Monday, 10 October 2016 00:00

Powargrid Review

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Wee Free Studio’s Powargrid pumps out witty writing, devilish AI, and simply serious strategy.

Willem de Neve and Michiel Konstaple, the duo-developer pair that comprises Wee Free Studios, might finally be able to enjoy nights and weekends once more. After one evening of testing – followed by five years of development – the new studio, based out of The Hague, Netherlands, has released Powargrid, a turn-based, strategy, tower-defense-esque game.

When you read the backstory of Powargrid, that it takes place on “planet Globkar,” and that the main characters are “species of blobbies of varying colors,” you might rush to call it contrived. And it is, but deliberately and charmingly so. The “blobbies” are just a vehicle, quite literally as in the case of Tank, the head of the orange blobbie army, to convey the tactical meat-and-potatoes of the game. Wee Free chose “blobbies” because, in their own words, they’re “no Michelangelo.” “Since I was well aware of my artistic limitations,” writes Willem, "I decided that the main characters would be blobbies." And why towers and not moving units? Why, because of a giant death satellite named Morsabalto, of course. Fair enough; when you consider the excellent writing, pleasant visuals, and challenging gameplay, the “blobbies” just add to the small studio appeal of the title.

The soundtrack sets a good, driving tune for the levels. The pump-up music is reminiscent of Command & Conquer. There is a bit of variation between song styles which seems disjointed at times, but the general feel is on point. Set your equalizer to a ‘rock’ preset and turn it up.

Visually, playing without the grid (Ctrl + G to toggle) is easier on the eyes, and strategizing becomes duly trickier; maybe a grid which lightly fades in and out could provide a nice balance. The ambient visuals do not go unappreciated – the snowflakes, butterflies, leaves, and orcas are nice personal touches, and the way a piece sways as you move it around the map, deciding where to place it, is just sweet.

Powargrid really shines in its writing.

Willem provided a slew of incisive commentary which at once dates just how long they have been developing this game while also jeering the topics du jour. Wee Free's irreverence, generously sprinkled throughout Campaign mode, pulls no punches. They lambast controversial internet legislation, defining PIPA-ACTA-SOPA as “Prejudiced Intellectual Property Agreement As Concocted Through Anti-freedom Scoundrilous Oppressive Propaganda Agencies.” When the Religious blobbies team up with the Business blobbies, they christen the newfound alliance "Televangelism." There's an entire mission where the leader of the Business blobbies, Chairman Swap, lectures you on the merits of his economic model and refers you to his treatise, "How to Make Society Cover Your Gambling Losses while Keeping the Wins for Yourself." Snicker-inducing dialogue abounds, for those so inclined to read, and the chummy chit-chat between the blobbies spans the gamut, from the zeitgeist of "intense [gender] scrutiny" and weapons of mass destruction to a piercing question on the difference between fact and truth, and even a shout-out to Portal. The unlettered need not fear, however, as Wee Free lets the player jump straight into the action by allowing you to interrupt blobbies. Willem recognizes that “dialogue shouldn’t get in the way of players who don’t want to read it.” Indeed, when you are replaying a mission for the tenth time, it feels good to smack a blobbie with a saucy rejoinder such as “Shut it and be prepared for more,” and “Whatever. By all means, do go on yelling while I go on building.”

Gameplay-wise, however, Powargrid could use a power-up.

Pacing could benefit from different speeds or a scale because you quickly wish to speed things up a bit; there is little joy to be found in waiting twenty minutes to realize that your strategy is flawed. There's a workaround to this, but I am puzzled as to why it is never explicitly mentioned: when you restart a mission, left-click repeatedly during the animation sequence. When the mission restarts, the speed will be much faster. The inability to move the camera also limits the different ways a player might visualize a strategy. (Spoiler: The last mission allows you to shift viewing angle, and the gameplay is sped up – though only for the mission. A day late and a dollar short, I’m afraid.)

Michiel’s A* pathfinding AI is monstrous and, with mathematical omniscience on its side, makes for a real challenge.

