Friday, April 18, 2014

Android: The Enchanted Cave thoughts and tips

The rogue-like Enchanted Cave is one of the rare mobile games that caught my attention for more than a few minutes. I liked it because my understanding of the game game organically evolved through several phases each lasting just long enough to keep me from getting boredt::
Stage 1. WTF this game is hard I can't even make it beyond the first few levels without dying.
Stage 2. Ah now I see how to make permanent improvements to my character. I can finally begin to make some some progress.
Stage 3. I'll grind for a bit now to prepare my character for later levels.
Stage 4. Ah, Now I have figured out the the combat model. I see how the numbers work and I can prepare carefully for every battle. The game becomes less random and more puzzle like.
Stage 5. Now we are rolling. I am going to make a run for it and see can I get to the final boss and take them down.

It is worth noting that the author of the Enchanted Cave has just run a successful Kickstarter campaign for "The Enchanted Cave II" so it looks like we will be getting a sequel.

I am going to write a short strategy guide below but you can probably figure out most of this stuff yourself just by playing so  ...

[Spoilers Below]

1. Basics.
- If you are killed in combat you lose everything you accumulated in that run.
- If you find the escape wings and use them then your current run ends but you keep all gem upgrades, cash,  and special artefacts (yellow items) that you got during the run.
- Red chests generally have disposable stuff that is lost after a run ends (except for spells). Yellow chests have special permanent artefacts.
- Escape wings are found in red chests from level 4 onwards. You can usually find escape wings somewhere on the first level after a shop but late in the game they get harder to find.
- There is a shop at every level ending in a 9 (19, 29 etc). You can buy and sell stuff in the shop. Once you get to a shop and save your game using the wings then you are able to restart from that shop on the next game.
- All of the mobs in the game are passive they will not attack you until you attack them first.
- Potions and spells can be accessed by pressing the respective tabs.
- If you press a spell button it will take the place of your next  attack.
-Potions can be used in or out of combat. Healing spells can be used in or out of combat. Attack spells can only be used in combat but after you start a fight you get a short time to press a spell button if you want to replace your first attack with a spell.
-Spells start appearing in red chests from about level 30 on but they act like permanent upgrades  (once you save with wings).
- "Eyes" are found in yellow chests and they are very useful because they reveal things by pressing and holding your finger over an enemy or a treasure. There is an eye that reveals the contents of a chest. There are multiple eyes that reveal different specifications of enemies. Once you get an eye (and save with wings) then it is yours permanently.
-Don't use the "Quick Sell Junk" button in shops. It interprets all non worn non artefact items as junk. Often you will need to use some of this stuff later.

2. Early Game Hints

- It is hard and expensive to replace lost health so always try to minimise the damage you take.
- Do not take chances. Get to know how much health you will lose fighting each type of enemy and when you get to the point where you have  no option but to fight an enemy that is likely to kill you - use the wings and get out with your stuff.
- You do not have to kill every enemy. Enemies give a small amount of cash and one point of mana when they are killed. Early in the game the health you lose is generally more valuable than what you can earn from killing a mob.
- It is almost always worth attacking a mob that guards the way to a yellow chest, a gem or the exit stairs.
- Early in the game attacking mobs for red chests is optional. Only do it on enemies you know you can beat without taking a lot of damage. Once you get the eye which reveals chest contents you can make a more informed decision on whether or not to attack a mob for a red chest. If you haven't found the escape wings yet then it is worth fighting for red chests because one of them will have the wings.
- Cash is less valuable than red chests. Again only consider it if it is a mob you know to be easy.
- Amulets and rings are essential at end game to counteract elemental damage but until you build up a collection of eyes you will not know what elements to guard against. However water damage is surprisingly common in the first half of the game.
- Health and Mana potions are rare and expensive. I recommend spending cash on gear upgrades before potions.
- Attack spells, once you get them are powerful against tough mobs but mana replenishes very slowly (1 point per kill). Therefore I recommend being very selective with spell use.

