SummaryA pleasant surprise!
The GoodYou played Ultima IX: Ascension, liked its style and atmosphere, but were unsatisfied by the game's lack of true RPG elements. You played Baldur's Gate, liked the setting and the role-playing, but would prefer a to control only one character in a game with more action, and in full 3D. In both cases, "Gothic" is the perfect choice for you.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Gothic" is its origin. Created by a small, unknown German company, "Gothic" looked on the paper like another "regional" attempt that will be quickly forgotten and will never be able to compete with American games. Surprisingly, "Gothic" managed to make quite a name for itself, and its success was certainly not accidental. "Gothic" is a game with a strong personality, remarkably mature and balanced, with a ripe, well-developed RPG system and an engrossing 3D world.
Already the beginning of "Gothic" gives you an idea about the game's serious intentions. Set in a medieval world, it casts you into the role of a convict, who was thrown into a prison colony surrounded by a huge magical barrier. You start the game shortly after getting beaten up by local thugs, without inventory, without weapons, without money, in a seemingly hostile world where dangerous beasts lure at every corner and where you have to play by the strict and harsh rules of the prisoner society. Sounds interesting, doesn't it? Instead of being on a "grand quest", you must first and foremost survive - not by fighting hordes of zombies, like in horror survival games, but by raising your skills and your social status, winning the trust of people both with diplomacy and with the sword.
The first part of the game is brilliant. There are three camps in the prison colony - huge town-like locations with plenty of characters and complex social systems. The Old Camp is the most conservative one, with a strict hierarchy of ranks, guards bullying simple people, and a corrupted Ore Baron as a ruler. The New Camp is more rural and plain, its leaders being less arrogant and more willing to help. The Swamp Camp is populated by scholars and religious fanatics, and is a colorful contrast to the other two.
Your primary goal is to join one of the camps, otherwise you'll be wandering the wilderness forever, penniless and weak. Each camp has its own unique structure and appeal, and you'll have hard time to decide which one you should join after getting acquainted with the people's philosophy and performing their quests. The fantastic non-linearity and open-endness of the game (especially of the first part) makes it possible to carefully navigate your way through the camps, choosing any quests you like, and in the end of the first chapter joining the camp you liked most.
Unlike most RPGs, where you immediately embark on an "epic journey" and travel to distant lands, in "Gothic" you will have to care first of all for your social career. It is very interesting and rewarding (not to mention realistic) to talk to various people, get small assignments, establish connections, and finally making people trust you - all that in such an unusual place as a prison colony. You don't expect anybody to treat you nicely, but if you prove yourself loyal and strong, you will evoke respect in the prisoners, and it is through respect that you'll be able to dedicate yourself to more important matters in the second part of the game.
Although most of the characters in the game are not really developed and serve mostly as statists to populate the environment, you'll make some friends in the colony, who are among the more colorful figures in the game - Diego, Milten, Gorn, and Lester, all willing to help you and to find reasonable solutions for the problems, despite being from different camps.
You can choose to play the game as one of the three classes - warrior, ranger, or mage. You become what you want to be gradually, you start without any skills, but then just develop yourself towards the direction you are interested in. It is well possible to combine various combat styles, and to be a fighter who occasionally uses magic, or a mage who likes fighting with a crossbow.
The role-playing system of "Gothic" is another thing that makes it much more than your ordinary 3D action game. Yes, "Gothic" has action, but make no mistake: this is not "Ultima: Ascension", this game is all about role-playing. You don't have a party (except for some AI-controlled companions who will help you from time to time), and the combat is not particularly strategic, but the whole idea of the game is to become more powerful, and it does bring you to this goal with utmost excellence.
The whole point of traditional role-playing is to train your character and to watch how he turns from a wimp into a mighty warrior. Well, "Gothic" has everything to satisfy your needs, and the idea of getting stronger marvelously fits the concept and the story of the game. You start the game as a nobody. You don't dare to attack a small group of scavengers. A wolf can kill you with one hit. You are totally broke, have no armor, and your weapons are pitiful. Near the end of the game you are able to take out an entire orc village, complete with dozens of huge warriors armed with strong two-handed weapons. You can kill demons in two hits, and a pack of wolves can't even scratch you, no matter how hard they try. And of course, this doesn't happen automatically. You have to work hard to get better equipment, earn more money, gain higher levels. Every battle counts, every wild animal is a challenge, every area is a potential death. During the first parts of the game, you don't dare to set your foot in unknown places. I remember the horror I had when I stranded from the path between the Old and the New Camp early in the game and was attacked by three vicious snappers. I was killed before I even noticed what the hell was going on, seeing only the dead body on the ground and the wild dinosaur-like beast ferociously circling around it. In the next chapter, I took the three animals out with three hits.
