Magic has long been a passion of mine. Not the GOB Bluth-kind of corny magic, mind you, but proper, guttural, depths of creation arcane sorcery. From Merlin and Morgana's natural witchcraft all the way to Harry Potter's accessible wizardry, through Gandalf's understated thaumaturgy potential and Terry Pratchett's Discworld octarine, magic is a powerful and fascinating concept.
Enter Citadel: Forged With Fire, a multiplayer sandbox RPG that vows to take away all that glass cannon concept and bring real magic back into the fold. The promotional media sells a power fantasy, with players flying at breakneck speeds atop brooms, zapping each other with colourful spells from their wands, and hovering above the treetops and downright lifting an entire castle into the air and throwing it into the distance to send it crashing into the side of a mountain.
Needlessly to say, I approached Citadel with high hopes -- the aforementioned shot of a flying caped guy catapulting a whole building into a geographical feature pretty much sold me on the spot -- and I was pleasantly surprised to find out it mostly delivered. It does stumble in a few fundamental ways, but it mostly stands as a proud and solid product, for an Early Access title.
Upon starting the game, you are presented with a simple customisation screen, allowing you to create your character and select one of three cities on a map. You spawn on a fiery stone pad, surrounded by a cave of frozen lava and obsidian rock, and stuporously get on your feet, examining your forearms as raw magic courses through your veins.
Stepping out of the cave and into the sunlight, you find a deserted and half dilapidated stone fortress partly reclaimed by nature. The sky shimmers with a golden glow that emanates from a dome shield that englobes the location, and two pools of liquid -- one red and one blue -- actively simmer in the middle of the abandoned city. Making your way toward the walls and setting foot outside the lifted steel gates, you take your first steps into the journey that lies ahead.
The basic gameplay loop consists of acquiring resources and levelling up, as Citadel thankfully does not include menial preoccupations such as hunger or thirst. Every single action -- from picking up tree branches to killing enemies -- nets you experience, which you must use to unlock different equipment, structures, and items. At first, players must pick up by hand tree branches and small stones strew across the terrain, but soon unlock a spell that allows them to directly extract resources from geological formations.
This Extract spell can be used in virtually any major geographical node, from boulders and trees to crystal and rock formations, enveloping the aimed entity in a golden aura and quickly syphoning the contents straight into the user’s inventory. This is the first taste of real magic the user gets -- way more impressive than any of the game’s initial attack spells -- and it significantly improves the gathering of materials. Hastening their acquisition makes viable the building of complicated structures, and leads you to the other big draw of Citadel: freeform construction.
A comprehensive structure systems allows players to assemble large and beautiful structures through the use of small detailed pieces that attach to each other. Different types of floors, walls, and ceilings are available, complete with utilities features such as doors and windows or even decorative items, like banners and flags. Citadel makes it extremely easy to build gorgeously detailed structures, from a simple wood cabin in the woods to a gigantic castle on the mountains, and the end result is thoroughly impressive for a recently launched Early Access title.
During my first playthrough, I made a custom game in order to get a neutral vision of what the game was about. I soon looked into public games in order to gauge the game’s community, and after spending a good amount of time playing in both PvE and PvP servers, I wound up hitting the forums and researching how to make my own dedicated server, which is where I ultimately spent the majority of my time. Besides not being subject to the random whims of an unknown person in my own game, I was able to achieve a considerably higher framerate; custom games hovered around 30fps and barely broke 50, whilst hosting a dedicated server in the same machine I played gave me up to 90fps.
I was shocked to find out when joining normal servers that your mana does not naturally regenerate, requiring you to brew potions and drink them like every other fantasy game ever. Virtually everything in the game except building requires magic, and flying drains an inordinate amount of mana per second. The lack of natural regeneration coupled with the sometimes unbalanced drain rate sees you flying around consuming an honestly ludicrous amount of mana potions a minute, which unfortunately makes you feel less like a powerful wizard, and more like a hopelessly addicted junkie. Downing countless potions a minute to keep afloat is hardly an empowering or enjoyable gameplay loop.
