If the pandemic is making it difficult to get your regular D&D group together and you’re getting the itch to roll up a new character, you won’t be wanting for digital options. This may be the year of Dungeons & Dragons, at least in the virtual realm. Two similar D&D games were released in early access last year. Baldur’s Gate III, the highly anticipated sequel 20 years in the waiting, is the older, more famous sibling. The younger up-and-comer, which utilizes the SRD 5.1 Ruleset procured from Wizards of the Coast and comes from new developer Tactical Adventures, is Solasta: Crown of the Magister.
For better or worse, I don’t think there’s been a video game that captures the experience of the original tabletop RPG as literally as Solasta does. The story opens with your characters sitting around a tavern table trading stories of their personal exploits, and nothing says D&D like gathering with friends and a pint. As an isometric CRPG with turn-based combat and so many 20-sided dice waiting to be rolled, Solasta bears a close resemblance to the newest Baldur’s Gate entry. This highly customizable experience has you creating not one, but four adventurers for your party.
The setting is about 1,000 years after the Cataclysm, which decimated an empire, causing even the gods to take their leave. The land of Solasta is relatively more settled now, and the disparate states that have sprung up in the meantime are in the process of organizing. The Legacy Council (a sort of goodwill, behind-the-scenes organized body) sends explorers, called Deputies, to scope out the uncharted ruins of former civilization, now known as the Badlands. That’s where your merry band comes in. It’s a simple setup, but it does set the table for a world of storytelling possibilities and leaves room for a little more even after you’ve finished the journey.
It might feel strange role-playing as a group of heroes created by you rather than as a single character. Dialogue progresses much as it would in a classic BioWare game, except that when you’re given a chance to respond, you pick which character speaks, with each presenting their own option. During character creation, you give your adventurers personality traits, or Flags (like kind, cautious, or greedy, to name a few), that determine how they react in conversations. This system has potential, but it’s too limited at the moment to create unique personas for your characters. As a result, conversations can feel like sitting at a table with several clones of yourself in varying moods rather than four individuals.
Character creation is on the simple side, at least when it comes to choosing your appearance. There are about a dozen or so premade faces, but you can’t adjust them. There are “only” six classes and five races, which is considerably pared down from 5th edition rules, but there’s plenty of variety within each. So you still have bountiful options to make your crew of warriors and wizards as motley as you’d like. Partial to halfling paladins? It might make for a challenge, but you’re welcome to roll up four of them if you want. You can also choose your characters’ pronouns — including “they” — independent from their sex, which is thankfully becoming more standard.
The story is a typical Tolkien-ish fantasy yarn with factions angling for political power but needing to get along for the sake of survival. It helps that there are slightly different outcomes to the choices you make. For instance, one decision early on has permanent implications for one of your characters, both in the narrative and in granting them a powerful ability. There are a few story beats like this which suggest that not only do your heroes affect the world, but the world affects them too. Despite the overall main quest feeling a little too familiar (evil lizard humanoids are returning to the lands, nature is not healing, etc.), some of the individual encounters offer a bit more flair. In one scenario, you must petition orc tribes to unite against an orc shaman who’s been using some newly found powerful artifact to eliminate anyone who opposes him. It’s a decent departure from simply moving on to the next dungeon to beat another boss. Unfortunately, though it seems intended to be “epic,” the narrative’s highs never feel all that climactic.
The sidequests feature tasks that are mostly enjoyable, such as locating the bones of an industrious ghost so he can finish his final assignment. Though they’re deviations from the main path, these optional deeds still feel like they contribute to the war effort in your primary shadowy conflict. They also evoke the feeling of exploring a living world more than the main story does. The temporary companions you meet add much-needed personality to your group, as well. I wish some of them, like the elf sorcerer from the pre-Cataclysm days who just woke up from a thousand-year nap, would have stuck around longer, but at least these characters usually get satisfying closure.
