Developer: Monte Cristo
Release Date: March 27, 2007
It's no secret that I'm a cyberpunk fan. Anyone who knows me knows I long for cybernetic limb replacement; the sooner I can have a digital heads-up display a la Batou from Ghost in the Shell, the better. My idea of true paradise would be a digital upload of my personality into the immortality of the web. As a result, as soon as I heard that there was an action-RPG being developed that claimed to fuse cyber/steampunk with traditional high-fantasy, I was instantly intrigued. It certainly has a strong title: Silverfall. However, my scepticism kicked in quickly — was this flippant hubris on behalf of a developer with good ideas and no skills at execution, or was this a sleeper hit in the making that will answer many fevered fans' prayers? Read on, and see if you can infer what I believe the end result will be.
At its core, Silverfall falls into the category of "Diablo"-style games, but it isn't a clone. It is a fully 3D role-playing game that has a heavier focus on combat-action than it does on story telling, although it doesn't exactly skimp on that end of the scale (so far, at least). The mechanics are familiar, though: run around in the wild, slaying monsters and picking up the treasures they drop when they die. You use the good stuff, sell the useless stuff, amass a fortune, and build up the biggest, baddest hero you can.
Your options for race aren't as robust as some; there are currently only four choices, and I don't think there are plans to introduce more. You can choose from human, elf, troll, and goblin, and there are male and female models for all of these as well. The avatars are all basically patterned after standard archetypes: Elves are graceful and tall, humans are average across the board, and goblins are short and devious-looking. The only real exception is the trolls, who look somewhat like a cross between a shark and the usual "orc" body type from other fantasy games. Speaking personally, I love the trolls in Silverfall; they look mean.
Unlike most of its contemporaries, there is a full freedom of camera; you aren't locked to a fixed-perspective viewing angle. This allows you to get much closer to the action than usual, although it can lead to some confusion when running around and questing. It's a good thing there's a compass and pointers on a mini-map that keep you oriented. Off the top of my head, the only other game of this nature and setup that I can think of is Dungeon Siege, a title with which Silverfall shares much in common.
Skills are the name of the game in Silverfall; they determine the entire direction of your avatar and aren't restricted in any way, shape, or form. Well, okay, two of the skill lines are restricted, but I'll explain that later. When you begin play, you don't choose a "class"; you just choose a name and what your character will look like in a basic tunic. Everything from there is up to your whims, courtesy of an extensive skill tree system. If you want to mix and match your skill sets, feel free. Common sense dictates that you'll weaken yourself over time doing this, but it's nice that the freedom is there. Let me give you a clinical breakdown of how the skill system in Silverfall works.
When you kill monsters, you gain experience points. Gain enough, you level up, and each level gives you four points to distribute among your attributes, and four points to distribute among your skills. These abilities break down into three main branches: Combat, Magic, and Other. Each of these paths has three sub-set paths with multiple abilities. Combat has Melee, Shoot, and Technique; Magic has Element, Light, and Shadow; and Other has Race, Nature, and Technology. Using these different skill paths, you can custom-design pretty much any type of fantasy hero you want; scimitar-wielding fire priest? Put points into Melee, Element, and Light. Venom-spewing necromantic assassin? Allot some love into Technique and Shadow, tweaking for balance as you progress. How about that "Other" tab, though? Well that's a whole different, and much, much cooler beast.
Arguably the single most inventive and unique feature of Silverfall is the faction system that allows you to choose between the "old ways" of nature and the "industrial revolution" of technology. The entire game is peppered with quests that push your allegiance in one direction or another, instantly creating a massive amount of room for replay value (and that's not counting the full LAN and internet multiplayer out-of-the-box, either). Moreover, there are entire categories of weapons, armor, and other equipment that is locked to either nature or technology. For example, I decided to work my troll toward tech, and after installing a massive grunting gas-extractor in a swamp, I got enough technology allegiance that I could start using steam-hammers, chainsaw-swords, and "Mad Max"-chic headgear. Flight goggles look so sweet on a hulking troll carrying a two-handed maul that consists of about half a ton worth of hydraulic-powered steel. I'm getting off-point, however; your faction also opens a new skill tree, which falls under the Other category.
As you'll recall, each skill tree has three sub-sets, and Other has Race, Nature, and Technology. It's simple; once you've decided which way you want to role-play your world politics, you can then start putting points into abilities specifically tailored to that direction. For example, if you go the route of Gaia, you can eventually learn lycanthropy and morph yourself into a killing machine of primal fury, with a truly obscene amount of combat bonuses. Or, if you go for the ruthless path of industry, you can build mechanical servants to fight for you or even jack-in cerebral chips that increase your neural responses. (Cyberpunk/steampunk makes me weak at the knees. I'm giddy like a love-struck schoolgirl.) Race is a balancing wildcard, it is only restricted by level and helps provide a sense of cultural identity. There are some impressive offerings in this path, though, like the troll ability to deal damage. It just keeps getting more and more frightening. Good times.
Silverfall has an interesting graphical style, too, which will go a long ways toward helping it carve out its own niche amongst action-RPGs. All models have a bold black outline to them that provides a quasi cel-shaded "comic book" look. While this can be turned off, I personally quite like the effect. Many textures have a water-colored quality to them, which may or may not appeal to you depending on your preferences. For my money, I find it a refreshing change from the heavily over-saturated color palette made popular by World of Warcraft. Don't get me wrong; I love the rich flavor of Blizzard's flagship title, but there's nothing wrong with diversity.
If I had to guess based on my experience with this beta build, I'd say that Silverfall isn't far off from release. There is very little with it that needs to be improved upon before a gold master disc is pressed. The interface needs some polish; right now, it looks like the in-game fonts and menus are placeholders, and there are still some balance issues for the action (either that, or Monte Cristo intends for this game to be the most challenging action-RPG yet). Aside from this one tiny critical observation, however, I'd say this is a game poised to make quite an impression. Epic high fantasy blended with a stunning steampunk aesthetic appeal and cyberpunk technological savvy. I don't think I could possibly wish for more. Watch out for this one — I know I'm now counting down the days.
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