Opinions: One Step From Eden

Dec 10, 2020

I've been rambling about this off and on throughout 2020 to just about anyone who'd listen to it, so I figure I might as well put down my thoughts somewhere in a more permanent place. For as permanent as this site is, in any case. I actually had a nice post made months ago, which I promptly lost, so I have to rewrite my opinions from scratch again. To the people who saw that first one and now have to read this again: I'm sorry you're twice a victim of my writing.

I was beyond excited for One Step From Eden. I am a huge fan of the Battle Network series, and seeing a game using the same battle system had me hyper than anything. It was one of the few games I bought on launch, I had a stream set up and played it obsessively for a while, got in the Discord and joined in on the flurry of activity.

My opinion very quickly soured. I dropped it in less than a month. What went wrong?

Eden does not make it subtle what it was inspired by: the Mega Man Battle Network series, there's Slay the Spire in there as well, I could see a little bit of Binding of Isaac or Risk of Rain as well. I won't bore you with over-analyzing specific mechanics. Put broadly, however, one of the primary complaints about the game has been, and continues to be, its difficulty.

I'm not surprised the game ended up difficult and a bit obtuse. Hard "skill games", uncompromising, no hand-holding, and so on are popular and desired anymore, thanks From Software. The Discord server, in my time there, was full of chatter trying to figure out how things work, what to do to unlock this or that, and generally figuring out Eden itself. The developer seemed to encourage this, with one quote being the undocumented mechanics - some of which are rather useful to know, like how Focus works - are, to paraphrase, "the sort of thing you ask a friend". I suppose the theory is players should discover things for themselves. More cynically, it's a great excuse to not have to write documentation.

Eden's speed is generally pointed to as its main difficulty source. Eden plays at a rapid-fire pace, with minimal delays after moving or attacking. It's a severe contrast to the Battle Network series it was inspired by. Battle Network, along with an overall slower pace to its battles, was filled with pauses: you'd pause to select your next hand of chips, chips themselves would pause the match to play out, and those that didn't often had noticeable time before or after use, requiring you to commit to the action - the humble Cannon is a good example of this. You were always given moments to think and encouraged to plan out your next play-by-play.

Eden, by comparison, loses a lot of this cerebral element due to its pace. There is little time to plan: you're in real time and you aren't stopping. Elaborate combos can be insufferable to set up, especially when compared to the ease of mashing the card button with basic projectiles. The Cannon chips of Eden hardly lock you in place, after all. Why have a plan when you can vaguely line yourself up with your opponent, start mashing, and save your focus for when you need to start dodging again? Eden's pivot to twitch action is entirely to the detriment of strategy and tactics, and nothing shows that more than the pragmatic nature of mash decks.

But I digress. Eden is fast and difficult, that's fine. I'm almost certain the majority of complaints about the difficulty could have been avoided had there been the simple addition of a practice mode. I look at Necrodancer, another game all about patterns, and see a training mode that Eden could have definitely benefited with. Unfortunately for us, there is no such mode here: Eden wants to see you improve, but it doesn't care enough to help you do that. If you want to learn a boss fight, you'll have to make the trek there each and every time.

What's frustrating is I'm not entirely sure the difficulty was on purpose. I'm going to make a bold accusation here and suggest the game wasn't playtested sufficiently. By that I mean, yes, there were beta testers giving feedback, but I really think what may have been lacking through the process were fresh pairs of eyes having a first-time exposure to the game. A skilled and comfortable playtester is one that forgets what the new player experience is like. At launch, we saw the exact result of that: tons of people pointing out something that could only have been missed if you didn't know it was there. This sort of "playtest complacency" is something I'm constantly worried about when giving feedback on games myself.

I can't talk about any game with an unlock system without ranting about unlocking and metaprogress. Eden has unlockables, successfully ticking off that item on the checklist of things indie games and/or roguelites absolutely need to have. I have yet to find a game where I truly enjoyed metaprogression or unlocking new features, so admittedly this is going to be more ranting about such systems in general than Eden's specific sins. Eden commits the sin, however, so I think it stands.

Eden has a few different unlocks: cards and artifacts, characters, and skins. The vast majority of the cards and artifacts are unlocked with a very bland level-up system. Play the game, gain experience, level up, receive unlocks. There's no real reason to this system or any explanation why the cards that are locked behind it are such. In fact, it's downright frustrating to see viable cards locked behind what is essentially a meaningless playtime gate - my memory of a trying a poison-based deck and unlocking useful poison cards at the end of the run stands out strong. I felt screwed by the system, my strategy was doomed to mediocrity because I was "too early".

