I’ve been keeping an eye on Epistory – Typing Chronicles for a little while now, pretty much determined to give it a go and pretty much totally clueless as to whether or not it would run on my newly assembled computer. A few days ago I decided to bite the bullet and try out the early access version, and wow am I glad that I did.
Epistory looks beautiful. If you haven’t stumbled across it already, this is a typing game where, rather than simply hammering away at letters and words that appear on the screen, you’re free to wander around a beautiful origami world typing things into (and out of) existence. Your character–a little girl riding on a many-tailed fox–doesn’t say much, but her story appears etched into the landscape itself: a neat way of moving the plot along without breaking away from the action.
As the world opens up (with pages unfolding and sprouting grass and trees), you discover new areas to explore and new features to add. Typing DANDELION or ORCHID here will cause flowers to spring up from those bare patches of earth, improving the landscape and netting you some kind of experience points (more on that later).
Hitting the “Enter” key toggles the typing/spellcasting mode on and off, and whether you’re typing or moving is immediately apparent based on the presence or absence of the big magic circle visible in these screenshots. Switching between the two is fairly intuitive, which as handy because on at least one occasion I found I had to beat a hasty retreat from an enemy who’d sprung up a little too close.
The basic game is hugely satisfying and plays very neatly, even at this early stage of development and on my fairly unusual computer. You might notice in these screenshots that the shadows (particularly of trees) aren’t displaying properly, with portions of them getting pushed onto the wrong floor tiles. It’s hard to be sure, but I’m willing to guess that’s because I’ve been playing this using my motherboard’s integrated graphics card: this machine is some way off the developer’s recommended system requirements.
The simple fact that I can play this thing so easily is actually one reason Epistory has really impressed me. I’m using Linux (Ubuntu 14.04), where the vast majority will use Windows, and I type using a Dvorak keyboard layout, which is also fairly unusual. For improved typing efficiency, Dvorak puts the vowels under your left hand and the most common consonants under your right, which makes a lot more sense than the QWERTY layout when you think about it. With QWERTY you have to reach for E, the most common letter in the English language, but the semicolon of all things is right there under your right pinky.
Where Dvorak doesn’t typically make sense, however, is in games: W A S D in Dvorak becomes , A O E, which virtually no game will ever take into account.
Yeah. Epistory does. This actually doesn’t make that big a difference in terms of typing words to improve the landscape or defeat monsters–the game doesn’t take into account where the letters that make up those words appear on the keyboard–but it makes a huge difference when you’re just wandering around: nobody wants to go hunting around for the button that simply makes your character walk forwards.
That said, although Epistory does allow you to wander around with the typical W A S D movement key combination, it’s actually not the recommended control scheme. In order to swap seamlessly between wandering and typing, you can use E F I J (or in my case, . U H C) to walk diagonally up-left, down-left, up-right and down-right respectively. It sounds anything but intuitive at first, but it keeps your hands on the home row of the keyboard and your character walking straight: you’ll see in these screenshots that the game’s floor tiles are laid out diagonally rather than as a standard grid. Essentially, the whole game appears to be built to take advantage of this keep-your-hands-in-one-place scheme, and though it’s unconventional it really pays off. There’s no reason to ever reach for the mouse, so there’s no need to control your character’s movement with just your left hand.
This even extends to the game’s menus, which you can control by typing the name of whatever you want. I’m not positive that this is more convenient than just reaching for the mouse (it’s several button presses, rather than one click), but you’ve got both options so as far as I’m concerned it’s just a nice option to have.
The actual story available at this point is fairly short, but what there is suggests that there are some neat plot twists and new game powers to come. (The devil vomits on my eiderdown once again: read on to discover the hilarious reason why this is [probably] no longer true.) It’s also fairly satisfying just wandering around the landscape planting flowers, burning brambles, breaking stones and chopping logs, all of which provide experience you can use to improve your fox-steed’s skills.
