Game Pass: Homestead Arcana

Continuing my run of negativity… the next recent Game Pass title I tried was Homestead Arcana.

What I expected: A farming game where your farm is surrounded by something called miasma. When not tending crops you’ll venture into the miasma, fight enemies in there and gather materials. You’ll eventually push back the miasma to extend the amount of farming land you have.

What I got was close but the differences were significant enough to disappoint. Plus…bugs.

Homestead Arcana is a crafting/exploration game with some light farming aspects. Your Homestead is surrounded by miasma and you will venture into it, but you don’t fight the monsters that call the miasma home. Instead you try to avoid them and failing that, you run from them. There are traps to be avoided too. You do gather materials in there and  you do push back the miasma but it is not an ‘organic’ process. Instead you find pre-determined places where you have to dump a crafted item which then opens up some new terrain to explore.

Homestead Arcana made a bad first impression on me as I couldn’t create a custom character that I was happy with. Then I found the interface was pretty clunky at times, and the art style wasn’t my cup of tea. Not saying it is bad (the art style I mean), but just not a personal favorite. There’s a tutorial of sorts but it is pretty vague. One of the first things you have to do is plant a stalk of corn. It must be planted in the garden. Where is the garden, though? It turned out to be the one place you WOULD NOT plant corn in real life: in the dirt right near the trunk of a giant tree. I know it’s just a game and all, and I wouldn’t have minded if the tutorial said “Plant the corn in the garden” and then the garden area was highlighted or something, but it wasn’t, and the ‘correct’ spot was literally the last placed I tried since it made no sense.

I was convinced this was the garden based on all the other gardening games I’d played. I assumed I’d be clearing this debris out to prepare the field and such:

This is NOT the garden. I’m not sure what this is, to be honest

Instead, this is the garden. By the way if this is gardening than I’m a gardener based on the fact I have a pepper plant in a pot on my balcony:

The actual garden because growing veggies in the shade of a giant tree makes perfect sense

So your garden consists of individual plants that you tend. It’s a unique system and probably the thing I found most interesting about the game. You can do the basic stuff like water or fertilize plants, but you can also do things like trim branches or even train them to grow in specific directions. You can also ‘channel’ mana into them to get them to grow faster and you probably will need to do that since you have so few plants and need so many crops.

This is the gardening UI. You can do some interesting things to the plants you grow

At the same time, having to harvest each ear of corn or each tomato individually loses its appeal pretty quickly.

If you use channeling too often on a plant you’ll damage it. The game does warn you about this, but not in specific terms (if the mana you gather turns purple you’re about to damage the plant). I learned this lesson on my only cotton plant. Damaged plants are supposed to recover on their own but I have no idea how long it takes. There’s also a potion that you can make to cure them. I made one but couldn’t use it on my damaged plant; this appears to be a bug since I’m not the only one struggling with the issue. If I can’t find another cotton plant or recover from this bug, my save is basically ruined.

I was considering restarting, but then I went a little deeper into the miasma and had an experience that just turned me off the game: encountering critters. These little mouse-like creatures live in holes in the ground and if you get too near one, they’ll jump out and chase you. If they catch you they kill you pretty quick. I found this more frustrating than anything, having to run away from a mouse.

There’s a potion you can drink to let you see how close you can get to their holes without triggering them but it lasts a very short time so you need a ton of them. Which means growing (in the case of this potion) a lot of corn, ear by ear.

Once you grow the corn you have to craft the potions, and that takes time. All crafting takes time. Generally not a lot, but long enough to make me impatient while I wait for the timer to count down. You also need to eat, and you are eating the same produce you’re crafting potions from. Maybe later in the game you get tools to automate some of this but I’m not going to stick around long enough to find out.

While I seethed over the killer mouse experience and hoped for my blighted cotton bug to resolve itself, I did some ‘side quests’ for the folks back home. There’re a ton of these, mainly around crafting something. You get these quests via letters…so many letters arrive. You craft what is requested and send it via UPS (or the game’s equivalent) and a couple days later you’ll get some currency and plans for (cosmetic, as far as I can tell) clothing items. At least that’s what I’ve gotten so far.

