2020-Jul-09: Fate in a Nutshell

Another long one spanning an entire series. I should break these up more.

When I was a little kid, WildTangent was a thing. Though they're little more than a game storefront owned by some skeevy megacorp now, back in the early 2000s WildTangent sought to compete with Shockwave with the WildTangent Web Driver. This was a rough first shot at the sort of thing that'd eventually become Unity: a plugin and dev platform that'd allow games to be played in native desktop format as well as within a web browser.

WildTangent developed a few first party titles for their little plugin, providing both web based and desktop variants of some of their software. Most of what they put out was meh. The least meh of them was probably the Fate series: a set of Diablolikes that heavily took notes from the original Diablo and, only much later, Diablo II. At the time these games came out, I didn't have a PC that could run them, but they got my attention. Over time the WildTangent Web Driver fell out of favor and the Fate games were forgotten. At least until the games showed up on Steam.

I decided to go back and give them a shot, since I'd wanted to so badly as a wee little thing.

Fate (2005)

Despite being developed four years after Diablo II, Fate is more or less a re-imagining of the original Diablo. You have a town, a single monolithic dungeon sprawling ever downward, and a series of quests that take you deeper and deeper until you reach the big bad for a final showdown. What sets Fate apart from Diablo, aside from the more colorful and cartoony atmosphere, is that everything in the game is procedurally generated.

The one sprawling dungeon is extremely Diablo in design. It feels like one coherent building's cellar that turns into a cavern that turns into fifteen other things as you progress downward. The entire game takes place in this one massive chasm, aside from your trips to town to re-stock. Unlike Diablo's dungeon though, this one weaves between tilesets almost entirely at random. There's no coherent flow from cellar to caves to hell.

There's no plot aside from "You are a young adventurer out to prove yourself". Your journey's goal is decided at random by the game picking a normal enemy, souping it up in both model size and stats, giving it a posse of boss-tier allies, placing it on a random dungeon floor between 40 and 50, and telling you to go get it. Where Diablo carefully revealed more of the plight of Tristram via the dialogues you had during quests, Fate randomly generates the quests too. Really, once you start the game, there's no reason not to delve down as fast as you can to defeat your white whale of a boss monster.

To actually get strong enough to do that, you'll likely need to quest though. Powering up in Fate consists of the genre-typical experience and randomly generated gear, but also Fame. Fame is a second experience bar, only increased by defeating bosses or finishing quests. As you gain Fame levels, you get skill points, but also higher tiers of gear just require certain Fame tiers; so it's important!

The questing system has some issues though. Townspeople randomly have quests for you, up to five per town trip. When you accept a quest, the appropriate target is generated, so quests can only be taken for levels below the lowest one you've generated (by entering). This means you're ever being pushed downward, ready or not. On higher difficulties, the maximum of three quests per floor is not enough to keep you up with the level curve, so careful adventuring or clever manipulation of the system is required. Furthermore, if you want three quests for a specific floor, be prepared to pop in and out of town 2 or 3 times to get them. It's pretty tedious.

If you find you delved too deep, you can pull this downward push back a bit by backing up to a higher floor, casting Town Portal to reset where your portal is, and restarting the game. Fate will "forget" about the dungeon floors below your portal and let you re-take quests on the intervening floors. This is real tedious to actually do, though. Since enemies that are slain do not respawn, this is your only recourse if you get stuck.

Quests only have a few categories: kill a rare monster, find a dropped item, or kill a pack of normal foes. That's about it. No depth here! Still, this makes for a good tight cycle of "Get quest, go to dungeon, do quest, turn in" that will naturally carry you down through the entire game with no real diversion.

