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This fall feels different for role-playing games. Sure, we’ve seen a lot of new titles hit, but between the paucity of RPGs on the new consoles and the biggest launch this fall being the unfinished Baldur’s Gate III, I feel like many smaller games haven’t garnered a lot of attention.

Of course, the launch of new consoles such as the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X/S will eclipse everything else. Throw in a presidential election, the resulting chaos from the worst president in history’s refusal to accept his loss, and an increasingly worsening pandemic, and it’s easy to see how some games just didn’t get as much attention as others.

One thing that does feel off is Steam Early Access. Three of the games I’m mentioning are incomplete. I’ve played my share of early access roguelikes, but something’s weird about playing a story-based game without all of the story and systems.

Let’s take a look at the games I’ve been digging, and please, I’d love to hear about your opinions on these — or even better, the ones you’re playing that I am not.

Baldur’s Gate III

Larian Studios’ highly anticipated Dungeons & Dragons RPG entered Steam Early Access a little more than a month ago, bringing its first act, mind flayers, and good cast of characters for your party. I’ve put almost 30 hours into this, and I still have a couple of quests to finish and one big blob of unexplored turf on the map. Larian has said you could get as much as 40 hours out of it, and like Minsc and Boo, I’m still butt-kicking for goodness.

In my first Early Access look, I called Baldur’s Gate III a “next-gen RPG.” And it is, especially in the way it uses vertical combat, which changes how you approach each encounter. Let’s look at a battle with the Githyanki.

Lae’zel (one of your companions) keeps hounding you to find a Githyanki créche to deal with your peculiar illithid tadpole infection. It makes sense, as she’s a Githyanki, and these Astral Plane-dwelling warriors know more than just about anyone else about how to deal with mind flayers.

But the Githyanki aren’t happy that one of their own has a tadpole infection, and their cure is death. They fight you, and it’s a challenging encounter. It takes place in the shadow of a bridge, with a rocky path leading up to it. Larian’s encounter designers do an excellent job of taking advantage of the Githyanki’s abilities. At the battle’s start, two use Misty Step (a low-level teleportation effect) to move from the ground and up onto the bridge … where you are not. On the bridge, they use spells and missile weapons against you.

Above: Githyanki and red dragons are a nasty combination.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Meanwhile, the Githyanki remaining on the ground are heavy-hitters. One has powerful melee attacks, and she can make two per round. Another throws fiery flasks at you (which do too much damage, in my opinion).

The Githyanki do a stellar job at dividing your party, and with some luck, they can knock out a party member before you get a chance to respond. They make smart decisions in combat, and combined with the use of high ground, this band presents challenges you don’t see in many other RPGs.

I’ve also enjoyed the flavor Larian has put into the world. I love the idea of an intelligent ogre. I dig the way the goblins accept your presence in their camp, and how they have personalities. The hag you find in the swamps doesn’t necessarily attack you. And the druids can be quite hostile. In this way, monsters and other foes you encounter feel more alive, like you’re playing a home tabletop campaign.

To me, all of this makes Baldur’s Gate III a “next-gen RPG.” But I do miss any connection to the series’ earlier games. So far, I haven’t encountered any characters from the earlier titles, even though a number of them could (and at least one is) still alive a century later. I haven’t stumbled upon any story beats from the previous entries, and there hasn’t been one mention of Bhaal (the god of murder who features so prominently in the series) or the Bhaalspawn, the god’s “children.” Of course, now that Bhaal is back and alive, there may not need to be any mention of the spawn.

I hope the second act has some mention of the past games. Otherwise, will it have any connective tissues besides “Baldur’s Gate”?

Solasta: Crown of the Magister

The idea of early access development is nothing new to Mathieu Girard. He’s one of the founders of Amplitude Studios, which built the Endless Space and Endless Legends games under what it calls the “Games2Gether” program (its take on early access). So it makes sense that he’d have his “new” studio, Tactical Adventures, do this for its first game — Solasta: Crown of the Magister. In its first act, your party gathers to check out a remote base, where you find an evil so ancient folks think it’s a children’s story.

What makes this a next-gen RPG for me is the combat. Like Baldur’s Gate III, it adds a vertical element. But where Larian dips into it, Tactical Adventures embraces it.

That enemy I referred to earlier, the Sor-Akkath (aka Soraks), crawl up and down the walls, looking for the best spot from which to launch missiles and throw spells at you. They hide behind cover. They seem smart enough to not only use all the terrain to their advantage but also relish doing so.

