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About the Story
Enter the world of Alexandria where some say is the center of all existence. Traverse through the world to find scrolls and unlock abilities, gather items and equip them onto your followers to try and save the world and its inhabitants!
71st place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 3
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One of the games I've put the most hours to in the last few years is a lesser-known Hearthstone clone called Plants vs Zombies Heroes. It's the only card game app I've played, but it has a lot of features in common (I've heard) with the other big ones like Hearthstone.
So that's my basis of comparison.
This is an Online unity game. The download is a webpage with a redirect to the online play. Starting play has a lot of download bars as various things load. It has an opening movie cinematic with voice acting. After that, there is something of a tutorial, and then it opens up.
The main idea is that you open packs that contain cards or gold or other things, then you assemble a deck. You then play different levels or (eventually, but not now, I think) PvP. During gameplay, you have three keepers that generate points to buy cards with or attack (but not both). Keepers that get to 0 hp are taken out of play, same as for enemies.
Overall, this game is, to me, a mismatch for the comp. The spirit of the competition has generally been that you provide a complete gaming experience which can be archived and stay free forever, with possibly a better version released later for money (like Scarlet Sails). The two hour rule is there to encourage games to be substantially completable in two hours.
Neither rule is hard or fast; there have been games in the past which could not be archived (like Paradise, a text MMO game that was like a reinvented MUD) and the winners each year tend to take over two hours. But it's a bit odd to see a game like this which has different quests which can only be played once every 28 days (!) and has a cash shop with items up to $10.99 (none of which seem to be needed for progression).
I played the first two levels of the main game, but it seemed like GUI-based combat is the main thrust of the game with little text. Compared to Jared Jackson's Tragic from last year, it has much less of a strong storyline).
I don't generally include UI in reviewing, but it's an important part of this game. This UI could use a lot of tweaking; it popped up for me far too large for the screen. I think it told me to use CTRL+'-' and CTRL+'+' to adjust it, but I couldn't tell because I couldn't see. When I did get it to fit, it was usually too small to see, in a small rectangle with a blank white border around it. When opening packs, you had to slide a key from left to right. The interaction felt off; I think it was missing some kind of subtle highlighting when hovering over the key or inertia when sliding it. And you had to repeat it 30+ times in a row, making it kind of slow. The tutorial explains stats, but in-combat it's hard to remember; having hovering tool tips would be better.
Overall, this feels like an open beta for a commercial F2P/IAP game, which is why I provided the feedback above.
For my IF ratings:
-Polish: The game could use some tinkering with, as described above. I saw a couple typos, too, in the main story text, but I can't remember where.
-Descriptiveness: Most of the 'flavor' is communicated through images rather than text.
-Interactivity: It was difficult to figure out combat; all the mechanics were thrown at once instead of introduced one at a time, and complex opening and deck-creating had to be done before fighting. I prefer the tutorial of PVZ heroes, which has ultra-simplified combat happening first with a pre-made deck, then slightly more complex battle, then adding just a few cards to your pre-made deck.
-Emotional impact: I was too lost to get deeply involved in the story.
-Would I play again? Not without significant changes.
The scale I use doesn't really apply to this game; as a card game I'd probably give it 3/5. But I'll use my IF scale on this website for consistency.
Note that this was just my personal experience; others may have wildly different reactions to the game!
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
Itís a rule of thumb that every Comp has at least one oddball entry that strains the bounds of what counts as IF. In the last couple years, Jared Jackson has taken care of this slot, with last yearís deckbuilder and a Zachlike programming puzzle the year before that (I really enjoyed both, for the record). Comes now The Vaults to try its luck: itís a virtual CCG whose claim to IF-dom appears to rest entirely on the paragraphs of static text that play between bouts of the PvE campaign.
Sadly, I didnít find much to enjoy here, either as a piece of IF or on its own merits. On the former side, the gameís story appears to be very generic high fantasy, and the paragraphs only stay on screen for a little while, so I missed some of the plot due to alt-tabbing to take notes. Without any choices or interactivity between the battles and the story so far as I could see, thereís not much here for a traditional IF audience to glom onto.
As to the CCG, this isnít my genre of choice Ė give me a deckbuilder any day Ė but even so, I think itís too slow and confusingly-presented to be much fun. I eventually grokked the gimmick, which is that you have a trio of persistent ďkeeperĒ creatures who generate your mana, but only if you donít use them to attack. Thatís a fair enough tradeoff, but it made me feel like I struggled to make progress, as I was either forgoing attacks, nerfing my mana progression, or unsatisfyingly trying to split the difference.
The playerís starting deck is also oddly tuned, with few low-mana creatures, which added to the frustration as I repeatedly drew cool cards I couldn't do anything with. Finally, the visual design is muddy, with card watermarks making text hard to read, and colors rather than icons are used to convey too much information, so I couldnít always remember what a creatureís purple number was supposed to mean. All told I won one round, lost the second four or five times, then decided The Vaults simply isnít for me Ė though Iíd be curious what someone better versed in CCGs thinks, and if future developments in the story make the game more satisfying for IF mavens.
