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Review - posted by Elwro on Wed 12 December 2007, 20:58:05
Is this even an RPG? Who cares? It's a pretty enjoyable little indie game which (save for a review or two) went completely unnoticed when it was released back in 2006. So let's have a look, even if its RPG elements are minimal and it plays more like a turn-based tactical game – we like such stuff too, don't we? After all, this site has referred to Silent Storm as an RPG in the past.
Think Heroes of Might and Magic. Remove city building and separate battlegrounds so that resources are not an issue and all combat takes place on the main map. Let the player control only individual heroes (no armies). Add a few things to the stat system and some quests down the road. What's left is pretty much like Styrateg. Not impressed? If it had an involving plot, interesting quests and gripping tactical combat, a game like that could become a cult classic. While entertaining, Styrateg definitely falls short of this status.
After choosing one of three difficulty levels and selecting our character from a small set of typical fantasy archetypes presented, we start the campaign. It all begins with a letter sent to us by a friend, a monk serving in an abbey far to the west. He sends word of a great evil threatening the land – a huge city has fallen prey to a mysterious zombifying curse, and hordes of twisted beings begin to roam the peaceful land. The king declines to help. The world needs a hero again, eh?
So begins a completely linear 20-mission campaign, during which we will have to traverse a long way around the kingdom, through green valleys, frosty mountains and hot deserts. But first, we need to choose whether we will be playing in an “RPG” or “Strategy mode”. The difference is that the first mode has... no turn limit in the missions. As far as I could tell, it's the only thing that changes. A rather strange notion of “RPG”, I'd say. Anyway, it's good that you can always toggle this in the options menu. More on this feature later.
The missions take place on separate maps and typically have simple goals – reach the abbey, capture a few mines so that an Evil Lord loses his source of income, find 5 magical items needed to open a gate to an underground labyrinth and so on. There are also many smaller quests (“Rescue my fellow villagers!”, “Kill the beasts roaming nearby!”) you can get while exploring the location. When you leave a map after reaching the main goal, there's no coming back – which sometimes means you'll not be seeing a shop in a few missions, so take care.
The whole game is turn-based. Your characters act – move, use/equip items, cast spells, use skills – until they run out of action points. Unfortunately, it's not easy to see the point cost of the different spells – you have to select them and move the mouse over a possible target. So, until you memorize the various point costs, planning your turn may be quite wearisome and you're in for some potentially fatal mistakes.
The stat system is very simple. All characters have three main attributes: Strength, Intelligence and Dexterity. The last one determines the number of action points, so increasing it helps all characters. Non-spellcasting types may forget about Intelligence (strengthens spells), and casters can do the same with Strength (increases melee damage you deal). In fact, you can abuse the system by putting all your stat points (you get two each level) in Dexterity, while increasing your physical damaging capabilities or the strength of your spells by building up skills with the skill points you get after leveling. But no one forces you to do that, of course. There are two derived attributes: Attack and Defense, which take into account your stats, items and spells you're under influence of.
Skills include methods of physically harming the enemy (melee attack, range attack etc) and spells (ice / fire ball, dispel, curse, bless). Each character (either the one you start the game with or any of those which join you on your way) begins with one or two skills, but in many missions you're given a possibility to acquire new ones. Theoretically nothing can stop you from developing your character as a fighter / spellcaster.
The first missions are a breeze and don't last much longer than 15 minutes. Then, they gradually demand more time – both because there are more things to do and opponents to fight, and because your party may significantly increase in number. Some of the heroes join your cause because the plot dictates so, while others are optional and require performing a simple quest or handing over some money. If you get whomever you can, the party will have about 8 members, including a few fighters, a spellcaster, a witch proficient in cursing and a paladin skilled in blessing – so you end up with a pretty typical fantasy lineup. The later missions may take up to an hour and boil down to tactical turn-based combat in a fantasy world – buff up, curse the enemy, send tanks up front, keep the mages to the rear, kill, accumulate XPs.
