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RPG Codex Review: Realms of Arkania HD

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RPG Codex Review: Realms of Arkania HD

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Fri 8 November 2013, 21:22:54

Tags: Crafty Studios; Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny (Remake)

[Written by Darth Roxor]

A blast from the past

Fate is a funny thing. In October, I decided to take another item off my backlog of old RPGs. The game in question was Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny, which I played, and finished, for the first time. To be perfectly honest, I found it to be rather painfully mediocre in almost all aspects, and generally inferior to other classics of that era (1992), but it still did manage to sort of entertain me enough to finish it.

When I was close to the end, I received a PM on the Codex from a shady individual who was giving me a Steam key to some silly thing called Realms of Arkania HD and asking me to review it for the site. I thought it might be a good idea because, with the original so fresh in my mind, it would be easy to make comparisons, and maybe it could warrant a second playthrough with different characters, the game's original issues fixed, and perhaps even new content.

But there was one slight problem. When it was released at the start of August, Realms of Arkania HD immediately gained massive infamy for being completely unplayable and unfinished, yet supposedly the developers were constantly putting out patches, ironing out bugs and implementing missing features. Still, I thought, hell, 3 months should have probably been enough to bring it to a playable state, and having played such a timeless classic as Arcania: Gothic 4, I ain’t afraid of no bugs and bad gameplay!

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Starting the game, we see the first big differences between the remake and the original, already there in the intro. Artistically, it is utterly disastrous, even borderline half-arsed – the pretty and charming pixel art animations have been replaced by a camera rolling by some grimdark mountains and occasional huts at night, with no representation of what’s actually being said about the plot. This is also the moment where we first meet the Overly Attached Narrator (tm), who will accompany us throughout the entire game and read all the pop up text that, well, pops up. Hint: he doesn’t do a very good job. His voice is completely detached from the game’s overall tone and presentation, he doesn’t even try to act as, I don’t know, a storyteller or something, and when he eventually DOES try to act, the result is abysmal.

Narratively, however, the intro could be seen as an improvement. Like the original, it introduces the northern lands of Thorwal and its inhabitants and tells you about hetman Hyggelik, who’s had a magic sword forged and ventured on an expedition into the orc lands. This is where it ends, as opposed to the original intro, which also shows you Hyggelik’s fate. It is somewhat better because the original intro struck me as much, MUCH too long, and I thought the ending note that (obviously!) my characters are oblivious of all that to be rather silly.

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You might think that it took me a lot of text to describe the silly intro but, as you will see later, I believe it is a very representative nutshell of the game’s non-mechanical aspects.

After starting the game, you get to compose your party of six aspiring heroes. You can either take a premade party, choose from a bunch of premade characters as you see fit, or roll all six from scratch. Obviously, the first two options are reserved for suckers and women, so naturally every self-respecting person will take the third one. Here we see further deviations from the original formula, and they are hardly positive...

You start off just like in the original. There’s a bunch of classes from all sides of the fighter/mage/rogue spectrum, with burly thorwalians, agile hunters, wise druids, sort of “multi-classed” elves, and others, all of them lifted from the original Realms of Arkania except for the removed Jester class. To “apply” for a certain class, you need to meet the ability requirements – for example, a fighter will need 13 in courage and 12 in strength, and less than 4 in violent temper. All of these abilities are rolled randomly, on a scale of 8-13 for positive, and 2-7 for negative ones, and you must assign them one-by-one, with no switching, although you can reroll totally, or decrease/increase positive values to do the same to the negative ones (1 positive is worth 2 negative). Positive attributes are self-explanatory, but the negative ones are pretty interesting – a character may need to roll against his fear of heights when crossing a chasm, or flee in battle when facing undead because of his fear of the dead. So far so good, although I can’t say I appreciate how “acrophobia” and “necrophobia” got streamlined into “fear of heights”/”fear of the dead”.

But now we begin stumbling upon changes. The only good one is that the stat requirements are all marked on the chargen, which means you don’t have to refer to the manual all the time when rolling.