Tactical Adventures fittingly made the open yet tightly programmed tactical combat, with a host of special abilities and spells on your character sheet, the key ingredient in Solasta. The battle system puts a unique focus on vertical tactics. Fights play out on an invisible grid, and there are spaces, or cells, in the air as well as on land. Spells that give you the power of flight (“That’s levitation, holmes.”) offer more options in combat, though enemies can attack you from the air, too. I panicked slightly the first time I saw an enemy start walking up the walls. The further you progress, the bigger and better the set pieces get, forcing you to take taller terrain into consideration. Another quirk of Solasta’s battle system you must contend with is that light and darkness can have various effects on both you and the enemy.
The biggest problem with combat, however, is that this is a faithful D&D adaptation to a fault. At the table, rolling dice makes for an entertainingly unpredictable experience, but the system needs tweaks for a video game version. Solasta offers plenty of ways to mitigate RNG on both offense and defense, but your planning can always be undone by a string of bad dice rolls. Especially when battling tougher monsters, I found that approaching a fight the exact same way over several attempts led to different outcomes each time simply because of the dice. Really though, this a small complaint considering how well this system captures the tactical aspect of D&D’s combat and the wide array of options you have. The balance on the default difficulty is about as good as it gets. I often needed to pull every trick out of my bag to survive fights, but I didn’t get too many game overs.
Solasta’s UI, which is perhaps the cleanest and most streamlined interface I’ve seen in an iso-RPG, makes for a buttery smooth combat experience. Your characters’ many options are clearly laid out and available at the touch of a mouse button. The ease of access to D&D’s robust combat features makes for rich yet breezy and accessible encounters (despite the RNG) and encourages experimentation. You can save your brain energy for strategizing a way out of the mess you’ve gotten yourself into rather than trying to recall which spell you assigned to a particular key. Movement is also made easy, thanks to a clean-looking grid that pops up during your turns. But although it’s fun using the sky to your advantage, controlling a flying character can be clunky.
The quality-of-life functions keep Solasta from becoming a chore. Each area’s map has points of importance you can fast travel to, as well as markers for chests and other containers. Also, if you click on a spot while viewing the map in fullscreen, your characters will immediately begin walking to it, so there’s nothing to fear if you’re directionally challenged. Instead of forcing you to collect all the junk you find in your travels, the game offers a solution that also fits into the narrative. The Scavengers faction retrieves all of that scrap for you in areas you’ve completed, then lets you pick what to keep and what to sell in exchange for a percentage of the cut. Between the beautiful combat UI and general QoL features, it’s obvious Tactical Adventures wanted to minimize the overly complicated systems that can bog down even the best Western RPGs and simultaneously maximize meaningful activity without a total reinvention. Such a feat is highly appreciated.
The lighting and reflections look spectacular, both in close-ups during conversations and in battle. The wonderfully dynamic shadows match what’s quickly becoming the next-gen standard — if you have a graphics card that can handle them. In combat, the luminous special effects that burst from abilities and spells make smashing your opponents a joy to watch. Casting Fireball looks as devastating as it feels for your enemies. The optional visual of dice rolls emulates a tabletop D&D experience. The quality of characters varies, with some looking like they belong in a AAA game while others are much simpler, but there’s an overall cartoonish edge to all of them. Some of the locales are absolutely stunning, such as a seemingly bottomless library with floating books or a series of bridges built inside a volcanic domain. It’s not Baldur’s Gate III, but as far as CRPGs go (a genre not known for its looks), Solasta’s graphics are still among the prettiest.
The orchestral music is nice, if a bit familiar, especially if you’ve played many Western fantasy RPGs or seen Lord of the Rings. The quieter arrangements are soothing while strolling around the beautiful scenery, and they’re more original and intricate than the big battle pieces. The acting is mostly fine, though the delivery of some lines comes off strangely. The dialogue isn’t jumping off the page anyway, which is the bigger problem.
Solasta: Crown of the Magister takes the mantle of the “most” Dungeons & Dragons video game out there, if not quite the best. Though the game has a modular adventure setup that strongly suggests there will be more stories, this one falls too flat for its 40- to 50-hour length. However, the combat system is merely a few tweaks short of perfection, so I’d still be interested in sending my heroes on another adventure in the realm of Solasta.