A review in Thrive’s 0.5.3.1 version. A critique of the game. Please be mindful and polite in your replies; criticism does not equal hate.
The main game-loop here is very simple, as you know. Collect compounds, survive, evolve. But the main criticism against this is that every part of this loop has a major flaw, as I’ll explain.
First, the microbe gameplay itself (collecting compounds). It is slow and monotone, although I have to confess, it is addicting at the beginning, and benefits from its simplicity. Starting by the slow gameplay; in the beginning of the game, as I said, it is engaging as your meters fill up fast and you also move quickly, which are both satisfying. But later on, as you advance and grow in size and become Eukaryotic, maintaining speed and managing ATP is more difficulty, so you get slower, and the game gets more boring; making photosynthesis and predatory behavior the prominent strategy. Causing, then, cells that opt for collecting, rather obsolete in the late-game (although I don’t have enough knowledge on this part of the game, this can definitively influence newcomers). My suggestion would be for MP scaling; the bigger, the more MP you have. This way you can balance speed more easily, as well as other benefits that will be listed in the Editor section of this review. Another thing would be faster organelles being unlocked after getting the nucleus. Or even a way that requires less movement, compound chunks for example.
As for the monotone part of the criticism, the prominent strategies and lack of activities both influence this. Although, I will be light on the lack of activities part, since the features are still being implemented, but deserve criticism nonetheless. As stated earlier, photosynthesis and predatory behavior the prominent strategy. The problem with this being: Photosynthesis requires no skill, and predatory behavior lacks functionality (again, I’ll be light on this one). The combat still needs more depth; not more weapons or means of attack, but maybe more basic mechanics. Some way to avoid damage perhaps, or even some tradeoff between emergency speed to escape a predator, but heavy usage of ATP, or another component.
Exploring in general also needs more detail; I’m not a developer myself so these are only some loose suggestions: more component spawn but less components in the clumps. Activities other than collecting, since I believe that simply adding more components wouldn’t be the best choice, so more things to do other than that would be fun, like interacting with your species for example (loose example). New things to experience even, like the Ice Patch, which had some new spikes that caught me off guard and where interesting. Things like just water streams, or just some bubbles around like Spore had would definitively make it way more interesting, while being simple to implement.
TL;dr (too long; didn’t read): The gameplay is satisfying at the beginning but slow after acquiring a nucleus, which takes a while for you to adapt to having, and to rebuild your speed. Which also makes it a bit frustrating, but that is more part of the editor section of the review. It also gets more monotone the more you play, since you basically repeat the same actions, as well as having the prominent strategies needing no skill, or being a little incomplete. The monotonous feeling could be avoided by having more in-depth combat, more activities besides collecting, such as interactions or something else. As well as having interest environment, such as water streams or just ice giant ice chunks floating about. The speed problem could be resolved with MP scaling with size, allowing for more organelle placement, or perhaps faster organelles unlocked after the nucleus.
This section will include combat and others. Starting by the elephant in the room: combat is shallow as of now. Not only considering means of attack or defense, also in basic mechanics. You can only poke, engulf, shoot and run. Sounds plentiful, but engulf is not much mechanically different from poking, and in shooting, you’ll eventually have to resort to the first two. Not gonna lie, engulfing and poking are very satisfying. In contrast, firing poison definitively isn’t. The projectile is slow and the feedback isn’t the best. Escaping is not a very good option as well, since the enemy is basically a mutation of you, so they’ll either be faster than you, or about the same speed (of course they can be slower but I have experienced few cases in which they were a threat and I had to escape).
My suggestions for these would be varying different forms of attack and defense, such as area stun for crowd control, some kind of shell that only protects a certain part and is very costly, and some of the ones stated in the Compound Gathering section, as a short speed burst with high ATP usage. Of course, these suggestions only take into account the gameplay aspect and not the scientific theory, but I’m more of a game design guy anyways, and think that there may be a way to implement these while still being scientifically accurate.
Another part of combat that could be improved is basic set of mechanics, outside of organelles. These could be anything ranging from some kind of dodge, tactical split, adrenaline that makes you use more ATP in exchange for more damage or speed, etc (loose examples).
