Stoneshard - Early Access Preview
I love rogue-like games, but I’m not particularly good at them. Those two facts make the challenge that I’ve encountered in Stoneshard all the more rewarding. Not all of the challenge, however, is solely relegated to the many survival systems or power differential between player and monster – both staples of a solid rogue-like experience. Much of the challenge in Stoneshard, rather, comes from the sheer paucity of current content.
It should be said that, although Stoneshard is an early access game and deficits should be expected until it has grown up and is ready to be sent on its merry way, players will want some features to be ready before others. My initial enthusiasm for Stoneshard and what it offers was almost immediately crushed by a lack of custom character generation. The second blow, which I can’t hold against Ink Stain Games because it’s a bit niche, is the lack of playable necromancy… I’m always on team undeath when it’s an option, and the lack of said option is usually a no-go for me.
That said, I want to focus on what is currently in Stoneshard to give it a fair shake. Graphically, for instance, the sprites and sprite movement are very well done. Stoneshard has a charming style and feels grim and dark, just how I like my fantasy. Ink Stain Games added many fine details, as well, which I think substantially add to immersion. My favorite so far is that crows will start flocking to corpses of fallen enemies once the player leaves and re-enters outdoor areas. I also really like how they handle occlusion in a 2D, isometric perspective game. Trees, for example, disappear from the trunk up once one passes behind them. Lots of work went into graphical development, and it shows.
Sound effects, however, were lack-luster, as was the music. Sound, in my experience, is hard to get right in a video game. Perhaps additional soundtracks and increased variety in sound effects will come in time, but I was not enthused by what is currently available for audio.
Systems were well developed. Hunger and thirst develop over time, limb damage is a thing and works well, cooking also supposedly works, but I couldn’t seem to pull it off – I could go on, but I’d rather focus on where you’ll probably spend most of your game – character development. Experience gain occurs primarily through killing things, and level up brings with it attribute points and talent points. It’s a not a revolutionary system, but I see no reason to fix something that isn’t broke.
Specializations for characters are straight forward – if you want a plate-wearing battle-mage, get a book to unlock the magic tree and weapon of your choice, and viola! Battle-mage. Unfortunately, just out of early access, only a few trees are implemented. Moreover, the skill trees are not very creative or varied at this stage. Differences between the two spell trees (pyromancy and geomancy) are much broader than the weapon trees, and it leads me to wonder what further variety may come as spell trees are introduced over time. I managed to try all four of the available characters, which do offer some substantially different playstyles based on starting trees and character traits. I prefer the mage so far, and difficulty is pretty well even among the classes once one overcomes the moderately steep learning curve.
Enemy and dungeon variety are currently limited. At this stage, expect to face bandits, vampires, ghouls, skeletons, animals, and the occasional ghost, plus or minus a few extra critters. Dungeons look very pretty in the pixel-art style that Stoneshard has done so well on. That said, the only two dungeon styles (abandoned keep dungeon or crypt), do get old after some time.
Questlines are straight forward (go to the dungeon, slay the foozle, and retrieve the person/object), but the prologue and current dialogue hint at an expansive storyline to come in the future. Additionally, theme and mood, as well as the world’s history, are well established through dialogue with NPCs, so that everything made sense for me. That’s a nice feeling, but hopefully Stoneshard can keep that feeling and introduce enough variety among quests and such to keep it feeling fresh in story progression or additional playthroughs.
I’ve put 42 hours into Stoneshard so far, despite the current build’s 10 hours of content, but content is expected to expand over time. I want to emphasize that, based on the current developer roadmap, content expansion will be slow and steady. That’s a fancy way of saying ‘get used to what’s available, because you’re going to have that for some time.’ I’m still not clear on how frequent or intense content introduction will be (slow drip vs. periodic big drops), but either way expect a marathon, not a sprint.
What is missing right now? A large chunk of the planned skill trees, the character creation system (expected in 2021 per the roadmap), main storyline, additional dungeons, items, etc., and, well, most of the expected content. Currently, Stoneshard feels like a modest expansion to the prologue, but again, it’s early access.
Although well-polished for a game this early in the development cycle (I’ve only had one crash to desktop thus far), Stoneshard has a long way to go before I could recommend it as a playable product. Purchasing Stoneshard now would be an expression of faith in Ink Stain Games’ and the promise of a great rogue-like to come, rather than a real fix to your rogue-like cravings. In sum, what is currently available in Stoneshard looks and feels great… but therein lies the crux of the problem - there’s just not a whole lot there presently. If I were to prognosticate, however, I would say that if development of Stoneshard continues in the same vein of solid, enjoyable content, that eventually there will be an equally solid, enjoyable game for us all to enjoy.