I like Warframe, Digital Extremes’ shockingly enduring free-to-play action RPG, but I do find its sci-fantasy direction a bit much. The mashing together of tinted alloys and astral flame, the blend of over-the-shoulder shooting and swordplay, the environments that occasionally look like GPU boxart on steroids – it’s impressive, but a lot to digest.
The Canadian developer’s new project Soulframe has the same sense of swagger, with menus consisting of beautiful, quasi-medieval illustrations decorated with scrolls and dancing figures. But it’s a quieter thrill, a stately and absorbing world of hazy forests and sun-pierced catacombs, which calls to mind both Dragon’s Dogma and the overlooked tiny MMO Book of Travels. After catching a hands-off presentation in advance of this year’s Tennocon, I am pretty keen to play.
Soulframe’s world is divided between the forces of nature and the soldiers and magical automatons of an organisation called the Ode. You play a disgraced Ode soldier, stripped of your memories and thrown into the wilds. The story consists of fighting the Ode’s minions while rediscovering the talkative spirits of your ancestors, with whom you can form Pacts that bestow abilities – the game’s equivalent of Warframe’s classes. In the course of reclaiming your past, you move between a rustic open world of recurring enemies and procedural dungeons that are constantly changing, as indicated by surface earthquakes. During exploration, you can also warp to your tent in the Nightfold, an inter-dimensional customisation hub that will grow from a single tent to a village of ancestral spirits who provide access to crafting and progression systems, like smithing.
“It shares a lot of the structure, the procedural levels and dungeons, and the MMO-lite aspects of Warframe, but it is a sort of simplified, bespoke role-playing game,” observed Steve Sinclair, who stepped down from his role as Warframe’s creative director to lead Soulframe.
Elsewhere in the presentation, he added: “It’s a long-running game, it’s going to be free-to-play and all of those things you can expect from a Digital Extremes game, but the pacing is kind of inverted. Where Warframe is fast and frenetic, Soulframe is going to be slow and pensive.” Sounds pretty appetising to me.
Your Soulframe character and playstyle are defined by the virtues of courage, spirit and grace, which serve as core stats. Courage is for fighter archetypes, Spirit is for magic, and Grace is for assassins, amongst other things. There wasn’t time for questions during our presentation, but from what I can tell, each virtue has its own mana pool, and the sum of those pools is your life bar. Skills include archery, blades, arcanic and athletic. And then there are the Pacts you sign with Ancestors, which pattern your right arm with eldritch designs. We got to see the starting Pact, Fey, a “Voltaic” tech-magic skillset your character used during their time as an Ode trooper.
The game’s combat is straightforward in concept but seems well-executed, with delicately paced and readable animations, and some gentle flourishes. You’ll dodge and parry, perform combos and fire off magic spells such as fireballs and bolts of green energy that petrify attackers. You can also throw and recall your magic sword, a touch of nu-God of War, and crouch to sneak and perform backstabs. The layouts contain a few environmental traps such as dangling wooden frames, and there are wandering souls you can channel at the outset who serve as dungeon modifiers.
I get the impression Soulframe is more for solo adventurers than Warframe (our presentation didn’t cover the multiplayer elements, or for that matter, monetisation systems). The open world areas remind me of Shadow of the Colossus in their faerie hush and obscurity, with trunks emerging from bright mist and paths winding through carpets of flowers. The vibe is captured by the act of returning to the game. Your character slumbers in your absence, and you might sit back down to find them surrounded by resting animals. It probably sounds like a ‘Cosy Moment’, but it feels serene and a bit funereal, rather than saccharine.
Soulframe doesn’t abandon you to your thoughts entirely, however. The ancestors apparate continually as you hike about the world, and have plenty of folksy titbits to share. At one stage, some antique wizard spectre urged me to “write that down”, which I found amusing in the context of a press event. Sorry mate – I was too busy taking screengrabs. There are also friendly NPCs, such as sneezy woodland sprites in cages, who you can ask for tips about quests and suchlike.
The big question I have, as a lapsed Warframe player, is how the game’s free-to-play MMO structures will temper its atmosphere. I’m not immune to the lure of Fashionframing, but I don’t want my experience of this lovely, verdant realm to become a process of picking through item catalogues – I’d rather pay an upfront fee. Still, that’s trying to shut the stable door after the horse armour has bolted, and given their considerable experience, I’m fairly confident Digital Extremes will walk the line between letting you savour the fantasy and flogging you cosmetics.
Over the past ten years, the studio’s had a few cracks at diversifying its output beyond Warframe – the cancelled team shooter Amazing Legends, the so-so D&D adaptation Sword Coast Legends… Soulframe feels like the most convincing effort yet. It’s steeped in the wisdom of Warframe, but it’s also a brave new world with a spirit all its own.
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