spoilers are fair game in the comments.

Instead, I am going to talk abut how achievements can hurt enjoyment of your game, since I am usually very positive about them. This game has rather unfortunate achievements, a few standard “do the thing”s but mostly “do all the things”s. The descriptions of how to get the achievements are missing or misleading (“in-character”), and the “all the things” are of undisclosed number in hidden spots. It is a scavenger hunt without telling you what to hunt for. And every room has a closed door, so if you miss one thing, start the game over.

The game tries to fight the trend I noted about scavenger hunts, blocking achievement completion if you alt tab, bring up the Steam overlay, etc. so you cannot follow a guide. Actually, that might be a bug, and I don’t know if it’s worse for that to be intentional or not. If intentional, it is somewhat clever, except that most of us have smartphones now and can just bring up the guide on another device, so it is just an inconvenience. The inconvenience is compounded in that this apparently bugged out achievements completely for most of the time that the game has been live, making them unachievable. Players also report needing to uninstall and reinstall to clear whatever flag is set by alt-tabbing. The game is a quick download, so this is an annoying speed bump rather than a barrier. The line of aggravated and confused players starts over there, compounded by the confusion noted by trolling both in-game and out. The forums are surprisingly rollicking for a free 15-minute game.

So I’m saying: play the game and uninstall. Don’t go for the achievements.

Bonus points to the game for having Steam trading cards. Because it is a free game, you can never be awarded trading cards. A+ trolling. You can, however, craft cards with gems, so people have backdoored their way into a badge that is not achievable through in-game means. Well done, players.

: Zubon


I got a month’s worth of play out of GemCraft: Chasing Shadows, which is about as strong an endorsement as you can give a $2.49 game. I dare say you’d get your money’s worth at full price, if you are the sort that likes tower defense enough to play through 100+ levels of it. Looking at my Steam friends list, I am a far far outlier in terms of how much this was worth to me.

graphic shows xp total increasing from 12,056 to 3,644,724,749 Having played previous versions of GemCraft as a flash game, the big takeaway for me was the magnitude of the breakthrough reminding me that reaching a higher level is more significant than optimizing lower levels. I would like to thank the GC:CS players in the reading audience who did not pat me on the head condescendingly when I was proud of getting past wave 100, when that is still the early game. The image to the right expresses the change in magnitude, and that 3 billion xp came from a map where I went AFK and just let it run for a while.

Getting ahead of the xp curve was valuable, but the hour I spent carefully maximizing a level in the middle of the map would have been much better spent zipping across the map to get to the point where I had all the skills and difficulty dials. Getting one million xp is helpful, but it took an hour to do it around level 200; once you get your full suite of options, you leap to level 2000 and can earn more than a million xp in a second. Water finds its level, and you profit more by finding your level than by trying to perfect each level along the way. Granted, being really good at one level is usually how you reach the next one, and we gamers have a long history of optimizing the fun out of our games, so I am open to counter-arguments here.

There are only 3 achievements left that are not “defeat level X with a self-imposed handicap” achievements, so I may take a victory lap through those levels and see if I can pick up the 2 non-level-specific achievements along the way. The last achievement challenge is Iron Wizard mode, re-doing the game without being able to out-level the difficulty curve (although also with no reason to perfect levels beyond “just finish”). I don’t know if that sounds like fun or drudgery. I do not think I will be joining the players at the “extreme end game,” even though I am reaching that level 3000 range where it opens up. At that point, you’re just seeing how much you can abuse the math behind the game, which sounds fun but I’ve served my time.

: Zubon


I accidentally beat GemCraft: Chasing Shadows last week. “Accidentally” in that I was pursuing my new playstyle of sprinting through levels in search of all abilities when it turned out that one of them was the official end of the story. I’m not sure how much I can spoil a story that fits on one page or how much the story of a tower defense game matters; it ends with the same tone as the first game.

The story-ending level does combine a few mechanics we’ve seen across the game, rather than being a standard level. So that was kind of interesting. Something seems wrong with being able to beat a game on accident, especially given how this series makes beating the game a loss.

There are epilogue levels, plus all the levels you didn’t play or can play again for more waves and at higher difficulty. For tower defense, like FPS, the play is the thing, so it’s a matter of for how long the gameplay stays interesting (and you still have a sense of achievement). And then there’s Iron Wizard mode, beat the game again without being able to out-level the difficulty curve.

: Zubon


I had the realization that I am playing GemCraft: Chasing Shadows the wrong way. I have been carefully ratcheting up difficulty and consistently playing at the most challenging difficulty I can reliably overcome. This has kept me above the xp curve, usually playing at 400%xp to keep getting further ahead. With the levels from that xp, I have been consistently pushing levels to the 150 wave range, which makes for the very long games I have mentioned.

This is silly. I do not have all the resources yet, so there will be more reward for sprinting to get all the skills and going back to get mad xp if I need it. I got a huge effectiveness boost when I got the critical hit gem skill, and I have mentioned in the comments that I needed the chain hit gem kill to round out my effectiveness.

Last night I ran through a series of levels as quickly as I could and found my way to the one where I could unlock the chain hit gem skill. I then went back to re-try an early level and see how it raised my effectiveness. My score on that level went from about 200,000 to about 950,000,000. One level, on my first time trying out a real mana trap farm, did not just give me more xp than all the hours carefully working through levels — it nearly tripled my level. I set another one of those up and went to bed, and it went on to farm into nine digits, bringing my level above 1000.

It’s kind of like that scene in a book or movie where the protagonist finds out the real scale of the conflict and looks back with wonder on the struggle that seemed so important five minutes ago. It is Ender talking to children still back a level or Neo looking around the Matrix where he used to live. It is as if Gandalf said, “Now that you mention it, Frodo, the eagles would totally have flown us in at the beginning if we’d asked.”

I suddenly got a lot of sympathy for the impatient players who want to be accelerated to the end game. Why kill monsters for coppers when you could do the same actions for gold? I remember joining WoW at the end of the WotLK era and making that jump from the vanilla lategame to the first Burning Crusade map. “So you guys farmed that for a couple of years, and I’m getting stronger gear from green boars?”

: Zubon


I am still playing GemCraft: Chasing Shadows. There are a lot of levels, and when you start going past wave 100 every time, a level or two is an evening’s gaming.

What with more than 100 levels, the map is large and sprawling. There are, however, bottlenecks through which you must pass. At some point, your next level must be X. There are probably more of these than I realized; if you happen to go the way that is required, you probably did not notice it was required, whereas crashing into the wall in the other direction sends you back this way.

There are several points at which unlocking the next hex requires a particular skill. The game is nice enough to very explicitly say that you need skill Y from field Z1, and it will not let you start a level you cannot complete. I should note that you really cannot complete some maps without particular skills, not that it’s just really hard, although that comes from the arbitrary difficulty of the wizard towers. You must unlock the tower by using up some resources, either tower attacks or spells, effectively a handicap on the level.

These chokepoints also tend to serve as story units. There is a tale of The Forgotten going through GemCraft, and you follow it across the map. It is not the world’s strongest story, but you can retrace the ruins of previous battles fought, which gives the game a bit of mystique and an aura of doom. When you look up from your shiny gems that are blowing up monsters by the dozen.

: Zubon

10 vs 2

Last night I turned up the difficulty on a tower defense map and went for a higher difficulty achievement as well. It took a few tries, and I learned new things about how the game randomly changes some variables and can make the map much harder or easier. After more than 50 waves and 2000 enemies, I got it down to the last two and was carefully working down their hit points. Then Windows 10 forced an update and reboot. The Microsoft messages seem to imply that I should be happy about this.

: Zubon