Going Under & Weapon Durability

There are certain divisive mechanics or design choices in video games. These are things like escort missions, fetch quests, and grinding in RPGs—things that people either seem to absolutely despise, or it doesn’t bother them at all. The release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rekindled the fire of discussion around one such mechanic: weapon durability. Suddenly, the internet was aflame with debates of the merits, annoyances, and possible tweaks that could be made for breakable weapons in games. This discussion quickly spread from just Breath of the Wild and engulfed other games like the Witcher and Dark Souls series. I have to imagine the developers at Aggro Crab noticed these arguments burning up the internet and decided to double-down on the weapon durability mechanic because it is at the core of their recent game Going Under.

The game is a roguelite dungeon crawler that humorously mocks into late capitalism and startup culture with its story and characters while the combat is ripped right out of Breath of the Wild. There’s a variety of weapons that fall into a handful of attack patterns with swords and clubs swinging side to side, spears stab in a line, and heavy weapons slice in wide slow arcs or smash in front of the character. There are even ranged weapons with limited ammo, but they can be used for melee after all their shots have been used up and before they break. Every weapon is designed to break in Going Under and the player will have a lot of weapons break over the course of a run. Weapons break fast enough that you learn to never rely or expect any to last, but they last long enough to not be frustrating. Some people will get annoyed with the durability system, that is inevitable, but I think the designers at Aggro Crab did a fantastic job of tying pretty much every other aspect of the game in this mechanic.

The combat in Going Under has a hectic, chaotic energy to it thanks to the weapons breaking. If a weapon breaks in the middle of a fight, you have to decide whether to rush to grab another one, quickly switch to another weapon you’re holding, or finish the fight with your fists. You’ll find yourself constantly surveying the room you’re in for enemy attacks and weapons you could grab in the future all while dodging, attacking, and running around like an Amazon warehouse employee. Every weapon can be thrown too, meaning that if a weapon is close to breaking, you can use it for a bit of ranged damage by hurling it across a room. This is useful when you spot a weapon laying on a table or shelf you want to grab as you can position yourself next to it, chuck your old, busted weapon to create a moment, and then grab the next weapon and continue the battle.

Luckily, the rooms of the dungeons are small and confined. You have plenty of room to kite around enemies and avoid incoming attacks, but you will hardly ever be out of range of grabbing something, anything, that can be used as a weapon if your final one shatters in your hand before the room is cleared. The game has a sort of Dead Raising quality to it since pretty much everything can be used as a weapon. Chairs, pencils, swords, keyboards, even throw pillows can be grabbed and used to smack enemies around. And it is necessary to use everything you can get your hands on since weapons break so often, especially while fighting tankier enemies like the bosses.

As a general rule, I prefer boss fights to be one on one encounters. I like them to be big, imposing, and test my skills at the game. I’m always a little weary when a boss spawn basic mobs in the fight because it feels like a cheap way to complicate the fight instead of focusing on giving the boss tricky mechanics and harder to read attack patterns. This is obviously not a hardset rule, just a preference, since many games manage to design boss fights with basic minions in them too very well, and Going Under is one such game. Every boss in the game will occasionally summon mobs into the fight, but this is due to necessity. Bosses have long health bars and your weapons will break before you manage to chip it down completely. Having basic enemies spawn into the fight helps bring in new weapons to use once you defeat them. Sometimes beating the round of mobs will even summon a drone delivery, dropping off a box that can contain more weapons and even healing items.

As a roguelite, a big part of the appeal of Going Under is building a run as you explore a dungeon. Each floor has a room with a choice between skills you can equip, along with additional skills you can purchase from the shop or find in boxes that drop as you clear a room. These skills are all passive effects that range from changing the speed and damage of attack, acquiring and buffing enemies to fight with you, setting fire or freezing enemies under certain conditions. No skill actually affects the durability of weapons used in battles in the dungeon, which was disappointing at first. Then I realized the run building aspect of the game comes from the moment to moment gameplay and decision making with weapons to use then acquiring skills themselves.

