For the first time, we have a video version of a preview up alongside the written one. Watch, read, or any combination you prefer!
Ink Stains Games is a newer kid on the block; founded in 2015, they've launched two games with the help of indie publisher HypeTrain. Their first title, 12 is Better Than 6, was a top-down Western-themed shooter that seemed to establish their approach to unique aesthetics and challenging gameplay. Indeed, their own press kit shares a company mandate to "[d]evelop hard games." Stoneshard is their sophomore title, described as a "challenging turn-based RPG set in an open world," which fits Ink Stains' development mandate. The thing is, you could argue that most games are challenging, in that they force players to learn myriad mechanics and systems in order to master and, ultimately, overcome them. Before jumping into the Stoneshard beta, players need to know that "challenging" is an understatement for the brutal experience that awaits them.
Stoneshard invites players into a beautiful, dark, pixelated world that is rife with style. The tone is evident from the talented craftsmanship Ink Stains has poured into building each environment, piece of equipment, character, creature, spell and more. The aesthetic appeal alone ought to be enough to entice most to wander the dusty halls, quiet forests, and bustling hamlets that fill this world. But it hides a darker, more sinister secret under the detailed iconography and crisp, stylized UI. Much of the blood that soaks the pixelated earth will be yours.
The opening moments put you in control of Verren, a seasoned Relic Seeker. Apparently, a recent job went awry, and you wake up in a dungeon alongside a corpse belonging to your now former adventuring partner. A mysterious figure with a chilling voice and horrifying look soon appears, and you learn that they are part of the greater enemy force that captured you. Your choices at this point are obvious: escape or die. The prologue serves as a tutorial, with popups explaining the basic mechanics and needs of your character. The game handles like a roguelike dungeon crawler through and through. For each action, or "turn," you take, every other thing in the world also gets an action. It's fairly straightforward in the procedurally generated dungeons, as enemies patrol around or move to attack you as you in turn explore and fight. Certain spots in the prologue are predetermined places for storytelling beats, but in between each of these sequences, you need to fight their way through the random bowels of a monastery, fending off vampires, rats, and other creatures while collecting weapons and armour to defend yourself with. If you survive your trials and complete the prologue, you find yourself in the small town of Osbrook. Verren regales someone with his story, and it turns out this someone is your new character! All that item hoarding was for nothing, apparently! Now you can choose one of four archetypes to play as: a dwarf warrior or a human knight, ranger, or sorcerer. The open world of Stoneshard is now yours to explore, as you march about the surrounding wilderness and take up quests. When not in combat, you can move around freely, though again, nothing moves if you don't do something. This sets an interesting pace as the world, more or less, revolves around you. Every NPC has tasks and a timetable, but nothing happens until you act.
Inventory management is similar to titles like Diablo, Torchlight, or Black Isle's CRPGs, requiring players to play some amount of inventory Tetris and offering various slots on the body for equipping gear. Players can also swap between two different weapon setups, adding to combat versatility. While encumbrance is of no concern, most equipment has durability, which affects stats. Some food consumables also have an expiration date and spoil if left unused for too long. Items are wonderfully crafted, and Ink Stains has clearly put a great deal of care and thought into their application. Almost every herb, beverage, or food item affects your character beyond its basic function. What gets frustrating is that similar items don't stack, and things like the world map and coins take up space in your inventory. While I applaud the attention to realism, it makes for an unnecessarily tedious management challenge as you explore. I hope Ink Stains will implement a stacking function or at least offer larger inventory upgrades; as it stands, I waste a lot of time trekking back to town to sell a few weeds for a few bucks.
Mentally, players have sanity and morale to contend with. High morale can be great, offering random boons for a few turns like "optimism" or "heroism," which give solid buffs in combat. Letting it fall too low will predictably saddle you with statuses that have the opposite effect. The same can be said for sanity, which has a chance to cause problems for every 25% it falls, like confusion (erratic movement) or increased fumble chance (reduced damage output). Many of the consumables that can fix things like pain or health recovery come at a cost to your sanity, so these resources all need to be managed and administered carefully.
