Dragon Age: The Last Court

So, anyone who plays RPGs on PC/Console is probably aware that Dragon Age Inquisition is dropping in a few days. I’m looking forward to hearing/seeing which new ideas they have come up with in that game, although – given my schedules – it will probably be Spring next year before I have a chance to play the game. Not to mention that I still have Dragon Age 2 in my backlog, so I really should finish that first.

I have been messing a bit around with The Last Court, though; which is Failbetter Games’ text-based adventure game where you, as the Marquis of  a small province/town with a mysterious and shameful past. Like other Story Nexus games, this is a text-based game about resource management, which makes it right up my alley. And there’s a lot to like about this.

The writing, as usual with Failbetter, is one of the highlights. The short story snippets which are their hallmark are well written, and are often really evocative. The resource management is pretty neat, once you learn it – there is definitely the “feel” of having to balance the concerns of an estate/barony in terms of dignity, prosperity, and freedom. There is not a perfect balance (freedom, for instance, seems a lot harder to raise than the two others), but I don’t think there has to be – the important thing about is it how it reflects what it is trying to “simulate”, and I think it does a good job there. You are rarely surprised about which stats will rise for a given action.

The game system is pretty straightforward – you draw three “cards”, and can then select the order in which those cards are resolved (you pretty much always want to resolve all the cards, since every card has some value to you = the more cards you process per action, the better). Every real-life day, you get a “Market Day”; special cards that can kick off some special events.

This brings me to one of the things that I don’t like about the game: energy mechanics. You have a limited number of actions (maximum of 20), which are slowly replenished during the game (3 per hour). If you want to carry out more actions than that, you need to pay. Now this is not as bad as it sounds, because this is clearly not a game where you need to pay to win (I had essentially won the game on Day 2 of 7, without paying anything), but it still grates. It is intensely annoying to get a card that will start a quest line, knowing that you probably do not have enough actions on hand to finish it. IMO, adding energy mechanics to a game like this was a terrible decision. It is deeply frustrating to a player to be told you can’t play any more. Worse, you’re fundamentally telling players to go away. How many Dragon Age players with ongoing games of the Last Court will abandon the game and never pick it up again when DAI comes out tomorrow? My guess is the vast majority. Having essentially already won the game, there is very little incentive for me to continue playing except to see the Market Day cards (on their own another “energy” mechanic, since they are gated for every 24 hours). Am I going to bother with this for a full 7 days? I’m not sure.

Which brings me to the other weakness; too little content. Each action, you “draw” from a pile with the same set of 20-30 cards. Each of those cards have a limited set of things available that you can do with them. Most likely, you have seen all of the possible events by the end of your first 24 hours. What there is, is well-written, but it’s not interesting the third time around. Which leaves only the market day cards as entertaining. Gathering resources is just a grind that you partake in to gather victory points and resources for the market day events. I do feel that they could have done more here, but I suppose its questionable whether it would make much difference. Double the events, and you’d still eventually end up “looping” around to the same events.

What you end up with, then, is a game which starts out interesting, but quickly ends up being repetitive. The latter is – I think – a problem that is intrinsic to procedural narrative style games; certainly, this is definitely a weakness in Pirates and Traders, and will probably be a weakness in Dwarf Kingdom too. What I try to do to counter-act this tendency in Pirates and Traders is to have the circumstances influence the story elements. Different destinations, obviously. Shifting nationalities (with all that it implies if you attack an erstwhile ally). This is one of the things that I want to emphasize more with the narrative system in Pirates and Traders 2. One  element is to let the (randomly generated) character traits impact on the stories/quests. Another is to let the world state affect more heavily the kind of missions you get. So if a port is under blockade, you will be more likely to be offered a job to run the blockade with weapons and/or food. Or the outbreak of war between two nations results in your being offered smuggling missions from a trader who has often traded with that nation, Even better if the stories can be chained together; e.g., being given a smuggling mission, you use the mission to collect evidence against the trader, which you can then use to blackmail him for even more money, or – alternatively – turn it over to the Governor or Commander for approval and a relationship boost.

TLDR; hopefully, the missions in Pirates and Traders 2 will be a bit more dynamic and varied than in the original.