MAGE
FOR
HIRE

Cube World: Telling a Story Without Story

I’ve not written any articles since finishing my Final Fantasy VIII series, and now that I’ve returned from my break, it seems like an apt time to talk about Cube World.

Cube World, for many, already has a memorable storyline – that of hype, hurried purchasing, the sudden shop closure, and then a mysterious disappearance for years, punctuated only by the occasional tweet from its enigmatic creator, Wolfram von Funck. It’s a story that’s been told many times, only for a shock twist to arise this year, when the game’s official release on Steam was announced.

I was one of those who snapped it up on release, seduced by its promises of coop adventuring across a wild and unpredictable procedural world. While I’d sunk many hours into Minecraft and Terraria, I wanted something that set aside the creative angle for simple adventuring, and this looked to be it. Many of my friends and colleagues were talking about it, so I was eager to join in.

When it disappeared from the store, it turned out that most, if not all, of the people I’d wanted to play it with hadn’t actually been able to buy it. Therefore I set out into this coop world by myself, steering clear of too much levelling while I waited for the store to reopen.

As I was to find out, the store would never reopen, and the game would only reappear six years later on Steam. However, my purchase was not forgotten, and I received a Steam key and early access to the Beta edition seven days ahead of release. Somewhat apprehensive, but eager to avoid doing anything productive on that Monday, I started up the game to see what those six years had wrought.

 

Opening Your World

I didn’t play a huge amount of the alpha version of Cube World. What I can tell you is that your character had traditional levels, earned experience through killing enemies, and collected recipes and armour upgrades in order to explore more of the world.

This version of Cube World was a culture shock. However, to explore that, let’s follow the adventures of Sir Croakington, the frogman I created idly for this “brief” play session (that extended into more hours than it really should).

It probably goes without saying, but let’s be clear here – there’s no opening cutscene, no dialogue to start you off, no introduction of any sort. Once I’d decided on Croakington’s appearance and class, I was dropped into the middle of a field, surrounded by enemies.

(Now, it’s worth noting that this has swiftly been changed in the Beta – you’ll be spawned next to a town on creation.)

In the original game, I was a Warrior with the Guardian specialisation – specifically, Valia Relassis, one of the characters from my Mage for Hire books. This time around, I was automatically a Berserker, and with little idea of what skills I had, I ran over to a bunch of bees and thwacked the nearest.

Moments later, I was dead.

Deciding that the bees were too dangerous, I headed over to a group of passing adventurers with blue names. I figured that they might be able to help me out in some fashion.

As I approached, they turned and unleashed the full fury of their collective might upon me. Resurrecting at the nearest shrine once again, I realised that perhaps the game wasn’t going to treat me particularly kindly.

Over the course of the first half hour, I came to learn that the colours of character names were an indicator of their power level – whatever randomised demon created my procedural world had apparently deposited me amidst green and blue level enemies, which were distinctly too powerful for me at that point. Deciding that I needed to find a town and buy some armour instead, I ran off across the wilderness and fled from everything in sight.

When I did find a town in the next zone over, I learned that blue also indicated friendly characters as I’d expected – but it was a slightly lighter tone of blue. As such, I always have a brief moment of pause when approaching potential allies out in the wilderness.

Now, one thing I remembered strongly from the alpha version of the game was travelling about by boat, but I didn’t quite recall the manner of acquiring one. However, speaking to random characters around the world started to pop objectives on my map. One had seen some Reins left at a camp at one end of the zone, while another was concerned about a kidnapped supplier over on a hill in another place entirely.

The first boat I found was by accident – I was wandering the shoreline of the first town I found, only to bumble into a strange glowing boat. I took a trip around the seas for a little bit, but eventually decided to head on back to the Groris Hills where I began my adventure. However, to my dismay, I was immediately kicked off the boat on crossing the border, which is where we reach the first half of one of the more controversial issues in Cube World right now.

Various tools you obtain are locked to each zone. These include items such as your boat, the reins that allow you to use your pets as a mount, a harp that opens golden doors, and many more besides. This means that each time you enter a new zone, you’re back to running about until you’ve worked out the lay of the land.

However, this did provide me with some much-needed direction. It notified me that I should probably limit my play to one zone for now, rather than getting over-excited with exploring, so I bade farewell to the Varsen Ocean and focused on working out Groris Hills.

This is where the game slowed down, however. My character felt exceptionally flimsy and most areas seemed to be too high level for me. For that matter, I didn’t know how to level up. There was no experience gain from the handful of fights I won, and no bar that showed me any form of progress. Aware that there was crafting available, I decided to make my primary task the acquisition of iron so that I could get some proper clothes and a hefty weapon.

