Saturday, May 27, 2023

Backwards Into The Future With Cinderstone Online.

Yesterday, I said today's post would be about music. I lied. I might still write a music post to go up tomorrow or Monday, but before then it's another type of post I enjoy writing almost as much - First Impressions.

The game's called Cinderstone Online. It's a new MMORPG that's going into Early Access on Steam in just a couple of days. The Steam page describes it as "cute and colorful" and having played it for an hour (Okay, fifty-six minutes.) I wouldn't disagree. The official website replaces cute and colorful with "vibrant and charming". Those are slightly harder concepts to pin down but I'd say they nail them too.

But don't take my word for it. If you want to check for yourself, prior to the official opening of the doors on Monday, there's a stress test running all weekend. All you have to do to get an invite is click a button on Steam's Store page and ask. I suggest you get on with it, though. I asked on Thursday but it wasn't until late last night I got the email letting me in.

That only gave me a short while to check out the basics - character creation, UI and controls, graphics and sound - and to do a few quests in the starting area. It's absolutely nowhere near enough to come to any kind of judgment on whether Cinderstone Online is a good game let alone a good MMORPG but it's plenty for a First Impressions post. 

A basic First Impressions post of a game that's just about to go into Early Access really only needs to be able to look at a handful of aspects, most of which are in that list. You want to be able to say how the game runs, if it seems buggy or glitchy, how much content there seems to be and whether what content there is seems polished or even finished. 

There are Vistas. They work pretty much exactly like they do in GW2.
It's important to be able to say whether the game feels comfortable to play. Do the controls work properly? Are the mechanics functional? Is it clear what you're supposed to be doing and can you do it without too much trouble?

Then there's the look and feel of the thing. Is the world pleasing to look at? Are the graphics working with or against the setting? Can you stand to listen to the music? Does the soundscape bring the environments to life or just irritate the hell out of you? 

And how about the writing? Does it seem coherent? Competent? Professional?  If it's a translation, is that translation a good one? How about the voice work? Is there any? If there is, is it any good?

Most important of all comes the question of fun. Did you have any? All the time or just once in a while? Were some bits a hoot while others dragged or did the whole thing just cruise joyously along from the moment you logged in? 

And the capper: now you've played for a while, do you want to play some more?

Anyone know what time the first act is on?

All of those questions can usually be answered, with some confidence, after no more than 30-60 minutes. There's a reason so many players reportedly make their decision on whether to continue with an MMORPG in a matter of minutes. That's all it takes to know if a game's for you or not.

But of course, first impressions can be misleading. There's such a thing as an acquired taste, after all. It may well be that , if you'd stuck with the game for longer, even though you weren't having all that great a time to begin with, you might have ended up coming to like or even love it.

MMORPGs, more than most games, can take a long time to reveal their secrets or show their best side. They're not simple, linear games. They're portmanteaus, collections and aggregates of systems, many of which can seem as though they have little or nothing to do with each other. 

What? It's not like I killed a damn baby!
(Read on. It'll all make sense later.)
And they don't all offer themselves up for inspection right from the start. Parts of the game you might really like could be level-locked or hidden behind some other play-wall. They might not become available until you've played for days or even weeks.

But who has time for that? Not me. Not any more. Get in, make a snap judgment, get out. That's me, these days. Eventhen, if that judgment is "I like this. I could play a lot more of it", it doesn't mean I'm going to. There are a lot of MMORPGs. Loads of them are plenty good enough to be worth playing, for a few weeks or a few months. No-one has time to play all of them, not even all the good ones. 

Well, you might. I don't.

First Impressions may not be representative of the game but they're what we've got. So, what kind of a first impression does Cinderstone Online make?

A pretty good one, I have to say. I was both surprised and impressed by how polished and professional it felt. As expected in a game just about to enter Early Access, there are plenty of rough edges - placeholder text being a particularly noticeable one - but during the hour I played I encountered no glitches or bugs at all. Better yet, since this is a stress test, even though there seemed to be plenty of players trying the game out, I didn't experience any lag, rubber-banding, disconnections or other network or server issues.

