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I love a good surprise. Whether it’s something that I held low expectations for and get blown away by, or a title that arrives to me from out of the blue and ends up delighting, it’s wonderful to be reminded that games can surprise you. Stonehearth, a voxel-based survival/management game from Radiant Entertainment, absolutely falls in to the latter category.

stonehearth-tittle-villagers

Who knew blocky Funko Pop characters would bring so much charm?

Charming and adorable are definitely words to describe Stonehearth from the very first look, but diving in deeper I found a game that also carried an enjoyable level of management depth and impressive amounts of potential.

You kick things off by picking one of two races (Ascendancy and Rayya’s Children), two biomes (Temperate and Desert) and three difficulty settings. After that, you roll for the stats your seven citizens will have, purchase some tools or food items you want to bring along with your starting 150 gold, and select a segment of an auto-generated map to colonize.

The way the game starts you off is very step-by-step and simple to understand. The three stats (Mind, Body and Spirit) are cleanly explained, and getting your game started further pushes a sense of welcome and entertainment. Once things kick off, though, the layers of depth begin to quickly appear.

stonehearth-starting-up

A storybook beginning to ease you in, a gameplay experience that can eat your time.

From the very outset, you have to plan out who among your seven little cuties will have a job or not. Granting a Hearthling a job to do is as simple as making sure the right tool is in your inventory, going to a management screen and clicking who does what. In general, Hearthlings with a high Mind stat are better suited to crafting professions like Farmer or Carpenter, while those with a high Spirit stat are best suited to military jobs.

Figuring out who does what job, what goes where, and how much you need to gather and maintain all become apparent pretty early on, but it all doesn’t really hit you like a truck either. Your first playthrough guides you along, and soon you start to get a system in place. just as things are moving on automatic, a new layer arrives to give you a goal to work towards or a new threat to consider.

The level of progression in Stonehearth feels just right, as watching my little Ascendancy camp grow up in to a pretty solid little village gave me a sense of accomplishment and pride. There were a few things I could have done better, but getting the flow of the game came naturally, and before I knew it several hours had slid by.

stonehearth-little-village

Roughly four days later and look how cute!

Management is one part of the game, but survival is another, as your materials must be gathered from things around you. Harvesting wood, rock, ore and clay are just as important first steps as assigning Hearthlings a role, and once more these are all simply executed and naturally learned.

Once you’ve gotten a basic foothold, you get to start playing with the most creative part of the game: building design. While the game offers you some pre-made templates, you’re absolutely able to build things from scratch with LEGO-level voxel construction. While some of the building tools can have their weird quibbles, designing a building once more feels totally natural. You can’t exactly build Landmark-level palaces, but what’s possible here is still enjoyable.

Buildings are one part of survival, but fending off attacks are another. Now and again, you’ll face invasions either from roving wildlife or more “civilized” targets like goblins. Keeping your military-minded Hearthlings in top condition in both equipment and health becomes vital, and seeing them grow in to a fighting force adds to the sense of progression and reward.

stonehearth-tiny-fighting

From wooden swords to shining knights, my adorable combatants bloomed.

With all of the balls you juggle in Stonehearth, it can seem overwhelming on paper, but I can’t stress enough how easily everything clicked. If you’ve ever played a Sims game or any other management game on a semi-casual basis, you’ll feel right at home. And if you haven’t played anything like that, the tutorials hit the perfect balance of being intuitive while also respecting your intelligence.

Most surprising of all is that all of these features are in an early access title, so you don’t feel  like it’s ripping you off or cashing in. The game has the perfect amount of activities to make it feel complete while also having space to grow. You can hit a crafter’s skill ceiling in relatively short order, but that just means more is coming later, and with all of the professions on offer now I can absolutely see even more could fit in. Imagine if this game set up a system for governance, or let you manage multiple towns…

With everything said, there are still a couple of faults. Inventory management can be a little bit wonky at times, with knowing what’s where feeling a bit too chaotic. You can specify what materials collect in Storage Areas or Storage Chests, but it all still feels pretty disorganized as materials pile up in haphazard ways.

Further, the Hearthling AI can be maddeningly inefficient and stupid at times. I’ve had a couple of citizens nearly starve to death because they were trapped on the roof of a just-completed building or stuck in a hole somewhere, and watching your town raise a building brick by brick in what looks like the slowest way possible makes me claw my hair.

stonehearth-smol-construction

It’s cute, don’t get me wrong, but building simple structures takes AGES.

These faults are minor when you take in the full game and realize just how much more could come. Stonehearth is one of the few examples of an early access title done right, and it’s clearly developed with a level of care and balance that makes it an easy obsession. It’s cute and cubic, but with its own vibe; it’s easy to play but deceptively involving; it’s simple on the outside, but a delightful time eater.

I can’t wait to see what else this game is capable of, and I can’t recommend this game enough. If you’re someone who enjoys management sims and cute things. Stonehearth is worth your notice.

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