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Leithian: In the Abyss (Windows)

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Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (171813)
Written on  :  Jun 08, 2013
Rating  :  3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars3 Stars

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Summary

In the news: cruel publishers kill a promising game

The Good

Leithian was the first game released by Garam & Baram, a small Korean development team that later made two more games before disappearing. All three games were released in Japan and China as well, but remain obscure titles that left little to impact even on the local industry. Only recently, thanks to the commendable efforts of a freelance historian of Korean games known as Derboo, some information has surfaced and I was able to track down the games, play them, and add as much info as I could to MobyGames. Garam & Baram were undeniably among the most talented and creative developers in the genre of Eastern RPG, and their work should be studied and commemorated.

Before Diablo popularized hack-and-slash action combat in Western RPGs, action role-playing genre was already an established tradition in Japan, with Nihon Falcom being its progenitor. The genre peaked during the late 1980's and in its development Japan was far ahead of the West. However, by mid-1990's the popularity of turn-based RPGs overshadowed the action sub-genre. Leithian, in spite of being an obscure game developed by a peripheral company in a country that didn't have its own RPG design tradition at the time, is a bold attempt to revive Japanese action RPGs of the past. Probably encouraged by the success of Diablo, the developers also took queues from Western RPGs, all the while taking the best out of the Eastern turn-based variety.

Essentially, Leithian tries to combine the simplicity of older Japanese action RPGs with a heavier Diablo-like customization and (most importantly) the intensely character-driven structure of Japanese turn-based RPGs. As natural as it sounds, how many other games you know are based on the above principles? Moreover, how many earlier action RPGs you know allowed you to control and customize a party of up to four characters instead of just one? It's quite formidable that a small Korean development team experimented with all those elements near the end of the millennium.

On paper, the game has a surprisingly in-depth character development and customization system that was unseen in an Eastern RPG before or after. In fact, it come close to the Western format as far as detailed and personalized statistics are concerned. Besides the usual hit points, strength, stamina, and other basic stuff, there are attributes that influence your ability to run, the possibility of equipping heavy weapons, the chances of successfully executing a magic spell, and even a reputation attribute that may affect the way NPCs react to you. It's such a pity that much of it has either been underdeveloped or rendered useless due to the game's balance issues.

Unlike the vast majority of Eastern RPGs, you can allocate your experience points manually and raise whatever attribute you want to on any character in your party. The game offers plenty of weapons and equipment to experiment with. You can outfit your characters in a detailed fashion, including shields, rings, leggings, boots, and other accessories. The party is varied and was clearly designed to provide balanced gameplay, which was sadly ruined by the insanely fast leveling.

Leithian has those neat, comfortable visuals that distinguished many 2D games of late nineties. It does look outdated by about three years, but there is soul and beauty in some of these graphics. The music is consistently excellent, with some heart-wrenching, memorable melodies. Overall, there is something enchantingly nostalgic in the game's presentation.

Some people play Eastern RPGs only for their melodramatic stories. I can't deny the fact that the cozy soap-opera-like presentation of these games has a tremendous appeal. It brings us closer to the characters and hence provides more motivation for playing. Leithian is very story-driven and has a particularly Korean melancholic aura that makes it quite distinct from the usual bombastic Japanese style. Every character is introduced with a few lines but occupies an important spot in the party, and each brings in his or her own background story. These are presented with short videos of hand-drawn images.

The Bad

If my source is correct, the developers had to work under nearly humiliating conditions, and were forced by their publisher to release Leithian in an unfinished state. Sadly, this is most probably true, since the game suffers from aggravating balance issues that would have been unthinkable if it were tested properly.

From the moment you acquire the first companion early in the game it deteriorates into a mind-numbingly repetitive affair devoid of any challenge. I never died once in the game because the speed at which you accumulate experience points is improbably, obscenely fast. Very soon you'll be able to create a legitimate god mode for yourself. I once left my characters standing in the middle of a monster onslaught near the end of the game, and the poor critters literally couldn't scratch any of them. Playing an RPG with invulnerable characters can not be fun. All the depth of the system goes down the drain when you realize nothing matters and you'll win anyway. Why buy better equipment, develop characters, learn magic spells, if you don't need to do any of that to become an unstoppable killing machine?

You'll have to play the game with your own rules, otherwise the horrible balancing will ruin the enjoyment completely. Fiddle with magic and try to upgrade the characters as little as possible, avoid battles with any enemies that aren't directly on your way, and so on. A parameter-modifying patch would suffice to correct the problem, but unfortunately support for this game has apparently been discontinued. What surprises me is that nothing was done to correct these glaring flaws before releasing this game in Japan and China.

There are two other serious issues that may or may not have been caused by the rushed release. One is the complete lack of any loot except money. Yes, items are plentiful, but you can never find them, only buy them. This renders exploring meaningless and compels you to breeze through the game without stopping. Why bother designing vast locations if they have nothing of value to offer?

The other issue is the level design. Outdoor environments are plain, schematic fields without any thought put into making them attractive. They are boring to traverse and further reduce the desire to explore. For the most part the game is also completely devoid of dungeons. Only the finale has a few, and they are terrible, featureless mazes that look like something made by a random generator.

To that you should also add annoying, jerky pacing, with characters joining and leaving at their whim, sudden location-hopping that ruin the sense of traveling and exploration, and general linearity punctuated by depressing backtracking.

The sequel Narsillion corrects many of those problems and is overall a much more polished game.

The Bottom Line

You can't help feeling sympathy to Leithian, but sometimes it is almost akin to feeling pity to a cripple. Pressure from the publisher forced the talented designers to release a raw, underdeveloped product with game-breaking balance issues. They'll get a better shot at implementing their interesting concepts in their next game.