Harrison Abbott previews Stoneshard…
It’s almost impossible to talk about Stoneshard without mentioning its formidable difficulty curve. Indeed, much of the conversation surrounding this Steam Early Access title has skewed in that direction, with the developers themselves egging on the discourse by plastering their social media pages with words like ‘’challenging’’, ‘’complex’’ and ‘’ruthless’’. Hell, judging by the message boards, it seems like a significant portion of the audience is struggling to beat the tutorial, let alone the rest of the game.
And to be fair, Stoneshard is quite overwhelming, throwing you right in at the deep end and introducing new mechanics with what feels like every other step. Before long, your HUD starts to resemble a NASA control centre, replete with all manner of flashing icons, conflicting meters, and ever-shifting percentiles. You’ve got your level stats, your hunger, your thirst, your sanity, your intoxication, your dodge probability, your pain threshold, and about a gazillion different metrics all dedicated to wound care.
So, it’s safe to say this is an extremely involved affair that demands a lot of time and concentration on the part of the player. You can hardly pop it on for a quick 5-minute session, especially since you have to haul yourself over to an inn whenever you want to save. As such, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into upfront, otherwise you’ll be in for a rough ride.
In a nutshell, the game is an old-school, fantasy Roguelike with all the usual fixin’s, including tile-based movement, procedurally generated maps, randomised loot, a 2D art style, and the old ‘’fog of war’’ restriction that clouds your field of view. Having previous experience with the genre will therefore be a massive help, as you’ll already be familiar with the core systems and will no-doubt be proficient at turn-based-combat.
The only thing that might take a little getting used to is the aforementioned surgery mechanic, which comes with its own share of intricacies. Basically, you’ve got to monitor the status of your sprite’s individual limbs and ensure that they’re not taking too much damage, lest they be subjected to laceration or blunt force trauma. If this happens, then you must perform emergency treatment on the relevant appendage (often in the midst of battle), whether that’s by attaching a splint, applying a bandage, or using a leech to prevent a blood clot.
Sounds simple enough, right? That is until you realise that each of these remedies has an associated cost, in the form of debilitating attributes and debuffs. For example, sticking a leech on an arm might reduce bleeding, but it conversely adds to your pain level. In order to numb the discomfort caused by this side-effect, you might try consuming alcohol or wild mushrooms. In turn, these substances will have an adverse effect on your psyche, leading to things like inverted controls or blurred vision.
It’s a highly delicate balancing act that requires you to plan several moves ahead and remain stocked up for any given situation. After all, if you don’t sufficiently prepare, then you could end up with a comical amount of status effects cluttering up the screen, informing you that you are simultaneously confused, demoralised, hungry, dehydrated and exhausted. You know, a typical Monday morning.
To be perfectly honest, they probably went a little overboard with all these survival meters, because they frequently interrupt the flow of gameplay and drain any sense of urgency from the combat. I understand that managing your avatar’s needs is supposed to add an extra level of stress to proceedings, but for the most part, it’s just annoying and finicky, as you’ll be spending more time rummaging through your inventory than you will be doing actual quests.
Not only that, but there are just too many tabs for you to navigate and you’ll get sick of embarking on multiple shopping sprees every time that you want to head out to do some adventuring (medical supplies don’t seem to drop very often, so you’ll need to procure them with coin instead). It doesn’t help either that every action, no matter how small it may be, uses up a full turn. So in the space of time that it takes for you to repair a fractured bone, you could have developed a whole new one, courtesy of that bandit who has been repeatedly pummeling you with a warhammer.
Unfortunately, Stoneshard’s menagerie of irritations doesn’t stop there. Randomised enemy spawns can be downright unfair, a chicken drumstick will subsist you for all of 3 minutes before you’re at risk of starvation again (what’s up with this guy’s metabolism?) and it feels like even the lowliest of opponents have ludicrous health bars for you to chip away at. I’m all for a bit of adversity, but it shouldn’t take nine of my pyromancy spells to kill a solitary wolf!
Worst of all, however, is the momentum-killing save system. Once again, this particular hassle seems to be a by-product of the developer’s aim to craft a truly ‘’hardcore experience’’, but it’s less challenging than it is vexing and inconvenient. Essentially, there’s no checkpointing in place whatsoever, so once you die (which is a very common occurrence) you go all the way back to your most recent manual save.
Granted, there are many titles that have applied a similar rule to this in the past, but the difference here – compared to say, Resident Evil – is that these save points aren’t evenly scattered throughout your journey. Rather, they are relegated exclusively to a single inn within the local township, meaning that your only way of recording progress is to go back and forth every time you overcome an obstacle. Successfully fought your way to a dungeon? Get yourself back to the inn! Cleared out the first floor of a tower? Your inn-ward bound! Just outside the boss room? Best play it safe and head to the fucking inn for the 100th time!
Of course, this stop-start approach is clearly bad for the game’s pacing and inevitably takes its toll on your resources as well. But what exactly is the alternative? Risk losing hours of playtime and complete a tough quest in one go, only for a bear to insta-kill you on the road back? Neither scenario is ideal, and both feel like a massive waste of your time.
If Ink Stains didn’t want you to rely on auto-saves (which are inexplicably baked into the tutorial anyway) then they could have allowed you to rest in the beds that you find around the map. At least that way you wouldn’t have repeat all the walking around and getting to the fights in the first place.
It’s a shame that Stoneshard leans so heavily into its posturing difficulty because it undermines what could have otherwise been an enjoyable RPG. The potential really is there, as showcased by the vastly superior prologue, wherein you take control of a predetermined character and have to escape from the clutches of a sinister vampire cult.
In this section, the XP is bestowed at a much more generous clip (enabling you to experiment with different builds), each room acts as its own checkpoint, and the whole thing just feels better balanced, with purposefully distributed items and deliberate enemy scaling. It even culminates with a hard-as-nails boss fight that wasn’t an absolute ball-ache to get through, seeing as I could restart just outside the arena and give it another go. In fact, it was actually quite a pulse-pounding duel, one that required me to carefully plan out my movements, judiciously conserve my abilities and learn the monster’s attack patterns in order to prevail.
Alas, this taut intro didn’t adequately prepare me for the arduous slog that was to follow. Breaking free from the confines of a dungeon, creating your own character and exploring the expansive open world should be the point at which a game like this really hits its stride. Think of when you first exited the resurrection shrine in Breath of the Wild for instance, or when you initially left the vault in Fallout. Yet in the case of Stoneshard, this moment of liberation is tainted by all the ancillary bullshit that you have to put up with. You’re not thrilled at the prospect of seeing what’s beyond the next corner, because you’re too busy getting drowned in the minutiae of survival management and you’re frustrated that the combat has been sacrificed at the altar of iffy RNG.
There’s no denying that there will be a dedicated audience out there for this kind of old-school package, but for anyone who believes that a game should be fundamentally enjoyable then it’s going to be a much tougher sell. That being said, if you do feel compelled to give it a whirl, then heed my advice: purchase every health item you can get your hands on; spend a crazy amount of time farming experience on the local wildlife, and invest all your skills points in a chosen branch (a jack-of-all-trades will not be able to withstand these unforgiving scarps). If you do all this, then you might just stand a chance at getting somewhere. Whether or not you will have any fun is another matter entirely though.
Previewed on PC. A preview copy was provided by the publisher.