Another criticism is the enemy AI, as well as ally. NPC AI in general in this case. They are good and bad at the same time. They interact with each other, survive on their own, but also mindlessly bump into you and chase you with no means of attack. I know this is very W.I.P; worthy of criticism regardless. Beginning by the simplest: ally AI. They generally serve their purpose, help you in battle (although sometimes they attack even if they have no weapons, or forget to engulf). Get their own “food” and just do their thing. Sometimes it even feels strangely comforting to move around with them, even looking like a multicellular organism at times! Problem is: they’re too mindless. Won’t try to collect Ammonia or Phosphate, only “food” (things that produce ATP like iron and glucose). And this, in contrast to the player, is pretty janky. After all, here we are doing our best to evolve, survive and thrive, and the rest of the species just messing around a miniscule iron chunk (it’s pretty funny actually). They also tend to eat all organelle chunks and leave nothing for you, which is very annoying. Maybe this could be balanced a bit better, like eat 80% and leave the rest for the player or other cells from the same species.
Now, the enemy AI. They are a big problem. Not only being mindless but stupid, suicidal and irritating. They make the combat too easy at times, and at some, too difficult. First of all, weak cells seem to insist to try and kill you. Ok, not a big deal, that is, if they ran after seeing their friends die. But no, they just keep coming and coming, and it seems like no matter how many you kill, their species only reduce size when you evolve, so it’s a giant wave of meaningless globs. They also don’t use their attacks, only shoving themselves against you, expecting that they might have spikes in their fronts. Something very weird: when they die, they just shoot toxin everywhere; so, you kill a few weaklings and then you die all of the sudden because they blew up some kind of kamikaze toxin that takes 25% of your health each. I suppose that this is so you don’t kill too many cells too fast, but it is not only confusing, unintuitive, but a very bad way to do It. And if the enemy cell does have spikes on its front, and you do as well, since spikes have the same size, it’s basically a 50/50 of who wins; since they’ll collide and one might or might not hit the other, and you can’t attack them from the sides since they turn too fast (maybe a fast-turning organelle for you to have an advantage in this scenario, just like Spore?). You also, most of the time, can’t escape since they have a similar speed. So, it’s either a bunch of weak cells being kamikaze or big cells overwhelming you, or making it a 50/50. Predators also don’t seem to be able to evolve fast enough to keep up you, making it even easier (if you can engulf them). Only saw like, 3 Eukaryote cells in my playthrough.
This part will consist of the Cell Editor and reproduction in general. Starting out, I have to say, I have no big problems with this Editor. In fact, I believe it’s the most polished part of the game. It’s all relatively intuitive and simple. But I’ll go from tabs first, starting from the Report Tab. For now, it’s all right. The information isn’t shown in the best way possible, but it’s enough. Doesn’t do much now but has plenty of potential for the future. My only problem being that it lies about the glucose decrease, or maybe it’s a bug, I’m not sure, not that big of a deal anyways.
The patch map; confusing to understand, there are some seemingly useless areas, but I’m sure they’ll be useful soon, when compound changes get implemented. Could clarify some things better, like why and when you should move to a patch, but that’s more of a problem with the tutorial. The names are also confusing and there should be explanations to what each patch is.
Now, the main focus, the Editor. It’s pretty good, very intuitive. It looks neat, is smooth, does has some problems with some bugs but nothing major. The main criticism being: it doesn’t allow for much creativity. You can create a long cell, place all the organelles wherever you want, change color, style; but at the end of the day, the shape of the cell will be generalized, and even if you make a long cell, it’ll look more like an average circle. The colors don’t incentivize change from the first color you chose, style change is minor and more related to playstyle (also, they are all too similar to each other), and organelle placement is just going to look like a mess regardless. Now, comparing to spore. You can define your “cell” size in each part and it’ll be well defined (as I said, thrive generalizes the model so it’s more of a smooth transition, that makes almost all cells look like a circle). You can add different eyes, decoration with spikes and any other part (you can kind of do this in Thrive but it’s very limited), change texture and a color from a pallet, and since you start with a “random” (it’s actually from a predefined set of creatures) color and name, it Incentivizes you to start working from that name and color.
