The Dark Spire, released earlier this year on the DS, is actually pretty old news. The gaming press, however, largely seems to have ignored it and very little buzz has developed about it even in areas focused on obscure or niche games. I’ve opted to repost this review- both since I have nothing else ‘lined up’ to post here, and because the game needs more love.
Unfortunately, before I talk about The Dark Spire, I have to talk about Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, as I feel obligated to every few months.
Nobody’s heard of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land. In 2001, it was a fairly early PS2 release and an indirect descendent of the venerable Wizardry dynasty that began in the earliest days of commercial gaming. Like those games, Tale of the Forsaken Land was a first-person dungeon crawler; you journeyed to a town, recruited party members, accepted quests, and explored the One Big Dungeon. While it retained the oldschool structure and feel, though, it mixed in a good dose of new-school sensibilities- the notoriously uneven difficulty of the Wizardry series was balanced out, some additions were made to the bare-bones Wizardry combat system, the dungeon and its environs were rendered in pretty polygons, actual characters were added in addition to the generic party members, and an actual plot was added to drive the action. While the plot eventually resorted to a set of standard anime tropes, it took its time getting there, sending you through a setting that is more unusual than it appears at first, and populating its world with an array of interesting, likable characters. The art style is more westernized than most Japanese RPGs, and- if nothing else- provided a welcome change from the “Generic Anime” look that so many of the JRPGs of the time had.
It had its faults, sure- the graphics were very first-generation-PS2 and the level designs in the latter third of the game were significantly weaker than what had come before, but it was fun. It was refreshing. It is quite possibly the most enjoyable RPG I’ve played in the past five years, and since then I’ve been trying to hunt down something else like it and failing.
While there was a sequel to Tale released in Japan, it never made it across the pacific. The ‘mainline’ Wizardry games- particularly Wizardry 8- actually moved away from the traditional Wizardry model in the unimportant cosmetic ways and did not have the interesting storyline or more humane difficulty level that had been part of Tale’s atraction. The emulated and translated Shin Megami Tensei games weren’t really what I was looking for, and at times seemed entirely constructed of rough edges- my wierd relationship with this series is the stuff of another post, but at any rate they didn’t scratch the right itch. I picked up Deep Labrynth shortly after I picked up my DS hoping for something similar to Tale, and was sadly disappointed to find a mediocre action-RPG instead. Etrian Odyssey retained the feel of some of the early games, but lacked Tale’s plot and kept the punishing difficulty curve of the originals (and I can’t say I enjoyed drawing my own map, either).
This brings me to The Dark Spire, the most recent first-person dungeon crawl I’ve invested in for experimental purposes.
The Dark Spire is very heavily influenced by the original Wizardry games- it’s an unapologetically oldschool dungeon-crawl through the titular Dark Spire. You control a party of four custom-generated adventurers, rolled up with random stats and assigned to one of four initial classes (Fighter/Theif/Mage/Cleric). There’s some ability to customize characters through ‘buyable’ skills, varying from the useful (“Lockpicking”) to the bewildering (“Dancing”)- not all of these have immediate effects, and some are mere prerequisites for more useful things. As is the oldschool way, most of this is not explicitly explained ingame- you’ll have to decipher a lot of it on your own (or possibly grab a FAQ, but what fun is that?).
The equipment and battle system draws a lot of inspiration from older editions of Dungeons and Dragons; you’ve got an armor class that starts at 10 and goes down as you equip more armor, and weapons don’t seem to bear any indication of attack power save price. A number of ‘special’ attack and defense commands (to, say, make a strong attack at the cost of AC or counterattack when defending instead of reducing your AC) are available based on your class, level, and equipment, but the internals aren’t really documented at all. Price seems to be a rough indicator of a weapon’s power, but again, it’s going to take a while to muddle through everything.
The graphics and sound are very nice. The music is catchy, and I really dig the chunky, stylized comic-book look and feel everything has. The HUD could use a little work- the menu system isn’t the easiest to use, and the developers have used seemingly-random abstract icons to indicate what type of item a particular item is. As a bit of a gag, a “classic mode” is available, which replaces the dungeon walls with wireframes straight out of the early Ultima games, enemies in combat with 8-bit sprites, and the music with chiptune remixes. It’s entertaining for novelty purposes, but I can’t see myself playing it that way for a long time.
The overall package and presentation is good, and it brings a new-school approach to interface which does away with a lot of the little warts and annoyances that mar many of the older games I’ve mentioned above. The Dark Spire has fewer, more lethal combats than Etrian Odyssey or the Shin Megami Tensei games, which I personally find more palatable. The difficulty is roughly on parity with the oldschool games that The Dark Spire imitates, although the presence of quicksave and quickload commands helps. Despite the fact that many of the game’s features aren’t documented at all, I feel like I have a much better idea of what I’m doing than I did in Etrian Odyssey. Part of this is likely thanks to the more straightforward character development system and familiar D&D-ish class selection as opposed to Etrian’s MMO-derived and wierdly-named selection (I know what a Theif does, but what the hell is a ‘Landsknecht’?). The fact that character development is more level-based than skill-based also makes me feel like I’m less likely to make an unfixable and irrevocable error in charcter ‘builds’.
The down side to all of this is that the plot- well it’s thin, bordering on nonexistent. This is pretty much de rigeur for a game of this type, but Tale did such a good job of it that I’ve been hoping for something more ever since. It’s a bit of a shame that it seems to have fallen by the wayside here.
Have I found another Tale of the Forsaken Land? Well, with the apparent emphasis away from plot in The Dark Spire, the answer, sadly, appears to be not quite- but what I have found is a solid dungeon crawler which seems to be lacking many of the warts that typically mar the genre. As an Atlus game, I expect it will disappear from store shevles without a trace in another few months, but at the time of this writing, EBGames.com carries it for a paltry ten bucks- at that price, I’d say it deserves your consideration.