Characters, their loadouts, and skins are generally unlocked through achievements or in-game accomplishments. Like with all systems like this, I'm not sure why this is the case. Like many roguelites, I'm considered unworthy to have fun in a certain way and I must to prove I have the right to try out the turret girl or defensive reflector style. This sort of tedious gatekeeping always degrades into either a gratuitous chore for its own sake, or outright gatekeeping - which, given some of Eden's inspirations, might be the point.

There's a certain irony in that the Chronos loadout for Saffron, a loadout with the idea that a slow-time weapon would be "easier" and initially touted as a difficulty accessibility option, is required to be unlocked. At level 2, yes, but still locked away. I'm not sure what I really gained out of not having these options until an arbitrary point, but I definitely felt what I lost: choice, which is a dangerous thing to decide I shouldn't have in a game about making choices.

I'm going to talk about the ending of the games for a bit. As in, an extreme amount of spoilers about how the last part of the game plays out. This paragraph is the only warning you're getting, what follows is talking about the endings and then the conclusion. I don't believe or care about spoilers myself, but I'm dropping this here for those who do. You're welcome.

Eden has a story. At least, I'm pretty sure it has a story, or at least a decent amount of lore behind the characters and events in the branching routes. In practice, you're only going to be able to piece bits of it together, since none of it is really spelled out or explored in the game itself. You'd have to pick up one of the limited edition art books for the choicest tidbits.

In a system that is almost entirely ripped from Undertale, you can kill or spare bosses, and your decisions influence the final boss and ending you receive.

Sparing characters gives you some healing, and the final boss for pacifism is one of the characters, except she's feeling especially antagonist for reasons not really talked about in the game at all, and made all the more awkward if you're playing as that character. You then defeat her, hold out a hand for true friendship, and everybody sings and dances and are friends forever and walk together into the promised land because you're so nice and blah blah blah.

Killing characters gives you some extra resources, and if you kill some but not all of the cast, your final boss is - and I have to emphasize that I am being extremely literal here - a wall. You fight a gigantic wall that takes up the back half of the enemy field, that spawns turrets to attack you. If spam decks were an effective strategy for most of the game, imagine how nice they are when aiming is largely optional.

Defeating the wall has you meeting an invincible angel who kills you. The game cuts to the game over screen and treats this like a death.

This ending was such an absolutely baffling non-sequitur that I still, months later, see messages asking what just happened, did they do something wrong, if that was the actual ending, if the angel was supposed to kill you, so on, so forth. Yes, that is the neutral "ending", it is treated internally like a victory and will reward you for victory appropriately, and being unceremoniously offed is your reward for getting through the game. Thanks, Eden.

And last, the "genocide" ending of killing everybody actually takes you to a whole new, interesting area, and fighting the angel in a mildly obnoxious boss fight. From here, it goes one of two directions: if you also killed the shopkeeper, you get the genocide ending where everything burns. If you didn't, after the angel fight, you're sent back to the beginning of the game with all your equipment in a sort of New Game+ or Gradius-like looping system. This is the only way you can loop through the game in this manner, it is not available in any other ending or setting that I'm aware of.

So, what is actually happening in these endings? I'll be honest with you: Beats me. Someone wrote a story here and forgot to actually put it in the game. There are bits from the art book that make some things make more sense, but by and large we're just kind of here for the ride. You're not given much information or reason to care about any of this. With no reason to care, whatever I'm supposed to get out of "and then an angel pops out, calls you a bad person, and kills you" is thrown out the window and turns into a slap in the face. What worked for Undertale does not work for Eden. Perhaps, like a lot of Eden, all of these story elements are the one of those undocumented things we're supposed to ask a friend about?

In-between some of these more egregious omissions and missteps, there were more minor details and some polish missing, like Terra's near-placeholder sprite getting updated soon after launch, an obvious balance problem with Rock Cycle allowing infinite spamming. There were so many things that indicated to me that Eden simply was not ready to launch when it did. It needed a little more time, which, by now, it's received, through several months of time and updates. Compared to launch, would I consider Eden worth picking up, then?

Well, no. There's certainly more content, and efforts at a more accessible difficulty... which Eden still cannot help but be condescending at the player for using, giving Angel Mode players a little halo indicator. The core problems remain. You still will have no idea what's happening in the story, you will still have to go through the motions of unlocking everything, you will still be playing at a pace too fast to be thoughtful for a game that cares enough to want you to improve but not enough to help you do it.

And I think that last statement says plenty. Eden doesn't care. It only knew that other games did them and so it should do them too. In its quest to check off every good idea from the cornucopia of games it was inspired by, it forgot to ask itself why those ideas worked. Indeed, "why?" is a question I found myself asking a lot while playing Eden - including, ultimately, why I should play it at all.

I don't have an answer for that one.