Think of an action RPG like Diablo and then envisage it turn-based. The enemies and every other character won't move until you do. Stand still if you want a breather and to think. And you will need to think because Stoneshard is brutal. It might look like a child-friendly SNES game but in reality it's, well, as friendly as most SNES games actually were. Even in what ought to be beginner battles, you'll be killed, and as you only get one life, this can be a bit of a bummer. (You can reload when you die but you have no manual control over saves.)
This mature approach bores into the RPG systems underneath. There's a wonderfully involved health system which divvies your body up into individual parts and allows them to be separately damaged and maimed. Have your left arm smashed and you'll suffer penalties to using that arm, naturally, but have it mashed completely and you'll be unable to use it and drop the weapon you're holding.
Therefore you need to tend to wounds and general condition after every battle, bandaging bleeds and salving minor wounds, or putting more seriously maimed limbs in splints until they stabilise. You can even apply leeches. All of this affects your pain gauge. Let it rise too high and, again, you'll receive a negative condition - a kind of debuff - which will negatively affect how you perform in battle.
It's not just physical disabilities either. Being a mercenary is a clearly tough gig, all that fighting and killing, and Stoneshard (like Darkest Dungeon) recognises this. You can suffer many kinds of mental afflictions on your path, from paranoia to megalomania, to obsession, narcissism, even psychopathy. Yes there are a few positive ones but they're a rare occurrence here. Throw in hunger and thirst and Stoneshard sounds like not a lot of fun, doesn't it? And yet it is. It oozes confidence and charm.
Stoneshard begins deep in a dungeon with you breaking a gruff character out of prison and escaping floor by floor. He sounds like Duke Nukem - he's wonderfully voiced. It's not easy getting out, by the way - it took me an hour or two. But this isn't actually the character you'll play in the longer game, or where the longer, regular game usually begins.
It's only once you're out of the dungeon, sitting in a heart-meltingly nostalgic, pixely wooden tavern, you really become you. The game flips, and the person you were - the gruff old guy who broke out of the dungeon - becomes the guy hiring you, a mercenary, to continue doing the work he can no longer do. That's when you get to pick from one of a few characters and adventure out from there. What a great way to land you in a world.
Stoneshard is not all different. You'll recognise skill trees (not restricted by class), magic, levelling, blacksmiths - all the kinds of things you, like me, probably love and look for in games like these. But even here there are quirks. Take magical weaponry, for instance: some of it can be cursed, which means there will be drawbacks to using it. Sneakily - hilariously - the cursed weapon will also bind to you when you equip it, meaning
if you equipped it in a bout of 'it's got higher numbers!' thinking, as I did, you will be forced to use until you find a way to remove the curse. You can do this by killing enough enemies to satisfy the curse (I haven't actually seen this happen), dip it in holy water, pray to your deity (if you have one), or cast a remove curse spell/scroll on it. Do you see what I mean? Stoneshard isn't afraid to be different, and I love that.
It's witty, it's bold, it's gorgeous, and it's immaculately put together. I might have only spent a few hours with Stoneshard (I was introduced to it as part of the Digital Dragons Indie Celebration on Steam, for which I was a juror) but it's quickly become one of my favourite games all year. I cannot put it down.
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