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Summary[v1.1] Should’ve been the defining essence of a Western RPG, if not for an unsupportive and disastrous plot design.
The GoodReview Version: v1.1 - Oops, forgot a paragraph.
Review Date: June 23, 2009
Review Length: 7 page(s).
Tech Specs Used: Intel Core 2 6300 1.86 Ghz CPU, 3 GB Memory, 512 MB NVIDIA GeForce 8500 GT Video Card.
Finished:. Yes, May 2009.
Last time played: May, 2009.
Character Class Used: Nature Mage.
Preferred Team Members: Rhulana (Female Human Amazon), Forgrimm (Male Mercenary Anvil Dwarf), Gladys (Female Human Charlatan).
Last Character Level Reached: Level 18.
Note: This section may be skipped.
If you’ve played Realms of Arkania (RoA), then you probably would understand what I’m talking about. There are a lot of Western Role Playing Games (RPGs), Some merely clones, others trying to push the limit one step at a time, others simply just hybrids of action, adventure, shooters, but still remain loyal to the primary RPG genre.
Although RPG fanbois (and girls) come in all shapes and sizes, some of them like me prioritize on character development in RPGs above any other supporting elements commonly favorite in RPGs for other fanbois (story, sub-quests, item customization, etc.), which is the primary element in what Realms of Arkania once upon a time represented.
But why mention Realms of Arkania in this review? Well, besides belonging to the same universe and possibly same design ideas (well actually it belongs to the Dark Eye universe, but I’m only familiar with Arkania), RoA in its day (and yes, I am totally being a subjective fanboi in this regard) represents one of best utopic eras of what RPG character development can offer. The definition of character development? I was just getting to that.
Classic Western RPGs in its day have always been defined by several RPG series that have reached Godhood status: Bard's Tale, Ultima, Wizardry, etc., and most defining of all, Advanced Dungeons of Dragons (AD&D). Unfortunately, if you’ve noticed in regard to the “character development” element, all these wonderful series engrossingly lack any serious form of skills, attributes, and statistics. Define serious? Well, more than often, certain attributes really do not have much use for certain races. For example, the Wisdom, Intelligence, Charisma, three attributes that are only useful for certain classes (i.e. Clerics, Mages, etc.) but have no use for other character classes. In other instances, attributes are leveled up automatically and randomly (i.e. Bard’s Tale) disallowing the player to focus on a particular attribute meant for a particular class (it is not uncommon in Bard’s Tale games, to have a very physically strong Mage :p). In Ultima, it’s even worse. Character development is almost non-existent and does not affect gameplay in any regard.
So you get the idea? Regardless of the “character development” theme highly hyped in RPGs, many defining classic RPGs (mind you, this WAS before Fallout) didn’t have much character development going on. Then Realms of Arkania came along.
Here’s a direct example. Imagine a “summon stone elemental” spell. In most RPGs, the only attribute the mage needs is a high Intelligence (INT). Now imagine a game where the mage not only requires the INT attribute, but also requires Charisma (CHA) and Strength (Str). Why Charisma? Well, you’re summoning something. Why Strength? That’s a mighty big rock. Hang, on. Attributes now have a direct relevance? Amazing. In this for example, the Summon Djinn spell requires Courage, Cleverness (INT) and Charisma.
You have a thief who wants to pickpocket. What do you need? Courage, Intuition, Dexterity. You have a Warrior who wants to use Bows. Intuition, Dexterity, Strength. You have a MobyGames approver trying to bluff his/her from approval duties? Charisma (obviously), Courage (for self conviction), and possibly Dexterity (for typing skills). :) Well, you get the idea. Increasing a particular attribute will affect the other skills, not only for a basic requirement, but also making them stronger. Now compare the skills in this game universe with “other RPGs.”
Welcome to Utopia.
Unfortunately, the series seemed to be under-hyed (how odd), so the last game of this universe I played was Realms of Arkania: Star Trail. That was decades ago, and I thought the series has long been abandoned in the annals of time. So when I got myself this game from the recommendation of one MG user (whose name will probably be in my will :p), I was so excited that my socks ended up being my underwear. Er.
