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One of my favorite encounters in Solasta: Crown of the Magister takes place early on in the first act. You’re in an underground ruin, and the candles, magic, and torches you’ve brought with you are the only light you have. The room has several gaps and levels, and the lizardfolk-like Sorr-akkath (or Soraks for short) are trying to kill you to keep their existence a secret from the world.

These Soraks are children’s nightmares come to life, a plague from the past before a cataclysm ripped apart Solasta. And they take advantage of terrain better than most monsters in RPGs, crawling on surfaces and walls in order to gain a modicum of cover from missile weapons and spells. This helps them stay in the dark as well.

What’s fantastic (and challenging) about this encounter isn’t just that you have to provide enough light to overcome the negative modifiers of fighting in the dark, while at the same time keeping your party close enough together to withstand the Soraks’ onslaught. You have chasms, too.

And you can use them to your advantage. And I did, pushing two of the menacing lizardfolk to their deaths thanks to some helpful positioning and what I consider clever use of magic.

This is where Solasta: Crown of the Magister shines. It might have the best moment-to-moment tactical gameplay of any party-based RPG out there. Every move matters, and you have to take light and terrain into account as well as the normal advantages and disadvantages you get in games using rules like Dungeons & Dragons‘ 5th Edition. Solasta leaves Steam Early Access on May 27 on PC, becoming indie studio Tactical Adventures‘ first released game.

Advanced tactics

I’ve already crowed about Solasta’s combat. You won’t find yourself tempted to jam through encounters as you might in other RPGs, otherwise, you’ll often be dead. Early on, even random encounters with thugs on the trail can be challenging and deadly.

Others may not appreciate this, as some encounters require a level of concentration you won’t find in other games. It can be a bit taxing, and that’s my only compliant about combat.

Even surprise encounters in camp while resting feature terrain with high and low points. Others, like inside a darkened keep or a cavern, have sconces and other hardpoints you can use for anchoring light spells and removing disadvantage that comes from not being able to see in low light. Finding a perch for your archers and spellslingers works on a couple of levels — they get better range and some protection for being higher up from melee scrums. If they have another character with them, those can push away threats, doing some extra damage and providing some breathing room for your casters and missile specialists.

Above: If it’s dark, try lighting up some of the terrain, like sconces and stalactites.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

The Z-axis applies to exploration as well. Some levels play with gravity, and you’ll find yourself scampering up and down many rooms and areas. Exploring a ruined library requires taking advantage of reverse gravity to open pathways. It’s exciting to see all of this in an isometric RPG.

Tactics go beyond just how you position your wizards and warriors and balancing light levels. You have a party of four characters, and when creating your builds, it’s important to consider how those abilities and feats you take mesh with everyone else.

One example is in how I first built my ranger and rogue to be a bit too similar, both focusing on ranged attacks. This left my cleric as my go-to melee brawler, and oftentimes, this left my wizard up poop creek, in some encounters, my cleric had to make choices between healing injured folks or protecting my mage.

These tactics affect magic as well. At low levels, I found my damage-based wizard spells weren’t that useful. Crowd-control magics such as sleep and color spray were far more effective. So when building a party, keep in mind how well everyone’s abilities, spells, and weapons will work together as you grow in power.

Yet tactical use of magic is also where Solasta shines. It feels like the first D&D-based RPG to make spells like levitate and feather fall matter. Because Solasta’s engine emphasizes clever use of the Z-axis, you can have casters float above the battlefield, raining fire on your foes. You can take a basic cantrip such as sparkle and light up a battlefield; in a game like Baldur’s Gate III, you don’t even get that spell.

Standard story that gets better

Solasta’s world has some cool aspects to it. I like the variety of guilds and factions you find in the capital city of Caer Cyflen. The Scavengers might be my favorite implementation of a guild in any RPG. After you clear out a dungeon, the Scavengers will show up and clean up any loot you can’t cart away, after taking a cut from the proceeds. If you’re an RPG player who embraces encumbrance rules, you’ll love this.

Tactical Adventures’ setup, though, feels a bit too tried-and-true. Solasta takes places centuries after a cataclysm destroyed an elven kingdom. You go out to the Badlands to investigate a mystery, encounter an ancient horror, and wind up going on a larger quest to plumb the secrets of a powerful artifact. It’s nothing new. The studio tells this story well, and you do face some important decisions and role-playing moments. It’s just, well, stories about ancient elven empires and cataclysms are a bit too common. How about make it about a world in which orcs once ruled?

Happily, the story gets better. As you dig deeper into the Soraks, you learn about an ancient war, a corrupted god, and a holy order that has tried to keep watch for this threat as it went from menace to myth. The Soraks are more than lizardfolk clones. They remind me of Dragonlance‘s Draconians: you’ve got foot soldiers with poison spines, albinos that cast magic, and treacherous rogues.

And then you’ve got this mysterious Crown of the Magister, which ties into the main storyline. But we won’t spoil that for you.

Lack of classes

Above: My ranger. I wish I had more class options.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Solasta has the basic classes: fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard. You can play a ranger as well. But that’s it. No barbarian, bards, druids, monks, or warlocks. Now, I get why Tactical Adventures didn’t include these classes — with a small studio, you have to cut some darlings. And these classes all have features, systems, and spells that others do not, so it makes sense to leave them out and focus your resources on doing better with less.

Now, if Tactical Adventures had included a narrative reason for this, like the cataclysm had erased the knowledge of bardic-based magic, or druids across Solasta sacrificed their lives to save a special tree, I would’ve rolled with it. Whenever storytellers can have a reason that fits the narrative for leaving things out, the more I’m inclined as a player to embrace it.

Leveling up

Tactical Adventures gives studios a roadmap for taking different approaches to RPG development, showing how small teams can innovate where larger triple-A teams have not in the past. It has one of the cleanest user interfaces I’ve seen in the genre, making it easier to switch weapons, cycle through spells, and use gear than many other RPGs do. It also has a dungeon-maker, too, and the community has been making some cool stuff with it.

I also dig just how much control Tactical Adventures gives you over Solasta’s rules. You have several ways to deal with encumbrance, levels of attack and damage roll modifiers, and skill check rolls. If you want to play and experience the systems and story but not worry about missing skill checks in conversations, you can do that. You can ditch spell concentration rules. Or you can make the AI more merciless, giving them better tactics in combat.

My gripe here is I wish Tactical Adventures had thought twice about its setting and had done as much to turn the “ruined ancient empire” trope on its head as it did with Solasta’s tactical combat. Once it gets better at this, Tactical Adventures has the potential to join the ranks of Obsidian, InXile, or Larian as a top-tier RPG dev house.

Solasta: Crown of the Magister launches out of Early Access on May 27. The development studio gave GamesBeat a Steam code for the purposes of this review.

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