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Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181697)
Written on  :  May 26, 2004
Rating  :  4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars

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A new RPG style is born

The Good

You played Ultima IX: Ascension, liked its style and atmosphere, but were disappointed with its lack of true RPG elements. You were fond of the role-playing in Elder Scrolls games, but thought they were too big and random. You even heard about King's Field, but wanted something more sophisticated and social. And here comes a modest game made by a virtually unknown German developer, and miraculously fulfills your wishes.

Already the beginning of Gothic gives you an idea about the game's serious intentions. Set in an austere, semi-realistic 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 hostile world where dangerous beasts lurk at every corner and where you have to play by the strict and harsh rules of the prisoner society. Instead of being on a "grand quest", you must first and foremost survive.

There are three camps in the prison colony - large town-like locations with many inhabitants and complex social systems, plus plenty of wilderness areas and a few dungeons. 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. Everything in the game is hand-crafted, and although its world cannot compare to the gigantic spaces of Elder Scrolls in size, it feels more immersive because nothing in it is randomized.

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 a 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 of the game (especially in its 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 join 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 make 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. You'll find friends willing to help you in all the three camps, rewarding you for your hard work.

The whole point of traditional role-playing is to train your character and 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 fits the concept and the story of the game like a glove. You start the game as a nobody. You don't dare attack a small group of scavengers. A wolf can kill you in 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. 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 potential death.

This leads to some frighteningly realistic experiences of the kind I highly value in games. I remember the horror I had when I strayed 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 was going on, seeing only the dead body on the ground and the wild dinosaur-like beast ferociously circling it. In the next chapter, I took the three animals out with three hits.

I wouldn't go into so much detail if I weren't genuinely excited by the feeling of growth and achievement this game provides. 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 strikes the perfect balance there. 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 what you can handle. Money is generally hard to get. You'll be better off learning various hunting skills and selling animal pelts, or stealing things.

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 learn different skills from various people. You can just upgrade your strength, dexterity, or magic points, or you can advance in circles of magic, learn to be a silent assassin, or master various kinds of weapons. You can choose to play the game as one of the three general classes - warrior, ranger, or mage. 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 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 the game are furious, you'll die a lot, but this is all part of RPG enjoyment. You can perform different strikes and parry, or use ranged attacks. 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 is still a lot to do. You can climb, jump, and swim; although you can't manipulate all the objects, you can do nice things such as hunting animals and getting their pelts or claws, roasting meet, making weapons from ore, etc.

Of course, Gothic wouldn't be the same without its fantastic graphics. Done in 3D, with full camera rotation, viewed from over-the-shoulder perspective, game's world is truly magnificent. Particularly stunning is the beauty of the nature: just climb on any mountain or tower and look down, and you would simply want to stay there for a while and enjoy. Beautiful light and weather effects bring the world to life. At the same time, everything seems to be very simple in Gothic: no exotic plants, animals, no unusual landscapes, no strange and extravagant buildings. It is, in fact, a fairly small and bleak region of a supposedly vast medieval world, but one crafted with care and love.

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 soundtrack seems to serve only as background, but if you listen to it carefully, you'll discover its quality and 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, censors a scene with nudity, and apparently doesn't translate the script very well. That is a pity, so if you know German, get the original version.

The Bad

Gothic is not without flaws. There are some bugs, mostly of the visual 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. CG cutscenes are of surprisingly low quality and almost look worse than in-game graphics. It would have been better to make the whole game entirely with the engine and not bother with the videos.

The plot of Gothic starts in an original and promising way, but gradually regains more and more cliches and throws itself back into the past. It is as if the developers were afraid to be original till the end. The more you play, the more corny stuff gets in your way, until you begin hearing once again about being the only hope and even fulfilling a stupid "ancient prophecy".

This descent into the trivial affects the gameplay as well. Once you finally become cool and powerful, you are sent on a generic quest that leaves little room for experimentation, securely guiding you to the final destination. In a way, that wasn't too bad because it allowed me to release the stress accumulated during my pauper times by marching forward and feverishly hacking big monsters in a temple. It's just that the first part was so unusually good that these activities seemed disappointing.

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 RPGs and establish a loyal fan community that appreciated its uncompromising gameplay and beautifully crafted world. A bright future lies ahead of this title, and here's hoping more games will learn from it.