Review: Drakensang: The Dark Eye

Drakensang.jpg Games from European PC developers and publishers often have an uphill struggle to begin with: they lack the entrenched network of marketing and promotion, often struggle to get a community base built up of native speakers on popular game forums, and of course are strapped with an image of lacking polish and suffering from poor language translations. As a result they often fail to gain shelf-space at major retailers, making it even harder for them to gain new fans. So you are forgiven if you have never heard of this game, let alone knew that it has been out for a couple of months.

For me, this is a game I have been anticipating since it was released last August in Europe: based on the early assessments of my European friends I skipped looking at the English demo and jumped right into the game when it was released. The demo is still available, and as always I recommend for everyone to try demos out before spending your money on a game. My only caveat is that the demo suffers from what I call ‘Neverwinter Nights’ syndrome: it features an area that is designed as a tutorial and therefore doesn’t really represent the depth and breadth experienced later in the game. In other words, you might find it dreadfully boring, yet go on to love the actual game. Personally, I loved the opening area as well.

Drakensang is a fantasy-RPG based on a German Paper & Pencil (PnP) game called DSA (Das Schwarze Auge… or The Dark Eye, typically abbreviated DSA or TDE depending on language), which immediately differentiates it from the host of D20-based D&D ruleset games that are popular (i.e. Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, etc). This should immediately tell you that there are numbers and rules and statistics going on behind the scenes all the time, with tons of skill checks and bonuses and penalties based on whatever is going on. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your preference – I’m a math geek (statistician by current profession) but also a gamer, so I love to be able to see the math, but also to ignore it without consequence.

There are several interesting things to discuss about Drakensang: the use of the DSA rule set, character creation and development, the technical aspects of graphics and sound, the combat system and the story and quest details. Each of these really deserves some attention, so let’s start with what I consider to be the least critical in a game of this type – graphics and sound.

Ooh … did I already start a controversy? Let me explain: I am a huge fan of games with great graphics, and have had game soundtracks on my portable music players since well before the iPod existed. However, in every case with regards to a story-based RPG, I have found that while nice graphics or some cool music is great while playing, without a solid story and combat system I will never care about the game enough to worry about those things. None of that matters, though, as the game looks and sounds great.

No one will mistake Drakensang for a top-line game designed to push the performance of high-end computer systems. That said, there are design choices made that greatly enhance the experience: character models are very nicely done, and the environments look detailed and varied and convey the needed atmosphere to accompany each part of the story. The game has modest system requirements, and runs well even on a computer that barely exceeds the minimum. The visual effects for spells and weather and other events all add to the atmosphere within the constraints of keeping the game running at a solid frame rate on modest computers.

The audio is similarly impressive – the soundtrack is solid but not spectacular on the level of games such as Divine Divinity; I enjoyed while playing it but haven’t sought it out to add to iTunes. It is fairly typical of fantasy games, but because of that it fits perfectly – it is occasionally reminiscent of the Gothic games in terms of the minimal approach to environmental sounds and noises. There is partial voice acting – something I know has caused confusion with some who thought there might be an issue with their sound system. Typically only the first line of dialogue is voiced, leaving the player to read the rest. Some cut scenes are fully voiced, perhaps adding to the confusion. Personally I liked the choice – recording all voiced dialogue in a game with branching options in several different languages would take vast amounts of time and resources, whereas a single line adds a voice to each character and expands the connection the user has with the game.

I have heard people complain that you cannot customize your lip color and eyebrow thickness in Drakensang as you can in games like Oblivion. My advice to those who feel that way is to go pick up a copy of Fashion Designer and leave the role-playing games to the role-players. To me character customization is about choosing the characteristics of the character you will be portraying in the context of the game, abstracted to some level. The appropriate level of abstraction depends on the focus of the game – in some games (such as Gothic) you get no choices at all, you simply start off and develop as you go; in others (such as Sacred) you choose from preset characters without ability to alter any characteristics; still others allow you large amounts of appearance options but fewer choices about your character’s stats. Drakensang allows you some minimal changes to the appearance of your character, and in my mind it was appropriate for the game type.

The real job of character customization and development is much deeper than merely setting up the appearance of an avatar, and itself forces you to make choices that will have far reaching effects through the game. While I won’t criticize specific games, the general trend in more popular role playing games has been to prevent you from making choices that will impact your ability to win the game. Drakensang has no such barrier to failure – if you want to create a character that will be utterly useless later in the game there is nothing to stop you.