The game downloaded and installed swiftly and cleanly, as you'd expect from something using the Steam platform. Character creation was straightforward but satisfying, the few, simple options available offering more than enough to create a character I felt comfortable playing. 

Vyee! You're making me regret my choice of hair color now!

In fact, that was the first big surprise of the session. I find one of the more significant, if least tangible ways in which I either connect with or bounce off an MMORPG is how quickly I'm able to bond with the character I'm playing. Having seen screenshots of the characters in CO - tiny cartoon figures with oversized heads - I wasn't expecting to be able to make much of a connection at all but from the moment I stepped into the world I felt an attachment to the little figure on the screen.

To quote Bart Simpson:
I didn't do it.
Nobody saw me do it.
You can't prove anything!

In part, I think that's down to the single most unusual aspect of Cinderstone Online - the bizarre way your character always faces the camera. I'd seen this in a gameplay video and thought it looked both ludicrous and all but unplayable but seen from inside the game it turns out to be neither. Even though my character spent much of her time apparently running backwards, staring fixedly behind her, it still felt both convincing and comfortable within a matter of minutes.

The unusual choice also neatly circumvents that famous MMORPG problem, namely what's the point
of putting all that work into getting your character's face to look just so when, for however long you play the game after that, you'll just be staring at the back of their head? In Cinderstone Online, you won't. You'll be looking your character square in the face all the time. It makes a surprising difference to how quickly you make that connection between you and the character you're playing. 

Well, it did for me, anyway. I imagine for some people the sight of their character facing the wrong way almost all the time will be a deal-breaker. Thinking about that and remembering the game's only just about to release in its earliest Early Access build, I did wonder if maybe it was something that would eventually get patched out for a more conventional approach. I hope not. I kinda like it, even though I really didn't expect to.

Something else I didn't expect was the quality of the writing. It's high. I mean, I'm not saying it's going to win any awards or anything but it's consistently literate, expressive and gramatically correct, putting it well above the current genre standard. Plus it's quite frequently genuinely funny.

Tonally, it's also quite hard to place. The game looks very young, as if the target market might be young teens at the upper end, but some of the humor is oddly dark and quirky. Take this, for example:

What Papaver is suggesting, in case it doesn't quite come over without knowing just what he's talking about, is that he and his pal thought about using a baby as bait to lure in a bunch of aggressive wild boars that he, himself, is too scared to run off his land. Killer boars, basically. 

Granted, he doesn't go through with it but even having him admit he was thinking about stolen baby bait casts a certain... shadow over the quest.

Or there's this:

I know many MMORPGs have an unhealthy obsession with alcohol but even so, that's a bit on the nose, isn't it? He was drunk and he doesn't care who knows it. Now he's asking strangers to help him get drunk again.

I have to say I liked the tone of the quest dialog. It's sarcastic, abrasive and bitchy. Except when it's sweet and fluffy and coy, like the quest to find some lost kittens which, when I happened upon it, I couldn't help but think of as ironic. It's like someone sprinkled chilli flakes on a jelly donut... which sounds awesome now I think of it...

You ain't seen me, right?
All of those examples are side-quest I ran into as I was exploring the very large city where you start out. I only got as far as the first "Mission", which I think is what the game calls the central plot we've gotten used to referring to as the "Main Story Quest" in these games. The MSQ for this one is apparently quite something, too.

According to the website, CO features "A captivating Story" in which you begin as a "small farmer" only to find yourself on "a journey to become the ultimate hero that everyone is counting on", a journey that involves "powerful menacing gods" who "suddenly appear from a parallel universe". That's quite a pitch. Normally I'd be skeptical but on the brief evidence I've seen so far I wonder if maybe the writers might not be able to pull it off. 

