Dark Light

Before the pandemic, there used to be a board game parlor near my home where I used to pass time on weekends. But things changed once the countrywide lockdown was imposed. As streets turned into something out of The Division, I realized that I could no longer have D&D sessions with my party, at least not until the vaccine arrives or Cyberpunk 2077 gets released; back to videogames, fellas! However, in an era where fantasy-themed RPGs offer cooldown on spells and mana bars, it’s hard to find that essence of tabletop board games that made it so restrictive, and yet quite fun, in a video game format. I’m talking about Dice Roll bonuses, hit and miss chances, long resting, etc., and Solasta: Crown of the Magister wears its D&D’s SRD 5.1 Ruleset like a badge of honor to deliver a true tabletop experience in a videogame.

The Character Creation

Since Solasta: Crown of the Magister is still in Early Access, when you open the game, you’re welcomed with a warm letter from the devs promising you just 10 hours worth of content –All lies.

The game will consume way longer than 10 hours depending on how you play. The character creation alone took me 2 hours to finalize because of how detailed and well planned it is. There’s ancestry/race selection (dwarfs, elves, humans, halflings, and half-elves) that determines your appearance along with some unique bonuses. There’s class/roles like rogues, paladins, wizards, etc., each with their specific weapons and skills, then their personality trait that will determine your dialogue options. After that comes the ability points assignment, then proficiencies and finally you get to name your avatar. All this for just one character though you can automate the process to balance out the skills as you’re a party of four. The best part – whatever personality traits you choose befitting the background of your character, they are well portrayed in the game, and often lead to mildly funny banter among your party, Counteracting responses and dialogues among the party members cracked me up, although you’ll end up sacrificing any character development as your characters almost stick to that same basic trait to the point where the conversation becomes quite predictable.

An original narrative

The world of Solasta: Crown of the Magister is entirely original, taking place in the land of Solasta where eons ago a cataclysmic event reduced the elven empire of Manacolan to a vile wasteland and bought humans into the world. What remains of the old world is now titled as Badlands, home to bandits, trolls, ghouls and all things abominable. However, they also contain priceless treasures and therefore brave adventurers often set out to claim the unclaimed.

Your party of four has been hired by the Council and ordered to investigate Caer Lem, an outpost near the Badlands that has gone silent. Soon it turns out that fabled lizard-like creatures called Soraks have ransacked the outpost and have carried away the dead. After fighting off their second wave and escaping, you report back to the Council but everyone denies their existence. That is until reports from a second expedition cast doubt on the Council over their believability, and this is where the narrative dives deeper into a world of magic, cursed treasures, and prophecies as you try to investigate what’s causing the resurgence of these Soraks.

The prodigal son of Dungeons and Dragons

Just like many other turn-based RPGs, movement within combat takes place across a fixed set of tiles. Outside combat, each character can move several tiles in any direction while within combat, every action is determined by AP,  The bottom of the screen is filled with all relevant information like Health, AP, available spells, Ready spells (that enable one free opportunity attack when the enemy comes within range), potions, and all. But my favorite part was perhaps how we are able to switch weapons in the middle of the battle without sacrificing AP, so that I won’t have to equip the characters with any particular weapon beforehand.

The game also gives the option to use stealth and move cautiously, thus reducing foot noises, detecting the enemy presence, and traps beforehand. This is crucial as if you detect the enemies first, you get the edge in the battle as your turns come first. Likewise, if you’re ambushed then you’re at a disadvantage. Then there’s the cover mechanics – environmental objects providing full or a certain degree of cover that would hamper enemy attacks.

Now, fans of run-of-the-mill RPGs are no stranger to the above mechanics. But unlike games like Divinity or XCOM, Solasta: Crown of the Magister delivers a true tabletop experience with its Dice Roll initiatives. These rolls are deciding factors for each and every action your characters perform, be it an attack, an evade, stealing, lockpicking, or even jumping from rock to rock. Momentary on-screen d20 dice rolls give players a glimpse at the various chances that they have for their actions and so in essence, randomness is at the forefront. And hence, it can be exploited via Quick Save and Quick Load. For example, if a lockpicking attempt fails, a simple quick load will fix it (Even though save-scumming ruins the true purpose of role-playing). You can also sell certain items to certain Factions to increase your friendship with them, however, its real implications are yet to be seen.

Light is the key

Most of the battles take place in the pitch blackness of deep dungeons, and so, light becomes an essential factor. Enemies in dim lighting or dark environment offer accuracy disadvantages, so players will have to decide whether holding a torch and a sword is more important than a sword and a shield. This is unique to Solasta, as players have three slots for primary, secondary, and lighting options to choose from. However, if you want to take down distant targets in dim light, you can always use the Dancing Light spell provided your character has it. But there’s a catch – illumination can give away your party’s location before you can ambush them. That said, darkness is crucial when you want to break the enemy’s line of sight. Such illumination mechanics are rarely and so efficiently implemented in RPGs, much less in D&D.

The world is not flat, or is it?

Solasta is not an open-world game; you travel from one location to another on a weathered flat map where time passes based on your party’s walking pace and distance travelled. The characters traverse a predetermined route while consuming rations and resting each night. A scrolling text window shows how your characters are spending their journey (which is always either singing, a game of dice, arguing about politics, killing pigs, repairing weapons, or finding medicinal plants). Your walking pace also determines the kind of encounters you face – walk faster and you’re more prone to enemy ambushes, but it helps reach the target destination quickly, walk at a slow pace and you can detect enemies first and get the option to either ambush them or bypass. The travel screen is where you can farm a lot of XP and keep using powerful spells if you decide to fight as you can always replenish and recover after a long rest.

Apart from that, the actual dungeons and cities which you explore offer a 3D top-down perspective map with a lot of verticality. Players no longer have to stick to the flat land and can gain elevation advantages like increased range or exploiting environmental hazards. The same goes for the non-human enemies who can crawl along walls, leap over barriers and even fly, especially when they don’t have simple melee attacks. Players need to strategize before starring a battle, like positing their rangers and archers on high vantage points or sending their rogues closer stealthily for close but deadly stab.

Visuals, Performance, and Sound

Sadly after looking at the vibrant visuals of games like Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Baldur’s Gate 3, the visuals of Solata: Crown of the Magister look dull in comparison. The world appears as if clad in a brownish palette straight out of Gears of War. In some dungeons, the devs spent some time handcrafting the environmental objects and adjusting the light-rays and particle effects to enhance the quality, while in many areas, the objects look less detailed. Their textures almost faded and brown-washed, Character models look boxy with awkward facial animations (cue Fallout: New Vegas) that rarely sync with what they are speaking, and the main hubs are almost empty with only a handful of NPC’s. Where hundreds of citizens should have been residing and where you might be expecting a bustling street market, you see like only two vendors!

If you remove the unique responses and dialogue options owing to the respective personality traits, the voice acting is quite bland, However, the soothing ambient music (even though quite generic in the fantasy genre) makes up for it.

What I think

Even in its current state, Solasta: Crown of the Magister can hook you with hours of content to the point you’ll forget that you’re playing an Early Access build. While the plot might be a bit predictable, and the visuals and animation need some real rework, the combat is already top-notch and will keep you hooked. Add some more NPCs, resize the dungeons (many battles take place in claustrophobic areas), and add the option to adjust camera height (as there are occasions when a translucent pillar might hinder your sight and you’ve to rotate the camera to see the characters standing behind). If you’re a fan of fantasy-themed, turn-based RPGs, then Solasta: Crown of the Magister is definitely worth a try.


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