Welcome to the early access report, a regular round-up looking at the most interesting early access games of the moment. Here we try new alphas and revisit old ones to separate the promising gems from the bug-ravaged time wasters.
This week Early Access brought me to the shores of Divinity: Original Sin , an RPG that's so promising that it pains me that I've walked its sandy beaches before it's complete. I left those shores on the good ship Pixel Piracy , which is a fine example of a cute Early Access title. Wrapping up, I crashed my boat into the half-formed island of Final Rush , and found unfriendly robots in a game that needs a few more updates to justify itself. Sails up. Onwards!
Putting Divinity: Original Sin on Early Access presents an interesting conundrum - play now and enjoy 15 hours of traditional RPG goodness, or wait months for the full adventure? It's a question that bothered me as I stormed the beaches of Cyseal and punched my first giant crabs to crabby oblivion (D:OS is aware that all high fantasy larks are mandated to feature giant crabs - that's just the law). The turn-based combat system passes the battle-action baton between team members - in my case a female Ranger and a male Warrior - and then cycles through onscreen delinquents - including crab matriarchs and her kin - before cycling back to your heroes..
A murder plot greeted me in the next city, and the world's charm and character becomes quickly apparent. The dialogue tree's an interesting thing, too. It allows you to select the character responses between both members of your party, which is the role-playing equivalent of making your hands talk to each other. It's fun to make your team disagree in co-op. One NPC tried to warn me of the shifty ways of all cats, and I held a conversation between my team about the rights of a chicken. I was then arrested and put a bucket on my head to pass the time in jail.
The whole thing is full of clever little systemic nuggets, from conversations to the combat. Any mission has multiple solutions, and you can kill every single person you meet. I wish I had the room to write about it, but I'm also loathe to spoil it, so here's a small combat example: it's possible to cast fire onto water to create a steam cloud that'll confuse your enemies. You can then zap it with electricity to turn it into a deadly lightning cloud.
There's no doubting it's an early game: you can't name your characters nor select their gender, loading takes ages, and it has crashed a few times. More damningly one save game loaded my group of characters into a city of unmoving NPCs. I was lucky enough to have a working quicksave, or I'd have had to restart. Clawing back hours of progress is that clammy fear that we all hold when playing games, and it intensifies when you're playing a huge RPG that can claim it warned you this could happen.
But the biggest problem is that it's really moreish. The alpha features a fraction of the projected 100 hours of content, and if I keep playing, I'm going to hit a wall where the alpha ends. That's the problem with putting a scripted, quest-based RPG on Early Access. But I can't not recommend it - even at the £30 they're asking - it's a hell of a lot of fun, but if you get into it, you're doing so knowing that there's unlikely to be a resolution to the journey that you start for a very, very long time.
I remedied that unease by trying out Pixel Piracy . The reason I chose Pixel Piracy is because failure is already built into the game: it's a 2d side-scrolling permadeath pirate adventure game, where you build a crew and ship and head-off for adventure. There is no goal but to level and make merry, to plunder and pillage. To adventure.
The world is built according to your preferences: it can be tough, wild, or relatively sedate. With that set, you end up on an island. It's a charming little place, full of beautifully detailed little pirates wandering the tavern and hoping you select them to crew your self-built boat (a collection of boxes that you've made into a boat shape). Balancing the crews the hunger and equipment needs on the sea is an immediate problem, one that I dealt with by ignoring. I was instead the swashbuckling, big picture type of captain, and proved it by hitting a chicken with a sword. At higher levels, chooks can kill you. Don't trust them! As can cats, other pirates, and hunger.
It hides a deadly interior beneath a gorgeous art style and cute soundtrack (squeaky pirates gleefully shouting clichés, the sounds of carrots being crunched... ), so heading out to sea fills you with a sense of whimsy that entirely antithetical to the horrendous pirated waters you'll be exploring. You set out by clicking on the world map, choosing places according to their levels and status: some are just populated islands that are welcoming or dangerous, whereas others are set-up with a little bit more bite . The trips are automated, though you can be stopped by other ships and challenged to a fight, and winning or losing is a game of stats and clicks. It's worth the risk: everything you do adds points that you can spend on your crew, tweaking strength, vitality, etc. Though no amount of tweaking will help if you've got a depressive seaman whose perk is being Old. He might die at any minute. If the pirates don't squeakily kill you, land could either be a safe harbour or a world of violent oysters. Yup, oysters. Your current level of health, supplies, and morale all factor into what you'll risk in these places. Though I've rarely turned down a fight with the local aphrodisiac molluscs, which explains why I'm on my third captain.
The systems do break down a little: I logged off with my crew still standing on a captured enemy vessel, and when I rejoined they spawned over an empty sea. The 'Plunder' option will catch every first time pirate unaware: it explodes the ship, taking out everyone on it, which included me and my crew and ended that lucrative run. There are a few design fumbles as well: the map isn't very clear regarding your route, and the fights need a lot more structure as well, because right now they're just a pile of pixels and numbers. It has boat-building, and the obvious route is for something akin to FTL, but in the water. But those are me picking at scabs: it's charming and atmospheric, I've had plenty of fun fiddling with its systems, and it doesn't feel like it'll easily run out of challenges.
I can't say the same for Final Rush , a co-operative horde mode shooter where you're in an arena fighting witless, swiping bots. You start off with a choice of three guns, and more are available as you killify the deathbots. That's par for the course for a horde mode, and though the shooting is just about serviceable, and the look is evocative with a J.J. Abramsesque shininess to it, there is a major flaw in this release: it is a co-op shooter without an online mode. It's only LAN for now. Now you can play it yourself, but that places you on the backfoot a lot. Facing down that sort of pressure with Friends is what's really required to make something of this, and the current build requires you all to be occupying the same space, which is ludicrous. There's also problems with keybinds not saving, and I can't remember the last twitch shooter that didn't have a jump button. I've died more than once thinking I'd be able to leap to safety.
So I won't recommend Final Rush for now, but I'll return to it when there's a proper online update. It's only fair.
Is it worth playing right now?
Divinity: Original Sin: Yes
Pixel Piracy: Yes
Final Rush: No