Review: Solasta: Crown of the Magister
I spent a lot of time playing Dungeons & Dragons-based RPGs (or games at least partially styled after them) in the late 90s and early 2000s. Neverwinter Nights in particular was one of my favorites, along with Icewind Dale and later, Dragon Age: Origins. The detailed character creation, the engaging story, I even remember having dreams about my main character in Neverwinter Nights (yeah, I’m a nerd). So you can imagine that here in 2021, a new RPG in this style might activate my gamer senses.
And that’s what we have here with Solasta: Crown of the Magister, released on PC via Steam on May 27th, 2021 by Tactical Adventures. While there have been a number of re-releases of some of the games I mentioned above and other similar ones, it’s really been a long time since I’ve seen a new game in this style. Will Solasta take me back to what I saw as the golden age of North American-made RPGs? Let’s have a look.
Exploring the Badlands
Solasta: Crown of the Magister takes place in its eponymous world. Ages past, a conflict resulted in the destruction of a grand, now-ancient civilization. Now, people from various factions have termed this now-ruined land The Badlands. Eager to unearth both its treasures and its secrets, a loose council is formed between the factions to explore (and loot) the ancient and dangerous land.
A party of adventurers of your creation, hailing from different lands, is recruited by the council to serve as deputies and carry out its mission to explore The Badlands. As is often the case though, things rarely go to plan. Sent to investigate one of the Council’s outposts on the edge of The Badlands, you discover the outpost was attacked by strange creatures long believed to be myth, and investigating them leads to the discovery of a mysterious crown. To make a very long story short, this crown (of the magister, no doubt) is incomplete, and so you set about finding the remaining parts.
Solasta does a great job telling this story, and it leverages some little used parts of D&D, namely personality traits. Your alignment and personality are usually of little consequence to the gameplay itself in games like this (heck, often even in paper D&D), but in Solasta, these personality traits actually impact the dialogue. Maybe one of your party members is a sarcastic jerk, an inquisitive scholar, or blunt and intimidating. Simply choosing characters with different personalities will make playthroughs of the game a little different, and that’s really cool.
However, your decisions in dialogue also matter to some degree, and this is both good and bad. It’s good because on the surface, I like my decisions having impact. But decisions in a D&D based RPG means dice rolls, and I’m not a fan of dice rolls outside of combat. I’d prefer it be simpler and just having the right trait or ability score. This is because of two things: My belief that dialogue outcomes should be based purely on your decisions and not random chance, and that random chance really promotes save scumming. That is, reloading your save until the random numbers give you the most favorable outcome. Granted, which outcome is the most favorable may depend on your personal style and taste, but regardless, you will likely end up save scumming to get it. While any decision-making process can usually be save scummed, being hosed by RNG makes the player want to do it even more.
Most of the classic D&D RPGs I played favored a real-time-with-pausing combat system. Combat plays out in real time but you can freely pause/unpause and plan strategy or issue commands while the game is paused. Solasta goes for a cell-based tactical combat system instead which actually fits in better with D&D in my mind. It also gives off a little bit of a Final Fantasy Tactics vibe with a turn-based system (initiative rolls determine turn order though, instead of being based on a speed stat). That, along with the variety of classes, spells, and feats, plus the verticality that was present in the FFT series. Height grants advantages and disadvantages and the areas where combat takes place provide many opportunities to take advantage of (or be victimized by) it.
Add in the depth of D&D systems and you have a really fun combat system, albeit a bit slow moving. The combat is actually a significant focus of the game, both to its benefit and detriment. Good planning and decision making are essential to victory, as is a well-formed party.
The only problem for me is the random encounters on the world map. While you can avoid more encounters by choosing a slower travel pace, taking forever to get to your destination (which also uses up more food you need to be able to rest) isn’t a great tradeoff for having to fight fewer random encounters. It’s nice that you can grind off them, but when you’re trying to advance the story, the travel sequences and constant random encounters start to wear on the experience. I would have liked more of the combat to take place in the key locations rather than random spots on a world map.