There is something satisfying in the roguelike/lite genre when making a run work when the game seems to be working against you—not giving you useful upgrades or skill, nothing really tying anything together to build synergies between what you are handed. This can be frustrating in games like The Binding of Isaac or Slay the Spire where the best way to victory is creating a build as you play, but Going Under is more akin to Enter the Gungeon, where the passive skills and upgrades you get are secondary to the weapons you find. It goes back to the idea that during combat you will find yourself scanning the room for future weapons you may need. You will most likely acquire a preference for certain weapon types—for me, it was one or two handed weapons that attacked in a sweeping motion—but you can never rely on having those weapons available to use. So sometimes you will have to make do with what you can grab and this is where the run building aspect of Going Under lies for me—making use of weapons you may not like or know well, trying to ensure you keep as many good weapons you do like on hand at any giving time, and just making what you can get work no matter what. It adds a level of improvisation and strategy to the chaotic battles in the dungeons of the failed startups.

When Breath of the Wild released, I remember a lot of discussion about how the game needed a system or some way you could repair damaged weapons you liked so you could choose how long to keep them and when to toss them out. While the weapon durability mechanic in the game bothered me really, I agree with this idea. As a huge open world adventure, I think this would be a great way to add an RPG character building feel to Breath of the Wild and could be used as a way to reward players’ exploration. For a while, I thought Going Under was missing an opportunity to have a similar sort of mechanic in the game, either by a shop or consumable item that could repair your weapons or skills that could affect the durability of them. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was not necessary for Going Under and would possibly undercut the entire design of the game. Everything in the game, from level design to combat, is built around the weapon durability mechanic. Taking that out takes away all of the game’s uniqueness and charm.

Guacamelee & Multipurpose Attacks

I’ve always been interested in gameplay mechanics that are designed to have multiple uses. Like how the hookshot in the Zelda series can be used to access out of reach areas and as a weapon to stun enemies, the social links in Persona 5 furthering the story and character development of your teammates while giving them special abilities in and outside of battle, and bullets in Metro 2033 working both as ammunition and currency. Multiple ways of affecting gameplay add another layer of complexity to a mechanic, make it more versatile and expressive. One of the best examples I can think of this type of multipurpose mechanic is how special attacks are handled in Guacamelee.

Guacamelee is a Metroidvania with combat ripped out of a 2D brawler. You’ll be exploring a large, spaghetti-like map looking for upgrades and abilities to access new areas, all while beating enemies to pulp with punches, kicks, grapples, and throws, each hit crunching like you stepped on a box of breakfast cereal. A handful of the abilities you acquire, like the Rooster Uppercut and the Dashing Derpderp, are just new harder-hitting attacks that can be used to pummel enemies, streaked with an associated color and moving in the character in a certain direction. At first, these attacks just seem like combo extenders. Since some of your attacks knock your enemies flying through the air like dandelion fluff, it is helpful to have a follow up move that can close the distance and dish out some damage. The combo system is underutilized, however, and the lack of an extra reward for a higher combo makes it pretty forgettable, but it is still satisfying to keep an enemy floating in the air with a string of punches and special attacks. As the game progresses, the armies of skeletons will appear not only cloaked in ponchos and sombreros, but colored shields too. 

These shields need to be broken with the attack of the corresponding color before the enemy can be damaged. The art design really shines in this implementation with the colors vibrant enough to instantly recognize which attack is required to bust open the shield, but this mechanic is still probably the weakest part of the game. The shields are fine when they are first introduced, about a third to halfway through the game. Just as the combat is starting to feel a little samey and lose impact, having an enemy per wave will spawn with a shield encourages target selection and helps the player focus. But it’s near the end of the game, cramped into a small room and many enemies, many with different colored shields, that this becomes annoying. It’s fun to throw your enemies around, watching them fly into each other and knock their comrades down, but a lot of satisfaction is lost if most of them have shields that haven’t been cracked and they are taking no damage from the cascade of limbs.

