The return of the old-school RPG

Oh hey look — Brendan’s talking about RPG’s again. I can’t help it, there’s just too much to be excited about these day. Thanks to things like free 2 play, indie development, and Kickstarter, the gaming industry has seen an influx of fresh, creative minds as well as the return of legendary game creators, able to finally create the worlds they’ve been wanting to for years, but that have been pushed aside in favor of the cash-cow, AAA first person shooters and action games we’ve been buried under for the past couple console generations.

Look I know: RPG’s have been around for ages and have evolved with the times to remain relevant while still providing the types of experiences people have come to expect from the genre…

…err, sort of. I’m a huge fan of the Mass Effect series — arguably the biggest RPG franchise of the current console generation — but it’s not really an RPG. It’s a great, great series — truly — but compared to even some of its contemporaries it’s not much of an RPG. It’s also not the only series shifting away from role playing game’s origins.

While I’m not a big fan of JRPG’s, I can’t deny that the Final Fantasy XIII series (that sounds weird) has been a major departure not only from the roots of past FF games, but from JRPGs in general. And I recently vented my frustration with Blizzard, but it’s worth noting that Diablo III, despite remaining true to much of what’s great about the Diablo series, is missing that “RPG” quality. When I say “RPG’s are coming back,” I mean the old-school, hardcore RPG’s of yore.

Ishar 3

To be fair, there’s still a fair amount of Old-School RPG DNA in some of the biggest games today. Besides the few games still adhering to the old school formulas (Dungeons of Dredmor, The Dark Spire, Etrian Odyssey series), there are several titles that appeal to those who were gaming in the 80’s/90’s, or appreciate their legacy. The Witcher 2 is a great example of a game that balances the cinematic, character-based story of games like Mass Effect, with deep combat, skill systems, and character building of true old-school RPGs; Bethesda’s games offer massive worlds filled with quests, dungeons, and NPCs to create your own story — not to mention games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim prove you can evolve character building without sacrificing depth. And, of course, it wouldn’t be an article about RPGs if I didn’t mention Dark Souls, and it’s predecessor Demon’s Souls: truly hardcore RPGs of the modern era.

But when it comes to real old-school RPGs utilizing the same design of classic titles like Wizardry and Ultima, the industry has been in a bit of a drought. There’s always been a small, cult following around a few underground niche titles, but now there are a few projects brewing that will hopefully usher in a new surge of old-school RPGs.

Legend of Grimrock
Developer: Almost Human
Released: April 11, 2012
Website

We reviewed this game back when it was released earlier this year. It remains one of my favorite indie games of the year. Despite middling reviews from some critics, for many gamers like myself Legend of Grimrock was a great throwback to the dungeon crawlers of the 19980’s/90’s, tweaked and modernized for more accessibility. More importantly, it set the ground work for future sequels, and opened the door for new games in the genre to flourish.

Shaker
Developer: Loot Drop
Estimated Release: January 2014
Kickstarter Page

Being developed by Tom Hall (co-founder of id Software), and Brendan Brathwaite (Wizardry, Train, Dungeons & Dragons), Shaker is currently being funded on Kickstarter. The duo started the studio Loot Drop Games, and together with a highly qualified team, are looking to create a game in the same vein as the classic CRPGs of yore a la Wizardry, Lands of Lore, Ishar, etc.. Personally speaking, this is probably one of the few currently funding Kickstarter projects I’m really, really excited about. Check out their Kickstarter page and please back it! We need more games like this.

Project Eternity
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Estimated Release Date: April 2014
Website

Obsidian games are a studio well known to any RPG fan. Recently, the company was able to fully fund a brand new party-based RPG in the vein of Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate. This is another project I’m super excited for, and I’m really happy to see that they exceeded their goal and will be making this game. There is quite an impressive pedigree here, and some of the ideas being talked about remind me a lot of Planescape: Torment, one of my personal favorite games of all time. The success of this project gives me high hopes for the future of the genre.

