Despite my appreciation of what the genre can achieve, I only played a few more RPGs outside of the ones already mentioned (of those, I probably most fondly remember Return to Krondor, 1998). By the early oughts, a trend towards more real-time combat and mindless action to the detriment of story and character development emerged and pretty much made me stop investing in new RPGs; the two Knights of the Old Republic games are the last ones I played all the way through, if I’m not mistaken. (A note regarding the absence of Japanese titles: I’ve never properly owned a console, and to this day my only exposure to, for example, the Final Fantasy franchise remains the ill-fated and, title aside, apparently unconnected animated film.)
A few weeks ago, a few days of vacation with not much else to do coincided with the release of a bunch of Spiderweb Software role-playing games in a Humble Bundle. I had never heard of the company or its products, but it sounded like a good deal, so I bought the bundle and installed the one stand-alone title: Nethergate: Resurrection.
The most obvious evidence of how indie this independent game really is comes upon starting the game up for the first time. The graphics are truly primitive, sub-Baldur’s Gate in the level of detail and how they change depending on what the player decides their characters should wear. I’m really not someone who cares a great deal about how pretty the presentation of a game is, but it was rather startling considering that this supposed make-over of the old game was from 2007. Still, you get used to it. The graphics are functional and that’s all they need to be, and for the most part the lack of detail does not get in the way of enjoying the game.
Much the same could be said about the gameplay. In all three modes – walking around town, crossing the world map to get to the next town or dungeon, combat mode – you navigate via imaginary tiles on the floor either by mouse or keyboard. It doesn’t always work well: mouse controls don’t always send you in the direction you want to go, especially during combat, and the keyboard navigation (which otherwise is fairly intuitive and which I used more frequently) has trouble with diagonal movements. You can also unintentionally be trapped in some locations because you can’t figure out how to pass certain obstacles (a problem in some of the many narrow dungeon passageways and in forests on the worldmap), needlessly having to spend time to find your way back. The worldmap itself is also rather big, samey and in dire need of an annotation feature (e.g. “Come back here when the soul-fetching quest has been completed”). Again, though, one becomes accustomed to the game’s limitations and there’s nothing really game-breaking here.
Positives include the magic system, which spaces out the acquisition of more and more powerful spells quite nicely and offers some specialisation, and the combat. There’s more of the latter in the game than I’m usually comfortable with, but I appreciate that it’s entirely turn-based and (at least on a low difficulty setting) not too challenging, but just challenging enough to be exciting.
The game’s main selling point is probably its setting, which as far as I know is unique amoung CRPGs: all the action takes place in a valley in ancient Britain that is populated by both Romans and Celts as well as magical creatures who have congregated here from all over the island. Over the course of the game, the player uncovers the reason why this particular valley is so special. There are two “campaigns” of sorts, two perspectives on the same story. I only played the Celtic campaign, which took about 60 hours including all sidequests I could find. I skipped the Romans not because I didn’t like the game, but because I had already spent over a week on playing it, more time than I originally wanted. Maybe I’ll revisit it during the next vacation.
If I do so, it’ll be to experience the other side to the story and to try beating the dungeons in a different manner, since Roman parties have different skill sets (less magic, for one). It won’t be for the reason that keeps me coming back to a game like Planescape: Torment, which is the characters. The NPCs in Nethergate are okay, but for the most part don’t interact enough with the player to develop complex characterisations. That still makes them more interesting than the player characters, who are basically complete ciphers. We learn at the beginning of the game that the four people the player controls from the start have been specially chosen to become heroes, and while we later learn why, that’s about it as far as character development is concerned.
To illustrate the point: Midway through the game, the player can recruit a fifth member to the party. I chose a Roman soldier to complement my Celtic band of two full wizards and two warrior-wizards. Not only does the fact that the Roman is a traitor to his people not once come into play (not even during combat or boss encounters with other Romans). Other than a slight advantage in the Tool Use skill (an “ethnic” Roman trait), the soldier was interchangeable with my other party members. He was able to learn magic, and just like my Celts and unlike all the other Romans, he refused to wear heavy armour. Also, and I guess that plays into my complaints of a lack of flexibility when it comes to the gameplay, the Roman remained locked into a certain position (last) in the default combat mode formation, which was otherwise customisable and which meant that I could not use him as a tank to shield my magic users.
Despite the way it may sound, that, like many of my grievances, is actually a minor complaint while you play the game. You simply get used to what it does and doesn’t allow you to do, and I think given the price and the fact that it doesn’t have a big budget or big studio behind it, certain allowances can and should be made. Completing quests and fighting my way out of dungeons even became a little addictive once I familiarised myself with the way the game worked. Nethergate: Resurrection is not a perfect game by any means, but it’s an enjoyable enough diversion.