Even with this clear goal in mind, progress seemed to be slow. Almost everything seemed too tough for my poor Sir Croakington, until I finally began to work out his regen ability, that would randomly activate on hits, allowing me to extend some of the easier fights until I could comfortably kill feeble enemies. However, it was in using the harp to open a mysterious tower that propelled my journey from the early hours-drag into a much more comfortable pace.

(Don’t worry, I did eventually remember how to turn off the buttons guide.)

With a delicious five-star item in my grasp, I was suddenly comfortable challenging green enemies, and the occasional blue opponent as well, and with that I started to get more and more item drops. I suddenly wielded the power to clear out enemy encampments and rescue captured suppliers.

Bit by bit, the map filled up with green ticks, and I was able to craft and buy better items if I wished, which to be honest I didn’t at this stage. I was getting nifty items just from slaughtering everything I came across now. The Obsidian Knights who’d earlier murdered my young Sir Croakington had become my prey.

It was at this point that I decided to go and check out the strange Mana Pump that I’d seen in the Varsen Ocean earlier. My Warrior was unstoppable – a force of destruction ready to strike out and conquer new zones. Hopping into my boat, I sailed across the border, jumped onto the island with the Mana Pump, and… melted.

So here we come to the second part of the controversial region-locking – gear is restricted to the zone you find it in. That means that when you enter a new area, you’re basically back to Step One. Most enemies will slaughter you, and you’ll need to grab a new gear set if you want to get back into the swing of things.

It’s an interesting choice, and my first reaction was puzzlement. Did that mean that each zone was essentially a self-contained game, with nothing carrying over at all? At this stage I was aware from a tweet by the game’s creator that you were supposed to collect “Artifacts” to level up, but I’d never seen any such thing at any stage of my adventure, and I didn’t really know what that would mean.

Either way, with this new information, I decided that my efforts were better spent on Groris Hills, rather than going on a wild exploration trip of the world. I sailed back to the starting area and put my gear to work, clearing out all of the optional objectives the random NPCs had suggested for me.

However, I still hadn’t quite worked out the point of the game, only to stumble across the Mines of Arimore quite by accident while roaming aimlessly after finishing everything else available.

Inside, I found enemies worthy of my five-star gear, and at the very end, a chest containing my first Artifact. At this stage, several things clicked into place. Firstly, my character’s level went up by one (as the tweet foretold). Secondly, I noticed that none of my combat stats had increased (or, at least, I don’t think they did). Thirdly, as written on the item itself, it increased my character’s Swim Speed.

With this, I believed that I now fully understood Cube World’s structure, or loop, if you will.

 

Moving Parts

Cube World’s loop, to my mind, works something like this:

- Enter new zone.

- Gear up/collect mobility items (hang glider, boat, etc.).

- Clear area dungeon(s) to level up.

- Move to next zone.

Now, I know this is something of a controversial gameplay choice, but at the same time I think there are definite benefits to Cube World functioning in this way.

If you scroll out the map, you’ll see endless zones stretching out into the infinite. However, you can reasonably expect to collect most of the mobility items within the first couple of hours at most. After this point, in the original version, getting hold of those items (and the experience of living without them) would become redundant for the rest of the game.

There are arguments in either direction, of course, but I feel that an important part of Cube World’s exploration-focused structure comes from entering a hostile world and needing to uncover ways to traverse it faster. Certainly, it makes almost no practical sense to suddenly lose the ability to sail your boat when you cross an arbitrary border line, but that’s how it works with rights in real life.

As for combat, the risk with a procedural sandbox system that relies on endlessly getting more powerful is that it often ends up with you out-powering everything quickly, or having opponents with 65,876,477,294,297,994 defence to counter your 71,874,394,750,384,274 attack. Having this hard reset each time you enter a new zone means that numbers never fly completely out of control, and there are still challenges to be found out in the world.

There are some drawbacks, however, and I’ve yet to see exactly how this will work out. One issue is that there are crafting and augmentation systems in the game, but they don’t seem to serve a particular purpose. In all the zones I’ve cleared so far, the five-star gear that’s dropped has been more than enough to get me through. While I’ll often craft a few green or blue items to push me up to the point that I can kill purple enemies or higher, I’ve rarely felt the need to craft anything on top of that. The time investment for collecting materials doesn’t feel worth it, especially since you drop that gear as soon as you’re done with the dungeons.

Additionally, the randomisation of the game world can leave some regions feeling awkward. My latest zone is the Varsen Ocean I mentioned earlier, and it’s an island-based area that’s largely populated by water and not much else. I struggle to kill high-level caster enemies on my Warrior, and it’s tricky to get hold of better items when almost all the enemies I do encounter are casters.

