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SummaryGreat design mechanics, buggy and not always the best in terms of execution.
The GoodPrelude to Darkness is a turn-based fantasy RPG much like the Gold Box games and The Temple of Elemental Evil. The game is not based on an existing franchise or setting, however; instead, the developers have created a brand new world complete with its own mythology and backstory. Since 2006 the game has been available as a free download from the developer's website.
Combat is turn-based and features a party-based action-point system with a number of tactical options. Combat consists of moving your character across a grid until it is within range of an opponent. You then select from among different combat actions, such as normal and heavy attacks, spells, etc. You can also choose to wait or defend your position until the next turn or round. Once an action has been performed, the game moves on to the next unit. When all units have performed an action, the game cycles back to the first unit and starts again. When all units have depleted their action points and there's no possibility for a unit to perform an additional action, the round ends to be followed by a new round. When not in combat the game plays in real-time.
There is a considerable assortment of weapon and armor types, including helms, breastplates, boots, leggings, and so on. Weapons differ in terms of damage dealt and the rate at which they can be used. They may have additional bonus modifiers that improve weapon- or magic-related skills. Armor differ in the level of protection they offer as well as how much they negatively impact movement speed. If your character is wielding a one-handed weapon he/she may also carry a shield (though I'm not sure what effect equipping a shield has on your effectiveness while attacking). Most equipped items have requirements for basic attributes like strength, dexterity, and so forth that must be met first. Potions and herbs can be consumed for temporary stat boosts. A handful of rare rings and other artifacts are also scattered around the world that improve stats when equipped.
The game features a number of non-combat skills such as bartering, pickpocketing, music, etc.. At some point in the game nearly all of these become important in one way or another as they are needed to solve quests. Thus, it may prove to be unlikely that you will be capable of solving all quests in the game. All skills, combat or otherwise, are trained both through frequent use as well as by allocating skill points acquired from quests. Basic attributes such as strength, dexterity, charisma and so forth generally cannot be improved permanently.
The game world is seamless, meaning you can walk freely from one end of the world (or valley, rather, since that's where the game takes place) to the other without (with a few exceptions) encountering any sort of obstructions or loading screens. Once a location has been marked on your map you can also "quick travel" to it by clicking on its map icon. Another cool feature is the game's use of heightfields for terrain. I'm not sure to what effect this is used in the game (obstructions like trees and rocks have no effect on ranged attacks for example), but it's something I'd like to see used more in games.
Occasionally, your wanderings will trigger a random encounter. Random encounters range from highway robbers to wild beasts to innocents-in-need to other travelers on journeys much like your own. There is at least one NPC who will wish to join your party when encountered. Encounters spawn at your physical location, and you will see a message with a number of options asking you what to do. You can decide to face them, try to evade them (this is where your wilderness skill comes into play), and a few other things. While the units that are spawned do seem to appear out of nowhere, I think this system is a lot better than having a horde of creatures roaming around the countryside in real time. A little abstraction is sometimes good.
There are a fair variety of locations you can visit on the map. They include idyllic pastoral farming communities, a logging camp, a citadel perched aside a mountaintop (think Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings), and an academy of thaumaturgists. Each location features a fair number of residents and a smaller number of quests. Most buildings consist of a single storey, though a few have a second. The architecture seemed to me to vary appropriately based on the affluence or position of the buildings' owners. However, I didn't always find the locations entirely convincing, and I'm not entirely sure why. They just didn't quite convey their "citadel-ness" or "academy-ness" or whatever to me as successfully as they could (or should) have, and they ended up being kind of tedious to explore.
Quests range from relatively simple Fed-Ex missions to more detailed sequences spanning multiple stages and locations. There is generally more than one way to solve a quest, including combat and/or non-combat solutions. (I can't confirm if it is actually possible to complete the game using only non-combat skills, though I'd be interested in knowing whether this is the case.) Quests often require you to make moral choices, and depending on the quest, your choice has the potential of influencing how other NPCs around you react to you. It may also be that you will fail a quest by making the wrong choice. Overall, the quality of PtD's quests is just OK. Some of them are kind of inventive, others are pretty boring. I started losing interest after a while. Other than a few typos here and there, the quest (and other) dialogue is pretty well-written though - one of the game's better points.
There are also a few quests that are bugged, meaning that you will be unable to complete the quest or proceed on to the next step. There's no "cheat console" as far as I know to fix such errors with. But, this didn't to me happen often, and I didn't encounter any problems involving the main quest that would prevent you from "winning" the game - though one of them did affect the other major quest in the game (no spoilers here), which I was unable to complete as a result. Thankfully, loading times are also very short (less than 30 seconds) these days on modern systems.
