Developer: Radon Labs
Release Date: February 24, 2009
Das Schwarze Auge, or The Dark Eye, is a fantasy pen-and-paper RPG that you may have never heard of unless you live in Germany, despite the title having an English translation. Whereas Dungeons and Dragons enjoys a reputation as the reigning system of choice among many PnPers in the U.S., the roles are reversed in Germany, where The Dark Eye enjoys the kind of acclaim normally reserved for its rival. No more than a decade following its first incarnation on PCs as the Realms in Arkania series, The Dark Eye returns with Drakensang, a new adventure courtesy of Radon Labs, to entice a new generation of players to explore its mysteries.
After the cinematic intro, the story begins with evil rearing its ugly head over the lands of Aventuria again. Players choose from a small selection of classes divided across a colorful cast of people and cultures. The Middenrealmians appear as your typical medieval humans hailing from Middle Ages Europe, while the Tulamides seem inspired by the Middle East and are balanced between scimitars and Scheherazade. Stout, bearded dwarves with Scottish accents and lithe, enchanted elves round out the rest of the gallery.
Not every class is available to every race or culture, as Drakensang only serves up a fraction of the variety that its PnP roots do, but these limited few work in keeping things simple, which permeates the rest of the design and helps players ease into the world of The Dark Eye. Although the manual is filled with plenty of information, including a generous glossary of terms describing the world of Aventuria, tool tips are only a right-click away and display information on nearly every aspect of a character. Players will probably ignore it ... at first.
After selecting a class, gender and name, players can click on Drakensang's version of the "Easy" button to jump right into Aventuria with their chosen class or live dangerously by digging into the statistics and exposing every aspect of their character's virtual life. It's all here: attributes, general skills, combat and defense abilities, a spellbook for the magically inclined, and a section to keep track of your recipes for potions and engineering instructions for new gear.
After deciding on an elven fighter, I was promptly dropped into Aventuria on my first quest. Aldo, a noble from the great city of Ferdok, has sent my character an urgent request to see him, as they are apparently old friends. When I saw a nearby town on my way through the countryside, I decided to take in the sights and see what trouble I could get into. Moving around was easy enough to do in the third-person perspective with either the WASD keys or the mouse to move the camera and click on a destination, although I preferred to use the keyboard to guide my character.
It didn't take me long to feel as if I were in a world lifted from someone's medieval diorama and dropped into the game, complete with peasants, arrogant nobles and grouchy innkeepers. Fantasy stereotypes made famous in film or in other RPGs are represented here, which means that there aren't many surprises in what to expect, although it's also comfortably familiar at the same time. Though it doesn't make Drakensang's world stand out from the crowd, Radon Labs has packed it with plenty of atmospheric detail, ranging from the overall look of each venue to the orchestrated soundtrack and ambient sounds. Many of the major areas, such as the city of Ferdok, are filled with spoken conversations and jokes that appear as text above NPC heads to add humor, flavor and a hint of who might have a problem that only the player can solve.
I encountered my first party member early on, a rogue by the name of Dranor whose problems quickly became mine as a part of a quest to get past the quarantine blockade on the way to Ferdok. Up to three others can join the main character to form a party of four, and each one can also earn experience and be customized within his class. A large number of unique characters will be encountered throughout the game, some playing B movie-inspired roles as villains while others offer to join up with you. Don't expect to develop deep relationships between each party member as you might with other RPGs, such as Knights of the Old Republic or the Baldur's Gate series. After the initial introductions are made and they join up, there's little else to look forward to in subsequent conversations, although they make occasional comments during your adventures, which adds to their personalities.
Baldur's Gate series veterans who remember Bioware's Infinity Engine will feel right at home. Combat is in real time, and you can almost watch the round-by-round calculations in the background as characters move and execute their moves in timed fashion. You can always pause the fight for a more tactical approach to issue individual orders or focus everyone's efforts in piling on a particularly tough foe. Every battle can also feel like a continual struggle that carries on through the entire game. Drakensang isn't about building godlike characters with divine skills and an impenetrable wall of hit points, although they can almost quaff potions as if they were in Diablo.
