Beautiful at a distance, but ugly up close, the gameplay in Volcanoids suffers from the same problem as the striking graphics.
Genre: Action, Simulation
Release Date: 30 Jan, 2019
Volcanoids is a steampunk-style game apparently with survival and base-building elements, from indie developers, Volcanoid.
The game is set in a cool steampunk-style world, on the previously beautiful island of Adranos. Some time ago the island had a string of terrible earthquakes, followed by the eruption of a number of volcanoes in its lagoon. Most of the citizens fled the island by boat, and those that remained followed shortly afterwards as the huge, previously dormant volcano in the island’s interior also erupted, covering much of the island in lava and ash and making it all but uninhabitable.
Now, years later, some of the refugees secure funding for a submarine-based return to the island to investigate. As part of that crew, you’re tasked with going ashore and fixing up a drillship you find near the port (though where this came from or why it’s left sitting there is anybody’s guess!), so that you can find out what has happened to the island. Just be thankful that the still-active volcano is so predictable; you have 10 minutes and 39 seconds before the next eruption … .
Oooh, shiny! Oh hang on. What’s that?
Right from the get-go (well, after the standard Unity launcher, that is) the game grabs you with the beautiful animated title screen. A drillship comes and goes as you watch and the environment looks lovely. It really makes you want to play!
There’s a nice animated introduction, explaining what’s gone before, and then the game begins with you in the exploratory submarine, shiny, weird-looking brass components and panels everywhere, and it’s very own Captain Ahab lookalike up the front. Once you make your way outside, too, you’ll see more lovely scenery, water, strange brassy buildings, and brass humanoids wandering about in the distance. It all looks very pretty, indeed.
Once you find an empty drillship to commandeer you’ll find that it’s well modelled, too, and looks wonderfully steampunk-ish when it’s parked with a handful of modules deployed, all chugging and whirring and belching smoke and steam. Once you’ve extended it at least once, too, during dives below the surface and ascents back up again the angle changes and articulation effects can be seen, and they’re very well done as well; it really gives you a good sense of being in a huge, articulated machine moving about in the world.
Up close, however, you’ll see jagged edges of bolts and grainy, unconvincing textures, like there’s only a single level of detail no matter the distance away. View the world from unexpected angles and you might find some glitches, too, like bands of water visible between a volcano and the smoke that’s supposed to be billowing out from it, and that Unity distance-clipping bug where objects in the centre of the screen are clipped earlier than those towards the edges. The weather / ash effects look really good, too, but the transitions between them are way too sudden — blink and you’ll miss them! And the main volcano’s eruption? Oh wow, does that look terrible! I really hope it’s just a placeholder.
Sound effects are mostly really good. They add to the sense of immersion very effectively, with the fire-alarm wail of the drillship when it’s under attack or the volcano is about to erupt adding a feeling of imminent doom, and the rumbling volcano as it prepares to erupt (together with the ground and drillship shaking about) adding to that feeling. Steam-engine type factory sounds are perfect for the drillship modules, but a few more sounds from the robots and environment wouldn’t go amiss.
Performance is excellent with all of the many options set to maximum on my GTX1070-based laptop. While the writing quality is mostly acceptable, there are quite a few typos and other grammatical issues. I’d hope these would be addressed by an editing pass before the game leaves Early Access.
What does this button do?
The graphical interface is minimal and fairly straightforward, which is nice, but the developers have implemented the game’s whole crafting subsystem in a convoluted way that’s hard to understand at first, and annoying to use once you know how.
You see, your drillship is more like your base than a vehicle. It can move about the map, but only between certain set locations, and once there it deploys itself and becomes a sort of crafting and defence hub. Crafting is performed by using a production station, but in order to do that you also need to have a production module, and that module needs to be deployed (active). There also needs to be enough drill core slots available, and you need to make sure that enabling that module doesn’t drain too much power from other components. Finally, you need to have a storage module available, enabled, and powered, and have the relevant crafting materials in place in its online inventory in order to be able to actually craft anything in your module. Phew!
If this sounds convoluted, it is! It’s enjoyably quaint the first couple of times as you work out the steps, but once you’ve done it half a dozen times it really gets old, and the game never takes care of any of it for you. Add to that that different materials need to be refined (which involves basically the same process, but with a refining module and refining station), that some materials and crafting recipes need advanced refinery or production modules, and that storage and energy modules themselves need to be powered and deployed, etc, and the whole thing becomes more unusable and annoying as you progress. I’ve wasted more than half of my play time on inventory management, module deployment, and simply waiting for something to be finished refining or crafting, none of which is any fun after the first 15 minutes.
