Games to play on date night: Solasta is the best CRPG intro to D&D we’ve found

Tactical Adventures’ Solasta: Crown of the Magister is among the most intriguing games I’ve reviewed. It’s one of those rare gems that you can’t help but suspect only exists because someone spent an entire weekend trying to scratch a specific gaming itch to no avail.

From what we can tell, that someone is the studio’s founder, Mathieu Girard. And, according to an article by Venture Beat’s Jason Wilson, he’s been waiting his whole life to make this game.

A former Ubisoft developer and co-founder of Amplitude Studios (Humankind, Endless Legend), Girard told Wilson that Solasta was his passion project:

“I’ve been a big fan of pen-and-paper RPGs, and I was looking for a way to do it right. Making a new studio seemed like a good way to do that.”

Right off the bat, it’s apparent that Solasta: CotM was developed with the premise of recreating D&D’s fifth edition rules at the forefront — all other considerations would be secondary.

The game

Solasta uses Wizards of the Coast’s SRD — essentially the open-licensed version of Dungeons & Dragons’ ruleset. The big deal here is that anyone is free to make their own roleplaying game that uses the core mechanics of D&D, such as rolling a 20-sided die to determine outcomes or creating characters using the fifth edition rules.

But that doesn’t give anyone license to, for example, recreate the world of Krynn from the Dragonlance supplements for use in their commercial endeavors.

Thus, the devs created the world of Solasta, where humans are a borderline alien race and familiar fantasy tropes abound.

I found myself involuntarily winking back at the screen during just about every cutscene as I caught the homage to previous games and iconic fantasy characters. Solasta’s plot lines pay homage to everything from the Dungeons and Dragons Online MMORPG and a plethora of old-school AD&D modules to the recent Pathfinder CRPGs.

Basically, Solasta follows the same game loop as XCOM-2 or Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous.

You use a point-and-click interface to traverse dungeons, cities, and other quest areas until you either enter a conversation, begin combat, or return to an overworld map to passively travel long distances.

The combat

Where Solasta truly shines is in its turn-based tactical combat. You’ll pit your party, which typically consists of four characters, against a host of monsters and villains ranging from vampires to dragons.

The mechanics of Solasta’s combat are almost identical to D&D’s fifth edition rules, however, the results tend to play out a little differently without the ability to improvise.

Rather than focusing on novel solutions, you’ll be spending most of your time min-maxing your party’s damage-per-round in order to effectively overcome encounters featuring overwhelming numbers.

What I found most enjoyable about the combat was its surprising depth. There are multiple solutions to a given problem (lowering the enemy’s hit points) and D&D’s mercurial dice rolls combined with Solasta’s excellent engine combine to make for a genuinely exciting combat experience.

Nikki and I couldn’t help but find ourselves cheering when we rolled a crit and groaning when our opponents returned the favor. Like no other CRPG before it, Solasta captures D&D’s ability to make you leap out of your seat.

Solasta: Crown of the Magister is an essential purchase for anyone who enjoys D&D’s combat system enough to be interested in playing around with different character builds in a robust simulator.

Not quite D&D

I call it a simulator because, unfortunately, outside of combat and character management, the rest of the tabletop experience breaks down.

If you’re looking for a bespoke experience where you get to feel like the protagonist of your own D&D story, you won’t find it here. The characters you create have a personality system that dictates how they conduct themselves in conversation.

That means, rather than choosing from a list of responses that represent different attitudes and alignments, each of your characters will offer a response based on the personality traits you chose for them.

The end result feels more like playing characters that were created by the developers (like the premade PCs that come in the D&D starter kit) than your own creations.

I made my paladin a heroic altruist, and his responses often showed that flavor. However, for the most part, the dialogues options are just buttons you push to unlock the next piece of lore you need to read in order to move along a quest.

This required a shift in perspective from player character to “controlling influencer.” I couldn’t make my character act the way I wanted them to, so I just tried to go with the narrative.

Once I decided I was no longer playing D&D, but was instead watching a somewhat-hamfisted interactive machinima featuring characters my wife and I had named and classed, I found myself enjoying the plot for its earnest attempts at gravitas and cheekiness.

I get the need to dumb down a conversation system — there’s simply no way to emulate a human Dungeon Master’s ability to improv banter between PCs and NPCs. And I laud them for attempting something novel.

But the fact of the matter is that the “roleplay” part of D&D is something no other game’s gotten right either. From Baldur’s Gate to Skyrim, CRPGs separate the player from the character in ways that tabletop games run by savvy humans don’t.

Solasta, however, has an ace in the hole. It’s built like a single-player experience but it truly shines in co-op.

Having someone to get excited with you over combat victories and character management goes a long way towards mitigating the loneliness of a world where NPCs are soulless. Seeing the word “Victory” flash on the screen after a tough fight or noticing the glowing arrow on our character portraits indicating it was time to level were unforgettable joys we shared while playing Solasta together.

Unfortunately, the joy’s a bit muted. Solasta character advancement only goes up to level 12 and, of the builds we tried, you’ll unlock most of the bells and whistles by level 6-8 with incremental upgrades beyond.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I’d hoped at some point to get the opportunity to evolve my character beyond the original class and subclass archetype. Still, there’s plenty of thrill to be had in unlocking an extra attack per round or adding a new spell to your party’s repertoire due to the finely-nuanced combat encounters.

A great intro to D&D’s rules

Solasta didn’t completely scratch my roleplaying itch, but it taught me more about the core rules and mechanics underlying D&D fifth edition in a few hours of gameplay than reading the DM and Player’s Guide a dozen times each.

In this way, I’m not sure if it’s a good CRPG or not. We liked playing it together a lot, it facilitated teamwork and cooperation and, most importantly, it gave us genuine moments of excitement and joy.

I also enjoyed the diversity of the voice actors’ voices, though it’s clear there weren’t many of them despite the large cast of characters they voiced. And the graphics were surprisingly good, it’s clear the artists behind Solasta cared about their work.

But in the course of more than 30 hours, the game failed to impress me with anything other than its combat, character management, and potential.

That being said, I think it’s a bit short-sighted to criticize the game’s current content. Solasta was made by a tiny team of enthusiasts and it’s in a very enjoyable state right now.

They’ve already added an additional campaign and new character classes through paid DLC, and there’s an included “Dungeon Maker” tool that allows you to set up and string together your own encounters and scenarios.

I’m hoping that the team will find enough profits/funding to continue support for this game through engine upgrades, paid DLCs, and free content updates. It’d be cool to see mod support or in-game tools for creating custom classes, races, and adding homebrew rules to the mix.

Final thoughts

This has the potential to be an awesome bridge between video games based on D&D mechanics and virtual tabletops.

And it makes a fantastic date night activity. Solasta’s perfect for those times when you and a partner want to push your laptops together and spend an intimate evening smashing your enemies’ skulls in and lighting monsters on fire.

Rather than inviting the gang over to mess up your dining room or spending the prep time to get an adventure-ready on Roll20, you can fire up Solasta and try out some character builds together within minutes. That’s pretty cool.

 

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