The BadCombat, while superb in terms of its basic mechanics, suffers from a severe shortage of creature types. Very few creatures are able to perform anything other than standard melee attacks, with only the human bandit types having an archer unit as far as I could tell. There are also no "buffs" against whatever specific effects (except for one which I'll not mention due to it being a spoiler) that ranged or magic attacks would necessitate protection from, so I guess it sort of makes sense. The result, however, is that combat too often becomes monotonous and something to be avoided rather than anticipated with eagerness (unless of course repetitiveness and boredom is something that you like). Likewise, random encounters with some of the other travelers, while interesting the first few times they happen, become irritating after a while as you end up meeting the same characters over and over again with no change in their status or their one- or two-line dialogue choices. (Maybe the developers intended there to be more meat here but didn't end up having the time to implement it. I dunno. It might have been cool though.) Also, while I don't normally like long dungeon crawls that drag on forever, this game could have used a few more combat areas - though given the small number of critter types that are available maybe I should be thankful they didn't. Minor issues, all of them, anyway.
While the dialogue is well-written, how the story is presented is lacking in some other respects. The story is in no way bad, but before long I stopped really caring much about what was happening in the game. My player characters had very little to say, and outside of their abilities purely as combat meat puppets, lock pickers and trap de-springers, there was very little about them that to be interested about. A more focused narrative with some additional exposition and/or cut-scenes would really have helped. That is not to say that I like the over-use of cut-scenes, static dialogue sequences or "Acts" in RPGs. In fact, just the opposite. But a little more structure and affirmation regarding your efforts would have been nice.
Also, while technically speaking the quests do tend to offer players more than one solution to a problem, they are nonetheless still rather atomic in nature. They rarely affect other quests in neighboring regions, and their impact on the overall story events is rather weak. I guess this is how/why people differentiate between "main" quests and "side" quests in RPGs, but I'd rather not have to, and I'd rather see a greater interrelation/interconnection between events and quests. A web or petri net of quests instead of just a branching tree I guess.
(Digression: I think that branching options may be necessary in dialogue sequences since they are supposed to be sequential in nature. However, quests need not be sequential, thus can benefit from a greater degree of complexity and interconnectedness.)
I do think the character named "The Watcher" was originally intended to sort of play the part of narrator, as he delivers the opening and ending cut-scenes, and you report to him from time to time throughout the game. I would have liked to have seen more of this, with him maybe acting as a sort of "seventh" character who operates (or directs things) from behind the scenes. Complete with additional cut-scenes showing him writing in his journal. Or whatever.
The most glaring of the game's flaws, however, are technical in nature. First of all, the game is full of bugs despite having been patched all the way to v1.80. The bugs range from crash-to-desktop bugs, to system lock-ups that require a re-boot or at least a re-log. They can be triggered by completely inane things like buying/selling stacks of items instead of buying/selling them individually, or by selecting tiles that happen to lie outside the engine's drawing area (frequently, in underground areas). The AI also sometimes gets "stuck" during combat, requiring a re-boot or re-log, though this seems to be the rarest of the crash bugs. Anyway, expect the game to crash a few times every hour.
Secondly, the game's graphics are not the best. The game uses a hybrid fully-3D/isometric engine that technically similar to those found in Maxis games like The Sims and SimCity 4, except without any sort of 2D sprites whatsoever. The models are blocky, however, and the textures desaturated and pixelated, giving the game an overall ugly, drab look that lacks the vibrancy of the other titles. Also, I only ever used a single orientation, so the camera controls allowing you to rotate/tilt/zoom the camera in all directions ended up becoming more of a nuisance than anything else as they could easily be pressed by accident. Lastly, the game does not make use of shadows or shading, which makes everything look very flat and unrealistic.
Thirdly, the interface is in need of refinement. The game suffers from interface lag (due to a poor framerate maybe, though granted my $19-at-Fry's video card might not be the greatest) where the mouse will suddenly stall causing you to click the wrong button. Selecting objects/units using the mouse is also tricky. Interface buttons tend toward the small side, which is a serious problem at higher display resolutions. And, almost the entire interface is textured with the same lame, brown wood pattern, making it hard to read text and discern individual interface elements clearly.
Fourthly, the game could use a few more indicators for such things as the number of action points remaining as well as aiming/attack accuracy. It could also use a few more hotkeys such that the game's combat menus could effectively be navigated using only the keyboard.
Lastly, the quest diary system also doesn't seem to be functioning properly. AFAIK, you are supposed to be able to view diary entries/logs related to individual quests or to individual locations, but I could only ever view them as a single, long chronological sequence in the "General" category for "All locations". Tedious.
The Bottom LineAs far as combat mechanics and character development/outfitting go, there's little more that you could ask for. Everything is near-perfect (except maybe the missing-but-useless buffs). The dialogue is well-written, and the seamless world and random encounter systems are among the best I've seen in an RPG. However, there's a severe lack of creature/unit types (which would make the aforementioned missing-but-useless buffs actually useful) and narrative content, and the quests are too atomic (i.e. not as interconnected as they could have been), making them kind of boring despite the high quality of the writing. Also, the ending is rather weak and doesn't involve enough ass-kicking.
Regardless, for the most part in Prelude to Darkness's case it is probably technical issues and a bit of poor presentation that prevented the game from being considered a classic. I hate to harp on the graphics too much, but maybe the game would have kept me captivated longer such that I would not have lost interest as quickly if the graphics were slightly improved. Of course, the constant crashes, framerate and interface lag didn't help, either.