That's one of the problems with Styrateg – while it's quite fun to play, it doesn't offer anything innovative or surprising. In fact, it could be a lot better if the developers just put more thought into it. Why do all stores in the whole game world have the same set of (fairly standard) items? Why is the campaign 100% linear? Instead of a chain of 20 missions, wouldn't it be better to have a choice in there somewhere, resulting e.g. in an otherwise closed possibility of recruiting an NPC with a unique skill? It would definitely increase replayability – even with various difficulty levels, I don't feel like going through the campaign again.Why are almost all sidequests bland and generic? In one mission it turned out, to my astonishment, that an illness my character contracted became a very useful skill – why doesn't the game feature more moments like this one, stuff that could surprise the player? The fact that the developers haven't shown Styrateg to a fluent English speaker doesn't help, unfortunately.
Some of the later missions try to evoke the feeling of urgency. Sadly, it boils down solely to the turn limit. If you have to chase down a guy before he gets to the coast and boards a ship filled with a crew of his trusty pirates, you can be sure he's standing right there on the seashore on turn 1, waiting for you to reach him before the time limit passes. So if you play in the RPG mode, which gives you an unlimited number of turns for each scenario, all sense of urgency disappears, which is a shame. Of course you can turn the limit on just for such scenarios, but I think we can agree that's not a proper solution.
There's also a problem with scale. During the missions we break a few sieges and fight whole armies. I mean, it's reasonable to expect that the “Soldier” unit represents a group of people, not just a single dogface. And yet, our units are individual characters – Zarappa the Witch, Gwyn the Barbarian etc. As I said, even if you recruit everyone you can, your group won't (I'm pretty sure) consist of more than eight people. This makes the whole siege-breaking and castle-conquering business a little weird. Of course, this is a fantasy game, so perhaps we should just suspend our disbelief.
The 2D tile graphics are quite pretty and do their job. The creatures are austerely animated and spell effects don't break any new grounds. Overall, anyone who can enjoy some oldschool gaming won't be disappointed with Styrateg's visuals. I was initially pleasantly surprised by the quality of the soundtrack. The developers have contracted two groups specializing in Medieval vocal-instrumental music, and the results seem fresh and absorbing... at first. The problem is that there are definitely too few tracks, as even a pretty piece can get old when you listen to it for the 10th time in an hour. Prepare to turn sound off and provide your own music after a while. (Myself, I usually enjoy this and have played quite a few games to some good performances of Bach's 48, but of course a game cannot score points for music just because you can turn it off. Well, we don't give points anyway...)
The game didn't crash even once during my playthrough. Still, it has a few bugs. During one mission my goal was to raid a certain city and exterminate a fleeing individual. The game assumed I couldn't achieve the former without the latter, and after my heroes destroyed the city defences it greeted them with a message in the shape of “It's great that you've captured the city and Lord X is dead!”. Lord X, mind you, was still alive and kicking (but not for very long). Also, even though the game is at 1.13 now, it seems the fact that the unit health bar is definitely to the right of the place it should be remains unnoticed. By the way, patching the game is essential – bringing not only some crucial interface improvements, but also a mission editor. It seems fairly easy to use, especially since you can load some of the sample maps which come with the patch. This could potentially increase replayability, although unfortunately I don't see many Styrateg maps around.
Even though this review might sound very negative, the game is quite entertaining. At $12.95 it might be worth it for those who can enjoy an oldschool fantasy romp. I was surprised to discover that Styrateg shines as a casual game. Tired after work? A mission or two of Styrateg might be just what you need. Try the demo and check for yourself. Unfortunately, for me the game only picked up later on – the demo, in which you control only a few characters, is not really representative of the game.
Bottom line: the flaws of this game do not result from a small budget, but from a lack of good ideas. I hope Rake in Grass are more creative in future projects.