As I mentioned in my last post, I finally won GemCraft Chapter Zero, so I feel like I can post about it now. I'll use headers for organization, since this is going to be long.
GemCraft Chapter Zero is a tower-defense game, a prequel to the original GemCraft Chapter One: The Forgotten. Zero is a vast leap over One in many ways. There are little touches that make life easier, like being able to call multiple waves early with a single click, and being able to combine gems in towers instead of needing to remove them from towers to combine. But there are also more substantive changes, like greatly expanding the number of skills, and introducing nine (well, ten) different ways to play each level.
And for a tower-defense game, there's actually a bit of a story building up over the series. (Slight spoilers ahead, but the story isn't what the game is about.) At the beginning of One, you find out that there is a wizard in the east who has unleashed monsters for some unknown reason. You battle your way across the land, clearing towers of monsters. When you get to the end, you find that something called "The Forgotten" has possessed this other wizard, but it decides that you're a better host, so it kills the other wizard and possesses you. You're then told that it is going to take you to the east, to unleash more havoc.
In Zero, you are a wizard in search of the Gem of Eternity. The wizard council tries to hide information about it and forbid you from finding it, but you ignore them and search out the gem anyway. In the end, you take the gem and realize that its power has been used to imprison an ancient, powerful evil, The Forgotten. It possesses you, and you become the mad wizard in One. You're told that The Forgotten plans to lure another wizard, and that with the power of both wizards combined, it will finally be powerful enough to fully come into the world, which you learn will be picked up in GemCraft Chapter Two.
The story is pretty dark. In both One and Zero, the protagonist ends up possessed by an unspeakable evil; not much of a reward for defeating wave after wave of monsters. But I'm definitely looking forward to Two, both to see what additional improvements are made to the game, and also to see if The Forgotten is finally defeated (and I expect a very difficult final battle).
Now to go into some more detail about the game. For those who don't know, the tower-defense genre, which has exploded in the past couple of years, involves placing towers in order to kill monsters that try to cross the screen. You get money for killing monsters, which you can use to buy more towers or upgrade existing towers. Key strategy points generally involve where to place the towers, which towers to purchase, and how and when to upgrade the towers.
The GemCraft Games
In the GemCraft games, you build empty towers on the board, and then you build gems, which you place in the towers. The gems fire blasts that damage monsters and that also have different special effects depending on the color of the gem (blue slows, green poisons, red does splash damage, etc.). You can build six different grades of gems, in eight different colors. Each level has from two to eight of the gem colors available, and when you choose a grade of gem to build, the color is randomly selected from those available for the level.
You can combine gems to make more powerful gems. Two gems of the same grade can be combined to form a gem of the next higher grade (if you combine gems of different grades, the combined gem is the higher grade, but it's slightly better than the original higher-grade gem). Part of the strategy involves knowing when to combine gems and when to wait to buy higher-grade gems directly (it's cheaper to buy a gem than to buy the two component gems and combine them, but it also takes longer to save up for the higher-grade gem, during which time monsters might be trouncing you). Note that you can combine grade six gems to make grade seven gems, even though you cannot buy grade seven gems directly.
The highest gem grade I've made is grade nine. I'm not sure if there is a maximum grade. OK, so I just spent an hour or so making a grade ten gem, so I'm guessing there's no maximum. (A grade ten gem takes 16 grade six gems. The last level requires you to throw seven grade seven gem bombs, which is 14 grade six gems, so I knew that I just had to go a bit beyond what it took to win the last level. Of course, that required gaining a few more experience levels so that I was powerful enough to do that.)
Traps in Zero replace trenches in One. A trench is built along the path, and it slows down the monsters that go over it for a little bit. It's useful to put these near your towers, so that your gems have more time to hit the monsters. Traps in Zero are basically a combination of a trench and a tower. You build them in the path, but by themselves they do nothing. Like a tower, they require a gem to activate. A gem in a trap does much less damage and has much less range than a gem in a tower, but its rate of fire increases and its specials (slow, poison, splash, etc.) are much more powerful. Throughout the game, I didn't find much use for traps, since I always felt that if I had a gem, I wanted to put it into a tower. Maybe I would have gotten through the game faster if I had used traps effectively, but I don't know. They're obviously most effective when you're faced with swarms of weak creatures, which is the case in the Swarm level type.
Besides sticking them in towers and traps, another thing you can do with gems is make bombs out of them. This concentrates their power (including their special) into a single large explosion, quite a bit more powerful than a normal blast from the gem. Now, generally, using gem bombs to destroy monsters isn't very cost-effective, since the average gem will do much more damage over its lifetime in a tower than as a gem bomb. Still, there are times when this is useful, such as during the Sudden Death level type (generally, if a monster reaches the end, it costs you some mana to banish it, and it reappears at the beginning (if you run out of mana, you die); in Sudden Death, you die if any monster reaches the end, no matter how much mana you have). However, gem bombs are useful for destroying other things on the field (auxiliary buildings where monsters can also come out, little buildings and rocks and whatnot so that you can place towers in that spot, and beacons, which negatively affect an area of the board by doing things like healing monsters, preventing you from placing towers or traps, and making monsters invulnerable (until they reach the end)). I did have occasion to experiment with an all-gem-bomb strategy a few times, and it is quite fun, but it only works on some of the lower levels.
