So gather ‘round y’all, and listen to the ol’ fella for a moment. Once again we’re taking a look into the guts of an Early Access promise. Yeah, that’s right… A promise. Sure it is technically a game, but when a product’s in Early Access it may as well be strung together with hopes, dreams, and unicorn blood. That isn’t to say they’re necessarily bad products, but consumers need to take a good long think about what they’re getting into.
There are great companies that have used Early Access to engage with their fan bases. We’d be remiss not to mention them, companies like InXile and Larian that have shown us gamers how positive an experience the Early Access path can be. But, we can’t ignore the risk. For every InXile or Larian, we have half a dozen or so companies that produce unfinished works that may as well be vaporware. You know, that wonderful state a project reaches when it’s slowly forgotten and left to die in a back alley. Only thing to its name being a fancy logo and a half empty can of beans.
So we need to take a hard look at just who are Blue Isle Studios. Citadel: Forged with Fire is their third game. Their first, Slender: The Arrival, was a generally well received and well reviewed game from 2013. Their outing from last year, Valley, scored high praise from both the industry and fans. As for Citadel, they have had roughly a dozen content updates and fixes since the beginning of September 2017. They have launched contests for the community and are currently running a Halloween event. That shows they’re active, so let’s take a deeper look at what the game promises, what it offers, and if the developers’ stated ambitions are realistic.
The Binding Contract
When I look at a game, particularly an Early Access one, I always check out what they are promising. Until a game is downloaded and being played it is nothing more than digital fairy dust. So the more promises that are made cause my eyebrow to conquer more and more of my forehead. With Citadel, the great nation of Old Man Eyebrow has managed to take over the vast majority of the brow and is already plotting on taking territory from the realm of “Receding Hairline.”
There are seven major promises this game makes, some of them pretty standard, others a bit… ambitious, let’s call it.
First on the list is a pretty easy one to analyze. “Explore a Massive Fantasy World,” it touts on the Steam page. Set in the fictional magical realm of Ignus, where apparently any dolt with some cloth and bones can become an arch-magus, we do have a rather large expanse to explore. While the textures and sky-boxes are still graphically passable (or at least not painful to view) they do need some more work. But the makings of a beautiful world are here. I’ve had some good times racing around, harvesting materials, fighting monsters on cliffs, and nervously leaping from ice flow to ice flow. I’ve only seen about a third of the map so far, and only really explored half of what I currently know. So yes, lots to explore, and if the trail blazed by other games of it’s ilk are any indication, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more maps released as time goes on.
Now, when the game says “Study the Arcane Arts,” don’t go expecting a detailed research system or even a minor ritual mechanic. Learning the Arcane Arts boils down to unlocking spells with knowledge points that you gain on levelling and having the mana and gear to properly cast them. It’s pretty simple and could be re-skinned for any genre or class theme. That said, the magical abilities described are thematic and they seem like they’ll be expanded upon in the future. (Personally, I’m hoping to see Necromancy added.) They seem to have all the working parts for it right now, but just need to put them together.
I’ve heard the claims of a game letting someone “Create Alliances and Forge an Empire” before. I am normally let down by such statements, but with this I really wasn’t. Mind you, I’ve been mostly exposed to the PvE mode of the game. Houses are built mostly to allow for joint crafting endeavours with all your pals. On the PvE server Crystal we had some fun times – a few of us built some non-aligned structures around a pond, a few of my house mates started building down the road, and sure enough we began to look like an honest to goodness town. I imagine with a larger player base and a competitive server this could be a great deal of fun. The framework is there, it needs a bit more love from the developers – and players to make use of the system.
I had really mixed feelings about the selling point they have of “Fight, Tame, and Ride Legendary Beasts” because it is at the same time refreshing and misleading. What do I mean by refreshing? I haven’t met a creature or critter you can’t tame. The balance hook with that one is you need to be within ten levels of a beast to pacify them properly. With a bit of luck from the old Random Number Gods and you could have a dragon mount as early as level 25ish. With creatures ranging from rabbits to the aforementioned dragons being available that is a pretty fun and impressive thing. Saddles allow you to ride select critters, like my devoted bear mount, Pooh. (One day Pooh will be put out to pasture in favour of a dragon or phoenix or something cooler.) But what about misleading? Well, the description makes use of words like “armies” and “hordes” describing the number of tamed creatures you can have. Now, this maybe a problem with my old-timey dead tree dictionary, but when I hear “hordes” I think of a group somewhat larger than four – which is currently the maximum number of tamed creatures we can currently have on our PvE server.