Levels reward you with stat points that are pretty much a copy of Diablo and provide you a Strength, Dexterity, Vitality, and Magic stat boost. Additionally you get skill points, but these don't go into a skill tree like you'd expect from Diablo II. Instead these points go into a Wasteland or Fallout style skill system that allows you to customize a character by making them proficient in specific weapon types, magic types, make them a dual wielder, or proficient with shields. The skill system exists in place of a class system: all characters are adventurers defined by their skill selections. In truth, the best approach is usually to just pump a weapon stat into the stratosphere, stopping to get shield, critical hit, and some support magic.

Spells are learned from scroll drops, like Diablo's spellbook drops. You need a certain amount of Magic to learn a spell, but not cast it. So you can keep a set of gear in your stash to equip to learn spells, then switch back to your dungeon crawling gear. It's kind of a weird system and makes almost moot the Magic stat-- then again, this is fitting to Diablo and Diablo II, where the Magic stat was just as moot. Magic is varied and has a wealth of protective spells, offensive spells, and really useful utility spells. While not required, grabbing a few points in Charm Magic to be able to use the really important dungoneering spells can help smooth over a playthru.

One feature Fate has that is definitely all its own is pets. You have a permanent, unkillable hireling that follows you around automatically attacks enemies. If its HP is reduced to 0 it will "flee", running around randomly in the dungeon and possibly angering other foes. But foes will not attack it while it flees, instead choosing to focus on you. Even when fleeing, the pet is useful in that it has its own backpack, effectively doubling your storage space beyond even what Diablo provided. You can also send the pet back to town to sell items for you-- a feature that'd be far more useful if not for the fact that you have to return to town every floor to turn in quests anyway.

Fate boasts four difficulty levels, which can be chosen right from the start instead of Diablo's need to finish the game to start the next level of loop. However difficulty levels in Fate seem to only manipulate the rate at which the dungeon gets harder. The easiest difficulty keeps the monster levels slightly behind the dungeon floor they're on. Normal keeps them a little above even. The other two difficulty levels have the foes out-scale the dungeon by differing amounts, with the hardest having them roughly double it.

Here's the problem though: this doesn't really matter. You can choose your own difficulty by diving deep, or slowing down and grinding. If you are having too easy of a time, you can just dive down five floors without fighting anything, and the enemies will get harder. All the difficulty level does is force you to be a specific level to finish the game, and remove options for speeding up if you're getting bored. Playing on the easiest level and just skipping floors is a much more customizable experience than slogging on the hardest difficulty.

Upon killing the randomly selected big bad around floor 50 of the dungeon, your quest is done. You can choose to press on, scaling the dungeon up infinitely (or, well, to roughly floor 2,000,000,000). Gear will scale, your levels are practically uncapped, and the enemies will keep getting harder until you're rocket-tagging one-shots with each other. When you've had enough, you can opt to retire. Retiring deletes your character and rolls a new one that starts with extra Fame. The more times you retire, the more Fame you get at the start. You can also hand down a single item to your next of kin, which will gain a 25% buff to all numeric stats on it. After a few generations, a properly chosen item can turn even your piddly new level 1 adventurer into a agent of death.

For reference: the best choice is probably a ring with flat + and +% to stats. I got lucky and managed to find a ring that gave roughly 40% to all four stats. After four generations, it doubles all of the stats on my character, with no stat or level requirement.

There's not much to Fate, and considering it came five years after Diablo II, and year after Sacred, it's pretty disappointing by comparison. However, it's a neat escape in just zoning out and bashing monsters and gaining loot for as long as you want, scaling as high as you want, with no real additional thought to be had.

Mindless fun is still fun, for a time.

Fate: Undiscovered Realms (2008)

Three years after Fate, WildTangent would release this "standalone expansion" as they call it. The same gameplay of Fate is there with almost no modifications at all. However Fate:UR is set in a different region of the world, and gives you access to two dungeons instead of just one. You don't have access to the old area of Grove, but you can import either a powerful character that completed the original Fate, or a fresh descendant ready to start over in Fate:UR. I opted for the latter.

