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Chronicles of Entrath Hands-On Preview

By Neilie Johnson on January 27, 2016 | Previews | Comments

Chronicles of Entrath Hands-On Preview

Last week, HEX Entertainment invited a handful of journalists to its Irvine office to try out the pre-release single player PvE campaign Chronicles of Entrath, from its trading card game/MMO, HEX. After roughly an hour and a half with the new mode I can say without hesitation that it's turned me, a jaded MMO veteran, into a TCG enthusiast.

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HEX has been “out there” for a while now in beta form, and having tried its previous tutorial, I wasn't exactly wowed. In fact, I was downright annoyed by it. After a quick battle briefing, I was thrown into a match full of bluster and button prompts, where things glowed, flamed and spun but gave me no clue as to what was happening. Going into last week's hands-on session, I admit I was skeptical, and from what CEO Cory Jones had to say about it, I had good reason to be.

“I can readily admit that the last version of this game had terrible new player onboarding. It was just the worst,” Jones said. “The hope is that this new version (the upcoming patch) really lets players get into the game.” How right he was.

Rather than being tossed into the deep end like I was before, the game started me with character creation. I made myself a Necrotic Cleric, then listened while a spooky NPC explained to me my “Awakening.” (The Necrotic are a race who use dead human bodies and whose consciousness comes from magical HEX shards set in their eye sockets. Ew!) Being introduced to my new partner—a terrifically scary Necrotic called Iddi—I headed out on an interesting intro quest to find an “orphan shard” of a powerful crystal.

“Wait a minute,” I said to myself. “Am I playing the same game?” I could hardly believe it. The intro quest went on to walk me through a series of turn-based battles where card and resource usage were explained to me and from which I actually gained some meaningful understanding of the game. I was also able to move around a beautiful map, choose my objectives and engage in interesting dialog with a variety of strange characters. For an RPG player like me, it gave combat what it desperately needed—context and purpose.

I look for a means of attachment in games, and in addition to the storyline, Chronicles of Entrath's character system is a good inroad for a gamer like me. Champions come in eight races and three classes (Cleric, Warrior, Mage. Three additional classes will become available post-launch.), in somewhat traditional dark/light alignments. There's the usual Human/Elf/Orc/Dwarf/Undead types, plus a few more interesting animal-like races. You can have up to ten characters, which means you can try all of them out, and once you've seen one of the cool intro quests, the appeal of this becomes obvious.

Anyway, while there's no such thing as customizing your Champion's appearance, Champions have six gear slots for items that can change the way your card deck functions. On top of that, cards can have up to two gem slots that further alter their powers. These features, along with more than a thousand available cards, make for a mind-boggling number of possible combinations. It's a setup that might be a logistical nightmare for HEX's design and QA teams, but is great news for us gamers.

Another key aspect of character customization is HEX's talent tree. Players begin with a narrow range of skills, plus the ability to use limited numbers and types of cards. Every level they gain one talent point to spend on abilities that grant new cards or grant bonuses to existing ones. The available card types also expand. Unlike most talent trees, HEX's talent tree lets you move across and down the tree as well up, which allows for even more possibilities for individual customization. During our play session, Lead Game Designer Ben Stoll stopped in and offered his insights on Chronicles of Entrath:

“It's very cinematic, it's very story-driven, there's cool visual art assets. The campaign teaches you at a measured pace, there's tool-tips to teach you how to play. It's really important that we don't jam it down your throat all at once.”

In addition to making card collecting much more accessible, Chronicles of Entrath promises to add a tremendous amount of beauty to the game. Custom battle boards treat players to location-themed backdrops for their battles, complete with ambient sounds (like chirping birds) and cool visual effects (like sparks, flowing water and swaying grasses). A colorful world map offers a sense of context and narrative while 2D city hubs called “panoramas” paint distinct portraits of the game's various races. Perhaps best of all, the new PvE mode gives players something they might not be used to—interesting AI opponents.  

One of the guys making the AI interesting is AI engineer, Chris Woods. According to Woods, the biggest challenge is, “How do you make AI play a card game?” And not just play—but play interestingly, unpredictably?

“We want the AI to have personality,” says Woods. “We can't lean on animations, so what we lean on is having our AI have different strategies internally which might not be the “best” way to play our game, but are the best way for that character to play. For example, early on you fight a boar and that boar comes at you like a madman, even though he's gonna lose some cards to get across the table. Or Orcs will try to keep other Orcs alive against all logic.

Having sampled the Necrotic intro and battled against a handful of AI opponents, I can attest that this does happen. The guard I encountered fought differently from the buccaneer, and this made me make different choices. Also, behind the scenes, (Woods mentioned) the AI preserves a level of unpredictability by choosing randomly among three top choices per turn. This makes for varying matches even when playing repeatedly against AI and encourages players to consider the AI's profiles strategically when trying to win difficult fights.

Though brief, my time with Chronicles of Entrath surprised me. It sucked me in completely and made me impatient to log in when the new patch goes live. I can't wait to see what HEX has in store for my creepy new Champion: who she'll meet, where she'll go, what mysteries she'll uncover. And along the way, it's piqued my interest in trading card games in a way no previous TCG ever has, convincing me there's a whole new kind of entertainment I've yet to tap into.

Neilie Johnson / Neilie Johnson is a freelance contributor to MMORPG.com. She's been writing about games since 2005, developing games since 2002, and playing them since the dawn of time. OK not really, but she's pretty sure she's got controllers older than you. Witness her game-related OCD on Twitter @bmunchausen.
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