And while a bit disappointing, it should be noted that similar games allow a much larger number of tamed creatures under your control. So, I would imagine this is a temporary matter, and we will see the number increase as stability does as well. That is, however, simply my speculation.
The next two are pretty easy to confirm. The fact you can actually “Build and Fortify Epic Castles” is evident from a quick tour around the world map, seeing all the rather impressive player creations. As mentioned, the developers seem to run the occasional build contest, and some of the results of that are rather awesome. (But don’t go looking at my stuff for epic. “Barely functional” and “monster-shack” are better descriptors.) The other claim is the ability to “Find a Near Limitless Variety of Loot,” and well, technically it is true. Be it stuff you craft yourself or find in a chest or enemy corpse, all the gear takes a trip through a rudimentary Diablo-light touch up system. So, you’ll have different rarity of gear, the different gear will have different perks and values, but in generally you won’t have any real debate moments. You will know exactly what kind of new gear you are looking for and most of what you find will wind up being broken down for more materials.
That leaves us with the last, and in my mind the most important, claim. Very simply put, it claims “Achieve the Power of Flight,” and well, dang it. It delivered. From very low levels you are able to soar around through a variety of means. You need to monitor your mana use, keep lots of potions on for long flights, and you can run into some problems if you are trying to fight mid-flight, but it’s a fun way to travel. With the flight ability available at such a low level I felt like I had more freedom than most games feel comfortable giving. I could only imagine how sky battles of groups of wizards would play out in PvP servers. It’s costly. It isn’t much faster than walking at first. But it’s lots of fun.
Right, I know, I know, the darn thing is an Early Access game. There’s a bit of an understanding that the game is gonna be buggy. I mean, not necessarily Bethesda buggy, but you know, still some rough edges. And as long as the company has a good track record, why not throw money at them?
Well, I’ll tell you why you might want to exercise some caution. Some companies look at Early Access as an open beta test, that they get paid to host. They will take your concerns and criticisms and throw them aside and hush you up for raising them. They want to take the feedback and shape the game they want to make. Not necessarily the wrong move, but it can cause some hurt feelings among otherwise loyal consumers. Now I ain’t saying these folks are that type, but looking around the forums and reviews there sure are a few bunches of sour grapes among disgruntled customers. With companies that have a library of games behind them but do not rely on Early Access, we often come to understand how said company is going to treat us.
And poking at Bethesda again, how much we are going to let them away with.
With smaller studios, even ones with previous gold stars under their belt, it is a lot like going to that new restaurant in town. You’ve gone a few times, and you’re getting a feel for the quality of the meals and how the staff treats its customers. I’d poke around their forums and steam page a bit, take a good look at how they interact with people who have paid cash money for this game, and decide if you are on board. I for one, am content with it. They have a vision, and they’re using Early Access to hammer it out. Others might feel differently, so it comes down to a choice made by you, the wise consumer.
As I mentioned, this game really wants to open the doors to power for the player but it also wants to have a competitive Player vs Player aspect to it. These two ideas collide and create a very bad taste in the mouth of some folks. You get into the game, you really enjoy flying on your beloved dragon named “Fluffy,” then you log in and discover the most recent updates has turned Fluffy into a kitten, mechanically speaking. Nerfing, restructuring, poor AI, graphical glitches that can only be solved by logging off and on again, and a painfully sub-optimal UI are some of the biggest concerns. But in the time I played I saw improvements with each update. Even the Halloween event update had some fixes in it.
The question will the game get better? I’m feeling a bit optimistic with this one. It feels like it is on the same trajectory that Ark: Survival Evolved was. It has many of the same goals and features. The folks at Blue Isle Studios seem active and easy to communicate with. But this is paying for a product that isn’t finished and, if the luck rolls are bad, it may end of vanishing or being stalled into oblivion. Honestly, at 27.99 CND the price seems right. If you are curious however, I will leave a link to my Early Examinations series where I have been playing a whole lot of this game. Final word? If you like the idea of Ark but with Wizards and Monsters? This is probably a sound investment.
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