Don't take your eyes off the fridge!
I really, truly did not believe that I would ever have a reason to write about Cube World on this website, but fate is a cruel mistress. If you’ve ever followed me on social media, you’ll know that one of my favorite pastimes of the last couple years has been the scant few times the Cube World subreddit managed to push its way through to my front page with some sort of outlandish meme bemoaning the future of the game. Though I often found myself baffled by the sheer audacity of this community, often butting heads and becoming frustrated over a $15 purchase they made over six years ago, the sheer passion that so many of these people had for a game that might as well have been vaporware was really impressive. I always thought to myself, “You know, I hope that Cube World really does update, just so these people can be happy and live free.” Then bafflingly, in the past month, Cube World actually updated.
If you’ve never heard of Cube World, that’s not too surprising at all. It came onto the scene right at the peak of Minecraft’s cultural zeitgeist, promising an ambitious and more traditional role-playing take on the burgeoning voxel-based exploration genre. While creator and sole developer Wolfram von Funck released an alpha back in 2013, he quickly took down the ability to purchase the game, and went radio silent from then on out. This original alpha was pretty barebones, but it did offer a fun RPG sandbox that you (plus several friends if you used the rudimentary server-based multiplayer) could fool around in and feel like an explorer.
While Funck was far from communicative, he did post the occasional hints about his future plans for his voxel paradise in the form of biannual Twitter screenshot threads. Despite these few and far between information dumps, Cube World received absolutely zero software updates between 2013 and 2019. This past September, Funck came out of nowhere to announce the game’s full release on Steam, with a one week beta period for those who had purchased the alpha way back when. The game has been promised to receive much faster updates, and included an entirely different, though more accessible form of multiplayer directly through Steam.
When this news broke, every Cube World fan lost their god damn mind. People were hooting, hollering, and shouting at each other over how they had been vindicated, taking every chance they could to stick it to those nasty naysayers who dared to say a new Cube World was never going to happen. Things seemed bright, things seemed hopeful; everyone was excited to get back into Cube World and fool around with all the crazy, fun additions Funck had promised and shown on Twitter over the years. Cube World was a real game, and everyone was gonna play it!
Now sitting with a “Mostly Negative” review tag on Steam, and a subreddit full of anger and regression, Cube World’s beta hasn’t exactly lived up to those far flung fantasies.
Having spent around two weeks with the new release, it’d be more accurate to refer to Cube World’s beta as a different game rather than an improvement on what once was. Gone are the skill trees and monster grinding that once made up the progression loop of the game, in favor of a quest-based system with scripted events to overcome. While systems like hang gliding, pet raising, and sailing have remained from the alpha, the way the player gains access to them has changed in confusing ways.
While the original Cube World’s progression was character-based, the beta is instead based on what you have done in whichever map region you’re currently in. Each region is host to a dozen or so landmarks that each serve a purpose in strengthening your character, from traversal objects like climbing gloves to gear that actually helps you properly fight enemies, preventing you from dying immediately. Each piece of gear you get comes with a caveat however: it only maintains its complete properties when worn in the specific region you got it from. Once you step outside that invisible border into the next zone, you’re back to being as weak as you were when you started.
While the idea of becoming gradually stronger in a region and that not meaning much in another is compelling in theory, in practice, it leads to a lot of mundanity. The Cube World alpha required a lot of specific enemy grinding in order to explore its world, but once you got to a certain point, you could pretty much go anywhere you wanted with ease. Now, you’re held back from exploring most of a given region until you manage to find the right order of landmarks to visit in order to get back up to par. This can be a real drag if you end up coming in from the “wrong angle” of a zone, since you lose access to all of your vehicles and traversal techniques after migration.
Once a player clears a zone, enemies around will start dropping “+” gear, which allows the gear to work without as much of a penalty in the adjacent regions. While this is a fair compromise for the gear system, it still locks the player into having to cut their way through the world in a very specific and railroaded way to avoid frustration. If the player ends up in a forest region that is only surrounded by other similarly generated forest regions, for example, they won’t be able to access the diversity different environments offer to help make the game look and feel fresh. With no compelling storytelling to speak of, or characters and unique locales drawing a player to become enamored with a specific sector of the world, the experience of exploration feels arbitrary and guided, rather than dynamic and free.
It’s not like making a player spend more time to take in the sights of each individual biome is a bad idea per se, but any sort of greater player-driven exploration loses its charm when having to deal with the same repetitive grind every few hours. When traversal tools are also locked until you rediscover them in a new zones, there’s absolutely no meaningful and consistent progression that makes the player feel like they’re actually working their way through an expansive, cohesive world.