There also could be more variation in these random encounters, because in one play session, i ran into the exact same set of enemies on the exact same battle map twice in a row. Granted, the combat is a lot of fun, and if you like the combat more than the story, you’re probably not going to mind this aspect of the game at all. But for me, particularly when I was dealing with a game issue (more on that in a bit), having to go back and forth to different places triggering more and more encounters, it slowed the game down a lot for me.
Finally, another key aspect of the game, to me at least, is the Dungeon Maker. Built straight into the game, this lets you create simple, custom adventures with relative ease, and without any external tools. Finished the game on the hardest difficulty no sweat? You probably didn’t (wink, wink), but the dungeon maker gives you the chance to put your maxed out characters to the test.
Create hidden paths, boss battles, add in a bit of lore. Whatever you like. Creations can be shared via Steam Workshop, so you can challenge you friends and others to beat your creation. It does have its limitations (Dungeons are flat with no z-axis available, and you can’t create true dialogue sequences), but when most other similar games required external tools, Solasta lets you do it right within the game itself, and it’s easy to learn.
Before I move on, I unfortunately have to mention one of the more frustrating issues I had with the game. Being a fantasy enthusiast, I tend to prefer classes in RPGs that more strongly evoke fantasy, usually spell casters. Solasta uses D&D‘s spellcasting system, which admittedly is not my favorite part of the D&D ruleset, although it is executed well here… for the most part. The problem I had was specific to the Wizard class. When you level up, typically a wizard can acquire new spells. After this, you have to select a subset of these spells that you want to have “prepared” on any given day. Well, after I unlocked a new spell tier on a level up, I would learn new spells and then they would immediately disappear.
Turns out you have to keep a spellbook item (or items) in your inventory to record spells in, and only Wizards have to do this. The game does mention this in loading screen tooltips, but not in the otherwise extensive tutorials. Apparently I sold my spellbook at some point, not realizing I needed it. In doing so I lost some spells I’d already learned and could not learn new ones, including when leveling up, anymore. Eventually I realized what the spellbook was for (as a bonus, it has a limited capacity so you need to lug around more than one later on).
In other D&D based games I’ve played, the spell book was just part of the interface, or it was a key item that could not be sold or tossed. I spent hours just trying to resolve this issue (I found a broken spellbook that still wouldn’t record spells, as well)., so it notably harmed the experience for me. The spell book really needs to be safeguarded against being discarded if it’s going to remain an inventory item. Maybe it was done this way so you could pass that spellbook over to another wizard? I don’t know, but still not a great idea.
Solasta offers a typical medieval fantasy look to it’s visuals. It is all well crafted, although it doesn’t stand out much. Sometimes the overall look of the world can be hampered a bit by terrain of varying heights needing to take on a mostly square shape. That said, this game in many ways wants to take us back to the golden age of non-JRPGs and the overall aesthetic definitely achieves that.
Combat is often punctuated by special perspective scenes where the camera changes to get profiled shot of attacker and target. These scenes add surprisingly to the visual experience along with the party chatter that can accompany it. Speaking of which, the game offers remarkably good voice acting. I heard just a few lines that didn’t seem to have the right emotion tied to them, but on the whole, the voice acting adds to the fun. There are a LOT of lines as a result of the different personalities and voice options, and there is enough variation in the combat chatter that it doesn’t end up getting annoying.
The music is also well crafted, if somewhat generic feeling. The correct types of music are used to set the mood for a scene and the battle tracks are particularly good- they befit the experience and aren’t too overbearing. Too many RPGs seem to be trying to outdo each other with more intense and high energy tracks heavy on the strings. Thus, while I say they sound generic, it ends up working in the game’s favor. All in all a solid “good” is warranted here.
INT and WIS Checks
Overall though, in spite of the snags I hit, Tactical Adventures mostly did a really good job with the story and the combat in Solasta. It succeeds in pumping some life into a genre that hasn’t been catching my attention for a while. Some of my points might come across as a bit harsh, but I want to stress that it was still a very good experience most of the time. It might need a little love that it’s almost certain to get post-release, but I can still recommend this game for fans of D&D style RPGs.
Review copy provided by Tactical Adventures for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Tactical Adventures.