Korean indie Sacred Stones emerges from two-year hibernation

The retro title, made by one teen, was supposed to come out in 2016...or so he thought

Despite my relative isolation from the mainstream gaming press (I have never attended E3, GDC or PAX in any form) I'm no stranger to indie game events. If I'm walking around the floor of a BitSummit or a Busan Indie Connect, it takes a lot for a game to turn my head and bring me to a complete stop. One such title called Sacred Stones did just that by mimicking the aesthetic of the most important indie game of the 21st century, Cave Story. Sacred Stones further astonished me when I discovered the sole developer was a Korean teenager who told me he made the entire game in six months and that it would be released in just a few weeks. I was excited not just to play the game for myself but also to see what would become of this young person venturing into the world of indie game development.

That was two years ago. Sacred Stones was not released in 2016...or 2017. It did appear on Steam this past summer and is slated to debut on the Nintendo Switch as well. It was also on display at BIC Fest again this year so I played the latest version and then asked the developer, who now uses the moniker Noxbix, what happened to him and his game during this delay.

The first of many boss battles in Sacred Stones
The first of many boss battles in Sacred Stones

The good news about Sacred Stones is that the game still plays well. Whatever its resemblence to Cave Story, there's not much story or exploration happening here beyond "find next boss, defeat boss, repeat." There are multiple weapons to discover and more than one way to approach each fight but there's little in the way of character growth, upgrades, or looking for secrets.

"I was a student who was majoring in design, so the effort to put it into action was just to draw the Cave Story's resources," Noxbix said via email regarding the superficial similarity between Sacred Stones and Cave Story. The look of the game got a lot of attention, but not all of it was positive. "At the time of the exhibition I received a lot of criticism as a copy cat," Noxbix said, "I was happy to be able to make a Cave Story atmosphere, but I was skeptical of my efforts. It is good to try but it seems that the direction of effort is wrong. I am still regretting much."

One of the best changes in Sacred Stones has been the addition of a shield. In the 2016 version, your character had one hit point so every boss battle was a nail-biter. A single screw-up meant restarting the battle from scratch which is no small feat given that Sacred Stones bosses have a full-screen health bar. In the current version, your character starts can survive one hit and continue the fight. Even better, the shield levels up as you fire your weapon and this progress does not reset if you die. In the time I spent with the game at the show, I only made it through four boss battles but I got my shield up to Level 3, effectively quadrupling my hit points. It makes a big difference but does not take away from the difficulty because the boss battles in Sacred Stones are relentless.

"I wanted to make sure that I felt something changed during the next challenge rather than simply over-restarting the game," Noxbix said concerning the shield mechanic. "However, there are some who are still difficult and others who are too easy. I hope that the next works will be able to balance difficulty better."

Sacred Stones bosses take a lot of punishment. You...do not.
Sacred Stones bosses take a lot of punishment. You...do not.

With Sacred Stones out on the market and a Nintendo Switch port coming in the future (the date is not yet decided) I had to ask Noxbix about the two-year delay his game went through. "In fact, there was a lot of trouble with the publisher and it took us a long time to cancel the contract," he said, but he did not spend his time idly, adding "Over the past two years there have been many trials and errors, and as part of the changes, I have had a lot of experience and I have been able to grow my self further. Game difficulty balancing, hitting feel, intuitive boss pattern, productive graphic production, etc."

I asked Noxbix about what comes next. In 2016 he was working solo and seemed confident that his next project, which was already underway, would be even larger than Sacred Stones. These days he's part of a small team and more cautious but no less optimistic. "I think that the game to be developed in the future can be completed better than before," he said. "Sacred Stones is going to be a great game for me in the future, apart from commercial success."