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This review came about after we received an email from Jakub at Crunching Koalas, the publisher of Elderborn. We want to say thank you to Jakub and the company for sending us the Steam code. We really appreciate it. Right after we read the email, we looked up the game. It’s a slasher. I guess you could say a first-person hack and slash, with “ancient heavy metal combat”. The Steam page claims that if you “pray at the altars of Dio, Lemmy and other mighty Gods of Metal” then you will love Elderborn. Well I was immediately interested. Elderborn is currently being developed by Hyperstrange and it entered Early Access on Steam in October, 2018.
I don’t know the protagonist’s name, if he even has one, or if the developers are planning on any kind of simple or deep narrative but as of right now, there is no real plot here that I’m aware of. You go around slashing and stabbing monsters. The gameplay is set in a rather large area, world, level, or whatever you want to call it, and all the areas appear to be interconnected. I got close to the end and fell down a hole which put me back to an area I traversed through about an hour before so the environment on display here is pretty large. You don’t really need to backtrack unless you want to do some exploring or if feel you missed something. Some areas contain multiple paths and you may find yourself unlocking a path that leads to a previous area, essentially creating a shortcut. Depending on how quickly you adapt to the combat, it might not take you long to see everything the game has to offer at the moment, but I finished it in about two hours. You’ll have to find keys to open doors, pull levers, you can break through rock piles which requires a heavy weapon, and water spots can be found throughout the environment and act as checkpoints.
Melee combat is the sole focus of Elderborn. If you want something to compare it to, I would describe it as similar to Skyrim’s combat but with some actual depth. You can walk, run, sprint, kick, attack, hold the attack button down for a more powerful attack, and block and parry. What weapon you wield does determine how fast you can move. You start with the Ceramic Khopesh which is a blade weapon. As you progress you’ll acquire other weapons like the Coffer Hammer which is heavy and does a good amount of damage but slows your movement speed down. The Old Blade resembles a more traditional-looking sword and you’ll also get your hands Bronze Katars which you can use to rapidly stab enemies. Then there’s the Skullcrush which is a heavy mace weapon. If you check your inventory, you can read a brief description about each. Attacks consist of basic swings, strikes, and stabs. And the blows and strikes you land do feel impactful.
I did play through this twice and it took me a little while to get a hang of the combat meaning I died quite a few times in the beginning. On my second run, I had a much easier time. There is definitely some depth here that can only be further explored once more enemy types and areas are introduced. And hopefully more weapons. Once I got a hang of the combat, things became rather easy but if you think you can just charge into every situation head-on and just slash away without thinking to win, you’ll be in for a surprise. It doesn’t take many hits to drop you in Elderborn. Knowing when to move and block is just as important as knowing what weapons to use and where the enemies are. The weapons, themselves, provide you three options for approaching situations. Speed, power, and balance. Do you want to use brute force to decimate your foes? Maybe you want to move quickly, strafing around enemies and slash away rapidly. Or maybe you just want a balance between the two. Health does regenerate over time and there is no shame in running away from a situation just to regain health.
Eventually I learned that my struggle in the beginning of the game was mostly because I misjudged the distance and range of enemy attacks and my own. What I thought was too far out of reach for attacks to land was in fact not the case so I was getting attacked repeatedly, thinking the enemies were a bit cheap. But I was wrong. Keeping your distance is important as is knowing enemy attack patterns. Many of the lower-tier enemies can be killed with one powerful strike but as your powering up the attack, an enemy or multiple can land hits on you. This isn’t a huge problem if you’re up against just one enemy but it can be if you’re up against multiple. And there’s several areas where you’ll have to face numerous enemies at once. Most of them seem to be undead creatures. They’ll rush you, utilize melee attacks, some wield what look like hooks and jump around, and then there’s the ones that throw spears which prove to be the most dangerous enemies in my opinion. They can hit you from a distance and you should always to be aware of where they are. They were the cause of most of my deaths. You’ll come up against enemies with swords and a shield that can block your attacks, you’ll face scorpions in a few areas, and one area includes enemies that like to leap at you. Most of the enemies just rush you and don’t actually activate unless you get close enough. You can be in clear sight but if you’re not close enough then they just stand around.
