My first fresh-faced adventurer in Stoneshard crept into the woods beyond a quaint village, only to find that his journey was going to end far too soon. As soon as he set foot outside the safety of his hometown, four ugly, obnoxious bandits leaped upon me and savagely beat my character to death. The second time around, I decided to take a different route to the ruins and found a captured villager. Heading north this time instead of east, I soon then myself the victim of a venomous viper, which promptly led to my demise. In Stoneshard, living is hard to come by, perhaps to its detriment.
The Brutal World of Stoneshard
Stoneshard is an Early Access title that sprung to life via a successful Kickstarter, amassing just over six figures and several thousand backers in the process. It's a traditional roguelike, complete with turn-based combat, liberal use of the fog of war, permadeath, procedural elements, and more. It also has very interesting damage and survival systems that help it stand out among other roguelikes of this caliber.
Upon their first playthrough, players find a thorough, well-thought-out tutorial sequence. Those who followed the development of Stoneshard should be familiar with this tutorial, as it's been free for some time now. Rest assured, those who are unfamiliar with roguelike mechanics are going to find a somewhat easy, understandable tutorial before being thrust into the harsh world. You'll learn about several of the main mechanics of the game, including the survival elements.
Speaking of, I find the survival mechanics in Stoneshard to be excellent. They aren't too overwhelming. Hunger and thirst are a present threat, but food and drink are usually plentiful. Neglecting to eat or drink causes debuffs that affect your performance in combat. While in actual combat, enemies have a chance to inflict serious harm on different sections of your body. Your hand can become severely wounded, for instance, and might require a splint to stabilize the wound. Attacks from enemies can cause bleeding as well, so by using a bandage - or even leeches - they can stop you from bleeding out. Applying a healing salve on the hurt area can aid in your recovery.
Suffering from wounded parts can cause pain, which is a constant factor in gameplay. You can mitigate your suffering by drinking alcohol, but that also puts you in a state of inebriation. You'll stumble around and miss attacks when drunk, but you won't have to deal with the effects of pain. Herein is the charm of Stoneshard. Every action has a consequence, so you have to manage and plan out your character just as much as your combat actions.
During their battles, players obtain a surprisingly large amount of skills for their character. There are quite a few skill trees for all the different weapon types, in addition to the different schools of magic and more. Stoneshard has a lot of potential in creating unique and powerful character builds. Once you find an enemy, it becomes a battle of attrition and chance by continuously attacking while they attack you.
Overall, combat is easily the weakest, most flawed part of Stoneshard. The skills are cool, sure, but everything is so heavily dependent on RNG that it ruins much of the fun. At any time, an enemy can land a devastating hit that leads your fight into a downward spiral. One-on-one combat is manageable, but fighting a single enemy alone takes a considerable amount of health out of your character. Fighting several enemies at once is almost a death wish since it exacerbates your chances of getting badly hurt. Sometimes, I'd come across packs of three or four enemies in the wild, resulting in my quick demise. Stoneshard has so far gone through several hotfixes adjusting the difficulty, so as of right now the challenge seems to be constantly in flux. Combat is in quite the volatile state at the moment.
Progressing in this current build of Stoneshard is just tiring and cumbersome. Combat plays a part in this feeling, but you'll also have to constantly restart your progress from scratch due to the horrible save system. Players can only have one save at a time, and this is done by sleeping at an inn. If you're in the middle of a dungeon and you have to leave the game, you can't quit and progress from that point later. If you play hours without resting at an inn and somehow die, you're out of luck. On Stoneshard's Steam forums, the developers say one save file is due to limitations of the engine. If that is the case, I can only hope that there is some way to mend this in the future.
Stoneshard's Journey Forward
There's a lot of work to be done to get Stoneshard right. Yet, there are several things, other than the survival mechanics and skills, that Stoneshard does well. It is a gorgeous game. The sprite work is incredible. There's so much atmosphere to the starting village, that you really can get immersed in the experience. The procedurally generated forests would be beautiful were it not for the vipers, bears, wolves, and deadly bandits. The dungeons, while slightly repetitive, are filled with minute details, so they aren't boring to delve into.
Perhaps most of all, I enjoy the life cycle that developer Ink Stain Games incorporated into the one village I explored. It's a lot like The Elder Scrolls, where NPCs have their own routines, individual names, and personalities. I know that the developers plan to expand this world even more, and I always found exploring towns to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of Elder Scrolls games. I think Stoneshard will be similar in that regard, so long as the same love and care go into each village. I even noticed that some NPCs react differently to the character you choose, too. One particular curmudgeon regarded my dwarf with disdain and was equally unpleasant to a female character I chose, and I was greeted with different bits of dialogue.
It's unfortunate that the main component of gameplay, which is the combat, needs so much work. Everything else in Stoneshard is a good foundation to build from. The unique skills, wonderful towns, amazing aesthetic, and fun survival system shows that there's a great game waiting to be unleashed. It just needs to go through a rigorous routine of hotfixes and more before Stoneshard can be recommended. My suggestion is to hold back for now, but when Ink Stain Games makes the proper tweaks, Stoneshard might just become the next great roguelike.
TechRaptor previewed Stoneshard on Steam with a copy provided by the publisher.