So yeah, this one is not for me. Even without the game-breaking bug I wasn’t enjoying it very much but I’m CERTAINLY not going to restart. But maybe I’m just a crank. What does the rest of the world think? Well there’s not a lot of buzz about it. It has Mixed reviews on Steam based on only 31 reviews. On the Xbox it has about 2.5/5 stars based on 137 reviews. So maybe it’s not just me.

Game Pass: Ravenlok quick look

I decided to try something really crazy. Instead of waiting for games on Game Pass to be “Leaving Soon” maybe I’d try them when they first hit the service. My goodness sometimes I impress myself with this kind of out of the box thinking!

So this morning I devoted a couple of hours to Ravenlok, which is an action-adventure game that seems to be targeted at kids or folks who just want to chill and not be challenged very much. You play as little girl who has just moved to the country with her family. First order of business is helping mom and dad with the move-in. Everything seems so ordinary until you find a magic mirror that sucks you into a Lewis Carroll inspired fantasy world. You’re immediately declared as being Ravenlok, the savior of the world. Then you’re put to work. You just go along with it.

Ravenlok’s job is to run around and talk to vaguely creepy looking creatures to get a ton of seemingly random quests almost all of which are fetch quests or “kill ten rats” type combat quests. You’ll spend most of your time roaming around looking for 4 of these or 6 of those in order to complete a quest. There is no map which can lead to a decent amount of back-tracking as you search for that last Macguffin.

One of the creepy “firendly” creatures who’ll give you a task to do.

Combat is pretty button-mashy and not very difficult. The biggest challenge you’ll face is the camera. Ravenlok has a kind of a 50%-3D world. What I mean is you can’t move towards the screen but you can move back into the screen. The trouble is that the camera only moves about 180 degrees. The net effect is that if you go too ‘deep’ into a scene during combat, enemies will end up ‘behind’ the camera and you can’t spin it around enough to see them.

This would be a game-crippling flaw if the combat wasn’t super easy to begin with.

I keep thinking this is meant for kids but then I have to kill things and drag their body parts back to a quest giver

I have to say, I didn’t like Ravenlok very much but I don’t think I’m the intended audience. It’d probably be a great game for a parent to play with a child, or just for a child to play on their own. Oh and if you need some Achievements you’ll get a bunch; in the hour or two I played I unlocked 13.

Other folks say the game is only 4 or 5 hours long, so it’s not a huge commitment. I’m not sure if I’ll go back. I was searching for 9 of something and had found 6 and was getting really tired of roaming around searching for the last 3 since it was about the 10th time I’d had to roam around searching for stuff. Basically I just found it all kind of boring.

Worth noting that on the Xbox it’s got an average of 4 out of 5 stars, though the PC version doesn’t fare as well. Opencritic has it at a 68/100 rating. If you’re not on Game Pass and want to give it a try on PC, you’ll have to go to the Epic Store or the Windows Store. It doesn’t seem to be on Steam, at least not yet.

Game Pass: Check out Before We Leave before it leaves

Once again I’ve been caught in the Xbox Game Pass “Leaving Soon” vortex. I saw a new batch of games (just a few this month) were leaving and one of them was Before We Leave, which at some point I’d heard enough about that I wanted to give it a try while it was still free.

Before We Leave is a city builder, I guess? I can’t keep my genres straight these days. We used to call these 4X games though one of the Xs was for eXterminate and I don’t think there is any combat in Before We Leave. At least not in the early game.

Let me back up. So the premise is that some unspecified disaster forced the population of this planet underground. Now decades or generations later, they’re ready to emerge, with your help. So you build them houses, you build them farms, you place a woodcutter to gather wood. Build a library to research new technologies. Very familiar stuff.

Couple things set it apart. The world is hex-based and you start on a fairly small island. Everything you build has to be connected together by roads, and a road takes up an entire hex. You have to really put some thought into where you build your roads as you can block yourself off from resources pretty easily. So that’s somewhat unique. And since your island is small one of your first goals is to build a ship to set off in search of a 2nd island and when you do, start a colony on it. You’ll almost certainly need to ship goods to your new colony to help them get started, so trade routes are a big deal.

