PREVIEW: Solace Crafting – Second Look

Jan
09

PREVIEW: Solace Crafting – Second Look

A second look, two years later.

Released: Steam Early Access
Type: Single-player, Multi-player
Genre: Adventure, RPG
Developer: Big Kitty Games
Publisher: Big Kitty Games
Release Date: 16 Jan, 2018

Introduction

My Solace Crafting Early Access review from January 2018, shortly after the game first appeared on Steam, has garnered more comments of the “please play the game again to see what it’s like now” persuasion than all of my other EA reviews put together. For this reason alone it would have been at the top of my list of games to revisit once they leave Early Access, but couple that with my own belief that the game would eventually be so much more than it was when I first saw it almost two years ago, and that position became unbeatable.

The game’s stint in EA has extended far beyond the initial six months estimated by the solo developer, however, and seems to show no sign of leaving EA in the immediate future. In my mind that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I have more EA games than I care to remember, some of which have been abandoned and will never leave EA, while others are already some of my favourite games, even though they’ve been in EA for years. Solace Crafting’s developer is obviously not going to give up on the game now. He’s shown himself to be capable, dedicated, honest, and basically a very friendly and likeable chap. The game will stay in EA until he believes it’s ready to leave, which will be the best thing for everyone.

I was recently asked yet again to take another look at Solace Crafting, so, after a brief discussion with the still exceptionally keen and friendly developer at Big Kitty Games, here I am, writing about the game again after almost two years.

I won’t go into detail here on what the game is — for that please see my earlier review — instead I’ll focus on what’s happened since I last looked at the game. So, what has changed in the last two years, then, and what has stayed the same?

The More Things Change …

Let’s start off with a look at some of the new and improved functionality.

To begin, the process to create a world now provides the player with a number of screens full of different world creation options and parameters, ranging from the basics such as entering a random number generator seed for the world generator, through to esoterica such as the frequency of pumpkin spawning. Unfortunately, though, there doesn’t seem to be any information provided on any of these options, so while some are straightforward, understanding what a value of 75 actually means for pumpkin spawning isn’t obvious. Still, it’s nice to have fine-grained control over such things, even if I’m not entirely sure what they mean. Similarly, graphics options are also more numerous than they used to be, though some tooltips with more details wouldn’t go astray. World loading is slower than it used to be, I’m sure, and generation seems to take quite a while in the first place, too. I gave up after the first minute or so and went to get a cup of tea; it was complete when I returned.

I was pleased to be greeted by a help screen with a brief “Getting Started” tutorial, as well as pages on a few other basics of gameplay. I was even more pleased to see some simple quest-style tutorials popping up occasionally, though for some reason they sometimes didn’t pop up automatically (ProTip: press ‘j’ to open the journal and see all the quests you have available, as well as more detailed — and sometimes crucial — information on each). The help screen helpfully kept popping up every subsequent time I loaded my game, too, even when I unchecked the “Show on startup” checkbox. Oh well. In any case, starting out is much more user friendly than it was when I first reviewed the game.

World graphics look nicer than I recall, especially with grass density and the view distances turned up significantly; though bear in mind that these also seem to be the most system-unfriendly settings to max out: grass seems to stress the GPU, while increased view distances cause frequent pauses in the world streaming. The different biomes look significantly different and really rather nice, too. The world looks much more lush and enticing than ever before.

Spotted around the world are a number of new interactive features, too. I seem to recall one of the first Early Access versions I tested had the little obelisks with rock-demon-things defending them: “Small Encounters” as they’re now called. The game now features “Large Encounters” as well: towers or procedurally generated mansion-type buildings inhabited by rock demons, each with a fire demon boss guarding a treasure chest. These both provide an opportunity for more useful resource and loot drops, though I have to say that they do become rather repetitive, with the same enemy types encountered all the time.

Instanced caves have also been added. These look extremely odd from the main game world, each one represented by a big, monolithic boulder sitting on the grass. Wandering around the surface you’ll find a gap into the inside of the boulder, which then freezes the game for a few seconds while it transports you to the inside of the typically very jaggedly rendered, instanced cave. These are inhabited by a couple of golem types and provide a much higher chance of metal and gem resource nodes, as well as plenty of rock for mining. Also present in the world are many weird floating platforms in the sky, which I initially thought must have been some sort of cloud rendering issue with my Radeon card. (I still have nightmares about those drivers!)


Exploring the world is made easier, too, with a new map (press ‘m’). It’s pretty basic, really, with solid colours for terrain and simple icons representing small and large creature encounters, resources (once you have built the relevant resource scanners), caves, and the like, but it gets the job done and makes navigation much easier than it used to be — even though the eastings seem to be reversed (heading East decreases the easting value). There’s still no minimap, which would be a welcome addition, but this is a great tool regardless.

There seem to be a number of stability issues with the new unique structures and the map, but none are too serious. The first time I entered a cave I accidentally left again immediately afterwards (ProTip: don’t walk backwards upon entering a cave; the exit is invisible and right behind you!). Upon respawning back on the main game world, I saw the cave had disappeared from both the world and the map. Quitting back to the desktop and reloading the saved game brought it back again.

