So much loot! More loot after every mission. Loot left over after the last mission. Loot I forgot I had. Panels and panels of colorful little icons, some green, some blue, some a couple of shades of purple, and some that eye-catching orange/yellow. There are even some reds. Reds! The rarest of the rare. Epic, even! No, wait, I think orange/yellow is epic. Red is an artifact, which transcends rarity because rarities are adjectives and an artifact is a noun. Loot, loot, loot! Normally all this treasure would be a cause for celebration.
In Pixel Privateers, an otherwise really good game, it’s cause for a sigh.
Let’s get this out of the way, because I know what you’re thinking. “Pixel?” The word “pixel” usually portends something overly cute, frothy, light on gameplay and even lighter on artwork. Indie, leaning casual. Pixel Privateers is some of those things, but it’s mostly a numbers-heavy realtime party-based dungeon crawl combat extravaganza. Sci fi, to boot. You’d think the developers at Quadro Delta would come up with a more thematic title to distinguish it from their previous game, Pixel Piracy. That one wasn’t sci-fi. It was your garden variety Caribbean pirates, but in pixels.
These privateers aren’t like those pirates. These guys are the away team for a spaceship that zips around a little grid of planets, burning fuel as it goes. Then it spends matter to beam the guys down into a side scrolling dungeon that stands in for a planet. There are about a half dozen kinds of planets that look, feel, and even play somewhat distinctly for the kinds of enemies on them, but they’re still pretty much just dungeon. With laser guns and aliens and cyborgs and swarms of drones.
It’s 90% pausable realtime party combat, not quite as crunchy as a Baldur’s Gate, but not quite so pointless as to run on autopilot. This is mainly because your guys will never autoattack, which is an odd design decision. I suppose the idea is to keep you involved? Your job is to tell your guys who to attack, and sometimes how to attack. If you don’t, they stand there getting hit. Plink, plink, plink. Oh, that’s why I can’t use a medkit. I’m still in combat and I didn’t see that space worm nipping at my heels. So is your job just busy work? Or gameplay?
Of course, this being an action RPG — or “loot ’em up” as the developers actually call it — you set the difficulty however you like to jigger the rarity of your loot. You do this before each mission, so you can apply the grind as firmly as you like. Each space dungeon can be as much busy work or gameplay as you like. On the normal difficulty level, just hit Q to select everyone and then target one monster at a time. Repeat as necessary. Lots of pew pew, lots of splashy pixel combat, lots of activity, little risk. But to get those red artifacts, you’ll want to push the risk/reward calculus along the risk spectrum. And that’s where Pixel Privateers actually shows its colors as more than overly cute, frothy, and light on gameplay. That’s where you need to pause and avail yourself of the actual gameplay. That’s where you need a variety of character classes equipped with a variety of loot.
But the loot is where Pixel Privateers gets bogged down by that all-too-common Achilles heel of game design. No, not AI. The heel on Achilles’ other leg: interface. This self-described “loot ’em up” makes good on its promise, but then leaves you to sort ponderously through panel after panel of trash.
This is a problem in game design. How do you make loot meaningful, but also use it as a constant drip-feed reward? The answer is you don’t. You can’t. You have to pick one or the other. Meaningful loot or constant loot. And if you pick the latter, you better give me the tools to sort the wheat from the chaff. Borderlands was terrible at this. Most MMOs are terrible at this. Games I don’t play are terrible at this, and I don’t play them because they’re terrible at this. The better loot-based games have learned valuable lessons in loot management, which is mostly an issue of interface. Blizzard introduced color-coded rarity, from whites to greens to blues to the warmer colors that catch your eye. Guild Wars 2 inverted green and blue so that now I’m always confused. Which is better? Green or blue? Guild Wars 2 also lets me sell a bunch of junk with a single button press. Diablo III on the console, which does its best to reduce the amount of loot while still trying to keep it meaningful, lets me mark loot as I find it with the press of a button, without interrupting gameplay or pulling up an inventory screen. When I get to the blacksmith, one button dumps it all into the bin. Grim Dawn lets me set a threshold below which it doesn’t even bother to show loot on the ground (I believe this is carried over from the developers’ previous game, Titan Quest).
