REVIEW: Alder’s Blood

May
21

REVIEW: Alder’s Blood

Manage a team of hunters and mercenaries on their quest to cleanse the land off otherworldly corruption.

Released: Steam, Nintendo Switch
Type: Single-player
Genre: RPG, Adventure, Strategy
Developer: Shockwork Games
Publisher: No Gravity Games
Release date: 10 Apr, 2020

The Premise

Corruption from a dead deity has taken over the land. Beasts have become aggressive and attack anyone on sight, and humans, with time, also lose their mind completely. We control a group of outcasts specialising in all sorts of hands-on dirty work. Our main mission, however, is to put an end to this corruption once and for all. To do this is not easy, as the darkness and the monsters out there are much stronger and much more numerous than us, so stealthier and more cunning approaches are required.

Story and Setting

The setting where the story takes place is a dark one, bordering on post-apocalyptic. The civilisation has not fallen, but it’s ruled by a handful of families all of whom pursue their own interests, while the lands are dangerous to traverse because deadly monsters are everywhere. It’s a very nice take on a dark, hopeless world.

We mainly control a team of hunters. These hunters are considered as exiles and don’t usually mingle with the rest of society, but anyone who has coin can hire them to deal with the monsters on the road or to retrieve something valuable in a highly dangerous area. Sometimes these missions need to be taken simply to win some loyalty points for each faction that’s got authority in the land.

The corruption that filled the land from a dead elder god has become very tangible and is a major component of the plot. The main story revolves around our group of hunters trying to put an end to it. It’s a little bit of a cliché plot, but the plot is mainly here to service the gameplay.

Most of the story is told through dialogues with NPCs, who give us a quest, and as we complete the main quests and side quests, we discover more about the world and the plot.

Gameplay – the Good

The gameplay consists of several components, some of which involve managing the team of hunters and their caravan and some which occur on the field when we do sneaking around and fighting the enemies.

The key players of our gameplay are the hunters which we manage. Our hunters can be equipped with 2 weapons, and a number of charms and items to use in missions. They can also level up as they gain experience during the missions and we can choose perks they gain at each level up. However, each hunter also gains corruption throughout the game. Corruption is usually gained by exposure to monsters, both when attacking them and when being attacked by them. If a hunter’s corruption gets too high, they start getting some stat penalties and can eventually be driven to madness and become a liability, in which case they either need to be sent to base or be sacrificed for experience to boost another hunter.

In between the missions we are able to camp. Camping provides several benefits. Firstly our hunters can rest and regain HP in there. They can also gather food and resources while in it and craft new gear, depending on what role each hunter has been assigned. This has some risks of course, as camps can be ambushed by enemies, so some hunters need to be placed on guard duty to reduce the chance of this happening.

We are also able to freely travel between various locations on the world map. This consumes food (as hunters eat it during the road). The longer the road and the more hunters in the party, the more food consumed. As we receive quests, we’re required to travel to various locations, so this is a big part of the game.

When on the field, a lot of mechanics come into play. Our characters and the enemy monsters all move on a hex grid. The direction in which enemies are facing also becomes important, because we need to try and stay away from their line of sight. If we get seen by a monster, it is still possible to fight them, but in most of those instances our hunters will find themselves at a disadvantage as monsters are generally stronger and will often also call on others to come and help. If the situation is not contained quickly, it can escalate and we could find an entire pack upon us.

As with other similar turn-based games, the characters have a limited movement range per turn. However, in this game, we are able to move beyond the movement range limit. This eats into the character’s stamina points though, but it’s a great option for those times where moving a few steps further is needed. Stamina points are generally used for actions, such as attacking and using items. Both hunters and enemy monsters have these. The more stamina points someone has, the more actions they can do per turn. This creates additional strategies, because draining enemy stamina causes them to become helpless and unable to do anything for an entire turn, which leaves them at our mercy. We can then either finish them off or flee the battle before they get up.

Noise also plays a role in stealth mechanics. Many of the actions we do have a noise range. If any monsters find themselves in that range, they can become alerted to our presence. Monster calls also produce noise to alert other monsters in the area. However, the game provides us with a way to use the noise mechanic to our advantage. We can throw a small stone to a specific spot not far from the hunter to create a distraction and mislead the monsters, allowing our hunters to creep up behind them or to sneak away.

Yet, this is still not everything that plays a part in our sneaking around. One other element this game utilises is the smell. Our enemies are beastly monsters with a keen sense of smell, and our hunters are human beings who have a distinctive odour. The monsters can pick up a scent of the hunters if they’re close enough, in which case they can easily find a hunter even if the hunter is hiding in cover. The scent is dependent on wind direction, and so it is only carried a few tiles in just a single direction at any one time, but we need to be careful with it when sneaking around, because it can give our position away.

Gladly, the game offers many ways to fight or incapacitate the monsters. There are melee weapons to do it up close, there are ranged weapons to fire at enemies from a distance, and there are also traps (such as a spike trap) that activate once a monster walks into them. Traps offer some nice tactics that can be used to overcome the odds without engaging in open combat.

