Friday, January 17, 2014

Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny

Thorwal in the daytime: tunnel vision

According to Steam, Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny, which was released in July of last year, "is a faithful remake of the 1992 original, adored by a generation of Role Players and one of the most successful RPG’s of the 1990’s."

Well, that last part is true, I suppose. I did enjoy the original game by Attic Entertainment (published by Sir-Tech, the English version was released in 1993), and its two sequels, too. I don't recall being wild about them, but I've always enjoyed party-based, turn-based RPGs - and those kinds of games are few and far between these days.

Which is why I decided to give this one a try, despite what everyone said about it. (Wikipedia notes: "On account of the many bugs that make it unplayable as of August 2013, the game is widely considered to be the worst alpha release ever sold as a finished game.")

I'm not sure I'd ever seen a game which didn't have any supporters,... before this one, I mean. I swear, this remake was universally reviled. But they've been patching it for five months (indeed, I only had it crash once in the admittedly brief time I played it), the price of it had been slashed, and I found it on sale, to boot.

And I was curious, since I'd played the original. Besides, I wanted to support the idea of party-based, turn-based games, at least. As I say, they're hard to find these days. And how bad could this one be? Long story short, save your money for Wasteland 2. (Um, please note that Wasteland 2 is still in beta, so I haven't played it, and I don't actually know how it will turn out, though I'm certainly hopeful.)

OK, you start Realms of Arkania in a temple - it doesn't seem to matter which temple - where you can keep the game's six pre-generated starting characters, switch them for other pre-generated characters (in both cases, you can change their names and images, if you wish), or create your own.

Being an old-school RPG fan, I started to create my own, but I ended up using a few of the existing characters, too. It's not that the process was time-consuming - although, yes, it's really time-consuming - but more that it was just awkward and frustrating. (That's pretty much the story of this game in a nutshell. They should have called it Realms of Arkania: Awkward and Frustrating.)

OK, character creation wasn't all that bad, I suppose, not by itself (though not good). After all, you only go through it once. And given how anal we RPG fans can be, creating a character has often been nearly a game in itself. (Have you ever played a game for three hours without actually starting the game? I have. Between reading the manual and creating your characters, that wasn't even unusual. Not here, though. There's hardly a manual at all.)

In Realms of Arkania, you start out rolling for stats - positive attributes like Strength, Courage, etc. Depending on what class you want, there are certain minimum requirements. (A warrior needs a certain minimum of Strength, for example.) However, when you roll for stats in this game, you don't get to see the results immediately. Instead, you just see one number at a time and have to decide in which attribute to put it.

Thus, you can get to the end of the process and not be able to create the character you want, because you don't meet the minimum requirements. More often, you get to the end of the process with a character who's just not going to be very good at his assigned role. So you do the same thing all over again. And again, and again.

Oh, did I say "the end of the process"? Hardly. Because after you do this with the positive attributes, you have to do the same thing with negative attributes (like Claustrophobia, Agoraphobia, etc.). This time, of course, low numbers are best. And again, certain classes have particular requirements, so you can get to the end and find that you simply can't create the character you wanted, or just that you don't like the results. So you have to start all over from the beginning.

This isn't much fun, but none of it would be a big deal in itself. I had a bigger problem afterwards, when designing spell-casters, because you had to decide ahead of time how many points to put into physical skills and how many into spell abilities (which is where you go next in this character-creation process).

These are just two tabs on the same character sheet, so why can't you just switch back and forth as needed, until all of your allotted points are used up? But no, you have to do one and then the other, for no real reason that I could see. Again, this is just awkward and frustrating, because it was hard to tell ahead of time where I wanted to invest those points.

And this is something that happens not just at character creation, but every time you level up - not to mention that you only have a chance to succeed at raising an attribute or a skill. Sometimes, you just waste a point, because it fails to do anything at all. Again, it's not a big deal, but it certainly isn't fun.

When we left the temple (which was, like nearly every other place in town, just a static screen, not an actual building we could investigate), we were on a street in Thorwal (see the first screenshot). It's a big town, but we couldn't explore it for long, because we started in the late afternoon/early evening, and it quickly got dark.

What kind of design decision was that? Why not start us off in the morning, so we could at least look around a bit? Well, we couldn't explore in the dark, and since it was strongly hinted that we needed to enter a tavern to get information, that's what we did.

This is just a static screen, not an actual room

Note that there are taverns everywhere in town, but they're all virtually identical. None of them are actual buildings which you can enter and look around. You just get a screen where you can choose a few very actions - notably, in this case, the option to talk to the bartender.

You have three choices: you can choose to order a beer, you can try to ask questions without ordering a beer, or you can buy a round for the house. That's it - always those three options. I never tried the third option, because my party didn't have much money, and there was no indication of how much beer would even cost us.

If you try the second option, sometimes the bartender will just give you beer (which you drink automatically) and sometimes, after a bit more discussion, he'll kick you out of the tavern. So, in effect, you must drink at least one beer to get any benefit to entering the tavern at all.