The first thing you will notice is the main menu. RPGs have always this bad habit of displaying a gloomy theme. Here, you see a wooden house with a beautiful romantic background setting. My, my, haven’t felt this impressed since the beginning title sequence of Ultima VII (you know, the butterflies flying around).
The graphics of this game is absolutely amazing. Detailed to the core. Almost as fancy as those eye-candy console games. Graphically speaking, this game makes the PC feel proud. And speaking of graphics.
I don’t know about you, but there is one thing I always hated about Japanese RPGs. They have this bad habit of making everything look cute and cuddly, hell half of the time you’re fighting Pokemon look-a-likes. Heroes are usually too young handle a sword, stupid or basically you’re average teenager. Girls are engrossingly developed in certain areas with minimal attire.
In this game, all the dudes are good looking in the mature sense. Though none as “bad-ass” as Gerald from Witcher, the men in the game appear as the standard hero-looking type you’d imagine from a medieval fantasy game. One thing I would like to happily point out is the females in the game. All stunningly beautiful to a certain degree, and beautiful not in the male lustful Neanderthal sense, but in the “she’s all woman” and worthy of respect. My, my, look at her abs. Er. Finally, an RPG game that doesn’t treat women like a sexual object or a helpless damsel in distress (your first party member is a fierce Amazonian warrior. Not the type you’d want to sexually harass and live with your body parts intact, hehe). Although I must honestly admit, having all the female party members walk around butt naked is graphically entertaining. Hey, armor is heavy! :p
In this game, you don’t really “level up.” Though character levels do exist. Character development is conducted when you acquire adventure points (read=experience), either from slaying monsters or completing quests. These points may be distributed to attributes or talents. Each of which, has a requirement of adventure points that need to spent. For example, attributes require a lot of adventure points compared to talents. For example, you need 480 points to increase a 16 Courage level to 17, but only need 7 points to increase a 1 Sneak level to 2. Higher levels of course will require more points, and they don’t come easy.
Additionally, character levels act as a “skill cap” or limitation. So if you have a lot of adventure points to spend, depending on the character level and class, you can only increase that talent to a certain degree before it “maxes-out.” Gaining a level will allow you to spend more to the next cap, while class specialization allows a higher cap for each level. Attributes do not have a level cap, but cannot be increased higher than 21 (er, I think).
But most importantly, you can only increase talents if your character has training for it. Character may train for any type of talent which they did not already have when starting the game. Talent training may be acquired from Non-Player Characters (NPCs) for a quite handsome training fee.
Woohoo! As far as character development goes, this is something you’d have wet dreams about. Look at all those developable skills (in this game, they are called talents). There are more than 30 different talents (not including attributes) to advance (er, I think…not very good at counting). But for completions sake, I’ll put it all here. Yay!
- Attributes: Courage, Cleverness, Intuition, Charisma, Dexterity, Agility, Constitution, Strength.
Increased attributes will affect all other talents. They are however, extremely expensive to upgrade. All classes may advance without particular penalties.
- Physical Talents: Sneak, Willpower, Perception, Pickpocket, Dwarfnose.
- Nature Talents: Plant Lore, Animal Lore, Survival, Traps.
- Lore Talents: Streetwise, Treat Poison, Treat Wounds, Arcane Lore.
- Social Talents: Seduce, Etiquette, Haggle, Human Nature, Fast Talk.
- Artisan Talents: Alchemy, Bowyer, Blacksmith, Picklocks, Disarm Traps.
Talents represent “skills” in other games. Depending on what class the character uses, some talents are easier to upgrade, while for other classes, more expensive. For example, Battle Mages suffer a Social Talent penalty, making it a bit harder for them to increase Social Talents.
- Combat Talents: Melee: Daggers, Fencing Weapons, Axes and Maces, Sabers, Swords, Spears, Staves, Two-Handed Axes/Maces, Two-Handed Swords, Brawling.
- Combat Talents: Ranged: Crossbow, Bow, Throwing Weapons.