Combat is not the only aspect of Guacamelee’s gameplay, however, because there is also map exploration, and it’s here that the special attacks really show their worth. While running, jumping, and smacking enemies silly across the world map, the player will often find colored stone blocks impeding their progress. As in a Metroid game, special attacks are needed to break through these blocks and proceed. I typically prefer Metroidvania games where organic movement upgrades are needed to access new areas (like Hollow Knight and how the Castlevania series handle map design), but I find I don’t  mind this type of lock-key-key of design as much in Guacamelee. The game finds the middle ground between these two differing map types through its special attacks. Sure, the blocks are used in dungeons mostly to guide the player to certain areas and later to create shortcuts to checkpoints or to be revisited as the proper upgrade is acquired, but they also help inform the platforming challenges, which are probably my favorite part of the game.

There are many side paths in the world of Guacamelee to explore for extra goodies like health and stamina pieces and chests full of gold. Some are hidden through small gaps in walls but most are just side rooms with platforming challenge to conquer and collect your reward. I always go after as many of these as I can, not only because it’s good practice for when the game starts throwing similar challenges in the critical path, but because they are just very fun. Since each of the special attacks move the character slightly in a direction, they can be used to extend the length of a jump and redirect in midair. This gives the player a precise sense of control and opens up the platforming to a lot of tricky jumps. A common example is getting around walls hanging for the ceiling like stalactites, where you will have to fall past the bottom of the wall and Rooster Uppercut your where up and past it to a platform waiting on the other side. During the later part of the game, these types of platforming challenges become part of the main path. Sometimes you’ll have to cross a long room by going from platform to platform over a lake of acid or maybe it’s a vertical auto-scrolling section where you have to climb to the top of a room while being chased down by buzzsaws. So the special attacks gained throughout the game helps aid the player in both combat and exploring the world map, tying the two types of gameplay together and making them a cohesive whole, and the most interesting outcome of this is how it affects the Guacamelee’s difficulty curve.

Usually in Metroidvania titles, the end game is the easiest part because you’ve gained so many upgrades and new moves. Some moves, like the Screw Attack in the Metroid series and Gas Cloud transformation in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, are pretty overpowered and completely blow out the difficulty curve. Guacamelee doesn’t have this issue since the special attacks are used more for utility than raw power—this leads to the game actually getting more difficult as more upgrades and special attacks are acquired. It’s so rare to find a Metroidvania game that doesn’t get noticeable easier, apart from maybe a few bosses, by the end of the game and the fact that Guacamelee does get harder (with a very steady difficulty curve and some real meaty challenges at the end to boot) makes it a very refreshing take on the genre, gives it an excellent sense of pacing, and helped to keep me engaged while games like Super Metroid would start to lose my interest.

Guacamelee is a very fun game despite all its little annoyances and a lot of that comes from how the game handles its special attacks. In combat, they are satisfying and expressive and can lead the game to feel as stylish as a side-scrolling Devil May Cry or Bayonetta at times. When exploring the world, they are versatile and help form a lot of tricky platforming challenges that are always thrilling to complete. These special attacks and how they help create a meaty difficulty curve is enough of a unique selling point to get a recommendation from me. It’s oddly similar to another game I’ve been playing lately, but more on that next time.

Into the Breach & Enemy Intentions

Tactic games have been around for about as long as video games have existed. They are a great way to visualize battles between two groups of characters while making it easy for the player to understand. They are also a genre of game that I always want to play more of, but am hesitant to because I am so awful at them. Even as a child playing chess, the concept of trying to predict an opponent’s next move was completely foreign to me. It’s no wonder then that my favorite tactics game is Subset Game’s Into the Breach, who’s major mechanic is showing the player the enemies’ intents during battle. At first, this feature seems to be just a unique selling point for the game, but is actually the most ingenious aspect of the game and the most important crux the game revolves around.