3. Combat Details (includes much guesswork)
Combat runs automatically once you click on mob but it takes place in turns (you hit , they hit). the first hit is taken by whoever has the highest AGI (I guess).
Physical Damage: Each hit does damage = ATK of the attacker- DEF of the victim. There is a random variation of a few points plus or minus but it averages out and there are no catastrophic critical hits.
Elemental Damage: Each hit does damage for each type of element (Fire, Water, Earth, Air) =sum of (Attack type X - Defence type X) */+ Some other factor. The missing factor may depend on intelligence but I cannot be sure. I do know that if defence is greater than attack you take no damage from that element.
Spell Damage: Only the player can cast spells and I do not know the formula. I know spells do heavy damage of one element type and I suspect it is related to intelligence (At a guess 5x intelligence). Mobs don't cast spells so I don't know what the mob intelligence stat does.
Every hit will always do a minimum of 1 damage no matter how strongly it is resisted.
AGI is important because it allows you to get in the first hit and in extreme cases allows you to kill a mob without taking any damage however all mobs seems to have low initiative and I always got first hit without consciously trying to boost it.

3. Advanced hints
- In order to make sustainable progress you need to completely negate the damage from most of the mobs you fight. If you do this you will only take 2 or 3 points of damage from the mobs and you will be able to keep yourself healed with the mana generated from fighting.
- In order to negate damage you need to build up a collection of eyes and use the information gleaned from examining mobs to select armour and jewellery to negate all the mobs physical and elemental damage.
- You will need to swap gear to tackle different types of mob. I recommend equipping for a given mob type and then killing all of that type you can reach. Then swap to the next type and repeat.
- When farming lower level mobs you can max your damage and just kill them in one hit for no damage taken. Beware though some low level mob can do surprising damage if not properly resisted.
- When you encounter a mob that you cannot fully resist against then try to avoid fighting it. If you really must then use attack spells to get it down as quickly as possible.
- Farming low levels is a great way to build up a stock of spells, gems, eyes and the all important jewellery.
- At higher levels the disposable weapons and armour from red chests is often better than permanent artefact loot. This means that "going for it" in one run may be a better strategy than trying to gradually grind your way to the finish.  

4. Details of how I completed the game.
When I started playing I grinded my way up to level 49, using wings repeatedly to build up a reserve of permanent upgrades and crawl from store to store. Then I restarted at level 29 and did a single complete run to the end of the game. The low levels allowed me to amass cash and equipment. I never used the wings again. By the time I got to the upper levels I was able to successfully resist most of the mobs I came across. Even the final boss could only do 5 points of damage to me per hit.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Why do games end up being sold for a song in bundles?

There is always a reason why any given game appears in a cheap bundle.

1. Sometimes it is just a terrible game that no wants to pay money for.
2. Other times the game is not terrible but has flaws that limit its sales in the crowded gaming market. Although these games are released at full price they quickly drop off the charts and end up in sales and bundles.
3.Sometimes you can find excellent games that are fairly recent but didn't fulfil their sales expectations and the distributor is trying to get extra revenue from the game and perhaps renew interest in it.
4. Sometime you get new games, particularly from indie developers who see a bundle as a way of getting exposure and publicity.
5. Sometimes the game is just very old. Such games may be excellent but no one buys them at full price any more.
6. Occasionally a very good game is deliberately released to a bundle just before it's sequel is launched in order to generate publicity for the sequel.
7. On occasion publishers release a bunch of games from their catalog in a bundle either to generate a quick influx of cash (eg THQ) or to generate publicity (eg EA/Origin).