Most weapon skills may be increased all classes (for example, my Healing Mage wields a sword) only if the character has gained the ability to use the weapon. Not quite sure if you can have a Mage wield a two-handed sword though. Don’t recall trying.
- Special Abilities: Melee: Offensive Combat (I-III), Defensive Combat (I-III), Mighty Blow, Feint, etc.
- Special Abilities: Ranged: Aimed Shot, Marksman, Rain of Arrows, etc.
- Special Abilities: Defensive: Armor Use (I-III), Shield Use (I-III), etc.
Special Abilities are similar to “special attacks.” Although some are automatically applies (such as Armor Use), others like Mighty Blow require manual activation to be used. Special Abilities require a huge amount of endurance, but quickly help you win against opponents. Special Abilities may only be gained through training from NPCs.
Last but not least, the musical composition of the game are excellent. At least 2 compositions are worthy of mention. Most of the compositions really hit the spot portraying a melancholy melody of medieval Europe. Bard's Tale would be envious.
And one minor thing, there has is female fishmonger that uses an extremely delightful accent that I have yet to identify. Almost sounds like a good idea for falling in love...but nevermind. Her and that gypsy princess. My, my, look at those abs. Er.
The BadNow for a game that has this much potential, you’d have to be a complete numbskull to ruin it. And ruin it they did. But we’ll get to that later. Small things first.
Part I: Minor Irritations
As the game is skill-based driven, every adventure point you gain may be immediately distributed to skills to your hearts leisure. Unfortunately, early in the game, you discover that you no longer gain experience for killing certain creatures: rats, wolves, etc., when you reach a certain character level.
Is this a problem? Well, technically it’s not, if monsters/opponents are randomly generated. The game however, doesn’t really offer randomly generated monsters in a large degree (random monsters only exist when you travel on the global map, which you don’t do every often). I finished this game at level 18, and I was really taking my time, killing everything in sight. There is no sense in limiting experience in any regard during the game. Even more so, as the game does not really offer a diverse set of different monsters (you practically kill hundreds of rats in the game), it gets annoying when the majority of monsters you slay do not offer adventure points as an adequate reward.
Apparently certain skills “lose” their worth after reaching a certain number of points. Let’s take survival for instance. Survival allows your player to see herbs and monsters from the radar, otherwise not viewable. Terribly useful as many herbs are (irritatingly) hidden behind bushes or other features. Survival however loses its worth as there are apparently 2 herb levels you need the survival talent for. When you are able to reach that level, there is no use to further increase that talent. However, when playing the game, you do not know this, thinking that you may need to invest more points to detect new type of herbs. The effect is like many skill-based RPGs, spending points on useless skills.
This has always been a sin for all skill-based RPGs. Some skills practically have no real use, or only one skill is useful for the entire party. Neverwinter Nights 1&2 made that terrible mistake as social skills may only be the party leader and have no effect for supporting party members. Drakensang thankfully did not blunder in this regard, however there are several skills that technically are useless.
Etiquette for example. No use, there was only one instance you actually use it in the whole game, even that is optional. Hell, all the social skills are practically useless, except possibly Human Nature, but you can get a spell to deal with that issue early in the game.
Traps? Useless. You eventually find out that the easiest way to disarm a trap it to activate it. :p Disarming traps does not provide you with adventure points, nor do you get the trap when you disarm it. Only reason why you “have” to invest points in traps is because one of the main quests requires you to “sneak” and not alarm the enemy. And if you thought traps were that useless, it gets worse. You cannot effectively use traps against enemies, as it’s easier and faster just to whack them with special abilities. Monsters that are harder are immune to traps. Additionally, you can only place a maximum of 3 traps at a time. You place a fourth, the first trap disappears (and no prior warning either). No refunds.
Another minor irritation is this “fail and success” algorithm when dealing with herbs or skinning animals. I’m level 18, practically maxed out the skill for that level, and yet I still can “fail” skinning a rat. If that isn’t a stupid flaw in the mathematical algorithms, I don’t know what is.
