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Solasta: Crown of the Magister - Early Access Preview

by Redglyph, 2021-02-04

Game Overview

Quick facts:

  • turn-based 3D isometric CRPG (classic RPG), D&D SRD 5.1 ruleset
  • single-player, target of about 40h of gameplay in 3 acts
  • 4-member party, no principal "player" character, no pre-built companions with their history and companion quests
  • 8 races: human, high elf, sylvan elf, half-elf, hill dwarf, snow dwarf, island halfling, marsh halfling
  • 7 classes: cleric, rogue, fighter, wizard, ranger, paladin, sorcerer
  • levels 1-10, no multiclass
  • separate small/medium areas, world map to travel between areas
  • release planned in 2021, currently in EA (level 6 cap, act 1 & bits of act 2)
  • Windows platform, on GOG and Steam, 34.99€ during EA (full price unknown yet)

Solasta: Crown of the Magister is a turn-based tactical RPG based on the SRD 5.1 ruleset, developed by Tactical Adventures. This will be the first title released by this new French studio of about 10 passionate and experienced game developers. It is issued from a Kickstarter campaign, which successfully concluded in October 2019 with a budget of 243,855€ (against an 180,000€ goal).

They released a first demo in September 2019 for the Kickstarter campaign; it was updated a few times and was already quite impressive for such an early work. The Early Access started on 20 October 2020, and received a significant update end of December. It offers about 14 hours of content, so less than half the final release according to their estimation; this will of course vary depending on how you play.

The prominent traits of the game, as presented by Tactical Adventures, are

  • a true-to-tabletop experience: many RPG games are about adventure immersion, good examples are The Witcher or Divinity: Original Sin. But Solasta puts the emphasis on the atmosphere of tabletop RPG games. It uses several tricks like the occasional banter which sometimes gets out of character, to suggest a group of friends playing a board game together. It also displays the rolling dice in combat or dialogs, and a grid on the map during combats, to emulate the squares of the board. The dialogs are presented as cut scenes, which are closer to the dialog which takes place between the DM and the party, or between the party members. It doesn't go as far as D&D simulators that only show pawns, but instead it blends this tabletop feeling with more traditional isometric games.
  • a team adventure: there is no main character the player can identify with - the party is the main character. As a player, you create, play, equip, level up each hero without any discrimination. More importantly, there are no pre-made companions bringing their own history, and their own quests. There are, however, a few pre-built characters that you may use at the beginning, when creating the party, instead of creating all of them from scratch.
  • a dynamic world of light and darkness: the areas often make a clever use of light and shadows, adding another dimension to the combat. Moreover, some monsters have attributes that are dependent on the surrounding light level, thus magnifying the importance of the player's tactical decisions: should you wear torches, light up wall sconces, or illuminate an enemy? Is it more important to preserve stealth, or to be bathing safely in bright light in order to repel vampires? At first, some of the SRD rules were even adapted in some areas (DM privilege) and dim light induced a disadvantage on attack rolls, but a few users complained and Tactical Adventures took a step back, which is a shame because they had very creative ideas that could have brought the game much further.
  • a three-dimensional environment: combat and exploration areas often use the vertical dimension, sometimes as a puzzle to reach hidden destinations or treasures, sometimes to give an advantage or create a precarious situation in combat, sometimes just for the beauty of the set. It really makes for a more interesting experience, although at times the camera handling may suffer a little bit, and you may struggle to get a decent view of the situation. There are also cramped and narrow passages, even in combat areas, which completely change the dynamics and give the occasional feeling of claustrophobia.

 Areas use the vertical dimension. I hope you're not afraid of heights?

Game Flow

Party Creation

The adventure begins with character creation, following a typical flow of selection between the available races, classes, background, and more specific choices.

Each step is detailed and well presented; in general the UI has a very clear presentation that guides the player, without assuming any prerequisites of the ruleset. Pop-ups appear when hovering over specific terms or panels to give complementary information without cluttering the interface.

 The character creation process, a wizard to create wizards?

For example below, an overview of the next levels is available to help with the choices.

It is worth noting that the full game will see the characters through levels 1 to 10 and no further. The Early Access is currently limited to level 6, which already gives a good feeling of what each class is offering. Some will undoubtedly regret this limitation, along with the missing races and classes, or the absence of multiclassing but they are unavoidable in the context of a first Kickstarter title by a small company. We should actually be glad that they were wise enough to make the necessary decisions and include many interesting features, rather than having for example all the classes but a poor combat system. Overall, the player will find a very good balance of all the necessary elements, and we can hope that in a future version, they will be in a position to expand each aspect of the game.

