Turn-Based Strategy Game Alchemy Stars Needs A Smarter AI

Turn-Based Strategy Game Alchemy Stars Needs A Smarter AI
Image: Tourdog Studio

Alchemy Stars is certainly an interesting take on an RPG, combining puzzles with turn-based combat. Which is why it’s so frustrating that its autoplay AI isn’t smarter than a fifth grader.

Alchemy Stars is a mobile gacha game that launched globally on June 17, and last month crossed 10 million downloads. It boasts gorgeous anime art, a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, and genuinely challenging, turn-based gameplay that forces players to think on their feet. Being a gacha game, it also suffers one of the genre’s typical limitations: a debilitating resource grind.

Many gacha games are notoriously grindy by design. Some lower-powered gacha characters who possess unique wave-clearing traits have just as much value (if not more, depending on who you ask) as rare boss killers because the vast majority of a gacha game consists of farming for resources. New challenging content is only new once; the grind for currency and rank-up materials is forever. After you clear enough battles to level up one character, there’s always another new roster addition to upgrade. I’ve noticed that a lot of gacha players burn out after several weeks or months of grinding resources for their characters.

Some games have tried to retain players by allowing them to skip battles entirely. Dragalia Lost has “Skip Tickets” that allow players to collect the rewards without playing or watching the level. Arknights replays levels by using the save data from the player’s manual clear. But Alchemy Stars, bless its heart, replays previously-cleared battles using its hilariously incompetent AI. And by god, it hurts.

Screenshot: Tourdog Studio, Fair Use

Screenshot: Tourdog Studio, Fair Use

Multiple characters in the party run across the red tiles on a battlefield to execute their attacks.

Screenshot: Tourdog Studio, Fair Use

Screenshot: Tourdog Studio, Fair Use

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The game has you defeat monsters by connecting same-coloured tiles on a board. If a player links up a certain number of tiles, then the characters in the party may perform a special area-of-effect attack. Higher tile counts confer better multipliers, but there are situations where being closer to the enemies is more important than combo count.

Unfortunately, the AI didn’t quite get the memo. When I put Alchemy Stars on autoplay, I have to flip my phone face down. It’s too painful to watch the game land a perfect combo…so far away from the enemies that none of the ensuing AoE attacks hit. Alternatively, the game wouldn’t connect all the possible tiles, even if they were very obviously adjacent to one another. And nothing is worse than having the AI use up my characters’ special abilities to change the colours of tiles that wouldn’t benefit the combo.

It’s funny when live humans are bad at a game. They’ll improve over time. But it’s excruciating when the AI never gets better, and is taking far more turns to clear levels than I would at my worst. And unlike competing strategic gacha game Arknights, Alchemy Stars’s locks me out of overriding the computer whenever the battle gets tricky. Worse, I can’t close out of a battle early to do something else. As soon as I set the battle to auto, my game is tied up by an AI playing matches badly.

Also, in games like this, watching the computer play the game is often part of the spectacle. Just like how viewers might engage in a video game through watching their favourite streamer, I find entertainment value in watching a formidable computer player fight through automated matches. I also want to see how a computer might defeat bosses so that I can come up with new solutions for similar content. Alchemy Stars doesn’t quite deliver on any of these aspects. I expected automated battles to be soothing. Instead, I find myself grinding the game manually so that I can at least experience the serotonin of watching beautiful combo executions.

I’ve played enough PvP in strategy games to realise that skilled humans are a lot smarter than machines. But I’m not asking for this game to be a world-class strategist. I just want an AI that can actually do its thing without making me die from cringing.

 

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