Because of the sandy, dry nature of this article, let me start you off with a cold splash of honesty: Your opinion really only matters in very few settings. Now before you turn to your cat (wow, how presumptuous of me) for a hug and some validation, let me remind you that one of those settings is the realm of early-access games. That’s right, Indie developers open the doors to games-in-progress, lusting for your constructive feedback and bug reporting in the hopes of releasing a final product made of pure, user approved gold. This type of community involvement is a big deal, and many games depend on tester advice. Our opinion isn’t always heeded, but when it is, the collective input ultimately contributes to the fine tuning of the overall product.
Games in early-access aren’t expected to be perfect, and that’s the whole point. What you can expect is something in the Beta/Post-Beta phase that’s still a little rough and needs a bit of smoothing. What you DON’T expect is some half-baked, Alpha phase attempt at what could otherwise prove to be a decent game if more time was spent at the drawing board instead of the coffers (early-access games are far from free). Stillalive Studios’ new action/adventure multiplayer piece, Son of Nor unfortunately falls into the latter category, with fresh and exciting gameplay ideas being no more than just that, ideas.
Set on a desert planet where giant lizards wear loincloths and humans apparently suck at surviving, your character, a son of the goddess Nor (oh, I get it now), must use mystical powers to stop the aforementioned, groin-covered reptiles from wiping out your dusty little village. With an introduction literally still in sketch and a hilariously inappropriate narrative, the entire story immediately becomes some confused blend of the Stargate movie and the biblical story of Moses, except parting vast bodies of water becomes parting little mounds of sand.
The actual gameplay mechanics, as evidenced during the tutorial, are fairly average if not a bit on the basic side, while the environment and visuals are actually quite decent. The sandy canyon setting is almost picturesque (in the same way that Utah or Death Valley is picturesque, I suppose), and most of the surfaces can be reached through manic, oddly-animated jumping. With graphics not too far from a low-res Skyrim, it almost gives the player the impression that this isn’t so much an indie game, but rather something that was slaved over in what I can only assume to be a graphics and texture sweatshop.
Now, being the distant half-cousin of Nor (yeah, that sounds right) means you’re gifted with a limited yet interesting array of magical powers. These abilities, including telekinesis, elemental control, and my personal favorite, terraforming, allow you to pick up rocks to hurl at opponents, trap enemies (or NPCs, it’s just as funny) in pits of sand, and control elemental fire and wind. Unfortunately, the telekinesis mechanics are a far cry from those already mastered in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and the overall handling of magic during conflicts is excessively difficult. The physical execution of these powers, however, is easily the strongest and most novel selling point of the entire game since it can all be manipulated via peripheral hardware such as the Occulus Rift or Emotiv EPOC.
With that being said, I have mentioned every nice thing I can think of and it is time to move on and point out what’s glaringly wrong. First among others on this list of grievances is the horribly obvious feeling of everything being unfinished. Listen, I get it, the game is in early-access, but this ties directly to what I was saying in the beginning. There is a distinct difference between early-access and a doodle on a Burger King napkin. I wouldn’t pay twenty dollars for a sketch of what a game could be, I’d pay that for a playable, adjustable version of what the game WILL be. With a general lack of character development, mission cohesiveness, enemy AI, and even voice acting (which certainly contributes to the ambiguity of the missions), anyone who picks this up expecting a worthwhile venture is going to feel awfully cheated.
Even after setting aside the crude feel of the game, there is still more to be said about the parts that actually work. The missions, both main and side, are poorly defined and not at all intuitive. I bombed the first side mission I encountered because I failed to terraform a random NPC’s burning stick into a pool of water (which may sound kinky, but I assure you I was far from turned on). How in Nor’s name was I supposed to know that’s what needed doing, it’s not part of my usual job description! All joking aside though, the haphazard arrangement of mission details and the overall pointless feeling (such as main missions involving replacing a broken vase…yes, I broke it) leads me to believe the developers ran out of ideas and just looked around the office for things that needed to be done and simply put it in the game.
Apart from main and side missions, Stillalive Studios boasts that the game provides not only interesting and ample combat, but also intriguing, mind-bending puzzles. If by puzzles they mean the horribly inexplicable and repetitive use of telekinesis to turn nobs and hit buttons, then they are absolutely, one hundred and ten percent correct. The game’s various puzzles need to be solved in order to open doors to cities or temples, but none of these tasks come with any kind of explanation, which can actually make some of them pretty ridiculous for someone who just wants to bury their enemies under a pile of boulders.
Now if using your mighty superpowers to replace broken pottery or solve cryptic puzzles isn’t so much your thing, perhaps fighting bad guys is, right? Wrong! If you’ve never thrown sand at a lizardman in attempts to get it to not stab you in the chest, let me tell you (as someone who has done just this) that the power to create walls or pits of sand means absolute dick to a lizard. Seriously, the only way to kill the onslaught of sword-wielding mini-Godzillas is to pick up a rock with telekinesis (and those things are kind of rare, despite the canyon setting) and chuck it at them haphazardly. Oh, you missed your shot? Maybe some good ol’ melee will do the trick. Oh wait, you don’t know how to use your fists, you only have your stupid, squishy brain! This is exactly what the nerdy kid in school experiences with bullies, and such a feeling belongs on the playground, not in my videogames (cue the angry mother emails).
Son of Nor seems to rely too heavily on the fact that the game can be played with expensive peripheral gear, which is a really cool idea now that the market is evolving in that direction, but the obvious problem here is that most of us don’t have that kind of tech. I bet raising my hands and ‘throwing’ rocks at enemies would be cool as hell, and it may even make up for the rest of the faults, but this game is marketed for normal play as well (oh us peasants, how we lament), and under those circumstances it definitely falls short of any expectations. The fragmentary feel of the game suggests a product that is so far from release it shouldn’t be anywhere near early-access, and the asking price for something so rough-hewn is borderline insulting. Without proper care and effort from its developers, I fear Son of Nor will dry up in the open market and be swept away in the sands of competition, but only time and community feedback will tell.