I've mentioned before that Howlongtobeat has been one of my go-to sources when I start a new game. Some people will be saying it takes the fun out of the game, I know how long it takes. Say if I'm playing a six hour long game, and three hours in it seems like the big climax, then I might know that this isn't it.
But I find it a little comforting, I like knowing how much progress I've made in something. (I mean for goodness sake, I try to figure out what percentage of a book I've gone through by the page numbers!)
So when I was about an hour into 7 Grand Steps (What Ancients Begat), I decided to check out how much more time I was going to put into this neat little puzzle game about a family, with each subsequent generation going through the ages of mankind.
I'd already gotten to the second age of and there were four ages total, so maybe another hour? Maybe two? The total time couldn't be longer than three hours, could it?
And how long is 7 Grand Steps, I hear you ask? Well it's 9 hours.
13 if you want to experience everything.
Now I'm all for a good puzzle game but ... Christ, this feels mean to say.
7 Grand Steps isn't my kind of game. It's actually ...
Well I ...
... oh God, fine, I'll say it: It's kind of boring, okay?
That feels bad to say, I know I couldn't design a video game, let alone program it, make the artwork, the music, the sound effects, the mechanics, the marketing. There's a lot of stuff that goes into a video game, I know that. But at the same time, there's been games that I've kept playing despite a difficult gameplay challenge because I like other elements of the gameplay enough to keep going, because there's other stuff to do in the game, or because I think I can beat the challenge.
In 7 Grand Steps, none of the elements really make me want to continue playing. The aesthetics are nice, if you ever watched that Tom Hanks movie Big then think about the creepy fortune-telling/ wish-granting machine. That's basically the aesthetic of the game. The interface is designed to look like an old wooden arcade machine, even the title screen shows the machine sitting abandoned in a warehouse! Moves are made by placing tokens into slots, the circular board rotates with a clicking clockwork sound, character portraits pop up on tin-plates through slats, and the "story" is told through cards being ejected from another slot in the machine.
I honestly love the way this game looks and sounds, but unfortunately those aesthetic elements aren't enough to keep me hooked.
Fundamentally, it's a board game. You have two "pawns" on the board, the adult parents of your family, and 1-7 kids. By putting tokens into slots beneath each character's portrait you can take a variety of actions. Either create more tokens, move an adult to another space on the board that matches a token, or teach a child life-skills that are represented by one of the tokens.
And I ... don't really know what that accomplishes? If your adult characters die you can get a kid to do a "rite of passage" and I think their level of education in different skills determines which tokens they can get?
Not understanding the game's rules or mechanics was one of the reasons I decided to skip it rather than keep playing. The game board was a little confusing too, it's a one-player game, but we get to see other players on the board, these represent other community members. Friends, rivals, and they're all blacked out so you can't tell the difference without scrolling over them! Eventually you can turn some into allies or enemies where they become stripey and garishly coloured against the rest of the screen, all they're there to do is steal beads from you and occasionally interact.
I should talk about the beads, actually, they're how 7 Grand Steps keeps score. You travel around the board picking up different coloured beads that are worth different amounts of points. Get enough points and you must pass a "Challenge Of The Age", where the game tots up your skills and tokens to see if you pass it or not.
There's a few other mechanics that are linked to story details, almost like a choose your own adventure puzzle. When your adult players die, you pick a child player to be your next main character, but first you have to complete a rite of passage, and again I think it bases success or failure off of how much training your chosen child did? But it wasn't clear. All it boils down to in terms of player influence is picking an adjective to describe your new main character. Even in the one I failed it just gave me negative adjectives rather than positive ones!
The gameplay is repetetive, boring, and I don't feel like I'm achieving anything. Like Civilisation it feels like a game that I need to have been playing with my friends for years.
I'll admit, I'm not great at games. But the idea that I need to "git gud" is frankly ridiculous to me, I'm not going to spend my time playing a game that doesn't appeal me just to say "I never have to play this again!" when I can skip a step and go straight to never having to play it again.
The aesthetic and tone is nice, but not enough to keep me invested.
The gameplay's boring, and feels over-long. New tokens being cycled in, and being at a low bar because I need to keep my kids trained makes me feel like I'm lagging behind and not making any progress.
But the real kicker?
It's 9 hours long.
7 Grand Steps, What Ancients Begat, is a game by Mousechief, if you like more artsy games about constructing a long-form story then it may very well be worth your time.