Rather than having a single town, you begin in the Temple of Fate, in a small hub area with two portals: one leading to a jungle town, and another leading to a frozen tundra settlement. Each town then serves as a base of operations to shop and pick up quests before setting off into the town's own individual dungeon with its own tileset and monster set. You can return to the hub at any time to switch over to the other side, and the game will keep track of your town portal and progression individually on each side. Each side has a boss to kill, just like the original Fate.

This gives you a slightly greater degree of flexibility by letting you either delve one dungeon on its own, then flip to the other and just destroy it with your powered up hero, or do them together, powering up above the scale of both dungeons as you go. At least on the easiest difficulty. Maybe more strategy would be required on higher difficulties in this case. However, a lot of what would make the two-dungeon approach different is taken away by an enhanced level scaling and a reduction in the number of floors you must traverse in each dungeon to reach the boss to about 25. As a result, doing the two dungeons in parallel produces an experience completely identical to the original Fate.

The hub zone also contains two heroic statues that are missing some of their gear. While exploring the dungeons you'll sometimes get a notification that a missing piece of heroic equipment is on a given floor. There you can defeat a boss to receive the item. These items can sometimes be worth keeping for yourself, but rebuilding the statues to completion reward you with experience and fame and some drops. Also finishing the statues eventually is required to enter the dungeon boss lairs. Ultimately though? The reward isn't worth the trouble, save for actually being able to finish the game.

Once you do defeat both dungeon bosses, a third dungeon is opened and you're told to enter it to seek out Kaos, the actual final boss of the game. Yeah, Fate:UR actually has a real final boss instead of just a random powered up monster. This final leg of the game sucks, frankly. The final delve is 30 to 40 floors, has no quests to make things interesting, and the dungeon starts around where the other dungeons left off. If you're not strong enough to make it to Kaos, you have to go back to the prior dungeons to grind in floors below the boss floor.

Once you reach Kaos though, he's kind of a chump. I kind of just cornered him with the now somewhat ludicrous knockback on my hand-me-down ring and beat him down.

That's really it. Everything in Fate:UR is exactly the same as Fate. Calling it an expansion is probably the most accurate thing you could do even though it is standalone and quite capable of being experienced on its own.

I think if I paid full price for this in 2008 expecting "Fate II", I'd be a little disappointed.

Fate: Traitor Soul (2009)

Just a year after Fate:UR, WildTangent released Fate: Traitor Soul. Fate:TS is simultaneously a more and less different experience than Fate:UR. First, Fate:TS takes place in exactly the same world, dungeons, and quest as Fate:UR. Same Temple of Fate hub, same two towns and dungeons, same final leg to kill Kaos. What Fate:TS does to set itself apart, though, actually improves the experience and ties together the prior games to make a more canonical experience here.

First, the original world of Grove is now accessible. You don't get a big bad to hunt here, but you can engage in the entire quest-delve-loot loop for as deep as you wish. It's entirely optional; you can finish the game without ever touching Grove. This means that aside from experiencing the game that started the series, and getting a final boss to hunt in the Grove dungeon, there's absolutely no reason to play the original Fate if you have Traitor Soul.

Second, Fate:TS introduces the Chamber of Trials: an enhanced scaling dungeon accessible from the hub world. Every 10 or so levels you'll get a quest to reach a specific floor in the Chamber. These can be pretty challenging as it seems that the Chamber carries with it max-difficulty scaling even in the easiest difficulty. This too is fairly optional, though. It's just there as another source of experience and loot if you need it.

Third, there's the rage attack. Every weapon type now has a super attack that consumes stamina on use. These attacks are roughly twice as powerful as normal attacks, ignore miss chance, cannot crit (I think), and are typically AoEs that can hit multiple foes. They give you something to do with weapons besides hold left mouse button, but can also completely invalidate the need for Dexterity since they can't miss. Those points can instead go to Vitality to give you more stamina, and at the same time more health. After a certain point I gave up on actually hitting the enemy entirely and spammed rage attack while chugging stamina potions. It felt cheap; it worked.

