Despite the success of games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect, the single-player RPG is a rare species on the PC these days. As our beloved genre rapidly morphs into the more profitable massively multiplayer format, a number of German development studios have stepped into the market with titles such as Sacred, Gothic and the subject of today's review, Drakensang: The Dark Eye. Having already won honors as Germany's RPG of 2008, the game has finally made its way to the States. And though it's a solid addition to the RPG catalog (and a bargain at a mere thirty bucks), Drakensang may leave some gamers wanting more of certain features and less of others.
I won't spoil any of the 80-or-so hour experience as far as the story goes, except to say that the player begins playing detective and helping out the local law enforcement before discovering a greater destiny as the fulfillment (or possibly just errand boy) for a long-standing prophecy. There are twists and turns along the way and even some flat out surprises but the setting itself is completely unremarkable. No, I don't have anything at all against haughty elves or absent-minded wizards or humorless Amazon warriors -- these characters are cliches precisely because they represent concepts that are intensely compelling -- but it doesn't feel as though Drakensang does anything with them that we haven't seen in countless books, movies and games already.
Yes, it's unfortunate that the basic ideas are somewhat generic but the real disappointment is that they're used in a generic way. A scholarly wizard who accidentally causes a catastrophe because he's too focused on his studies? Yep, that's here. How about an overconfident rogue who constantly has to talk himself out of complicated situations with women and legal authorities? That's here too. When he's finally arrested for the one crime that he didn't commit, it's like, okay, I get it.
On the plus side, the story itself is well written, much more so than is usually the case with translated games. The situations are believable and handled in a way that engages your interest and encourages your sympathy. Whether you're simply offering a job to an old friend's servant or trying to soothe the anger of a vengeful and tortured elven spirit, there's a lot of emotional weight behind the quests and missions. You won't find quite as much freedom of choice as you would in, say Oblivion or Fable, but you do get a few chances here and there to pick sides or attitudes in a certain encounter.
Drakensang is based on a very popular pen-and-paper game in Germany so it draws its rules from a coherent and comprehensive system. Having never played the tabletop game, I can't vouch for the authenticity of the rules, but I can say that they seem a bit more complex than the systems used in many other popular RPGs, both on and off the desktop. Maybe I'm just spoiled because I'm already so familiar with the D&D and D20 systems that it's no great leap for me to jump into Neverwinter Nights and instantly understand the relationships between the math and the game results. Drakensang may be just as intuitive and accessible to people who've played it a lot but in trying to break into the North American market, I feel that the designers need to make their system more transparent.
I'm not calling for a reduction in overall complexity. With so many of our RPGs being simplified purely to appeal to the console crowd, I actually welcome the fact that Drakensang requires a bit of effort from the player. What I don't like is the way the presentation obscures the inner workings of the game. When I'm leveling up a character, for instance, I'd like to have a clearer understanding of whether it's better to boost a skill by buying new ranks or by boosting the associated attribute and thereby gaining a bonus to all the related skills. Though you can dig around and turn up some of this information on your own, a system of easy tool tips would make it easier to players to refine their approach to the game.
This issue comes up right away during character creation. We're presented with a wide range of character templates, from amazons to elementalists to pirates. You can pick a class based solely on its overall vibe ("that dwarf has a cool beard") or its specific gameplay utility ("I want to open locked doors"), and, because of the advancement and party systems, that's probably enough to go on. But players who want to fiddle with their character's values will be restricted to small shifts in skill focus for one of the existing archetypes. If you have a specific character in mind, you'll just have to find the template that fits it best.
After you've played a bit, you'll have the chance to improve your character's skills and even acquire new abilities from the many career counselors parked around town and in the wild. By the time you've passed your first few levels, you may find that you feel a bit more confident in picking the right skills to boost. You may have realized, for instance, that "Etiquette" is still not getting used like you thought it would, but that "Perception" and "First Aid" are absolutely indispensable. The point buy system gives players a chance to develop according to their own ideas, but it seems as if a usage-based advancement system like that found in Dungeon Siege or Morrowind might make the game more accessible and advanced a bit less arbitrary. "Hey, killing that evil tree creature really gave me new insights into Human Nature."
As an added bonus, the game includes an MMO-worthy crafting component with its own skills, required components and recipes. Whether you're picking berries in the forest to make a potion, or buying steel for your forge, there's a bit of fun to be found in creating your own items and then trying them out in the field.