But Pixel Privateers is very old school in its approach. It just throws a lot of loot at you, 90% of which is useless and will be sold, one piece at a time. It offers some bare bones tools to manage this, but they’re just enough to highlight that they’re not enough. Okay, so I can sort by color-coded rarity. Good. Or I can sort by DPS. Also good. Not ideal for a drop-down menu instead of buttons, but it’ll do. Now let’s get down to brass tacks. I need something that does area of effect damage. Or I need something that boosts a character’s stamina. Or I need light armor so that my scout can use one of his special bonuses that only applies to scouts wearing light armor. How do I find these things? By mousing over each item, one at a time, reading tiny tiny tiny text that cannot be resized. Since Pixel Privateers clearly didn’t opt for fewer pieces of more meaningful loot, I have to do a lot of mousing. It’s the equivalent of sifting through a shoebox full of trinkets, looking for the one with a particular number engraved on the side. Sifting, sifting, sifting. This one? That one? No. No. No. Hmm, maybe. This one. That one. Where was that other one? Hmm, that one might go with this character.
You get to/have to do this after every mission. That is your gameplay reward. That is the premise of Pixel Privateers as a “loot ’em up”: laboriously figuring out which of these baubles is among the 5% worth keeping. It is as fundamental a part of the moment-to-moment gameplay as the combat. And, ironically, it’s all the more important if you’re playing at the harder difficulty levels, which is how you get the better loot, which you’ll have to find by sorting through more and more loot. That’s not an ideal feedback loop.
Lots of folks might not mind this. I didn’t mind it for a while. The developers aren’t shy about making that 5% of the loot dramatic. It’s not unusual to nearly double your armor or your DPS, especially if you’re pushing that risk/reward difficulty on any given mission. But the loot churn is oppressively constant. It gets tedious. And it’s ultimately futile. Whatever awesome item you found will only be awesome for another couple of missions. Lootus fugit. Your enthusiasm will dampen. You’ll start to long for games with better solutions, with less trash, with more helpful interfaces. By the time you finish a playthrough and Pixel Privateers resets itself with your higher level characters — did you know you were playing an infinite grind game? — all that sifting time looms large before you. Are you ready to do it again?
The reason you might be ready to do it again is the second of two pillars of character development in Pixel Privateers: research. Loot is, of course, specific to a single character. That Sword of Whatever of the Wily Whatever of Vibrant Whatevering can only be wielded by one of your vanguards. Each character needs his own sword or gun. His own armor and special item. His own hat. But the tech tree applies to everyone. It’s a global upgrade, with similarly dramatic advances, but they hold up over the long term. Tech doesn’t churn. For instance, smoke grenades to cover your healers so they can’t be attacked. Nice. Now thermal goggles that let your characters attack from inside the smoke, which is now perfect for snipers. Nicer. Now nerve gas applied to the smoke so that it damages monsters, and now it’s useful for your toe-to-toe fighters. Nicest? Or is there more? The tech tree is everywhere. It upgrades every member of a certain class with new abilities. It gives your party new powers. New consumables. It upgrades your ship. It can affect the economy. And after your first playthrough, you will have plenty of tech tree yet to unlock. This is where Pixel Privateers gets the feeling of reward just right. This is where Pixel Privateers is arguably worth another playthrough.
And this is true only because the basic combat in Pixel Privateers is as detailed as it is. It furthermore has an interface that does justice to the amount of detail. It uses the usual toolbar along the bottom of the screen for special abilities, but only for whichever character is selected. With eight characters on any given mission, this can be hard to manage. So whenever a character is eligible to use an ability, or even have an ability used on him, an icon pops up on the main screen. Click it and you’re good to go. Hit pause whenever you like to manage all this. Now unpause and watch how things unfold. If only this interface acumen had been applied to loot management.