Drakensang: The Dark Eye
Developer: Radon Labs
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 02/24/2009
When it comes to role-playing games, I tend to favour the Japanese variety. I grew up on Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, so I typically prefer a game that tells an epic, albeit linear story, great characterization, and a text based battle system. I’ve never really deviated from that too much. Even now, my favourite games in my collection currently are Dragon Quest IV and V and Chrono Trigger. Western RPGs, on the other hand, haven’t had quite the grasp on me. It’s not that I don’t think they’re good – I don’t want to turn my inbox into a WRPG vs. JRPG flamewar the likes seen on every message board on Earth – it’s just that they don’t particularly cater to my tastes. This isn’t exclusive to video games; I could never get into tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, nor could I really get into The Elder Scrolls or Fallout. It’s not that they’re not great games, it’s just that they’re not my proverbial cup of tea.
With that stated, I was a little apprehensive when I received Drakensang: The Dark Eye. In short, I was afraid I couldn’t do the game proper justice. It was described to me by Alex as being “like Neverwinter Nights“, a game I’ve barely played in my life. Furthermore, the game is a derivative of the tabletop game The Dark Eye, which was first released in Germany in 1984. If I’ve learned one thing about RPG fans, it’s that they have a tendency to be fanatical, as the feedback for my review of Mount & Blade proved. In short, I felt like I was walking into a minefield, especially if I didn’t like the game.
While I’m not entirely sure I can do such an involved game with such an involved and decorated history (It’s Germany’s RPG of the Year for 2008) justice, I can definitively say one thing: Drakensang is a good game that deserves attention.
When you load up Drakensang, the first thing you get is a loading screen, with a voice over asking you to visit an old friend. At that point, you’re brought into character creation. There are a lot of choices for characters, with most categories (human fighter, dwarf, magic user, elementalist, etc.) having multiple choices in that area. For instance, you can have a dark magic user, a healing magic user, or a character that “dropped out” of magic school. The choices are varied and give a good amount of flexibility, even when taking the stock character choices. For those that don’t want a stock character, there is an advanced editor, with the emphasis being strongly on “advanced”, as just the tutorial for it made my head spin, with a seemingly limitless array of stats that can be “rolled”. After replacing the keyboard I shorted out from the unconcious drooling I’d done, I decided I was good with a stock character, and proceeded to dive into the game.
Your new character, upon creation, is thrust into Aventuria, a standard Medieval fantasy world, where your first order of business is to talk to a local guard who tells you… that you won’t be able to get to the town where your friend is, unless you have two people vouch for your good nature. Naturally, to get two people to vouch for you, you have to do something for them. Thus begins the #1 way to get anything done in this game: the fetch quest. Drakensang is LOADED with fetch quests from top to bottom. While the story eventually evolves from the middling beginnings you have and starts to feel like the epic that it truly is, you’re never going to get away from the fetch quests that are necessary to get anything done. Furthermore, most of these quests involve a lot of walking to far away lands, which can be an arduous task for someone low on time or patience; thankfully, you’re given a marker on the map to go on for the vast majority of your quests. Long story short, if you don’t like having to go to points W, X and Y to get objective Z done, you’re not going to like this game – or really, this genre – very much.
Thankfully, the fetch quests – something I’ve never cared for in any game of any genre – are made more tolerable by the fact that the people you have to talk to, while a bit stereotypical, are generally well-written characters. There’s nothing outrageously innovative about what you’re going to see on your day to day travels. I haven’t seen one archtype that hasn’t been done in every style of game you can think of, but the script writing is great, especially considering the fact that this was translated from German. The game was localized beautifully, though some of the voice acting – the bit you hear – is laughably overdone. Furthermore, the game is exceptionally scenic. On the top level, the graphics are great, and I just stared at a brook watching the water flow for awhile, amazed at how great it looked. With that said, my computer could give Big Blue a run for it’s money. A lesser computer could have serious issues with this game. The minimum requirements are a touch above standard at this point (though I couldn’t run it on my 2.2GHz PIII), but the recommended stats are pretty high.
Depending on your class and skillset, there’s a lot you can do here. One of the first skills you learn is plant lore, which allows you to pick plants to use in medicines and recipies. Everytime you try to cultivate something, the game “rolls” as it would in the actual tabletop game. If it fails, the plant dies. This is the case with a lot of actions in this game, and though it’s true to the metrics taken from the actual Dark Eye rulebook, it can be a bit frustrating to have the first seven plants that you try to take die on you because your skills haven’t been developed yet. For even more fun, try picking a lock and not getting absolutely frustrated. With that said, anyone that takes the time and dedication to developing their skills will find some seriously rewarding gameplay. It’s not exactly like you’ll be short of chances to do this, either; the main quest of the game can take up to one hundred hours for completists to get through, and along the way, you usually find a place to work and hone your craft of choice, such as the Dwarves having workbenches to forge weapons on. However, with all this gameplay, and all the quests you can take, there’s only one ending to the game. I’m not asking for another Fable or Fallout, but a couple of deviating paths would be a nice addition, considering the fact that, through four characters, I’ve followed the same path for each character, almost to the letter.