As for silly things, you can now choose not only your characters’ portraits, but also their 3D models. The portraits are actually fairly well-drawn, but it’s absurd how some classes have only one available portrait (like female hunter). The models, though, goddamn are they bad. They are blocky, with no cool details or just about anything that would make them look at least above average. Also, the model-maker is a generator, you can’t “choose” any features, which is also fairly weird, considering that it is obviously drawing from some databases of colours and items. Its randomness only adds to how hilariously stupid the models look, too.

Perhaps the weirdest addition is that your characters seem to start at level “0”, and you can’t toggle their skills before you exit the chargen, but once you’re ‘done’, they immediately get a starting level-up. This gives them the statutory allotment of skill increase chances (each character gets a pool of 15-20 attempts at increasing some skills of choice), but also one free positive and negative attribute point, which does, in my view at least, shift the starting power of the group significantly.

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Mages also get a separate pool of spell increase chances, and this is where things start getting ugly. In the original, mages had a lot of stat fiddling available – at level up, you could transfer some life points into astral points (mana), convert skill increases into spell increases (and vice versa), or convert spell increases into astral points. None of this is available here. Not a single damn thing. This is annoying because it removes almost all of the personalisation that was available to you previously, and the mages simply get shafted because they don’t even need too many skills (so you were free to convert all of them into spells).

The array of skills and spells is also completely puzzling to me. The original game was criticised for having many useless skills and spells that were simply lifted from the PnP version of The Dark Eye without much thought, and while Realms of Arkania HD heavily cut the list of spells, the skills have all remained the same. Thus, you are left with a whole bunch of skills that you are likely to never use (or at least I never found a way to use them), such as history, religion, etc. One very big improvement, however, is that all the spells are explained in-game and you don’t have to blindly test each one.

While still on the subject of levels, it’s also completely crazy how fast characters gain experience in this game. In the original, you needed a whopping 5000 xp just to get to level 2. Here, you need 100. One friggin’ hundred. And while obviously the xp gains are significantly scaled down, you still get way more on the whole. I got three level-ups for my party in this game in the time it took me to get one in the original. And the benefits of leveling up are, obviously, the same.

Still, with your aspiring party of foolish soon-to-be-heroes created, you can now go forth, and smite the forces of evil!

Got a complaint in the system

Let’s talk about combat. You will be in combat a lot in this game. And every single encounter will make you want to contact gypsies who could place curses on Crafty Studios.

Thing is, the combat engine in the original game was already very weak. It was a turn-based system that didn’t employ any of the typical turn-based tactical advantages. Fights were not only very easy and mindless for the most part, except for a handful at the very start, but they were also genuinely annoying. They took obnoxious amounts of time to resolve because characters would frequently miss, parry or fumble their attacks, weapons would break, line of sight needed to cast spells or shoot bows had to be straight with no diagonal shooting available, the encounters were uninspired and copy-pasted, etc. And the worst part was that you couldn’t really just launch the autopilot and hold the dosbox turbo button because while your dedicated warrior characters would become basically unkillable very fast by getting good gear, the autopilot AI would keep sending mages into melee and they would get chopped up rather easily.

One might say those are, for the most part, flaws that should be easy to fix. Just redo some numbers, make better encounters, add a diagonal line of sight... Surely, Crafty Studios were competent enough to do this, right? Well, THINK AGAIN because none of these flaws have been fixed; nay, they have even been magnified. Every. Single. One of them.

The fights are actually even longer now, thanks to the addition of some really majestic animations. The characters now need approximately half an hour to think about every move, and then execute it. You can’t possibly imagine how obnoxious the fights were when I started playing the game, before the autopilot function was patched in, as well as animation speed sliders. Now the issue is, quite fortunately, of much lesser import, considering that you can just set them to x8 speed and be done with it.

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BUT! It’s not just the animations that extend the already too long encounters. Our Crafty friends have obviously attempted some rebalancing in the game, and to say that they fucked up horribly would be an understatement. Enemy stats are all over the place, some obviously nerfed, others not so much. You might remember brigands in the original Realms of Arkania, who were the definite early game scourge. These dudes are much less harmful now, actually they are just about harmless. They come in much smaller numbers, hit less often and probably have half as much HP. The dwarves in the Upper Orcam mines, on the other hand, simply refuse to friggin’ die, soaking up so many hits it feels like each of them has a hundred health points and massive damage reduction. Most of the enemies also got a huge morale boost. While they were very likely to run away from a fight in the original when they had some 10 (or even more) hp remaining, now they refuse to flee unless they are taken down to about under 5.

