Unfinished Business is NME’s weekly column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access games. This week, Rick Lane delves beneath the earth in Core Keeper.
Core Keeper brings to mind several other games, Terraria, Stardew Valley, and Factorio to name a few. But the game it reminds me of most is Dungeon Keeper, even though mechanically Core Keeper isn’t like Bullfrog’s 1997 management sim at all.
This isn’t because the two games share half a name, although that may be what initially planted the seed in my mind. No, the similarities are found in a small but valuable seam of DNA revealed once you’ve dug through the more obvious points of comparison. Like Dungeon Keeper, Core Keeper captures the transgressive thrill of subterranean life, building a base in the bowels of the Earth.
For anybody who wasn’t born before 1990, Core Keeper will most likely resemble a top-down Terraria. Up to eight players can embark on the game’s underground adventure, wherein an expedition to some nameless jungle, results in your troupe being teleported to an elaborate cave network. Trapped beneath the topsoil with nothing but your wits and your mitts, you’ll need to carve out a new life for yourself while searching for a way out of the deep dark.
Structurally, Core Keeper follows a typical survival/crafting progression path. You need to mine resources to make tools and crafting stations, which in turn let you mine more advanced resources to make better tools and crafting stations. You also need to sustain yourself with food, which can either be found in the world or farmed by planting seeds in fertile soil and splashing them with water. As you gradually explore, you’ll encounter strange new biomes filled with more exotic resources and more dangerous foes.
But it’s the way Core Keeper presents its systems that brings to mind torturing fantasy heroes and slapping about evil minions. The world is built from isometric rectangles of dirt, and when you dig one out, it combines a satisfying “thchunk” sound with a little wobble effect that brilliantly communicates the feeling of swinging your pickaxe at a rock face. It makes me think of highlighting a patch of earth on a Dungeon Keeper map, and listening to my imps scritch and scratch away at it until it crumbled.
There are other presentational similarities too. The way resource blocks glitter in the darkness at the edges of your screen, hinting at where you should dig. The way you can suddenly break through into a huge cavern area filled with riches and nasties in equal measure. The way the cute pixel art belies the game’s strange and gloomy atmosphere, where the light of your lanterns seems to have to claw its way through the viscous dark.
Core Keeper embodies that mixed feeling of the excitement of tunnelling into new areas, versus the trepidation of what might be lurking on the other side. The game’s flora and fauna are suitably weird for a game set underground, with the latter in particular boasting some creepy specimens. At one point, I dug through into a new biome, and was almost immediately accosted by a giant, shrieking grub that chased me halfway back to my base, before I finally managed to beat its bug-eyed head in with a shovel.
The distinctive atmosphere sets Core Keeper apart from your other 2D crafty, farmy affairs. Which is good because not much else does. Mechanically it’ll be very familiar to anyone who has so much as smelled Minecraft in the last ten years. Mining, crafting, farming, fighting, it all closely follows the rhythms pioneered by previous games, and does little to innovate or iterate upon them. One mildly interesting idea is that different enemy types dynamically generate the habitats they spawn in. For example, the red slimes you encounter early on coat the ground in a pinkish goo, which allows other slimes to spawn in those areas. Hence, if you want to clear an area of enemies, you need to clean up the floor as well as kill the mobs.
Still, I think Core Keeper‘s overarching theme does enough to reframe the mechanics so that they don’t feel staid. Also, sticking to well-understood systems makes the game very playable in its current Early Access form. And it may be that those system become more involved as development progresses. Alongside the usual promises of more enemies, biomes, craftable items etc, the developers Pugstorm also plan to add “additional gameplay mechanics for cooking, farming, smithing and base building”.
It’ll be interesting to see if Core Keeper can elaborate on these systems to make them more its own. But even in its current state, it’s a perfectly enjoyable way to while away a few evenings. And while I can’t say for certain whether the game’s similarities to Dungeon Keeper are deliberate or coincidental, it was a pleasant surprise for a game to unexpectedly cast me back to those halcyon days conquering the world from below.