Above: The Soraks have been absent for so long that people think they’re a children’s myth. I bet their breath stinks, too.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Tactical Adventures does something even better than just using the Z-axis and cover. If it’s too dark to get a good shot at something, you get disadvantage when trying to hit it, just like in the 5th Edition D&D system Solasta uses. And for the first time, spells such as Levitate and Fly have real use. You can float above the battlefield and launch missiles and spells or soar over traps and other obstacles. It’s the rare RPG that has included and given you a reason to use these spells.

In a demo last month, Girard showed how this works under the hood. The engine renders the world in little cubes, which enables developers to put things on top of, on the side of, above, or below these boxes. It’s fascinating to see — studios rarely give you this view of their games working.

Now, Solasta’s crew don’t have the narrative or visual chops of Larian — it’s a team of fewer than 20. But it does have some systems that Larian doesn’t, and these add to the storytelling. The Principality of Masgarth is rife with political jockeying. It’s about 1,000 years after The Cataclysm has rent this part of the world, and the land is full of ruins to explore. As the game continues, you find different factions inside Masgarth are courting you. Some want power and riches. Others want the magical artifacts you may find in the elven ruins. Currying favor with them may lead to you being able to buy that component you need to craft a scroll of fireball or a magical shield.

I’m also fascinated with The Scavengers faction. Among other things, they’ll go to a dungeon or other area you’ve cleared of foes and pick up all the random-but-kinda-valuable junk you leave behind … and pay you for it. And since Solasta sticks to the 5E encumbrance rules, you end up leaving behind a lot of stuff that could earn you some gold. They’ll also set up bases in these areas, making your explorations easier and giving you waypoints for you to stock up on supplies. Sadly, Tactical Adventures hasn’t implemented this system yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

And that’s my major issue with Solasta so far: supplies. I found myself in a dungeon that was 11 days away from the main city, and my characters had eaten all our rations. This means I couldn’t have a long rest on a dungeon map — you need food in order to do this. The big problem here is that after one encounter, I leveled up … but in Solasta, you can’t level up without a long rest. So I had to leave the dungeon and travel another 11 in-game days, which included some random encounters, back to the city.

Now, your characters can use the Survival skill to hunt for food (like in Pathfinder: Kingmaker) when you camp on the road during your travels. But on this trip, the skill didn’t net enough food to complete a long rest.

And when I got back to town, I found just … 10 rations from one shop. So while I could take a long rest in an inn and not worry about food, I couldn’t find enough to resupply me the entire way back to the dungeon. So unless Tactical Adventures either puts more rations into the game or provides spells such as Create Food and Water or Heroes’ Feast — or have the Scavengers sell food at outposts — this is going to be a problem that’s going to annoy players for no good reason.

Tactical Adventurers is going to address the paucity of food and how the characters use resources during a long rest. First, I asked if one character with the Survival skill would help find enough food for the entire party while performing a long rest during travels.

“The Survival skill is rolled to determine your success in foraging food. If your character has a strong additive bonus, or even advantage, her chances will be higher, but it is still a roll,” he said over email. “​Also, the Ranger class has an affinity to some terrain types. On these terrain types, a Ranger character will provide twice as many food and crafting ingredients.”

I also asked if Tactical Adventures was going to put more food into the game — and spells for creating food, too.

“In the coming update, we have also prioritized food consumption, so that foraged/conjured food is spent first, your travel rations being a last resort. We have also introduced the automation of food conjuring spells, Goodberry and Create Food, every day if a member of your party can cast one of these spells,” he said.

The Scavengers will help with food as well.

“The Scavengers will setup outposts in cleared areas when possible, yes. That will mostly shorten the time they take to perform their next mission, deep in The Badlands. And yes, they can provide basic gear like food and torches, but they don’t replace specialized shops,” Girard said. ​”We will soon deliver a first version, and we want the community feedback on this new system, with possible adjustments.”

Sounds like dinnertime’s going to be a much easier proposition soon with Solasta. My knife and fork are ready.

Demon’s Souls

The PlayStation 5 launched with this notorious action-RPG. I had played King’s Field during the PlayStation 2 days, and it’s a sorta proto-Souls game. Demon’s Souls, though, was a landmark title when it appeared on the PlayStation 3 in 2009. It helped launch a subgenre of action-RPG, and it sparked a sense of online community as players took on its challenges.

