Inside Pulse 12

Review: The Dark Spire (Nintendo DS)

The Dark Spire
Developer: Success
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Role Playing
Release Date: 04/14/09


Judging by the considerable acclaim Atlus received for releasing both installments of the dungeon crawling RPG series Etrian Odyssey here in America, it’s not a big surprise to see them willingly take a chance with Japanese developer Success’ hark back to the shadowy labyrinths and faceless protagonists of this conceptually archaic genre with their lovingly titled game The Dark Spire. The Dark Spire‘s bold art stylistics and gameplay that promises to faithfully portray all the frustration and glory of the classic dungeon romps of yore has had me personally excited about this title for a good number of months prior to its release here in the states. So I rolled my stats, equipped my long sword and leather jerkin, and with the meager 6 hit points to my name, I entered the mysterious Dark Spire. I am still down in the dungeon obviously, and I intend to stay here a while longer, but I’m sure those reading this eager adventurer’s words would really like to know if I’m enjoying my stay.

Please feel free to read on.

Story:
Like the hardcore dungeon crawlers The Dark Spire is associated with, there (fortunately) isn’t to much of a back story or overhanging plot to weed through and watch unfold. Those who have bravely adventured in the realms of yesteryear’s Wizardy and Dungeon & Dragons games will most likely be familiar with the premise of The Dark Spire before I even explain it, but here goes. Most likely by the bale of a magic most treacherous, the dreaded Dark Spire appears one day on the outskirts of a once peaceful kingdom. Shortly after, the King’s most trusted Archmage, Thyhung, betrays the collective kingdom and steals the most valuable of the royal treasures, “The Fairy’s Tears”, from around the Queen’s neck. The dastardly magician makes his way to the top of the dungeon-esque spire and fortifies himself downward with a legion of adventurer-hungry monsters and hair trigger traps. Short on men and in quite a predicament, the King issues forth a call to all adventurers far and wide to take arms against the backstabbing mage and brave the heights of the mysterious Dark Spire. Being the dark and unknown place it is, the fearful spire promises hearty adventurers the tried and true discovery of forgotten treasures and riches, as well as the frequent assault of a rogue’s dagger and monster’s claw amidst its labyrinthine corridors. And of course, to those who fell the treacherous Archmage awaits a great reward to be awarded by the hands of a most grateful king.

Sign me up.

The Dark Spire is absent of many of the traditional character relationships, love triangles, and acts of political deception many a normal RPG game player would usually be accustomed to seeing unfold via cinematic or overactive text box. Much like its free form dungeon hack brethren, The Dark Spire allows those who challenge it to weave their own tale of adventure, fortune, and despair, in any random order. Though there is an underlying goal to be achieved through the dungeon’s many floors and corridors, the traditional nature of the game has little interest in submerging you with quirky plot twists and crybaby characters, and rightfully so. The Dark Spire is a homage to a nearly forgotten genre of game, the TRUE RPG. And in TRUE RPG’s, it’s all about “playing” roles, not just controlling the predetermined exploits of whatever character is in the driver’s seat and whatever number of his archetype friends are tagging along for the adventure of a lifetime. The faceless characters you create will become your proverbial Cloud Strifes and Tifa Lockhearts, and much like the traditional pen and paper RPG’s that also bear their influence in The Dark Spire, these at first lifeless protagonists will begin to take on their own unique personalities within you, the player. In short, consider the story in The Dark Spire to be those first few pages in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. They give you the basic idea, and from there you ride things out along a number of possible choices. A little imagination can go a long way at times, and I find the need to utilize it a bit along the scarcely lit corridors of this dungeon crawler a refreshing and exciting opportunity.

Story: Classic

Graphics:
The Dark Spire can be played completely with one of two visual presentations, both of which are in the traditional first-person format. “Modern Mode”, features bold and dramatic artworks of characters and monsters, as well as a 3D dungeon layout. In keeping up with its retro influences, the game can also be played in ‘Classic Mode”, which portrays the characters and monsters in eight-bit quality sprites and colors, and depicts the dungeon itself in traditional “wire frame” 3D. As wonderful and clever a novelty as Classic Mode is, the moody and effective qualities of the fantastic artwork in Modern Mode are truly the way the monster laden dungeons and corridors of The Dark Spire must be experienced.