Wasteland 2
Developer: InXile Entertainment

Estimated Release Date: Oct. 2013
Website

Before there was Fallout, there was Wasteland. In the wake of the massive success of Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter, Brian Fargo decided to reboot his post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland, and launched the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter. The project has been fully funded, and work is underway. Check out the video above for a small glimpse of what we can expect from this project. I never got a chance to play the original Wasteland, but as a huge fan of Fallout and Fallout 2 (games directly inspired by Wasteland) the footage has me jonesin for some top-down, post-apocalyptic roleplaying insanity.

Ultima Forever
Developer: Bioware,
Estimated Release Date: Winter 2012
Website

Speaking of well known developers, Bioware is resurrecting one of the oldest and most influencial Role Playing series with Ultima Forever. Essentially a remake of Ultima IV, this new title is going to be entirely free to play (or, as Bioware calls it “Play4Free”) and will be playable on PC, as well as iPad. According to Bioware, the game will feature many of the old mechanics of the Ultima series, while combat will be positional and action-oriented, comparing it to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Definitely on my list of need-to-play games —  I mean c’mon, free Ultima!

That list almost sounds too good to be true. So many great names and developers are behind these projects, and my hopes are high. And these are just classic RPG’s; we’re also seeing the return of point and click adventure games (thanks to Tim Schaefer and Double Fine’s highly successful Kickstarter campaign), mech games (MechWarrior Online, Hawken), turn-based strategy (The Banner Saga, XCOM: Enemy Unknown), and of course Chris Robert’s return to gaming and the long-forgotten space-combat sim with Squardron 42. It’s almost too much to handle! With such bright prospects like these, it’s hard to argue we’re not in a new golden-age of videogames. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a basement to return to.

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The Dark Spire versus Etrian Odyssey II: Hardcore RPG face-off

Blah blah blah Skyrim. Blah blah blah Dark SoulsBlah blah blah Diablo. Blah blah blah Mass Effect.

We’ve probably beaten  it into your heads by now, but here at Power Cords, we like RPGs. Personally speaking I love RPGs; but unlike many gamers (and even some of the writers here at Power Cords), I prefer a specific type of experience from my RPGs. While some pine for loot and others eat up story lines and dialogue, I prefer immersion and exploration.

There are different definitions of exploration. For example, the fantasy setting of The Elder Scrolls series offer massive lands to traverse and are the perfect settings for exploration; while games like Dark Souls, Legend of Grimrock, and Dungeons of Dredmor allow players to explore and experiment with the game mechanics through trial and error (and a fair bit of luck). I love that sort of hands-off design that encourages the player to try new things — even if the ultimately end in failure. as I mentioned earlier this week, I’m still playing Dark Souls for that very reason. Unfortunately, I’ve found myself away from my Xbox — and therefore Dark Souls — this weekend. Not to be melodramatic, but in an effort to stave off the bumming, I took a look at two relatively unknown RPGs for the Nintendo DS with similar design concepts and old-school sensibilities: The Dark Spire and Etrian Odyssey II. 

The Dark Spire

Developed by Success and published by Atlus, The Dark Spire is a dark, dreadfully difficult hardcore dungeon crawler that is essentially a throwback to the CRPGs of yore like Wizardry and A Bard’s Tale. The basic scenario for The Dark Spire revolves around a single, massive tower with several floors to explore. Hidden atop the tower is a sorcerer who has stolen a necklace from the royal family. You create a party of adventurers to scale the tower, defeat the sorcerer, and return the necklace. That’s it.  Some quests and dialogue flesh out the background and setting a bit more, but that’s about it. The story doesn’t get any deeper than that; climbing the tower and scouring each of its floors is a story in itself, and is far more compelling than any hackneyed fantasy tale would be.

I haven’t had too much time with the game yet, but so far I like what I’ve seen. The art is wonderful — it has a dark, comic-book-ish feel (large hand drawn “BOOM’s” will flash across the screen when a character scores a critical hit). Despite having essentially zero animation, the art still manages to draw you in and create a strong sense of place. The music is also great, often times sounding like Castlevania crossed with the early Elder Scrolls games. But the art is just the surface of the extremely deep game.

