Sometimes it feels like the mainstream gaming market doesn't want us to play intricate role-playing games anymore. Genre stars such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Fallout may still be solid, but have become more and more simplified as the years have gone on. Yet as disappointing as this can be, it leaves the indie market with a gap to fill.
Stoneshard comes as a very welcome breath of fresh air. This RPG/roguelike mashup from Ink Stains Games offers both challenge and hours of entertaining gameplay and - while in need of a bit more polish - is already well worth the price of admission. Stoneshard is set in an open medieval fantasy world. In a particularly punishing prologue, you take control of Verren, a relic seeker who finds himself on the wrong end of a dark ritual. After a solid ten minutes of grasping the controls, you're dropped into the deep end and given the task of making your way out of the dungeon.
After this, the prologue ends and your own character is chatting to Verren in a bar a few weeks later. You pick from four Dungeons and Dragons-like archetypes to play as, complete with their own wild backstory, and set off to uncover the mystery of the Stoneshard. This chat with Verren also reveals why it's so important that I suffered through the first dungeon for three hours to find it, but full disclosure: I suck at the game.
To put it simply, Stoneshard is, for the most part, a delight to play. To anyone else like me, who is woefully lacking in experience with indie roguelikes, the best way to describe Stoneshard is a mix of classic Fallout and Dragon Age: Origins with a whole bunch of survival mechanics thrown in.
Hooking from the start, all its role-playing and survival features near-effortlessly fuse together to create one of the few games in its genre to pull off its multiple mechanics so well. The same unfortunately cannot be said for its roguelike elements, but we'll touch on that more later. Before we even get to that, there's already an unholy amount of survival mechanics to memorize. There's the obvious: hit points, hunger, thirst and sleep. But there's a few more thrown in there to stop you from just eating, sleeping and drinking now and then to stay alive.
You also have a pain meter, which doesn't necessarily correspond with how high your health is. If you've had a particularly nasty wound (like I got when I mindlessly wandered into a trap), getting your health back up helps, but the pain will take a little longer to alleviate. And while this is too high, your max health is capped. So, you take some painkillers or chug a bottle of wine. Tough luck, now you're probably intoxicated. Got a potion to fix that? That'll probably make you hungry. So on, and so on...
Some items that are a fix to one ailment may have less of a negative effect on the others. For example, both bandages and leeches can stop your wounds from getting any worse, but leeches will obviously increase the amount of pain your poor mercenary is feeling, whereas bandages do not. With so many status conditions for the developers to implement and balance, this could have very easily gone wrong, but it doesn't feel needlessly punishing at all, rather it feels like a delicate balancing act that rewards attentiveness -- most of the time.
There is one issue with this however, and that's where the roguelike elements come in. On the whole, the unpredictable design of each area keeps you on your toes, and rewards you for playing smart, rather than blindly charging in to a randomly generated map. However, in many aspects of the game, they cause a lot more trouble than they're worth, to the extent that I wonder if its necessary at all to have this be a roguelike.
The first reason for this is the loot. As I was just saying about the survival mechanics, these fit into the game very nicely, and I hope are here to stay. Having said that, the fact that better quality items can spawn randomly meant that balancing the various survival stats did feel very luck dependent at times, as well as how strong I was in a fight.
For example, I had to ditch my first run because I got to the first boss at the end of the tutorial without finding any decent armor. On the run where I beat the boss, I had found incredibly good armor, as well as more food, and went on to slay the demon on my first attempt. On the initial doomed attempt without these better items I must have attempted the boss around 15 times, so the balancing is a bit off if I can then breeze through it because I, through no skill of my own, got better loot.
And while we're on the subject of balancing, it doesn't just end there. I know, I did just praise the game for being challenging, and while I wouldn't change that, this can border on simply being unfair, with some deaths feeling out of my hands. It's nowhere near the level of classic Fallout, where the damage an enemy dealt would jump from 30 to 300, but having four enemies spawn in the first room you enter is a bit of a kick in the teeth.
But this wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the major deal breaker for some players: the fact that you can't save in a dungeon. In Stoneshard's current state, you can only save by paying for a bed in an inn. The developers say they are working on implementing another method of saving, and have made the price of a room affordable enough to not render it impossible to save.
Yet as it stands now, when you get flanked by half a dozen enemies, you can't learn from the mistake and bring more equipment, or just try and avoid certain areas - the procedurally generated dungeon won't look the same again. I know these issues sound pretty bad, but it's worth mentioning that this has been acknowledged by the developers, with fixes said to be on the way. So far, updates are frequent and the communication with the team cannot be faulted. Just a week into early access, and already there are few bugs to be found.
The final verdict? Stoneshard knows what it wants to do, and is already close to hitting the mark. If modern mainstream RPGs have gotten too easy for your liking, this is definitely the game for you. Despite the issues I've brought up, nothing has been so frustrating as to stop me playing, and with so many new features in the works - character creation, a reputation system, an expanded main story - I recommend picking up Stoneshard, even as it is now.
Rhi previewed Stoneshard with a copy provided by the publisher. Stoneshard is out in early access on Steam now.