Though well done and aesthetically pleasing in Etrian Odyssey, the stereotypical anime fare of the character portraits were a bit disconnecting at times, given the pseudo hardcore dungeon crawling nature of the product. Success takes an alternative route with The Dark Spire artistically, and portrays the characters and monsters with a dramatic detail that features certain distinguishable characteristics one might compare to the pulpy art styles seen in the likes of a Sin City comic book. The strong solid black shading and the sharp pastel hues that act as most of the color underneath the powerful black tones play up the stunning atmosphere and mood this daring art style manages to invoke. Not only do these visuals enhance the feeling of nostalgia that comes from the game’s traditional premise in their design, they also work as a very unique and memorable visual approach simultaneously. In every sense, Success went against the grain visually with The Dark Spire, and in every sense, it’s an unbelievably creative and beautifully portrayed work of art.

Graphics: Unparalleled

Sound:
Much like the two different visual modes offered in The Dark Spire, each mode is accompanied by its own appropriate version of the game’s soundtrack. Midi versions of all the games various tracks can be heard while moving along the wires of Classic Mode, and in Modern Mode, the tracks come alive quite impressively with emulated guitars, synths, and orchestral sounds. The various sound effects in the game are effective, and even in Modern Mode they have a certain level of tinny quality about them to give them the right amount of charm.

Just as the creative and bold art style works to extreme effect both traditionally and creatively within the product, the dynamic score of The Dark Spire manages to achieve a similar quality right along with it. The spooky melodies and rolling orchestrations of the old classic games of its ilk are met with an interesting variety of sound styles in The Dark Spire‘s score which not only perfectly compliments the beautifully moody drabness of the game’s visuals, but also strengthens the incredible atmosphere those visuals already create on their own ten-fold. Much like The Dark Spire‘s visuals truly need to be seen to be appreciated, the soundtrack must also be heard to be enjoyed.

Sound: Unparalleled

Gameplay:
From the start, The Dark Spire has no qualms about what it is. This game is hardcore. The dungeon is unforgiving, the monsters are unmerciful, and achieving new levels of experience is a task one is really made to sweat for. The Dark Spire, and we really need to point this out up-front, is not for everyone. But for those that it is for, The Dark Spire ascends past the enjoyable-though-flawed emulation of the TRUE RPG’s attempted by the likes of the Etrian Odyssey games and achieves dungeon crawling perfection through its ballsy, no BS, “Sorry, you’re dead” gameplay. For Christ’s sake, ladies and gentlemen… in The Dark Spire, your characters have Armor Classes. As in “To Hit Armor Class 0″ ARMOR CLASSES. If that’s not enough of a testament to how amazingly TRUE this product is, then you need only read the description on the back of the box, which gleefully alerts you to the fact that stats will be rolled.

The Dark Spire is the real, unadulterated deal folks.

You’ll start your adventure by registering characters at the guild. whose statistics, as I mentioned just before, are “rolled” randomly. Depending on your stats, you can be one of a handful of entry level classes at first, not unlike how one would roll out a character for a pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons session. You’ll assemble your puny party of four eager adventures, and then you’ll be off to the Dark Spire. Anyone who has spent some time with a Wizardry title or two can tell you what happens next. Through a series of uncountable baby trips through the first floor of the tower, you’ll attempt to harden your weak party of heroes through random turn based encounters. At first, all the gold you manage to collect from your exploits will most likely be spent on either staying at the inn to recover the hit points of those still left standing after your excursion, or to revive those that weren’t quite as lucky at the town church. Eventually, after acquiring enough experience and learning new abilities for your characters’ respective classes, you’ll notice that goblin fodder going down just a bit easier, and slowly but surely, you’ll make your way further down the potentially booby trapped corridors, and maybe after that, even a floor or two up the accursed spire… and deeper into the unknown.

Taking the above to heart, you should easily be able to discern if The Dark Spire is a game for you.

