There’s a formula to RPGs.
You don’t have to like it, but it’s true. See, the idea of a role-playing game is that it’s a game in which you play a role. So, if you were being annoyingly pedantic about it, pretty much any game from Space Invaders on up is a role-playing game. That said, the term comes from the tabletop roleplaying games that some of us still know and love, where each player takes on the role of a single character and describes their words and actions, taking part in a collaborative storytelling experience where monsters invariably get eviscerated and treasure gets looted from their lifeless corpses.
Why is this? Surely, the innovation of a game where you take the role of a character and can do whatever you like, anything that you can imagine, should have as much variation as the entirety of literature? People should be just as happy playing a game of unrequited love in high-society Georgian England as they are playing a dwarven troll-slayer? The truth is, though, when I say “This game has RPG elements”, you know I’m talking about levelling up, getting phat loot, and probably using powers with cooldown times.
I guess those people who like the idea of playing characters in games generally gravitate to these things. Certainly, the market seems to encourage it, particularly in the realm of videogame RPGs. Of course, these days ‘RPG elements’, meaning abilities and equipment which can be enhanced dsuring play, appear in pretty much everything from basketball games to multiplayer shooters, so there are obviously enough people interested.
And here’s another! Confrontation is a game with a pedigree, as you’d expect from Cyanide Studios, who brought us Blood Bowl (based on the fantasy sports board game with – you guessed it – RPG elements). Confrontation the miniatures game is an established competitor to the Games Workshop juggernaut Warhammer, and features a world of fantasy characters – stereotyped, certainly, but imaginatively developed – duking it out endlessly on a planet where life as anything but a brave warrior or evil villain happens strictly off-screen. This developed background comes through in the wonderful, hilarious opening sequence, voiced as it is by a narrator of “Tregard the Dungeon Master” levels of overacting. This opening sequence looks great, and really gets you in the mood for some fantasy battlin’.
Then, the game starts.
From the pretty, high budget opening, you’re dropped unceremoniously into a desert of shonky, outdated graphics, into what is not so much a map as a windy path with no appreciable turn-offs, to experience a conveyor belt of monsters and enemies with a handful of characters who do not collect treasure or new weapons beyond the odd pack of bandages.
Okay, later on you’ll explore other locations, but the fact is you’re still on the straight-and-narrow from one scrap to the next in a set order with no real chance at deviation. You may occasionally get the option to approach a challenge with stealth, maybe, or have to hold a set point for a bit, but that’s it really. No inventory, no social interactions, just a series of fights.
So it all hinges on these fights. If they’re anything less than tactical tours-de-force, each one feeling different and fresh, then you’re looking at a chore rather than a game. So, can Confrontation snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a wonderful, imaginative and addictive combat system?
See, there are a couple of problems. There are a whole bunch of character classes, and they’re occasionally quite interesting and certainly well-imagined (although I guess this comes from the miniatures game). Some of the classes are just a little confused as to their roles, however. Special abilities that convert debuffs into healing are all well and good once in a while, but a class built on that idea has a confused place in the party. Should he stay at range or back up the front-line melee guys? To really unlock the game you need to scrupulously examine each and every class, as well as each and every enemy, and learn their tricks inside-out. Only problem is you’re unlikely to get that far unless you’re a big fan of the minis game.
See, the graphics are lacklustre and not desperately novel. Sure, there’s a cool kind of ‘dark technology in a world of fantasy’ thing going on with riflemen and freaky cloning vats and stuff, but this isn’t an original idea – in fact, it’s so old as to be considered nostalgia-worthy. The main thing that really got me down though was the woeful, woeful pathfinding. Some of the passages aren’t really wide enough for your heroes to pass one another, and so sending instructions to one of them to get to the front line in a battle, or even just go check out a door outside of combat, results in a bit of jostling, after which said hero just sort of gives up trying. This requires a great deal of babysitting on your part – you’re trying to concentrate on who has what buffs and debuffs and what level of cooldown each of their powers are at, and whether it might be prudent to exchange some of the pyromancer’s health for mana, then top it back up with another character’s mass heal ability, and suddenly you notice that your tank has given up charging to the front line and the bad guys are breaking right through to grapple with your squishies.
If Cyanide were to fix the pathfinding and perhaps clarify the party roles for a few of the classes, then maybe add a little variety to some of the maps, it would encourage players to delve a little deeper into the intricate powers and explore the story of the game. As it stands, though, the frustrations just overshadow the RPG crunch.
And if any game designer wants to write a Pride and Prejudice RPG? I promise to review it.