Of course individual tastes vary but every category other than category 1 is worth a look and categories 3,4,5 and 6 and 7 can throw up tremendous gaming bargains. In my experience all of the bundle providers throw in some category 1 lemons but some bundles are definitely better than others. I am not going to badmouth any providers but I will say that my current favourite bundlers are the original Humble Bundle and Bundle Stars. Humble have excellent quality control and in my experience their bundles are generally reliable all round. Bundles stars is more of a mixed bag with plenty of category 1 filler in their offerings but each of their bundles also has one or two choice games which merit the price. In addition Bundle Stars have multiple bundles on offer at any time so I can usually find something that interests me.

Given the plethora of bundles now on offer some purchasing guideline is required to rein in the impulse to buy everything in sight just because stuff is cheap. My own yardstick is to ask whether or not there is at least one game in the bundle that I would buy on its own for the price of the bundle. If the answer is yes then the purchase is easy to justify and the other games are a bonus. If the answer is no then I leave the bundle alone. Often enough I have bought a bundle and only actually played that one game. On other occasions though some of the other titles have turned out to be delights in themselves.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Google Please Bring Back Custom Labels for Map Locations.

There doesn't appear to be any way to add  custom location labels to the current incarnation of Google Maps (Android and Desktop) and it is driving me nuts. It is not just that I miss being able to give saved locations friendly names like "Uncle John's place" or "My Golf Club". It is also that there are loads of places which the current version of maps doesn't seem to be able to provide any address for at all. These include the tennis club I bring my daughter to and the headquarters of a major company that I visited this morning. Not only does Google not know where these places are. It has no mechanism of addressing them because they do not appear on a standard road with a standard building number. I live in a major city in which Google employs several thousand people and this is still an issue here. I can only imagine it is a complete deal breaker for those living in rural locations where every address is something like "The cottage beside Murphy's farm in Hackett's Town".

It is possible to drop a pin on an arbitrary location and save it but you cannot put labels on saved pins which makes them effectively useless. Good luck trying to sort through your saved locations when all you have to go on  is a list of 32 digit grid references.

Bizarrely these locations appear in my Google Chrome bookmarks and it is possible to put a label on them in Chrome. That label doesn't appear to transfer across to Google maps though so it is a kludgey work around at best.

The most annoying thing about all of this is that Google Maps used to allow you store your own places. I am sure that Google had their own inscrutable reasons for removing this feature. It might be something to do with their grand plan to move everyone towards Google+ but even though I have completely immersed myself in the Google eco-system I cannot find a way to restore this basic functionality.

This annoys me so much that I have started to look for an alternative mapping solution, hopefully still a free one. There are several out there although some of them seem to be no more than crude overlays on top of Google maps. The best of the bunch seems to be Open Street Map which has desktop and Mobile incarnations. It does have the slightly unfinished "hacker" feel of many open source projects but the navigation tool works very well and their map database seems very complete. I have to spend a bit longer with it to decide whether the added flexibility makes up for the lack of polish.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The unstoppable march of innovation. A Kettle Retrospective

I grew up in a house with a basic aluminium kettle designed to be used on an externally heated hob.

Although we did not possess one ourselves the height of kettle technology at the time was a similar externally heated vessel with a whistle attached to the spot which made an audible noise when the water was boiling vigorously.

I was still quite young when we purchased our first electric kettle. This object of wonder was made of stainless steel rather than aluminium but it had a similar shape to the kettle it replaced. An internal electric heating element meant water could be boiled without the aid of a stove. It also boiled its load of water a good deal more quickly probably because the heating element is fully immersed in the water.

(Note: I should point out that electric kettles had been around since the early 20th century but they did not become commonplace in Ireland until the 1970's).

The whistling spout innovation did not survive the transition to electric kettles because a much more ground breaking development made it obsolete. Although the first electric kettles were dumb heating devices later models included a thermal switch above the level of the water which switched off the kettle once it was boiling sufficiently to generate a lot of steam. This truly was a wonderful innovation as it freed you from the need for constant vigilance while the kettle was plugged in.

