Review: Drakensang: The River of Time

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In summer of 2009 I reviewed Drakensang: The Dark Eye and was effusive in my praise for the game. My biggest complaint was the terribly slow speed which your character moved around the world. It was pretty much my only complaint. The rest of the game was well thought out, balanced, didn’t drop too much loot, offered decent side-quests, and had an interesting story. Drakensang: The River of Time is actually the prequel to Drakensang: The Dark Eye, but improves upon the original in nearly every way.

When I wrote the Drakensang: The Dark Eye review the NEXT game – River of Time – was already released for more than six months in Germany, getting a full English release later that year in other European countries. However, due to financial troubles it was unclear if it would ever get a North American release. It finally arrived in January 2011, but sadly before it was released developer Radon Labs was already out of business. It also followed the entirely too common practice of being dumped on shelves without much of any marketing – and given it was released for the budget price of $19.99 it was a sadly missed opportunity to gain some interest amongst gamers.

As I mentioned in my review of the original game, 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.

Since Drakensang: River of Time is from the same core gaming system as the original, it should be apparent that it shares the DSA rule set, character creation and development, the technical aspects of graphics and sound, the combat system and the story and quest details.

In terms of graphics, things are refreshed and tweaked, but largely what you saw in 2009 is what you get now: bright, saturated graphics, a gorgeous world with loads of monsters and terrain types, and detailed character models for your character and everyone else you’ll encounter. As I said before, 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 soundtrack remains entertaining and compelling. One thing I have loved in European RPGs is a tendency to put an emphasis on giving games an interesting soundtrack whereas too many North American companies simply throw Inon Zur at the project to come up with yet another Hollywood-esque high fantasy bombast-fest. Similar to the original 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.

The voice acting in the original game was only partial, and wasn’t consistent in how it was applied. This tended to be confusing for some players who were unsure if they were having a game-related issue. River of Time features fully voiced dialogue, but perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea. My biggest complaint last time was slow movement … this time, it is the mediocre localization. Considering how long a full English version was available it is inexcusable how lifeless the dialogue is from the very start of the game, how many times the wrong actor voices the text, how often what is shown doesn’t match what is said, and so on.

As was true with the original, the character creation system can be either simple or complex, depending on your preference. But it won’t feature the sorts of in-depth facial and body customization found in games such as Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Deal with it.

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.

If you choose the in-depth path, you will still find yourself grasping for details from the sparse documentation to figure out exactly how to spend your points. But this time you can select an archetype, then choose four traits to emphasize or diminish to help guide your progression. It is a great middle ground that makes getting into the game with a character you can call your own without spending hours grappling with little-known traits.

Once you get through the character creation and the opening areas, you will find yourself back in familiar party-based exploration with turn-based combat. The party system is extremely important as it allows you to blend strengths from different character classes.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 original Drakensang had a story that I called “fairly typical high fantasy stuff”. You were the chosen one out to save the world … again! This time, things are happening on a smaller scale, and the story is scaled down to a more regional conflict. Since this is a prequel, you will meet characters and see events that foreshadow the first game. Ardo, who died at the start of Drakensang: The Dark Eye, figures heavily in the main quest, and Gladys appears as the one being told the story by Forgrimm. The companion choices are scaled back, and everything feels like it is crucial to the development of the narrative.

One interesting choice in the narrative is that it is not YOUR story this time around. You are an adventurer and your role is critical, but ultimately the story follows Ardo and his friends Forgrimm and Cano. You and another companion round out the party, which allows Radon Labs to spend more time building the story that will lead you into Drakensang: The Dark Eye and working on much more deeply drawing out the characters in this game.

In spite of this tighter focus, it doesn’t feel like you are playing a small game. The quest feels less linear than the first game, and there were changes made to make the overall world feel more open. In the original game there were many areas that completely closed off once you left them. It was jarring and annoying, especially in the first area where you felt perhaps there was more to do. In River of Time, you can return to any previous area, and sometimes side-quests invite you to go back and explore again.

My main complaint with the original game was the slow travel. Your character moved very slowly, which was a pain since you seemed to have to walk or lightly jog around a massive country! River of Time doesn’t change the inherent character speed (which is STILL too slow), but there are added quick travel points within an area to help you get from place to place. Personally I would have preferred that they also double the movement speed on ‘run’, but the quick travel made it so I was never frustrated.

The combat system is essentially unchanged from the original game. As I mentioned in my original review, the biggest issue with combat is that the TDE rules favor grouping enemies, but the party AI system will tend to have your allies wander off and attack enemies solo. This means you frequently have to micromanage battles that are easily winnable. Combat in general is never terribly difficult, which makes the random difficult battle 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.

I had discussed the final boss as “”the worst example of ‘stupid design choices’ in the entire game”. Fortunately, while the combat system itself is unchanged, Radon Labs’ approach to combat has changed completely. Much of the ‘filler’ combat is gone, replaced by more mid- and high-level combat encounters. Not only that, there are many more puzzles than in the original game, something that does a great job of breaking up the usual monotony of trudging through a massive dungeon.

As I have indicated before, Drakensang is not a ‘genre broadening’ game that has fast-paced action, FPS views with guns, and heavy slo-mo gore fueled with Hollywood action film stars. It is a traditional story-based RPG with a turn-based (ok, real-time with pause) combat system – but brought thoroughly into the modern era with top-notch graphics and a friendly and flexible interface. It is not a game for everyone, it is not something that Farmville prepares you for – it is a game that you want to play because you love the original, you love games like Baldur’s Gate, and you have loved traditional RPGs for years. The original Drakensang was a very well done game with some flaws, and while River of Time adds a localization flaw, it improves upon the original in every other way, and the only real complaint I have now is that Radon Labs is gone and this might well be the last Drakensang game we ever get to play. And that is a shame. But for now … enjoy what is sure to be one of the best RPGs of 2011!

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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
+ Quick travel points speed up getting from place to place

Cons:
– Could use better manual / online help
– Localization is poorly done
– Run speed is still too slow

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: THQ’s Valusoft label
Developer: Radon Labs
Release Date: 1/11/2011
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Personal copy

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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!