Unfinished Business is NME’s weekly column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access games. This week, Rick Lane matches symbols and maims small woodland creatures in Crown Of Pain.
My decision to write about Crown Of Pain was ninety percent based upon it having a cool name. You’d be amazed at how many Early Access fall down at this first hurdle, packaging thousands of hours of hard graft beneath a title that’s either incredibly bland or outright nonsensical. Also, I’ve been playing far too much Elden Ring this week, and so was naturally drawn to Crown Of Pain like a masochistic moth.
In any case, I’m pleased to say that my snap judgement has paid off, because Crown Of Pain is a sweet little nut. It’s ultra-light, linear RPG revolving almost entirely around a match-three based combat system. Each stage pits you against a group of foes that appear across several phases, which you must defeated by matching tiles Bejeweled-style in order to pull off attacks and abilities.
You start out with just one adventurer – a knight named Nakar – and one attack performed by matching three diamonds (at least, that’s how my brain interpreted the symbol). It quickly becomes apparent that this attack is woefully insufficient for the challenge that lies ahead. The good news is killing enemies earns you faith, which you can spend back at basecamp to improve your character’s core stats, hire new companions such as a Shaman or Nakar’s axe-wielding brother, or buy new abilities that are triggered by different tile combinations.
As with any good match-three game, the key to victory lies in triggering combos. Nakar can follow-up his basic attack with a powerful uppercut, provided the initial match of three diamonds is immediately followed by three crescent moons. Other abilities might help to heal your party, or add defensive shields that enemies must break before they can whittle away your health.
The more abilities and companions you unlock, the more elaborate and powerful your combinations become. Depending on how you build your party, some matches might unleash multiple abilities at once. For example, matching four stars will trigger both my Shaman’s base attack and Nakar’s swipe power, often killing an enemy before they have a chance to attack.
Indeed, killing enemies quickly is important. As implied by the title, Crown Of Pain has a low tolerance for error. Perform a couple of bad moves or go too long without enacting a combo, and your part will be quickly defeated, forcing them to stagger miserably back to camp and lick their wounds. Smartly though, you get to keep any faith acquired from enemies you killed during the battle, meaning you can make progress even in defeat, upgrading your party so they stand a better chance next time.
Crown Of Pain deftly navigates the balance of skill and luck that match-three games rely upon. Triggering a run of matches and watching your heroes unleash a barrage of attacks is always wonderful. The visual presentation is simple, but stylish, while the game does a good job of communicating the impact of your attacks through audio. It’s not exactly a spectacular game, but there’s enough feedback from your attacks to make them feel satisfying.
The core of Crown Of Pain is clearly well designed, and you get several hours of match-three questing for the £4 you’ll spend. That said, Crown Of Pain does have a couple of thorns that require pruning. For starters, the whole adventure needs greater context. Aside from a vague opening cutscene and sentence-long character bios, there’s little in the way of storytelling wrapped around the battles, which makes the experience feel quite barebones.
Second, the game spends far too long pitting you against regular woodland creatures. The first five or six battle you engage in are exclusively rats and snakes, and then the next foe you encounter is a spider. Come on, Crown Of Pain! I know they’re just pictures on a card and have no mechanical significance, but I could come across these ‘enemies’ in my own back garden. It doesn’t exactly conjure images of danger and heroism when my party of grizzled mercenaries struggles to defeat one sodding snake. If you can’t chop up a rat with a longsword, maybe the adventuring life isn’t for you.
Seriously though, Oblivion was cracking jokes about this stuff sixteen years ago, and there’s no reason whatsoever those rats couldn’t be bandits or goblins or sentient trees or anything more interesting than the world’s most common rodent. Luckily, an expanded enemy roster is on the cards for the game’s Early Access development, as is a greater number of characters and abilities to choose from. And while the lack of imagination in encounter design may frustrate, Crown Of Pain‘s compulsive match-three combat is still more than worth the price of a coffee and a cake.