Long walk from home
Moving in the game is slow; your version of running is similar to a slow jog. Actually it’s not really a problem, until you reach the next city and realize that:
 It’s big. Walking from one end of the map to the next is too long;
 You cannot “escape” from the city map at will. You have to manually reach the exit area to enter the city global map, which is a straining chore every time.
If you fail pick pocketing someone, you can no longer pickpocket them a second time. If that wasn’t bad enough, when you do successfully pick pocket someone, there isn’t any way to know if you’ve pick pocketed him/her before. I practically had to pick pocket the person first and send another person to "fail the pickpocket" so that person becomes "locked."
Yikes. As far as storytelling goes, this has got to be an example of one of the most boring stories ever told. First it revolves around the mystery that set you out in the first place, then you suddenly find yourself in the standard "fight against an unknown evil" plot thingy. I wonder what happened to the imagination element once popularly found in RPGs? Hmm.
Part II: Major Irritations
Non-Revival During Combat
Apparently, if a character falls during combat, you cannot revive him/her. Sure it’s added difficulty. But even more ridiculous is when you run from tough enemies, your fallen comrades “run” with you. Their still bodies follow you around faster than that orc chasing you. Efficient, but one wonders what the bloody point is in the first place.
When you have characters that require constant skill attention, the last thing you’d want the player to feel is to ruin that experience. And ruin it they did yet again. The second character you get in the game is a thief. Later that thief leaves your party after some careful planning and doesn’t return for a long while. In the mean time, you find yourself another thief (or charlatan: thief/mage) who apparently is more useful. Good luck to anyone who starts the game as a thief, that’ll ruin your day fast. Later characters simply act as mannequins throughout the game if you’ve already grown attached to your current party. No use in taking new ones along as there are no individual sub-quests for each party member, except the Amazon. Some characters are acquired late in the game, even more useless in my perspective.
Real-time Combat Confusion
Now here’s a game that has trouble figuring out if it’s a real-time game or a turn-based game. During combat, all combatants enter close in to designated targets. Funny (or stupid) thing, if you move one of your characters already engaged in combat, everyone (yes, everyone) moves to find new positions. So that perfectly nice formation you had, with the tough characters up front, suddenly is ruined with characters and enemies moving all over the place.
Usual Unstable 3D graphics
Occurs only during combat. In relation to the aforementioned “moving around” part, more than often characters end up moving in the same spot, which somewhat makes your characters become easy targets for a gang-up by monsters.
It's called "leather stripes," which apparently is used in almost every blacksmith/bowyering ingredient. Problem is, there isn't enough. None of the shops stock the ingredient in ample supply, plus there much random monsters to provide that supply. Since getting money in the long early stages of the game is quite difficult (for training, etc.), its a wonder why they didn't provide a permanent supply for this basic ingredient.
Part III: Ultimate Frustrations
So yet another moronic idea to limit spells durations to several seconds instead of several minutes. Yes, seconds. Most barely last for one round in combat. Might as well not use it the first place and rely on special abilities. Even buffs (supportive spells) don’t last long, and it gets really, really annoying that you have to cast the same spells over and over again every 5 minutes.
Point of No Return
This has got to be one of the most moronic game design choices some idiot who doesn’t deserve to have brain, made. When you finish a particular main quest in a town, you cannot return to that town. I repeat, you cannot return to that town. In the entire game, there are only 2 cities you can visit at will.
Now seriously, besides which idiot made this decision, why would you want to restrict the player in re-visiting towns anyway? Not only do all sub-quests automatically “fail” if you leave the town without completing it, prompting hardcore players like myself to loiter for hours trying to find out how to solve this puzzle. Dang it, feels like those classic adventure games. But, most importantly, do you know how difficult it is to get screenshots for MobyGames if you didn’t actually save the game in that particular town? Gah.
The Bottom LineThe game is outstanding for the first stages of the game. For maximum “feel-good” experience, actually I recommend never to finish the game. The story gets boring real fast. Gameplay consists of finishing one sub-quest after another and nothing in between, not even fighting random monsters. As an RPG, it excels in character development, but screwed itself in every other possible element. Which by the way, in itself is quite a feat.