Bad Road Layout
Here I’ve really botched things up with my road building. So much wasted space. Live and learn!

Riffing off this trading requirement, Research comes in several colors. (Why? No idea!) Each island seems to produce research of a single color, but some technologies require specific quantities of research of specific colors, meaning you’ll definitely have to ship research points between islands to get a Library stocked with enough of the right types of research to discover new tech. I find this interesting because it forces you to keep your colonies connected on some level rather than just building a bunch of self-sustaining colonies.

As I said, I haven’t played for very long but since it is “Leaving Soon” (in 10 days as of the time of this writing) I wanted to get this out asap. It’s on Game Pass both for Xbox and PC. It’s also available on Steam for $20 and has a “Mostly Positive” ratings with a bit over 1000 reviews. (The Steam version came out in 2021.)

Sending potatoes, wood, tools and research to our new colony, which has nothing to send back to us yet.

The thing that really hooked me is that the console UI is actually decent. So often strategy games feel pretty clunky on console, and to be sure there are a few rough spots in Before We Leave’s console UI, but it is definitely better than most strategy games I’ve tried.

The devs refer to this as a cozy game. What makes it cozy? I have no idea. Maybe that your new colony survives on the bones of its dead ancestors? (You ‘mine’ rock and iron from mostly-destroyed skyscrapers and such.) Or that fact that some of your buildings generate pollution that can adversely affect your people? Do these facets make it cozy? Really I’m baffled as to why they call this a cozy game, but based on my couple hours of play, it is a good game.

Definitely worth a try if you’re a Game Pass subscriber and you read this in the next ten days!


Scarlet Nexus, Finally

Back in December (I think?) I started playing Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age on the Xbox. It was on Game Pass and I was on a Final Fantasy bender. Then in typical fashion I got distracted and let it drop, but I still had it pinned near the top of the Xbox dashboard because I had every intention of getting back to it.

The other day I opened the Game Pass app and there under “Leaving Soon’ was “Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age.” Bummer. In theory I could drop everything and try to mainline FFXII and finish it by the end of the month (I think that’s when it drops from the lineup) but I know doing that when I wasn’t in the mood would just make me hate the game. I considered buying it, but it is still something like $40 which seems like a lot for a game that originally came out in 2006. Granted this is a remaster but still. Anyway, for now I wave farewell to FFXII and maybe I’ll snag it on sale at some point.

On the same day I got this news, I opened the Microsoft Rewards app to earn some sweet, sweet Microsoft Points/funny money. There was a challenge to “Earn an Achievement In One of Our Top 10 Games”. I looked at the list of games, which I think is more “The top 10 games we want to promote” than anything. Scarlet Nexus was in there.

Before it launched, there was a demo for Scarlet Nexus and I had played it and enjoyed it. I’d even planned to buy the game at launch but something came up…who can remember back that far? And then it popped up on Game Pass and I was happy I hadn’t spent $60 on it. Now I could play it for “free.” *happy dance*

Except I didn’t. This is my Game Pass Achilles Heel. A game I want to play hits the service, I get excited and put it on my mental list of “games I’ll play Real Soon Now” but…I forget that inclusion on Game Pass is transient. Generally games are on there for a year or two, maybe even longer, but most do eventually leave. Use it or lose it. Play it or… belay it? (I’ll work on that.)

So this Microsoft Rewards quest thingie was thankfully the kick in the ass I needed. I fired up Scarlet Nexus and quickly remembered how much I’d enjoyed the demo. It didn’t take long to earn an Achievement to get the Rewards points, but I didn’t stop there. Now I’ve been playing it for a couple nights and my intent, as of right now, is to finish it. Tomorrow that intent may change, what with me being me.

I particularly enjoy Scarlet Nexus while wearing headphones with the sound cranked up. I’m finding the music a delight, even though it is not really in my wheelhouse. The whole anime vibe of the game is enjoyable too, and the Others (the monsters you fight) are delightfully weird.

None of this is news to anyone. We all played the demo, and a good number of us enjoyed it, at least based on my Twitter circles.

