Not wanting to commit to longer, more complicated games, I thought this title might be able to fill that void that my completion of Crimsonland left last week, albeit in a different genre. Soldak Entertainment's second game seems to be less well known than the first, Depths of Peril
, and the third, Din's Curse
, and to my knowledge it's only available on the developer's website
(EDIT: and GamersGate
The gameplay is hack and slash dungeon crawling like the other two, but its concept is different in that it's score-based to a certain extent and split into shorter levels (30, in total; I'd estimate one level takes about 10-20 minutes to play through on average). You don't just play one character that you build up by leveling, gaining more and more abilities. Instead you unlock lots of different characters, each with their own Active and Passive Ability, and you get skill points depending on your performance/score in a level and then distribute them to permanently raise Offense, Defense, Health, Mana, Active Ablility and Passive Ability for *all* characters. Your score is based on the opponents you kill and the treasure you find, and there are bonus points for finding secrets, completely clearing levels, as well as killing several enemies or destroying several crates within a short time window, or for overkills or close calls. Loot crates contain treasure and power ups only, no equipment. So you don't get to find and use different weapons and armor and such, each character always sticks to the same two abilities and their stats are based on the general stats shared by all characters. You can find power ups to raise those stats in a level, but those raises will only be temporary until you finish the level. Other power ups are like one-use special abilities, you can pick them up and your "inventory"/quick bar can hold three of them at the same time. If you want to pick up a fourth one, you first have to use up one of the other three. They include area of effect attacks like fire or ice magic, buffs like stone skin, critical strike, holy shield etc. or other useful stuff like health and mana leech or refills. All of that makes it seem even more like an action game than the average ARPG. And I really like this concept.
But in practice it isn't as great as it could have been. To me the gameplay often felt rather slow, tedious and repetitive. Like in most ARPGs, attacking is a simple matter of clicking or holding down the mouse button, but in this game it's made even less interesting by the lack of choices in character building and abilities. This should have been offset by the arcade style approach, but I felt like its implementation was lacking. The walking and attacking speed isn't that fast, and the animations sometimes makes it seem like the character is floating instead of walking. Pathfinding isn't very smooth either. You can get cornered or surrounded by enemies with slim chances of surviving, and if you die, you can click to get resurrected, but in the same spot you died. If you run out of lives (you usually have 2 per level and can sometimes find a temporary extra life), you have to repeat the level from scratch. Apart from that, the game is not really difficult at all though. There are just as much loot crates to hack through as there are opponents, or even more, and they're often spaced in such a way that you can't quickly destroy them all at once but have to attack them individually. I thought there was way too much focus on loot crates, it just isn't as much fun to fight crates as it is to fight opponents, it just kills the momentum of the game, but you need to destroy the crates if you want pick ups. IMO, it would have been better to remove the crates and let enemies drop the pick ups. Enemies are usually spread over the levels in small groups of 2-6 and don't leave their spot unless you draw attention to your character, so if you want bigger carnage you'd first have to try and draw several groups together.
Also, it's quite hard to get the bonus points for doing lots of damage in a short time window if you hack at everyone and everything individually, it's much easier to do with area of effect spells, and they also make the game more fast-paced and fun. But of all the many characters I unlocked (18/21), there were only three with decent area of effect abilities, only one with regular ranged attack (so you don't have to walk up to every loot crate to destroy them), and few really fast melee fighters. Many of the other characters' abilities were too similar and boring. Like, why would you select a mage with a fire bolt special attack that can only target one creature at once and doesn't do that much more damage than your regular attack, when you could choose the one that has fire bolt as regular attack and can cast ice storm on top of it, being able to quickly destroy several enemies with one spell? The former didn't even feel like playing a mage to me, it could just as well have been a fighter with a fire bow. And most of those lackluster characters are unlocked later than the badass mage with the ice storm ability. So while I gave every character a try, the huge majority of them I only played for one level and never again, and in the end I mostly played with the ice storm mage. What's the point in having so many characters anyway if they feel so same-y and imbalanced? As mentioned above, of course other characters can still try to get bonus points by using area of effect pick ups, but since those are randomized, the chances of these characters for getting good scores are much weaker compared to a character who can cast an AOE spell at will.
The levels were a mixed bag; some were a bit more interesting and had smaller bosses, but many were linear and lacklustre (their layout is pre-made, not randomized, so replaying them isn't that much fun either). Some levels are split in 2 or 3 floors, but stairs are one-way only, so if you missed secrets in the floor above (including unlockable characters), you can't go back to search for them unless you replay the level. The story wasn't much to write home about, and the narrator's voiceovers, despite his efforts, came across as a bit monotonous and actually made it harder for me to follow; I often read the text again after he was finished. But I hardly ever gained anything gripping from it anyway (reminded me a bit of the narration in Faerie Solitaire: lots of spoken words, next to no story to speak of). All in all, it's just about the people of the lumen (which is a fancier name for something like gnomish hobbits, I guess) organizing their resistance against a dark elf attack. No shades of grey, no twists, nothing.
A fresh concept that could have been tons of fun but unfortunately didn't seem to have enough man power, expertise and creativity behind it to fulfill its potential. As is, it's a nice enough mindless time waster that is easy to get into and play during coffee breaks, with a certain charme that might appeal to some, but I wouldn't really call it a great game. Most fast-paced ARPGs still offer more action than this title that tried to focus on score hunting and pick ups rather than character builds, but didn't go all the way and ended up being kind of slow and repetitive in the long run. On the upside, I still managed to finish it, while abandoning most of the "real" ARPGs halfway through.