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Jools' Drakensang Review
Review - posted by Elwro on Sun 13 March 2011, 19:27:43Tags: Drakensang
When I first picked up Drakensang, I was quite sceptical. A German RPG of which I had not heard anything before, about which there did not seem that many information about, based on a German PnP RPG which was just as obscure to me. As the main menu loads, my eyes are filled with wonder and excessive bloom. Reminiscing Oblivion, I frown, fearing the upcoming experience would be as eye-stabbing. Still, the real-time 3D scene that acts as the menu's background seems pretty neat. A cottage, lush grass, a well, the blue sky: quite an idyllic scene! So, scepticism forgotten thanks to bloom-blindness, I click on "new game".
Drakensang is based on the "Das Schwarze Auge" (The Dark Eye) rule system. If you know nothing about it -- which is probable with the system not being that popular or documented on the internet -- character creation can prove challenging. There are quite a few stats: 8 primary attributes, 9 base values, and 25 skills, subdivided in 5 groups (physical, nature, lore, social, artisan). Then there are 13 weapon skills, each one covering one different kind of weapons (unarmed, bows, spears, swords, etc...), a number of melee feats, spells, and crafting recipes. These sections basically make up the character profile.
The game comes with 20 ready-made classes (archetypes), and for most of them provides also the male/female choice. Some classes have racial restrictions, not being available to one or two of the three races (humans, dwarves, elves). These archetypes are, however, extremely customisable, and allow the player to reassign most of the starting experience point to the skills/feats/attributes of choice.
The 8 primary attributes (courage, cleverness, intuition, charisma, dexterity, agility, constitution, strength) will affect many aspects of the game: HP (err, life points, vitality... basically how much beating one character can take), endurance (used in combat, to deliver blows or to use special feats), mana (for spells), resistances (to magic, wounds, poisons, fear), attack, parry, dodge, and, for lack of a better word "saving throws" (in conversations, traps, etc). The rest will affect different aspects of the game.
Social skills will come handy in conversations: they will grant access to further information, allow the player to talk him/herself out of a potential fight, get discounts from merchants, or even find alternative ways to solve quests. Lore skills influence treating wounds and poisons, and identifying unknown magic items. Crafting skills include crafting bows, smithing, herbalism, and similar; alsodisarming traps and picking locks. Then there are classic skills such as pickpocketing, willpower, concentration, and a few more.
Some skills are (stereo)typical of some classes, but can be taken by other classes too. 25 skills might not sound that much of a choice, but spreading one's points among too many of them will result in a half-baked character, which will be unable to effectively use any of the half-developed skills, especially further on in the game. My advice is to focus every character (party members will join the main hero soon, and they are as customisable as the main character!) on just a handful of skills, in order to be ready to face any situation when adventuring.
Right-clicking on any skill/feat/attribute name/icon will also pop-up a nice descriptive window, which will explain what the selected skill/feat/attribute does, what other skills/feats/attributes it relies upon and what are the calculations behind its value. Quite neat and very welcome to those who love to know every bit of the math behind the game.
Combat feats will affect physical combat, melee or ranged. They fall into three main categories: passive, active, and sustained (pretty much self explanatory, although we'll come back to the topic when talking about combat).
All of these skills, attributes, and other features cost experience points: these can be spent on attributes and skills at any time, even during combat. Features and spells must be trained at specific NPCs, and in the case of spells it will then be possible to increase their power by spending experience points on them.
Apart from experience points, for completing quests you're also awarded "adventure points".
They're just an in-game figure, which determines the "player level". I couldn't find anything (statformulas, rolls, or anything) that actually involved either APs or the player level, apart from determining the maximum number of skills and spells available to the character.
The game, and the PnP, take place in the fictional world of Aventuria. This world is one of the most "classical" high fantasy settings I have ever met, being closer to The Lord of the Rings rather than to DnD Greyhawk. All the paraphernalia/regalia are there: humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, trolls, magic, dragons, kingdoms, rebels, pirates , towns, villages, and all that.
The geography varies from urban environments, to countryside, hills, caves, creeks, snowy mountains, lakesides, swamps, fortresses, castles. Again, all pretty much "classical": not really innovative, but not necessarily a bad thing. In fact the world feels pretty much coherent and alive. Maybe not as alive as Gothic's, but surely not as dull as NWN's.
Surprisingly and unfortunately, there is no day/night cycle, nor dynamic weather. Tut tut, Radon Labs. That said, I only realised this absence upon thinking about it, and after playing the whole game, so we might say the setting is conveyed decently enough not to make one wish for those extra details.
Faux-TB, real-time with pause in the vein of BG. Basically one can let his characters fight on their own and pray everything will be alright (which is OK for small fights), give some input of his own (pause combat every now and then, to activate a skill or drink a potion), or micromanage every single "turn" of combat, assigning every party member one or more actions (they can be queued, cool!) to perform on specific targets.