To make it even worse, I found a weird bug with my Tier 2 Refinery module where it wouldn’t use online storage for its output, so after refining 10 crystal or iron it would stop, saying it was full. Manually dragging from local module storage to storage module online storage each time this happened added yet another menial task, making me really not want to bother with iron or crystal anymore.
To make it worse still, most of what you craft is new stations or modules, or upgrades for existing ones, such that you’re spending all this time and effort just so that you can spend it again to craft the next lot of ‘stuff’. You only rarely actually get any tangible, visible benefit. In games with a crafting focus, like Volcanoids definitely appears to be, it’s important to get the harvesting-crafting-using balance just right. If you spend too much time harvesting or crafting and not enough using what you’ve built then the whole thing just becomes frustrating, and that’s where Volcanoids sits right now.
Volcanoids seems a bit confused about what it wants to be. The Steam store page has tags including survival and base building (but not crafting), and I assume these were initially added by the developers, but please bear in mind that if you’re after another survival-crafting game, there are no survival elements in Volcanoids; the game is mistagged. That said, though, I’m not really sure how best to categorise it. It’s like a survival-crafting game without the survival and a first-person action RPG without RPG elements.
The core gameplay is introduced through the tutorial system, which works well for the first half an hour or so. You learn about harvesting the conveniently placed material nodes you’ll find in the world, the convoluted crafting process, the regular-as-clockwork (but unexplained as to why, or how you’re supposed to know about it) volcanic eruptions, submerging and travelling in your drillship, and that sort of thing.
But the tutorial is actually a quest system that appears to guide you through playing the whole game! Your every action in Volcanoids appears to be governed, or at least heavily directed, by these quests. Travel to this location. Mine 20 of this. Turn on this module, this module, and that module. Build a storage module. Refine 20 of this. Build three bolts. Upgrade your drillship’s core. Travel to the lava cave and destroy the laser drillship. Travel to Area 2. Do it all again! It just goes on and on and on. Never mind explaining to me WTF is a laser drillship and how does Ahab (sorry, I can’t remember his name), who appears to be the one giving me quests, know anything about it!?
So there’s no survival, and little free will, and I’d also argue there’s not anything but the most basic base building here either! You follow the quests and at times you’re able to upgrade your drillship, but you don’t get any choice in what you upgrade or when; in order to proceed you do everything the game tells you, when it tells you. The only choice you get is which module you build first, occasionally, but even then that’s largely dictated by the game’s quests; you just choose where to place it. It’s more like your drillship gaining a level and you having to deal with the painful extended inventory management again than it is actual base building.
The gameplay loop, then, basically consists of you traveling to the location you’re told to travel to, harvesting the materials required, building what you’re told to, and hiding underground each time there’s an eruption. You’ll encounter a single type of robot enemy, simply reskinned to show how many times you have to hit it to kill it, which isn’t explained at all. These are called COGs for some reason, but I have no idea why. Anyway, you can kill them with your single type of weapon — a shotgun — which has a short enough range that it’s nearly impossible to hit something without it being able to hit you back. Damage is improved through crafting different ammo types: one with each tier. Combat difficulty increases as you play by way of the game throwing more and more of the tougher reskins of these COGs at you. As you can probably imagine, combat is alternately boring and frustrating, but never fulfilling. You have a single type of grenade, too, and a pickaxe for harvesting/mining.
Every now and then some robots will get through your drillship’s defences and you’ll have to do some repairs, and then after a while you’re told to go and destroy the laser drillship in the lava cave for the area, which you do before upgrading your ship and moving along to the next area. There are only three areas, but I couldn’t be bothered beyond the second.
Oh, you’ll encounter other drillships, too, which seem to upgrade at basically the same rate you do and spew out the upgraded reskinned COGs as you progress. No, these other drillships aren’t explained either. Who operates them? What are they doing moving about the map as they do? Who knows!? You’ll probably also encounter some bugs, but hey, it’s in Early Access and none of them have been game-breaking for me (yet), so it’s not too bad in this regard.
The beautiful landscape (and decreasing interest in the core gameplay) may make you want to go and explore the island, too, but honestly I’d advise against it. The tutorial/quest system can become confused if you diverge from the path laid out before you, preventing progress once you’re ready to go on, and the ever-present “Next eruption in …” countdown dissuades you from wandering too far. Your extremely limited inventory space renders any longer excursions you might take useless from a harvesting or gathering perspective, too; in all likelihood you’ll only get a couple of hundred metres from your drillship before your pockets are already bulging with ore, scrap, or components looted from fallen robots. So while the game’s world does seem to be at least mostly open, exploration is actively discouraged — perhaps because the world is so empty of interesting things to discover.
