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The Dark Spire centers on the classic first-person, dungeon-crawling style of play made popular by such games as Wizardry or The Bard's Tale, with rules similar to Dungeons & Dragons. It's definitely a refreshing twist on modern role-playing games (like Oblivion), but its blindly faithful reproduction of the classics turn what could have been a nostalgic romp into a rather irritating game.
Your quest begins in typical old-school fashion, providing you with the option of using preset characters or rolling your own. We loved customizing our characters but were disappointed to discover that it's a tedious process. The most interesting part about creating your own characters is spending a little time to roll excellent stats. The Dark Spire makes this difficult; what could have been a lot of fun gets bogged down by a clunky interface (which unfortunately is a recurring theme throughout the game).
Furthermore, freshly created characters begin at level 1 and the four preset characters begin at level 2. This means that the boring ol' preset characters see a significant advantage, especially when 1st level mages have only a few hit points, easily dying from a single attack. It's a baffling design choice when creating characters in other games is so much fun and usually has advantages over the presets.
Next up, you're tossed into a dungeon for training. Here you're taught the basics of the game and introduced to the quirky dialogue which usually lies somewhere between humorous and just weird. After completing the training, you're told that you must go to the Dark Spire tower, defeat the sorcerer Tyrhung and retrieve a stolen royal treasure. From this point, you can select from the few places to visit in town, or enter the tower.
Exploring the tower provides a similar experience to that of other grindy dungeon-crawlers, but again the obtuse interface gets in the way. For example, your movement through the labyrinth is mapped, but there is no indicator showing where you are or which direction you're facing. To get this information, you must cast a spell called "Visum Situs." While this may be a design choice made out of nostalgia, all it made us remember is how obnoxious this was in the classic games too. Would it have killed the developers to include an easier way of charting your progress?
Battles are fairly typical turn-based fare. They're fun and easy to play and reminded us of the earlier Dragon Quest games (or Dragon Warrior, if you’re an NES fan). The headache point is that random battles range dramatically from easy to almost impossible. Particularly when you first begin the game, you may fight two bats that are fairly weak, or a dozen thieves that can kill everyone in a single round. The only real workaround for this is to save constantly. Mercifully, it's quick and easy to save the game.
One really cool feature is the ability to change the display mode. The default is "Modern" which features attractive hand-drawn graphics, catchy and complex music, and slick, attractive menus. The other option is "Classic" which downgrades the game's audio and video to something similar to 8-bit. This is fantastic for true fans of the games Spire is mimicking. The menus become basic white bars and text over a black background, and the enemies' graphics are redone as smaller, simpler sprites and the music has been remixed in chiptune style. It almost feels like a different game and it's a great way to toss-up the gameplay.
Switching between the two modes is fine and well, but we can’t help but think there’s a missed opportunity here. Rather than merely providing an option to change the display, they could have made small changes the entire game. Classic mode would feature the current spell names like "Impetus Ardens" while Modern mode could use the more easily memorable "Fireball." Classic mode could retain the brutal random battles, and Modern could throw enemies your way that don’t utterly destroy your party. The game could appeal to more gamers this way, while still remaining attractive to its target (i.e. unashamedly hardcore) audience.
The Dark Spire certainly attained its goal of creating an homage to classic dungeon-crawling RPGs. But its confusing design choices and unforgiving gameplay may turn off anyone born after 1990.
May 18, 2009