Kicking may be one of the most useful things you can do. Your kick can push enemies away which is helpful if you’re getting overwhelmed or need to focus on a specific enemy and don’t want to fight off another at the same time. You can also kick enemies off ledges which is always fun. Blocking will save your life and you can block with every weapon. It seems that if you block or parry ranged attacks with light weapons, everything will briefly slow down which is extremely helpful.
The environments are not randomly generated which is indicated on the Steam page so if you’re worried about that, don’t be. All areas are handcrafted. You’ll mostly navigate through dungeons, tunnels, and rooms. There is a ton of breakable objects scattered around and you can find treasure which is the only real incentive to explore. As of right now, there’s no scoring system, shops, or unlockable content so the treasure doesn’t really have any value. You can see how much you’ve accumulated from the inventory screen but as far as I know, it holds no value for anything just yet. Maybe it will serve a purpose at some point in the future. The beginning areas have you walking on ledges and narrow paths but eventually you’ll be navigating through more traditional dungeon-like areas. Enemies won’t be the only things you need to watch out for. The environments do contain hazards like stepping on something that causes arrows or bolts to come shooting out of the walls, spikes will come out of the ground, walls will close in on you, and you may get ambushed by enemies in certain areas. Always be alert. Whenever you die, you respawn wherever you last got water and while any progress you made and items you acquired is saved, the enemies will respawn.
I think Elderborn looks okay. A lot of things do look kind of shiny and areas are filled with glowing objects but the environments do convey a gloomy and what I’ll call metal atmosphere. Skulls and bone piles are everywhere because the game wouldn’t be metal unless you’re constantly surrounded by death. I would suggest they add more fire and brimstone-type areas. Fire, lava, skulls, violence, bloodshed, and death. The ultimate ingredients for awesome. The architecture is pretty good and I really enjoyed the look and feel of everything overall. The final area you reach ends with you approaching a large enemy which I assume will be a boss, located in a structure shaped like some kind of skull. But then the game goes dark and you come to the realization that you’ve seen all there is to see right now. I would love to see some more gore effects. Blood spews out whenever your attacks land but I wouldn’t complain at being able to break and cut enemies to pieces or watching blood splatter all over the place. The sound effects are what you would expect. Metal clanging, satisfying slash sounds, and monsters making creepy sounds. Now the soundtrack is full of tame beats and tunes when you’re navigating the less populated areas but when you approach areas with a lot of enemies, the metal riffs kick in and they do sound pretty good. There’s not a lot of variety to the music right now but I would certainly enjoy more metal. I can’t say I experienced any serious technical problems. I did notice the frame rate dip a little in some sections and there were some stutters here and there but there was nothing that couldn’t be overlooked.
Like many Early Access titles, Elderborn is lacking in content. As of this review, what’s here can be beaten in under two hours. There’s no difficulty modes to choose from, no multiplayer, and no extra game modes. The game does support keyboard and mouse and controllers but for some reason, you can’t change the keyboard controls in-game and when it comes to basic movement, I’m a WQSE guy. I won’t have any of this WASD nonsense so I used a controller. It controls well, movement and combat feels fluid, and it was fun to play. I do hope more weapons, enemies, environments, and options are added in at some point which I would imagine is expected anyway. As it stands, it could use more polish in some areas but in terms of fun factor, it’s definitely heading in the right direction.
Things are looking good for Elderborn but I can’t recommend it right now in its current state and that’s only because there’s no guarantee the game will ever be finished. A valid fear many players have when it comes to Early Access titles. And Elderborn, in its present state, is just lacking in content. I know the developers have indicated they want to design the game based on feedback from the community so if you want to be involved, that may be a good reason to get it now. But it’s up to you. Had we not received the email from the publisher, we may have stumbled across this at some point and would have certainly been interested but I, personally, would have waited until it was finished or at least had more content before spending any money. I’m not sure what cult games the developers are referring to which they claim are the inspiration for Elderborn but I do like the concept. And because we got a free Steam code, I had no reason not to check it out. If the developers continue adding quality content to what’s established here already, and polish everything up a bit, I do feel like this could end up being a classic. Ultimately, I would say Elderborn is on the right track and if you’re at all interested, definitely keep your eye on it.