Drakensang: The Dark Eye
The global recession has meant that many of us have to make cutbacks. For gamers, we have had to cut back on just how many games we buy in an average month, as we feel obliged to eek out every single possible scene in a game to ensure that we feel that we have got our money's worth. A 20-30 GBP game that only lasts a few hours just doesn't feel as good a deal as it used to. And so enters Drakensang: The Dark Eye, an epic party based RPG that may at last finally represent good value for money for the PC RPG fan.
Drakensang: The Dark Eye is based upon a German tabletop role-playing game of the same name. I'll admit to not being very familiar with it other than the research I conducted while writing this, but any game that can outsell Dungeons and Dragons in Germany has to be worth paying attention to. Therefore, it's a bit of a mystery as to why the three previous games based on the series don't seem to have had much attention paid to them, but perhaps this is why Drakensang is that bit more eye catching. Drakensang: The Dark Eye was originally released in Germany last August so it's taken a while to reach the rest of the world. However, hopefully those who have been looking forward to its eventual release will not be disappointed.
Drakensang: The Dark Eye initially looks like a cross between World of Warcraft and Baldur's Gate. For those of you expecting the next Fallout 3 or Oblivion, look away now, it's not that sort of RPG. Instead, it's the more traditional party-based RPG that we used to see emerging from Black Isle such as Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale... you get the idea. The HUD system reminded me immediately of World of Warcraft, with a mini map in the top left hand side of the screen and a hotbar for attack shortcuts at the bottom of the screen. As the game unfolded, I came to realise that Drakensang is definitely aiming to be more Baldur's Gate than anything else, albeit with much more depth. So much depth in fact that it is a little overwhelming.
On starting the game, you have the usual character creation screen which really does offer a wealth of options. There are 20 pre-made characters to choose from ranging from your typical warriors and mages to amazons and pirates. As well as that there are more than 40 spells, over 30 talents and nearly 40 special abilities, meaning there are plenty of options available to you when creating your character. As well as this you can go into an advanced mode of the game and tweak your character's attributes to your heart's content. I reckon you could easily spend a good hour or two just settling on a character archetype. This is great, I'm pleased to see an RPG on the market that isn't dumbing down, but at times the array of stats is a little daunting. I couldn't honestly say that I fully understand it even after many hours of playing. Leveling up is a similar process where although I level up every time and think I've achieved something, I couldn't actually say what effects what, despite having played various Dungeons and Dragons based RPGs for many years. Perhaps for those who have played The Dark Eye tabletop game, this will all make perfect sense, and despite the confusion I wouldn't say it's necessarily a huge problem. Just something that will take a lot of dedication to figure out. It would be nice to have some clear explanations as to where to put your skill and talent points. Although there are basic explanations in the loading screen and tooltips, it's just not quite detailed enough. Luckily the (75 page) manual goes some way to helping you understand just what to do when it comes to character development. Of course, given the huge depth of all this (I haven't even gone into detail regarding the crafting system where you can create potions, weapons and shields amongst other items), one thing you certainly can't complain about is just how many options are available when developing your character - which is very refreshing.
Not wishing to spoil the plotline too much, but the game is a little cliched in places. We start with humans and dwarves, coexisting peacefully in the land of Aventuria (familiar to those who know the tabletop game); until that is a few gruesome murders occur in the city of Ferdok and all hell breaks loose. You are tasked with the role of getting to the bottom of things as an old friend of yours is one of the people murdered. Of course in a traditional party-based RPG you are going to have a few trite instances. Early on in the game, you come across a character who is your typical rogue; he loves to flirt with the women and is always getting in trouble, being a bit of a thief. As well as that, there is the slightly eccentric magician who isn't quite as sane as everyone else, and... well, you get the idea. The quests are also quite predictable in places, certainly to those who have played MMOs and RPGs before. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing, its just notable. The story is well written and although a little linear compared to the likes of Oblivion, if you love games like Baldur's Gate, odds are you are going to enjoy this.
Certainly, if you are used to the likes of Neverwinter Nights, you will be impressed by the graphics displayed in Drakensang, providing you install the optional high resolution texture pack weighing in at around 4Gb of hard drive space. Even if your PC is quite old, Drakensang should still run fine if you adjust the settings accordingly, and it'll still look the part. The texturing of the character models is particularly pleasant to look at in places. Refreshingly, I didn't even experience any crashes which make a nice change. The game works on a zone basis which works quite well as loading times are infrequent but often quite speedy. The only downside is you can't return to a zone that you have left, meaning you must make sure you are done in that area before moving on. The controls are a little odd at times. I found it not quite as intuitive as the likes of Baldur's Gate. Moving around felt awkward with the WASD keys and the camera felt a bit unresponsive, meaning I had to control it at all times via the mouse, which after a while became irritating.
You can control up to four characters at a time, although the AI is good enough that you can be in sole control of the main character and leave the other three to help you out as and when appropriate. Pathfinding problems did become a bit noticeable when I did this however so for long journeys, I found it easier to control all 4 of my party. I didn't find the turn-based combat as interesting as in the Baldur's Gate series; it really did look quite obviously "turn-based". However after the predictable slew of rats (called Wolf Rats in this for some reason), things did become more interesting with battles against mages and skeletons, and all sorts of things that fantasy gamers adore.
Drakensang is very nearly brilliant and the perfect game for those who miss party-based RPGs; which are seemingly becoming quite rare compared to the deluge of first-person RPGs a la Fallout 3 and Oblivion. It has its flaws, the controls are far from perfect and it is a little complex at least initially. But I found Drakensang very refreshing in its complexity. It doesn't patronise the gamer, but it still allows for a less experienced RPG player to enjoy the game. If you want to avoid some of the complexity, simply use a pre-made character and avoid the crafting system and you will enjoy the experience. If you want to be very hands-on, you can do that too and start a character from scratch. Drakensang offers around 40-50 hours of gameplay depending on how many side quests you tackle, meaning there's plenty to be getting on with, and with a well written storyline and surprisingly good visuals, it really is a noteworthy all round package.