What we played: Spooky pirate ships, space monks and chefs

May 24, 2024

Hello! Welcome back to our regular article where we write about some of the games we’ve played over the last few days. This week we lean on sailors’ superstitions to scare a boat full of pirates, travel through space in vast Gothic monasteries, and learn a hard lesson about communication in an outrageous kitchen.

What did you play?

If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What We’ve Been Playing, here’s our archive.

Banished Vault, PC

The Banished Vault is so effective at creating an atmosphere. Space is fascinating, isn’t it? Watch on YouTube

I was recently preparing for a Banished Vault interview with creator Nic Tringali (I’m in the process of writing it now), so I took some time to get familiar with the game. I missed it when it came out last year; it arrived next to Starfield, which more or less overshadowed it. It’s just a small indie game. I’ve been wanting to play it ever since Chris gave The Banished Vault five stars in our review.

I’m glad I did. What fascinates me about Banished Vault is how a game can pack so much atmosphere and intrigue without seemingly trying. It’s a space game, Banished Vault – actually it’s a math game disguised as a space game – a strategy puzzle based on using real periodic table elements to craft the resources you need to continue your space journey. I know this sounds dry and unappealing, because that’s true for me too, but mix the setting in and I can’t stop thinking about it.

In the Banished Vault you are a monk on the run in space. You live in a gigantic interstellar Gothic monastery flying through space, trying to outrun the mysterious, overwhelming darkness called the Gloom – making you one of the few monks left in the universe. Fascinating, isn’t it?

What strikes me most is how sparingly this is depicted. There’s no long exposition, just a nice splash screen that gives you the high-level story before your space chase begins. It doesn’t quite give you enough, and this is where I think the skill of storytelling lies. It explains this really juicy situation and then moves backwards, leaving you wanting to find out more. That perseverance is a mental investment on your part; that’s all a game or story can ask for.

Of course, it helps that it’s really artfully done. Banished Vault has an eerie loneliness, illustrated by beautiful, gothic black and white pencil illustrations. Less is more! I really like this approach.

-Bertie

Overcooked: All You Can Eat Edition, PC

A mission-complete image from Overcooked, showing a dancing onion with a mustache next to a summary of the level's action.

I chose one of the better missions to screenshot. Not in the photo: my stress! | Image credit: Team17

I don’t remember exactly what happened the last time I tried Overcooked, but when I mentioned that I planned to play it with a friend this weekend, it elicited a concerned look from a family member – apparently my latest venture into the restaurant world not good. All you have to do is prepare the dishes to order and deliver them to the customers on time. That couldn’t be me That I’m bad at it…

I was. I ended up getting really annoyed with myself when we didn’t get three stars for a service (you need a certain number of these to pass a level) – especially as my friend was floating around the kitchen completely organized, while I fell into literal and very obvious holes that I ‘didn’t see’ (no excuse at all). At one point I was so done with being crap that I was spinning around with a fire extinguisher like a carbon dioxide Catherine wheel, waiting for the inevitable zero star rating to land.

One important thing I learned this weekend is that even though I write manuals and some people naturally assume you’re good at games, I’m just terrible at giving verbal instructions – especially under pressure. Somehow asking for a plate or a fire extinguisher became impossible as the music sped up and the clock counted down. It helped somewhat that there was an unspoken agreement between us about what jobs each of us had, especially at levels where we were on separate platforms. My friend was in charge of cooking rice, cleaning the dishes and throwing ingredients into the void, while I had to chop and fry the ingredients. A lot of vegetables and meat were hunted across the rivers that day.

Despite the spike in my stress levels, I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much during a game. I understand why Overcooked is so popular. I’m already looking forward to the next round. We will succeed!

-Marie

Dungeons & Dragons, tabletop

A trailer for the new high-level Vecna ​​campaign, narrated by Neil Newbon of Astarion fame. It’s the first high-level campaign D&D has had in decades, and it’s going to be a wild one. Watch on YouTube

This past weekend I dabbled in three separate Dungeons & Dragons games on three separate days, because apparently I’m obsessed. One is a prelude to the new Vecna ​​high-level campaign, which I’ll be streaming – tease, tease – and the others are Icewind Dale and Ghosts of Saltmarsh. For what it’s worth, I also have a Curse of Strahd campaign on the way. It’s a lot, and I was afraid I was overdoing it for exactly that reason. But what surprised me this weekend was how positive I came out the other side about D&D.

That may sound surprising to say, given the number of games I play, but I have a concern about D&D that stems from its mathematical foundations. I sometimes feel like there are too many ‘right ways’ of doing things, too many correct formulas, which inherently stifles creativity in the game. I’m speaking from a min-max point of view here, which I know can be destructive in a creative environment, but it’s hard to ignore. To some extent it’s the way D&D is built, and as much as it leans towards roleplaying freedom, there’s always a math shackle surrounding it. The unfortunate consequence of this is that characters and encounters are constructed similarly, which in turn leads to sameness and boredom.

But over the weekend I didn’t feel any of that. Arguably the standout encounter came from a group of lowly level twos, who had the daunting task of overthrowing a pirate ship with a dozen enemies on board. We couldn’t beat them in a straight fight, so we had to get creative. We then decided to scare them. Acting on the superstition of sailors, we dropped a cloud of mist on the boat and filled it with eerie occurrences – whispers, shaking, doors and window shutters banging and rattling. Meanwhile we got closer. We used the ensuing chaos to pick up stragglers before boarding the ship, get the captain out and win the day. Bravo us – it was a bit more tasteful, but I’ll keep it short. Suffice it to say, however, that we won not by leaning on our mathematical accuracy, but by using our imagination, and the result was immensely satisfying and atmospheric.

Similar moments happened in all three games that weekend – memorable story moments – and it reminded me of the power D&D can wield. I can’t wait to see what the revised 5.5 ruleset introduces later this year; I hope it encourages it even more.

-Bertie

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