So this whole post is really just a cautionary tale about waiting too long to play the Game Pass games you want to play. Don’t be like me, sitting here with my crushed Final Fantasy XII dreams…

I’ll come back to actually playing Scarlet Nexus in a future post. Maybe.

Game Pass Cloud Gaming Arrives on Consoles

It is finally here! Xcloud, Microsoft’s cloud gaming system for Xbox Game Pass, has been available on mobile devices and computers for a while now, but inexplicably not on the consoles themselves. Today it has arrived.

Here’s the official post about it.

Of course HOW to access it isn’t particularly clear.

Step one: Update your console. It’ll update automatically probably tonight but if you want to jump in now go to settings->system and choose updates.

Step two: Wait impatiently for update to complete

Step three: When the console restarts you’ll probably see all kinds of promotions for this new feature, but barring that, open the Game Pass app, open a game page, and from there you’ll see a “Play” button with a little cloud icon next to it. (See image at the top of this post.) You’ll also see the cloud icon on the game ’tiles’ in the game pass app.

I can’t take screenshots of the dashboard, so please forgive the photo of a TV. 🙂

Xbox One owners get this too, and can play Xbox Series X titles via Xcloud, though to the best of my knowledge there are no exclusive Series X|S games that are cloud-enabled yet. Flight Simulator is coming, though.

Windows Xbox App Games are Getting Mod Support

Just a quickie. I caught this video about what’s upcoming for Xbox Game Pass for PC users. I can’t find a text version because we as a society are too lazy to read I guess (or I’m too lazy to Google…maybe both) but the gist is that Microsoft is going to add mod support to games installed via the Xbox app.

It’s not clear to me if the same mods that work on other versions (Steam or Epic or whatever) will work, but I’d expect so. But what do I know about game programming and modding?

I do know that currently it’s a real pain in the ass to even find your Xbox app games, let alone try to mod them, so I expect this will be welcome news to PC Game Pass people.

If you’re an Insider I think you can start testing this now, or at least very soon. Maybe I’ll sign up to be an Insider…

[A little bit later…]
Well I guess it works. Now I just need a Skyrim mod to try out. Are there any of those? (That’s a joke.)

You have to enable modes via the … menu, then you can open the game folder, as I have done here. The explorer window that opened is behind the Xbox app in this image:

Microsoft Rewards Points

Today I want to talk about the meta-game I’ve been playing the longest: Microsoft Rewards Points (MRP). MRP are Microsoft’s way to try to incentivize you to use their products like Bing and Game Pass. You can learn about the program here.

I have three primary ways to earn MRP. The first is by visiting every morning while I have coffee. There I do the “Daily Set” which is some mix of clicking links and taking quizzes. A lot of these are ‘no-fail’ situations where you get points just by trying, but if you want to be sure you get max points you can check the MicrosoftRewards reddit. I find doing these Daily Sets kind of amusing just from the point of view of learning trivia-level facts and stuff.

The second way I earn MRP is via the Microsoft Rewards app on the Xbox. This is somewhat similar to the above system, and often asks you to “Check out this featured game” or something equally trivial. (Selecting these tasks takes you to the store, but you don’t have to buy the featured game in order to earn points. Just visiting the store page is enough.) Other times you’ll be tasked to do something like earn an Achievement in a specific game or selection of games. In fact there is a daily task for earning an Achievement that grants you 50 points. Overall this is another fairly mindless way to earn points.

The third and most interesting way I earn MRP is via Game Pass Quests. This is where things get fun. There are daily, weekly and monthly quests. The daily quests are boring and always that same: 1) log into the Game Pass app, and 2) play a Game Pass game. The weekly and monthly quests are more interesting. They task you with doing specific things in specific Game Pass games (at least some of them do). So “Drive 1 KM in Game X” or “Kill 10 enemies in Game Y” or “Play an online match in Game Z.” These are usually fairly quick to complete (though there are exceptions). What I enjoy about them is they prompt me to play games I usually wouldn’t play, and sometimes I find games I really enjoy. For instance this week one of the quests involved A Plague Tale: Innocence. I accomplished the quest objectives pretty quickly but by then I was hooked on the game. Now I’m going to finish it!