I’m sure it’s my own fault, but of all enemies in the game, I find that casters have a strange and high potential to randomly one-shot you in the middle of a fight, even if you manage to dodge all their laser beams and meteor bombardments.

My strategy here was to clear the early parts of the zone dungeon, but my loot drops seem to be consistently for the wrong class at the moment, making it a slow process. I suppose this is where crafting comes back into play, but there aren’t any mining nodes around, so that means going to another zone instead, which doesn’t quite feel right.

I’m aware that people are concerned with the loss of skill trees. I never played the original version long enough to get invested, but the points I did spend were either for a handful of new combat abilities and lowering their cooldowns, or allowing you to use boats or ride pets. You get your abilities right away, and the cooldowns are not really an issue. As for the rest, that’s tied in with exploration and Artifacts.

Whichever way, I suppose it comes down to a matter of taste. Grinding enemies until I can put a point in to slowly edge my way towards unlocking riding doesn’t appeal to me, but I imagine that wandering around a new zone for thirty minutes to an hour to unlock it for the fiftieth time isn’t exactly enticing to some people either.

Well, I’m not here to fix Cube World, and I’m not particularly sure that it’s broken either. It’s certainly different, but at the same time I’m finding it to be a fun sort of different. As to whether it’s a “still playing in a month” different, I couldn’t tell you. I tend to change what I’m playing quite often, so it’s not necessarily an indication of the game’s quality.

However, without any overarching goal beyond exploration, I’m not too certain how it will go in the coming months.

 

Story

Oops. I said I’d talk about story, didn’t I?

Well, it’s a tough subject, since Cube World doesn’t really have a story. It has a world, and some minor world-building to go with that, but there’s no particular plot to follow through to any sort of ending.

There are various stone tablets dotted around that give some insight into the world’s lore, but it largely comes down to certain factions having generous monarchs, or in one case I learned about a hero who died fighting a Skeleton Horse.

Instead, what story does exist seems to come through via context. In certain parts of the world, the Steel Empire appears to be invading to steal mana. Mana Pumps set up by the Steel Empire can be destroyed (when they aren’t bugged) to remove a zone-wide debuff that does something negative to Mana. I spend my Mana too quickly to really gauge what the effect is, but I’m sure it’s worth getting rid of the debuff. Being a Star Wars and Final Fantasy fan, I kind of want to track the invaders back to their Empire and give it a good kicking, but I suppose that isn’t possible in this kind of game.

Here and there I keep running into members of other factions, such as the Thaldania Cult, which appears to consist of dwarves (dwarfs?), or the Obsidian Knights, who are usually violent humans as far as I can tell. Meanwhile, the Druids of Mana seem to be trying to put out fires all over the place, whether it’s fending off Steel Empire parachute assaults, or clearing angry Slimes out of a charred crater.

However, when I first mentioned story, it really wasn’t the plot I was talking about, but instead the player’s experience, which is why I outlined my adventures when I first played the game. I find Cube World satisfying because it does deliver a sort of story as you claw your way up from powerlessness in each zone, until finally you can conquer dungeons and whatever unpleasant creatures inhabit them.

The way Cube World delivers that “story” comes down to a system of, I suppose, questions that the player has to answer:

How can I get around faster?

How can I kill things?

What am I doing in this zone?

What’s my long-term goal?

The unanswered questions, as I touched on before, are whether this system is the right one for Cube World, and whether it has longevity.

Either way, with no tutorials in-game, the first few hours can be rough as you discover the answer to each of those questions and get into a flow, and even then, with various different events, and the whims of randomised loot and layouts, it can still be tough to get into each new zone. Barring a long run of Rogue drops that I can’t use for my Warrior, I’ve mostly found that this keeps the game engaging.

 

Summary

So to finish up, I guess my impression is that Cube World is a solid and entertaining game for around twenty hours, but I couldn’t really estimate how it will last in the future. It feels satisfying, but if you’re not there for the moment-to-moment gameplay over longterm points investment, it may come across as hollow.

As for multiplayer, I couldn’t say. Since the game’s locked to early buyers for now, I’m still in the same spot I was six years ago, but I’m almost certainly going to try to convince some people to pick it up.

The general reaction seems to be something of a Marmite affair, with a lot of people up in arms over how much the game has changed since 2013. I can understand a lot of the concerns, but I really don’t think the game’s in the sort of dire state people are making it out to be. However, I do think it’s strongly a matter of taste.

For my own taste, I can say that it’s fun, it’s varied (at least, within the twenty or so hours that I’ve played it), and I’m still eager to explore new zones. I don’t know what the eventual price tag will be, but I’d certainly recommend grabbing it if it turns out to be around £15.99 or below.

And now I’m going to head off to play some Destiny.

Look, it’s not about Cube World – I told you I switch all the time!

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