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Inspirational Games: The Dark Spire

February 7, 2011 2 comments

I’ve only recently discovered Atlus’s outstanding NDS dungeon crawl, The Dark Spire, which surprises me since I’m such a huge fan of their Etrian Odyssey series, which I hope to cover in a later post. Both games are classic dungeon crawls in the vein of Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, and the early Ultima games. Both games are also exceedingly difficult, although the difficulty of Spire stems from a different place than the Odyssey games.

the dark spire dungeon crawl nintendo ds

On the left, you can see the walking-around-screen. On the right is the screen when you enter battle.

There has been some talk lately about the difference between strategic and tactical gameplay, and how the newer DnD games have been shifting toward a focus on tactics (round-to-round decision makings) rather than strategy (choosing when and where to fight, rather than how). The Dark Spire is a game that perfectly recreates the strategic nature of classic DnD and other crawls due to the purely deadly nature of combat in the game.

Newly created characters have between 1 and 8 hit points, depending on class. Each time you level up, all hit dice are rerolled. This means that a sixth level warrior will usually have somewhere between 28 and 38 hit points, with outliers on both sides. Enemies deal from 1-6 points of damage on a strike, meaning that your first level characters will die from a single unlucky hit. Your warriors are stronger, but not by much. Choosing the balance between fighting for experience and gold and avoiding combat is the challenge that anchors the game.

The game features an automap, but unlike the map in the Odyssey series, your own position does not appear on the map. This isn’t an issue while you are exploring new territory, since you can measure your progress by the map as it is revealed, but it does mean that the narrow corridors can become a maze if you are retracing your steps. Fortunately, the mage class has an ability to find your own position, but are you willing to expend a spell-slot to find your way?

My one gripe with the game is that its difficulty comes from the obscure nature of the game. Weapons do not indicate their damage potential. Skills are not always explicit about their own use. Although the level up system is understandable to a veteran of DnD, a player who has not played 0e and 1e DnD would be entirely in the dark about the way the game works under the hood at all (it even uses descending AC!). At the same time, its combat is nearly as punishing as Etrian Odyssey‘s, but it permits you to save any time, rather than just in town, as Etrian Odyssey does. I think that the nod here goes to Odyssey, but The Dark Spire has enough charm to win over fans nonetheless.

Plus, it includes a “retro” mode that almost perfectly recreates the look of games like Wizardry!

retro crpg dark spire

On the right is Dark Spire in "retro" mode! Yes, this is a modern DS game!

Space Mercs is currently working up to toe the line between tactics and strategy, with items that can contribute to both aspects of proper gameplay. Thumper beacons, for example, will allow you to choose the location of a battle so that it occurs in a long, narrow corridor that will allow your guns to go to work against fast, melee-range xenos.

My next project, which I am plotting but not yet working on, will much more closely hew to the strategic nature of old-school role playing. I am not ready to announce any more information about it yet, but I am very excited by the possibilities it will present to me both as a game maker and a player.

Stay tuned for information on Etrian Odyssey, hopefully coming sometime this week!

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What We Learn From Wasteland

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment
wasteland title screen

The splash intro screen to Wasteland

Interplay‘s Wasteland has been mentioned on this blog before as a reference that I use when considering which game concepts will be brought forward into the large RPG project I am planning to tackle after the Space Mercs roguelike has been completed. This post will be a brief overview of the things that I like about the game and want to bring forward.

wasteland rpg world map

The overland map for Wasteland

The idea of an overland, go-anywhere map seems to have really hit its stride with Wasteland. Like in its spiritual successor, Fallout, the player is not artificially limited to a small section of the country at the beginning of the game. The only thing stopping you from testing the very boundaries of the irradiated, post-WWIII southwest is an infinite army of grump, leather-clad muties.

This sensation of freedom was also present in the Elder Scrolls games, at least until Oblivion was released. With the fourth addition to the series, the developers went a little insane and decided to level the opponents to your character, essentially committing the gravest crime of good, fair game design–you would never meet a challenge too tough, and would never outgrow a challenge, either. A wolf at level one is challenging, but not deadly. That same wolf is just as challenging when you are level 5. It is the most grievous example of DM-ly handholding visible in most modern RPGs, and it will not be repeated in my RPG.

wasteland store

The shop

Shopping and NPC interaction in Wasteland is simple and fairly dense. It is difficult to figure out how to speak with an NPC, how to trade items between your party members, and how to manipulate your own equipment. The game features an admirable level of depth and sophistication, but it is hidden behind an overly complicated control scheme and a lack of clearly laid out buttons.

Simplicity of input aids depth of interaction, which is a concept that I am already exploring in the inventory and tactical combative aspects of Space Mercs.

wasteland combat

Fighting in Wasteland

Finally, combat. Wasteland featured a text- and menu-driven combat scheme that evokes other games from the developer, such as Bard’s Tale. When looking at it from a game designer’s perspective, it is excellent–it features distance, multiple enemies, and dangerous combat that makes a player really consider his next move, lest he die. I want to bring all of these things into both Space Mercs and my RPG project. I will, however, be doing so in a manner more fitting with modern, spatial conceptions of gaming.

I would love to make a really classic-style RPG one day, but I think that my time right now is better spent learning from the ideas of games like Wasteland and then figuring out what made those games great, so I can bring them into the modern era.

Games like these were made by teams of 2 or 3 men (sometimes more, but nothing like the scores-strong development teams of today). That they could do so with nothing more than the primitive programming languages of the past and veritable oodles of chutzpah gives me hope that my own projects will stand a chance, if I am willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears that a project like one of these would require.

Keep checking back!

Wasteland

January 30, 2011 Leave a comment

I have been playing the classic CRPG Wasteland recently, and it has been a great inspiration for me when it comes to game development. The game is ~23 years old (and developed by the minds behind the pen and paper RPG Tunnels and Trolls) and yet still contains a lot of great ideas.

wasteland roleplaying gameThe game engine I am developing for Space Mercs is serving double purpose for the roguelike and as practice/thesis for a full-blown RPG engine to be used sometime over summer or later this year. I am studying the things that Wasteland does right–and the things it does wrong–with a critical eye.

Atom Zombie Smasher

January 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I just picked up a copy of Blendo Games’s Atom Zombie Smasher for the PC for $15. If you are interested in strategy gaming AT ALL, you need to pick this up.

It’s real time, procedurally generated zombie-smashing in a stylized RPG. Check out the link above if you’re curious.