 What lies ahead...

Since the party is fixed with 4 heroes, character creation may take a while. Instead of doing each of them from scratch, the player can use pre-built characters, or re-use previously created ones. One feature I would like to see however, is the ability to start from an existing character and adapt it to create a new one, and to easily import/export files and share them with other players.

The customization of the physical appearance is still somewhat limited. We should not expect, even in the full release, to see anything as extensive as what big budget games offer these days. The details, while much improved by comparison with a Neverwinter Nights, are not as striking as in Baldur's Gate 3. However, they are more than convincing enough for the general gameplay, even if the close-up shots during the dialogs may sometimes show the limitations of the models. For my part, I never found it annoying.

Similarly, there are not many voices available, but one should bear in mind that all dialogs are voice-acted, and whereas in other games the character's voice is only used to utter the occasional and repetitive "I shall lead the way" or "done and done", in Solasta they are used for all the dialogs, and for the occasional banter during gameplay, for all the party members. I must add, however, that I never had a case of two voices being identical in the same party.

There are little details that appear in Solasta's character creation but that we don't always see in other titles. For example, the choices in the initial gear (as per D&D rules), and a selection of personality traits, on top of the usual childhood background. These traits influence the dialog options of each character, but in order to understand that, it is necessary to explain how dialogs are implemented.

Dialogs

The dialogs are presented as cut scenes with subtitles, which has already been seen in other games. But here, choices and answers are split between party members: each hero has typically one line, and the player selects the hero to continue the conversation with the corresponding choice.

A typical dialog scene

On the plus side, this format is immersive and focused on the conversation. Also, characters propose the options that most match their personality - so a rogue will most likely have nasty comments or very direct questions, while a cleric will be more polite and respectful. On the negative side, I personally find this presentation a bit awkward. While some comments can indeed reflect the character's personality, it is not always possible and many dialog choices or answers are neutral, so they are distributed more or less randomly. In the end this way of managing the dialog may appear a little arbitrary, and it limits the number of options.

Finally, there is no way to display what has already been said in the conversation and if you're distracted, no-one will repeat it for you. Sure enough, everything is written in the journal log, but it is not accessible in the middle of a dialog. A way to peek at what has been previously said would be welcome. I would also like to see keyboard shortcuts to quickly select answers, instead of dragging the mouse back and forth during dialogs since the format makes those answers more distant on the screen.

Quests

Once the party is created, the adventure commences! And, in the typical tradition of board games, our heroes meet up at the local tavern. This is the opportunity for the game to give a quick tutorial, where each hero goes through a quick mission related to an event that occurred on the way to the tavern, and which introduces the basic features to the player.

Once the tutorial is completed, the main quest thread starts innocently enough. A dialog with one of the main NPCs gives an introduction to the setting and the local organizations of Caer Cyflen, the capital where your party gathers at the beginning of the campaign. After a few formalities in the city, the heroes are already sent on their first mission.

 Caer Cyflen, Capital of the Principality of Masgarth (the party is farther West, see the handy pointers)

The big picture is only revealed later, and only very progressively. At the beginning, the player is not concerned by saving-the-world considerations and has plenty of time to get familiar with the game mechanics. This may feel to some as a lack of story and lore in comparison to other games, but the gentle introduction to the plot feels more realistic to me than asking a green hero to save the universe against Evil right away. And since the game isn't that long, the plot is revealed soon enough anyway.

The quests often follow a simple pattern: the heroes are in the main city, they are asked to travel to some new location and this leads to several combats, after which they come back to report, and that leads to a new mission. There isn't much in terms of side quests, or other types of quests that are more oriented, for example, to local investigations not involving combat. At least, that is the case in the Early Access. But the last Winter Update introduced more content and a local quest that felt a little bit different, so it is too early to reach any conclusion yet. Besides, Tactical Adventures have expressed several times their intention to give an interesting story, and announced a political intrigue that seems to extend beyond crawling in and out of a series of dungeons, so I think we shouldn't worry.

 Quest and Adventure logs work hand in hand

The UI shines again by providing a clean quest log, and a great adventure log that details all events and conversations. You will find the start and follow-up entries of each quest, with its title and sometimes an associated picture, and all the related dialogs. You will also find combats logs and their outcome, little events that occurred during the travels between areas, encounters if there were any, and so on.