For many people, it is not, even those who are fans of the RPG genre. By today’s standards, The Dark Spire is NOT a traditional RPG, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this gameplay rundown, it never tries to be, not even a little. It’s for that reason that the game is a simply amazing experience if you’re the game player it’s meant for. The grinding is mandatory, the deaths and re-loads are plenty, but in this honest gamer’s opinion, the rewards are a hundred times sweeter than being treated with a forty-five minute cut scene for besting my backstabbing best friend-turned-super powered, realm leveling, mutant monstrosity in whatever current “traditional” RPG game I might put time into that is not even remotely close to being as challenging as The Dark Spire. Dungeon crawler fans, this one is DEFINITELY for you. Everyone else, enjoy your Final Fantasy: Crisis Core.

Gameplay: Unparalleled

Replayability:
The Dark Spire will certainly take some time to complete. Between all the necessary grinding, exploration, and open ended side quests, it’s very easy to see your completed game save file clock well over 50 hours. The dungeons and corridors of the tower won’t change after consecutive playthroughs, but creating a new party of adventurers and developing them differently is definitely enough to breathe life into The Dark Spire after its been completed by one set of heroes. You can also unlock all sorts of secondary jobs and a couple of extra races that aren’t available from the start of the game, which gives you a few new options you might not have tried out the first time around to play with, which might further entice you into a second trip through the spire.

Replayability: Great

Balance:
The Dark Spire maintains a strong level of difficulty throughout, making sure that each floor of the dungeon has more fearsome foes to face than the previous. As expected, a considerable amount of time will have to be spent earning experience points to make certain your party is capable of facing the stronger enemies that may lay ahead. Though difficult and potentially frustrating at times, the game always stays true to its roots and presents a hardcore, pull-no punches experience that’s tough, but reasonable if you’re prepared.

Balance: Great

Originality:
Though The Dark Spire pays homage to many of the classic dungeon crawlers that have existed before it to the letter, the bold concept of offering such a non-deviated traditional experience is due merit as far as originality is concerned. Take also into consideration the dramatic art style that paints the moody world of The Dark Spire as well as the option to change the game from Modern to Classic mode, and I can guarantee you haven’t played a game quite like it.

Originality: Classic

Addictiveness:
If The Dark Spire is a game for you, plan on putting some serious time into it, probably at the expense of any other games you might consider playing. Exploring the heights of the dungeon and eagerly earning the necessary experience points to get to the next level will keep you glued to the dark corridors of the mysterious spire for a good long while. It’s dungeon crawling bliss, and dungeon crawling, fortunately, takes a while.

Addictiveness: Unparalleled

Appeal Factor:
I believe Success created The Dark Spire for a specific kind of gamer. Sure, those who haven’t spent weeks on end drudging through a Wizardry game can still, perhaps, find interest in something like what the product has to offer, but first and foremost, the game seems impeccably designed for those who might very well find what has been known as the traditional RPG for some time a bit underwhelming in the appeal department. Though The Dark Spire is certainly not for everyone as I believe I’ve made apparent by now, I can safely say that the game will be on the tops of the lists of those gamers it was made for, as well as the lists of any gamer looking for something a bit more challenging than the typical RPG.

Appeal Factor: Classic

Miscellaneous:
Atlus has issued an exclusive soundtrack CD with all launch copies of The Dark Spire. The CD contains 24 tracks, including nearly all of the amazingly powerful score pieces that can be heard in Modern Mode, the undeniably awesome midi versions of Classic Mode, and a few re-mastered versions of select pieces performed with real instruments. That, by itself, is pretty fantastic, but combined with as fantastic a game as this is, it’s really just the icing on the cake.

Miscellaneous: Unparalleled

The Scores:
Story: CLASSIC
Graphics: UNPARALLELED
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: UNPARALLELED
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: GREAT
Originality: CLASSIC
Addictiveness: UNPARALLELED
Appeal: CLASSIC
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED
FINAL SCORE:AMAZING GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
In every way imaginable, The Dark Spire achieves the hardcore, traditionally true RPG experience it sets out to emulate. No detail has been left out to make sure your trek through the mysterious tower is as nostalgically and traditionally genuine as possible. The dynamic art style and powerful soundtrack demand attention as they present the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the unsettling dungeons to an amazing degree. Though The Dark Spire‘s punishing difficulty and penchant for hardcore experience grinding will not be for all RPG gamers, you should know if the title is for you, and if that’s the conclusion you can come to, it is a pitch-perfect product that will remain in your dungeon loving heart for quite a while.