Inevitably, someone else comes along right afterwards and offers to buy you another beer. He'll then talk with you a bit and give you some information. Well, that's why you're there, right?

However, two beers are way too much for your party of rough, tough adventurers. After two beers each, my whole group was drunk and puking in the street afterwards. (Did I say two beers? When I jumped into the game to get a screenshot just now, my whole party ended up puking in the street after one beer. And these are the heroes expected to save civilization!)

The first tavern you enter - whichever one it is - will give you the information you need: first, that the Hetman is looking for heroes, and second, that there's a quest at the Old Bailey. As far as I can tell, that's it. You can stick around and get more information, but none of it seems useful or even interesting.

OK, maybe now is the time to talk about the horrible voice acting in the game, since this is where it gets completely ridiculous. The way it works is this: You might hear the same piece of very poor voice acting whatever the information you're being told at the time. The voice just pauses when it gets to the one line of actual information - presumably so you can read it for yourself - then continues on with the rest of the paragraph. It's just nuts.

Who in the world thought that was a good idea? Why have voice acting at all, then? The first thing I did in this game was to turn off the music (just because I always turn off the music in games, so that's not a criticism of the music in this one), but the second thing I did was to turn off the audio for the voice acting. Trust me, the game is far better without hearing it.

Anyway, we left the tavern, drunk and puking - which is apparently how you always leave the tavern - and it was dark by then, so we found an inn. Again, this was just a screenshot, not a real building you can enter.

Nice choices at the inn - all completely useless

You can talk to the innkeeper, too, but there's absolutely nothing to be gained by that. You've got three choices, all of which lead to... well, nothing at all, really - even your second option, which is to say, "Make up the dorm, then send in your daughter, your wife, and your son - naked and in that order!"

Come on, did someone actually think that was funny? Was the game developed by particularly immature 13-year-olds? Well, I tried that option once, just for this review, and it didn't have any more effect than the other two choices. So the whole thing turns out to be meaningless and stupid!

No, you might as well ignore talking to the innkeeper. Instead, just rent a room for the night. The dormitory is cheapest, and we spent the night just fine. The next day was sunny (that's when I took that first screenshot, at the start of this post), and we were able to look around the town, eventually finding both the Hetman and the Old Bailey.

See that guy walking around in the screenshot? There are several people walking around the town, but you can't interact with any of them. You can't talk to them; you can't even fight them. They exist because towns are supposed to have people, I guess. I suppose it's like all the buildings that don't have interiors, huh? What a waste!

Also, note how limited your view is. It's tunnel vision, like wearing blinders. You've got absolutely no peripheral vision. The best way to explore the town, I found, is just to run around rapidly and then see what was filled in on your map. There really isn't anything to find, anyway. If you could navigate using just the map, skipping the scenery, you wouldn't miss anything.

I saved the game at this point, although there was also an automatic save when we spent the night at the inn. Would you believe that, after saving the game, you have to close three separate windows before continuing with the game again? Three! Why? No idea.

When you talk to the Hetman, he'll start you on the main quest of the game, just by telling you what it's about. Well, and he'll give you a document which will get you into the armory - so you can equip the party for free, supposedly. After that, you're on your own.

The Old Bailey, which isn't far away, is your introductory dungeon, basically. It's a side-quest. You talk to a guy who gives you some starting cash - again, for equipment - and you're supposed to come back when you're ready.

So, OK, we went to the armory to get some better equipment. When we showed our authorization from the Hetman, the attendant told us that everything under 10 ducats (the largest coin in the game) would be free. Later, after reloading my saved game and trying this again (for reasons I'll get to in a moment), he said that everything under 30 ducats was free.

But, in both cases, he lied. We had to pay for even the cheapest items, and we could have gotten everything for the same price at the weapon shops in town. Maybe this was supposed to do something, but it didn't.

We didn't have much money, but I bought a set of the cheapest leather armor for everyone,... and then discovered that one of my characters wasn't allowed to wear it (a class restriction which the game didn't bother to tell me about), so I had to sell it back for pennies on the dollar. Lovely, huh?

But I did the best I could with the money I had available, then returned to the Old Bailey, where we were taken down to the cellars. Then I was told that it would be dark, so we'd need either torches or a lantern and oil, plus a tinderbox to light them. I also encountered a locked door, for which we needed a lockpick.

So I reloaded my saved game and went to buy that stuff, instead of armor. We had to look around to find everything, and the lockpick was horrendously expensive (equivalent to nearly five suits of armor). Well, I figured that it must be a fine set of burglar tools - something which would last us a long time.

Nope. On our first attempt to unlock that door, the lockpick broke (without opening the door). So I had two of my characters just bash it down. No problem. It smashed open on the first try, and there didn't seem to be any downside to doing that.

But I'd just spent nearly all of my money on something completely useless! Now, sure, many games have flimsy lockpicks which are always breaking. But in those cases, lockpicks are the cheapest item in the game. You just buy dozens of them (when you can't find enough just lying around in every dungeon).