Quests, along with other feats like killing enemies and discovering new areas or special items, grant XP to characters, which makes them progress to the next level. The 14-hour gameplay available in the Early Access should be just enough to get to level 6, if that is any indication on the pace. As always, progression is logarithmic and it takes longer to level up at higher levels, but the perks are also more significant.


Climbing the social ladder

Beside quests, the relationship with the factions can also evolve with time. You start at a default level that denies several advantages offered by the different factions, such as items to trade. By improving the level of trust, you get more advantages, including better prices when bartering with the associated merchants. One way of doing so is to retrieve and sell them artefacts.


The Scavengers, such a helpful lot

One important faction is the Scavengers, who travel and visit the locations that have been cleared by your party, to recover any remaining loot. When they come back, they give you the option of selling the items for you, for a small fee, or you can also get any of them back at a fraction of their price.

This is, in my opinion, a smart and very elegant way to deal with junk loot. If you identify a valuable weapon or item, loot it right away, otherwise leave that behind and you will still recover most of its value. Inventories are limited in weight, depending on the character's strength, so it is not possible to keep everything anyway.

But it is more than a handy feature, the Scavengers are real, they play an actual role, and you will meet them in some of the missions. They were actually the first encounter in the early game demo.

Exploration and Travel

Exploring is one of the pillars of RPG. Solasta is organized as many other classic counterparts, a world map made of areas, between which you travel by predetermined routes in "map" mode. Each area is the usual 3D isometric view; these areas are usually not very large, and focused on single missions, very much like a Pathfinder: Kingmaker or a Pillars of Eternity. By contrast, games like Divinity: Original Sin have much larger areas in which many quests and missions are packed together, and the party doesn't have so much to travel between areas than within them.

This choice of representation reminds us of board games, so it is consistent with Solasta's objectives. It also feels more natural to have well-separated areas than a unique, larger area with different cities and different groups so close to one another.

The areas are beautifully crafted and decorated, and the environments are varied: cities and outposts in nature or mountains, ... and of course, dungeons! The graphics are nice and detailed, even when zooming in. But the city and outposts have a static feeling to them, mainly because the NPCs mostly remain on the same spot instead of walking around and going about their daily routine. Most objects don't move either, except some movable blocks and constructs that are only used as part of a puzzle. Overall, there is little interaction with the environment, and there is a pervading feeling of stage setting to it, especially in cities and buildings. What's even worse, the environment is not affected by the destructive nature of the combat, throwing a big fireball in a library will leave the books in pristine condition.


Travelling between areas

The world travel interface is one of the prettiest I have ever seen, and I can hardly make it justice by trying to describe how it works. It shows a bird's-eye view of a 3D world map, with day/night cycle and weather, which includes mock-ups of the cities, outposts and other points of interest, and indicates your progression on the route between them. You can select a few options such as the walking speed - faster being riskier, and whether you prefer pauses before some events or not. You can also use this time to craft items, which is good because crafting takes a lot of time!

A travel journal details fictional and amusing events occurring during the travel, which is a nice touch. Actual events may also happen, mainly enemy encounters, that you can try to avoid but this is not always possible.

 Dinner is served! Anyone hungry?

One slightly annoying feature of D&D is food. Be sure to take enough rations before leaving the city, because it is not always possible to hunt on the road and rations may be used during your travel when your party set camp. You still need enough of them for long rests in the areas, especially when the combats are demanding. Food can sometimes be found in remote locations, but not always. They are quite heavy too, fortunately you should find magic backpacks to lessen the burden a little. Alternatively, there are spells available to several classes to generate enough food for long rests, but they come at the expense of other spells that may be more useful in combat.

Exploring an area should be done with caution, because there are traps and hidden enemies. The surroundings that haven't been visited yet by the party are greyed-out with the traditional "fog of war", and they are also invisible on the map. Speaking of which, a stylized, rotating 3D map is available and helps finding one's way through the locations, which are sometimes nicely convoluted. NPCs are shown on that map, along with points of interest that can be used for fast travel if the path exists and the route is safe (you actually see the characters move very quickly to the destination on the map, no magic involved!).

 Local map and fast travel

I would have preferred not to see the NPCs on the map, and no question pointer on the compass, but I know this is a sensitive point and there are people who appreciate the help. Hopefully a difficulty level option will allow hiding the extra pointers and letting the players think by themselves.

