A while back I stumbled upon a demo for a 5E-licensed click-to-move tactical RPG called Solasta: Crown of the Magister. The game itself wasn’t yet available at the time, so I wasn’t entirely sure how much of the demo was representative of what the final product would be. I did enjoy it, though, and bought the early access title when it went on sale this October 20th. Being early access, the content is limited: the characters can only advance to level 6, and the story has a hard stop at some point.

Impressed.

There are a lot of points of convergence at play here which guide my current opinion of Solasta. First, it’s a good old fashioned CRPG in the style of Divinity: Original Sin or Pillars of Eternity, and the original Baldur’s Gate. The party movies by clicking around, highlighted items are clicked to interact, and the locals can be chatted up in a beautifully rendered isometric 3D world, all of which results in a nice, calming experience, while the turn-based, contemplative strategy combat can sometimes be stressful but satisfying. Second, it’s built on Wizards of the Coast’s 5E ruleset which powers the current edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Third, it’s arriving at a time when a more ambitious, more household-name 5E treatment, Baldur’s Gate 3, is also available in early access.

As much as I love the game’s tactical combat side and any surfacing of the 5E mechanics, Solasta has some shortcomings in other areas which might make or break it for some folks.

Session Zero

Solasta reaches way back into the CRPG archives and starts players off with an option to either pick from a pool of progenerated characters or to roll four of their own. After composing the party, the game starts off…in a surprisingly expected manner. The characters are coming together in a tavern, waiting for news of a job. While the characters wait, each tells a story of how they got there, and this is the beginning of the tutorial: Each story is a vignette centered around the basic mechanics that it intends to teach. More advanced topics are presented when relevant later on.

Say 10 Hail Mary’s and get the hell out of the cave.

Chatting it Up

Once the party’s employer shows up, the game offers an introduction to the conversation system. It’s not particularly robust; one/some/many/most/all of the party members will have a response to offer, and the attitude of each character will be based on his or her background, class, and overall temperament.

It’s like a round of Jeopardy! in here.

Later in the game as conversations begin to have consequence, character skills come into play. When a character has a skill that might be relevant to participation, the options change to indicate the skill bonus that each character can apply, along with the percent chance of success.

Anton? No “Sarcasm” skill bonus? Shame…

Adventure Time

The game is played in isometric view which should be old-hat to anyone familiar with Larian’s modern or Bioware’s older output. The party moves in a 2×2 square and this seems to be the only option for party formation. Each member can move individually as well for those occasions when, say, the rogue needs to take point in order to detect and disarm traps. Solasta offers the ability for characters to jump across gaps in the terrain. This usually presents itself as broken walkways or bridges, or rocky outcroppings in caves or along cliff-faces, which is a nice addition to a thus far pretty formulaic CRPG; the landscapes frequently feature obstacles hiding bonus loot or shortcuts through a zone. In keeping with the 5E ruleset, encumbrance and a character’s strength determines if they can jump, or fall to their deaths (kidding; they won’t have the option to jump at all).

“Where…where are all the people?”

As I’ve only run through some of the initial content in the game, I haven’t seen too many conversational NPCs. There are a few with blue conversation bubbles over their heads to indicate that they’ll either have a one-shot line of dialog, or will offer some lengthier conversation and maybe access to services like shopping or healing. Quest givers fall back on the “!”. Important conversations will use a conversational camera which always shows the party lined up like they’re being inspected by a drill sergeant, which seems a bit weird on the second time we see it, and pretty unnerving every time thereafter.

One of the more interesting designs is how the party travels between points of interest. Long distance travel is always a chore in TTRPGs as it amounts to mostly filler that players will either appreciate or despise. As this is a CRPG, a lot of that can be abstracted by using an overland map scheme, as is found in Tyranny or the elder Baldur’s Gate. In a bid to be as true to the 5E rules as possible, Solasta enforces travel rules. The party will need one ration per character per day of travel. During that journey, characters will automatically forage for additional food, collect ingredients, or complete crafting assignments given them. Sometimes travel is interrupted and a fight breaks out, but once combat is over the party is granted a “long rest”, allowing HP to recover and for certain classes to memorize spells.

Take the long way home…

Breakpoints can be set to automatically pause travel when certain conditions are met, and the trip can be interrupted manually in order for a new crafting option or take some other kind of downtime-related activity within the limits of the 5E ruleset.

Fighting the Good Fight

Combat is turn-based. At the start, every player on the board rolls initiative (using “real” dice that are displayed on the screen along with any applicable bonuses) and the combat tracker is displayed at the top of the screen.

Not having any screen of combat, I had to scum this from the Internet. Sorry.

Each character is presented with general and class or racially specific options when it’s their turn. Defeated enemies can drop bags of loot which can sometimes be difficult to see. Every combat action is displayed in the output panel in the upper right corner of the screen, complete with die-roll and ability breakdown so players can understand exactly what’s going on at all times.

Your Life At A Glance

The character sheets offer most of what would be expected out of a 5E sheet, across four or five tabs. Each tab displays the character’s base attributes, their portrait, race, class, bonuses, and to-hit values on the left.

The inventory tab shows what each character is carrying, as all inventory and cash is held by individual party members (you can “pool” cash to make big group purchases, reminiscent of games like SSI’s Pools of Radiance). Here you can also see what’s on the ground if you drop it, and how encumbered each character is. Characters can be switched using the tabs on the left, and items can be traded by dragging them from the inventory slot and dropping them on the desired character tab.