The game will then run all of the instructions, do all the math, and see who gets beaten by whom. This said, combat is probably the main flaw of the game. Party AI is basically non-existent. Positioning party members is more challenging than anything else, as they will follow the party leader (there is no "hold position" command) and kinda try and stay "in formation", and even more annoyingly, so will the enemies: thus every attempt to use natural advantages (bottlenecks, doorways, and such) for "crowd control" will be futile. Just as futile as trying to have the enemies group on the beefy character while the rest of the party either deals damage or heals (the MMORPG approach).
The only option available for party members is the aggressive/defensive mode, which will only affect whether they will run around looking for new enemies to engage or not. Ranged combat is clunky as well, most of the time the party member will just run up to the enemies and use his/her bow from 20cm, resulting in enemies engaging in melee combat with the poor sod.
Combat will require your characters to use their endurance: delivering blows, using special moves (often weapon-, attribute- or class-related), or keeping sustained abilities on (eg: offensive mode) will take its toll upon your endurance bar. Once that is depleted, it's either endurance potion time, or poor combat performance, as a character with no endurance will be penalised even when delivering just "basic" blows.
Every "turn", AT (attack) and AP (parry) values (determined each by multiple attributes/skills) of each "blow" dealt will be calculated to determine whether the blow connects, is parried, deflected, dodged, or hits critically. Then the calculations for the damage dealt will be done, taking into account weapon and armour values.
Spells are pretty conventional too: many of them are buffs (each one improving one of the basic attributes for a given amount of time), then there are a few debuffs, a handful of damage dealing spells, a handful of restorative spells (heal, remove poison, remove debuffs, etc...), one utility spell (light!) and one summoning spell (summon creature). Plus a few which weren't much relevant, therefore I can't recall what they do. The most useful of them all is actually the summon creature spell: once the caster can summon a bear, things will turn drastically easier for the whole party (the bear does good damage, knocks enemies down, and has loads of HPs).
One interesting thing about combat is that you constantly need to pay attention to wounds: every time someone (friend or foe) is hit, there are chances he might get a wound (the chance increases if flanked or hit from behind). Once someone has suffered 4 wounds, disregarding how many HP that someone has left, he/she will be out of combat. Bandages and specific spells can remove wounds, luckily, although it can be a hassle to use them during combat, and since characters never end up having that many HPs, some of them will be often and easily knocked out of combat (and end up with a "critical wound"). Oh, there is no resurrection spell, so the player will have to (successfully) finish combat and wait for them to regain consciousness, then remove their wounds (regular and critical ones), heal them up and eventually move on.
Weapons work pretty much like in DnD: they can be ranged, 1h, 2h, and their damage is expressed in the XD+y format. For instance, a 2D+3 weapon will deal [(2xD6)+3] damage. Furthermore, all weapons have an additional stat, the strength bonus, expressed as A/B. An example will explain it better than 1000 words: a weapon with a strength bonus of 14/4, for instance, will deal 1 additional damage for every 4 points of STR the character has past 14. Thus, +1 at 18, +2 at 22, +3 at 26... The last stat a weapon has is the attack/parry bonus, expressed as ±X/±Y. The first value will affect attack (AP), the second will affect parry chances (AP). I quite liked the fact that the weapon scaling is not too dispersive (although some people might complain about the lack of variety), and especially the fact that there is no "ultimate weapon" to make the game unbalanced (but, honestly, the combat is easy enough not to require the presence of such artefacts).
All of this makes the above-mentioned micromanagement quite necessary, especially for tougher fights (not many of them in the game, tho). Again, the combat system is quite well thought through and works out fine, but is not supported by adequately developed management/AI mechanics, making it clunky and frustrating in a couple of cases. The game sort of tries to put emphasis on planning each fight and using some kind of tactics/strategy, but the game "controls" fail at delivering this option to the user. Also, in the end, most fights will be too easy, and a few will be insanely hard. Save often, especially before "big" fights.
Oh, and there is no level scaling for enemies.
Story, Writing, C&C
Storywise, the game is alright. Nothing revolutionary about it --- its strength lies in how "classical" the story is. The main character will be slowly but steadily sucked in into a series of events, which will eventually turn out to all be related or consequential to some main plot going on. Again, this applies to loads of "epic" stories and "fairytales" out there... In the end, I enjoyed my journey through Aventuria.
Quests are sufficiently varied, backtracking is kept to a minimum, random encounters while travelling on the world map are not that annoying (especially because the world-map travel option isn't abused as it is in, for one, DA:O).
The writing is good. I don't know about the original German edition, but the English translation is solid enough. Not Nobel-worthy, but still good standards of writing, actually superior to the writing of many, much more popular games. The plot is linear (and so are most areas) but sufficiently enticing, and offers a couple of twists and a handful of choices (which only affect quest rewards, unfortunately, but again, that is the case with most CRPGs nowadays). The script offers both funny and sad moments, cautiously dosed.