Into the Breach is a teeny tiny tactics game where battles take place on an 8×8 isometric grid littered with buildings, enemies, differing landscapes, and your mechs. Everything is laid out in easy to read squares and the bright pixel art, along with the bold outlines, gives the game an almost cute diorama look. Battles only last for five turns, after which all surviving enemies, giant insects called Veks, retreat back into the Earth where they spawned. This means that unlike Fire Emblem or Advance War style games, victory isn’t based on defeating the enemies. Grid defense is the life blood of a campaign. If it drops to zero, it’s game over. You can have up to eight grid defense points and will lose one each time a building is destroyed. This makes protecting buildings and the citizens inside them the number one priority to consider in a battle.

While the game is turned base, it changes things by having the enemies take two turns and the player acting in between them. During their first turn, the giant insects will swarm to position to attack a building or unit, indicating their plans with an attack trail and red box with what will be hit. It is only during their second turn, however, when the enemies will act out their intentions to attack. This means the player’s turn is dedicated to preventing damage, be it by moving units out of harm’s way, blocking attacks to building, moving enemies so their attacks miss, or just killing enemies. This gives the game its unique edge and reinforces the importance of protecting buildings.

Since missions have differing objectives, like blocking enemies from spawning or destroying mountains, to gain resources, it varies what is most important to do on a turn, but the grid defense meter is the only consistent element throughout a campaign. Mechs automatically heal in between missions, but pilots will die if they are in a mech that’s destroyed. This isn’t as big of a deal as it seems at first. If mech doesn’t have a pilot to control it, it simply gains an AI pilot, with the only drawback being that they do not gain experience and level up to acquire passive benefits. This makes a mech’s health and pilot’s life a resource that needs to be considered in battle. Every move has to be judged on a case by case basis, but it’s almost always best to take some damage to a mech to save a building. 

So without showing the enemies’s intentions, it would be impossible for the players to make the decisions the game is built around. Battles can often feel like a resource management game, taking into account grid defense, mech health, actions available, and the enemy turn order to help decide the best move. Sometimes it’s best to lose a building if there is more grid power available on the island and you can focus on killing some enemies to ensure you don’t get overwhelmed on the next turn. For players like me, who often have difficulty anticipating opponents’ moves in games like XCOM, Fire Emblem, and even chess, Into the Breach is a great tactics game to cut your teeth on. Having a clear indicator from the enemies of where they are attacking and what you have to lose if you don’t act correctly is a great way to give every decision weight. 

Most of the attacks a mech can do in game have a secondary effect of moving an enemy to the next tile. This will disrupt their plan of attack because the Fireflies can’t shoot a building if another enemy is blocking them and a Scorpion can’t hit a unit with its melee attack if they’ve been pushed away. This encourages the player to experiment with attacks and how they can affect both enemies and allies alike. You’ll feel like a genius the first time you move an enemy onto a spawn tile for them to block the next turn and die in the process or use an attack to push an Vek away from a building and an ally just in range to attack. Moving enemies can also be touchy though. Sometimes attacking an enemy moves them into place to strike a building. This can lead to turns where it may be impossible to come out of without losing a mech pilot or a building. I’ve seen people say this is unfair but I disagree.

Into the Breach is a tactics game, not a puzzle game, which means there isn’t always a perfect solution to every turn. While a lot of pain can be taken care of through killing or blocking enemies from spawning, as a battle goes on, you will probably be overwhelmed with more enemies than can be comfortably dealt with. This is where reading the Vek’s intents is most important, to see which attacks are nonconcerns once you move a unit, which attacks can be cancelled by moving or killing enemies, and which ones can be blocked by a mech. Some turns, however, cannot be dealt with without losing a building or pilot’s life, turning them into plans to mitigate the most amount of damage. This gives the player’s choices meaning in the game because a planned loss of grid defense or pilot can be accounted for, while unexpected loss is much more difficult to come back from. 

I have an incredible amount of respect for Into the Breach. It’s not a game I play too often, but it’s one of those games that, when I do pick it up, I get sucked in for hours and it’s all I want to play for a week. The game’s small battles and relative short campaign lengths give it the perfect “just one more round” quality.  It’s an extremely clever and smartly designed game and stands out in a sea of tactics games by the simple addition of displaying enemy intentions. Everything in the game revolves around the mechanic and helps the player feel like the hero that has to weigh their own wellbeing for the good of the world.