Given that Chapter Two of Epistory came out while I was writing the review of Chapter One, I had been hoping to get this second review done sooner. Part of that is down to things being busy at Christmas, part is down to my job, and part is down to my job being busy at Christmas.
Yeah. I played through Chapter One again as recommended (because there’s no guarantee that saves from the earlier version of Epistory will still work 100% correctly since the update), and managed to break the game pretty much the moment I started Chapter 2. That held me up a bit. Being an Early Access title, this kind of thing is to be expected, and I hope my experience helps the developers iron out the kinks.
Essentially, the beginning of Chapter 2 sees a massive tsunami crash into the landscape. It’s pretty epic. Unfortunately, however, the new game area this reveals takes a while to open up. In the space of time before the (at this point impassable) ice floe appears, there’s a weird (passable) void that appears to behave like solid ice. If you cross this void, it’s possible to reach the tiny beach where I got stuck, but once the floe appears it’s impossible to get back.
This is both kind of typical of Chapter 2, which occasionally loops the wrong chunk of music and feels all-round buggier than the (generally well polished) Chapter 1, and also pretty unusual, in that it’s the first game-breaking bug I’ve encountered. Epistory saves your character’s location as well as your progress, which ordinarily is great, but in this case meant playing through Chapter 1 yet again. It’s still good fun, though, and the new content was well worth the extra trouble.
Chapter 2 of Epistory introduces a new area, some new puzzles, and a really neat combat mechanic. For me, this was the moment the game stopped being just pretty and inventive, and started being really gripping to play. I mentioned in the previous review that I hoped the sort of gameplay you find in the optional “Arena” section would turn up in the main story, and by now it’s certainly delivered.
In the same way that Chapter 1 introduced fire magic, allowing you to flambé your foes, Chapter 2 introduces ice magic, which offers the power to snap-freeze them. Given that fire actively munches through words while ice merely gives you more time to type them, it feels far less useful than the earlier fire spell. However, the moment you get it, combat immediately becomes six times as engaging.
In the same way that certain enemies can only be defeated by fire magic, certain enemies can only be defeated by ice. And you have to manually pick which one you want to use. That means that rather than just typing away in order to pummel whatever enemies that are approaching, you have to take into account what their elements are and when you can afford to type out FIRE or ICE to switch spells. All in all, Epistory at this point feels less like a typing game than a game you control by typing.
The backdrop for Chapter 2–narrow, enclosed rooms rather than wide open forest–makes for an excellent introduction to this mechanic, with enemies of each sort approaching along different paths. Being a flooded Atlantis-type temple or library, it also ramps up the drama a little. The main story of Epistory has still only been hinted at by this point, but there’s enough joy in unfolding the paper world for yourself that I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice to say, it’s starting to feel as though there’s much more to this than simply planting flowers with your keyboard.
The ice magic, though it might not be quite as handy is combat as the fire spell, does contribute to some nifty puzzles. Typing the words that appear over slushy ice floes will freeze them solid, allowing you to skate across, but not to stop. This is combined with a series of “hit all the black buttons, hit no red buttons” door-opening puzzles that aren’t particularly innovative, but feel solid enough and offer a good deal more complexity than fire does. Fire allows you to burn down thorny bushes, which is certainly useful, but doesn’t require any real thought.
Getting new powers and opening new areas of the map makes for an almost Zelda-like experience, where progress in the middle of the game will require and reward a trip back to places you’ve already been. This actually got me a little lost when it came to tracking down the start of Chapter 2 (which was nowhere near a different area I’d just opened up), but since it seems to be a regular occurrence (and the playable area wasn’t vast at that point) I feel as though the time spent wandering was reasonable enough.
All in all, Epistory is not only shaping up to be something special: it already is. Chapter 2 seems to have introduced a few flaws, but if Chapter 1 is anything to go by then I expect most of them will be sorted out before the next update. I discovered a lot of messages saying “Not available in the Early Access version” at various “reveal” points on the map this time around, so it looks as though there’s still a huge range of things to explore.