Character building has some familiar mechanics from roguelikes as well. You gain experience and level up, netting you two attribute points to assign and a new skill to unlock. There is a lot of flexibility from the various weapon types and their diverse skill trees, as well as the two spell trees. As I mentioned, players choose one of four characters, and I picked the maiden knight Arna because I found her backstory to be the most compelling. Her combat style is, of course, sword and shield focused, but she has access to the mace and greatsword skill trees as well. Players can find books throughout the game called treatises, which open up the other skill trees in chunks. Stave Treatise I grants access to the first few abilities, Stave Treatise II gives even more, and so on. I really like this aspect; it gives players a chance to branch out of the confines of their base character template and really make anything they want, if they are willing to put in the necessary time. The grind is real, though, since more skill trees means more options when the time comes to assign that one skill unlock per level, and players also need to ensure they have the necessary attribute scores to support these new abilities!
The cause of most of your struggles is Stoneshard's combat, which demands you take time to consider each move to the best of your ability. The dungeon maps have several obstacles that can help players create choke points and stand toe-to-toe with each foe as they come. In fact, the tutorial encourages you to do so, cautioning you not to get in over your head. It wasn't until I really started playing it safe and considered if the odds were tipped against me that I was able to make meaningful progress. You can assign skills to the hotbar for quick use and target with a mouse click, making the point and click combat seem more visceral. Enemies, however, are just as powerful and versatile as you in many cases. By right clicking on a target, players can inspect their foes to see how healthy they are, what skills they have, and a brief description for flavour. Knowing a foe has a skill cooldown of a few turns, for example, can let you plan your moves, allowing you to close in and finish them off. Eventually, Ink Stains hopes to implement a bestiary so players will have full access to the information about each foe they have encountered, but for now, you need to learn as you go. At the end of the prologue, there's a fairly epic boss fight which involves different set pieces and spawning enemies, and it's not even the boss's final form! Certain moves are also telegraphed a turn ahead, encouraging pattern recognition and making for some really neat tactical gameplay. All of this, however, comes at the cost of trial and error: I lost many hours retrying from the same distant save point.
When you die in Stoneshard, you are sent back to the last point you saved. It is a really hard pill to swallow, since there is no way to recoup your losses. In games like Diablo, Torchlight, or Dark Souls, you have a chance to recover lost gear or experience, but not so here. The amount of time I spent on a good run, finding a neat unique item here or there or leveling up and such, only to lose it all caused so much frustration. I rarely curse aloud when playing games, but Stoneshard had me swearing when I would, for example, narrowly defeat a boss only to succumb to a random bandit in the wilderness due to one bad RNG miss. I felt like my time was being abused. In the opening prologue, there are only three checkpoints before the final boss. Afterwards, anytime you sleep at an inn or camp, you save, but that's it. Due to the procedural nature of the world engine, the developers have straight up said that, although it would be a helpful QoL element, saving upon exiting the game isn't possible. However, they do intend to eventually give access to a caravan that will only be a short trip away, but it's a long way off in development.
At this point, the game seems to have a few activities to occupy your time: you can stick to questing and pursue the main story Verren has set you on, wander the countryside fighting brigands and such for loot and EXP, or go hunting in the wilderness for pelts and forage. There are plenty of creatures to encounter and fight, a ton of gear to purchase if you can save the funds, and each villager has something basic to say and sell to you. There are even more updates on the horizon as Ink Stains continues to tweak everything. For example, there is a reputation section in the menu that will presumably track how well you get on with each village, as well as a rumor tab to hint at where the action is, but neither have been implemented yet. There is a definite parallel between Stoneshard and a jawbreaker: I know there's a beautiful core with rich story, lore, artwork and performances, but the hard candy coating is almost too punishing to make it worth getting to all that good stuff in the center. Like many of us, I use gaming as a means of relaxing escape, but this game has made my blood boil far too often. Still, Ink Stains' passion for the craft of game design is evident, so I hope Stoneshard finds the right balance soon because I really want to experience everything this title has to offer.