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Premature Evaluation: Stonehearth

A Dwarf Fortress-alike with a Minecraft face

Every week, Brendan forages on the frontiers of Early Access, looking for nourishing games and safety from dark creatures. This week, he founds his own village in Stonehearth.

It would be easy for me to blame everything that went wrong with my settlement on one foolish worker who always messed things up. But with the hamlet I created, it was not so much a case of "village idiot" than "idiot village". Welcome to Ballyscum. Don't trip on the gravestones.

Stonehearth was first spotted by us back in the golden age of 2013 (in a post in which Alec wondered aloud what 2016 would be like (answer: it's dreadful)). But it hasn't really seen much light since. It's a village management sim with some RPG bits and bobs - a hyper-simplified Dwarf Fortress with a Minecraft face. You start off with a small group of settlers and some baskets full of turnips. Then, you build. At the end of each day you get a little report card. Do well (increase your food, morale and "net worth") and another little cuboid settler will potter into your village. The fool.

While growth is the objective, you also have to fight off nasty creatures and chase away goblin thieves who sneak into town and try to pinch all your precious veg. To this end, you can assign some settlers to be guards and others to form a militia. This lets you murder the baddies using some (very simplistic) attack commands and loot the corpses. Then you get back to work, building a new shack for your blacksmith. It's this cycle of "build, defend, grow" that's at the heart of things. But it's the same cycle that leaves you feeling a little tired by the end of the first in-game month.

That's not to say it's unworthy of its genre. These kinds of games tend to produce silly stories and the same is true for Stonehearth. My village of Ballyscum, for instance, should stand as a lesson for the ages. At the beginning of a new game you get to pick your race. Resourceful desert-dwellers or stout forest peoples. I decided to stick with what I knew and founded Ballyscum between two lakes and a forested mountainside (you can pick the location of your settlement from randomly generated map). I thought the terrain I chose would be easily defensible. I am a fool.

Immediately the populus began plodding around, doing what I asked, proud of the new names I had bestowed on them. Passionate John became the settlement's sole footman and the carpenter's job went to to Plonks McPillock, whose sister, Barbs McPillock, became the mason. With Eastenders Extra ploughing the soil to make new fields and Eats All The Horses moving the turnips from place to place, I had a vaguely functional society forming in those first few days.

Later, when the mason was skilled enough to make a sturdy hammer, I gave the illustrious occupation of blacksmith to Jeb Who Hates Everyone. You see, every occupation requires an item. To employ a new guard (a footman) you need a practice sword. To make somebody a farmer you need a wooden hoe. And to promote that farmer to the role of cook you need a spoon. There's a small "tech tree" of about 15 occupations, including the basic "worker" that everyone starts as, and villagers level up to the point where you can promote them. For example, much later I would have a villager called Ragnar Binman who went from being a humble worker to a footman to a knight. He often went around terrorising defenceless goblins. He was a horrible person.

Villagers wander about doing their jobs, building things, hauling stuff to your designated "storage zones" and generally getting on with it, unless they are stopping to eat their dinner. In Ballyscum, we eat mostly turnips. But if you tap 'R' you can also summon all of your people, running and screaming, to the town's safe point. Usually, this is only a worry when the town gets invaded by golems, goblins, wolves or any of the other fantasy bastards that care to come your way.

Being a defensive peoples, the men and women of Ballyscum were instructed to build three walls on various ends of town. But being slow-minded and easily distracted, they neglected to fill important gaps in two of these walls, allowing these three zombies to simply squeeze in and cause general havoc.

While Passionate John, the town's only footman was being overcome by the undead trio, a party of vicious goblins snuck into town through the gap in the other wall and proceeded to murder Eats All The Horses, who was by now the town's trapper and our only provider of jerky. Passionate John arrived late and injured to the fight, whereupon he was himself slain. It was time for drastic measures. I quickly promoted the worker called Ragnar Binman to the position of footman. He accepted the sword of honour jubilantly, changing at once into his new military garb.

And then he ran away screaming.

As you can see the townsfolk's AI is still somewhat hit and miss. A lot of the time they will get on with their tasks - crafting the items you queue, mining copper ore from tunnels, harvesting the day's turnips from the vegetable plot. Sometimes they are even frighteningly efficient, like the time I enacted a huge deforestation project and the area around the village went from this...

To this... just three days.

But every now and again the settlers go a bit funny. At best, these can be charming moments of simple-mindedness, such as the time my workman Pisslord George was working on the palisades and somehow fell into the lake. At worst, they can be frustrating displays of incompetence, such as the time Pisslord George died of starvation because he could not get out of that same lake.

Much of this comes down to path-finding bugs, and in the case of George, he at least left a bed free for the next arrival. This has always been a thing about management sims - sometimes the little toy people just don't do what you want. If you accept that as a given (and I generally do, whether I'm playing Theme Hospital or Prison Architect) then you will have a lot more fun when your village erupts into flames.

Now that I've got my Early Access apologism out of the way, I can tell you about the real pitfall Stonehearth will have to contend with: pacing. Like I said, there's a "build, defend, grow" cycle which keeps you on your toes, as well as small events like traders visiting to ask for specific items in exchange for toys or swords or lanterns. And it feels like the game wants you to focus on this. The enemies get tougher and more numerous, growing from tiny rock golems to giant mutated caterpillar things. And all the while you level up in response.

What starts as one or two goblins raiding the camp and trying to make off with a single cube of iron ore can become a campfire of the creeps in a nearby wood, until the goblins erect a village all of their own and you're forced to send Ragnar Binman and his band of jerk warriors to raze it to the ground, earning loot and experience points and essentially committing an adorable atrocity.

This cycle, however, sometimes distracts from the the creative side of the game. This has it's own problems. For instance, designing your own buildings is more limited than I would have hoped. Rather than placing individual LEGO-like blocks, you simply place each fiddly rectangle upon the last until you have a house, garrison, or whatever. Then you decorate it with a small selection of braziers, signs and lanterns. There is a tool to let you create a building wall-by-wall, which is useful if you want to make something more intricate. But it is just as fiddly to use. It was still enough for me to design the Tower of Bureaucracy, but the villagers seem to have trouble with heights, so they never actually got to the mountaintop where the tower was commissioned. It remains unfinished to this day.

There's still a lot to like about Stonehearth. Like it's contemporaries it creates a lot of fun moments and actors in a daft drama that you can read just by clicking on their character sheet. There was one moment when I noticed a fox leaping around on top of the dining tables and showing no fear of the settlers. What's more, it had a small 'knife and fork' icon above its head - something that displays hunger and which I thought only the villagers got. When I clicked on this fox I discovered that the late trapper Eats All The Horses, instead of skinning this animal and drying its corpse for jerky, had actually befriended it. And now the poor critter was hopping all over the place, hungrily looking for its dead master.

It's only when I compare it to similar games like Rimworld that my doubts feel the strongest. Graphically, that game has a lot less going for it. But in terms of its personality, life on the space frontier is so much more ridiculous and dark. Seeing the entire population of Ballyscum sitting down to eat dinner at the dining tables I had just ordered made was satisfying. But it was also twee. The most damning thing I could possibly say about Stonehearth, after all this, is that, somewhere inside of me, there is a horrible man who wants the goblins to come back.

Stonehearth is on Steam for £18.99/$24.99. These impressions are based on build 1144835

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