Ultimately, though, what you're really here for is to kill monsters and complete quests. Though you'll occasionally be stopped by supplicants on the street (or even overhear conversations that lead you to quests) you'll have to find most of the quests yourself by talking to absolutely everybody you see. Many of the quests come with a specific geographic marker, so you're rarely at a loss as to where to go. The exception, of course, are the "Will you please find my...?"-style quests. With those, you're lucky if you get a vague description of where the item might be. Whether you find it seems to have more to do with luck than attentiveness.
Drakensang wins points with me by including a wide and varied party of adventures who will share your quest. You can pick any three of your available followers to journey with you as you roam from place to place in the world. I was quite happy when I finally recruited the hot lady elf and was able to make a foursome of me and three lovely ladies. (Yes, I missed my disgraced, bestubbled dwarf, but the aesthetic appeal of seeing three ladies kick the living crap out of a zombie would not be denied.) Better still, you can actually take direct control of any of your party members and make full use of their skills and inventories. You can also select the entire group (or portions thereof) to ease the burden of command.
Whichever characters you're not controlling display a fair bit of autonomy, so you don't need to assign them targets in each and every encounter. Simply wade into the fight with your main character and they'll be sure to back you up. I was a bit disappointed at first that the other members of my party always seemed to be lagging behind or hung up on objects in the environment, but once I started controlling them all as a group, it became much easier to keep them together and all but eliminated the aggravating moments where I'd be the only one fighting for the first ten seconds of any encounter. The characters can be assigned to "attack" or "defend" but the range of options in the game is too great for such a simple system. I'd much rather have seen something like the capital ship ability toggles in Sins of a Solar Empire where you give each character permission to fire off certain powers at will.
That, sadly, is where I think the game's combats sort of fell apart. The turn-based rounds are all going on under the hood, but the whole presentation of the game is geared towards letting those battles play out in real time. The trouble is that, to play the game with as much tactical advantage as possible, you've got to stop and start the action every few rounds just to make sure that your characters are all doing what they should be doing at any one time. Yeah, you can switch around to different characters, but when you're smashing away at an enemy necromancer, hoping that you can kill him before the dozens of skeletons he's summoned stab you to death, you really want to make the most out of each second of the game. Even if you do have a fight that you can afford to wage in real time, the rounds are too apparent. Watching all your attacks launch in unison is funny at first but it soon gets kind of depressing.
Fortunately the combats get more interesting as the game progresses. After hours of killing nothing but wolf rats in the sewers (I'm hoping "wolf rat" sounds less odd in the original German), you'll soon find that your enemies make use of spellcasters, ambushes, surprise reinforcements and a number of other tricks that make it a more active affair. On the downside, of course, that means more stopping and starting, but at least it's more interesting from a purely tactical level.
Drakensang is, on the whole, a very beautiful game with graphics that display a high level of technical and artistic strengths. It's true that it's full of the same dwarves and crypts and barrels we've seen in other games, but I really think that the attention to detail here sets Drakensang apart. The characters and cities all have lots of style, from tiny detailing on the clothing, to massive trading ships at the docks. When the main character finally gets a house of their very own, it's honestly rewarding to just walk around and looking at it for a few minutes.
The wild areas are equally engaging with plenty of natural details that make them feel like more than just game levels with grass and trees. Sure, there are still chokepoints and paths and hallways in some of the levels, but they're concealed behind natural geography as much as possible. The outdoor areas are particularly moody with lighting and weather being used to great effect.
Spell effects are bright and colorful and combat animations seem to have a real sense of weight and connection to them. There are some unfortunate texture problems here and there and some unavoidable tearing and clipping in some of the more complicated areas but otherwise the visuals are fantastic.
Drakensang's overall mood is greatly enhanced by its musical score, which sets the tone beautifully. These fantastic themes are punctuated by a chorus of ambient sounds that add a real sense of life to the world. The few bits of spoken dialogue that are present in the game are very well done, but there's simply just not enough of it to maintain the illusion of life.
With so many North American and Asian developers focusing their RPG efforts exclusively in the MMO arena or scaling back their single player games for the console market, it's fortunate that fans of PC RPGs still have somewhere to turn. That alone makes Drakensang a standout in the PC catalog. For a developer to stick to a complex design and for a publisher to appreciate the value of a one-time purchase over a subscription fee is reason celebrate.
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