Curiouser and curiouser…

So this was the week where I went from baffled attempts to wrangle Limbus Company’s often-strange systems and settled into a routine for the game. Virtually every day this week I’ve:

  1. Played one session of the Shadow Dungeon (~1.5 hours)
  2. Played further in the story, according to my available time (.5-3 hours)
  3. Achieved the daily battle pass objectives, usually advancing the battle pass by about one-and-a-half levels.

And in the process I’ve found several new mechanics, interactions, and details about the game to report. Let’s get them out of the way first, so we can talk about the big, resonant stuff later.

(1) The Shadow Dungeon Is Pretty Cool

It’s a pretty boilerplate, Slay-the-Spire-esque roguelike mode, mixing and matching various encounters from the three dungeons in the game so far. And the fact that it works as well as it does is a pretty strong testament to the game’s robust mechanics. The battles in Limbus Company are pretty well lifted from Library of Ruina’s wildly diverse Gacha-by-way-of-deckbuilder mechanics, but streamlined and simplified to emphasize the identities rather than the individual skills. Each sinner identity comes with three skills that randomly appear in each battle (though you have to unlock the third, powerful skill), and the game alternates between a very streamlined, practically automated battle system where you string together one-of-two attacks from each sinner and let the game figure out who is attacking who (quick, but occasionally maddening and subject to some unpleasant turns of the RNG), and a more granular battle against the abnormalities, where strategy matters much more and you have direct control of each sinner’s attacks.

But Limbus Company places the emphasis on strategy and preparation, not as much on tactical reaction. Each skill has a damage type (slash, pierce, or blunt) and a sin characteristic (one of the seven deadlies), along with whatever secondary characteristics, bonuses, or status effects imposed on its execution. And it is to your advantage to make a team of identities that are conscious of all these factors: there are bonuses for pairing attacks of the same sin type, attention to an enemy’s weaknesses and attack types can absolutely turn the tide of battle, and concentrating on one or two status effect stacks can also be a major factor. And, remember: rare identities are unlocked through the monetization system, often including different combinations of these elements for each sinner. Consequently, the game really isn’t “pay-to-win” insofar as some identities are distinctly more powerful than others, but by accumulating many identities, you have considerably more options at your disposal in building a team with complementary powers and effects.

The Shadow Dungeon is actually kind of brilliant at emphasizing these mechanics. When you start a run, you initially get to unlock a relic: a passive effect that, more often than not, benefits certain skill types or status effects (i.e., all Pride skills also inflict bleed). Only then does the game let you pick your first three sinners for the run. Which means that you are encouraged to build a strategy around the relic. If you picked a relic that strengthens bleed and Pride effects, it is to your advantage to pick sinners and identities that utilize Pride and bleed. As you progress through the dungeon, you’ll get more opportunities to find relics, add new sinners, and strengthen or heal the sinners you have, in and among the various battles you fight. So, like most roguelike deckbuilders, you are carefully refining your strategy throughout the game; unlike most roguelike deckbuilders, the variety of relics and complicated relationship among identities mean that you’re likely to adopt a radically different approach from the word ‘go’, each time you play.

Which is good, because you get a free run through the Shadow Dungeon each day, and the game really wants you to take advantage of that. Just playing the dungeon nets you prizes, depending how far you get, but beating the dungeon, gets you more than halfway to a new battle pass level, a pile of experience tickets for leveling up your identities, and thread and egoshards for upgrading characters and buying character-specific items in the store. By now I’m consistently beating the first Shadow Dungeon (the remaining two are still locked), and I am desperate for those experience tickets, now that it’s the most effective way to level up my sinners and keep them competitive in the story.

(2) The New Extraction Is…

Correct prognostication #1: we got a Rodion-focused extraction to replace the Gregor-focused one last week. Except only one of the two available identities is for Rodion; the other is for Meurseult – themed after one of the particularly nasty enemies in Canto III. The good news is that I did manage to land Gregor’s 3-star identity before the Gregor event ended; weirdly, I got it by dumb luck when I used the decaextraction ticket Project Moon handed out to all players because of a technicality-error in one of the item descriptions. Which means I’m still sitting on a giant pile of Gregor egoshards that I’ll probably end up cashing in for the one E.G.O. superattack on display in the store.

By now I’ve got a ton of alternative identities. I have three-star identities for Yi-Sang, Ishmael, Meurseult, and Gregor, and at least one alternative identity for every sinner except Ryoshu and Hong Lu (just no luck with the Asian novels, I guess…). I have options, in short. And I’m playing with them often as I am challenged more and more by the story.