Finally, Fate:TS introduces races. If you bring in a generational character from a prior title it'll be a human, but new characters can be one of several races with different appearances and starting stat and skill bonuses.

Of the first three games, Fate:TS is the canonical experience. You have Grove, you have the two dungeons of Fate:UR, and you have the quality of life improvements of Fate:TS like inventory auto-sorting, the new gear slots for capes and earrings, and the expanded spell list, bestiary, and tilesets.

I will admit, after playing Fate:TS, I felt a bit like playing Fate and Fate:UR were a waste of time. Still, it was a fairly enjoyable experience even if 80% of the game was exactly the same as Fate:UR.

Bottom line: if you have access to Fate:TS, skip the prior two games. All their content is folded into this one anyway. If you want to experience the original Fate, the experience is almost identical by booting up Fate:TS, going to Grove, and fighting your way down to floor 50.

Fate: The Cursed King (2011)

By 2011, Diablo III was well on its way and we'd seen beta footage, Sacred 2 had come and gone, Titan Quest and its expansion were in the books, and we'd see the beginnings of Path of Exile. Sadly Fate: The Cursed King didn't implement any of the advancements in the genre we saw therein. Fate:TCK is more of the same, as you'd likely have come to expect if you were a Fate fan. However, Fate:TCK does take place in a different world, with different dungeons, and those dungeons attempt to framework some form of actual progression and plot, which is a first.

The short of it is you're a young adventurer who wandered somewhere they shouldn't, opened a sarcophagus, and released an evil spirit who proceeded to destroy a nearby town and begin terrorizing the surviving villagers. To stop it, you have to rescue a wise hermit who knows the ancient secrets of his imprisonment, find what is more or less the spirit's phylactery, and then a sacred hammer to smash it before delving down the final dungeon to a ritual site to summon the spirit to destroy it.

Okay yeah it ain't much, but it's more than what prior games gave us!

Fate:TCK sports three dungeons, but unlike prior Fate games, the dungeons are explored in series. The first dungeon has a hermit you need to rescue on floor 30, guarded by a boss. Once you free the hermit, you gain access to the second dungeon, which begins with level 30 foes and scales up from there to a treasure you need on, once again, floor 30. Finally the third dungeon starts with level 60 foes and scales up to the final showdown on floor 30.

This works much better than prior installments in many ways, and falls short in others. In theory you'd have access to three dungeons you keep at similar enemy levels, each 30 floors apart, and be able to use all three for grinding if you need a power boost. Sadly, though the dungeons spawn enemies of different difficulties, the actual quest rewards and loot generated is still locked to dungeon floor. This means fighting level 61 enemies on floor 1 of the third dungeon gets you level 1 loot. Largely anyway; item types are fine, their mods are what are nerfed. This means uniques still spawn properly.

In short, this makes the two later dungeons useless for actually leveling up and getting gear. If you get out-scaled by the dungeon, you need to go back to the first dungeon, push to floor 60+ and grind there. It's such a terrible oversight that almost completely destroys any sense of progression and increasing access the game has. Also the jumps in level seem to not take difficulty level into account at all, removing the one thing the difficulty level actually does in the game: control how quickly the enemies scale up.

On the plus side, Fate:TCK brings several new features and quality of life improvements, most of which were lifted straight from Diablo II, perplexingly. The snarky side of me wants to say "it only took them ten years!"

The first major improvement is the ability to hire and outfit mercenaries. I haven't messed with this too much, but you get a couple of randomly generated options when you visit town, and can hire them for a pretty steep rate. They come with no gear and need to be outfitted, and their skills are random. I was quite amused when I saw one that offered dual wield and shield simultaneously. If only dual wielding shields were a thing, I guess.

Next, a vendor in town now identifies all of your items at once for you. Sadly this kind of works counter to the game because now you have less reason to send your pet back to town to sell things for you. You just let your packs fill up until you're forced to return and ID it all then.

