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Darkest Dungeon - The Redemption of Early Access

Darkest Dungeon Columns - By Christopher Coke on February 20, 2015

Darkest Dungeon - The Redemption of Early Access

The games media has been on fire this week. The topic, not for the first time, has been Steam Early Access – or more precisely, Peter Molyneux, but we’ll get to that later. Amidst all the chaos of broken promises and players rightfully feeling taken for a ride, I’ve had the chance to play a game that does Early Access right: Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon. It’s a game with fresh ideas and a sense of style. It’s also a game that’s not completely broken and has and actual plan to release. Smell that? That’s fresh air.

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The Peter Molyneux situation has to be addressed. If you missed this bit of non-MMO news, it might come as a bit of a surprise that the man who brought us Fable, Black and White, Dungeon Keeper, and Populous is has taken his place firmly on the firing line of the games press. The legendary developer has always had a bit of a problem with over-promising, but with his latest game, Godus, players seem to have had enough. The situation is bad.

Molyneux’s firm, 22Cans, concluded its Kickstarter in December of 2012 more than $100,000 over its funding goal. They claimed crowdfunding would help them avoid partnering with a publisher, the studio promptly signed with a publisher less than six months later. Nine months in, a very early version of the game was released to Steam Early Access. Nearly a year later, the biggest news was that mobile versions had been completed! PC players were irate, but Mr. Molyneux did his best to assure them that everything was fine.

Except, it wasn’t. At all. Under the auspices of Early Access, PC buyers had received almost no development in months. Major systems were still missing, such as multiplayer, the reason many players signed on in the first place. Since then, over a year has passed and so little has changed as to make one doubt Early Access entirely. The developers have openly expressed concern that many of the features may be impossible to complete on time without extra funding. Worse, a quick browse through the comments on the game’s Announcements page reveals that many players are unable to even start the game without it crashing to desktop. It is a train wreck of a situation that has Molyneux claiming that he’s quitting press interviews entirely.

It’s also the perfect example of what a hot mess Steam Early Access has become. Since the program launched, multiple games have released, accepted money, and gone silent. Others have sold thousands of copies then cancelled projects entirely. Earth: Year 2066 comes to mind as one of the most shameless cash grabs, prompting Valve to issue refunds and pull it from the store. And who doesn’t remember Infestation: Survivor Stories and the list of False Features That Would Never Come to Be? Even Double Fine struggled to deliver, deciding to release Spacebase DF-9 early rather than finish development. Early Access remains a place to pay for promises while playing a lottery of alphas and betas to see which features make it to release.

Which, to be fair, is kind of what the point. Steam Early Access if about buying into games before they’re done and being a humble shepherd on their path to release. It’s the abuses of power that have tarnished the program’s reputation.

So it’s incredibly refreshing to see a game like Darkest Dungeon get it so right. From the very outset, it’s clear that Red Hook Studios is using Early Access as it should be used: to refine development not to save it. The second bullet point on the store page FAQ makes it clear, this is a game releasing this year, and for that to be true, it has to be mostly done, right out of the gate. If there was fun to be had, it should be there now, not next year.

Darkest Dungeon makes the case for why Early Access isn’t just a good program but a necessary program. The game is fun, just read what our own Mike Bitton has to say about it. As a combination rogue-like and RPG, balance is important and it’s not quite there yet. You bring many different classes into your party for when your regulars need to drink or pray away their sorrows. Some of those classes are more powerful than others. Item rewards, too, tend to fall too heavily on their drawbacks making them unappealing. Some abilities are too weak, others too strong. And sometimes, painfully, you’re just outmatched in dungeons and death is inevitable. These are numbers issues. Balance tweaks. They’re the final stretch to the finish line of a really great game. They’re the issues Early Access should excel at solving.

Just as importantly, Darkest Dungeon shows that Early Access has the power to shine a spotlight on great ideas. The game’s sanity meter is a no-brainer, but upgrading the town to recruit more heroes and expand the ways for them to progress their skills and restore their sanity, is great. There are still more areas to come before Early Access is through but Red Hook has something special here. Something… well, a little bit addictive.

Quick Hits

With its North American release less than a month away, Square Enix has treated fans with a new trailer for Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. Square has dialed the drama up to ten for this one and succeeded in crafting the most enticing teaser to date. Stay tuned past the three minute mark for a sneak peak at Final Fantasy XV.

Forge Animation took to Kickstarter this week to fund their upcoming RPG, Windwalkers. Based on the French science fiction novel by the script writer of last year’s Remember Me, the game explores the legendary “source of the winds.” Which I have to think means the moon, right? Or maybe the hero becomes a gravitational scientist. Kidding aside, the game looks neat. Check it out!

Warren Spector is back in the news, and this time free from the clutches of Mickey Mouse! No, this week he’s championing his new game, Underworld Ascent. Spector and his team at Otherside Entertainment recently sat down with our own Bill Murphy to talk about the game’s Improvisation Engine, which allows them to “arrange the game like a stage” and frees the players to take on situations based on their abilities and imagination. With nearly 80% of their funding goal achieved, the team has 15 days left on their crowdfunding campaign.

Following last week’s announcement of Sword Coast Legends, MMORPG’s Rob Lashley had the chance to sit with Nathan Steward from Wizards of the Coast and Dan Tudge of n-Space to talk about just what the game has to offer to classic table top fans. I’m especially interested in how much power they’re placing in the hands of DMs. And when Wizards of the Coast says the plan to expand the game in “much the same way as tabletop D&D,” it’s worth taking notice.

That’s all from us, friends. Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.