Earned experience, tallied by total earned and by how much is left to spend, has a dual purpose: purchasing new skills from trainers or improving ones that have already been learned, and leveling the character. Players can opt to spend their experience points at any time, although leveling a character won't bestow any automatic improvements to stats or skills. Instead, leveling raises the skill caps to further improve a character's talents.
Talents are Drakensang's skills, such as alchemy, blacksmithing or willpower, all of which are further subdivided into their own groupings. Despite classes, any character can learn nearly anything, provided he has enough coin and experience points, although there are some restrictions. If a character has zero aptitude in magic, for example, don't expect him to buy his way into the art. Certain spells are also restricted to races or classes. There are also combat, defensive, and ranged skills to give characters passive bonuses, and special moves will let you pummel enemies into paste or aim for tender spots with your bow and crossbow.
There's a reason why I chose to talk about Drakensang's story last, and it's because of the painfully pre-fab feel of its stock fantasy trappings. If you are expecting the same kind of moral quandaries and gritty characters as those found in The Witcher or Baldur's Gate II, you won't, as the extremely linear nature of the narrative sticks to the basics in almost every way.
The heavy body of text within the game requires plenty of reading, and if you have been coddled with voice-acted dialogue, you might knock it because it doesn't spoon-feed you everything. Aside from the dialogue introductions, the cinematic cuts, commentary from party members or the gossip on the streets, Drakensang leaves most of its text unspoken. The voice acting isn't bad, and the dialogue, as overwrought as it can sometimes be, adroitly avoids diving into the purple, although the sudden ending could have been a little more drawn-out. At the same time, it doesn't deviate far from the ye usual fantasy tropes, either, much like its environment.
Drakensang's story comes off as a straightforward fairy tale, the kind that is told instead of shaped, leaving all of the choices up to what the player does within the gameplay system instead of the dialogue. Although talents can open up additional talking options, most everything leads to the same point, and none of it really influences your characters to an extreme degree.
There's nothing inherently wrong in keeping things simple if the story is engaging enough, and Drakensang manages to pepper enough intriguing secrets within its side-quests and the main arc to keep it that way, despite the clichés. Although Drakensang's heroically oriented dialogue trees offer little opportunity to explore anything else, it can be interesting to see what the other characters think of the situation by having your dwarven battle tank intimidate a noble or having the resident thief seduce answers that you could have otherwise found out by simply asking.
There are a large number of side-quests within the game, and some can be resolved in different ways, but a majority, especially within the main arc, are linear to a fault, which is one of the major issues with Drakensang. As the main story develops, areas are opened up, and players can travel to each location by exiting a region or using a map that is made available in specific areas. However, once the player completes the main quest in an area and leaves it, it is suddenly torn from reality never to be visited again, leaving only an unclickable map icon as proof that there was something there. In one or two instances, this is understandable, but it makes little sense when certain locations remain unlocked toward the end. What's the harm in revisiting a farm? Apparently it's something that even the gods fear.
There are also several balancing issues in the game, especially when it can feel as if it relies on overwhelming the player with large numbers of monsters ... like giant rats. The quest that was saturated with these rats was about as fun as watching my party run across the impressively huge but ultimately pace-killing vastness of some of its regions. Combat was also occasionally glitchy in that it wouldn't "end," even after I had wiped out every living thing in the immediate vicinity, forcing me to run around and find out what the "sweet" spot was for the game to finally believe me.
Then there were the barrels. As nice as it was to find interesting things within many of these, the only thing keeping this from being a mini-game was a counter to track how many I had smashed for some kind of special achievement. I have the distinct impression that everyone in Aventuria uses barrels as temporary lockers. There are also a few other oddities that I won't elaborate on, but on the plus side, it didn't crash once.
Drakensang's updated take on The Dark Eye for PCs is a welcome introduction to a role-playing system that players may not ever have heard of. It's a solid localization effort, the character customization is deep, combat is challenging, and it's an entertaining, if riskless, fantasy tale. I had plenty of fun exploring the corners of The Dark Eye's world, plunging deep into ancient ruins and crafting my party into a team of adventurers despite the all-too-familiar venue. If you are itching to strap on a longsword and dive back into a dungeon, you might want to take a chance and visit Aventuria for a spell or two — especially if you miss adventuring along the Sword Coast.
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