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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Indie Game Review - "CREA"

Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, Signs of Life, Darkout... games where you explore a randomly generated world, craft cool stuff out of basic materials and slowly make the world your playground, are getting ever more popular. With many genre standards already established, it gets increasingly difficult to put a unique spin on things.  CREA manages to feel fresh by concentrating on the genre's strengths and dressing them up with some novel ideas.

As always, you're some guy (or lass) who has, for unknown reasons, just been dropped into a randomly generated world, with nothing to your name but your clothes and a few basic tools. What will you do now? Pretty much anything you like because An Adventurer Is You.  Who needs an elaborate story anyway? Sandbox crafting games are all about discovery, exploration, experimentation and making up your own lore on the way. If you can agree on that, CREA will likely push all your buttons and also some new ones, buttons you had no idea existed.

At the core there is nothing we haven't seen before. You're dropped into a 2D-world made of surface blocks and simple sprite objects, and as is custom you can harvest pretty much everything, place it somewhere else, or craft equipment and other building blocks from it. There're enemies too, all the time and not just at night, and peaceful creatures as well. Just by looking at CREA you'll find yourself hard-pressed not to mutter "This looks like Terraria, only a bit less detailed..."

Let's hope there is no Wall Of Flesh around...

But it plays extremely differently, because the developers put a clear focus on the idea that you are stranded in a world you know nothing about.  This is most obvious in the crafting; having some wood and stone does not instantly give you the option to make a stone pickaxe. Your very first step into the world of CREA is to make a research station. All crafting recipes need to be researched by getting a resource and dropping it on this crucial desk- where you then destroy that resource and, in turn, discover what you can build out of it. Gather a bunch of logs, and see how they can be made into planks, sword hilts, arrows, and what have you. Since only the most basic recipes need only one ingredient, even simple tools will likely take a while to research- CREA starts extremely slowly because you really know nothing.

Research has never been that important... how to I craft this again?

This creates an odd dissonance between the player (who will probably guess that copper ore can be smelted into bars) and the character, who won't be able to do that until the recipe has been unlocked. During a first game this really feels fresh and interesting- every new strange thing you find is a potential puzzle piece to progress.  But it definitely makes the first few hours a bit long-winded. For example, I found a small cluster of copper early on, and then had to waste all of it only to learn how to make first copper bars and then a copper knife. Finding more copper turned out to take a lot of time, mostly because of all those evil oil slimes killing me because I had NO COPPER KNIFE to defend myself with.

That said, CREA makes every click worth your while by borrowing a bit from The Elder Scrolls. There are five skill trees in the game, each one centered around a gameplay element (Combat, Crafting, Gathering plus Elemental and Divine magic). Simply performing an action related to that skill earns you experience and talent points. Experience increases you skill level, and talent points allow you to purchase abilities and bonuses from the skill's tree. This is such a clever little idea that you probably won't mind the slow start. Craft and research a lot, and you'll be able to purchase cool stuff like "uses less material to craft" or "always craft a better quality". Fight enough and purchase a damage bonus. Cast some fireballs and then unlock cold-based spells. It's pretty awesome. Your tiny pixel hero really learns how to be more effective, and early on you can put a clear focus on certain skills to make your progress smoother.

Spells are somewhat novel because they are available from the very start, and make ranged combat a safe(r) and (more) reliable way to dispatch monsters. I liked the straight-fire elemental bolts more than bows, which fire in an arc that makes it hard to lead your target. On the whole, combat is mostly interesting because each enemy type comes with an individual attack pattern. Chunky pig thingies charge at you, oil slimes spit bile, flying stone heads hover just out of reach and then slam themselves into the ground- it pays to learn these patterns and pick your fights.  Almost every enemy drops something you clearly WANT to have in large amounts, and like you, they grow stronger as they spread through the world. You can avoid several fights by simply not attacking, but some beasts will always engage into combat. And they can be fierce.

There is no penalty for dying but you may be forced to backtrack your way a lot. Way-crystals serve as checkpoints and you can travel between them for a small amount of easily harvested crystals, which is incredibly useful once you have explored your world a bit more.

Sword and armout at the ready- why does everything HATE me so much?

Ten hours into my first world, I can fully recommend CREA on a "first look" basis. The RPG elements work nicely and create a sense of learning and improving as you play, and this I haven't seen done to such an extent in any sandbox crafter. Since this is "early access" there may be some changes to the gameplay, but the groundwork is really robust and promises a lot. Compared to the (also early access) Starbound, CREA has a somewhat bland look- while not ugly, especially the landscape lacks that certain bit of crispness and detail that is clearly present in the enemy sprites. I usually go all overboard in designing a home base and use all sorts of blocks and decorations; in CREA it never really looked that appealing. The many many mobs, however, all have a distinct look and are fun to fight and farm. The sheep are tiny cotton balls hopping around on springs- try to find that anywhere else. There is a sense of "history" in the game, created only by short descriptions and the look and feel of flora and fauna; it clearly isn't the best-looking sandbox crafter around but it has its own simple charm.

Another selling argument is the fact that CREA "was built from the ground up to be modded". The game folder exposes all sprite assets and Python scripts, so there's a rather different playground there all right.

Review by Ghost for Indie Game News

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