To be honest, however, this is one area of the game I haven’t really got into. Ordinarily I quite enjoy customising a character and seeing them grow, but playing through the earliest, easiest portion of the game (and as someone who’s used to typing quickly just to get things done) there’s neither enough challenge to make the upgrades welcome nor enough variety to make them interesting. Your options are:
- Improve the fox’s movement speed: welcome for getting around that much quicker, but of little practical value as you’ll face most enemies while rooted to the spot.
- Walk forwards using the shift key (even while casting spells): virtually impossible to use effectively during battles, and borderline useless anywhere else.
- Get more time on “typing flow”: a kind of combo-extender. A welcome option, but since this will mostly be useful for unlocking the other not-so-useful upgrades, it suffers as a result of the others.
- Improved fire magic: until trying out the game’s “Arena,” I had no idea what this did. After trying the arena, I feel as though it’s by far the most useful option of the four.
Though the first chunk of the game is more pretty than challenging, the Arena offers a glimpse of what the rest might be like, and makes for a fun, frantic bit of typing action in itself.
The Arena–a kind of “endless” or “survival” mode–is where Epistory’s typing battle mechanics really shine: if the main story of the game introduces anything like this level of difficulty and variety, it should make the difference between a good game and a great game. The Arena introduces new enemies, and the mix of hulking, long-word brutes and skittering, single-letter critters introduces a little more strategy than you would expect to encounter in this sort of typing game: do you finish hammering out the second half of PSEUDOINSTRUCTION to beat the big guy, or do you give up on that word and just hit Q to deal with the tiny flying thing that’s just launched itself at you from the edge of the screen?
The ability to just ditch one word and begin another is a huge part of what makes the arena challenging and fun rather than random and frustrating. Typically you’ll fail because you either weren’t typing fast enough or weren’t prioritising the right enemy. In similar games I’ve played, you’ll often find yourself hit one wrong letter, starting to type the word of an enemy that’s currently on screen, but without any idea where (or therefore what) that word is. Though players should probably be encouraged to type accurately, turning one unlucky typo into a game over is ridiculously harsh and Epistory does a fantastic job of avoiding this. As crazy as some of the 40+ letter words look on screen, they’re a welcome alternative to a Zerg rush of three-letter enemies that prevents you from even seeing what you have to type.
This is also where the fire magic becomes an obvious asset. During the early sections of the game, the enemies are easy enough that you can happily defeat every single one of them–even in a large battle–without any of them taking more than a few steps towards you. In the Arena, however, it becomes very nearly impossible to type every word that pops up: many are extremely long and most enemies require you to type more than one. Fortunately, you don’t have to complete every single word.
Fire magic, though pretty much totally unnecessary against story enemies, allows you to type the first word that appears above an enemy, and then simply wait while the fire burns away the next word without any input from you. What this means is that surviving the endless onslaught in the Arena is less about hammering furiously at your keyboard and more about selecting targets (something that I hope will become important in the game’s story too). It’s most effective to type one long word on a distant enemy, then let the fire take care of the second long word as it approaches. Trying to defeat one enemy at a time–or simply losing track of which threats you’ve already begun to address–will likely result in something large and nasty stepping on your toes. There’s no health bar and no lives, either, which helps maintain a degree of tension even in very casual encounters.
Also, though the combat-effectiveness of Epistory‘s fire magic doesn’t really count for much in the story mode so far, it does contribute a fair bit to the story itself. Certain objects at the very beginning of the game come with arcane symbols, rather than typeable words, and remain totally indestructible until you have the magical power necessary to burn them away. As well as simply blocking off certain key areas, this turns even tiny enemies into a significant threat: something you’ll really appreciate if you have a go for yourself.
Conveniently–or annoyingly, depending on how you look at it–Chapter Two of Epistory was released as I was writing this, so some of what I’ve said here may no longer be accurate. The story will certainly be longer, and I understand that a significant amount of work has been done on the early dungeons as well. However, I’m going to go ahead and post this anyway in case any of my initial experience with the game helps the developers decide how to further polish it from here.
Right now, I’m off to play more Epistory.