Video transcript cross-posted from my personal blog.
Today I want to talk about Cornerstone: The Song of Tyrim from Ascension Games. It was successfully Kickstarted a couple of years ago with the pitch, “Wind Waker meets Dark Souls. An open world action-adventure game with an emphasis on physics and player choice.” The full Kickstarter pitch had more detail than that, but that small blurb is a really good summary of everything they were proposing.
I contributed to that Kickstarter and am happy with what came out of it. However, while they hit certain parts of their pitch really well, in other areas they fell flat. I think it’s worth examining where they did and didn’t hit their marks, not in an attempt to criticize Ascension Games specifically but rather as a means of looking at the strengths and weaknesses of indie and AAA game development.
I think the best place to start is by examining the expectations backers may have had for Cornerstone. For my part, I hadn’t played any of the Soulsian games when I first saw this Kickstarter. I only had hearsay to go on. Soulsian games are best known for their difficulty, so I envisioned a game like Wind Waker, but with seriously challenging combat, perhaps a Wind Waker aimed at adults.
By the time I played Cornerstone: The Song of Tyrim, I had dipped my toes into the world of Dark Souls. I had watched a let’s play of the first one done by Dan Prime of Extra Credits and begun playing Dark Souls III myself. My expectations of what a mashup of Wind Waker and Dark Souls might look like had taken on a more concrete form: a Zelda-like world to explore, populated with enemies that would take careful observation and trial and error to learn to defeat.
Unfortunately, the game fails to capture anything from its Dark Souls inspirations. You can see the influence of Dark Souls, if you’re looking for it, in the stamina bar that limits how often you can attack. However, there’s none of the finely tuned depth that characterizes combat in a Soulsian game. The stamina bar limits your button mashing ability, but it lacks the need for careful observation of enemy movements. Nor did Ascension Games try to tap into how Dark Souls does storytelling, a less widely known aspect of the game but one no less loved by its fans.
The Wind Waker inspirations come through clear as day, though. The game is bright and colorful, with a cartoony look and animations to match. Silly NPCs have silly problems and say silly things. The dungeons are interesting and varied in shape and style, with access gated by the equipment to which the player has access.
Unlike most Zelda-inspired games, though, Cornerstone doesn’t feel like a copycat. The reasons for this are the emphasis on physics and its alternative to a traditional inventory system.
Instead of having a typical inventory system where the player picks up and swaps out a zillion different helmets, weapons, and the like, Ascension Games opted for a crafting-based system. There are four kinds of materials the player can pick up. If the player has enough of them and the right blueprint, they can craft whatever they need on the spot.
This goes really well with the physics system and the level design. There are often two or more ways to go about achieving any given goal, from crafting half a dozen crates to make a staircase up to a ledge to crafting a parachute and dropping down on it from above. The player has a certain amount of freedom that they wouldn’t have in a Zelda game, where every puzzle has only one solution.
The combination of physics and crafting makes for a fun system at first, when you have only a few simple blueprints. By the time an item’s durability wears out, you might have a new blueprint to try out, which keeps things feeling fresh. Some of the blueprints, like the mace torch, are really fun.
Unfortunately, better equipment requires greater numbers and more kinds of materials. Even more unfortunately, the player also drops anything they’re wearing when they die. If you craft things right and left to get through a dungeon and then die halfway through, you respawn at the nearest checkpoint with however few craft supplies you had in your inventory. What next? Hope to survive a run back to the point of death, or scrounge up more of the precious crafting materials laying around to make more? And if you choose to scrounge, are you leaving yourself with enough materials to solve the puzzles? The crafting system starts to feel like a slog or a punishment if you’re not performing well against traps or enemies.
Going back to their original Kickstarter pitch for the game in 2013, Ascension Games hit all the marks except for successfully implementing Dark Souls inspired combat. For some people, that might be a deal breaker in determining whether or not the developers lived up to the expectations of their backers. I am ultimately happy with what I got for the amount that I payed and glad to have helped bring a physics-enabled Zelda-like adventure game into the world.
However, although I really like the game, there’s one thing that I just can’t ignore: It’s not polished enough.
It looks polished from screenshots and at first a player is unlikely to notice all the little flaws. But the longer you play, the more obvious its rough edges become. You’ll be fighting a boss and notice that suddenly a couple of the rocks in the room are floating through the air. You’ll craft a bunch of boxes, get up to an otherwise inaccessible ledge, and find and activate a trigger to advance a quest you don’t even have yet because you didn’t take the intended path to get there. And then you’ll hop on a raft, get out to sea, and your framerate will plummet because the open oceanic expanse isn’t optimized well.
None of these rough edges have been game-breaking so far, but they do mar the experience of play. Floating rocks are funny, but getting halfway through a quest you didn’t know exists is confusing. Then there’s the fact that choppy seas aren’t supposed to be choppy as in ten frames per second.
(Speaking of choppy seas, my computer is pretty good, but since I had so much trouble in the ocean areas while playing, I didn’t even try to record my own footage for this episode. Special thanks to my friend PyroFalkon for getting it for me. There’s a link to his channel in the description if you’re interested in simulation, narrative, and sports game let’s plays.)
Anyway, the game as a whole is satisfying to play as long as you are looking for something to hold you over while waiting for the next Zelda game rather than the next Dark Souls. There’s a lot of heart that went into Cornerstone‘s development, and the overall package is good in spite of its flaws.
The reason this game makes me think about the strengths and weaknesses of AAA vs. indie development is, simply put, money. Ascension Games only asked for $30,000 in their Kickstarter, but the game didn’t come out for about two and a half years after they raised that money. There’s no way $30,000 can pay a full-time team of developers for two and a half years. Maybe if they’d had more money and man hours to work with, they could have squashed all those bugs, done more with the combat system, and optimized the graphics better.
On the other hand, big budgets and teams come with more overhead. They get some amazing things done, technically speaking, but the greater cost means that every risk has potentially dire consequences for both the games and the people working on them.
Unfortunately, I don’t know if Ascension Games could have raised enough money to pull off their ambitious dream game via Kickstarter. Most people don’t realize just how much money it takes to actually fund a game like that which Cornerstone wanted to be, and so they are less likely to back a game that asks for a realistic budget. It doesn’t help that enough crowdfunded video game projects have failed miserably to reduce people’s trust in these campaigns in general.
For all that it’s become much easier to get into making games, with the accessibility of professional-quality engines and the ease of finding learning materials about programming and design online, there are still some kinds of games that are out of reach of most of the scrappy, home office indies working on games in their free time. Cornerstone: The Song of Tyrim, much as I enjoyed it, illustrates that point very well.
Most of the games I play these days are indie games; I love the imaginitive things indie developers can and must do precisely because they don’t have big budgets. But even when they’re at their most stale, AAA games do some pretty amazing stuff. We really do need both of them for games to flourish.
Perhaps we’ll get lucky and see some AAA dev take one or both of the concepts of Dark Souls combat in an adventure game or adventure game with physics-based puzzles and flesh them out with better polish. Or maybe crowdfunding platform Fig, with its combination of Kickstarter style backer rewards and legitimate investor options, will take hold and we’ll start to see more indies able to raise the right amount of funds to get their projects polished well.
Even if neither of those things happen, I look forward to seeing where the future will lead us. I look back at what AAA accomplished twenty years ago and what indies are doing now, and I can’t wait to see what indies are pulling off twenty years from now.