The point of all of this is to amass MRP so you can exchange them for various goodies. My preferred goodie is store credit. A $100 Xbox gift card can be redeemed for 91,000 MRP, which sounds like a huge number given some of the tasks reward 5 or 10 points, but they add up more quickly than you might expect (accumulation is helped by various “double points” events and other promotions). I’ve earned over 400,000 MRP since starting with the program. I don’t really track things but at least once a year I cash in for a $100 gift card.

It wouldn’t be worth it if earning the points was bothersome, but for me it has become a game in and of itself. I look forward to Tuesdays, which is when the weekly quests come out. What has made this even better/easier is Xcloud since a lot of the games can be played via streaming, meaning you don’t have to install them to complete the quest. The daily sets on the web are either inoffensive and quick, or they’re quizzes which are kind of fun for me to do because I enjoy trivia.

Anyone with a Microsoft account can sign up and start earning points, but it is when you’re a Game Pass member that the system gets really interesting. If you have Game Pass you might want to check it out!

For me, Microsoft’s Game Pass is a double-edged sword

Game Pass is Microsoft’s “Netflix for Games” service that gives you access to a bunch of games (169 currently) for $10/month. When I bought my Xbox One X, it came with a 1 month free trial of the service which I’ve been sitting on. This week Sea of Thieves launched and MS stuck it into Game Pass, so I decided it was time to cash in that free month.

Sea of Thieves is a bust for me — but that’s a post in and of its own self — so I dove into the Game Pass library to see what else was on offer. There’s a lot of filler but there are some pretty good titles in there too, stuff like Gears of War 4 and Halo Wars 2. I’ve been downloading a ton of different games and it’s been fun to have a gaming buffet to sample from. That’s the good news.

The bad news, for me because I’m weird, is the subscription fee. In the same way that when I used to subscribe to MMOs I’d have this sense of a clock ticking all the time, I feel the same way with Game Pass. I feel like I should be playing the Game Pass games because I’m paying for it (even though technically I haven’t paid a cent yet and even if I was, it’s $10/month, not exactly bank-breaking). I’ve been finding myself playing games that are “OK” just so I could get some use out of Game Pass, instead of playing games I absolutely adore (Assassin’s Creed Origins, I’m looking at you) but own outright.

The other downside is that the games feel really disposable. As soon as I hit a point that frustrates me or bores me the tiniest bit, I toss that game aside and move on to something new since I have no investment, either fiscal or emotional, in that title. It isn’t a game I’d been looking forward to or had spent money on, it’s a game I’m playing because it was ‘free’. (I realize this is in direct opposition to my first point about money spent and the clock ticking…none of this is based on logic.)

I think in future I’ll dip into Game Pass now and then. When there is a game that I really want to play in the service, I’ll subscribe and play it via Game Pass because why not? Assuming a game is $60, there are very few games I play for more than 6 months so Game Pass will be the cheaper option. In other words, subscribe for a specific title or titles rather than for the library of games in general.

Of course having said that, they’re adding City Skylines in April and that is a game I’ve wanted to try on the Xbox (or PS4) so I’m glad my subscription will be active when that arrives. Then in May State of Decay 2 comes to Game Pass (and Xbox in general) and I’m looking forward to trying that, too. So for both April and May there are games that should make the subscription worth having.

Until then, I have enjoyed revisiting, briefly, some games I played in yesteryear — stuff like Fable II and Darksiders — so I don’t have any real regrets. I guess I’m just sharing my weird reaction to having a “Netflix for Games” and it’s really strange because when it comes to actual Netflix, which I also subscribe to, I never feel that tug of “I NEED to watch stuff on Netflix because I’m paying for it.” I’ll watch what I feel like watching no matter where it is.

I guess the difference is that in a given month you can watch dozens of TV shows and movies and some are bound to be on Netflix, but games take a lot longer to play, so in any given month I’ll only play a couple. It’s much more likely that a month will pass without me touching a Game Pass game than it is that a month goes by and I don’t watch anything on Netflix, particularly if I’m really invested in some particular non-Game Pass title.

In fact I have Far Cry 5 pre-ordered and it drops on Tuesday so it’ll be interesting to see if I play anything from Game Pass once that arrives.