Recommending Elona Shooter

My series of browser game reviews continues with a second installment.

This is a pretty new game, I understand. Another title with tower defence roots, except this time you’re managing a team of fighters defending a castle from various attacking critters. The core activity is point-and-click shootery, with switchable weapons and managing reload times. After each “day” of combat you get to invest the money recovered into better defenses, such as more fighters, better walls and so on. Experience points flow, too, so your fighters get to learn fancy new skills. The game strives to hit all the hardcore buttons at once, and succeeds rather well.

My favourite part of Elona Shooter is that it has quite a bit of width in terms of strategy and goals. The game is rogue-like in that you advance in the game by improving your own play rather than by saving position (I understand that there is a saveable mode as well, I just never played it), which constraint works well when the game has a high degree of randomness that derives into a large set of potential strategies you can implement depending on your initial chargen choices and the luck of the draw. This width of strategic options is augmented on multiple levels:

  • The different weapons play quite differently in the point-and-click portion of the game. For example, cartridge loading vs. clip-loading guns play quite differently in that you have to reload the latter whole clips at a time, while with the former you can take whatever time you have in between enemy waves to do partial reloads. There are bows (no reload necessary), automatic weapons, grenades and so on, all gained as a random selection of enemy drops and shop inventory, which means that your play experience is greatly impacted by the weapons you happen to collect in play.
  • The fighters available to your team are also randomized, and the skill improvements they get when they level are also randomized. You can control both sets of randomization to a degree, but ultimately you have to go with the flow. The fighters you have influence your strategy to a high degree, as the different skills have a radical impact on what you can or can’t do. A character with “Taunt”, for example, allows you the new strategy of making the enemies stronger in exchange for more money, which will only be useful for certain strategic frameworks.
  • The various activities you can do in between battles are relatively static (barring the opportunities opened by equipment and experience gains), but their usefulness is impacted by both the random portions of the game as well as your own strategic choices. For example, it’s usually not worthwhile to spend any time collecting eggs from chickens (a no-strings-attached method of gaining money) unless you’re willing to invest large amounts of money on those chickens to begin with.
  • The key thing that ties all of the above together is that unlike many other games, in this one achievements (interesting, Wikipedia doesn’t seem to recognize that this stuff exists outside the XBox) gain you permanent advantages in the game, advantages that carry over to new plays. This provides strategic coordination to the game: you can’t hope to finish the game on one try, but at least you can try to achieve one of the various medals available in the game, providing you with a small bonus for your next play. This, in turn, makes the selection of various strategic options in the game far from arbitrary; praying or using suicide bombers or whatever other course you might pick becomes not just a strategy, but a goal in itself, encouraging you to play the game in different styles on different play-throughs, trying to pick a suitable achievement goal that you have a chance of fulfilling with your current character/equipment set.

The above elements click in Elona Shooter in an exceptional way, making for a very enjoyable, ascending level of challenge. The curve of difficulty in the game might be too much for some, at least until you realize that your goal isn’t necessarily to constantly improve your rate of days survived. Once you manage to consistently survive for 10 days or so, the game hits an extremely enjoyable stage as you dedicate yourself to collecting the achievements and figuring out the larger macro-strategy: which of the several courses of strategic action allow you to survive past the radically more difficult midteens levels? Puzzling this out is very fun because of the above effect of randomized strategic constraints combined with a series of ascending difficulty achievements that encourage different tacks of play.

(Alternatively, you could just play that save state mode of the game and miss out on all the fun. I understand that it allows you to just retry each level with extra cash until you’ve grinded yourself into an upper hand position. I hear that the designer has also made a roguelike, so I have no doubts as to which playstyle he prefers.)

I am not entirely happy with the level of tension in Elona Shooter in that sometimes the sheer level of hand-eye coordination and tactical decision-making speed required feels frustrating instead of challenging. The slightest mistake kills you when your strategy is even a bit off the optimal that you must discover and chart yourself. I would probably be even happier with the game if it had a more fruitful balance of strategic principles and performance excellence; now you have to have both to get anywhere in the game, instead of being able to compensate for one with the other.

In the interest of full disclosure I have to say that unfortunately my brother Jari discovered an exploit that allowed him to short-circuit the process of gradually incrementing understanding of play, jumping directly from “survive 15 days” to “survive 40+ days and quit playing because of boredom”. I lost much of my own sense of challenge with the game after finding out how to do that, which is a shame, because nothing is actually forcing me to use the one strategy out of 50+ that is so radically powerful. In fact, I should think that trying to find other, equally powerful approaches should motivate me just as well. Still, for one reason or other, much of the mystery surrounding the challenge of the game evaporated for me when Jari figured out how to beat it and got to the upper levels first. Others will likely have quite different experiences of play.

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