Phantom stands in his castle, brandishing a sword.

Image: Hypergryph / Yostar

I used to be a fairly casual player of Arknights, a tower defense game for mobile. That changed when the developers added a permanent roguelike mode that forced me to use the free gacha characters I had long retired. I found myself playing the “Integrated Strategy” mode for eight hours a day. It was so engrossing that I even let my phone die a few times to force myself to spend my vacation outside.

While gacha games typically revolve around story updates and one or two core gameplay mechanics, the increasing number of live service mobile games has led to stiffer competition for new players. Players increasingly value gameplay as much as plot. Old (Fire Emblem Heroes) and new (Alchemy Stars) gacha games have added permanent game modes to ensure that players don’t fall off the daily grind. Arknights is no exception, and its minigame is just as compelling as any roguelike I’ve played on the PC.

At the beginning of each run, you have a certain amount of Hope currency to spend on recruiting characters you already rolled in the regular gacha. You’re then presented with a flowchart of choices: a regular battle map, a challenge map, or a random event. After a few major chapters, you’re forced to fight a boss with whatever ragtag team you’ve assembled out of your meager resources. And it can be brutal. The mode was originally released on the Chinese servers but came to the English version last week.

Orchid failing to hold two lanes at once on an Arknights map.

Screenshot: Hypergryph / Yostar

I thought I’d learned the game over the course of a year. I’d crushed some of the most difficult stages in story mode. I avoided being humbled by how dependent I had become on some of the most powerful characters such as Thorns, Saria, and Ch’en the Holungday. If I only recruited characters that required a high amount of “Deployment Points” to use, then my run could end before I could summon any of them. Mastering Integrated Strategy required me to relearn a game that I thought I knew forwards and backwards. Even after I cleared an entire run, I would sometimes die during the first couple of stages because I was hoarding resources for more valuable recruits.

Moreover, characters that are generally considered mediocre picks for regular gameplay become essential in Integrated Strategy. Passenger started off so underwhelming that he was made into a meme upon release. But he eventually became GODsenger when people discovered how valuable Chain Casters were in the roguelike. Similarly, Jaye constantly requires Deployment Points to stay on the field, and I felt there were better options for his role. His cheap cost and quick re-deployment saved me on several maps that required assassinating several enemies early on.

I would either learn how to use mixed-rarity units and characters with gimmicky powers, or I would succumb to the brutality of the roguelike mode. In most roguelikes, you can overcome resource constraints by being a skilled player. In a tower defense game like Arknights, talent alone can’t overcome the limitations of having zero snipers on an aircraft-heavy map or too many shielders when swarmed by enemies that can’t be blocked. But it’s also how I discovered some incredible strategies I never would have thought of had I stuck to playing with my most valuable characters.

Integrated Strategy is a permanent mode that makes Arknights feel like a totally different game from its pre-update days.


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