During the game, Wee Free jocularly boasts at the effort and raw math that went the programming. "Do you have any idea,” your boss, Commander Grak, asks, “how hard it is to automate such tactical and strategic military decisions?" It is no wonder that, in the beta, the hardest AI setting was aptly named "Let us know if you win." Fortunately for the community, Willem and Michiel turned all this work into a well-documented API for modding. Written in Lua, a popular game development language, it is accessible enough to hold promise for some very interesting mods in the future.

Now, I do not propose that the AI be watered down just to palliate the norm-core, but the calculus involved in out-smarting the computer is plain frustrating. With the exception of power lines, you cannot build over or sell damaged pieces, which means you have to think several steps in advance. Each power plant becomes progressively more expensive, and when they are built, they do not generate at maximum capacity, but instead build up to max output over five in-game turns (actually a useful mechanic to prevent early rushes). Power which you do not use is lost at the end of your turn, unless you build substations, which can each hold up to forty power across turns. But the cost to construct buildings and charge weapons increases the farther a building is from a power plant or subsubstation. And top this all off with easily the most vexing mechanic, i.e., the attack design. By double-charging your weapon, it fires once after your turn, then your opponent moves, then before your turn, it fires once more. While adding a certain depth to gameplay, it is more counterintuitive than it is fun.

This is what happens when you finally manage to outsmart the AI and you want to make it suffer. I hope they programmed you smart enough to experience fear, AI.

This is what happens when you finally manage to outsmart the AI and you want to make it suffer. I hope they programmed you smart enough to experience fear, AI.

Sounds complicated yet?

While you're scrambling to balance the perfect military installation with a sufficient power production infrastructure, you find that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and the AI assiduously lays waste to your most recent masterpiece. There are no save states, no undo buttons. Wee Free dubs the game a mix between chess, Go, and StarCraft, and they have a point. Like chess, each piece is specialized - though we only get to enjoy two types of attack pieces. Like Go, denying your opponent access to strategic areas is key, though tricky to pull off, and irritatingly, like StarCraft 2, once you are on the back foot, often due to a single mistake, you are almost certainly dead.

Yet, Powargrid is not the most complex game ever, though I would say Wee Free certainly hit the mark for the “emergent complexity” they sought. Next week OpNoobs will review SHENZHEN I/O, where the ‘game’ is literally coding and debugging electrical engineering projects, which you learn after reading a 41-page instruction binder (not booklet). The key difference is that in those types of puzzlers, you are essentially left alone in a sandbox to tinker and figure out a winning strategy. You can use one approach, learn, backtrack, try another, and continue to progress iteratively until you figure it out. There is no AI thirsting to actively destroy you. To analogize, where puzzlers like SHENZHEN might feel like working through math problems on a whiteboard with whiskey in hand, Powargrid comes across as taking a calculus midterm in pen after arriving a half hour late – and with a hangover from the whiskey.

However, Powagrid succeeds in making you think you have a chance; it pulls you pack into missions even after you’ve been blown to smithereens more times than you care to count. This is what you want in a game: a sense of “I’m going to win this time; I think I’ve got it.” Reading the development history, and looking at the final product, what comes across is Willem and Michiel’s commitment to the player’s experience. There is prevailing undercurrent of humility and perseverance in Powargrid. And perhaps not coincidentally, that is the mindspace you will have to inhabit to beat the game: humility and perseverance.


The Verdict

Powargrid is a solid effort from a hopefully budding studio. Welcome, Wee Free. We look forward to your next title, hopefully before 2021.

-- poobearninja

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Rey Urias

Rey Urias is a professional writer, having spent his career penning textbooks on craniofacial orthodontics, promotional flyers for holiday specials, proposals for multi-million dollar military contracts, and documentation for enterprise IT systems. He has a background in Information Technology, but his favorite technology has always been video games. Growing up, he relished the serenity of Harvest Moon, the strategy of Command & Conquer, the epic experiences of Zelda and BioShock, and the challenges of Call of Duty, Ninja Gaiden, and Soul Calibur. But these days, Rey spends his free time with his amazing wife and adorable daughter - and when he can sneak it in, he plays Smash 64 competitively as poobearninja, the king of the up-smash.


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