The encounters are not only longer, but also more frequent. The population of dungeons has been heavily adjusted, which struck me especially in the Temple of the Nameless God, where I would stumble upon more and more cultists around every damn corner and they always came in large numbers. Which brings me to my next point – how do you fix bad encounter design that mostly boils down to sending 2 melee dudes against you? Why, you obviously triple the amount of melee dudes, AND triple the times you encounter them. This is true for both dungeons and random encounters (more on those later); they are all shamelessly copypasted and frustrating. Another bad change is that the battle maps aren’t even set pieces anymore. In the original, all the maps were pre-set, and had at least some very minor functions. Here, almost all of them are random, but also identical in their randomness – they are always square grids, with your dudes placed (completely at random, formations/priorities, wot's dat?) at one end and the enemies at the other. Sometimes there’s also a useless obstacle around (like, say, a huge rock and some twigs in the middle of a marble corridor).

You thought that’s all? We aren’t even getting started. The majestic rebalancing (tm) doesn’t end here. The attack fumble effects got completely redesigned. Previously, you’d either hurt yourself, give your opponent a free attack or break your weapon. Now there’s a bunch of negative states like “fall” or “stumble” that seem to decrease your combat stats, and your characters can not only break their weapons but also drop them. And since they seem to be mentally retarded, they can't pick up the damn things until after the fight is finished (which gets even better occasionally, when the post-combat looting screen fails to appear!). Also, speaking of weapon breaking – the original already had high breaking rates, but what is going on here is setting whole new records. One character of mine had three freshly fixed weapons, straight from the blacksmith. All three of them broke in three consecutive fights, and I wish I was exaggerating! Those break rates are so ridiculously high that you are probably better off just ignoring weapons and pumping the unarmed proficiency. Oh, and curiously enough, all those fumbles never seem to happen to the enemy.

The last point I want to address in this section is the “revamped” ranged and magic combat. I have no idea what exactly has been screwed up with ranged combat here, but there definitely must have been something. In the original game, I could go through an entire dungeon using about 30 arrows with my hunter. In this gem, a hundred arrows is not enough! This appears to be a combination of lower hit chances and damage, as well as enemy hp bloat.

Magic didn’t escape the rebalancing hammer either. Damaging spells have always been pretty powerful, but they used to cost many astral points, which regenerate slowly and so using them was a rare commodity. Now, with the tripled amount of encounters, you use them even less. Furthermore, the spells now have ranges, and the longest one is a range of 3 squares, which is also annoying. Oh, and did I mention that many of them simply refuse to work? A spell that’s meant to “topple over enemies” is “not usable in battle”. Revealing enemy attributes IS usable in battle in theory, but it doesn’t appear on the list of usable spells. Spirit conjuring can leave your caster frozen.

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And the final issue is a typical example of a wish spell gone wrong. I was talking about the line of sight – well, Realms of Arkania HD actually adds the diagonal line of sight to magic and archery. Which essentially translates to enemy archers becoming engines of doom. You can surround one with 4 dudes that will block his every movement path and keep on pounding him every turn in melee, yet he will still be able to shoot your squishy mages, standing far away, and receive no penalties to his attacks. And that lone archer is actually VERY LIKELY to kill both of your squishy mages before your four melee attackers bring him down, because that’s just how attack rolls work in the magical, mystical world of Aventuria.

A world of hurt

The travel system and dungeoneering were probably the original game’s strongest points. All the dungeons had lots of deadly traps, secret buttons doing secret stuff, some puzzles, and they were generally fairly large and mazelike. Meanwhile, the travelling required you to prepare well when moving between towns, get some blankets and warm clothes to combat common flus that could get you killed, set up watch when camping, hunt for food and survive horrible environmental hazards. While sometimes all that tended to be annoying, especially the diseases, it did a good job of keeping you on your toes and meant that you needed to get a well-rounded party that could perform all the duties. Let’s see how these things have changed...

