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This episode took a little longer to write than I expected. It’s been a busy month here, with plenty of things to keep me occupied. I’ve already started planning December’s GOTY event, and I’ll talk about that when I’m ready. In the meantime, I also returned to Twitch streaming for the first time since May. I hope to keep a weekly schedule for the time being as I ease back from illness, but many exciting things are going on.
For now, I bring an excellent selection of recent indies for this week’s episode.
Isles of Etherion
Weird games are my jam. We’ve had many of them, and one of my favorite things about the independent gaming industry is ambition. You don’t see AAA companies taking as many risks with game development. There’s a good reason why the open world formula is so popular; it’s safe and a general way to gain interest. Even though open-world games have deeply saturated the market, they’ll always be popular. The idea of having a world to explore that’s not our own still fills me with excitement, even when there are more open worlds than my fingers.
My little ramble on open worlds aside, Isles of Etherion is a strange mix of brilliant and infuriating for me. It’s incredibly ambitious and has some things few other games boast, but right now feels almost pre-alpha in technical and conception. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed my time with Isles of Etherion, and I have enormous appreciation for being able to cover the game; it’s just a little warning of what to expect. The game is in Early Access, however, which makes the valid point: if you want a complete game, wait until full release or for some optimization work. Big thanks to developers Luna Orion for the review code! I only learned recently that this is a solo project: this is one hell of an achievement.
The game launches with a chunky amount of content: a gigantic open world with hundreds of islands and many missions. The world feels like some netherworld with its vibrant floating islands, airships, and mysterious magic. Combined with the voxel mechanics and fully destructible terrain, we’ve got the ingredients for a fantastic sandbox. The beginning tutorial was rather clunky as it took time to get used to the mechanics and magic system, but it did a decent enough job explaining everything. Unfortunately, the voiceovers are rudimentary at best; there is very little voice acting in the game, and what’s in it… could be better. Hopefully, as development continues, the rough parts of the game will be improved because there’s a mountain of potential here.
I want to talk about the magic system because it’s fantastic. There are just so many different spells with really cool effects, and they all have a physical impact on the world. For example, summon a fireball to blast terrain, hindering enemy movement, or use the earth’s powers to make a giant boulder. You can do tons of little tricks like this, and magic feels really powerful. For an early access solo project, it’s pretty amazing. Exploring the world by paraglider or by eventual airship is also a joy.
I have a love-hate relationship with Isles of Etherion right now. On the one hand, the ambition, cool world design, and excellent destruction mechanics blend well for some impressive emergent gameplay and exploring it all was a joy to behold when things went well. While these are all great features, the game has significant issues that hold it back. It requires a robust system to play well, and even on low settings, I had frequent frame drops, stutters, and texture pop-in. It drags the immersion out of things when flying over a landscape that suddenly gives birth to a dozen trees and skeletons! Even when I set the draw distance to maximum, I suffered this issue. While I haven’t had any stability problems in the name of crashes, loading times are pretty slow; I’d recommend installing this on an SSD.
Animations and frequent sounds bug out; music and ambient notes delay firing, especially when traveling long distances. While combat seems to work well enough for your character, the constant draw distance issues and sound bugs take much away from the experience. Enemy AI breaks most of the time. While the game has a lot of content, it feels like a placeholder instead right now: many early game quests lack substance, and the dialogue menus feel like a pre-alpha. There’s also the strange issue of even minor updates taking hours to install on Steam: this is a big game to download, so there are thousands of files to overwrite, even on little patches, although the developer has promised to look into this.
With all these in mind, Isles of Etherion is a staggering, struggling giant oozing with potential. While I’ve been somewhat negative on the technical parts of Isles of Etherion, I still believe in the premise. There’s an exciting game under the surface for all of the technical problems and bugs it has right now. Of course, I can’t recommend it to anyone who wants a robust experience, but this is a game to watch.
Regardless, I extend a big thanks to the developer for giving me access to it, and it’s also got a decent price tag. It might be worth picking up to experiment with the magic system alone, but I would wait for important fixes before giving this a complete playthrough. This one is a long-haul game, but it’s a title I’m happy to play.
I had mixed feelings about this one. I first learned about Potion Permit during E3 this spring, and I got the chance to try the demo during the Next Fest events by Valve. These are significant events to try out demos and learn about upcoming games; by the time this article comes out, there will be another one. I had a decent time with Potion Permit’s demo and had the chance to try the game out properly: thanks to the guys at Massive Media. I hope to have an interview with these folks reasonably soon, so watch this space!
Potion Permit takes you on a journey of self-discovery and redemption. The Capital has a history of being assholes to other villages like Moonbury, and when the mayor’s daughter falls ill, it lies upon your plucky little hero to save the day. Naturally, the town hates people from the Capital, and they will tell you that; every time I try speaking to the villagers, I get treated with disdain, ignorance, and insults. I like that I have to build up my reputation: these are guys who have been hurt badly by your town, so there are consequences of them being little shits to Modbury. Accompanied by a cute dog you can pet and feed, it’s your new avatar’s job to save people’s lives, redeem yourself in the eyes of Moonbury and make a name as a chemist. Moving into a crappy, run-down shop, it’s up to you to rebuild it. The usual rags to riches plan!