Quest NPCs are varied, have hints of personality, none of them are particularly memorable but none is too shallow either, each one having a perk or something to distinguish it from the rest. There are loads of potential party members, despite that at most 3 can join the main character during his adventures: they can be switched easily just by visiting the player's home (yes, you will get one!) in Feredok. Nitpicking here, but actually there are too many party members, and some will become redundant due to covering the same role as others: this allows for a choice based upon personal preferences (based on affinity and/or aesthetics) and skill customisation, though, which is good.
Party members are decently sculpted and their conversations, random comments, and quests will help define their personalities a bit more deeply.
All of this, until the player gets to the very end of the game... OK, no beating around the bush: this game has the one most awful, rushed and anticlimactic endings I've ever seen in a game. I don't want to give out any spoilers, but the last 10 minutes of the game will destroy whatever good impressions the preceding dozens of hours of gameplay had left on you. The ending of this game is the most atrocious crime against a game plot ever committed, even games with much weaker plots have featured much better endings than Drakensang: The Dark Eye. You -will- wish you had stopped playing the game before the final sequence.
A Note on Crafting
Crafting is sort of useless. The only decent crafting skill I experienced is alchemy, which combined with herb gathering, will allow to create potions. Smithing and bowyering are, honestly, completely useless, as the game doesn't rely on weapons that much and therefore one will be able to buy everything needed from vendors (the economy is pretty lenient too, your income will be more than enough to afford armour/weapon upgrades).
The game looks beautiful. There really isn't much to say about it. The visuals are stunning, the variety of environments is good, visual effects are OK, bloom isn't as atrociously abused as the menu screen would suggest it will be, the game runs decently even on not-so-high-end machines, and I think it only crashed a single time over 40 hours, in my case.
The camera controls feel funny at the beginning, and there is a choice between a traditional 3rd person camera (using WASD keys to move around) and an isometric camera (NWN-style) combined with a point-and-click movement style, or even a mix of the two. In the end, I settled for the former when I was exploring areas and the latter when in combat. It might take a while for the player to find his own "balance" between the two, but the transition between them is seamless: there are no options to fiddle with, one can just use one or the other system at any time.
Artistic design is traditional and very good: the world seems coherent (although sometimes a tad stereotypically leaning towards a Tolkien-esque view -but, again, not many high fantasy settings actually manage NOT to do that-), architecture is well designed and so is nature.
Weapons, armour, clothing are more "realism" oriented than "fantasy" oriented, so at some point your characters will look like ugly hobos or their attire will be a haphazard collection of different pieces of armour (caps and helmets are especially horrible-looking and no, there is no "hide helmet" option). To be honest, I prefer this philosophy to the "ultimate flaming sword of impending doom +25" that is taller than the player's character (FF, anyone? Mind you, it's alright in FF, but IMHO it is not in a high-fantasy setting).
Models can looks a bit exaggerated, especially females tend to have really really generous breasts, but proportions are generally alright and animations are fluid and overall the character designers did a good job with the 3D models.
One thing: spells could be a bit more spectacular, but I guess the developers chose to keep them low-profile so not to clash with the rest of the visual choices.
The audio of Drakensang: the Dark Eye does its job, and a good job too. Music is fitting without being intrusive and distracting the player from the game, still one will realise it is pretty good, when paid attention to.
Voice over is "partial", i.e. only the beginning of eeach conversation is voiced. Some advocate this choice, some find it irritating. I personally don't mind it, as I'm usually reading the text faster than the voice actor, therefore I usually cut the voiced over sentences short anyway. This still allows me to put a voice to the face, without having to listen to every single line of acting.
I have to say that the voice acting is very good. One choice I quite liked is the actual Scottish accent given to the dwarven race: not the stereotypical "drunken Scottish pirate" accent that has been so abused by many productions so far, just plain English spoken with a heavy Scottish accent.
Sound effects are on par with modern standards.
I don't feel like giving Drakensang a score.[Editor's note: good, no streamlining on mah Codex!] Not that it doesn't deserve one, it's just that numbers are misleading, and I'd rather leave people judge the game by what I described so far.
All I will say is, based upon my own impressions, Drakensang: the Dark Eye is a good, solid game. It has a few shortcomings (mainly combat, and the ending), but it almost feels like a game out of some "classical" past, delivering an atmosphere I had not experienced in an RPG since quite a few years ago. The story is worth playing through, the world worth exploring and quests worth solving.
This game won't likely be your "best game ever", but still is a quite overlooked, fun and pleasant gaming experience, taking the player back into a stats-based RPG system -- whereas the CRPG market seems to be going towards mindless one-button slaughter with cleavage-revealing interludes.
Review (C) Jools 2011
Screens by VentilatorOfDoom