Thrive compared to Spore is very limited creatively. My suggestion would be for the cell to round less, making it look more like the original concept you made in the Editor, or if this breaks realism, this will only happen after you get a nucleus, so your cell can have more complex shapes. Another thing would be random names and colors at the start of the game, as well as highlighted colors (an option of colors to use from the pallet, so the player doesn’t have to keep messing with the pallet) cosmetic organelles, or variations of more noticeable ones, like Spore did with the eye parts.
Another problem I have is the preparation for the nucleus. This is more of a personal problem I experienced, but I’m afraid other new players might experience this as well. Preparing for nucleus is a bit confusing for those that don’t understand it very well. The player knows that he will need to make more ATP, so he starts working on that. But because of this, the cell gets large, so the player places more flagellas and spikes. Then you’ll need more energy to balance those organelles out, and end up trapping himself in a loop. I’m still confused if you are supposed to sacrifice your speed or circumvent this in some way. Regardless, it is not conveyed very well.
And in the topic of the last paragraph, mutation points are too low for eukaryotes, since the transition from no nucleus to nucleus is very ATP heavy, you’ll need to place a lot of organelles to start producing fast enough to evolve, and removing old organelles also takes too many points in this stage. My suggestion would be MP scaling with size, or after getting the nucleus. This also affects your speed since you need to get faster because of your size, and you can only place few organelles per reproduction; it’s a choice between speed or ATP that is not so engaging that requires mass evolving until you can balance them (which is also monotone to do).
TL;dr (too long; didn’t read): The game has too many creative limits. You should be able to make your cell more personal. Examples would be a more defined shape, resembling more what you planned in the Editor. As well as random names and colors at the start of the game, as well as highlighted colors (an option of colors to use from the pallet, so the player doesn’t have to keep messing with the pallet) cosmetic organelles, or variations of more noticeable ones, like Spore did with the eye parts. Preparing for nucleus is also difficulty and not well explained, making people that don’t understand get stuck trying to make more ATP and getting speed to balance the size, which costs more ATP, creating a frustrating loop. After getting the Nucleus, Mutation Points are too low for you to balance your speed and energy production, making you have to mass evolve, which is not particularly fun.
This section will include UI, Graphics, Performance, Tutorial, etc. Starting by the more important progression, and tutorial, respectively. Progression is not well presented to the player. I’m always unsure of if I should move to the next patch or not. But I’m sure this will be fixed soon with compound changes in the environment. Not much else to say about it, not many features to discuss.
As for the tutorial, it’s an incredibly great feature and I could not have understood the game without it. Even then, it’s still primitive. It tells you to get glucose and shows you where, but then doesn’t explain the other compounds; only once you get the ammonia and phosphate, then it says to evolve. The rest of it is fine, still being implemented. The other main thing about it is not explaining the whole nucleus process; how to get it, why, and then how to survive with one. But this was previously discussed in the Evolve section.
Now, the style, graphics and performance of the game. I said before that the Editor was maybe the most polished part of the game. Unfortunately for the Editor, this award goes to the general style, graphics, soundtrack and performance. The style itself is very clear and gives a weird vibe of futuristic and primitive at the same time. The graphics only add to this; while they lack in environment, they nail the rest. Cell, effects, UI, all well done. The performance is surprising; an early alpha independent game made by volunteers with no profit, and running this well? I have to give props to the devs here, this all, it’s the biggest quality of the game. The soundtrack, while not as good as Spore (procedural soundtrack would be cool as well), it’s still fantastic.
Thrive is an ambitious project, for now it doesn’t have much going for it and can be considered a cell simulator. The gameplay is generally monotone, little to do, and the combat is clunky at its best. The AI is primitive. But yet, it manages to engage you in its simplicity. There is something satisfying about collecting compounds, surviving, and evolving. The fact that you can still evolve more, collect more, make your cell better, perfect, as it’s not the best it possibly can, makes you not want to stop playing. The minimalism in the general game and editor fit very well, a place to rest between farming compounds and getting into fights. The combat is shallow and needs more mechanics, not only means of attack, but basic mechanics. The editor doesn’t allow for much creative options. The style is on tune with the game, the most polished part of it.
A good game to play, a great development to follow. I’m excited to see what this will become, and do more reviews in the future. The best of luck to all the developers.