Fortunately for the vast majority of gamers who will be unfamiliar with the TDE rules, you get started with a choice of 20 archetypes, and you can tweak them further through expert mode. Within that mode you’ll have access to the full system as implemented in the game: 8 attributes, 9 derived statistics, 11 branches of special abilities, 10 combat skills and 23 non-combat skills. Apparently this is actually a simplification of the full TDE rule-set, but in the context of the game it provides a more than robust platform to develop whatever sort of character you desire. There is a considerable amount of help available through the manual and in-game text to aid you making choices regarding the various skills and abilities.

That isn’t to say that the system is without flaws. For example, you are given points to allocate as you gain experience, but little guidance on how to achieve certain goals. You can gain proficiency at dealing melee damage with a sword in multiple ways, but it isn’t immediately clear which is the better choice between skill and attribute. The difficulties run even deeper, as it is not always clear whether you should increase your rank in a given skill or increase a related skill or attribute. Nor is it intuitively obvious what rank levels are required in order to get a skill to the level required to complete certain tasks.

Sadly the manual is only of limited help with this stuff. On the one hand, it provides a decent overview of the game and many of the features of the TDE system, but in the preparations for the North American release many pages were cut – including the list of spells. The impact of this omission is to make the selection of where to utilize your advancement points even more difficult. For example, there is a small side-quest fairly early in the game which is easily solvable if you have chosen the correct spells … and advanced them to the proper level. Without a guide, you might not even know that you would need to have certain attributes and certain derived skills at certain levels to even get to see those potential spells.

These are not issues that most folks will struggle with – the game is generally forgiving enough that as long as you generally focus on the character type you want to become you will succeed. For completionists such as myself, though, it presented somewhat of a challenge as I needed to plan carefully in order to succeed at every quest I came across. What that meant to me was a small amount of Internet searching to discover more about the rules and the available skills and attributes and how they relate.

Since this is a party-based game you are able to use the strengths of the various members of your party, so you can always have someone with you who can pick locks or identify items, for example, as well as a mage, a ranged weapon specialist and a melee warrior. This gives you more leeway to experiment with builds for the different characters, but also more work in maintaining an active set of characters ready to handle a variety of enemy types and also possess secondary skills and inventory items needed to get through any situation you might encounter.

The story is on its surface fairly typical high fantasy stuff – you are a young apprentice called to a far off city by a friend, having to make your way through other places first due to troubles that have closed the city. By the time you enter the city your friend is dead and you get to play a hand in discovering what has happened. From there the story branches out in different directions and heads you to several different locations. The characters and dialogue are solidly written and translated, and the choices are far deeper and more subtle than the typical ‘give all my possessions to charity / torture a box of kittens’ that we see in so many games. Similarly, each character you bring into your party has their own backstory, their own interests and alignment, and will often comment on how you or other party members behave. It adds considerable depth to feel you really are leading a party rather than just guiding a character and a couple of henchmen.

I have heard some folks say ‘I’m sick of fantasy settings’ lately, just as I have heard them complaining about World War II settings, Zombies, RTS sameness, and so on. But as the great games released in all of those areas (Call of Duty: World at War, Left4Dead, Empire: Total War, etc) have shown, gamers will gladly go back into a setting they thought they were ‘done’ with if the game warrants it. Drakensang is at once familiar and different: there are elves and dwarves and so on, yet the characters and settings all have a different feeling from the typical D&D world of Faerun seen in games such as Neverwinter Nights 2. Still, the overall story arc is not going to have an impact on the genre the way The Witcher did.

I have a few issues with the story, mostly with the structure: the main quest is quite linear, and there are quest-centric areas that become permanently closed off once you have finished the main objective for the area and left. I was surprised upon preparing to leave the first area that I was told that I could never return – I went back around again making sure I had spoken to everyone and completed every quest. Each new minor area was like this – the game is set up with central areas with smaller places that serve a single main purpose but have assorted items and side-quests.

This ties into the overall sense of linearity – there are many minor choices you can make in terms of siding with one faction or another, but ultimately there is a singular pull to a final conclusion which takes the same basic direction regardless of your choices. The design of each individual area tends to be fairly open – this is not like Knights of the Old Republic with its tightly constrained area design. I had no issue with the plot linearity but it took a while to adjust to leaving towns behind forever … but it really makes more sense than the typical “I know I have to save the world, but right now I have to deliver these ten herbs to the alchemist three days journey in the opposite direction”.

The tone and colors of the game also set it apart from the ‘dark & gritty’ feel so popular in recent releases. While you don’t get the super-saturated colorful settings of last year’s King’s Bounty, the feeling playing early on is light and friendly and completely fitting of the story. Whimsical would be a fitting description of some of the early encounters. As you progress through the story and atmosphere gets darker and more serious, and the colors likewise get darker and the game feels more serious. It never devolves into a blood-soaked angst-filled wasteland … and for that I am thankful.