Even if they don't, there looks to be plenty more down-to-earth content to be getting on with instead. The game's notable features include "A vast Open World...Dynamic Quest Lines...a ``Caravan System`` and A Dynamic Housing and Farming System", surely enough to keep most people busy, even without the having to battle other-dimensional deities.

All of those features I cribbed from the website, by the way. I didn't encounter any of them in game but then I only played for an hour. How much or how little is already available in the Early Access build I have no idea.

What? I'm fair-skinned. I burn easily!

When I say I didn't run into any of those things all, that's not entirely true. I did see some hints, here and there, of what might lie ahead.

I spoke to an NPC, who did something to my character that turned her from a Warrior into a "Merchant". Suddenly, there she was, wearing a turban with a feather sticking out of it. I might have left her like that, only I spotted a little panel in the top left corner of the screen that, when I moused over it, told me she was now pray to attacks by thieves and other indignities, so I quickly spoke to the NPC again and got him to turn her back into a Warrior.

I also came across several massive, complicated public projects like this one, involving the rebuilding of a bridge.  It would seem there's some kind of dynamic events system involving timers and nodes and who knows what-all else. There were some announcements in chat about it but I couldn't figure out what it was all about in the time I had, so I moved on to kill some bandits instead. You always know where you are with bandits.

I'm guessing "Longlong Name" isn't final.

Obviously, I've barely even opened the box, far less started to put the pieces together. Whether I'll feel I've seen enough by the end of the weekend or whether it'll still seem like I've only scratched the surface, I guess I'll have to wait and see. It's a good start, though. I'm curious to find out more.

This might be the first and last time I post about Cinderstone Online - or it might turn out to be one of those games, like Chimeraland or Noah's Heart, where I try it on a whim and end up playing and posting about it for weeks or months or even years. It certainly has the potential, which is about the most positive thing you're realistically going to be able to say about an MMORPG you've only played for an hour. 

That's a pretty good first impression to leave. Op success for the open-access stress test, I'd say.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to go and play some more. If you'd like to give it a go but this weekend isn't good for you, or the invite doesn't arrive before the doors close, you will have another chance. There's supposed to be a demo available once the game's officially in Early Access. 

As for the actual payment model, should you (Or I.) decide to buy... y'know, I haven't even seen it mentioned. You'd think it'd be there, right up front, wouldn't you? Maybe I should look into that... 

A Stress Test for Early Access using a Closed Beta build... Words are funny!

... Ah, here it is, buried in the "Upcoming Release" notes for the Stress Test and Early Access, which seems an odd place to put it.. 

"During Early Access, the game is priced at a cool €24.99, but stay tuned for a price shake-up when we fully release this summer."

Well that's as clear as mud, isn't it? Will it be cheaper or more expensive then? Who knows? And why's it priced in Euros? Ah... because the developer behind CO, Codevision, based in Italy. Their main business seems to be VR, not flatscreen gaming, which makes the whole thing even more impressive, if yet more peculiar.

I don't think I'm ready to lay down my €24.99 just yet, even if all progress made in the Stress Test does carry over into Early Access. That's weird, too, because Codevision will be "wiping the slate clean for the official release", which isn't supposed to be all that far off. I'd say a full wipe makes it more of an open beta than Early Access but I don't think these things have much of a set definition these days.

There are also various Founders Packs you can buy because of course there are but on balance, I think I'll wait until we get some firm dates and prices before I get my wallet out.

I'm not saying I won't, though. I just might. We'll see.


  1. Your toon has that "I'm so done with this shit" look that pretty much made your commentary so on the nose.

    1. I didn't go into any detail about character creation but it's a bit more subtle than you might imagine. They've clearly thought about the way the head and face is the visual focus. You can select several options for the left, right, front and back of the hair individually, mixing and matching to give quite a variety of looks. Better still, you can choose from something like half a dozen different eye-shapes, each of which gives your character a particular expression. I went for the world-weary, eye-roll one and I think it payed off!


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