Arknights: IS2 First Month Retrospective
August 5, 2022
Last month, Arknights released a permanent version of Integrated Strategies, its roguelike game mode. I had played the first version of IS last year, but my team was far from the power level it was designed for, so I've been waiting extremely impatiently for IS2 since it was announced in January. Now that we've had a bit of time to get to know each other, I will ramble a bit about how things have been going for us!
I don't want to waste a lot of time here explaining Arknights. To be extremely brief, it's a spin on the tower defense genre with more challenging maps, enemy mechanics, and an extremely varied character roster. If you're genuinely interested in it, shoot me an email or something and I can be a lot more detailed!
One IS run consists of 5 floors composed of randomly-generated branching paths of nodes. The nodes consist of battles and other noncombat events. Battles are selected from a pool of maps, but each map has several variants with minor differences in enemy layout and composition. Your HP, the number of enemies you can let pass, is shared between all battles; noncombat modes may add or subtract HP.
Image (screenshot): A map of the beginning of the first floor, featuring combat and encounter nodes.
Items, called collectibles or relics, confer different advantages (and occasionally disadvantages) to your team. Relics are obtained from random events, shops, and sometimes combat. Some relics affect your entire team, while others only affect certain classes. Some are so busted that you end up building your entire run around them.
Image (screenshot): Some examples of relics, including the Rusted Razor (enemies take +15% physical damage), Bladedance (in each battle, a random operator will have +100% attack and HP), and Abyssal Wyrdmask (enemies have -12% attack).
Teambuilding is the biggest challenge involved in IS. You get 3 recruitment tickets at the start of a run. Afterwards, they're obtained after battles and occasionally in shops and encounters. The tickets are almost always class-locked, so your team composition is at the mercy of RNG. You're hamstrung further by the recruitment currency, called Hope. Hope is obtained by levelling up, which can only be done through combat. It can also be obtained occasionally through encounters and relics. Hope cost scales nonlinearly with rarity; as a result, you're incentivized to build and use lower rarity characters, which a lot of players typically ignore. (A gacha game? Encouraging use of low rarity characters?)
Image (screenshot): An example squad from one of my recent runs, consisting of 3 supporter characters, 2 guards, 2 medics, and 1 caster. What's a tank?
Another caveat is squad size and deployment limit: you start out with significantly lower limits than normal gameplay for both (i.e. a full squad with a support member is 13 members, while here you start with 7), and whether you get more is dependent on RNG. You have to think carefully about who you really need for a battle and who you can bench.
At the end of the run is a boss battle. While you don't actually have to win the boss battle to win a run, you most likely will need to because the boss deducts 30 HP if you don't kill it. There are 3 different boss options: the first is available by default, while the other 2 require you to jump through some hoops to get. The third boss requires you to beat the first or second boss at the end of floor 5, then finish a bonus 6th floor with the third boss at the end.
Image (screenshot): Alternatively... just have more than 30 HP and let the boss go. So easy!
I enjoy the concept of roguelike games, but there are very few that I've stuck with because I'm bad at games. Since I'd been around for the pilot IS, the uncertainty for me was less about if I'd enjoy it and more whether it was roster development (or lack thereof) or incompetence that made it so difficult. It's entirely possible that it was both, but, fortunately, I'm finding IS2 to be satisfyingly challenging.
In Arknights, it's extremely easy to get stuck using the same few characters over and over, so I really enjoy being forced to use the rest of my roster (especially now that it's actually developed, unlike in IS1, when I was still in early game). The team randomization is definitely my favorite part of the roguelike. I also think it's more fun getting to use other people's characters here because you have full access to their kit - in normal gameplay, the only skill you can use is one the owner selected.
Image (screenshot): Squad from a previous clear
On the topic of picking characters and skills, the huge variety of buffs you get can easily turn traditional game wisdom on its head and make certain "off-meta" characters and skills extremely overpowered. For instance, two items (a can of spinach and chocolate pasta) give a huge attack buff to characters 1 second after their skill activates. For skills with long durations, this is pretty much nothing, but other skills activate every few attacks and make the next hit stronger. With the addition of spinach and/or pasta, this multiplier can blow up to ludicrous proportions.
Take Silverash, who is objectively one of the most busted characters in the game (and a launch character to boot). You can see his kit below:
Image (screenshot): Silverash's skill loadout
His third skill is what makes him busted because it increases his attack range, triples his attack stat, and makes him attack 6 targets at once. However, it almost completely nukes his defense and has a very long charge time; this makes it not very good for non-boss roguelike maps because they tend to be very short. On the other hand, his skill 1 more than doubles his attack every few hits. Although this isn't a bad consistent DPS skill, there are much heftier options out there, and it's generally regarded as a throwaway skill... unless you have the spinach or pasta. Now, his skill 1 can easily OHKO weak enemies and put a very sizeable dent into stronger ones, and you have reason to use him for things other than erasing bosses!
Individual battles are much more high-stakes than they are in normal gameplay. While advance planning is an important component in the game in general, you can just quit out of a map if you mess up in normal gameplay; this isn't an option here because quitting out of a battle will forfeit the run. It teaches you to be more purposeful about how you play the game, and you figure out how to think on your toes instead of putting out your entire team at the beginning of every map.
Despite this, the mode itself isn't stressful or high-stakes at all because it doesn't require in-game energy to play, so you don't really lose anything if you have to prematurely quit a run. Like in many roguelike games, even failed runs give you something to take home; in this case, there's a separate level system that gives you stuff every time you level up, and you also get points that you can exchange for small stat buffs that apply to future runs. I'm totally down to play challenging content if I don't have to use energy for it; my other favorite event, Contingency Contract, doesn't require energy either, and I'll happily waste my time banging my head against the wall there as well.
There was an excruciatingly long wait between IS1 and the announcement of IS2, and an even longer wait still until IS2 was released. I think it was absolutely worth it, and I'm really happy with all the quality of life improvements that the devs implemented. I'm also blown away by the theming and immersiveness of the whole thing; IS1 was very obviously a sort of beta test, with even the final bosses being recycled faceless versions of bosses from the main story campaign and no compelling story. Conversely, the worldbuilding of IS2 is so rich and interesting even though the primary mode of delivery is through short dialogue boxes in the random events.
Starting with IS2, each season of Integrated Strategies will last for 8 months. IS2 just got its last update on the Chinese server, so I'll be waiting with great anticipation for the theme announcement for the next season. Based on a very brief teaser from a few months ago, it appears to be based on a certain jellyfish. They're certainly feeding fans of the male characters well.
All in all, I think the roguelike revival was a huge success, and I hope it bodes well for the longetivity of the game! I'd love to hear more takes from any Arknights fans in the audience, if any are out there.