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SummaryA rather pretty but very challenging game ahead of its time, packaging a great crafting system
The GoodAs usual, I’ll start with the game mechanics and say that what impressed me the most in this game was the crafting system. It was very fun to play around with, pretty complex but at the same time rather easy to understand. Back when I played it, which was already four or five years after its release, I started giving it as an example of how a crafting system built into a game should be like, even though of course it also had its flaws. Unfortunately, I have found myself doing the same thing a few times even more recently, because I can’t think of a newer game that’s better in that aspect, so do let me know if you know of one…
The combat also works quite well for the most part. It’s nice to see that hurting an enemy’s arms or legs has the effect you’d expect it to have on their attack or movement speed, that a properly chosen and timed spell can completely alter the fate of battle, or that a solid blow to the head or a good backstab can take down even powerful enemies right away. Of course, the enemies can also do all those things to you, so you need to be very careful every step of the way, especially since here you won’t see enemies standing around while you damage them, as it happens even in some really new games, but any who notice you will immediately react and also alert all those who are in sight or hearing range to come to their aid.
The character development is flexible enough to allow you to respond to the challenges the game throws at you, at least if you play on “novice”, because it uses a system I’m very fond of and unfortunately rarely see: Instead of gaining levels and skill points, you directly spend the experience you earn to improve your characters, and the amount of available experience is pretty much the only thing limiting your options, without things such as class or specialization forcing you to stick to a certain path, though of course you’ll need to focus on just a few skills if you want to become really good at them, especially since gaining a rank in a skill doubles the cost of all the others.
I could also say that the inventory management, or more exactly the lack of it, is another great help, considering how many things you’ll be picking up and, in fact, how many things you’ll need to pick up and carry around if you want to craft really good equipment and advance in the game. That’s because only the weight of your actual equipment matters, while everything else you have in inventory is constantly treated as if stored elsewhere, somewhat like it is in Gothic.
As a side note, considering when it was released, I should really mention that this game looked absolutely stunning. It wasn’t just the quality of the art, but also the style chosen, which appeared to fit just right with the atmosphere. You have to take into account that we’re talking about a game that’s about a decade old, so it had to make do with the hardware capabilities of the time, and that it did wonderfully, making all the different areas you’ll end up exploring come to life as well as could be expected, and sometimes even better than that.
The BadI said the crafting system wasn't perfect, and it wasn't, but even those flaws I mentioned had less to do with the system itself and more with the available components. Especially towards the end of the game, when you gain access to materials like mithril and meteorite, you should be able to craft some really powerful magical equipment, assuming you have an equally powerful magic user in your party. Such equipment could perhaps require some special blueprints, as long as you had a way to obtain them, but you don’t really have that option. You can find ways to put some pretty useful spells on certain pieces of equipment, but none of it can hold really complex ones and in fact there aren’t all that many basic spells to begin with.
Which leads me to another complaint, though this is probably more a matter of preference: While you wouldn’t manage to get through the game without magic, it often has a support role, physical prowess being more important. Needless to say, that didn’t go too well with me, seeing as I enjoy playing magic users almost exclusively. I think I eventually managed to turn Zak into a pretty powerful magic user who could still hold his own in combat up to a point, but it took a whole lot of effort and he still died way too quickly if the enemies took a real interest in him.
Then again, your characters dying very often and very quickly is something you’ll really get used to during this game, because the difficulty is quite punishing. And that’s on “novice”, because there’s basically no way to play the game on “normal”. They really should have called the difficulty settings “hard” and “impossible”, because the enemies you’ll end up facing are usually at least a match for your party members, and often even stronger, and there usually are far more of them than there are of you. In addition, on the “normal” difficulty level the amount of experience you receive for killing a certain type of enemy decreases the more enemies of that type you kill, so not only are the enemies more powerful but you’ll also be far weaker than you’d be if playing on “novice”, which means that soon enough you’ll bump into enemies who’ll crush you like a bug without you being able to even scratch them.
The realistic reactions of enemies, while certainly very welcome, make sneaking around, which is something you’ll often find yourself doing, extremely difficult and at times completely impossible, especially since you can’t run away from enemies. Fortunately, there is a spell called “Fireworks” that, if used right, will usually just draw a single enemy to a location of your choice, so you’ll be able to take care of them. But if that fails you’re in real trouble, because your stamina runs out extremely quickly while your enemies never tire… I would have appreciated the realism to be added in that area as well!
Unfortunately, while it's a good thing that inventory management is not required, it's a very bad thing that it's not even possible. Breaking my earlier comparison with Gothic, in Evil Islands you can’t access your inventory unless you’re at a shop! So if you just found something interesting that you’d like to use or if your equipment is close to being destroyed, you need to rush back to a shop to do so. And sometimes there’s no shop for you to rush back to…
Yet the one bad part of this game that really made a lasting negative impression on me wasn’t the difficulty. The problem was the story, or more exactly the end of it. There were some pretty nice moments in between, but the main story left a lot to be desired and if you didn’t figure out the “big surprise” saved for the end of the game about halfway through it there must be something seriously wrong with your reasoning abilities. Not to mention that the final fight itself is a major disappointment, as is what happens just before it…
The Bottom LineI’m writing this review about a game I played some five years ago, if not more, so the details are understandably far less clear than they should be. Yet the simple fact that I thought to review it and still remember enough to be able to do so after all this time should tell you something of the kind of impression it left on me. Admittedly, the bad story is part of that lasting impression, but the good far outweighs the bad and there’s at least one particular good part of this game, namely the crafting system, that I’d like to see implemented in a similar or better fashion in many more others. But that unfortunately seems less and less likely, considering the direction the gaming industry is speeding into…
However, as always, I tend to focus on the negative, making the games I review seem noticeably worse than I actually think they are… You may read what I wrote above and say this is probably not something you’d want to play, but if you enjoy RPGs I really think you should, assuming it would somehow still work with newer operating systems and drivers. In short, I could say that I see it as a great crafting system and a good character development system packed in a rather pretty but also really challenging game that was probably ahead of its time, so if any of that seems interesting to you, why not try tracking it down?