Hands On with Alpha
Hero’s Song, Pixelmage Games’ first title as a newly founded studio under John Smedley, went into Alpha 3 and early access for IndieGoGo backers late last night. I was one such backer and eagerly jumped into the game this morning for a first hands-on session with the game. Let me preface this all by saying that I know Hero’s Song is in its early stages of development, and there are lots of features and polish missing. However, what’s already here this early on is promising, addictive, and most importantly – fun.
One of the primary distinguishing characteristics of Hero’s Song is your ability as a player to create limitless procedurally generated worlds. And it’s actually really fun to mix up the different elements and see what comes out. This morning I created a pretty standard high fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, and humans vying for control, a death-ridden desert landscape, and a watery ocean-filled realm. You choose the basic size of the world, the gods and their prominence within it, and the god of the underworld where you go when you die.
Each god has their own defining characteristics – some will increase chaos, others magic, some will mean there are more of specific races, and others can help keep the balance with order in the world’s events. Depending on how much or how little you allow each god to influence the world, you’ll get a totally random and unique setting for each one you create. And each time you come back to the game, you can pick up with a world where you left off, start a new one, or join someone else’s online.
The downside to this randomness is that worlds tend to blend together – points of interest don’t really stand out, and the map doesn’t yet effectively show where you are in the world except apparently when you’re dead and in the underworld. But that’s a whole other thing we’ll get to in a second. You’ll die a lot and your characters are not fully your own but rather people living in the world you created. You can tweak them to your liking, but the idea is for each one to have a place in the 10,000 year plus generated history of the world. As such, when you first log in there’s no tutorial or direction on where to go, you could literally be anywhere in the world, and you’ll just start wandering and looking for something to do.
In this Alpha 3 client, that something to do is basically kill stuff, collect loot, level up, and die a lot. I played several different classes across my three worlds, and the only one I managed to do alright with for a time was my Uthar (dwarf) Beastmaster. Primarily this is because he’s one of the few classes that starts off with a bow and arrow and a great ranged attack. However, I still died a lot, and eventually ran out of arrows, and thus my life as Torin Smellyhelm ended abruptly.
At its core, Hero’s Song is an Action RPG in terms of combat. Left click to attack and move, right click and Q-T to use special skills, with items placed on hotkeys 1-5. It works relatively well, though trying to target something from afar often made my character walk to the spot I clicked – so I think the “hitbox” on mobs could be a little softer. Combat actually feels responsive and fun, even given the 16-bit graphical nature. Taming a dire wolf and teaming up against orcs was fun. I can imagine things being much more interesting when other players are around, but I didn’t get a chance to really see the multiplayer aspects.
Death is a part of the game in Hero’s Song, and when you die you go to the Underworld where you have to pass the God’s test to escape or die permanently. In this early stage, the test for each underworld is simply “get out alive”. There are monsters in the underworld too, and if they kill you again, that’s it – that character is dead permanently in the created world. I honestly don’t mind this. I thought I would, but it’s a wonderful way to keep the world’s story turning, and frankly I expect PixelMage will tune difficulty eventually to make it so that perhaps death is not so frequent, at least early on.
You see, part of the “elder game” of each world is to make it to the level cap of 50 and complete the trials of the gods to become part of “The Hero’s Song”. In its current tuning, I don’t see that happening at all, as you’ll die permanently quickly and often because monsters hit way harder than your level 1 self. It’s probably the least fun part of the game so far, because you want to play your character and experiment and see how each of the classes progress, but you’re too easily swarmed and killed, and then killed again in the underworld to make much progress at all. Yes, getting to Hero Status should be a hard thing to do, but getting to level 50 perhaps shouldn’t be. Let people grow and experience the game with a character, then make it blisteringly hard to succeed in become the titular Hero.
It’s also worth noting that though the game generated thousands of unique dungeons for each world I created, I never stumbled into a single one. I found a town or two, and I love that nighttime is truly dark and requires torches and campfires, but dungeons were hard to find, and indeed even a general direction via rumor from NPC or legend from some tome was not apparent. I kind of just wandered aimlessly and tried to survive. Hero’s Song doesn’t have “quests” like normal; rather the idea is to have the NPCs and world itself guide you to relics, events, and so dungeons. None of that seems to be in yet, or if it is, it wasn’t apparent.
Overall, though I’ve only had a couple hours in Hero’s Song so far, I’m quite optimistic about PixelMage’s chances to deliver on their concept. More interactivity in the world, more talkative NPCs, more multiplayer features, and more everything is surely needed – but what’s already playable is fun, unique, and addictive. With proper polish, tuning, and further development in the coming months, I suspect a lot of MMORPG fans will find a lot to love about Hero’s Song. The graphical style will turn some away, but those willing to embrace the old school look will surely enjoy the near limitless adventure that the game’s concept promises.