Each week Marsh Davies voyages into the uncharted territories of Early Access and comes back with any stories he finds and/or hypothermia. This week he packs his pickaxe and pith helmet, and sets out for Frontiers, an ambitious firstperson survival-RPG.
How much can I bench? I can bench an actual bench. I’m benching it right now, and maybe forever, not only because I can, but because I must: because I cannot put down this bench. I only wanted to see if I could balance it on the head of an NPC who was rudely ignoring me. I couldn’t. Nor could I put it anywhere ever again. This is how I live now - with a bench hovering just in front of me, occasionally spasming as I pass through doorways that are substantially smaller than it, clipping into the faces of people as I try to buy sausages from them. I really regret picking up this bench.
Frontiers is in one sense the perfect game to benefit from Early Access: a one-man project with palpable ambition and imagination, already rich in content and mechanically deep, but without the development resources to rigorously test and balance. Early Access does a great service to such hugely promising games as this. But that doesn’t guarantee a game is fun or even broadly possible to play right now.
That’s nothing that the dev doesn’t say himself (with refreshing candour, I might add), but I still feel a little churlish advising customers not to spend their time and money QAing something they’ve bought, because, well, I kinda hope they do. There is so much to this game already - an open world RPG, appended with survival mechanics, a distinctive flavour of fantasy fiction and a compelling mystery at the core of its central quest. Two of three planned narrative acts are already in place and the last is to be built with community feedback. The low-poly world is rendered with an artful lustre, giving its skies a sense of real volume, its mountains intimidating scale. It’s somewhere I dearly want to explore and I feel like it’s only a handful of regrettable bugs and a few major balance shifts away from being something special. But I just can’t reach that stuff yet because a bench is floating in front of me and I periodically get trapped in inventory menus. And those are really the least of my problems.
Frontiers opens with a neat vignette: I’m not playing as the character I just created, one Tubsy Benneton, but as his uncle, making final preparations to march out on a mission beyond the Rift - a humungous wall of something that towers over the land like a petrified tsunami and marks the perimeter of human civilisation. On the other side lies a realm of unknowable peril and perhaps untold riches, walked only by the black-eyed shamans who can channel dark, chthonic powers.
The exact reasons for this expedition are unclear, but the dialogue trees of my erstwhile companions suggest it’s something of a suicide mission. Only the hardy, terse northerner and creepy shaman lady shall make the final crossing with me - once I’ve collected up the trappings required for survival in these unforgiving lands: a pickaxe, rope, supplies and so forth, all littered round the camp.
This short prologue nimbly establishes a puzzling plot, lays the groundwork for the world’s fiction, and beckons you to follow while pointing out all the things you’ll need along the way. It also makes clear just how show-stoppingly wonky the game currently is: I’ve barely emerged from my tent when I start to starve. I’m also a tad parched. Finding either of the things that might remedy this is tricky because it’s night and thus almost entirely pitch black, save for a few flickering torches. Patch notes inform me there is a slider in the options menu to boost nighttime light levels, but it doesn’t seem to work for me. Eventually, by snuffling blindly back and forth across the encampment like some fantasyland Roomba, I manage to snort up some bread and a pie, and have a slurp from a well - but it’s a close call. Within minutes, it seems, I could do with a second course. It is a forbidding sign that, perhaps, the constant nag of its survival mechanics could eclipse whatever other charms the game has.
Cut to the game proper: I am now Tubsy, a gaunt young student with a ghastly top-knot and an appetite roughly equivalent to that of the Sarlacc Pit. Waking in a university lecture hall I am almost immediately presented with a letter from my uncle - a different one it seems - demanding my presence at the family homestead. I’m to bring a portrait of my grandfather with me too, he writes, or I’m not to bother coming home at all.
Intriguing! What could be so important about this portrait? I’m excited to find out. But not, apparently, as excited as I am to put food in my face, near continuously, in an entirely vain attempt to satiate my repulsive gluttony. Already the green status symbols are beginning to fade into orange. Fuck paintings. Tubsy needs food badly. I stalk the halls of the university, finding only terse conversation and the occasional pear - which, despite being seemingly abandoned, would require me to steal them. Tubsy The Devourer may be a disgusting food-hoover, but he is no common criminal! Belly rumbling, my quest for an honest meal continues.