Aside from completing quests, character development comes from experience points gained in combat. The game is filled with loads of combat – some areas have quests that mix exploration and combat, other are just battlegrounds. The combat system is party-based, and is the same hybrid real-time / turn-based sort of system used in the Neverwinter Nights games. That system is typically called RTwP – Real Time with Pause. Each player gets a chance to act in a round, but if they fail to act the turn will pass them by. It keeps things flowing more quickly than in a traditional turn-based system but allows more strategic control than an action-based system and keeps things from devolving into a click-fest.

Because you are in change of a full party, it is impossible to directly manage all members simultaneously. Therefore you can make use of different settings for each character to tell them how to behave by default, and can pause the action at any time and direct their attack or defense. In general this works very well – and in my party it worked extremely well, since I played as a battlemage and gave my other party members weapons that would force them into certain roles. However, the AI associated with your party members in combat isn’t always consistent or very, well, intelligent.

In a typical D&D style game you’d have a mage disabling other spellcasters, strengthening allies and weakening enemies, while ranged fighters soften up enemies for melee fighters to engage one-on-one. But the TDE rules favor grouping enemies: each player gets only a certain amount of blocks / parries per round, so if all players concentrate attacks on a single enemy there is a decent change to eliminate that enemy and move on to the next one for the following round. However, left to their own devices your allies will often engage enemies one-on-one. As a result battles can be tougher than necessary; generally I would advise having your whole party move like a pack of five-year olds playing soccer from enemy to enemy.

Combat in general is never terribly difficult, which makes the difficult battles surprising. Most of the time you will have little problem mowing through level after level of enemies, taking out whatever is in your path. Even most boss battles aren’t too hard, forcing you just to exercise a bit more caution than usual. There are a couple of times when the combat really hits you hard, though. In one case that has been discussed quite a bit in various game forums, you work your way through a multi-level dungeon, with enemies becoming progressively more difficult. When you reach the final boss, however, the difficulty is so out of whack with anything you’ve yet to encounter that your party will likely fall quickly. Worse yet, it is a sealed area without an auto-save point before it … so you will have to go back to whatever save you have made, hopefully from within the dungeon.

This is, in my opinion, the worst example of ‘stupid design choices’ in the entire game. First off, the combat is generally fairly easy, with only two or three fights that I would consider challenging throughout the entire 80+ hour campaign. There is plenty of combat at what I would call ‘mid-level difficulty’, and most dungeon areas feature combat that builds in difficulty, frequency and intensity as you near the culmination. That is all stuff I’d consider ‘good design’. It engages you and keeps you intrigued and challenged. However, this particular battle is set in an area that you can encounter way before you and your party are ready to handle it – worse still, even though the combat has built up nicely throughout the dungeon, nothing you have yet encountered in the entire game will begin to prepare you for this. Pair that with the ‘closed off area’, another thing not done previously in the game, and you have a perfect recipe for some highly annoyed gamers.

I do have a singular true complaint about the game – movement is terribly slow. When you enter an area, your movement options are fairly wide open, and you are allowed to explore freely. However, on quests you will often have to go back and forth to get things done and advance the plot. There is no ‘fast travel’, and moving around some of the larger areas feels like your character is set in ‘walk mode’ or encumbered… but that is just the default speed. Multiple places have shown how you can modify initialization files to increase the speed, but of course this comes with side-effects. In general this wouldn’t be an issue, but over the course of an 80+ hour experience it can get quite frustrating.

If you think about it, those being my worst complaints about the game – slow movement, one disproportionately difficult battle, missing stuff in the manual and help text, and a somewhat cliched story – I must really like this game. And I do. It is not the sort of game that ten years from now people will be touting as ‘one of the best’ the way they will The Witcher, but it is a very good game that is one of the best RPG’s of the last several years. It has everything that fans of the genre seek – role-playing, choices with consequences, party-based adventuring, turn-based combat, an epic story that allows you to influence the outcome in many ways, and so on. But for those who are not enamored with fantasy games, or don’t like turn-based games, and gravitate to fast-paced action games, there isn’t anything here to draw you in. This is not a ‘genre broadening’ game like Fallout 3 that bridges shooter and RPG elements – Drakensang is pure RPG through and through.

And for myself and fans of the genre, that is exactly why we love it!

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Pros:
+ Choices with consequences
+ Fun turn-based combat
+ Great role-playing opportunities
+ Wonderful character development system
+ Massive 80-hour epic story

Cons:
- Could use better manual / online help
- Movement too slow
- Main quest is linear

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Radon Labs
Release Date: 2/23/09
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!