Combat

Another important part of CRPG is combat, and it is very prominent in this game. The good news is that this also happens to be one of the most outstanding features: combat is very fun and rewarding, and not only its mechanics are very well implemented, but the combat locations are also well designed and interesting from a tactical point of view.

Solasta: Crown of the Magister's combat is turn-based and follows the Systems Reference Document 5.1, which means it implements the rule subset which can be published under the Open Gaming Licence, not the full D&D 5th edition licence. In practice, there is little difference, some archetypes and spells are missing for example, but they can be replaced by whatever the "DM" (here, the game developer) deems appropriate, if necessary or desired. It is not forbidden to add.

For example, spells were added to light up items or enemies, since darkness and light are a fundamental feature in Solasta. The SRD only allows the thief archetype for rogues, not the assassin nor the arcane trickster. Solasta brings us the thief, but "invented" the darkweaver and the shadowcaster, which have of course slightly different characteristics than the forbidden D&D archetypes.

See also: Systems Reference Document, Dungeons & Dragons

The dice rolls are handled by the game, as usual, and every result is available for closer inspection, hovering on any result will even give further details like the actual roll, the relevant attributes and modifiers. Likewise, the character sheet gives all the necessary details. This is an appreciated feature, and it really helps understand the rules when one is not entirely familiar with them.

 Typical combat, note how some of the enemy types are unknown

Once more, the UI doesn't disappoint. It clearly lays out the turns, the different action phases, the remaining moves and available actions, bonus actions and interactions. It also displays a grid and shows the lines of sight. I cannot help comparing it to the similarly clean design of Pathfinder: Kingmaker in turn-based mode, which is simply the best out there, and Solasta's interface is almost as good, and certainly better than the other D&D video games.

The party keeps a bestiary, it is originally blank but repeated encounters of the same enemy type add further information to the bestiary, thus progressively giving an advantage to the party by providing important data on the enemy's attributes, strengths and weaknesses. A first encounter doesn't even reveal the enemy's type, it only shows "Unknown creature"! This is so much more realistic than a game that would, say, directly give the percentage of success on any action, even on the first date. Get to know your enemy!

The AI is good, the opponents move where it gives them an advantage. Creatures which are stronger in darkness will not hesitate to move to a dark corner, or even to cast the Darkness spell if they can. Creatures that are good with a bow will keep their distance and get on higher ground. Sometimes, they do silly things in very specific situations, but since it's Early Access, I find it hard to blame the AI. There is currently no difficulty level for the AI, but it's planned.

Classes and Races

The choice of class and race, as we have seen, is limited in Solasta; this is one of the sacrifices the team had to make in order to reach the objective.

Currently, there are only 5 races, but since some of them have sub-races, there are 8 possible choices: human, high elf, sylvan elf, half-elf, hill dwarf, snow dwarf, island halfling, and marsh halfling. Some have emitted doubts about the relevance of humans vs more exotic races like dragonborns, gnomes or half-orcs, but I believe that humans remain a valid choice, since they are quite versatile and also more approachable by beginners.

The classes that are currently available in the Early Access are cleric, rogue, fighter, wizard, ranger, and paladin. Later, the sorcerer will be added, thus giving 7 classes to choose from. There will not be any possibility of multiclass characters in the final release, but given that the class level is capped at 10, it would have been of little interest. Again, there have been critics on this selection of classes, but it is never possible to satisfy everyone when a choice has to be made. What has been implemented has the merit of being very well done, correct and complete, which would have been too difficult to achieve if Tactical Adventure hadn't been wise about it and had tried to put everything in the game instead.

 Wizards, never, ever lose your spell book!

At some point during my testing of the Early Access, I had to report a strange bug: my wizard had forgotten all her spells! The forum soon got similar reports from other people. Then I realized, after loading an earlier game, that she previously had a spell book in her inventory... and had sold it to make a little bit of money. This is the first time I see an actual spell book correctly implemented in a D&D game! Theoretically, the wizard should be able to use another one's spell book to transcribe spells, at a cost. I haven't tried, but I did transcribe scroll spells and that works, even though this isn't entirely correct yet.

Levelling up is done during a long rest, which is a valid choice. The UI is a good guide and shows the different possibilities of evolution to the player, so again, well done! Long rests are also the moment for the wizards and clerics to select the spells they want to prepare for the next day; fortunately this is made very visible in the rest panel so there is little risk of forgetting it, which is nice for distracted people like me.

