PAX East 2019: Destiny’s Sword aims to take the ludonarrative into actual gameplay


They were called Failure Force, and they were the team that could never make a roll.

My roommate, my wife, and myself were playing a game of Risk in college, and one of my roommate’s armies simply could not win an engagement. There wasn’t a statistical reason for it, of course. On paper, they had faced some pretty average odds. Just the law of averages seemed to work against them, and every time they got into battle the roll went south, they took losses and had to retreat, and so forth.

The result were chants of “Failure Force, Failure Force!” every time they were up to roll. We made jokes about how that unit was composed of washouts and desperate incompetents, knowing that they had been assigned to a unit which was considered wholly incapable of any actual victory. It was actually kind of sad when Failure Force was finally wiped off the map, and even the few successful rolls they made didn’t change their reputation as Failure Force.

Destiny’s Sword, at a glance, is an effort to bring that ludonarrative into the actual experience of playing this team-based tactical game. It’s still early in development, but what’s on display now is interesting enough to make it worth watching.

The demo on the show floor at PAX East was split into two halves, the combat half and the interaction half. Both of these elements are important in the game, but right now, it’s split mostly for demo purposes. (The hope is that the game’s next demo will not feature this split.) I started off with the interaction portion, which is meant to be the between-battles downtime with your various teammates on board your military spaceship.

Conversations work similarly to several other dialogue-choosing interactions; if you think of Star Wars: The Old Republic you’re partway there. The difference is that rather than having just a single track for the character of approval or the like, each character has multiple different tracks going at once, and interactions can alter several of them in various ways.

So, for example, you could have a soldier who’s feeling depressed over the seeming futility of the missions you’re going on. You could encourage that soldier to seek out counseling and talk about the issues, which improves the soldier’s mood but at the cost of some amount of critical judgement. Or you could give the same soldier a stern talking-to, making for a worse mood but enough fear of you to keep hard at work.

There’s a set of different topics mentioned in conversation which you drag and drop onto the conversation wheel to discuss things, as well. Sometimes it’s self-referential, like having someone mention he feels listless and you then ask him about it. Other times, it’s interrelated. Rodriguez mentions that there’s a beef between May and Siemens, so you talk with Siemens and bring up May to pick out what’s really going on.

Let's go for a walk, then we'll get along.

I was told that more importantly, this will carry over to the actual battle portions of the game. So if May and Siemens hate each other, they’re not going to synergize as well. You might want to keep them on separate teams… or you might need to force them to work out their issues, because you need them in the same unit.

That extends to per-battle interactions, too. If May keeps getting hit and Siemens doesn’t, he’s going to start resenting Siemens. If Siemens keeps using support abilities on May, he’ll have a better opinion of her, but she might resent his carelessness. And if May winds up critically injured, Siemens may wind up traumatized by the experience in the long run.

The concept art is pretty great.Of course, none of this will buoy a game if the actual game mechanics are awful. The battle side of things that we got to see was highly abstracted, with four squads (controlled by four players) fighting against a massive target in a plus-shaped panel on a featureless void. That part probably has something to do with the early state of the game.

Here, there’s a split between two different suites of abilities. Individual soldiers have specific abilities, so my own (DPS) squad could snipe at the target or stun it. I also had access to a handful of special cards to play, things like cloaking specific units, offering defensive buffs, calling down orbital strikes, and so forth.

The idea was that as a coordinated team, all four players can work together to take the target down. One player hacks the thing’s shields, enabling DPS players like myself the opportunity to snipe it down and deal some serious damage. The support squad keeps the other squads up, while the defensive squad holds its attention. You get the idea.

In practice, this particular fight ended in a humiliating defeat. (Our hacker didn’t understand the bits required to take down the shield, so it was too well-defended for us to deal any real damage and two members of my squad got shot down in moments.) But I could understand how things were supposed to go, so I’ll chalk this one up as appreciating the game not handing me a demo victory.

Post-battle, both characters and cards level up, along with characters potentially gaining new traits a la Darkest Dungeon; those traits can be both positive and negative, so if a character winds up injured they could emerge with a shiny new broken bone or punctured lung. The designers also want to use this to play up the social side of things; if you need a specialist to heal a broken bone, you might need to ask around to find someone who has such a specialist to heal your soldier.

The leveling up of cards can also be a double-edged sword. The Orbital Strike, for example, gets a wider and wider radius as it levels up. In more open setups, this is a good thing, but in more constrained battles having a powerful Orbital Strike could actually put your team as a whole in danger. So you have to weigh your options over the long term.

This walk has suffered from scope creep.

Destiny’s Sword is planning a Kickstarter to fund further development, although it’s not out yet. What was on display here was a pretty early version of the game, obviously; there were a lot of art assets not fully patched up, the two big halves of the game weren’t yet integrated, and so forth. A lot of what I saw on the show floor will be refined, and some of it might even be removed, simplified, and changed.

Still, I admire the effort being put forth. I like the idea that instead of just leaving me to mentally acknowledge the ludonarrative with groups that just get unlucky with RNG, this actually makes that a part of the gameplay and something you need to react to. It feels like a little tribute to Failure Force in my mind.

Will I actually enjoy lamenting to a guild that Failure Force has to go through counseling for PTSD after they failed to stop an attack following several shameful whiffs? I don’t know yet. But color me intrigued.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in Boston for PAX East 2019, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Penny Arcade Expo!
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