While those are born out of suboptimal creative decisions, most of the game’s balance issues are in-fact attributable to the title’s Early Access status. Spells are notoriously weak, dealing disappointingly little damage in contrast with their lively and powerful visual effects. "Charging" a spell before casting doesn't generate any discernible effect, and spells like the fireball are shamefully devoid of any area of damage.
Citadel contains an admirable amount of enemy variety, from wolves and boars to blood orcs and dragons, including famed yet rarely seen mythical staples such as phoenixes and unicorns. Every single creature is lovely animated and possess its own sound effects, and when tamed dutilly follows you around and stares at you when you are close. They feel like real and unique individuals, and I genuinely cared about my pets -- unfortunately, wild animals only spawn when you are rather close, making the game world feel markedly unpopulated.
Furthermore, creatures all behave the same and share the same inherent unbalance as spells. Enemies all run faster than you, hit harder than you, and overall get to whoop your ass rather successfully with little effort, meaning most early level battles end up with you quickly dead with no chance of retreat if you accidentally engage an opponent above your level. Unfortunately, the game interface is a bit temperamental at times, making it *really* hard to even see what level an enemy is unless you get within half a dozen metres of them.
Of course, most of those problems are all within the acceptable margin of an unfinished title in this day and age, and are bound to be constantly tweaked as the game gets closer to a final release. Flight, as previously mentioned, feels amazing when using the highest level broom on a server with a x10 flying speed modifier, which indicates it is in need of several tweaks, especially in terms of speed and flight cost. While taming flying creatures gives you the ability to fly without mana, it is also rather slow and acts as a rather half-arsed solution -- it’s the magical equivalent of using a horse over a Ferrari because you can’t afford the fuel.
But while Citadel has a lot of rough spots as expected from any Early Access title, it is an amazingly competent game as far as production is concerned. The graphics are quite good even if the performance is not that great, but the game is infinitely more stable than other big open world titles like Ark: Survival Evolved ever were. The soundtrack is markedly fantastic, with a wonderful orchestration that evokes the quirky and arcane scores of Skyrim and Magicka. The main menu theme especially deploys a tasteful fantasy-medieval composition of plucky strings and bass percussion that alternates between an allegretto pizzicato and an energico sforzando, creating a wonderfully complex and pleasing musical soundscape.
One of the biggest issues with the game is its constant struggle to balance the unique experience of being a powerful wizard with the overly mundane worries of PvP gameplay. What could be a magical tale of summoning gigantic thunderstorms and splitting mountains in half is severely held back by the constant drag of player versus player combat, where powers must be constantly held in check lest players ravage a whole server worth of structures.
That effect manifests itself in every facet of gameplay, including one of which I was most looking forward to trying out: lifting a whole building into the air and throwing it into a mountain, like prominently shown in Citadel’s promotional material. At the time of writing, the telekinesis spell had been all but neutered, rendering a previously amazing power fantasy borne straight out of childhood dreams into a tasteless gimmick, able to lift just a single three meter square piece as opposed to entire constructions. Looking around and talking with the community, I discovered it was done as a way to stop griefing players from completely dismantling constructs, and the developers meant for it to be back someday. I sincerely hope it does -- I totally understand the need for it to be balanced for PvP with some sort of protective charm, but removing that ability entirely from the game is dangerously close to false advertising.
In the end, Citadel: Forged in Fire is an amazing game. It has a lot of rough spots, as expected from any Early Access title, but it is an amazingly competent game. At the time of writing, the developers provide weekly updates and patches focused on improving the game, and that alone was enough to quickly build a dedicated Discord community around it. However, while it is full of character and potential, the myriad of design struggles between creating a powerful magic experience and catering to the needs of PvP seem to constantly drive it’s best ideas into the ground. It’s almost enough to wonder if the heavy PvP focus shouldn’t be put on hold altogether.