Potion Permit has a beautiful art design, and it looks fantastic. The vibrant atmosphere and solid sound design environments make for a pleasant opening experience. This is a pretty story-driven game with plenty of cutscenes, though there are. Unfortunately, no voice acting. A bit unfortunate, but I enjoy the characters thus far. They seem to hold their own personalities and genuinely hate your main character, a nice change from these wholesome, cute management sims. There’s fast travel too from signposts which only helps: movement is a little slow, so I appreciate this QOL feature, and there’s a decent amount of interaction with the world.
When Potion Permit launched, it did so with no mouse support at all: an enormous misstep. While this has been largely fixed, it’s soiled the feedback from many people. This is 2022; please, if you’re going to release a game on a PC, make sure it has mouse and keyboard support! At launch, I had enormous problems with controlling the interface and my character: the standard control system for PC was very rough, and without the mouse, it was frustrating at best and unplayable at worst. The controller was an ideal way to play, and it does run great on the Steam Deck, but this was a poor start. The mouse support currently helps a great deal both in menus and gameplay, but this was a feature that should have been in the game at launch.
This is a slow-paced game, and like most management sims, the game saves when you sleep: this can bring frustrating moments like save states refusing to trigger, and this is a fairly grindy experience. Potion brewing involves a simple minigame to arrange puzzle blocks: an interesting idea but nothing that really inspired me, and the symptom diagnosis involves a quick-time event with pressing keyboards, like some form of Guitar Hero without the music. So far, I haven’t been too impressed with these minigames.
Finally, Potion Permit launched with a lot of cosmetic DLC. Added up, it comes to quite a high amount. While this is a non-gameplay DLC collection and only contains cosmetics for supporters, it’s caused some poor feedback. An argument is made that it’s been held back from the base game for extra monetization: an unpopular move in the industry. I don’t think that’s the case, but I understand why people don’t like it.
In conclusion, I find Potion Permit a strange game to review. While I enjoy the art design, the characters, and the premise, I worry that its grind, clunky controls, and weak minigames will burn me out. So far, I struggle to see how it matches up to Stardew Valley. Despite these problems, I’m willing to give it another chance. There’s enough in here for fans of the genre to enjoy, although I hope they continue to improve things for PC players.
Salt 2: Shore of Gold
The original Salt game is an indie experience I always remember; a big open-world sailing sandbox. I enjoyed my time with it, even if it lacked polish. It usually goes on sale for pennies, so it’s worth picking it up for a quick buck. To some raised eyebrows, the developer, Lavaboots Studios, began work on the sequel: Salt 2: Shore of Gold. Why begin work on a new game when the original game still needs work? Sometimes, things happen. Better tech becomes available, and sometimes it’s not possible to upgrade the originals. These things do happen, and I was excited when I learned about the sequel.
The release snuck up on me, however. I only realized Salt 2: Shore of Gold’s launch date a few days previously. This is what happens when so many great games get released! Seriously, this year has been awesome for that. I want to extend a big thanks to Lavaboots for granting me access to the game, and after the fun, I had with the original, I went into the sequel with high expectations. Salt 2 is available in Early Access on Steam for £15.49/$17USD/17 EUR, around the base price tag for an indie Early Access release. The amount of content I’ve experienced at launch hits the sweet spot for that. While Salt 2 has some work to do in the polish department, I’ve enjoyed my time with it so far. This is a game developed only by two people, and I’m impressed with what they’ve accomplished so far. Even if some people feel miffed about making a new Salt rather than continuing the original, I urge them to give this a go.
To start, they made a gigantic leap in visual design. Salt 2 is a gorgeous open-world game with stunning environments and realistic lighting. I was quite blown away when I booted this game up for the first time, and sunset is an experience. Just take a look at this photo:
Salt 2 is a solo-focused game: while the lack of multiplayer may disappoint people, it’s a rare trait in the pirate/ocean-based survival games out there. I like single-player experiences. All the usual open-world sandbox gubbins exist here, including ship-building and customization, procedural islands and towns to explore, resources and hunger to manage, combat with pirates and animals, crafting, and a more relaxed focus on exploration.
It’s all rather pleasant, and while I can’t call the game a breeze, it’s easier to get into than rival survival games. The procedural world generation is rather solid, too: I found a greater variety of environments and textures than I did with other games that employ the same feature. The controls work well both with a gamepad and a mouse and keyboard, and the game even works decently on the Steam Deck, though you’ll want to bump the TDP setting quite high to manage a playable framerate. It could use some optimization.
While Salt 2 is in a fairly playable Early Access state, there’s still a way to go. There are no plans for naval combat, which feels like a misstep for a pirate game, and despite the decent performance, there are a few bugs and crashes here and there. It’s geared towards the more casual side: a good thing in itself, although I’ve found some of the early quests a little bland so far. Games evolve, however; nothing speaks the truth of this more than Early Access. Lavaboots Studios has a cool game in the works, and updates have been frequent. It has a positive future.
That’s it for this week’s episode! This week’s trio of indie games may not have been the most positive experience; they’ve certainly had their share of flaws! Despite that, I’ve enjoyed my time with them, and I’m excited to see how they progress. Isles of Etherion especially intrigues me.
Next episode, I’ll cover more great indie games: Terra Invicta, Slime Rancher 2, and Ctrl Alt Ego. It’s going to be a special one. For now, however, hope everyone stays safe.