Additionally, Fate:TCK implements health globes. This one was lifted from Diablo III, which was in development and sharing early gameplay footage as development was ongoing. The globes start out overpowered but quickly fall in effectiveness until they're almost useless as incoming damage scales up. It's just noteworthy that after being 10 years behind the curve, Fate:TCK actually cribbed a really recent and new mechanic.

Finally, Fate:TCK just cleans up a lot of interface jank. Drops now have more obvious coloring indicating type and rarity, certain items that were previously hard to tell apart now have big obvious color differences, inventories are cleaner and easier to work with, and the quest log lets you track quests for each dungeon separately and flip between pages effortlessly. It's all little stuff, but it was little stuff I was getting real tired of after three Fate games.

One additional feature of Fate:TCK that I can't comment on is some level of Facebook integration to trade hirelings and gear. The feature seems to be stripped from the game at this point. I wouldn't use it anyway, so it's largely immaterial to me, but worthy of mention as something that did exist at some point.

Fate:TCK is definitely the most standalone of the games. It's probably the closest thing to a proper "Fate II" we got, though it plays more like a total conversion mod of Fate:TS, with almost nothing in its core engine or gameplay to set it apart. By 2011, the core Fate engine really felt dated. Again, Diablo III would launch less than a year later!

Still, Fate:TCK continues the "Mindless fun is still fun" mantra that all four games seem to carry on quite well.

Bonus: Torchlight (2009)

After the original Fate, the lead designer was hired by Flagship Studios to develop Mythos. When this ultimately failed, he and several Flagship former employees founded Runic Games and began work on a new diablolike action RPG that would become known as Torchlight.

Torchlight turned out to have a powerhouse of genre development behind it. Travis Baldree, the designer of Fate, had pulled in Max and Erich Schaefer of Blizzard North fame, Matt Uelmen to reprise his musical work on Diablo, and the entire development team behind Mythos. With Baldree at the helm as designer, the resulting product turned out to be very Fate-like in its final incarnation.

So if you heard mention of Fame levels, pets, and randomly sprawling infinite dungeons and thought "hey that sounds like Torchlight", you wouldn't be wrong!

Torchlight turned out to be everything Fate could be if redesigned from the ground up. The aimless procedural sprawl was replaced with a more deliberate and structured dungeon with a progression of plot quests. The mish-mash of skills often leading to "Dump everything into one weapon" was replaced with a class system and skill trees. Dungeon generation has been polished up and no longer creates maze-like tangles of narrow corridors or giant square rooms with holes. The dungeon generator of Torchlight instead uses hand-built chunks that are snapped together, much like Diablo II.

Torchlight also steps away from the magical high-fantasy world of Fate by providing a slightly grittier steampunk/magicpunk world and darker aesthetic. It's still cartoony and slightly goofy, leaning closer to Fate than Diablo, but lacks the utter saccharine sweetness of Fate's "Child adventurer on a journey" aesthetic. Your character is an adult, your character is some form of warrior, and the stakes of the plot are real and have a body count if you fail.

At its core though, Torchlight is "Fate in a different suit". You have a plot, you have less random and messy questing, but you're still diving to the bottom of a dungeon to slay a big bad. You're still incrementing your progress via retirement, and if you're not ready to retire there's still an infinite dungeon just across the way to chew into until the numbers get mind-boggling huge. The loot generation is almost identical, you're still beholden to a Fame score, and the tools you have access to in town and in dungeon are almost exactly the same.

If you asked me to choose only one Fate game to play, though, it'd be Torchlight. It's a Fate game, and the best of the bunch.

Torchlight II would eschew a lot of Fate's mainstays, bringing a far more modern diablolike experience with an actual open world, act-based plot and progression, and an actual structured endgame aside from "Infinite dungeon, go nuts". However that's a story for another time. Torchlight II is its own game, with few similarities to its predecessor, deserving of its own discussion.

And we don't yet speak of Torchlight III at all.