In what seemed like a related issue, the first time I completed one of the procedurally generated Large Encounter buildings, it, too, disappeared from the game world, but this time there were two icons representing it on the map, right next to each other. This time I didn’t bother quitting and reloading — I’d completed it already, after all — but after travelling quite some distance and teleporting through a couple of solaces, when I revisited the area the building was back in its original position and the map was fixed again. While the rock-demon-things respawned inside, however, the fire demon boss never did, and the treasure chest remained empty. So I’d suggest you don’t leave anything of value in a cave or procedurally generated building, just in case. And you shouldn’t always believe what your map tells you! Oh, and it seems to be a relatively normal occurrence to see “An Error has Occurred” in red when climbing (well, levitating 😀 ) up ladders in procedurally generated buildings.

Other important additions include boats, which are very necessary for crossing large expanses of water (of which there are many), but which are not animated at all and still move too slowly to make any but the briefest of lake crossings worthwhile, and more craftable items. These include various RPG-style “unique” items, such as a “Q3 T0 Lesser Nullifying Club of Agony” — which are basically improved versions of the base item types, with various bonuses, which can only be crafted after acquiring the relevant schematic. New buildable objects have also been added, such as the transmogrifier, which converts freely between rarities of materials, making the accumulation of uncommon and above resources much less painful than it would be otherwise — as well as allowing the space-constrained player to maintain smaller stacks of resources — but which, unfortunately, doesn’t look like a real transmogrifier.

Related to the new buildings are two features that I’ve been waiting for since the beginning: towns and NPCs. You can now found a town around your solace, creating various prefab buildings and populating them with NPC townspeople to gather and craft for you, as well as unlocking access to various benefits such as unique crafting schematics. While some of the benefits are simply more of the same — more materials, more storage, more unnecessary food, etc. — others form a good basis for extending the game to provide much more in-depth involvement in town development and management, turning the solaces into more than just teleport stations with associated storage. I’m excited to see how these features develop further as the game continues development through Early Access.

Finally, the most recent addition, which is actually not very important to me, personally, but which many other players were asking for, and which I believe would have been the largest and most difficult work the developer would have had to implement in the last two years, is support for multi-player games. Since I’m not really interested in this myself I haven’t looked into how it works in detail — in particular, I wonder if the distance-based difficulty scaling means that everyone has to start at the same initial solace — but if you want to play Solace Crafting with friends, you can finally do so now, with the latest release including information on only a few known issues that still remain from this work.

… the More they Stay the Same.

I’d guess that these improvements and new features have taken most of the developer’s time since the game first appeared on Steam, but the game’s still far from ready for final release. A number of components seem to have changed either not at all or only very little since my first look.

First and perhaps most obvious of these is the rest of the graphics. The character creator seems unchanged, from what I remember, and still makes characters with appearances across the range from laughably mutated to moderately acceptable. Character animations are still stiff and poorly blended, and interaction with terrain and game objects, as well as combat, lacks any feeling of solidity. Clipping issues abound, fog looks terrible, and terrain following is rather amusing. Combat itself is still fairly rudimentary and unexciting, made worse by the still very limited range of enemy types; mostly you’ll be fighting the same rock-elemental-thing model over and over again.

The interface is still almost all one colour — no pretty skinning here yet — with icons, windows, fonts, etc, that mostly still feel like placeholders. There are still a few grammatical and spelling errors, the interface is fiddly and requires a few too many clicks, and there are occasions when WASD and mouse input gets lost — which is usually fixed by opening the main interface (TAB) and closing it again.

Sound effects are, for the most part, either absent or fairly basic and not very well normalised. Music is sparse and the title screen music is still the same woefully out-of-place track that reminds me of nothing more than some sort of rock music ballad. I can’t recall whether anything has changed in the soundscape, but if so, the changes are fairly minimal.

The survival side of the game — food/hunger and water/thirst — is very simple to understand and also to ignore. Regardless of a world’s random number generator seed, each game seems to start in a grassy lowlands area, replete with pumpkins. These pumpkins give both food and water and can be stacked like most other resources, allowing you to easily carry enough to survive many in-game days. In a new addition to the game, you can also swap any of them for seeds, which can then be planted, bearing three new pumpkins for each seed planted, but they otherwise function the same as the carrots from two years ago. Food and water gathering, then, is so easy as to be a fairly pointless addition to the game. (The developer is currently working on more survival mechanics, though, so this may change in the future.)

The game is still as open ended as it was intended to be when I first looked at it. Each game is played on a procedurally generated world with both creature difficulty and resource rarity / level increasing with distance from the starting spawn point (the first solace). Player characters gain character levels through experience points earned through combat, with each level allowing six attribute points to be spent on any of the six attributes, and six adventuring skill points to be spent on any of the available skill trees. The skill trees seem very familiar to me, but I can’t say for sure whether they’ve been enhanced or extended since I first played. There is no level cap, to player or skill levels, with each level up adding values incrementally to the last. Strangely, masonry still doesn’t have any level-up bonuses or abilities available, so you’ll end up with a lot of masonry skill points sitting around with nothing to spend them on.

