You can play some games for six hours and you can play others for six hundred. Core Keeper is a sandbox ARPG that aims to be the latter, and it just might pull it off -- as long as the developers can continue to deliver content.
Core Keeper is one of the many games featured in the February 2022 Steam Next Fest and it promises a compelling combination of mechanics: action RPG combat, base building, farming, crafting, and a massive, procedurally-generated underground world. I've put about six hours into the game and I think it has solid mechanics -- but it's still a little rough around the engines.
Core Keeper Challenges You With Unforgiving Combat
The opening moments of Core Keeper set up the story in short order. You and a party of explorers are moving through a forest when you come upon a mysterious artifact. Compelled to touch it, you soon find yourself teleported into a mysterious underground cavern filled with ancient artifacts and deadly enemies.
Your first few moments are thankfully peaceful -- there isn't much in the way of enemies around the starting area. This safe haven (albeit a temporary one) gives you time to find your footing and get the basics of a base set up. You'll inevitably have to expand outward from the center of the map and you'll soon encounter your first real enemies (and a staple of many an RPG game): slimes.
On their own, slimes are no real challenge as long as you have something you can swing at them, even if it's only a wooden pickaxe. However, they are often found in areas inundated with slime-covered floor tiles that slow you down. The deeper you go into these infested areas, the greater the risk that you'll be overrun.
The very first enemy you face is a genuine threat. While slimes were less of a challenge after I upgraded my gear, I experienced even tougher enemies in each subsequent biome I explored. If you go into Core Keeper, be prepared for a tough fight.
The Power is Yours
While the enemies are challenging, Core Keeper is generous enough to give you the tools you need to beat them. I'm not just talking about all of the various gear you can craft or loot, mind -- I'm talking about your skills.
Core Keeper uses a "learn as you use it" style of skill system. Every piece of terrain you dig levels up your Mining skill. Every step you take levels up your Running skill. Aside from increasing your proficiency, progressing in each of these skills gradually gives you points to spend in a skill tree that makes you stronger.
The benefits you gain from leveling up your skills go beyond faster mining or a chance to craft bonus items, too. For example, fighting enemies will directly increase your maximum health. You don't have to worry too much about making a mistake when spending skill points, either; each and every skill tree can be reset for a small amount of in-game currency.
The Fundamentals of Food
Food is essential to survival in Core Keeper. You'll likely start with some basic rations at the beginning, but that won't be enough to keep you healthy. You'll have to forage for supplies in the depths of the underground.
You'll find all sorts of fantastical berries and plants in this underground world, but it would be foolish to eat them raw. A simple cooking system allows you to combine any two raw foods into a cooked dish. Aside from filling up more of your Food meter, these culinary concoctions can also grant you powerful buffs.
Farming, however, is somewhat more of a mixed bag. Core Keeper is stingy with the seeds you get from farming crops. At best, you can get a 25% chance to get more seeds in the early game; it's nigh-impossible to have a sustainable farm as you would expect in most other games of this style (at least with the early-game skills available in the Steam Next Fest build).
Brutal Boss Battles
As I played Core Keeper, a thought sprung to mind: this game had the same vibe as Terraria, albeit from a top-down perspective. My encounters with the first two bosses only cemented that feeling.
The first boss is a classic in many an adventure game or RPG: a gigantic slime. I tried and failed many times to beat it in melee, in no small part due to the pools of movement-impeding slime it leaves behind every time it lands. You couldn't cheese this boss by blocking it in with walls, either; it simply smashes through cavern walls as if they were made of paper.
The second boss was challenging for a different reason: I couldn't catch it. A gigantic worm roams around the center of a map in a circle and you have a very small window to do damage to it before it simply outruns you. Most of my plans of attack failed. I only succeeded by deploying a bunch of bombs in a borderline suicidal attack.
With just the first two bosses, Core Keeper set the tone for what to expect in the future. I mean, for goodness' sake -- when's the last time a boss ran away from you? The grind of exploring new areas and upgrading gear is still there, of course -- but the latest weapons and armor alone will not help you defeat the big bads of this underground world.
I spent around six hours playing Core Keeper. The first two bosses provided an interesting challenge and laid out the foundations of an intriguing game. Core Keeper is a compelling opening salvo from its developer Pugstorm, but this is just the beginning.
I can see this game having a lot of longevity, especially with its massive maps and support for up to 8 players in multiplayer. Whether or not it manages this feat, however, will depend on the quality of content the developer can deliver -- and how fast they can get it out.
TechRaptor previewed Core Keeper on Steam Early Access with a key provided by the publisher.