To take or to be lunch, that is the question
"Gothic" came as quite a surprise, when it was released. No one had ever heard about that small German developer called Piranha Bytes, who actually build an own engine for their first product, delivering quite spectacular 3D environments, that still look impressive even today.
The game takes place in some sort of magical prison, a colony, where the bad boys of medieval fantasy kingdom get arrested. A vast area is separated from the rest of the land by a gleaming magical barrier, preventing all life forms from leaving. The people inside the colony are mining ore for the outside world, which is therefor sending food and other important goods.
For reasons, that remain unclear, our predetermined male hero is thrown into the colony at the beginning of the game. He soon finds out, that there are three different factions. First the old camp, where people more or less came to terms with the situation inside the colony. Second the new camp, where people long for freedom, seeking ways to destroy the barrier and preferring to live from plain farming, instead of doing any business with the outside world. Last the swamp camp, consisting mainly of spiritual fools, who smoke too much weed and believe in the return of a god-like being, they call "the sleeper". All of these factions are eying each other suspiciously and you eventually have to choose, which one to join. In typical RPG style, they all have strict hierarchies, inviting you to work your way up by doing missions for them.
"Gothic" features magic and many strange creatures, but it isn't your typical fantasy setting with elves and dwarfs and such. People are living spartan lives in provisional shacks, there's no luxury, no opulence to be found. Folks are ruthless and brutal, their speech not polite and eloquent, but harsh and often filled with insults. All in all, the medieval setting of the game is quite convincingly portrayed, without the usual fairy tale glamour. Many details make the world feel quite real, for example some of your interactions with the environment. It's quite cool, to be able to hunt down some animals, join a campfire, roast the fresh meat over the flames, eat your meal and see your energy refill. Things like day/night-cycles, dynamic weather changes and lots of other stuff, that makes virtual worlds feel more authentic, are included as a matter of course.
You will spend most of your time not in the camps, but out in the wilderness. Rarely you meet a human soul there: people seek shelter in the camps, which are like bastions against the untamed nature – fortifications and heavily armed guards are protecting the residents. All kinds of hungry beasts, monsters and other foes populate different areas of the world, often even attacking and killing each other. Theoretically the vast game world is completely open and you can go where you want, but practically you will be killed immediately, once you make a single wrong step. Since "Gothic" is a role-playing-game, you have to become stronger, before you can explore the world as you like. Many enemies are simply too tough for you and in the beginnings you will often find yourself trying to sneak past them or, if that fails, running for your life.
The role-playing system, that works in "Gothic", is kept very simple, making the game very intuitive to play, but still quite hard to master. You can basically become a sword fighter or an archer, invest points into magic or thievery skills and learn some other things as well. The number of skills and attributes is certainly not overwhelming, but proves to be enough. What makes "Gothic" great, is the way it lets you feel the impact, every time you invest experience points. Concentrating just on the most essential skills, the RPG system is incredibly effective and precisely balanced. You're slowly evolving from a poor loser, struggling for survival at the wrong end of the food chain, to an almost ridiculously mighty super-warrior.
Especially in the early stages, the game is really hard, however. During my first trips into the wilderness, I didn't feel very heroic. In fact, I had no choice but to behave like a coward, trying not to attract any attention, making a safe file for every successful step. Sometimes I could kill enemies with a bow from a safe position, sometimes I was running down hills with several dinosaur-like creatures behind my back, eager for a piece of human flesh. I died very often and it got quite frustrating at times. Seeing certain enemies, I thought, I'd never be able to beat them, but I was wrong. It doesn't happen fast, but through constant, arduous self-improvement you eventually become powerful enough to defeat those beasts, which killed you with a single bite before. It's a very rewarding feeling, that actually makes up for all the troubles, you had to experience before.
As cruel and unforgiving the world of "Gothic" may be, it also is beautiful. The wonderful landscapes will surely not leave you unimpressed, the vastness of the world and its huge majestic mountain ranges make you almost feel small and insignificant. Every mountain can be climbed, every house can be entered, every lake can be swum. It never even bothered me, that the vastness of the world also implicated a lot of walking around. Wandering through the country on foot is part of the experience, which is dangerous and uncomfortable, yet great. The exploration of the world is pure joy and you feel amazed, when you're finally strong enough, to venture into new areas. I especially liked conquering mountain tops. I never found any precious extra items there, but it was great fun, an hazardous challenge, rewarding me with incredible views. This is what this game is basically about: overcoming nature.
Other than for example in the "Elder Scrolls" series, you won't discover new dungeons with every step in "Gothic", but those to be there are huge and often brilliant. Especially the old mine, one of the most well-designed dungeons I've ever seen, is full of atmosphere. Over wooden footbridges, not appearing very secure, you descend into the mountain. Your mission is to kill minecrawlers, scary monsters, coming out of their dens every now and then to scarf down some of the poor workers, which are digging for ore everywhere. To eradicate those minecrawlers, you have to kill their queen, which gives birth to the species. "Gothic" has strong elements of horror and this is a sequence, that serves as a good example. From dim light to shocking sound effects the designers use every trick to create an intense atmosphere.
The game starts to lose its appeal somewhere near the last third, when it is unable to bring anything new to the table. I don't know it for sure, but there must be some kind of unwritten law, which says, that every RPG has to take at least 30 hours of the player's lifetime. I wonder, when people will finally stop counting the hours and seeing more playing time as more "value" for their money. This annoying trend has already harmed quite a couple of games, maybe even ruined some.
No one is so stupid to take the number of pages into account, when judging a book. Maybe this is a reason, why most good authors knows, when to stop, while game designers often don't have this competence. "Gothic" is a typical case: at some point you have seen everything, heard everything and done everything interesting, but still the game refuses to come to an end. Of course, you have no idea, that the interesting parts are over and continue playing, only to get the feeling of having wasted your time in the end.
You'll come to a point in the game, where it all gets tiresome and the motivation sinks. You won't discover anything new, as the world is ultimately explored and the final dungeons just repeat what has been done before, only with less style. You won't discover any new enemies and the old ones won't intimidate you anymore, as you've already slayed hundreds of them. It's as well a problem of the balance, which is close to perfect in the earlier stages, but gets lost in the end. Being the almighty super-warrior, the game suddenly becomes uninteresting.
The game's appeal lies almost entirely in the tough struggle for survival, it presents. That appeal is lost towards the end, while the flaws become more apparent. Many things in "Gothic" could have been better fleshed out. There's the storyline, which starts quite promising, but gradually moves into the boredom of generic fantasy trash (and finally dissolves into one of those endings, which rather care for advertising the sequel than a proper conclusion). When the characters then turn out to be flat and uninteresting and the world is devoid of any history, intrigues or other cool things, you can't immerse yourself as deeply in the game as you can in other roleplaying titles. Many classical RPG virtues are completely missing out here, even the non-linearity is only a cheap fake. You can join one of the three factions in the beginning, but these strands are reunited pretty soon. The rest of the game is linear and leaves you no choices, neither are there any interesting side quests to fulfill. Don't get me wrong: the qualities of the game do make up for these shortcomings, but I imagine, it could have been even better, if these parts were more polished.
The Bottom Line
Let the final third aside and you've got a more than impressive first game from a then totally unknown developer, that spawned against all odds a quite popular series. In its essence, "Gothic" is about the human struggle against nature, which is temptingly beautiful, but also cruel and unforgiving. The world is fantastic, yet believable, the rules are simple, yet survival is tough. To describe "Gothic" in a single sentence: a very atmospheric and intense experience.