Clicker Heroes 2 is a very interesting project.

The original Clicker Heroes is one of many idle/incremental games based on a series of concentric gameplay loops that get slower as you go, intended to provide a functionally infinite treadmill of progression. It does a few interesting things and it’s a mostly-harmless way to pass a few minutes here and there as long as you don’t get addicted and let it become a bottomless time-sink - the problem is, it’s free-to-play with microtransactions, so the developer/publisher is incentivized to try to hook the player. Once the game started leaning its design in this direction by adding a social element with daily responsibility, I wrote it off as (mildly) evil.

But the sequel is very specifically and purposefully avoiding this. The CEO of Playsaurus (the developer/publisher) put up a blog post in November 2017 explaining that Clicker Heroes 2 was a one-time purchase so that it could be a better and more ethical game. (My complaints about the fact that they needed to explain this is a separate rant.) This prompted me to pre-order Clicker Heroes 2 in support of their philosophy.

It’s still in Early Access, and while I don’t normally play games before they release I finally tried this one out after a recent major update when I was sick and wanted something low-pressure to play. And while there’s a lot about it that I like better than the original already, in its current form it’s hard to see how they’re going to give it long-term appeal.

I wrote in my review of the original that leveling up heroes speeds up the monster-killing loop, leveling up ancients speeds up the hero loop, and leveling up outsiders speeds up the ancient loop. This is true, but I left out the fact that the mechanics are complicated enough that you actually had some interesting choices to make along the way here. Like, the bonuses granted by various ancients actually fed into each other in interesting ways and enabled at least two different play styles. So even though you were repeatedly losing all progress on a given loop, you did it to get a bonus on the next loop and bring you further along your overall progression in a chosen direction.

Currently, Clicker Heroes 2 has a very different distribution of interesting choices between its loops. As you defeat monsters you gain experience levels and thus skill points, which allow you to buy skills that function sort of like the ancient bonuses in the first game. Alongside this is a brand-new and very interesting addition - the Automator. This allows you to set conditions and actions - for example, activate Clickstorm if Energy is at least 90% full. There are a lot of available conditions and actions and many rules can be active simultaneously, so you can set up quite complex systems and let the game mostly play itself. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface but I still set up a very effective automation that let my character breeze through world after world with no intervention from me at all. Once I’d done that, I didn’t have to bother with combat or buying upgrades and I just opened the game periodically to spend accumulated skill points and further speed up the game’s self-driven progression.

Every thirty worlds (if I’m understanding correctly) your character must “gild” to continue. This causes you to lose all of your skills but gain a huge damage multiplier. Then you keep going, gain more levels and skill points and this time maybe explore a different section of the huge skill tree. You do keep your Automator setup, but until you get back the skills it relies on it’s not very useful.

And that’s where the problem is for me. You could certainly argue that this is my fault and not the game’s, but right now I don’t feel compelled to try a different build, because the gameplay is largely passive anyway once you get a build going. So I just feel like getting back the skills I gave up so my Automator setup will be effective again. But then I’m just expending effort to get back to where I was, with the only benefit from gilding being the damage multiplier - which is the least interesting possible reward. It doesn’t feel like further progression along a chosen direction, nor does it feel like I’m getting to try playing in new ways.

I acknowledge that this is a really hard problem Playsaurus is trying to solve - how do you make progression interesting indefinitely? I don’t think they’ve solved it yet, but the game is still in Early Access. I hope they figure it out, or at least get closer. I’d like to see Clicker Heroes 2 do well.