And this was, for the most part, all earned. I bought some lunacy, which probably adds up to a dozen extractions or so, but most of the premium battle pass rewards have been experience-related, rather than identity-roll related. I still haven’t spent more than fifteen dollars on the game so far, and that was apparently enough to beat the first three Cantos in two weeks. The game isn’t exploitative about spending money for progress, in short. Even when the difficulty spikes.

(3) The Other Shoe Drops

I wrote last time that I was waiting for a difficulty spike: Correct prognostication #2: I FOUND IT.

Canto III was murderously hard compared to the first two. The first set of enemies self-heal and are nasty strong, and the rest of the Canto just gets progressively meaner and nastier as it proceeds. I beat the first two Cantos in less than a week; I’ve spent all week working my way through this one, and only just beat it this morning after a very long, seemingly-hopeless battle against the sort of crazy-escalation boss I’ve come to expect from Project Moon. I was burning through those experience tickets like crazy, cashed in all my lunacy for more identity options, and I’m feeling a bit anemic at the moment, but I did it.

And in the end, the deciding factor was much less a matter of all those resources I used up, and much more just observing attack patterns, carefully selecting my team members, and playing smart. Like its predecessors, Limbus Company rewards patience and punishes laziness and hastiness. Also like its predecessors, Canto III evoked that same despairing horror of standing up to overwhelming, relentless odds. And, like the previous two Cantos, the story reinterpreted one of our sinners in an interesting way.

Namely, Emil Sinclair, narrator of Hermann Hesse’s Demian is a featured hero, reliving his battle with the bully, Kromer, now re-imagined as a power-hungry zealot of a corporation devoted to a perverse sense of human purity. Sinclair, as in the book, is roped into Kromer’s schemes, only to be rescued by Demian, who makes a truly remarkable appearance in this game that I don’t want to spoil – but the relationship between the three characters is beat-for-beat the same as the book, though Kromer’s hideousness is properly schlock-ified for our occult horror setting. Once again Project Moon demonstrates a clear understanding of the source material as they develop these storylines for their own purposes. Though it is not clear what the endgame for all this might be…

(4) The End…?

…especially since Canto III is all there is right now. I had a feeling Canto III was the last chapter of the initial release, once the final boss fight started and another haunting Mili track kicked in, but I was hoping that the big update earlier this week included the next Canto. I was wrong.

Apparently, I’ve caught up with the devs. There’s no more to do except mark time, keep playing Shadow Dungeons and accumulating levels for the Battle Pass, and be prepared for the next Canto, whenever it drops. I imagine that means I’ll be replaying the earlier levels, but that shouldn’t take as much time as it has this last week. And I’m a bit relieved for a couple of reasons.

For one, I’m glad to have finally caught up with the devs. I missed the slow rollout of Library of Ruina and regret it; knowing that I’m on the cutting edge for this game, experiencing it as it unfolds, is exciting, even if it means a long wait before the next part of the story.

I’m also glad to have that time back. I don’t regret playing Limbus Company for pretty much three hours each day the last two weeks, but have half that time to spend doing other things is good, especially as the semester gets more stressful.

And, finally, I’m glad to be able to save my pennies. Beating Canto III exhausted my resources, and I imagine that I’ll need to restock before whatever challenge Canto IV presents. I’ll need a week or two to get more lunacy, experience tickets, and other resources before pivoting my team to a new challenge. It means I won’t be getting new identities very often, but it also means growing more familiar with the ones I already have: learning new combinations and synergies through the Shadow Dungeon, and going into the next challenges with a better command of my team. I need to be a better manager, just like Dante in the story. I need to figure out how to best utilize my squad.

Into the Future

I imagine I won’t publish another Diary for a while, since my reports will probably be pretty boring until the next phase of the game releases. But now that I’m settled with the game, I can say that it isn’t what I expected, and I’m still a bit disappointed that it isn’t a self-contained experience like its predecessors, but I’m also appreciating Limbus Company for what it is: a story, drawn out over time – like a TV show – utilizing the mechanics of a free-to-play multiplayer game to do some innovative, if not always elegant, storytelling. On the one hand, I’m not worried about Project Moon abusing the monetization to some exploitative end; on the other, I am still not terribly keen on the business of encouraging people to spend money for in-game identities, not to mention worrying that the gentle monetization practices here won’t be enough to support the game for as long as Project Moon would like. It still feels like an experiment, and the game’s clumsiness may yet prevent its success.

But I want it to work. I want to see this story play out. I want to be on this ride, bumpy and awkward though it may be. So I don’t mind spending my money on Battle Passes and the occasional Lunacy bundle if it means I get to patronize these crackpot storytellers as they wind their strange, wonderful tale. I trust them, and I remain fascinated by their unique sensibilities as game developers and writers. I encourage you to join me, and see how this plays out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s