Not So Massively: Last Epoch is a potential gem in dire need of polishing


Originally Kickstarted in 2018, Last Epoch has been in early access on Steam for about five years, but the developers at Eleventh Hour Games have now finally decided the game is ready and released their 1.0 version, to a rush of players that resulted in server crashes.

Leading up to launch, they were kind enough to provide MassivelyOP with review codes that granted me access to first a test build, then the full live game. Having played a bit of both, I see a game with potential, but that potential is buried beneath a lot of jank.

Like a lot of ARPGs, Last Epoch uses its build system as a key selling feature. It features five classes, all of which more or less conform to standard RPG archetypes: Acolyte, Mage, Primalist, Rogue, and Sentinel. Each of those can be further specialized with one of three subclasses that can change up their gameplay quite a lot.

You do have to get decently far into the game (roughly level 25) to unlock your subclass, which is frustrating for those of us who lack patience, like yours truly. On a brighter note, though, once you do unlock them, you do get limited access to the skill trees for the subclasses you didn’t pick, which does allow for some interesting combos.

It’s a pretty deep class system, but at the end of the day it is still a class system, with the limitations that entails. For all its horrendous post-launch management, I still feel like fellow Kickstarter game Wolcen remains the gold standard for ARPG build depth.

Last Epoch offers further customization with its system of skill specialization. When you slot a skill in a specialization slot, it begins gaining XP and levels of its own, and you can customize it via a skill tree, with each active ability having its own fully unique tree. You can specialize a skill even if it’s not currently on your action bar, but if you remove a skill from a specialization slot, you lose all progress on it, and it resets to your minimum skill level (which increases with but is not equivalent to your character level).

This systems sounds pretty unique, but in practice it’s essentially Diablo III skill runes with extra steps. As a longtime defender of D3, I find it endlessly amusing that after all the fire and fury over runes “dumbing down” the genre most ARPGs are now using some variant of the system: Last Epoch, Wolcen, Lost Ark

Mind you, I loved skill runes, and I love a lot about the skill specialization system, but it does offer its share of frustrations. The trees are bigger than they need to be, with a lot of filler “+1% attack speed” sort of nodes. It should also be noted that they’re not trees so much as webs; each skill has its own unique layout, none of which appears to follow any discernible rhyme or reason.

It would have helped a lot if there were some communication of what the main ways to customize a skill are. Something like, “the left side nodes add extra projectiles, while the right make your main projectile hit harder.” As is, it’s quite tedious to identify what the long term goals are. You’ve just got to read the tooltip for every node.

To their credit, the devs at Eleventh Hour Games have made some effort to make this system easier to navigate. There’s a search system that lets you highlight nodes based on certain keywords (within your current screen, not across all trees), more impactful nodes do have some visual highlighting (though it’s fairly subtle), and each skill has a set of icons that detail the damage type it deals and which types it can be morphed into. But even with those tools, I still found the system gave me a lot of headaches.

Let me give a practical example. As a lover of dark casters and a fan of minion builds in ARPGs, I was disappointed that the Acolyte class’s pets have no active component aside from summoning them (the Primalist and Falconer Rogue pets do have active skills once summoned). A minion build would mean mostly just standing there and watching your pets do their thing. However, I noticed that some of the Acolyte’s non-minion skills can be upgraded to summon temporary pets, and I had the thought that it might be fun to do a build that’s all about summoning minions with active skills.

But there’s no way for me to know which skills have that option without going through all 26 of the class’s skills and hovering over the 30 or so nodes in each skill’s specialization tree. The search doesn’t help much because different skills summon different kinds of minion, so they don’t share keywords. And that’s without even considering I need to go to an entirely separate window to look over the skill trees for the class and its three subclasses to figure out what passives would synergize with my chosen actives!

“It’s awesome that you can make a character that’s all about summoning a zoo of minions as a side effect of their damage spells, but figuring out how to make that build feels like doing your taxes.”
This is the double-edged sword of Last Epoch‘s build system. It’s awesome that you can make a character that’s all about summoning a zoo of minions as a side effect of their damage spells, but figuring out how to make that build feels like doing your taxes. The concepts are good, but the usability isn’t. When someone who’s played 1,000+ hours of The Secret World thinks your build system is too hard to parse, you have a problem.

A similar lack of consistent quality runs through the rest of the game. The environments are very pretty, but the character models are hit and miss at best. Physical skills feel great to use, but magical skills mostly underwhelm, mainly due to some lacklustre sound design.

As far as I could see, there are no difficulty settings for the story campaign in the current version of the game. The tuning wasn’t too bad, but it was a bit easy for my taste, and this feels like a very fundamental feature to be launching without in this day and age.

Perhaps the weirdest thing I encountered is that maps seem to respawn if you portal back to town. In the test build, going back to town caused all mobs to respawn and for the map to fully be covered by the fog of war once more. When I tested it in the launch build, I kept my map exploration, but all the mobs were still back, which is lot less annoying than losing all progress but still a bit odd.

Oh, yeah, and the story campaign isn’t even finished yet. The team launched without adding the final section of it.

It’s hard to imagine that a game could be launching too soon after five years in early access, but that is the impression I’m left with. Last Epoch gives me similar vibes to the alpha of New World back in the day: The potential for a great game is here, but it needs a lot more work. But Last Epoch is launching now, not a year from now, and I think most of us agree New World launched too soon even after that year.

This is an indie team clearly working with a very limited budget, and this may be the best option these devs have, but that doesn’t make the situation any better for players.

On the other hand, as I’ve said, ARPGs are the pizza of gaming: Even when they’re mediocre, they’re still pretty fun. I think a lot of people (including) are hungry for a new ARPG in the wake of Diablo IV‘s mixed reception, and if all you want is a new ARPG to mess around with, Last Epoch can fill that need adequately.

Despite how negative I’ve been in this column, I do kind of want to play more of Last Epoch, but I may wait and see what kind of post-launch support it gets and if the team actually finishes the story. Being burned so bad by Wolcen has left me gun-shy.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.
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