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The GoodIt was a weird time in the realm of Western RPGs. Gold Box games were a thing of the past; the glory days of Ultima were over; the action path was heralded by its eighth installment, Ultima Underworld and Arena; Fallout didn't enlighten the RPG world yet; it was still a long time before Baldur's Gate made the extinct D&D cool again.
During this time, a modest German-made RPG named Albion went by almost unnoticed; it has gathered a small cult following, but could never achieve mainstream popularity. This is a great pity, because Albion is a remarkably rich and detailed game with plenty of RPG goodness to satisfy serious fans of the genre.
Albion is a true spiritual heir to Serpent Isle, which was probably the first large-scale Western RPG with a heavily scripted story and major input from party members. Albion further develops this somewhat "Japanese" trait; the colorful nature of the companions and the dramatic narrative betray the influence of Eastern RPG-making. But before you think Albion might be too "console-like" you should know that its gameplay is very "Western" as far as depth and exploration possibilities are concerned.
Basically, you follow a fairly linear story, but each location harbors plenty of things to do. Some areas are completely optional, and there is a wealth of interesting and well-hidden items, puzzles, and other points of interest. Albion is quite the opposite of Arena in its design philosophy: instead of giving you a huge randomized world it leads you into a much smaller, but meticulously detailed environment, where text descriptions and various small-scale events contribute to the individuality of each location. Everything is memorable because everything is done manually and with great care. There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, but if you prefer characterization and personal involvement in your RPGs, Albion can get as satisfying as Serpent Isle and later games of the RPG Renaissance.
Above all, Albion is a labor of love. You can feel how every feature was carefully planned, crafted, and executed, how every little detail was taken into account. Albion unfolds slowly, but grants immense satisfaction to those who are willing to invest in it. It is an introvert game, with much more depth than brilliance, with seriousness and content instead of gimmicks and effects. Its designers were clearly concerned with the game's quality more than with its popularity; they may have sacrificed accessibility and user-friendliness, but never failed to be generous regarding gameplay wealth and world design.
Here is a simple example: Albion has an internal clock, with a day and night cycle. However, in the beginning of the game you are unable to tell the time. You can choose to venture into an optional location and retrieve an electronic clock, which will display the time on your screen. You can actually finish the game without ever finding that clock. This gives you an idea about how much attention this game pays to little gameplay features. Character management reflects this as well: characters can get tired and become physically weaker, unable to carry heavy objects; gold has weight in the game, so you can't just amass a huge amount of money and carry it around; you must bring rations and torches to illuminate your way in dark dungeons; Iskai (native race of Albion) characters have better eyesight, so if you make an Iskai the party leader, you will be able to see further in a 3D location; you must manually reload weapons that shoot projectiles; you can find broken items that can be repaired; you are able to pick up and store useless household items along with necessary equipment; and so on.
Albion has an interesting combat system, with simple turn-based mechanics (like in older or Japanese RPGs), but with limited manoeuvrability of characters on the battle screen. The system works surprisingly well once you get used to it. Combat is very challenging in the game, so strategic preparation (positioning characters on the field in rows) and tactical decisions (moving characters to gain the first melee attack, luring enemies, protecting a magic user in the back row, etc.) must be made in order to gain the upper hand.
It is hard to work your way through the complex world of Albion. But the satisfaction you get when things finally begin to function and you master combat nuances step-by-step is incomparable. The game offers plenty of hidden tricks which I personally love in RPGs: different ways to become stronger, optional locations with great spoils, and various paths to wealth. You can power-level characters, train with different people, exploit free gifts to gain a lot of money, trade items, and do many other things that make the whole experience very rewarding.
Albion also has a very interesting story with plenty of background information. Considerable parts of the game take place in the lush world of the Iskai race, which has its own unique culture and customs. It is enjoyable to just wander around and explore this exotic world, contemplating its flora, fauna, architecture and art of its inhabitants, etc. The game is also rich in text, with many descriptions for individual locations, and topic-based conversations with the people you encounter.
The BadThe main problem of Albion is the fact it was released during a time when RPGs were not popular enough to have well-established traditions and templates. Nowadays every RPG belongs to some sort of design school; at that time, it was all about experimenting and trying out new ways. The developers of Albion enriched it with features taken from various games of the past, but some of these features don't really stick together that well. For example, the 3D dungeons, while detailed and interesting, are not very impressive graphically, and the navigation often becomes a pain due to slow rotation and confusing layout. The turn-based combat system is satisfying once you get used to it; but the tiny battle screen breaks the immersion of 3D dungeon exploration. The constant switches from 2D to 3D can get jarring. These visual inconsistencies probably contributed to the game's low popularity, even though they can be hardly considered serious flaws.
Albion is a demanding, challenging game that requires considerable patience to understand and enjoy. It doesn't allow you to breeze through it, but rather forces you to learn its mechanics and gradually advance towards the goal. The game's high difficulty level may have been another reason for its relative obscurity. Most battles can only be won by combined training, preparation, tactical skills, and often pure luck. The optional content is often vital to uncover, because the game simply becomes too hard otherwise. For example, very early in the game there is a completely optional area where you can find a gun; without having visited it, you'll be deprived of a powerful weapon that would make early battles much less frustrating.
The game maintains a serious, heavy tone throughout; it doesn't lighten up, and is for the most part humorless. The dialogues can be considered somewhat dry, especially compared to those of North American games, known for their liberal employment of jokes, puns, and anachronisms. Albion is in many ways a typically German game: it lacks American humor, Japanese charm, and French beauty, but it makes up for that with its remarkable thoroughness.