Sure, I have played games where you need expensive burglar tools to unlock doors and chests, but they don't break. So what's up with this in Realms of Arkania. Did no one beta test this game?

Well, at least the lantern, oil, and tinderbox worked OK, once I figured out that I had to light the lantern and then equip it. (I could light it just fine when it was equipped, but it wouldn't give off any light.) So we set off to explore.

One of the first rooms was a supply room which included, among other rather useless stuff, a bunch of rations. Apparently, you need to eat regularly in this game. (I didn't play long enough to find out.) But all of the stuff in the room popped up on the screen when we just walked inside. Looking around the room afterwards was just a complete waste of time.

Again, what were the developers thinking? Unlike the buildings in town, this area actually had rooms. And they'd put at least some effort into the graphics, so there were cabinets and such in the room. But you couldn't open them. You couldn't interact with anything in the room. And you couldn't look around to find items which might have been hidden or overlooked or just stored there.

Was Realms of Arkania developed by people who'd never actually played a game - or, at least, an RPG - themselves? We RPG fans like to explore, and we like to find treasure. If you're going to the trouble to build a dungeon for us (and by "dungeon," I mean any dangerous area to explore and loot), why wouldn't you try to make it at least minimally interesting, at least minimally entertaining?

At any rate, we left the room and headed down the corridor, through the smashed door, and finally had our first combat encounter. And that's when I decided that life was too short to waste on games like this.

Turn-based combat is always relatively slow, of course, but it can be very tactical. And it can be showy enough, too - visually and acoustically. It can be exciting. It can be fun. But this was none of these things.

Nice combat formation, huh?

First, you can't see your enemies coming in Realms of Arkania. The first you know, you get a "To battle" message (which you have to close manually, for some reason) and you're switched to a separate battle screen that looks like a small chessboard. Note how claustrophobic it is.

There are no formations. In tactical combat, you normally put your heavily-armored characters - your tanks - in front. Archers and other lightly armored troops are behind them, with your magic-users at the back, where they can be somewhat protected from direct attack. Here you start in one big, randomized clump, your characters in no particular order and even looking in different directions.

Each character gets a turn (I don't know if that's entirely random or not) and a certain number of action points. You can move and attack, if you don't move too far, but I'm not sure how far that is. (I never bothered to figure it out.)

Disappointingly, there are no attacks of opportunity, no backstabbing, and no flanking, so there's nothing tactical in moving, either. In my first combat, against two robbers (remember, I had six characters, myself), I put my warrior and my axe-wielding dwarf on opposite sides of one of them. That seemed to have no effect at all, as my dwarf missed almost every single attack with his axe at the back of the enemy faced away from him.

And yes, the vast majority of my attacks of every kind were misses. Do you know how boring that is? True, these were only Level 1 characters, but how about just doing low damage? The sound effects were poor, too. I was particularly disappointed at the sound of shooting a bow. Games had better sound effects than this two decades ago!

(Note that I had one character armed with a sling, so she could carry the lantern in her left hand. But in combat, there was no sign of the lantern, and she appeared to be carrying, and shooting, a bow, not a sling. Just one more indication of how slap-dash this game really is.)

But worst, by far, were the spell-casters. Now, there are a lot of things I don't like about the magic system in this game, starting with the nonsense words for spell names, so you can't remember what each spell does, and the poor spell selection. But that might not be so bad if they could actually cast spells.

Instead, the spells of my casters just fizzled, over and over again. That's not fun. The spells themselves were extremely short-ranged. Well, it's a tiny little battlefield, anyway, I guess. But combine that with no attacks of opportunity, and enemies could just walk up to my unarmored spellcasters and hack away. Not that they were smart enough to do that.

On the rare occasion that a spell succeeded, the result was underwhelming in the extreme. There's a spell called Lightning - one of the few with a descriptive name - which is supposed to blind enemies. Wouldn't you think that a Lightning spell would be showy? Heck, if a lightning bolt was too much trouble, even a simple blast of light would have worked.

But no, this spell resulted - on the rare occasions that it worked - in a very understated, very generic kind of magical effect that could have been used for anything (and might have been, given how seldom my magical spells worked at all). And what was the result? Nothing, as far as I could tell. This was supposed to blind enemies, but that enemy bowman still seemed to have no trouble with his ranged attacks.

And there was no indication of how long the effect was supposed to last, either. Given that it seemed to do nothing anyway, I didn't worry about that much.

Eventually, we killed one robber and the other ran away (i.e. he took four steps to the edge of the battle screen and disappeared - despite being flanked by both of my warrior characters). All in all, this might be the most underwhelming combat I've ever seen in a game. Heck, Pool of Radiance, clear back in 1988, was far better than this!

Apparently, this remake of Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny was completely unplayable when it was released last summer. Well, I can't say that now. You can play it. I just don't know why you'd want to.

Note: My computer game reviews, tips, and other posts are here.

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