Review: Goblin Stone

12 Mar 2024
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Every so often, we get a new crop of stories going with the basic conceit of taking familiar fantasy tropes and flipping the context on them. You know exactly the sort, the ones that clearly were paying attention and noted that if you read it in the abstract, stories about killing mass number of orcs and goblins and so forth are actually sort of horrifying once you remove years of fantasy baggage from them. So what if you flip things around and make the traditional “evil” races just be victims of rapacious adventurers with no consideration of the sapient creatures they’re fighting?

When done well, you get an interesting twist on the fantasy tropes, but the problem is that even if you do a good job this is now an inversion that has been done a lot. So you have to come to the table with a pretty good twist to really make it sing. Does Goblin Stone succeed at that? Maybe not, but since it’s a video game, it does at least approach the material with no small amount of charm.

Tale-Wiggler

As the game starts up, we’re introduced to our basic setting in terms that are intentionally broad. There are adventurers all over the place, but the game’s narrator doesn’t really attempt to put any sort of moral weight on their actions; while the adventuring parties are indisputably your enemies, right from the start there’s no degree of moral weight beyond “the goblins are just trying to survive, guys.” Part of this is because the tutorial explicitly starts you off in the shoes of an adventuring party, cutting down several goblins before a handful of them are able to flee and hopefully fight again.

It turns out that the goblins actually uncover the main treasure of the dungeon the adventurers were in, a relic that permits the goblins to forge their own home in a series of subterranean warrens. From here… well, it’s a roguelike structure, so it’s more about the ludonarrative as your particular warren builds itself up and attempts to survive a world that is directly hostile to the tribe’s continued existence. It’s tough out here for a bunch of weird little goblin guys. That’s it. That’s the story.

What makes most of the story sing is some truly excellent narration. Narration providing the core of a game’s narrative heft is always a potentially dicey prospect, but like many a game before it, this actually adds to a lot of the game’s charm. Think “light-hearted Darkest Dungeon feel” and you’ll have the basic ideas down.

Fight-Bonker

So the basics of the game are not actually all that dissimilar from the aforementioned Darkest Dungeon, albeit with far, far more margin of error. After you finish the initial tutorial quests, you’ll be alternating between the subterranean management side of things and the expeditions you can send your gobbos on, so that’s the core idea of the game.

Warren management is, perhaps, easier than you might think. There’s no food to worry about or anything like that; instead, you’re chipping subterranean chambers (using a not-very-good interface, I’m sorry to say, although at least you can move things easily) to serve as class training rooms, treasure rooms, weapon storehouses, and spaces for goblins to reproduce. You can even have your older party members retire and thus slowly accumulate souls, which you need to power up the main artifact and allow you to build deeper and grander.

You also have a steady drip of new goblins showing up at the top of the warren whom you can recruit, and this and breeding (all of the goblins are tacitly not-gendered and any two can reproduce together) are the way you expand your roster. At first, your goblins are patently average, but by breeding better traits together, better base stats, and so forth, you can eventually build up a fearsome army. You can also customize the abilities of the available classes, acquire better weaponry for same, and eventually expand into outright better classes as well.

All of this is necessary as you send your goblins on exploration missions. Six of them can hit the road together at any time, bringing with them an array of weapons and their unique abilities. These abilities are purely for combat; once you start exploring an area it’s a linear expedition in which you just go along, picking the occasional fork, until you clear the map or all of your goblins die in battle.

Battles are, thus, the main focus of this exploration. These are turn-based, with your forces on the left and the enemy on the right. While each party is in a line, it’s a line of who gets to act next; once someone acts, they are moved to a later point on the line, with actions moving them a certain number of pips back rather than costing an arbitrary resource. Each character gets one weapon ability and a couple of random abilities selected from your chosen skill setup back at the base, which allows you control over the loadout but means you cannot reliably set up perfect and unfailing combinations at every juncture.

You can, of course, lose goblins on these expeditions. When a goblin is brought to 0 HP or below, they get a permanent debuff halving their life total; getting brought that low again on a single run will kill them and send their soul to your base. So there’s a risk and reward at play.

None of this ever feels tremendously engaging, I have to admit. It’s all just complex enough that it feels like you have options for customization without ever feeling deeply engaging, but that seems to be about where it’s aiming at. It also never feels overcomplicated or bothersome. It’s a good gameplay loop for short sessions of a couple expeditions followed by changing gears, but since there’s a lot to be done to build your warren, that’s not going to be too onerous a task.

Eye-Baffler

The game uses a sort of zoomed-out low-detail 3D render that, when viewed at the right angle, allows for a lot of individual detail without too many custom sprites. It looks like it’s all sprite work when it works right, though, which is nice. Unfortunately, there are lots of moments where the zoom or animations breaks that illusion, at which point it starts looking not good again… but if you’re lucky, those are just momentary diversions.

What works far better is the game’s sound design, which is actually subtly perfect. Bags pull open with an oddly warm and welcoming noise, the sound of footsteps is soothing, little background details feel immersive, and between the sound design and the excellent narration it really helps you just lose yourself in the tableau being set before you. The music kind of fades into the background, but that’s clearly what it is trying to do.

Mouth-Filler

If you look at Goblin Stone one way, it’s a kind of all right base-builder with a kind of all right roguelike exploration loop and a kind of all right class management system. That’s a lot of “all right” in one place. However, it is hardly the first game in the world to bet that if you do everything mostly well, even if you don’t do anything really well, it’s enough to make the game fun to play and to keep people entertained.

And in this case, I think it sort of works.

The game is, on some level, Darkest Dungeon with lower stakes and featuring a group of weird little dudes instead of psychological torture. But they’re fun weird little dudes and you get invested in playing with them. If the basic gameplay loop sounds like fun, yeah, you’ll have to force past some occasional graphical weirdness and some interfaces that aren’t ideal, but there is a legitimately fun and compelling game on the other side. So while it doesn’t really nail the landing for full points, it doesn’t stumble on the dismount, either.


~ Final Score: 7/10 ~


Review copy provided by Orc Chop Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Orc Chop Games.