For the sake of completeness I feel as though I should list the flaws I’ve stumbled across while playing through. However, most of what bugs me about Epistory at this point would be difficult to work into whole paragraphs, so I’m going to be super lazy and just stick some bullet points in here. The kind of detail that stands out for me should, if anything, give some idea how readily playable the game is at this stage. Alternatively, if you’re just curious as to what the game is like, you might want to skip these because they probably won’t mean much to you. Arranged loosely by descending importance:
- When many enemies are on screen simultaneously (and your attacks are sort of “queued”), there can be quite a delay between typing a word and the spell being cast, making it possible to be killed even quite a while after you’ve typed the appropriate enemy’s word. In the first fire/ice battle in particular, the large swarms of single-letter enemies more or less have to be typed in order of appearance: otherwise an early enemy can fly into you while the fox is turning to deal with each of the others in turn.
- The flames that appear on an enemy struck by fire magic can make it very difficult to read the next word to type. Typically that word is being burned away anyway, but it can still be frustrating, especially with enemies that are too close for you to rely on fire alone.
- It can be hard to travel horizontally or vertically when starting on an ice tile. You have to press two diagonal keys simultaneously to do so, but will typically end up hitting one key ever so slightly before the other, travelling in just that one (diagonal) direction. Switching to WASD solves the problem, but doesn’t feel at all intuitive (and causes the opposite problem when trying to move in a diagonal direction). It would be nice if ice tiles gave just a fraction of a second to hit both buttons (perhaps as the character prepares to push off), as it’s already easy to move across the ice in non-diagonal directions when starting on solid ground.
- I like that the game takes you from “typing” mode to “moving” mode automatically when there are no words left on screen, but this doesn’t always play nicely with the camera. If a multi-word object is at the very edge of the screen, it’s possible to get “kicked out” of typing mode if the camera moves and/or the next word to appear doesn’t occupy enough screen space. This isn’t typically a big deal with chests and such, but the same kind of thing happens with enemies from time to time and it breaks the flow of the game.
- Similarly, enemies approaching from certain directions display their words much sooner than others. Anything coming at you from the “back” of the screen (the horizon) is in clear view to begin with and displays its word immediately, while enemies crawling on from the sides can sometimes be visible for quite a while before the accompanying word actually appears for you to type.
- The camera sometimes turns at fairly extreme angles, making it hard to get your head around the diagonal movement keys. Down-right or down-left, for example, sometimes end up pointing the character more or less straight down in relation to the screen. This is particularly confusing after a long(ish) battle where the character has been stationary for a while. Even in games with traditional WASD movement, those keys would typically be relative to the camera rather than the landscape, so it doesn’t feel like something I’d adapt to (though in general it’s nice that the camera isn’t fixed to just one angle).
- The fox feels a little too slow before the first speed upgrade (it takes a while to travel long distances), but a little too fast afterwards in comparison. Personally, I think I’d prefer having a faster character to begin with, and then weaker upgrades afterwards.
- It would be nice to have the option of UK spellings. Since there’s no penalty for typing the letter “u” when it doesn’t actually appear, I don’t feel like it’s a big deal, but it would be nice if the words I had to type in a hurry were the words I instinctively recognise.
- The big battles where you’re stuck in one place (especially at the end of a dungeon) frequently leave nothing to explore afterwards, which is somewhat disappointing since they tend to take place in quite large spaces where there could easily be loot tucked away in the distance.
That’s pretty much it. Given that the things I’ve picked out range from “this would be neat” at best to “this is slightly annoying” at worst, I feel as though the game is already in great shape: far better than I expected from the first Early Access title I’ve tried. I wouldn’t be surprised if I hit another game-breaking bug at some point, but at the same time that feels like a small price to pay to see the game unfold in the same way that its world does.
If you’d like to get hold of the Early Access version of Epistory, you can do so on Steam.