You see, while at first the world looks interesting, once you actually wander around a bit you’ll see that includes a fair bit of repetition. There are only a few types of buildings, none of which actually do anything in the game; you can’t enter them, live in them, destroy them, or anything. And they’re strangely impervious to the frequent volcanic eruptions, too! The trees and lava lakes look pretty nice, and change appearance with the different degrees of post-eruption recovery, but they’re basically the same everywhere you look, and again there’s not actually anything you can do with them. The ocean looks nice, too, but you don’t appear to be able to swim, instead drowning as you walk along the bottom, and heaven forbid asking Ahab (I still can’t remember!) to take you anywhere in the submarine. And what happened to the rest of the exploratory group, or was it only you and Ahab?
So while the world looks lovely at first, it’s not actually such a huge disappointment that the game actively discourages exploration: it seems there’s nothing else to do anyway!
Volcanoids is one of those games that gives a great first impression, but fails to carry through on it. It looks beautiful at a distance, but rather shabby up close. Its setting is interesting and weird enough to grab your attention, but there’s no depth (haha!) or variety. It appears to have an open world to explore, but the game is structured in a way that you’re best off not exploring at all. And what starts out as an attractively quaint interface for crafting and upgrading your drillship quickly becomes a boring grind that feels like a huge waste of time.
I really like the setting, and I loved the game for the first hour or so. But it plays like a long series of fetch quests interspersed with waiting for crafting timers, with no room for exploration or variation. Though the store page claims survival and base building, there are no survival elements and the base building is extremely limited; there’s no room for customisation or creativity here.
To make it worse, the wonderful setting and lore aren’t explored beyond a cursory level, immersion is continually destroyed by game mechanics and by what limited information that is provided being provided in an illogical manner, and there’s just no incentive to explore or progress. After reaching Area 2 and the second unexplained “Laser Drillship” and “Lava Cavern” and finding it was exactly the same as the first, but with even more boring re-skinned robot defenders with even more hitpoints, I lost the will to go any further. Perhaps it suddenly opens up to a world filled with wonder after this point, but I doubt it.
Volcanoids has some great ideas and a lot of potential, but at the moment everything is only skin deep. I think there’s a good chance that it will improve, but especially given the current asking price, I just can’t bring myself to recommend it. At least not yet.
Update: March 31st, 2019
A new release was revealed at the end of March. It added difficulty settings and removed the invasiveness of the full-game hand-holding mission system that I discussed in my original review, instead providing only a very brief (probably too brief for someone who hasn’t played before) tutorial, and advising the player to contact Ahab for guidance if required. The hardest difficulty level appears to remove the missions entirely, but ends up making no sense: Ahab sleeps continually, the volcano still erupts on schedule with no explanation, and there’s even less explanation regarding what you’re actually doing, and why.
Overall the new splitting out of the tutorial and in-game guidance is a welcome improvement, but there’s still no logical explanation provided for any of the missions if you do seek Ahab’s guidance, or any explanation of how we know what we do when we begin, in particular the following:
- How do the protagonist or captain know about drillships?
- What is a COG and why are the protagonist and captain calling their opponents that?
- Why does the volcano erupt on a regular schedule, and how does the protagonist know?
- What is a “laser drillship” and how does the protagonist (or the captain) know about it?
The new update changed the starting weapon, so now there are at least two, but combat is still lacklustre and boring. Higher difficulties tend to just add more of the same enemies — the broken drillship I found in Hard difficulty seemed to have a veritable legion of COGs defending it — and there are still no interesting tactics involved. The update also seems to have taken a big step backwards in what was already an overcomplicated and frustratingly fiddly crafting system: some key components (e.g the Research Module) are now gated behind material components that you can’t craft yourself. So now in order to progress you have to grind more boring combat either raiding drillships or fighting off wandering COGs, and cross your fingers that the components you need will drop. While this works well in games with compelling and enjoyable combat, varied enemies, and a world with interesting places to explore, Volcanoids is not such a game, or at least not yet anyway.
In a game with a world that is as beautiful, but empty as this one, the story needs to be able to carry the game. Unfortunately in the case of Volcanoids, it simply doesn’t. It may get there one day, but at the moment there’s not enough to do, and what there is to do quickly becomes boring and repetitive, and makes little logical in-game sense. While the update is an overall improvement, I still can’t recommend the game in its current state.