Block Story: One to Keep an Eye On
Voxel-based sandboxes are everywhere in PC gaming right now. They have generally low system requirements because of their retro looks, they take the burden of making assets off of the game developers and on the players, and players get to exercise ingenuity and creativity with fairly simple tools. Since the market for these games is getting a bit crowded, developers are going to have to come up with some interesting twists to keep things fresh.
With Block Story, developer MindBlocks Studio, LLC brings questing and levelling to this well established genre. The game started out as a smartphone and tablet experience, but is being moved over to the PC and is available now via Steam early access. We got to spend a little bit of time with the early access version, taking a close look at what makes Block Story unique.
Keeping these sandboxes retro style is all the rage, because the blocky cosmetic effect of voxel constructs immediately brings to mind the 2D pixel-based sprites of the 8-bit console era. Story Blocks also has NPCs wandering around, but they look more like something out of the early days of 3D on 64-bit consoles. Rather than being created from voxels, they are polygonal with textures painted over them. It’s not a huge polygon count, mind you. They’re a bit incongruous, but they serve their purpose and manage to deliver some funny lines.
The user interface for the game is also remarkable, and is the aspect that makes it most obvious that the game had its origins in mobile platforms. The buttons for interacting with the world are large, blocky squares more suited to touch targets on a smaller screen than click targets with a precision pointing device. The large buttons, however, do have the advantage of giving the game a more family friendly vibe. The buttons have a wooden look to them and the icons designating the function of each button are big and do a fairly good job of indicating what is going to happen when the specific button is pressed. This being a PC game, however, the buttons become a bit superfluous once all the keyboard shortcuts for accessing different functions are learned.
The gameplay concepts are nothing unfamiliar to readers of this site: pick up quests, complete quests, level up, then spend skill points. Along with the familiar computer RPG aspects, there is the crafting rabbit hole which can be quickly addictive. Anything you see can be harvested and molded into tools or different objects. The crafting interface is straightforward (but again obviously designed for touch platforms) and different crafting recipes can be unlocked as you progress in the game. Having a recipe book full of recipes that you haven’t learned yet or featuring ingredients you haven’t found is a smart move on the part of the developer; it provides good motivation to set out and explore the world to see what can be found.
The game has been previously successful on mobile platforms, but it remains to be seen whether that success translates over to the PC market. One useful feature that the developer is offering is the ability to sync save games between the mobile version and the PC version via Dropbox. A cool idea, but having to go through a third party service and manage save games manually seems a bit cumbersome, especially when dealing with potentially younger players. However, being able to take your handiwork on the go or moving from the tablet over to the more precise mouse and keyboard to build a masterpiece seems like it could come in very handy down the road.
Levelling up is handled by spending points in broad, but potentially very useful, categories. You get one point per level and the levels come fairly quickly as almost any activity helps fill the XP bar at the top of the screen. If you feel like harvesting and building for hours on end, you will find your character levelling up in no time. On the other hand, if you want to delve into caves and kill bad guys you get XP as well. Or, of course, you can always seek out NPCs for quests. Be warned, however, that most of the quests involve, you guessed it, killing monsters, harvesting materials or crafting items.
Once those XP points are gained, they can be spent increasing your abilities including the expected, like damage with weapons, speed, and harvesting, as well as the unexpected, like flying. Because everybody loves flying. The variety of options when spending points is nice and offers some choice as to what needs strengthening first, but doesn’t necessarily give the sense of building a character with strengths and weaknesses that you might find in a more focused RPG. Again, it seems like a feature designed for mobile platforms that may or may not take with PC gamers.
Death seems relatively consequence free, which can be great for young players but might not satiate everyone’s craving for a deep, high risk challenge. For those folks, the developers have included a “hardcore” mode which features a limited death count, more challenging enemies and a potential loss of progress from dying. There is also a “creative” mode which makes resources unlimited and lets you treat the world as your voxel canvas, creating whatever you see fit. There is also a built-in screenshot feature which allows you to share your work over Facebook from directly within the game.
Overall, the game has a lot going for it with addictive material harvesting and crafting systems, integration with mobile platforms and the ability to level the character up. The marketing materials also promise dragons, which are always a huge plus. However, the simplicity of Block Story’s origin might make it a less tempting proposition for PC gamers used to depth and complexity from games touting “RPG features”. It’s available for $9.99 on Steam Early Access today. It may not be a must buy, but it’s one to keep an eye on.