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.
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!
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!