Stoneshard is a union of so many things that I admire in a classic RPG. Low fantasy setting with obscure but extensive world-building? Check. Gorgeously gritty pixel art? Check. Leaving your first village and dying brutally to wolves ten paces down the road again and again? Oh my god, please let me get to a different save point; check!
Ink Stain Games released Stoneshard into the early access lake of roguelike games on November 7th, 2019, with high hopes and big ambitions. The game is a roguelike RPG with turn-based combat, an open world, and a steadily moving economy that keeps you on your toes, always needing to take one more quest. Based on my experience with the game, that quest will generally end up being the one that kills you. Every trip out of your small starting town might very well be your last one, and often it won’t be what you expect to kill you that ends your adventure.
The Road to Aldor
Stone Shard stands apart from many other roguelikes in the amount of content it brings to the table or will bring to the table when it gets a bit further along the veiled and spooky early access road. I’ve been playing long enough to see it grow through vigorous and promising updates and patches. Now there is a whole new slew of ways for me to die horrifically. The devs have been hard at work, keeping the game on a steady track for an official full content release date. That’s a bit of an undertaking considering what Stoneshard already is and what it hopes to be.
The game consists of quite a bit more than taking quests and getting coin, though that is what you will spend most of your time doing in the game’s start-up. There’s still a bit missing here but not quite enough to rob you of the experience of the game. The ability to have hirelings and a caravan will be a game-changer, and the moment it does happen, I will create a family of weirdo mages, and I will protect them with my life. Or more realistically again be mauled by wolves, but hey, wolves got to eat, right?
Stoneshard’s prologue introduces you to Verren, an artifact hunter on a quest that has gone upside down. The game immediately gives you a taste of what’s to come by placing you in a dungeon with no weapons and about ten demonic vampires between you and your captured crew. The prologue does a good job setting the stage for the world. You learn most of Stoneshard’s mechanics in the first twenty minutes of play, though it will take much longer before you begin scratching the surface of mastering them.
I haven’t delved far enough into the game’s main story path to learn a lot about the main characters, or even my character. The lack of a main linear plot is in part due to the fact that it seems the central narrative is still being added in pieces. It also doesn’t seem to be Stone Shard’s pressing narrative, as exploration is very heavily encouraged from the start. But from the pieces I’ve gathered between the prologue and my own character’s interactions with the world, the main plot seems compelling enough. Even to the extent that I found myself hoping to see certain characters return so I can hear their overacted Scottish voices again (it’s not that bad). Also, this game has pretty damn good voice acting for the few characters that have voices.
The World of Aldor
I mentioned the art above because the game is undeniably beautiful. Each tree is twisting and dressed in a muted but somehow low-fantasy evocative color palette. All NPCs look great walking around town, doing their little interactions, and going about their scheduled day. Everything in the world tells you the tone of the game at a glance. Aldor is a kingdom on the brink of ruin, and people are just scraping by. Nobody trusts magic, yet they seem to need to hire mercenaries and sorcerers to keep the bandits and demonic influence from destroying their 200 square foot rotted thatch hut where they make garbage broth soup for their pox-ridden kiddos. You also get the sense that if things just got about five percent better, the townsfolk might burn you at the stake for using the magic that made things better. That’s pretty cool.
THE MUSIC OF ALDOR
More than the art, the music is what really brings Stoneshard to life. The music is atmospheric and even inspiring. As much as I love the early access roguelike scene, I’ll fully admit that I’m willing to compromise on a soundtrack. Most smaller studios don’t have the money or time and often need a placeholder, and for me, that’s ok. Stoneshard does not compromise on the soundtrack. Cellos, strings, and dark, resonant picking guitars are great from the start. So much so that I’ll throw the music on independent of the game while I’m at my desk. The melody is such an exceptional part of the game, and just like the art adds to paint the atmosphere excellently. Especially when the game realizes you’re probably going to die and the “you’re probably going to die” track starts up.
Quests in a Ruined World
Speaking more of the actual gameplay Stone Shard has a relatively simple turn-based combat system with massive skill trees and endless combinations of equipment for builds. The turn-based combat is fast. Very fast. I would say if you’re a player with qualms about turn-based gameplay being boring, this could be the game to change your mind.
The combat isn’t just fast. It’s satisfying, especially considering most battles will leave you badly beaten. This brings me to the second largest mechanic of the game, taking care of yourself. The healing system is in-depth yet straightforward. You can patch wounds, apply herbs, and fix broken bones, all without spending unnecessary moments doing tedious crafting or complex inventory upkeep. The one minor complaint I have is that if you choose to purchase a backpack, the UI for storing things is… bad. However, from several playthroughs, I can safely say this is a minor hang up.
The enemy variety at the start may seem a bit sparse, but the content has grown wildly over the last few months. Trolls are out there somewhere in the world, and I haven’t even encountered one yet. Vampires, cannibals, and bald men with goatees, eyepatches, and swords are all out in full force. The first few dungeons will likely be invading bandit hideouts to retrieve stolen goods for the poor villages. Soon after, though, you’ll be diving into necromancer crypts and haunted graveyards to lift curses and avenge holy men. Thus far, the opening prologue ends in what is possibly one of the coolest boss fights in the game. Not to spoil too much, but the larger antagonists of the game are fascinatingly spooky.
Challenge and Content
A quick glance over Stoneshard’s steam reviews will tell you one of the game’s critiques, its difficulty level. Stoneshard is undoubtedly challenging, and depending on how you play and build your character, it can be extremely challenging. Even though I’ve played my fair share of the games typically deemed unfairly difficult or with a vertical learning curve, I don’t have any love of RPGs that are hard on the player for the sake of being difficult alone. It’s just not a game design I personally enjoy. I also don’t feel like Stoneshard falls into this category.
While sometimes the game may throw things at you that are overwhelming, I found that it would be fine most of the time if I didn’t overextend my character. It also makes pushing past the point of failure feel that much more rewarding when you succeed because failure is always on the table.
Stoneshard is brutally hard at times, but that doesn’t equate to unfair or not fun. You’re given a wide array of skills and weapons so that you can play the game in your own unique way and make any endless combination of build. The gameplay loop is simple but adds to the game’s depth, emphasizing exploration over linear plot. The world is big enough to get lost in but not overwhelmingly large. The devs are clearly gearing up to add more, though, so if you feel a bit cramped, there is more to be added and see. Overall I would say if you like roguelikes, Stone Shard is not just an excellent game to pick up but a must-play. Even with where it’s at in early access, there’s a lot here, but I wouldn’t fault others for waiting a bit longer for some more core features and some more plot.
I find myself going back to Stoneshard again and again, not just to push for one more dungeon, but to see what more I can find in the world. Talking wizard hats, daunting trolls, and unfortunate encounters with packs of wolves in the dark await fans of rewarding difficulty, and that reward is what pushes me to reload at the inn each time I fail. The line between challenge and success fall into a perfect balance on the scales of Stone Shard, and above anything else, that’s what I think makes it a great game.