I say meaningful because while there are systems in place to increase the player character’s abilities, they don’t serve any sort of tangible or discernible difference to the way they play the game. While the old system of killing monsters for experience points to level up has been removed, a leveling system has remained in the form of artifacts. Finding an artifact will increase your level by one, and present you with a random non-combat based stat bonus ranging from things like lantern light radius to swimming speed. Again, it’s a pretty good idea to tie improvements to player traversal into the core progression of the game, but the way it’s handled is unfortunately another misstep.
The statistical increases given by each artifact are so minuscule (around 1% or so), that it’s basically impossible for any player to notice a difference in how fast they’re swimming, or how much they’re seeing at night. While the goal of each region is to find all of the artifacts hidden within, the reward may as well have been nothing at all with how small of an impact it has on the player’s experience. If these sorts of skills were more weighty or actually streamlined the transition into a new region or area, it could help fix just how rough it feels to start out again somewhere else. Something like improving your stamina regeneration or sprint speed by an amount much larger than 1% would probably be enough to at least feel like the player was becoming stronger and stronger from their travels, rather than having all of their power attributed to the clothes they find on the ground.
It’s these deliberate decisions made with the game which really show that, while Funck clearly has a bold and specific vision for what the game should be like, the game absolutely could have used some support and playtesting at some point over the last six years. All of these issues, some of which were solved in the week-long early access period on a day to day basis, were all things that should have been noticeable to a fresh set of eyes. I’m not going to sit here and trivialize the harsh realities of game development, especially with a project that’s basically run by a sole individual, but an important part of becoming the best you can be is relying on others to spot the cracks you can’t. Each of these design philosophies are conceptually fascinating and full of potential but needed the intervention and suggestion of an outside party to get polished and shined into fully fledged ideas.
The ideas that do work, work really well in the ways that people have wished games like Minecraft could have pulled off for years. Finding a new village is meaningful, since you find new quest information, can buy new gear or crafting materials, and can even have a place to sleep through the oppressive and pitch black night. Finally getting the secret treat from a quest or enemy that your favorite animal needs to become your pet becomes a great reward, and being able to bring them around with you to endlessly fight without the worry of permadeath adds a lot of warmth to the often solitary experience of exploration. The addition of fast travel also helps make popping back and forth to wherever you need to be in one of your more established regions far easier than it had ever been in the alpha.
While it may be frustrating to get to them, the weird gimmicks and variants to each of the landmarks are cool to see, and for a time make the game feel like it has all sorts of secrets up its sleeves in the way most modern games aren’t able to pull off. At one point, I found a random bell in the middle of a giant crater that teleported me into a Silent Hill-esque version of the world full of spooky spectres. At another, I found a magical flute on top of a mountain altar, which when played at random stones across the world, summoned birds to fly me off to various islands in the sky. Finding stuff like that is great! It makes it feel like anything is possible in this world, and you might not be able to ever figure out everything it’s hiding.
While it’s easy to imagine, like many have for years, that Funck just popped back with another half-finished build of his game to rake in more cash and vamoose, there’s too much heart in the game for that to be the case. Smaller features like petting animals, musical cues, and all sorts of mysterious and considered oddities fill the environments of Cube World. Figuring out what to do in each region feels like a love letter to the original Legend of Zelda, even if moving onto another region just sort of feels like putting in a different name to mix up the map a little. It’s clear that Funck has ambition, and wants to make this game into something great, he just doesn’t know how to do it all on his own.
It’s my fear, however, with the ever-vicious realities of the online social sphere, that he may become even more discouraged from trying to fix the problems with his game at all. When one goes to the Cube World subreddit or Steam forums, they’re instantly greeted with dozens of posts bemoaning the game’s failings in hyperbolic and extravagant frustration. These discussions go on to conspire as to whether or not Funck is a scammer, debate how much better the original release of the game was, and other countless complaints about pretty much any ridiculous thing you could imagine. While it’s understandable for people to become upset and impassioned over something they hold a great deal of affection for, that sort of oppressive atmosphere of negativity can often be too much to bare.
Shortly after announcing the launch of the beta, Funck updated his old development blog with a message to the Cube World community that he has since removed. In it, he outlined his reasoning for going near radio silent being depression and anxiety following several DDoS attacks on his website following the alpha release of Cube World. While Funck was fairly communicative in the week between the beta and full Steam release of the game, he’s gone silent ever since. Cube World was said to be receiving significant updates in a more timely manner going forward before this second launch, but now with the current environment, it’s hard not to worry we’ll just get a repeat of the alpha release.