These days it’s easy to be sceptical about indie MMOs. The Kickstarter era brought big promises from developers – sometimes earnest, sometimes not – and left us with mostly empty hands (and for those who funded them, empty pockets). So, it is with a mix of optimism and slight caution that I’ve been keeping one eye on the progress of Starkeepers – an indie MMO which has opted to forego crowdfunding – since its announcement last summer.
While its first teaser trailer was too short to offer any insight as to how the game might play, it’s immediately obvious that, at the very least, Starkeepers has an appealing and identifiable visual sensibility. Oh sure there are all the usual castles, mountains, and forests that you’d come to expect in an MMO, but in amongst all the stonework and foliage are shocks of bioluminescent blues and purples. What these vibrant flares of colour are exactly we don’t yet know but given that the game is being referred to as a “celestial MMO”, it’s probably fair to say that there’s something space-y going on.
Rather than the traditional fantasy races of humans, elves and dwarves, you play as one of the titular Starkeepers. Some of these characters have already been revealed, with the general style being anthropomorphic spins on earth cultures such as Vikings and Kabuki. Again, the specifics of what a Starkeeper is are still clouded in mystery, but one thing that’s known is that the game won’t feature the kind of character creation that you’d expect from an MMO. Rather, there’s some sort of astral projection involved, whereby you take control of different hero characters each with unique playstyles and abilities.
Between Starkeepers and the recently announced Wayfinder, it seems like this might be a new trend in MMOs. The idea that in Starkeepers you play an astral being which finds themselves switching into these other forms at least offers an interesting reason behind why you don’t get to create your own character, and it still leaves an opportunity for players to roleplay, albeit as a metaphysical entity.
If the world of Starkeepers still feels a little vague (if intriguing), the gameplay is somewhat more fleshed out. Rather than the throwbacks which defined many indie MMOs of the last decade, this is very much a future-facing MMO, with an action combat system that looks remarkably fluid even at this early stage in development. The team’s love of the fighting game genre shines through, with attacks looking unusually impactful for an MMO – as though they’re actually connecting with the opponent.
Movement is one area where MMOs have lagged behind the rest of the industry, and it’s something I’m happy to see developers committing time and resources to bring up to scratch. The team at Wolfpack clearly want Starkeepers to be a zippy and engaging gameplay experience, and nailing the feel of running, jumping, and attacking is essential if they’re going to convince MMO veterans to accept the kind of platforming gameplay which has typically been an exercise in frustration.
All of this sounds great, but if the game is to have a hook, it would be its building system, which is equal parts player housing and fort building. Guild vs Guild battles could be interesting with the kind of team-based building that has been teased, but I only hope it isn’t entirely Sisyphean and that there will be opportunities for cooperative building without the fear of it all being smashed to pieces later in the evening.
Starkeepers feels like a game which is ambitious enough to stand out, yet honed in enough in its vision so that it doesn’t feel like something which will never see the light of day. With its mid-poly, stylised graphics, Starkeepers immediately brings to mind indies like Valheim and V Rising, and with its base-building mechanics and accessible horizontal progression, it’s easy to see Wolfpack’s MMO finding a similar audience.
But Starkeepers is very openly calling itself an MMO in its marketing, and it is how the game executes this which might elevate it to something more than just a flavour-of-the-month experience. Without a distinct avatar, Starkeepers will have to keep on thinking outside of the box if they want players to feel tied to the ethereal world they’ve created.