We liked the action-RPG Last Epoch an awful lot when we most recently looked at it, calling its skill system "a brilliant new twist" on those offered by Diablo and Path of Exile. But that was in 2019, and we haven't heard anything from the game since—until tonight, when Judd Cobler, founder and CEO of developer Eleventh Hour Games, appeared on the stage at Gamescom's Opening Night Live to show off its upcoming Runes of Power update and the powerful new Runemaster mage class.
Eleventh Hour was founded by members of the /gamedev subreddit in 2017, with the singular goal of developing "the perfect ARPG." After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018, Last Epoch went live in early access on Steam, slowly evolving its systems based on player feedback and becoming a low-key ARPG hit in the process.
"From the beginning, we wanted to create a different kind of studio that actually involved the player base in fundamental design decisions," Cobler said. "It's fair to say that the 800,000-plus gamers who've purchased Last Epoch have enjoyed unprecedented levels of communication and collaboration with us."
The highlight of the Last Epoch presentation at Opening Night Live was the Runemaster, a mastery class for mages that uses a unique "Runic Invocation" ability to bind 40 spells to a single keypress. Each time a Runemaster casts a standard spell of a particular type—fire, lightning, or cold—a rune is generated, visible above the character's head. Once two or three runes are collected, an associated spell based on the types and order of the runes can be triggered—or players can opt to continue throwing around regular spells instead, changing the types and orders of the invoked runes until a desired combination is achieved. Like other skills in the game, Runic Invocation also has its own separate skill tree, so players can customize their builds even further.
"There's offensive [spells], they can be defensive, there's utility that goes into them," Cobler told me during a recent pre-Gamescom presentation. "There's just a ton of flexibility in this single button."
Naturally, getting the runic invocation you want means casting the right spells, in the right order, to conjure the rune combination you're after. Cobler said that means the Runemaster has "a little bit of a higher skill threshold" than some other classes, but the studio tries to ease players into it by unlocking the class powers gradually.
"We make it approachable for new players by doing things like making it so that you start off only being able to generate two runes at a time," he explained. "That way when people get in there, they're not completely overwhelmed by all of the different variations and things of that nature. But certainly, as you get deep into the class and as you get higher level, the level of depth that unlocks with this class—it's there. There's a lot to it."
Last Epoch launched multiplayer support earlier this year, and Cobler said getting that right is one of the big reasons that Last Epoch has been in early access for so long.
"Creating multiplayer for one of these games is really really complex, because it's not just matchmaking, you drop into a match and [then] the match is over and then you dissipate, it's really drop-in, drop-out multiplayer that is persistent," he told me. "You go into towns and you see all these other players, and it's really—right below MMOs, it's about the most complex version of multiplayer that you can possibly create." The launch of Last Epoch multiplayer "has gone phenomenally well," he added.
Last Epoch is also getting a full trading system that will enable players to join one of two factions—"kind of like our Horde and Alliance," Coberl said—each with its own trade-related bonuses. Those who join the Merchants Guild will be able exchange items with other players through an in-game bazaar, while those who aren't interested in the life of a merchant can instead opt for the Circle of Fortune faction, which forbids trading but balances the scales by granting bonuses to the quantity and quality of item drops, as well as "prophecies" that open the door to specific item hunts. The trade system will go live when Last Epoch leaves early access and goes into full release.
The Runemaster will be added to Last Epoch in the 0.9.2 update that's set to go live on September 7. The update will also include localization into eight new languages (Chinese, French, German, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish), a new in-game event called Rune Prison that will reward "experimental" item affixes unavailable anywhere else in the game, and "dozens of new monsters, quest updates, unique items, and more." A full 1.0 release date hasn't been announced, but Eleventh Hour said it's expected to happen by the end of this year.