In The Dark Spire, you control a 4-man party, exploring grid-based dungeons in first person, a la Legends of Grimrock. Character stats are rolled randomly in the creation process, making each one you create unique from the rest. In terms of gameplay, very little is explained to the player. New items do little to explain how they will affect your characters’ stats, instead requiring trial and error to find out what work best. Certain game mechanics, such as character alignment, praying, quests, or learning new spells, exist without tutorial or explanation. There seems to be quite a bit here that could easily be overlooked if you jump in impatiently; try to mash the A button to get through the random battles, and you’ll quickly find yourself at the game over screen. I’ve even read there are hidden classes that can be unlocked through a class combination system and unlockable races. How do I go about discovering this stuff? No clue, but I look forward to delving into this game to find just how deep these mechanics go.

Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard

Etrian Odyssey is another Atlus joint, this time being both developed and published by the Japanese company (it’s worth noting that Atlus also published Demon’s Souls, of which Dark Souls is the spiritual sequel). EO II is very similar to The Dark Spire: first person dungeon crawling, random monster encounters, minimal story, and interfacing with towns mainly through menu navigation. However, EO II features a few gameplay hooks that set it apart. First is the map system. Instead of slowly uncovering a map as you explore, your tasked with drawing and completing your own via the stylus screen on the DS. This adds another layer of depth to exploration, but also another way for you to completely screw yourself over; draw an incorrect map, and you may jeopardize the success of your quest.

The second change is the class/guild system. In Etrian Odyssey II, the world of Lagaard is filled with guilds of adventurers attempting to uncover ancient secrets about their world. At the outset of your adventure, you create your own guild. You can then fill out your ranks with up to 30 characters. While the stat rolling isn’t random like in The Dark Spire, the number of classes available to you is far greater, each one filling slightly different rolls than the others. You may then select up to 5 of your guild members to join your party and enter the labyrinthine forests of the Yggdrasil tree.

Equipment and stats are more transparent in EO II than The Dark Spire, but the added depth of the class system means you must experiment with class synergy to find effective formations, provide both deeply challenging yet highly rewarding gameplay.

I also really like the art design of the Etrian Odyssey games. It’s almost like an lighter, anime-inspired Dark Souls, and very reminiscent of the Disgaea series. The character portraits and art design makes EO II a very pretty game, despite the majority of the game being handled through static 2D sprites and menus.

Closing thoughts

Both games are excellent examples of hardcore dungeon crawling. Their depth and difficulty scratch the Dark Souls itch — well, as closely they can, at least. I enjoy and appreciate their design philosophies, choosing to let the player explore the game mechanics and dungeons to find their own paths and strategies instead of hand-holding or restricting experimentation. While that can lead to failure and frustration, it also leads to high levels of reward and progression. I haven’t had enough time with the games to say which I prefer over the other but at this point, despite having seemingly more aspects of the gameplay unexplained and hidden initially, I’ve found The Dark Spire more conducive to pick up and play, simply due to the meticulous map drawing of Etrian Odyssey II being a hassle at times (it doesn’t help I’m not playing the games on their original platform *ehem*). That being said, I do find Etrian Odyssey’s class mechanics and presentations slightly more appealing.

The Dark Spire

Despite being very similar in gameplay and design, Etrian Odyseey II and The Dark Spire offer different dungeon crawling experiences: one is a mythical adventure inspired by manga and anime; the other is a dark medieval quest. They’re hard games that require patience, planning, and dedication, but the payoff is immense. If you’re in the market for a heavy duty RPG experience, then both of these games are perfect for you. Personally, I’d recommend both equally; picking one or the other essentially just comes down to aesthetic taste. But hey, why not pick up both? It’s always good to have options. And kudos for Atlus for bringing these and many more excellent RPGs to the states.

Scores

The Dark Spire: 4/5

Etrian Odyssey: Heroes of Lagaard: 4/5

Why you should play Dark Souls

–By Brendan

Why do we play video games? Is it to experience deep and moving stories? Do we play to marvel at the artistic and graphical capabilities of a game’s engine? Or, is it simply to win?

One could argue that, for the large majority of gamers, it’s to win. Be it defeating a difficult boss, collecting all the hidden items, or reigning supreme in multiplayer matches —we play video games to win. Strangely enough, however, games seem to be offering less and less opportunity to “win.” Despite this new trend, last month saw the release of Dark Souls, a game that many are calling “the most difficult game ever made”, and giving gamers who love to win a run for their money. Continue reading “Why you should play Dark Souls”