Since we are talking about sleep, the party can have two short rests per day - or more exactly, between long rests, which is a sound and usual choice in D&D. The heroes have the possibility to roll dice to get some of their hit points back, and the spell-inclined members may also recover arcane points for their next encounter.

Storytelling

The major difference between the SRD and the full D&D licence is the lore, this game is not set in the Forgotten Realms and the player will not see any part of the Land of Faerûn. Instead, Tactical Adventures wrote their own setting, which may not be as deep as the extensive work of Wizards of the Coast, but still interesting enough to involve the player.

As already mentioned, the main plot is introduced progressively, so at the beginning the player has no immediate sense of urgency, this is a rather slow start and the motivation builds up along with the first missions. The same can be said of the lore: there is no massive introduction to the setting from the get-go, the player learns about it mostly through the discussions with NPCs in the city and at the different locations. Occasionally, one party member who is more knowledgeable identifies lore items and mentions a part of history that relates to the discovery.

The dialogs are not very long by RPG standards, and there is very little descriptive narrative in them, they are mostly conversations. All dialogs are voice-acted though, and the acting is usually of good quality without being as fancy and dramatic as in top movies or AAA games. There is still time so hopefully we may see more developed dialogs or descriptions. I wish we had a story narrator like in Divinity: Original Sin 2, it would allow for subtler descriptions that are otherwise very difficult to render to the player, but I think this is not planned in the current objectives and we shouldn't expect it in the final release.

Out of the scope, also, are the "choice & consequence" features. Tactical Adventures had already addressed this question in the past, and said it would be too costly in development, testing and voice acting. That makes sense, and indeed I would rather have 40 hours of gameplay with one ending than 20 hours with several possible endings - I'm not even sure that would be an option, since a shorter campaign would make it difficult to reach the full development of the characters to their 10th level.

Finally, the decision to make all party characters customizable and to exclude the usual pre-built companions may be arguable, and is the one decision I disagree the most with. Not only does it make very difficult to bring companion quests and enriching the story with their own past and inclinations, but I don't see how it makes the game more true to the tabletop experience. When you play with friends, you don't dictate them who they are, you have no more control over that than the usual companions we got to enjoy in most CRPGs.

Moreover, I would argue that pre-made companions would have made it easier to limit the voice acting and the dialog options. It would also allow the player to identify with one character that he or she plays in the campaign, rather than risking to wake up a latent schizophrenia by playing 4 of them.

On the other hand, it probably diversifies the experience by allowing any combination of race, class and personality in the party, and as a consequence it is more enjoyable to replay the game multiple times. This could only have been achieved by adding more pre-made companions, which in turn would have been more expensive.

I suppose it would still be possible to attach "companion" quests and history, either randomly or depending on the chosen background and personality. But if that was part of the recipe, we would already have seen it, and it don't think it was planned because it goes against the idea of the players making their own story - quoting the game information on their website: "Create your very own party of adventurers with our Character Creation Tool in the classic tabletop RPG tradition. Breathe life into your heroes, and see their personalities reflected in their dialogue. Tailor your squad to your preferred strategy and maximize your party's abilities. The choice is yours."

For now anyway, the party members only have the story they build together during the campaign, and there are indeed references to that story now and then. The other remarks are usually random banter or remarks on the gameplay, which is distracting enough but shallow.

Conclusion

The focus of the game is definitely more about a rather spontaneous and fun experience around the (virtual) table than a deep adventure for the player, in which he or she can identify to a main character and get immersed in a vast, interactive open world.

Even though the game doesn't feature all classes, races and spells, or D&D-deep lore and multiclass development paths, what it does, it does very well. The combat is engaging, fun and rewarding, and the story seems motivating enough for a CRPG title of this ambition. The game is well presented with a clean and helpful interface, and offers a few neat and innovative tricks.

It is not perfect, but this is only an Early Access and we haven't seen everything yet. Among the points that are worth watching in the final release, and which will hopefully be improved in the meantime, I note the depth of the story and the variety of the quests, which are both currently giving the overall impression that this game is a bit more combat-oriented than story-focused. I would add that, even if it were to remain similar in the final release, that wouldn't make it an average game in any way, and Solasta would still be very entertaining and successful.

Box Art

Information about

Solasta: Crown of the Magister

Developer: Tactical Adventures

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: RPG
Combat: Turn-based
Play-time: 20-40 hours
Voice-acting: Full

Regions & platforms
Internet
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2021-05-27
· Publisher: Tactical Adventures

More information


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