Each character has a rundown of his or her background – race, class, and upbringing. These are one part flavor, one part important info that grants bonuses to attributes or skills.

The Proficiencies tab displays the raw data on attributes, bonuses, and skills. The screen actually scrolls downward to reveal other info like tool proficiencies and languages.

For spellcasters, the spell tab looks a lot more like a business application than an RPG character sheet, but considering how lengthy a character’s spellbook can get over time, having filters makes a lot of sense. This is also more or less the UI that is displayed during a long rest to allow clerics and similar magic users to choose which spells from their arsenal to memorize.

Finally (I think), there’s the crafting screen. Crafting requires that a character be proficient in a governing skill (i.e. medicine for herbalism) and/or they have a specialist kit. Characters also need recipes and materials. As I have yet to find any of this, I can’t say any more than that. Crafting can be kicked off whenever (I think), and is complete either during a long rest or at some point during overland map travel.

Notes for Nerds

Every conversation that the party has is transcribed in the adventure log along with important information that happens, when it happens.

The quest log is pretty standard, listing the things the party has done, things they are doing, and things they will need to get to eventually. In some cases the party can fail a quest, and it lists that too, for historical purposes.

There is a bestiary of interesting creatures that you come across. As of the time of this writing, I have come across exactly none of them.

Factions exist in the world of Solasta, and work as any faction in any game, anywhere does. The party will earn rep with each, lose rep with each, and the result is that putting the pin at particular points on the meter will grant or deny perks for future interactions with members of that faction. The first main faction encountered is the Scavengers, a guild of “crime-scene cleaners” who will strip a dungeon of the goods after the party clears it, selling the items and splitting the proceeds with the party. I kind of like that idea for a TTRPG setting, as it lets the players off the hook when it comes to hauling treasure out of the bowels of some dragon’s lair.

Finally, there’s the compendium of game knowledge. This contains the same info as is displayed via on-screen tutorial and informational popups, plus potentially a bit more. If you’re new to Solasta (as everyone is right now) it’s useful, but more importantly if you are new to 5E, this section can give you an overview of what the numbers mean and how they are used.

Overall Impressions

Solasta is a great tactical CRPG even in early access. Fans of 5E will be giddy to see how faithful the game is in applying the ruleset to combat, and newcomers will gain an appreciation and understanding of how the ruleset works.

Combat it pretty standard for a CRPG of this kind, although I think both the 5E ruleset and the minimalistic UI go a long way towards making what can be a complicated system as uncomplicated as possible. The most important options in combat have larger buttons than the optional ones, allowing for straightforward murderhobos to spam the attack button with ease, while also allowing the more tactical-minded players the ease of making important decisions quickly.

Of note is the UI, which is amazingly non-skeuomorphic. A lot of CRPGs try to blend the action portal with the informative UI in a way that “makes sense” for the setting, but Solasta treats us to a clean, linear, no-nonsense interface that I sometimes think of as being at a “grey-box” stage; I really hope Tactical Adventures doesn’t try and sex this up by laying parchment and gilt all over the place, because although the UI doesn’t visually mesh with the high-fantasy action going on behind it, it’s functional and informative — exactly and specifically what a UI is meant to be.

Now the downsides. First and foremost, the talking-heads are kind of horrifying. There’s something very EverQuest-y about them, with their unnaturally unlined and featureless faces and how you can see their back teeth when they talk. At one point during a conversation, I could swear the entire party was giving me, the player, the side-eye. Animations of characters are OK, but the eyes keep drifting to the uncanny faces and expressions.

Dialog can range in quality from very well done to “COVID-enforced home recording studio”. I chuckled at a few lines and blanked out on a few unmemorable deliveries, but remembered that I wasn’t here to watch cut-scenes.

That brings us to the setting and the story. Solasta may use the 5E system, but it is not a Dungeons and Dragons product. The setting is completely original — meaning not affiliated with existing IPs, not “something the high-fantasy world has never seen before”. In fact, if there’s any claim against Solasta it’s that the setting and the story (thus far) doesn’t stray very far from the most basic high-fantasy template set down by The Lord of the Rings some 80 years ago. There are humans, dwarves, elves, goblins, giant spiders (always), and a very pre-historic landscape of forests and a whole lot of ruins. The background narrative is not designed in a way that stands out in any meaningful way, which is unfortunate considering it’s currently up against Baldur’s Gate 3, which is both a revered franchise and takes place within what is probably the second most well known high-fantasy setting in modern geekdom. I haven’t gotten to any significant part of the story as of this writing, but based on what I’ve read elsewhere around the Internet, it’s pretty standard in the halls of the genre.

Finally, one of TTRPG’s strengths is its ability to allow players to add or disregard rules that they feel are missing or that are just too painful to deal with. Since the computer is taking the role of the DM, it doesn’t have to make things convenient for itself or the players, so it fully embraces “junk rules” like encumbrance or overland travel restrictions. If there’s anything that you dislike about 5E, you’ll probably find it proudly activated in Solasta. I’ve taken to thinking about it not as 5E, but as a really well designed, somehow familiar homebrew system, and that doesn’t make the experience too discordant between what I like about 5E and what I don’t.

Closing a post with negative points can jettison any of the good mentioned before it, so I want to say that Solasta is a good game on any scale. This isn’t Dragon Age, so no one would be picking it up expecting otome game putting character interaction front and center. Instead, it’s a faithful CRPG implementation of the most popular TTRPG ruleset on the planet right now, and focusing on that aspect, Solasta does a damn fine job…if you can give other aspects a well deserved pass.

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