Solasta: Crown of the Magister Review-The Budget Alternative to Baldur’s Gate 3

In the world of cinema, there is a phenomenon known as twin films. Every few years, two or more movies with a very similar premise will inexplicably come out around the same time. There’s plenty of famous examples. Dante’s Peak and Inferno. Antz and a Bug’s Life. Observe and Report and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. You probably already know a handful of these examples yourself. Sometimes, its just a matter of one film trying to ride on the coattails of a bigger, more successful production. But most of the time, its more or less pure coincidence. Although it is not quite as well known, this sometimes happens to video games too. Case in point, Baldur’s Gate 3 and Solasta: Crown of the Magister. Both games are based on D&D 5E ruleset, with turn-based tactical combat. Both are 3D games with semi-realistic art styles, which use a zoomed out isometric camera for action and exploration, and a more close-up cinematic camera for dialogue cutscenes. And they’re both very clearly massively inspired by the original two Baldur’s Gate games, even if only one of them has any official connection to them. But is Solasta actually a rip off? To be brief, absolutely not. Most of the similarities in these two can simply be explained by the fact that they’re both D&D-based tactical RPGs, and the rest are hardly elements that either game can claim to have pioneered. With that out of the way, lets look at it on its own terms.

Much like Bioware’s classic Neverwinter Nights, Solasta bills itself as less of a single “one and done” experience, and more of a platform to deliver standalone adventure campaigns, both in the form of official expansion as well as user created, through the use of the game’s own editing tools. The idea of providing a platform for community-driven content isn’t particularly new or unique, but there hasn’t really been an RPG that focused on it in quite some time. Unfortunately, Solasta isn’t quite up to the task. The community isn’t really large or dedicated enough for user-generated content to really take off, and the Dungeon Maker toolset they provided, while not unusable, isn’t exactly great. It’s a bit too complex and opaque for the average player to get into, while also not really providing the tools needed to make anything even close to the main campaign in terms of complexity.

The Dungeon Maker is a bit more intuitive than it seems at first glance, but not by much

As for the official campaigns, to date, there are two: Crown of the Magister, the one the game shipped with, and Lost Valley, which is available as a paid DLC. I haven’t played the latter, and this review will not cover it, since it’s almost as big as the base game, but I might return to it at a later date. Before we talk about the campaign proper, I’d like to take a moment to make the distinction between Solasta, the game itself, and the campaign. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, there is a world of difference between what the team at Tactical Adventures have achieved in terms of gameplay elements, and what the campaign manages to showcase. In a vacuum, Solasta might just be the best adaptation of DnD systems I have ever seen. It strikes just the right balance between following the ruleset and introducing just enough homebrew elements to preserve the feel of the tabletop game while also doing away with elements that would be difficult to reproduce. The UI is a work of art, intuitive and minimalist enough that it’s not overwhelming, while at the same time providing all the information you could need. Stealth is better implemented than in 99% of other tactical RPGs. The transition from real time exploration to turn based combat is incredibly smooth, and allows for a great deal of creativity in how you approach combat encounters Sometimes, I can’t even tell what exactly they are doing that makes this such a good experience compared to most other RPGs. In the words of Todd Howard, it just works. I can easily see someone using the tools they have made to create a 10/10 game(if only the damn Dungeon Maker was better). So then, what exactly doesn’t work about it?

The campaign manages to make a very strong first impression. The character creator has a decent amount of options, and it’s all very easy to use and self explanatory. A neat touch is that it allows you to give your characters unique backgrounds, which each come with their own quests, and distinct personalities, based on a number of traits .This important in preserving the feeling of a DnD campaign with a bunch of actual characters in it, since your entire party is player generated(you will occasionally be joined by one or two NPCs which are controllable in combat, but they’re temporary, and don’t really count as full fledged companions). In the game’s intro, your characters meet in a bar and recount how they arrived there, with each story also serving as a tutorial for a gameplay mechanic. It’s a fairly generic setup, but the novelty of seeing the characters you just made interact in such a natural way is an instant hook. Unfortunately, these party-only interactions are the only moments in which the personality system actually works as intended.

The backgrounds available in the character creator are a nice touch to give your party a bit more personality