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Travelling hasn’t been changed all that much, but our Crafty friends still managed to fuck it up in the end. There are actually some good usability changes here – the camp watch routine remembers characters so you don’t need to appoint them manually all the time, you can travel in any direction when leaving towns so you don’t have to look for specific signposts, and you no longer need to pick up (and drop) surplus food from hunting. That’s the end of positive changes, though. A minor negative point is that the world map no longer has cool fluff descriptions of the regions – I miss them because they did a good job of fleshing out the setting. Also, the names placed on it don’t correspond to what you are being told about, which ruins my immershun, and while it’s obvious for some locations that have German names on the map, it’s not exactly clear why the city “Felsteyn” is otherwise called “Stonrock”. What is disastrous, however, is the rate with which you stumble upon random encounters while camping. You get ambushed after literally every second spent camping (and you camp a lot), which yet again brings back all the woes described in the previous chapter.

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Now for some more disasters. The dungeons? They have been horribly streamlined. Why would the developers redesign the dungeons instead of porting them 1:1 from the old game is beyond me, especially considering how much the new ones suck. They have considerably fewer traps and hazards (nearly to the point of not having them at all, but who needs those when the encounter rates are tripled!), they have been reshaped (the brigand dungeon under the Thorwal academy is a straight-up corridor, and I wish I was joking – it even has secret doors that lengthen the master corridor), and the in-dungeon treasure chests store tons of healing and magic potions. While you still need a perceptive guy that can open locks (although why failing lockpicking gives xp, and to all the party members at that, is a mystery), the dungeons have overall become considerably more hack’n’slashy, less deadly and less fun.

Another incredibly poor aspect of the game is the towns. Navigating cities was already horrible in the original because all the buildings were identical and the best you could do was bring up a mini map to at least check their types. It is quite unbelievable, but the remake's developers managed to make even this aspect worse. The towns are now in full 3D, with terrain elevations, fences, market stalls, etc. You know what this means, right. It means that it’s hilariously easy to get stuck on random baskets that you walk over. I once managed to get mortally stuck on a basket mischievously placed right next to a wall and had to reload, another time I managed to get shot into space while accidentally stepping on a barrel. The good news is, however, that at least now the buildings are tagged, and you can move your party while looking at the map overview. But this just makes it all the easier to get stuck on random props. Providing, of course, that the map works in the first place because it sure as hell doesn’t, for example, in the city of Ljasdahl.

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Curse you, malicious chicken-and-basket trap!

While in town, your party can rest and refit. The heroes can rest in inns, buy goods at the herbalist’s, general store and weapon shop, listen to rumours in taverns, pray for miracles in temples, repair weapons at blacksmiths, or visit healers to pay for their expensive services. Every shamelessly recycled blocky model of a craftsman will gladly accept your hard-earned gold for their services.

You are probably wondering now how the shopkeepers were broken. And well, there sure are plenty of ways to do that!

First of all, they no longer discriminate between goods, and the herbalist will gladly buy your dozen longswords. Second, they no longer get offended and withdraw their services if you haggle too much. Third, and this is a good one, they have rather interesting business hours. On release, the shops were open 24/7 (as opposed to the original, where they had daily cycles). Fortunately, the developers managed to fix that in one patch, and now the shops are open only two days each month! Hope you like stocking up well in advance. One thing that could be considered a good change is the new saving formula. Back in ’92, you could only save game freely in temples, saving outside that carried minor xp penalties. Now temples are only there for performing miracles, and you can save as much as you like. Streamlined, sure, but considering how unstable and buggy this game is, I consider that a godsend.

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Finally, something that ruined muh immershun yet again were the streamlined harbours. In the original Realms of Arkania, ships had actual sailing schedules, you could chat up harbour masters for common routes, etc. This was, again, another thing that added a lot of fidelity to the game and made it feel like an actual world that keeps rolling on without you. Now, the harbours have been reduced solely to ship travel and nothing else. Boring.

bork bork bork

In this last chapter, I’d like to address the final and quite possibly most important part of the game. The technical side.

Let us start with the overall presentation. For all of the original’s faults, it has to be said that it was incredibly charming. The music was neat, the pixel art graphics were pretty and cheerful, the world felt alive despite tech limitations, and it didn’t really treat itself very seriously.