I feared that magic wouldn’t translate to a PS5 remake. After all, hadn’t I discovered most of its secrets the first time around, when I spent more than 100 hours with this punishing game? But now, the magic’s still there … and even better from my seat.

Demon's Souls looks pretty.

Above: The Tower Knight amazes my kids.

Image Credit: Sony

First off, the solid-state drive speeds up everything. Going back to The Nexus to level up, forge or repair weapons, or dump trash into your stash takes a few seconds. This makes grinding for souls so much easier and more satisfying. I can go to the Shrine of Storms and destroy the skeletons there, gather up a few thousand souls, and return to The Nexus to level up in less than 10 minutes. And I can do this again and again, which I don’t mind because I don’t even have time to open up my smartphone to wait for a loading screen.

The other aspect of this remake I appreciate is just how much better it looks. I have a plasma TV from 2008, and it’s known for its deep, rich colors and blacks. Demon’s Souls on the PS3, though, had so many spots that were just too dark or too muddy, no matter how much I fiddled with the settings.

That’s gone in this remake. It’s bright where it should be, richly dark in others … and I can see everything. I can make out corners in the Smithing Grounds I never could see well before, and the Magicians are now more visible in the gloom.

My main issue is that I wish it had more accessibility options for those with disabilities. I know some folks just can’t move controllers quickly enough or handle the buttons to deal with Demon’s Souls enemies. I know Bluepoint said it wanted to preserve From Software’s original vision, but I feel it’s more important than ever to make gaming as inclusive as possible. I would like everyone to be able to enjoy the game as I do, even with my old-man hands, without the barriers it presents.

Ys Origins

Above: Ys Origins is worth your time. Get it on Switch.

Image Credit: Dotemu

As I noted before, I’d never played a Ys game. I was excited to play this remaster of the Ys prequel, but I had no idea this action-RPG features one of my favorite things in gaming: the megadungeon (in this case, it’s a tower).

And it’s also a … shoot-’em-up? At least in my experience. I’m playing a character that shoots magic, and as I explore, I find myself moving around firing magical bullets as I avoid enemies coming at me with physical attacks or swarms of projectiles. And I find this to be cool.

I also dig how this megadungeon feels like it’s full of twists — secret passages and backtracking to new areas, thanks to places that open up after you gain items or pull switches.

Now, it doesn’t have the character development, branching storylines, and choices of other RPGs, but it does some cool things: It has three player characters, and each one has their own powers. Nothing new there. Playing each one gives you different insights into the overall story. It’s like a nesting doll in that regard, and I do find that cool.

I haven’t finished this yet, but I’m looking forward to settling in with my Switch and jamming through more of this demon-infested tower.

And the rest

Above: The Joblins are marauding our new startup in Going Under.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

I still need to either start or return to the following games:

  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Like with Ys, I haven’t played a Yakuza game before. I started last night, and the story both had me enraptured and laughing out loud multiple times over 2 hours. It’s silly and fun, and I’m glad I’m finally getting to it.
  • Wasteland 3. I need to finish this take on postapocalyptic Colorado.
  • Crusader Kings III. Paradox just put out the Ruler Designer update, giving the player more creative tools in this blending of grand strategy game and RPG.
  • Going Under. This action-RPG from indie studio Aggro Crab Games has a cool premise. You’re a new hire at a tech startup that is built upon the bones of failed ones. Monsters bubble up from these remains and into your new office. So you go into this Undermountain-like dungeon below your startup, killing monsters with the weapons you find alongside tech-culture things like beanbag chairs, go-karts, and other toys. It’s a hoot, but I’ve only spent about two hours with it, so I need to brave the startup mines again.
  • The Waylanders: I gave this a go when it hit Steam Early Access earlier this summer, but it had a lot of bugs that, frankly, I didn’t want to deal with. Since then, Gato Salvaje has made a bushel of improvements and added more content. I’m looking forward to a couple of quiet nights with this.
  • And as final note, I’m excited that Nacon announced that Greedfall is not only coming to the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S but also getting an expansion. This game from Spiders takes place in a 17-century setting of gunpowder and magic, and it has playing exploring a new continent, dealing with colonialism and diplomacy (and monsters, of course).

The D20 Beat is GamesBeat managing editor Jason Wilson’s column on role-playing games. It usually runs every other week, but like wandering monsters, it can appear at any time. It covers video games, the digital components of traditional tabletop RPGs, and the rise of RPG streaming. Drop me a line if you have any RPG news, insights, or memories to share … or just want to roll a digital D20 with me.

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