Stoneshard EA Impressions: Deadly Turn-Based Combat Meets Roguelike RNG
Following a free demo showing off the game's prologue, an Early Access version of Stoneshard is finally out on Steam. While development continues on the surprise indie RPG, players can explore the first two towns and a big chunk of the surrounding wilderness while dying horribly in a number of satisfying ways.
Lately, I've found that giant, AAA titles with slick graphics to be rather lackluster on the gameplay front, leading me to seek out games like Stoneshard. In many ways, it's the perfect counterpart to that trend, offering a tactical take on the RPG genre with an addicting level of punishing difficulty.
Stoneshard Early Access Impressions — Colliding Genres
Without question, Stoneshard's classic SNES pixel art style is what first caught my eye, but that's not all there is to this genre-mashing experiment. The inventory screen, enemies, and locales will often bring to mind classic games like Diablo.
The art style closely matches the dark, punishing flavor of combat and the game's grid-based gameplay. Right now, the only graphical hiccups are when moving too fast outdoors; the pitch black squares marking areas out of your line of sight often rapidly shift and it looks strange when you don't slowly move one tile at a time in forest maps.
But unlike those textbook action RPGs that fall alongside Diablo, Stoneshard provides a turn-based take on the ARPG genre, tossing in plenty of roguelike and roguelite elements for good measure. Further setting itself apart, Stoneshard makes you work for every little victory.
The extremely limited inventory space found in Darkest Dungeon is on full blast here, as even gold and the basic world map take up slots in your backpack. Forget about playing Stoneshard like classic Fallout, where you can grab everything that isn't nailed down and sell it to merchants for a quick pay day. Not only is your backpack space limited, merchants have limited gold stores, too.
In another nod to the harsh world of DD, your character can lose sanity or suffer a variety of other debilitating afflictions during their journey. Combat is more than just managing HP and mana while trading blows; pain and bleeding in the aftermath are often more deadly than the actual battle itself.
Prepare to Die, 2D Edition
The map itself is another major hurdle for your very squishy mercenary to overcome, as there's no blinking red dot marking your current position. You've got to figure that out yourself by counting squares and paying attention to landmarks.
In truly sadistic fashion, you might survive a delve into a bandit keep and finally figure out how to return to town... only to die on the way back because you didn't bring any bandages to stop bleeding or medicine to deal with the extreme pain of your broken arm.
Stoneshard is a harsh and unforgiving world, taking the best parts of the deadly Warhammer or Zweihander tabletop RPGs and converting them into a unique digital setting.
Its not all doom and gloom though, and there are several ways to make the game almost easy if you learn the right tactics. The 2D, grid-based maps allow for a level of strategy, particularly in using the environment to your advantage, that just isn't possible in real-time games, whether we're talking about something like Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity or the more frenzied Diablo style.
Between the game's stealth mechanics and its heavy emphasis on utilizing the randomized map to your advantage, every battle essentially becomes its own little puzzle to solve.
While there are myriad viable builds from grizzled axe-wielder to bow-toting ranger, I'm having the best time with the sorceresses class. At first, I was tempted to go full throttle towards the fireball-flinging pyromancer, but I quickly realized the terrain-altering geomantic powers are actually where the real goods are found.
My favorite tactic at the moment is summoning a runic boulder to push back an enemy and block their previous movement path, forcing them to waste a valuable turn going around the obstacle. Next, I'll blow up that runic boulder and turn the surrounding terrain into damaging stone spikes, further screwing up whatever path the horde of bandits or wolves was planning to use.
Considering how many skill types and spell trees aren't even available yet, I'm eagerly looking forward to trying out different builds at full launch. Even if you don't go the spell-casting route, movement and environment tactics become critical, especially in the the first boss fight against a giant demonic bat thing.
It's another area that holds plenty of promise, and I can't wait to see what else is in store for big bad bosses as the rest of the content is added.
Too Random or Just Random Enough?
Surrounded on all sides with no way to the door: yep, I'm gonna die
Since Stoneshard is a roguelike, its environments are heavily influenced by RNG. That means everything from wilderness to dungeons can be deadly, even early on.
It's something further exacerbated by the game's risk/reward elements. For example, making noise draws enemies, so you must decide between breaking barrels to find a splint for a broken leg and alerting more zombies to your position.
Even beneficial items can be a gamble. Taking Stardust can reduce pain and increase morale, but it increases the chances of adverse psychedelic reactions. If that happens, the screen moves on its own, making it increasingly difficult to accurately target a specific square, and you may move in the wrong direction, putting yourself in a disadvantageous area.
That randomized play is complicated by Stoneshard's save system, which is one of the main points of contention in the game's Early Access period. At the moment, it's only possible to save at the inn for a hefty fee, or by clearing out a bandit camp and sleeping (which is difficult at low levels).
In other words, you can expect to lose a lot of progress and have to repeatedly start over while getting the hang of the mechanics. In some ways, it would be better if Stoneshard constantly saved like Darkest Dungeon, rather than relying on extremely sparse save points.
Unfortunately, it can be quite frustrating to survive a long and arduous quest, only to die one square away from town because a wolf decided to follow you after you've run out of arrows and healing items.
Where Stoneshard Needs to Go From Here
Stoneshard is an extremely challenging game, especially in the beginning while learning to navigate its durability, hunger, sanity, pain meters. That's not to mention its limited inventory systems. But the game is quite rewarding when you get the hang of things, and I suspect some of the more obtuse elements will get tweaked during Early Access.
In short, Stoneshard is basically a grimdark fantasy novel translated into video game form. Fans of the pixel style and bleak worlds similar to Dark Devotion or Blasphemous will love what's on display here, especially if they prefer a more traditional RPG rather than a Souls-style experience.
As expected, more content is going to be added in the coming months. While hunting and cooking already in the game, it seems like crafting potions must be in the works based on some of the ingredients that can be found while playing. I can only see the experience getting better over time as it already has a solid base to work from.
When it is finally ready for full launch, Stoneshard is going to be a thing of absolute beauty.
Ready to give it a try and jump into Early Access? Be sure to check out our Stoneshard guides hub page, so you can arm yourself with the knowledge necessary to take out the first boss and survive the early game.