Shrines are another feature that is present on some of the levels. Each shrine is of a particular type (damage, mana gain, armor reduction, etc.), and they are activated by sacrificing gems to them. A shrine has only a certain number of charges, so there is a limit to how many times it can be activated. They can sometimes be useful, particularly the damage ones near the end of a level (call the rest of the monsters, then kill them all with the damage shrines), and there are some fun degenerate uses of them in the Endurance level type (Endurance keeps sending monsters at you until you die, but the upshot is that you always win (you just sometimes don't get very many points); there is a shrine that gives you three times the points for up to 100 monsters on the field, so you can call all the monsters and sacrifice several gems to get points; this combines very nicely with one particular type of damage shrine; if these shrines are available on a level, it usually results in a higher score than playing the Endurance level like a normal person). However, the big use of these shrines is for the amulets.
For anyone who has spent much time at all playing casual games, amulets will be instantly recognized as equivalent to achievements. Achievements are little metagame tasks for which you get some points (or sometimes nothing at all beyond the satisfaction of getting the achievement). (And I can't pass up this opportunity to mention a fun parody game called Achievement Unlocked, which is nothing but achievements.) However, amulets in Zero are a major source of points (and points increase your level, which gives you skill points, and skill points are how you're able to beat higher levels). It's even possible to get more points from amulets than from killing monsters on some of the levels.
Amulets come in two varieties, those you can only get once and those you can get every level. The ones you can get only once are mostly for reaching certain milestones throughout the whole game (completing a certain number of a certain level type, building a certain number of towers, killing a certain number of monsters, throwing a certain number of gem bombs, etc.). The ones you can get every level include things like winning a battle without doing something (building a tower, throwing a gem bomb, building a trap); building a grade seven, eight, or nine gem; finishing the level with a certain amount of mana; and so on.
The other kind you can get every level are called shrine burst amulets. You get these by sacrificing a grade six or higher pure gem (a gem of only one color; you can combine gems of different colors, and the combined gem takes on attributes of both component gems) at a shrine, and you get one for every time you do this in a level. The points you get for these can be significant, especially in some of the later levels where there are sometimes a lot of shrines. An average base score on a level might be anywhere from 1200 to 2000 points. Each shrine burst amulet is worth 300 points, giving you the ability to sometimes get 1200 or more points just from the shrine burst amulets. As I said above, the points you get from amulets can easily be more than the points you get from simply killing monsters.
One of the most noticeable big changes from One to Zero is the greatly expanded set of skills to improve. In One, you have a set of 12 skills (things like gaining more mana, having gems cost less, getting gems at the start of a level, etc.), and at the beginning of the game, you can only spend points in one skill, having to wait until you are of a certain experience level before you can unlock the next skill.
In Zero, there are 28 different skills (one for each color of gem, three dealing with your mana pool, three dealing with gem bombs, three dealing with traps and towers, etc.), and you can advance in any of them regardless of your experience level (as long as you have the skill points). The first level of a skill costs five points (the number of points you get to spend for each experience level you gain), and they go down as you spend more, costing two points in the middle, and then going back up, costing six points for the tenth level in a skill, for a total of 36 points to get tenth level in a skill. In order to max out, you would need 36 * 28 = 1008 skill points, which you would get with 1008 / 5 = 202 experience levels, or level 203 (you start out at level 1 with no skill points to spend). To give a data point, my character who won the game (and then gained a few levels so I could verify that you can in fact create a grade ten gem) is level 93, with 460 skill points to spend. So let's just assume that no one is going to be able to max out even most of the skills, so choices have to be made.
There are some pretty obvious choices for skills to take all the time once you have the points. Maxing out the skills that allow you to build towers cheaper, to build gems cheaper, and to start a level with more mana will allow you to build a tower and a grade four gem before any monsters start showing up, which gives you a nice safety net for most levels. As you get more points, maxing out the skills that give your gems higher damage, range, and firing rate are pretty key. But there is plenty of room for variation based on the particular layout of the level, the particular level type you are playing, and your particular playing style.
The other very noticeable change from One to Zero is the addition of level types. One encourages replay of levels by giving a score to try to beat for a level. If you do, the frame around the level on the map will "glow", and you will have a chance of unlocking a hidden level. In Zero, level types are used to encourage replay of the levels.
When you first play a level, you must play it in the Normal level type. Once you win in Normal, you may play the level in any one of eight other level types, provided you meet the experience level requirement. To play the Sudden Death level type, you must be experience level eight; to play Endurance, you must be level 16; to play Heroic, you must be level 24; and so on through Arcane at level 64. Some levels are too tough to beat on Normal at the experience level you are, so in order to gain some experience levels to be able to advance skills, you frequently need to return to lower levels and play them at different level types.
To give you an idea of the scope of the game, there are 78 different levels. In the game where I've won, only the first 18 levels have been completed in all of the level types, there are five levels where I've only completed Normal, and there are 18 levels where I haven't even completed the Normal level type. There's also a special level type that only becomes available once you've won the game, and it keeps getting tougher and tougher every time you play it for a level.
There are many possible paths through GemCraft Chapter Zero, and I could probably spend as many hours playing it to completion after having won it as I spent to win it. The sheer number of levels, level types, skills, and amulets might make the game seem daunting to some, but I found it a challenging and rewarding game. I'm very much looking forward to the next installment.