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SummaryAnother restrictive RPG that fails to take off
The GoodAs far as 'closed-world' or 'hands-off' fantasy roleplaying games are concerned, the 2000's undeniably belonged to the Neverwinter Nights series. Stretching between 2002 and 2008, this string of games, including the main titles and their expansion packs, boasted the production values, writing talent, promotional machinery and eventually the sales figures its competitors could only dream of. Radon Labs were one of these latter day competitors. Their bold endeavor was to revive the 'Das Schwarze Auge' franchise on the PC a decade after the cult favorite Realms of Arkania Trilogy, all in the midst of Bioware's and Obsidian's ongoing triumph with the more accepted D&D setting. The end product, Drakensang: The Dark Eye, is clearly a match for these twin giants in terms of sheer size, storytelling and complexity, but ultimately falls under in so many ways I almost don't care to count. Actually, I do, hence this review was born. I think it's more interesting to see the ways the game failed rather than the ways it did work, so I'll just breeze through the "good" section.
What have we here:
Lively dialogs; these should be a given in any roleplaying games, but sadly they're not, so when we come across good, colorful writing, we're pleasantly surprised.
An epic scope; again, let's not take this granted anymore, and when a game like this gives it us in spades, we can appreciate it.
A good, effective engine; the best thing about Drakensang is its fluid graphics/audio engine; it's more responsive, less bug-ridden and easier on the eye than NWN2's overworked Aurora engine.
A good economic and crafting system; it's clear that much thought and effort went into this department. This system is so efficient and streamlined, it would deserve a better game.
The BadClichéd writing. While dialogs themselves are good, the overall story suffers from your old sub-Tolkienesque pitting together of dwarves, elves, dragons and humans in a standard fantasy world. That may be a systemic problem with the Das Schwarze Auge setting though.
Clichéd characters. This game is a strange beast: the main characters themselves are often trite, but they get good dialogs. I suspect that dialog writing was outsourced to folks who were more gifted and/or creative than the design department. In any case, we have the stereotypical drunken dwarven fighter; the typically untamed, taciturn amazon warrior; the insipid, altruistic paladin; the evil sorceress who conceals her true identity; and so on. No pleasant surprises in this department.
A curious scarcity of atmosphere despite good graphics. This appears to be a conundrum until we start to think about its reasons, see my further points. The towns don't really feel alive the way they do in, say, Dragon Age: Origins. A major part of this might be due to the fact that none of the houses are accessible, they're just facades in a restrictive game world. Also, the underground dwarven empire, where a huge chunk of the story takes place, should feel gritty and crowded but feels clinical and hollow instead.
Closed world. The game seems to entice us with magnificent vistas and huge open spaces around towns. At first it almost fooled me into thinking I have another Gothic-type free-roamer on my hands. But no: it really features strictly enclosed territories, and even relatively narrow paths of allowed movement, but the skilfully (or rather deviously?) programmed engine does create an illusion of much wider spaces. Yawn.
Hands off. A close relative of the lamentable 'closed world' feature, a hands-off RPG implements a design choice that renders most fixtures and equipments seen in the game environment -- including everyday items that common sense would suggest to be operable and useful in a game like this -- inoperable and useless scenery pieces. "Hands off!", the game seems to yell at us every 3 seconds when we attempt to fiddle with fixtures, stoves, ovens, chairs, anything, just trying to make sense of the graphically detailed environment. No can do. Yaaaaaaaaawwwwn.
Slow movement of the characters. It's plain annoying and extends hours of gameplay in a wrong way. This was discussed in more depth by others.
Constant micromanagement in combat. This was handled better, in a more user-friendly way even in the original Neverwinter Nights. Then it was perfected in NWN2 and DAO. In Drakensang, all you can choose is between Passive and Aggressive battle modes, and both modes require constant on-the-fly tweaking during each long fight, as without assistance all 4 of your characters would act like mindless drones. A familiar problem with 1990's roleplaying games, but it's sad to see it re-emerge in Radon Labs' 2008 debut RPG, even if it was obviously a deliberate design choice based on a misguided "back to the roots" directive.
Respawning enemies. This is so 1980's, it's almost a dealbreaker. At the very least it breaks immersion. Surely there can be more interesting ways to have the player farm XP's. To me, respawning enemies in a roleplaying game indicate that the designers went bankrupt in the creative department.
The Bottom LineArguably, the only good way to do a closed-world, hands-off RPG (if you absolutely have to do one) is demonstrated in Neverwinter Nights 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. Designers are supposed to make up for the lack of an open, breathing, explorable world with the inclusion of super-lively, unique characters who fall in love, scheme, argue and banter with each other, a convoluted plot with jaw-dropping twists fit for a top shelf fantasy novel, and a palpable, attention-grabbing atmosphere both in towns and dungeons that will suck you in. Drakensang provides none of these. And it's a crying shame because its engine and audiovisuals are a notch above NWN2's, the game it apparently attempts to outdo.
Still, there was something in the overall experience -- maybe its sheer epic size, maybe its often entertaining dialogs, most probably both -- that does prompt me to try its prequel, released two years later. But that will be quite some time later, when I'm finished with most of the open-world roleplaying games I'm still behind with.