Right out of the gate, you can see a ton of design decisions that don’t really work, either because they were too ambitious for the budget and resources they had at their disposal, or because they’re plain bad. Like the decision to have every single bit of dialogue delivered exclusively through fully voice acted, animated cutscenes. This might work for, say, Bioware, but a lot of what’s wrong with this campaign can be traced back to this single choice. There’s obviously going to be a lot of dialogue in a game of this size, and they very clearly didn’t have the budget to make it work. Remember the unique personalities you can give your characters? They all come with different dialogue options, and there’s a lot of them. As far as I can tell, these dialogue options are only for flavor, and don’t actually affect how the story progresses in any way, which isn’t a big deal, but it’s also clear that all the NPCs only have a single possible response in every given conversation, no matter which dialogue options you select, which makes the cutscenes feel extremely disjointed and sometimes straight up nonsensical. Combined with the mannequin-like character models, sub par animations and occasionally painful voice acting, this creates an uncanny feeling and occasionally, moments of unintentional hilarity. Even beyond the dialogue, the cutscenes are sometimes jarring. Once again, it’s very obvious that due to budget constraints, they had a limited number of animations to work with, and sometimes the characters just won’t do what they’re supposed to, or the cutscene just ends and you’re supposed to fill in the blanks. In a particularly jarring example, about halfway through the game, your characters, along with a couple of AI companions, are running from an explosion. The screen then fades to black, and your characters, sans companions, are suddenly in an entirely different location. You are then informed that said companions died off screen, along with hundreds of others, and you are given no further explanation as to what happened. To make matters even worse, your entire party then brushes it off with a joke, which for my particularly party of kind hearted do-gooders was just about the most out of character reaction they could have had. It’s a real Poochie moment, but as far as I can tell, it wasn’t meant to be a joke, and if it was it’s certainly far too mean spirited for the tone the rest of the game is going for. There’s no other moments in the game that come even close to that, but a lot of problems could have simply gone away if they just decided to go for a little more tell rather than show. Tactical RPGs can get away with narration, storybook style transitions, or even pop up text during gameplay. Not to mention that there was no expectation from most players for every single bit of dialogue to be voice acted. To make matters even worse, their own Dungeon Maker toolset comes with the ability to create text-only dialogue trees. They clearly had the tools for it, they just thought they didn’t need them.

Trust me, these are the most normal looking characters I could come up with

Apart from the issue with the cutscenes, there’s a lot more design problems, but most of them are fairly minor. For instance, they have put a decent amount of effort into creating a pretty neat free roaming overland map, similar to the one in Pathfinder: Kingmaker. But unlike that game, this one is almost entirely linear, areas don’t even show up until you’re meant to visit them for the main story, and there’s very little reason to backtrack once you’ve already explored a location. There’s maybe two or three optional side areas throughout the entire game, but that doesn’t justify the existence of this system. Your characters will occasionally collect crafting ingredients on the road, and there’s a few random combat encounters, but beyond that, the overland map simply exists to eat through your travel rations, and get you from place to place in a predetermined order. Maybe this system will make more sense in a future campaign, but as of right now, I don’t see why they went to all this trouble of developing it. There’s also an equally puzzling fast travel system. A few locations in the game, including the main hub area, the city of Caer Cyflen, have these magical gates that are all linked together. This sometimes saves you the trouble of walking all the way back to town after you finish an area, but that’s about it. You’d think they would help you save on some travel time when travelling to some further out regions later in the game, but they can’t be accessed from the overland map, and are usually located at the end of some long dungeons, which makes them completely useless in that respect.

This might all look very neat, but most of what you see here is pointless

Playing through Solasta’s roughly 40 hour campaign, you really get the sense that they had a lot of ambition for this game’s story, perhaps far more than they were realistically capable of delivering. The narrative starts off fairly strong, but really flounders in the middle. The story setup promises a tale of political intrigue among multiple competing factions. You are told that you are meant to choose your allegiances carefully, and what alliances you make will determine the outcome of the story. What that amounts to is you deciding which factions to sell your various trinkets to, which in turn determines what items they are willing to sell you. There’s no actual impact on the story, and you can never lose reputation with a faction as far as I can tell. In fact, almost everything about the factions and internal politics of Caer Cyflen is completely superfluous up until the last act. You will spend the bulk of the game on a fetch quest to collect all the Infinity Sto…, I mean, the Crown Gems, and assemble the titular Crown of the Magister. There is nothing inherently wrong with the writing, and some of it, in particular the worldbuilding, is actually pretty good. But a lot of it feels half baked, and at times seems just an excuse to send you to various locations. I guess I should be disappointed about that, but really, the level design is the real star of the campaign. This is one of the rare modern tactical RPGs that can really justify being a fully 3D game, making full use of verticality both in its combat and exploration. The various dungeons are intricately designed, visually inventive, and filled with creative puzzles and combat encounters. In light of all this criticism, you might think I didn’t really enjoy my time with Solasta, but you spend the bulk of the game in open wilderness areas and dungeons, and this is where it really shines. At its best, it really manages to recreate that special sense of wonder and adventure of a DnD session with an excellent DM. If anything, the game’s biggest flaw is that it didn’t lean into these aspects even more. I appreciate the developers wanting to provide a well rounded experience, but it’s clear where their strengths lie.

It’s pretty rare that developers make full use of freedom of the fantasy genre to deliver some truly out there level design, but Solasta consistently manages it

Conclusion

As an adaptation of the DnD ruleset, Solasta is damn near flawless. As an actual game, it is very flawed, though still enjoyable. When everything goes right, this feels like a classic RPG, right up there with the genre’s greats. There’s always a minor annoyance or dumb moment to pull you out of it, but if you can look past that, there’s a great deal of fun to be had here. Above all, Solasta: Crown of the Magister shows a lot of promise, and I can’t wait to see what the developers do next, whether it’s continuing to support this game, or a new project altogether.

Final Score:7.5/10

Additional info:

  • Play time:39 hours(a single complete playthrough on Scavenger/second hardest difficulty )
  • Reviewed on: Lenovo Legion Y540 Gaming Laptop
  • Controller: Touchpad/Mouse and Keyboard(both recommended)
  • Platform: Steam

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