On the other hand, I can ignore my moral compass when it comes to stacking physics objects on top of laconic NPCs - and, duly, the glitchy punishment for such a frivolous experiment is probably worse, and more apt, than any that the local law enforcement might have meted out. I am sentenced to indefinite benchiness. Being so sadly benchified, I can’t entirely see where I’m going, but I eventually manage to stagger out a door and into the open world. Beneath the flailing legs of my woody companion, I can make out a scene of charming bucolia, a cobbled path weaving between bright green pastures and stone houses, distant blue mountains rising over a lake. A world I would be eager to explore, if only I could be cured of this intolerable enbenchitude. And my hunger. And my thirst. And the chill in my bones.
After some considerable time spent vainly attempting to lever the bench from me by trapping it on the other side of low walls, I have an idea. If I save and reload the game, physics items like the bench may be reset, and, to my relief, they are - but so is the clock. It’s now night time and completely dark. I immediately start freezing to death.
In the blackness, an undulating, glowing blue line appears, dancing along the cobbled path. I assume this must be leading me to an objective - to my dormitory and to the portrait, perhaps - but it instead deposits me in the frigid wilderness beyond the gates of the town and disappears. Oh. I backtrack and, squinting at the screen to differentiate between the various shades of black, manage to identify a building. I wait, my temperature now at lethally hypothermic levels, while it loads the interior and allows me access.
Even when inside, I continue dying - now from extreme thirst as well as cold. I have a brief conversation with an unfriendly servant, but it doesn’t look like I can eat or set fire to him, so I barge past, trying all the doors in the house. I put aside my previous qualms about theft and stuff a pear into my face in the seclusion of a back room. Somehow, I leave evidence at the scene of the crime, and my reputation takes a hit, but I am too close to death to be ashamed. A criminal mastermind has been forged in the crucible of hardship, and he’s coming for your pears.
I manage to smuggle myself to the building’s second storey inside a dumb waiter but there’s nothing particularly useful up there - no liquids of any sort. How is anyone else in this village even alive? I figure that maybe I can sleep in one of the beds, as they often have healing properties in RPGs - but not in this one. I cannot sleep here. I can, however, set it on fire. The bed ignites and my temperature creeps back to normal, though not for long, as without a drop of water to be found in the house I have to venture out into the deathly cold once more.
I am temporarily saved from freezing into a Tubsicle when I open the inventory menu and can’t close it again, leaving me with no option but to Alt-F4 the game and load back into the pitch darkness of the road. My continuing adventures to find a cup of water are unsuccessful, though I set fire to lots of beds and desks. Luckily, no one seems to mind. Eventually, dawn comes, and though my temperature still plummets whenever I step outside, at least I can find my way to a nearby well.
And so it goes on - a continual scrabble to satisfy the hysterical demands of Tubsy’s belly and internal thermometer. Later, when I get stuck in my inventory again, I decide to call it a day: bugs aside, I already know I won’t be able to enjoy a game which so derails my intent with a continuous and alarming need for food, water and heat. Those are important things alright, but in an RPG you need the time to chew things over, to dig through dialogue trees and uncover information. It doesn’t matter how fast your day and night cycle occurs, the absorption of conversation and exploration within a dense social environment have a pretty fixed pace, and here it’s completely out of sync with the other motivations the game foists upon you. “Unravel the mystery of your uncle’s quest!” says the narrative. “Break into people’s houses and set fire to their bedding!” says the game.
It may only take a few patches for my problems with the game to evaporate. And I certainly can’t claim the developer hasn’t been transparent enough in this regard: his Early Access disclaimer makes plain the potential problems. But regardless of how assiduously the game’s benches are debugged, it’s ironically Frontiers’ survivalism that most threatens to kill it.
Frontiers is available from Steam for £10.99. I think it could be really good, but, for the moment, perhaps best suited to willing QA masochists. That said, I played version 0.3.0 on 17/12/2014, and it has already been patched since - so maybe we won’t have to wait that long.