The next significant innovation was the plastic jug kettle. I can still remember general scepticism that a plastic container could withstand the heat of boiling. Nevertheless they worked and soon became quite dominant in the market. The characteristic jug shape of plastic kettles required filling through the spout.

A minor innovation that plastic kettles allowed was the inclusion of a transparent panel allowing you to easily see the water level.

The next significant innovation was the powered base and detachable kettle. Early examples used a rigid joint so the kettle could only be put back in one position but it was nevertheless a significant advance in convenience and safety allowing the kettle to be removed from the base for filing and pouring without the incuberance of a trailing lead. (Picture is a travel kettle but the original plastic kettles looked just like this).

A minor enhancement was the replacement of the rigid base with swivelling base. This allowed the kettle to be placed on the base from any direction.

Also around this time the traditional immersed heating element was replaced with a flat heated baseplate. The older heating elements required a substantial minimum volume of water to cover the element but the flat heating plate could be safe with as little as one cup of water.

Stainless steel came back in a big way with the development of the composite steel / plastic kettles. These combine the attractive robust finish of stainless steel with the features of the plastic jug kettle specifically the detachable base and the water level window. There have always been variations in aesthetic design and various metal, plastic, glass and ceramic finishes have been used for kettles over the years but the composite stainless steel / plastic jug kettle remains very popular to this day.

That pretty much brings us to the present day. During a recent kettle shopping expedition I was somewhat disappointed to note that internet connected "smart kettles" are not yet a reality but temperature control is the new must have feature with various settings from a lukewarm 40° all the way up to boiling 100°C.

Please note that this article relies on no greater scholarship than my own hazy memory so I claim no authority on the subject and none of the images are my own. Copyrights belong to the respective authors

Friday, April 04, 2014

How would you describe a Google Chromecast to someone?

It's a device that plugs into your TV and connects with a phone, tablet or computer to stream audio and video to your TV. 
Ah ... I see so is it a stand alone receiver then that just needs a phone or table to act as a remote?
Well, not exactly - you see the phone or tablet needs to be connected to the internet itself and you must first run an app on that device in order to stream it to the Chromecast. 
Ah ... so the Chromecast is just acting like a remote display for your phone? 
Well, not exactly because only certain apps support the Chromecast (notably Netflix and Youtube). Most apps don't support it. 
OK, I am beginning to understand, but for those apps that do support it the content is coming from your phone and being sent to the Chromecast right? 
Well, not exactly, Once you initiate the app on your phone and send it to Chromecast then the Chromecast seems to get its own copy directly from the internet. You can put the phone to sleep and the Chromecast will keep streaming away. 
Ahh ... I see so the Chromecast really is an independent receiver then. It doesn't mirror what is on the screen of your phone or computer.  
Well not exactly because you can stream anything you see in a Chrome browser to the Chromecast and view it on your TV and in this case the content seems to come locally from your computer to the Chromecast.
Ahh... so I can browse the internet using the Chrome browser on my phone and view it in big screen on the TV?
Well .. not exactly because the mobile version of Chrome doesn't seem to support Chromecast streaming yet (may come later though - there is a beta version).
Now I am confused. What exactly does Chromecast let me do again. 
You can watch Netflix and Youtube on your TV. 
Oh .. right. But I already have several devices that let me do that? Why do I want a Chromecast?  
Well ....
Chromecast is now available in Europe and my curiosity prompted me to spend €40 to get one and try it out. It does work and provides us with yet another way to watch Netflix but I am having a hard time explaining to my family exactly what Chromecast does. The relationship between Chromecast and the connected phone or computer is muddy and the functionality of Chromecast varies depending on which device you use to control it. I cannot help feeling that Chromecast would be a much easier gadget to explain and promote if it was just a plug in Android device using the TV as a display and a phone or tablet as a remote. I have no doubt Google have their own inscrutable reasons for making Chromecast the way it is but this uncertainty over what exactly it does is standing in the way of it becoming a default media device in our household.