Mento's May Mastery: Day 07: SPAZ

Hey, just a short one today. I think I'm done with SPAZ either way, despite only squeezing in a few more hours: it feels like the kind of game I'm likely to burn out on long before I get anywhere close to a conclusion to its story. I'll go into more detail about my reservations after the header.

Instead, I'll point y'all towards the fifth part of my Super Mario 64 rundown over hyeah. I probably shouldn't be switching focus when I've made this commitment to play (and write about) Steam games on the reg, but I hate leaving any project half-complete. Within the next few weeks I want to get the last two parts of that series done, complete the next episode of my SNES '94 Wiki Update recaps and possibly try for a few reviews if I manage to beat some of these Steam games and find I have more to say about them. Generally speaking, these May Mastery blogs are review enough.

I also want to keep these shorter and breezier because they've been a bunch of huge text walls presently. Maybe something manageable, closer to 500-1000 words. We'll see. This is a lot of inside baseball, huh? I'd appreciate any feedback, of course, though I've always considered these endurance blogs to be more a labor of love (and a challenge to keep my critical writing sharp).

SPAZ: Space Pirates and Zombies

All right, so here's the point where I start to break down how this game is starting to lose me. It's not quite the same case as Life of Pixel, which established itself as a promising game of moderate length and then started to squander that promise with poor late-game design that seemed to emphasize its own weaknesses and ignore the strengths of its sub-genre. Rather, I've realized that SPAZ offers a very specific style of loot RPG gameplay that gives the player an intimidating (but largely optional) amount of work to do and then sits back and sees how you deal with it. Like Xenoblade Chronicles (or Just Cause 2 for that matter), it proffers an immense banquet of delectables, some more tasty than others, but in such quantities that you cannot and should not attempt to devour it all. Instead, the game introduces its many different mission types early and an omnipresent carrot on a stick in the form of upgradeable ships and blueprints which require earning cash and XP levels to acquire and utilize, respectively. It then says, "Hey, you don't need to do all this. The next story mission only requires that you level up about four or five more times and then head to this sector. You can explore every star system in this quadrant if you prefer, but the story will be right here waiting for you when you get tired of randomized content."

This is where open-world games have been heading recently, partly due I feel to the success of The Elder Scrolls. Oblivion was tricky because it greatly shrunk down the amount of content in order to keep the player focused and to keep completionists from not spending the rest of their lives running through identi-kit dungeons, fighting the same handful of monsters and finding the same generic loot of: a lockpick, a couple of mana potions, a few dozen arrows made of a material relative to the player character's level and more soul gems than you could Shang a Tsung at. Trying to do everything in Oblivion was an easy way to burn out before ever reaching its amazing conclusion where Ned Stark becomes a dragon statue, but the previous Elder Scrolls games were built on the philosophy of creating an immense amount of content built around randomized, procedurally-generated algorithms (Daggerfall was hideously gigantic for this reason) and then positing that the player should only feel the need to go off the beaten path for dungeoneering and sidequest errands if they happen to require some additional funds or experience levels to prepare themselves sufficiently for the next story quest. These days, almost all open-world games come with this tacit directive that the player should attempt to 100% the game by grabbing every collectible and checking every map square, usually rewarding this sort of progression with achievements or occasionally something actually useful. These games are locked in a bitter civil war with the "we purposefully created too much randomized content and suggest you only do a small percentage as it serves the story missions" open-world games, and while there's plenty that explicitly say (in a metaphorical sense at least) either "we specially prepared this extravagant five-course meal for the hungriest of customers" or "we made too much food, take what you want and then go" there's a few caught in the middle (like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Xenoblade, and probably this new Witcher as well) that are a little more ambiguous about its open-world intentions and what it expects from its audience. I'm considering calling this ideological schism in open-world game design "Banquets vs. Buffets", but maybe the food analogy is already getting a little stale. So to speak.

My new flagship. It's a larger class of vessel, so I'm only allowed the one. I imagine I'll get more hangars on the mothership as we progress the story, but I bet they'll still keep a tight rein on the number of OP capital ships they'll let me play with.
My new flagship. It's a larger class of vessel, so I'm only allowed the one. I imagine I'll get more hangars on the mothership as we progress the story, but I bet they'll still keep a tight rein on the number of OP capital ships they'll let me play with.

SPAZ is very much on the Buffet side of that equation, and to its credit is rather forthright about it in the tutorials. There's a huge number of star systems to visit with an even larger amount of missions and exploration to do when you get to them, but unless one has a blueprint you want, you're better off just heading to the system closest to your current level and keep going in that direction. There's a huge number of low-level areas around the outskirts of the galaxy and you've pretty much out-leveled them by the time you're finished in the first two (and only compulsory) systems you visit. It's an odd system, to immediately render 20%+ of the content you randomly generated for the player moot, but then it also factors into the realism of the setting: the areas closer to the galaxy core have more of this valuable heavy element Rez, due to how density and gravity tends to work, so of course any outer rim systems are bound to be light on technological progress and population. There's little reason to ever go out there, just as there's zero reason to go beyond the galaxy's limits into the vast nothingness between galaxies. I mean, what are you going to find in that immense expanse where there aren't even any stars? The Ariloulaleelay? Thargoids? Yog-Sothoth? Wearing my game designer pants, I admire this kind of logical consistency in their world-building. However, in my obsessive-completionist utilikilt (sorry to all my fellow completionists out there, but I think we need to admit that the stereotype applies here), I look at that vast world and just immediately get bummed out knowing that I'll need to ignore most of it to retain any semblance of sanity and potentially pass up who knows what kind of loot.

Anyway, that's pretty much the story of how I gazed into the great and vast cosmos and came back a changed man. SPAZ offers the same kind of repetitive but sufficiently engaging gameplay that something like Diablo or an MMO does to keep its players hooked in for as long as they can stomach it, and I can't begrudge any loot game for being good at what it does for the same reasons I wouldn't begrudge an apex predator for tearing off one of my limbs for sustenance: it's what they're built to do, and it's what we, as discerning consumers and explorers, ought to expect.

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please