And this thing? The charming part of the game has been totally gutted, and this is why I described the intro in such detail earlier. The jolly pixels have been replaced by the grim darkness of the 41st millennium where the sun never shines and the people are all cloned and have degenerate features. The visuals are generally completely unimpressive, and what’s even more amazing is that the game keeps stuttering all the time on maximum settings, even though it has the kind of graphics that would have been considered average ten damn years ago. So much for the “HD” part.

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Most of the tongue-in-cheek elements have been removed as well. The original had a pretty amusing and 4th wall breaking conversation with the hermit at Hermit’s Lake, for example. It didn’t make it into the HD version. All the hermit does is say “hello” and then kick you out of his house. The music, too, is not what it used to be. All the tracks are actually lifted from the ’92 version, but they’ve also been remastered (tm), which means they are mostly overproduced and overfanfared, as well as less contextual, although at least they don’t get looped anew each time you enter/leave a building. The horrible narrator is not helping either – hearing him yell “HEARKEN HEARKEN HEARKEN!” or read aloud the balm bum of healing spell definitely being some of the highlights. Not to mention the ineptitude of whoever gave him the script, since he also reads out stuff like “it seems [name] has found a hidden door” by giving a long and jarring pause where the “name” part stands, instead of simply saying “one of your party members” or something.

Another thing that added a lot to the charm of the original was the manual. It was well-written, informative and full of inside jokes. The new game’s manual, on the other hand, is short, dry and boring. It has a somewhat neat in-game “help” screen, which would have been very fine if it wasn’t so full of typos and broken formatting.

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Finally, let’s talk about the very last nail to this game’s coffin. The bugs. You will run into them all the time, and they can cover just about every thing possible.

Obviously there’s a lot of typos in texts, but perhaps my favourite one is the sudden appearance of German lines in some places. This is even more mystifying, considering that they seem to appear at random without any consistency. Pop up text windows also sometimes refuse to disappear, which can be incredibly frustrating.

There’s a whole bunch of weird things happening when you move around, like the aforementioned Arkania Space Program or getting stuck on baskets. One time I even managed to walk through a solid wall and move outside the map’s boundaries. The day/night cycle occasionally fails to kick in properly, or automaps fail to get updated.

However, the largest number of bugs you will probably encounter are in combat, and they all provide a mix of hilarity, frustration and fury. For example, there’s a “fast forward” button that you can use to skip animations. But this leads into all sorts of broken situations where actions don’t resolve, some are taken before others that should go first, some go off at the same time, and yet others only appear after a whole round has passed. Character models get stuck in other models, dead dudes refuse to die, arrow hits have an incredibly annoying lag that make the attacks connect with a few-turn delay. And believe it or not, but these things happen all the damn time.

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And last, but certainly not least, is the little gamebreaking bug that finally made me ragequit. At one point in the game, an NPC says she’ll give you a piece of the map leading to hetman Hyggelik’s sword if you clear out an evil temple and bring her the idol stored there. This map is vital to finishing the game, although in theory you need only 8 out of 9 pieces, and there’s a ‘backdoor’ you can use to get it in another way (but it’s by no means easy or non-annoying to use, and another of the 9 map pieces is also obnoxiously hard to get). And here’s the deal – you clear out the temple, steal the idol, return to the questgiver’s home... and she doesn’t open the door. And if there’s one bug like this, odds are it’s not alone. Thanks for playing!

I will not buy this record, it is scratched

I’ll be honest here, I didn’t finish this abomination. I’ve got a pretty high resistance for shovelware shitgames as long as I can get some laughs out of them. But when it came to this “game”, I simply had to surrender after about 11 hours of playing, or I would risk throwing myself out of the window in desperation. And besides, I figured finishing the game wouldn’t even matter that much because I knew what to expect from later stages in the context of it being a “total remake” (and seriously, anyone who would expect it to magically get better after this time would be a lunatic).

If there was anything listed in this review that you found even slightly positive, I can only tell you one thing. Don’t get this game. Don’t play it, don’t buy it and don’t talk about it because it doesn’t deserve anything other than a kick down a cliff. If there were any positive sides to this garbage, they are only there because they were already there in the original Realms of Arkania from 1992. There is not even the slightest reason to pick this “remake” over the original, and there is even less reason to give any money to the shameless and inept idiots who have brought this upon mankind.

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