Caves of Lore Review
Caves of Lore (2023) is a new cRPG which was mostly made by the one-person team that is Michael Robins. While he is still tinkering with the last few remaining bugs and balance issues, the game is now in a really good and playable state.
The game takes inspiration from a lot of older games and spices it all up with lots and lots of excellent new ideas. While some of the ideas work really well, others are definitely a bit more experimental. Think Avernum, but with much nicer graphics, lots of wonderful music, atmospheric soundscapes. Think SSI games, but with a fully homebrew system as oppose to D&D. Maybe even think of Diablo but with turn-based party combat.
The game's biggest strengths are character building and exploration as the game provides ample opportunities to build your character and any companions however you want to. Skills, Abilities and spells all improve with use, so whatever you use, you'll become good at it. And if you find a nicer weapon, it doesn't take long to respec on the go by quickly levelling up the new specialism. The only real limit to variety is with your starting primary stats, stats which won’t change until very high level gear and enhanced enchanting late on in the game adds to them.
Exploration is greatly enhanced by this being a whole new world to discover, a world where even the inhabitants don't know where they are, or even who they are, as a malevolent (?) fog has descended upon the world, a fog which almost entirely destroys everyone's long-term memory and their ability to read and write. The vast majority of the exploration takes place in cave systems, caves that are full to the brim with secrets, multiple exits, monsters, loot, traps and even the occasional NPC or new companion.
In the overworld you move around in real time as a group of people following a leader. You can easily change party leadership between any companion and yourself, but you can't split the party up, so there's no puzzles of the type where one person has to stand on a thing while someone else pulls a lever etc.
When combat starts, you're taken to a mini-map representation of the area of the map your exploring where you engage in turn-based battles. There are no action points, just move and act for each character's turn.
There are no difficulty settings, so the combat is mostly on the easy side with the only real hurdles being when you face a new enemy type for the first time and are not sure what's going to happen. I had the very occasional total party wipe in the early game, occasionally had some companions fall during combat (not permanent) in the mid game and then very few issues late game. It's not a game that permits complacency though and sometimes just whacking things won’t really work.
A possible complaint might be that there's too much combat. In that a small cave area might have four different combat encounters in it for no real reason other than time-sink and potentially grinding per-use abilities, while actual boss or boss-like encounters are very rare and mostly underwhelming due to the fact that leading up to them, if you've killed everything, you're too over-levelled in everything to make the boss battle challenging. This isn't much of an issue while you're still discovering new monsters, but the more you complete the monster manual, the more you tire of having to fight XYZ mob yet again. There is a stealth option to avoid combat, but I didn't use it so can't comment on it. I suspect most players will be doing all the combat for various reasons.
Any complaints about combat are mitigated by the fact that it's quite a monumental roll-call of monsters that this developer has brought forth mostly from their own imagination and in-game lore. There's a few usual suspects here, but the further you go, the more outlandish the enemies become, and I'm all for heaping high praise on any game that puts in the effort to create new combat concepts and general variety.
Questing, Secrets and Puzzles
The more marmite aspect of gameplay comes with the puzzle-aspect to main quest progression. I was able to keep up with everything the game wanted until relatively late in the game but, after a few hours of nook and cranny searching, had to give up and hunt down a solution on-line. Upon doing so, I was comforted by the fact that it was at this point that it was most common for people to be stuck and looking on-line. But even looking on-line might still be confusing as people struggle to put into words the paces you need to go and the actions you need to take.
Some people love this aspect to gameplay while others get very frustrated by it. It's that old thing of wondering whether you're playing an Adventure Game with combat and levelling rather than an RPG, which should have multiple paths to the same destination depending on character choice. One of these core puzzle mechanics is crucial to furthering the main plot, and it's a mechanic which also resembles a potential time-sink. See above where I talked about interesting experimental mechanics.
Once I was over that one hurdle though, I was able to complete the game without any further retreats to on-line help. All-in-all I spent 60 hours on the game, while the average seems to be around 40 hours. I did spend a lot of time looking for all the game's secrets to though, as I usually do, and even with what I thought were pretty much maxed secret searching stats I still finished the game with each map telling me I still had a fair few secrets to find!
The loot resembles Diablo-style loot in the most part, or, if you prefer, Divinity-style loot, with there being regular, enchanted, honed, superior, and all that colour-coded versions of the same item, all of which apart from the basic version seeming to have randomly applied stats. I even found a static inventory storage crate with a bonus to movement speed! There are some unique items and there are bonuses for sets, but I was regularly disappointed with the unique items and never quite sure whether I had a full set of anything nor whether the set bonuses were even applied or working. Overall though, it's fun having lots and lots of random loot to examine and compare.
Loot will also be crafting items, food stuffs, notes, books, quest items, and all of that kind of thing. The inventory isn't super user-friendly and can quickly turn into a bottomless pit of 'stuff' and while you can sell items, there's not really that much need for cash in the game and I tended to just destroy regular versions of wearable items rather than even bother selling them. You can sort the inventory, which I did regularly, by type, but there's no separate tabs and items in storage containers don't interact while in storage containers.
In terms of Lore, the element that's most promoted, what with it being in the title and everything, I was surprised by how little lore there actually was. I mean, because it's a whole new world fresh from someone's imagination, then any game of that type would have a similar amount of lore in it. You'd have to, otherwise people wouldn't know what to do or what's going on. But in terms of 'finding' lore, there's bits and pieces here and there, but not to the extent that the title implies. And what you do find tends to be classic cryptic gibberish where some abstract words or phrases in the middle of other abstract words and phrases are possibly relevant to something.
In terms of bugs, there's still a few remaining, so save frequently and always be prepared to alt-f4 if need be. I didn't encounter many, but there is a common one where the game would freeze during combat. One of the traits, Inner Warmth (late game anyway), will bring up the bug-report screen, and there were a few other instances of seemingly random bug-report pop-up screens. These pop-ups warn you not to continue or save your game and look really dramatic, but if you just come out the game and go back to your last save you'll be fine.
What I really liked about the game was the pacing. It never really felt boring until the combat on the last map. It has excellent moment-to-moment gameplay where I was always motivated to go through the next doorway or down the next secret passage. Minutes turned into hours extremely easily and I was always itching to get back to playing it at the next opportunity, and that is probably the most important aspect of any game.
In this year of a great wave of many big or interesting RPG releases, has this game released at the wrong time to get noticed? Well, it released in late January and its main competitor has been Hogwarts Legacy, so probably not the same demographic, but if you wait too long, you'll easily forget about it when Starfield, Baldur's Gate 3 and all the other stuff gets released in a few months’ time. So for anyone looking for that very specific RPG itch at the moment, then I'd say definitely grab this wonderful game and play it sometime in the next month or two. It's an absolute bargain, extremely well made and thought out and could easily have been game of the year or nearabout if it had released last year! An easy 8.8/10 for this one!
Information aboutCaves of Lore
Developer: Red Plume LLC
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released: 2023-01-21
· Publisher: Red Plume LLC
- Original setting
- Great pacing
- Excellent character building
- Huge variety
- Wonderful exploration
- Some obscure puzzles
- A few bugs
- Underwhelming boss encounters
- Secrets too secret
- Needs more lore