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.
Early Access was always going to have a large number of games 'inspired' by classics. Developers everywhere are thinking: "A lone-man - probably in his pants - made the PC's fourth biggest game? So can I..." And then trousers are discarded and coding starts. Two Early Access games clearly have origin stories entwined with Minecraft: FortressCraft Evolved is the most obvious 're-interpretation' of the game I've ever played, while Signs of Life at least has the confidence to strike out on its own, in a 2D block-built world. Finally, there's Arcane Worlds , which wants you all to remember Magic Carpet. Are you remembering?
At first and second glances, and then after a long, eye-straining stare, FortressCraft Evolved looks a lot like Minecraft: you're in a blocky world, a land of rolling hills and trees, with the odd building in there to break up the sad monotony of a currently uninteresting world-generation palate. It's not an interesting place to explore at the moment, but the building tools help make something of the world. You're a sort of disembodied floating gun that can do pretty impressive feats of world-carving with the 150 placeable blocks: they range from typical construction pieces to more esoteric items, like Laser Gates and power cores that allow for complex machinery, as well as elaborately patterned cubes to bend the landscape to your will. There's even a trampoline gun, and when FortressCraft Evolved eventually gets multiplayer, that block is going to be a lot of fun.
It's fairly simple easy to build things, though an ugly and confusing UI does make it a bit of work: you can fire and suck blocks from quite distance, and the Super Build modes enables for a few large structures (cubes and spheres) to be plopped. There's even a cut and paste. More impressive is the ability to carve your own blocks using workshops . You draw out a workshop, from two to eight blocks in diameter, and it creates a cubed room that you build any shape inside, so you could shape your own fence post. The game will then generate a normal block in that form, shrunken down. It's the boldest tool in FortressCraft Evolved's arsenal, and the thing that developers can probably be most proud of. Well, that and the meteor staff that does exactly what you'd expect it to.
It has a survival mode, but the building tools are too powerful to make it interesting for now. And besides, the World Generation isn't really smart enough to create a world that'll keep you interested in surviving in: it'll spit-out villages that seem more misplaced than abandoned, intersecting with the landscape in unnatural and ugly ways. And there's not a lot of variation in the world: just grass and hills and some snow. Though you can build a protective spider-bot.
But there's a lot of potential here, particularly with the block customisation. If they get that to work online, I can see some interesting world being co-operatively developed, and it's definitely worth the minuscule £5 it's currently priced at.
Signs of Life is actually a neat midway point between Minecraft and Starbound: a 2D adventure and survival game that seems to have slammed in from a higher-resolution universe than its inspirations. It also lets you curb-stomp sheep to death.
You're deposited on a planet filled with a strange mixture of sheep, chicken, as well as more exotic alien fauna that I don't have names for. The ship lands, unpeels like an orange, and you're deposited on a landscape that's a bit higgledy-piggledy - the world-generation needs tuning to be a bit more interesting. The rampaging and random collection of animals gives little sense of ecosystem, yet. They're just wandering, oddball creatures amidst the fronds of an alien world.
It's a better survival game than FortressCraft: you gather supplies using a wrist-mounted laser to sup blocks of ground, trees, and the parts of animals that are left after you've laid the boot in. It's actually a system that needs refined: your hotbar gives you access to several slots, each with a set of that you scroll through, so the wrist-laser can also act as a comms device, a torch, a tooltip, and an ineffectual map, and you scroll through each in the first slot. The other slots are for things like weapons, seed, etc. It's not so much the system that needs refining, but the whole thing is icon driven, and a lot of the modes are defined by a different colouration on the item in the bar. New shapes and text would make it immediately more recognisable. Also, your character's insistence on picking up each item individually, when it's the multiple chunks of a fallen tree, is a pain.
There's also a general clumsiness to the combat. Chasing and kicking a sheep (better than wasting a bullet) takes just one too many key-presses with the basic controls, and there's an oddness to the melee combat that allows flying enemies to slide in under swipes. There's just a general imprecision about the whole game, but that's the sort of thing Early Access can stamp out.
But there are some interesting things happening. I like the backpack system: it automatically sorts what you pick up into the appropriate pack, but it also lets things just slosh around in there, resembling the general messiness of a normal pack. The menu-driven crafting is also a plus, with the games sarcastic AI telling you when a new recipe has been unlocked: it's a simple system of having the material and selecting the appropriate recipe, and it churns out everything from weapons to housing. There are also giant robo-chickens with laser eyes. It's a step in the right direction, and I've had enough fun playing with all the systems, feeding the chickens, and running around in my pants to recommend it.
I'm so close to recommending Arcane Worlds, but it isn't quite there yet. It is heavily influenced by Magic Carpet, including the world-altering spells that enable the player to crack the ground, squeeze up mountains and volcanoes, and flood territory. You float through this place - as if on a some sort of flying rug - flashing spells at birds and giant sky snakes while your castle care bears gather the dropped mana.
But it currently feels like a collection of things, rather than a coherent whole. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do and when I need to do it, and though it's probably been designed to feel a bit loose, it's currently just a bit too flappy, forcing me to fight before I can get a footing in the world. There's a demo you should avail yourself of, but I'd wait until the game starts to come together a bit more, or at least until there's more stuff to do within the sandbox. I would keep track of the development, though: this is just an update or two away from being something very lovely.
Is it worth playing right now?
FortressCraft Evolved: Yes
Signs of Life: Yes
Arcane Worlds: Not Yet