I wouldn't go so much into details if I weren't genuinely excited by the feeling of growth and achievement "Gothic" provides. It may sound simple, but it is not. Nothing can compare to the feeling of satisfaction when you are finally able to defeat the foes and to explore a new, unknown area, and "Gothic" has just the perfect balance here. You can't just go somewhere and start gathering experience by killing tons of weak monsters. You have to explore every corner of the world, avoiding dangers, finding hidden treasures, and fighting the animals you can handle. Money is hard to get in "Gothic". You'll be better off learning various hunting skills and selling animal's pelts, or stealing things. It is always interesting to lockpick chests, and thankfully, "Gothic" has plenty of those, some with really rewarding treasures (Gomez' tower is a veritable paradise for a thief). Leveling up alone won't do the trick: every time you level up, you only get a HP upgrade, but if you want to really become stronger, you should spend the "learning points" you get by leveling up, and learn different skills by various people. You can just upgrade your strength, dexterity, or mana points, or you can advance in circles of magic, learn to be a silent assassin, or to master various kinds of weapons. The fact you can decide yourself how to spend the hard-earned learning points enhances greatly the RPG experience.
The combat of "Gothic" was often criticized for its "awkwardness", but in my opinion it is excellently designed and not awkward at all. The fact you can't use "quick items" and the enemies don't wait for you while you are drinking a health potion doesn't make the combat system bad, on the contrary. It might be uncomfortable to fight several enemies who team up and attack from different sides, but it is certainly more rewarding than to hack them to death by merely clicking on them. The battles in "Gothic" are furious, you'll die a lot, but this is a part of the game's role-playing system, that requires you to get stronger in order to overcome foes that seemed invincible before. During the fights, you can perform different strikes and parry, which is much more interesting than hack & slash kind of combat. Bows and crossbows serve you very well in the game, especially in the beginning when your only chance to hit an enemy is to do it from the distance. Then, of course, there is magic. The magic system is fairly simple, but an interesting touch is the necessity to equip spell runes or scrolls as weapons: you can't cast spells while wielding a sword or a crossbow.
The world of "Gothic" is not as marvelously interactive as in "Ultima IX", but there are still lots of things to do. You can climb, jump, and swim, like in "Ultima IX". Although you can't manipulate objects the same way, you can do nice things such as hunting animals and get their pelts or claws, roasting meet, making weapons from ore, etc.
Of course, "Gothic" wouldn't be the same without its fantastic graphics. Fully in real-time 3D, with 360 degree camera rotation, viewed from over-the-shoulder perspective, the world of "Gothic" is truly marvelous. Particularly stunning is the beauty of the nature in "Gothic": just climb on any mountain or tower and look down, and you would want simply to stay there for a while and to enjoy. Magnificent light and weather effects bring the world to life. At the same time, everything seems to be very plain and "Gothic": no exotic plants, animals, no unusual landscapes, no strange and extravagant buildings. It is just your good old medieval fantasy, but crafted with care and love, just liked the good old "Ultima IX".
I would also like to mention the excellent sound effects. Visit the Swamp Camp at night and listen to the surrounding sounds, or fight some harpies in one of the towers and hear their beastly screams. The music is not overused in the game, the symphonic soundtrack seem to serve only as a background, but if you listen to it carefully, you'll discover its quality an its importance as an addition to the atmosphere.
A word about version differences: from what I heard, the English version doesn't have the rock concert scene, and is also censored. It is a pity, so if you know German, get the original version. The rock concert is cool, and the bathing woman in Gomez' tower is totally naked - what more could you wish?..
The Bad"Gothic" is not without flaws. There are quite some bugs, mostly of graphical kind - you might get stuck in the graphics, fall down through the floor, walk through things; characters tend to stand right inside you when talking. The level of bugginess here is comparable to that of Ultima IX (although my version of "Ultima IX" was not so terribly buggy, contrary to what I heard from most people).
The CG cut scenes were of surprisingly low quality and almost looked worse than the in-game graphics. It would have been better to make the whole game entirely with in-game graphics and not to bother with the videos.
Then there is the story... *sigh*. Like so many games, "Gothic" starts in an original and promising way, but gradually regains more and more clichés and throws itself back into the past. It is as if the developers were afraid to be original till the end. I mean, the game starts in such a cool way - you are a convict who has to survive in a prison colony - but the more you play, the more corny stuff gets in your way, until you hear once again some babbling about being the only hope and even fulfilling a stupid "ancient prophecy"... Geez... Will we ever be able to get rid of this stuff?!
While the first part of the game was genuinely interesting, the moment your goal became clear it all went slightly downhill. Everything was influenced by the gradual inclining of the game towards tradition - even the choice of locations: instead of the cool camps and mines I had to spend time in a standard temple full of "press the switch" puzzles and bow exercises that were copied from "Ultima IX".
And the ending is way too short and unsatisfying. The game is over, you did what you had to do, now get your ass off the chair and pre-order the sequel...
The Bottom Line"Gothic" is a remarkable achievement. Brought to us by a small company no one has ever heard of, without any experience in game-making, it was able to find its way into the elite of modern fantasy games and to establish a small, but loyal fan community, and its success was well deserved. "Gothic" has a beautiful world, a fantastic RPG system, and an interesting story. Any fan of PC-style RPGs should take a look at this game, since it is an almost "old-school" RPG which is hard to find in our age, when everything tends to be simple and straightforward.
The moment I get a more powerful PC, I'll be sure to check out the sequel!