The game’s interface feels like it’s a marriage of Baldur’s Gate (which the game’s website lists as an inspiration) and Diablo, in that you have a list of skills along the bottom of the screen, and some main options in how you like to get around. With that said, you have to do all item management through the character sheet, which can be a bit kludgy, having to stop and start everytime you want to use an item. Some quick-key support would have done well. What really got on my tits about the interface in general is that it doesn’t seem to like to tell you when you can or cannot do something. For instance, in the beginning part of the game, you rescue some wussy little nancy boy from some thugs. He’s a typically flamboyant fencing-type, but he does have the skill to pick locks, a skill which none of the characters I historically play as come with. This was nice, but I spent five minutes trying to pick the lock of the chest, failing, waiting for his hands to stop shaking, and trying again. The character had hairpins, which would have been nice, but I had no clue if I was actually using them or not; it’s not like I could select them and actually use them, so I had to assume that they were necessary in order to pick the lock. After five minutes, the lock was finally picked, though to be fair, I am still unsure how effective the hairpins were. Along with that, there’s an unnecessary delay before your character will do something such as healing a wound, ostensibly to give you a chance to cancel the move. I found this unnecessary, as when I select a move, I am certain of what I want to do. Finally, moving inside tight spaces such as caves is a pain in the rear because it doesn’t seem to be too clear what is land that you can walk on, and what isn’t; the 360-degree camera helps this somewhat, though not enough to mitigate this, as I had some difficulty getting around in the tighter spaces because something – either a character, or some scenery – were usually in the path.
Finally, there’s combat. Fighting enemies in this game is deceptively simple, mainly due to the fact that every character class has the capability to competently defend themselves physically. For melee fighters, combat is more or less a sit-and-wait affair; click on the enemy you want to attack, wait until enemy drops, occasionally stop to possibly heal yourself or run if things get hairy. For magic users, the system is a bit different in that you have to select a spell than select targets as applicable. However, one thing I noticed was an annoying lag between me selecting a spell and the spell actually being put forth; I would select a spell, select the target, my magic user would continue fighting physically for a couple more rounds, and then, if the winds blew right and he just flat-out felt like it, my guy would finally cast the bloody spell. Thankfully, the interface didn’t get in the way enough to make the game unplayable; it just annoyed me more than it should have. As for dying, there’s two ways to die in this game; being “wounded” four times, or running out of HP. Wounds can happen randomly, and have to be bandaged, whereas HP regenerates over time. It adds another element to the game, though bandages are easy enough to come by, either by finding them, getting them from other characters or purchasing them.
It should be noted that there are a LOT of statistics involved within this game; everything from combat to skill usage to magic usage to the way you level up is meticulously managed by a complex stat system – much of which I still don’t understand even after a week with the game – that takes just about everything – from weapon weight to the amount of times a skill’s been used, to your character’s base stats – into account. The skill branching system is tiered, meaning once you use a skill enough, you can get the next strongest skill, and can go from that branch forward in various disciplines; you can also learn certain minor skills from merchants that can teach you at a cost of money and learning points. Thankfully, you don’t need the stats to do well in this game. I, someone who’s grown more averse to micromanaging stats in my RPGs as I’ve gotten older, was able to do just fine under my JRPG-like policy of “bigger numbers are good”. To one-line it, Drakensang’s strong enough for a dungeon master, but PH-balanced for a weeaboo.
One major plus in Drakensang’s favour is that there’s a lot of game here for a very affordable price; the game retails for $30 in both physical and download format. It should be noted that the abominable SecuROM is on this game. However, to my surprise, they actually told the truth in stating that all it does is check for the physical CD in the drive. I can personally – as an IT pro – attest that the game made no SecuROM related registry or file changes to my system. Furthermore, this game is available on Steam with no SecuROM DRM of any kind, though at a 6GB download it’s a bit of a bandwidth killer.
Graphics: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Drakensang: The Dark Eye doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, what it does is give fans of all walks of RPG a highly evolved wheel that has something for everyone. It’s simple enough for newbies and people that don’t need stats, but has rulebook-perfect stats and depth for those that want the full pen-and-paper experience. Furthermore, for only $30, there’s almost too much gameplay to be legal. I highly recommend Drakensang to any gamer with enough patience to see through a well crafted, single player role-playing experience.