Other skills — harvesting and crafting, for example — are only improved through use, with each level normally granting increased speed of resource node harvesting or bonuses to crafted items, on a scale that’s always decreasing; you can’t keep making tier 0 iron clubs and expect to level up your smithing skill at a decent rate beyond a couple of levels. Crafted items have effectiveness based on level, the maximum of which is determined by the relevant crafting skill level; tier, the maximum of which is determined by the highest tier of the required resource you have on hand, with higher tiers only available by travelling further from the relative safety of your starting solace; and rarity, the maximum of which is determined by the rarity of the required resource you have on hand, with increased rarity only available through special glowing resource nodes or lucky loot drops. I believe this is all the same as it was at the beginning, but it may have been rebalanced and tweaked a bit over the years.

All of this leads to what is probably the most important thing that hasn’t changed since I first played the game: while the game loop is, in a very real sense, endless, it also seems to be rather pointless. With the infinite worlds and progression available to me, I feel like there’s actually not that much for me to do. I’ve covered a reasonable distance now: my solace network extends approximately 10 km in each of the cardinal directions, and I’ve explored large regions within that roughly 400 km^2 area. Apart from small differences due to the different biomes, I haven’t seen anything that really makes me feel it was worthwhile travelling more than a few hundred metres.

Mostly the resources are the same, but with a bigger tier number next to them and more chops of my trusty axe or thwacks with my sledgehammer required to harvest them. Mostly the creatures are the same, but with higher damage per hit and more blasts of my cold spell and shots from my staff required to defeat them. Mostly the caves are the same, inhabited by the same creatures and with the same resources (though of a higher tier). And mostly the large encounters — the towers and monster-inhabited buildings — are the same, but inhabited by stronger and tougher rock-demon-things and with a more powerful fire demon at the end.

It’s partly the old problem of scaling monster difficulty with player level, which I’ve found to be almost never a good idea — though in this case the deciding factor is distance from the starting solace rather than player level — but it’s also more than that. There’s simply not enough new or different to be seen to make me want to explore any more. I’d rather bum around my starting solace, ganking the occasional creature that wanders across my path, than spend hours crossing new procedurally generated terrain only to find the same creatures guarding the same resources, just with bigger numbers.

I’ve spoken with the developer about this and I think he understands what I’m getting at. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but at least as I understand it, he plans to address these concerns through a series of major content updates after finishing with the rest of the core game systems: ensuring the skeleton is complete before fleshing it out. That’s a sensible approach, definitely, but it does leave the current game in a similar state to how it was two years ago: there’s simply not enough different content in it to encourage me to go through the grind any more than I have already.

There are also still a few bugs and minor stability issues, but from my recent hours with the game, at least, world, object, and saved game stability are vastly improved from my earlier experiences. The new caves and major encounters (towers, procedurally generated buildings, etc.) still seem to be a bit unstable, occasionally disappearing entirely or having duplicate icons appear next to each other on the map, but I haven’t lost any resources, crafted objects, or buildings at all recently. Performance can still be a bit hit and miss, particularly as it relates to game and world load times, which can be over a minute at times, and also streaming in of new sectors or regions while you’re moving about the game world, which can frequently freeze the game for a second or two. Optimisation isn’t a development focus at the moment, while some game systems aren’t yet complete and there’s a distinct lack of content, but the developer already has some things in mind for improving performance. For the time being, lowering the far draw range from the maximum (48 km) most definitely helps with the pauses I’ve been seeing.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Big Kitty Games is still one of the most friendly and genuine developers I’ve had the good fortune of meeting. His attitude towards his customers is exemplary and his dedication to his vision of the game is commendable. While many other EA developers are happy to communicate poorly and drip-feed sparse updates to their customers over months at a time, Big Kitty Games has frequent, detailed communication; issues frequent updates to the game; and tries very hard to ensure that updates are backwards compatible, making game wipes / restarts rare. The developer also listens to customer feedback and takes it into serious consideration, as evidenced by the massive amount of recent effort spent on adding multi-player support to what was originally intended to be only a single-player game.

Verdict

I think it’s fair to say that most of the issues I had with Solace Crafting two years ago are still present now in one form or another, with the exception of the major stability problems. But it’s also fair to say that the game has come a long way in that time, too. Character graphics are still wonky, the interface is still unintuitive, and building can still be fiddly (though when it works you can build some great stuff), but the biggest problem I have with it now is the same as it was two years ago: for all its vastness, it still feels as though there’s not actually that much to do.

That said, even if development stopped right now, if you enjoy a bit of survival-crafting grind and you like building stuff, it’s very likely that you’d get your money’s worth from Solace Crafting in its current state. If the repetitive main game play loop grabs you and you don’t mind that there are only a few different creatures to encounter and things to see in the world, you could spend a very long time playing it indeed. But given Big Kitty Games’ performance so far, it’s much more likely development will continue.

To quote the store page itself, “The end of early access will be marked by an abundance of “things to do” throughout all levels in-game.” I’m looking forward to that, and I believe the game will most likely warrant at least a Save rating at that point, but as I’ve said many times before, I can only review what’s here right now. At this point, though, that’s enough to recommend it.

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