Highlight : Your little keepers are kind of adorable, Jawa-like minions.
Lowlight : One tooltip mentioned that you can link any NFTs you own to the game, which is just the worst.
How I failed the author : I played this during a very late-night (or more optimistically, very early-morning) feeding for Henry, and my fuzzy brain was very much not up to retaining the info conveyed by the tutorial. I also played the opening cutscene but didnít have the audio on, since Henry was drowsing awake, so the plot was pretty much lost on me (there were scrolls and a dude in armor?)
Full disclosure: I tested The Vaults after IFComp was over, so I've been able to see a lot that wouldn't be accessible in two hours. I think I've worked well with the author, and he's been attentive about bug fixes--he even responded positively to a one-star review! I've enjoyed my time through it, and again. So this review will be a combination of my IFComp experiences and why it placed where it did, as well as a look forward, and things that are fixed if you want to check out The Vaults now. TLDR: there's a lot more player help and balance.
Within the two-hour judging limit (I think,) I got my keepers to level 2 in The Vaults. I saw basically what was going on: you have little three mini-ghost keepers, replete with hoods, who go about a terrain and fight adorably grouchy little knocker goblins. They're bluish and keel over and grimace further when they die, which is quite frequently. I even managed to gain my keepers armor and gauntlets. The armor cost one maximum hip point, which shows the author has put effort into balancing things in addition to, well, getting such a massive effort to work.
From a gaming perspective, I enjoyed The Vaults very much, but as a text adventure or perhaps freeware, it's wanting. It's in Unity and takes a while to load--longer than Cygnet Committee, Silicon and Cells or Mermaids of Ganymede. There are in-game purchases, which is just fine for a game that is going to Steam, but other people found it iffy. The ethical considerations here are tricky: you won't see all of the game in two hours, especially with all the special effects, but if you buy a pricey item, you can move forward quickly and thus be able to judge more! I think The Vaults unintentionally found a loophole that should be closed. I doubt this was through malice. The author probably saw, hey, there's a contest for unreleased games that starts just as my game is scheduled to release! So I think IFComp needs to re-evaluate its stance on in-game purchases. Competitors shouldn't feel pushed to make them in the name of fairness. This is far less black-and-white than releasing a game before comp start or actually charging, but I think now we've seen it, we need a future rule.
However, the main reason this game didn't work for IFComp is that it wasn't really text-based at the time. The big text gulps are before you go exploring, and then the screen times out before your next fight. It's possible to take a screenshot, but it shouldn't be. A few tutorial dialogues popped up but not enough to help you understand what was going on. Often text would disappear after some time out, or I'd just want to get through the splash-screen before the next fight and suddenly realized that text might be valuable! So having an information, umm, vault full of these screenshots would be nice. There are starting tutorials, but I wasn't in a position to really understand what they mean until you play a few fights. The game precluded you from doing certain things, too, such as attacking when attack power is zero and now I've gotten through it a bit, it's obvious to me, but not newer players. I almost gave up, and I maybe would've, too, if those poor cute knocker goblins hadn't shown terrible strategic reasoning by attacking me. I eventually decided to see what would happen if I just sat around and let them kill me, and at that point I realized what some of the numbers around the combatants meant.
All this is done much better now, though it's still light on text. Having said that, the graphics are good enough to figure what the red, blue, green and purple are for without text. I did it myself! Thankfully, you won't need to any more.
As it was, I assembled a deck by trial and error (it's now automated--your default cards go to a default deck), and I got bopped pretty badly as I pushed forward outside the first area. So I stuck with knocking around (ha!) the poor knockers goblins, deal with summons, and attack only when it's useful. I was overwhelmed by who did what at first, and again, there are helpful popup boxes now. The author's done a lot of this--allowed for more detailed graphics or animations, or just "hey! Here's the treasure from those twenty chests!"
The Vaults is an impressive piece of programming. I get a sense of strategy that interested me, even though I'm not big on card games. But I definitely wasn't in the right frame of mind for it, and given how I wound up grinding in the first area, the story was almost non-existent. It only unfolds with each new area and tougher monsters. That said, I did get to the end of the second map with a clear idea of what was going on. Even then, I hadn't explored duel mode or really used the Forge, which combines items (you get experience, and it costs gold) into more powerful ones. You also get to choose a specialization class later.
So The Vaults is a bit heavy on the technical effects, and thus it put itself at a severe disadvantage in a text-based contest such as IFComp. I feel like a goon playing gatekeeper and saying "IFComp isn't the right place for this game" because, after all, I did enjoy it. But all the same, given that the author has ambitions to put the game on Steam, I suspect the game's placing will be outweighed by the utility of any bugs judges find and report. I've learned a lot about the whole RPG creation process. And at any rate, it's really cool to be able to say I sincerely enjoyed my time testing both the first- and last-placed games in IFComp 2021, albeit for different reasons.