Gameplay – the Bad

All of the above-mentioned mechanics mesh well together and make for a fun and gripping tactical stealth experience. However, the game also has some questionable design decisions. Some seemed completely arbitrary, while others felt unbalanced and more of a frustration. Here are a few of these that I found to be bad or pointless or in need of smoothing out.

As we go beyond the first few missions, we discover that the darkness that plagues the land can make monsters appear in thin air. This means that in many missions new monsters will randomly spawn on the map, and some maps can end up getting crowded with monsters as a result, making sneaking very hard. I think this mechanic needs to be balanced further, because it seems like there’s nothing players can do to reduce how often enemies spawn. At first I thought it depended on how much corruption the hunters had, but even when I took hunters with low corruption into the dungeons, enemies still spawned often. What’s the worst about it is that at times monsters can even spawn right next to your hunters and become instantly alerted to their position. This can feel extremely unfair.

The boundaries of most maps tend to be a bit unclear, and some maps have very strange boundaries. Parts of those maps seem like they can be travelled on, but when you try to send a hunter there, it turns out the area is untraversable. In some maps this railroads you onto a narrow path filled with monsters, which feels like an artificial way to make the game harder.

Some of the gameplay can feel like it’s dependent on sheer luck. This is particularly the case regarding enemy movements. They don’t seem to have distinct patterns and move more or less randomly through the map. Even when we throw a rock to create a distraction, the enemies go towards it and then in the same turn will go in some random direction. This can make it a bit unpredictable and encourage save-scumming, which is not particularly a fun way to play a game.

One of the strangest and most arbitrary design decisions I found was the fact that when we equip a charm to a hunter, it’s permanent. It is possible to equip and unequip weapons and items to hunters, but once you’ve equipped a charm, this is it. You can’t remove it anymore, and the only way to get rid of it is to erase it from existence by equipping another charm in that same spot. I am not sure what purpose this design decision serves. It doesn’t make sense mechanically or lore-wise.

Lastly, I think the monster variety in the game is quite small at the moment, and so it can easily get repetitive. Moreover, most enemies seem like they’re very high on health points and hence shouldn’t be fought in any way whatsoever. I think with a game like this that has so many interesting mechanics, the devs could easily come up with more creative ways of making enemies seem like a threat rather than simply boosting their HP. For example, we could have a monster that actively checks in the bushes at all times and so needs to be dealt with quickly (usually monsters only do it if they become alerted). Or perhaps a monster that lays traps for us. Or a monster that can heal other monsters, but perhaps it’s stationary and can only do it within a limited area. Or a monster that can spray a powerful scent on your hunters for a few turns and make it easier for others to detect them through smell. Or a monster that has a hive mind, so if one of them spots you, the other monsters of this type will also know of your position (this can create a very challenging situation, albeit a very fun one if done right). There are plenty of ideas, so hopefully the devs will add some interesting new monsters to the game soon.

Presentation

The game has a very well-made and artistic visual style. Some of the game events are shown as comic strips, and most NPCs are presented as well-drawn still images. Whereas on the field, the hunters and monsters are animated with nice, stylistic sprites. One of the things I found to be cool is that a hunter’s sprite changes depending on what weapon they have equipped. It’s not just a single generic sprite. Generally, the visuals have done a good job to captivate a dark and hopeless (sort of Lovecraftian) setting where odds are always against you.

I have some mixed views on the UI. The hex grid on the field is quite straight-forward and the paths for our hunters to take are shown clearly, as well as how many stamina points they’d use up if they go beyond the normal movement range. However, it is very easy to misclick when ordering hunters to do certain things, such as when choosing from which orientation they should attack a monster, or at times when selecting hunters with a mouse. As far as outside combat missions, I think some UI can feel a bit too crowded and too filled with information and might need to be improved a bit. This is particularly the case for when giving crafting and camping tasks or going through the character stats window.

The music, for the most part, is rather low-key and ambient, but it does really well at creating an atmosphere and suspense. It has undertones of mystery to it, which fits this setting well.

There is some voice acting in the game, but it’s sort of partial. The hunters acknowledging our orders when on the field all seems to be working fine. But during dialogues with NPCs, oftentimes NPCs just say a single word and then the rest of the text is unvoiced. It’s a little strange and might feel unnecessary, but it’s a fairly minor annoyance.

There were a few bugs when saving and loading, most notably if reloading an earlier save, some of the stamina points on a hunter could be missing for some reason, even if it should be full at the time that save file was made. And at times an enemy that spotted you would still be aware of your position if you reloaded to a save before they spotted you. These weren’t frequent, but they did occur a handful of times.

Verdict

This is a pretty nice game with some very creative stealth mechanics and a good degree of tactical depth. It has a few odd design decisions, but overall it’s got a solid substance with a nice gameplay loop and can offer many hours of fun. Most of it requires a cautious, calculated approach and won’t appeal to those who want something fast-paced. Its story is nothing special from what I thought, but its setting is interesting and services the gameplay pretty well. I was a bit conflicted as to what score to give this game. At first, it felt like a high end ‘Save for Later’ game, and perhaps for many people it still would be, but the devs are making regular updates to streamline the game mechanics further and have planned to add more monsters into the game in a future update, so I think the game is only going to get better from here and so I think it deserves to have a ‘Save’ rating.

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