So here we are then, eh? Back in Aarklash, first fantasy realm in the phonebook. You might remember this war-torn fantasy realm from the point-and-click RPG Confrontation (maybe from Game Debate's less-than-stellar review last year), or perhaps from the miniatures wargame that came before the whole thing.
Well, we're back. There's still a lot of war going on, which is probably for the best, really, because otherwise nobody would ever level up and the entire realm would be full to the brim with weedy level one dunces. This time it's a little less straightforward, though, with the plot focusing on a 'quorr' of 'Wheel Swords', a small team of mercenary debt collectors who have been cast to the wolves by an internal shuffle in the power structure, and enemies appear unexpectedly from the darnedest of places.
So, these Wheel Swords. They hang out in a four-man squad, and naturally, each character is unique. As the plot progresses more weirdoes will join your gang - and they are, for the most part, completely odd, as we will see - but it's only ever eight feet on the ground at a time.
Which is just as well, really. Just like Confrontation, the game revolves around wandering through a really linear map, having fights. After each fight, you'll get all of your health back in a second or two, so it's really focusing on the series of scraps that underpin any fantasy RPG. Although, in this case, rather than really underpinning the roleplaying, they comprise the entire experience.
But that's okay. So long as the fighting is fun, and brings something new to the table. And does it bring something new? Sure, sort of. But is it fun? Well, it's much the same as Confrontation, really. In fact, pretty much everything I moaned about in Confrontation I'm going to moan about again now.
Well, I guess with the exception of the graphics. While not what you'd really call excellent, or even particularly good, there is a certain imagination to the scenery through which you fight. I mean, a lot of the settings are pretty generic - a tunnel complex here, a wilderness there - but the decoration has been done with a certain discerning eye.
Oh, and I suppose the pathfinding seemed a little better too. But the deeply weird setup for micromanagement that is the norm in Confrontation is back with a vengeance. Now, I'm willing to accept that this is a matter of taste: some perfectly normal people might well enjoy the level of detail that this system offers. Basically, there's no such thing as a straightforward character. Your tank can heal herself periodically, gaining a fairly large boost to her health immediately, then a drip-feed of low-hp bonuses over a set number of seconds. Her other abilities, such as taunting to draw aggro or delivering one highly damaging blow, are powered not by mana but by hit points. Your healer can take care of this, of course, by casting healing spells (some of which can be boosted but at the risk of accidentally healing your foes), but SHE doesn't regenerate magic points. So in order to restore magic points to your healer to keep your tank upright while all of HER powers consume hit points (not to mention the hits she's soaking up from enemy scrubs), the healer has to drain the allies of ANOTHER ally to restore her own magic points.
Now, then. This is all fine and dandy if you've discovered this really clever routine all by yourself whereby you cycle hit points into mana and then back again through insightful upgrades and so on, but this is the system you're using at level 1, with your first characters. This is the default. There is no simpler way to play. Obviously, later on in the game you can unlock new and unusual buffs to your abilities each of which can be taken down one of two branches, and mutated so it's almost unrecognisable from the original skill. Couple this with the addition of new characters and flexibility of party makeup, and there are a remarkable number of interesting strategies possible. And of course, this is a good thing. Boss fights generally require a bit of thought, and a careful examination of their tactics and weaknesses in order to find the exploit that'll help you through.
It's just whether or not the game will hold your attention long enough to actually get to that point. For me, not so much. Pickups are limited to an unusual selection of earrings, amulets, rings, and snazzy-looking jeweled crosses like you'd imagine to see Jay-Z rocking. No new swords and stuff, though. Just bling. Upgrades from this loot comes in the form of plusses to this or that, but with the madcap abilities of the characters, you don't really need another layer of complexity.
If RPGs seem a little simplistic, and you're not too bothered about the stuff that makes an RPG interactive beyond murdering stuff, this is certainly worth a look. A Magic: The Gathering-level tactical gamebrain is essential. While the story is not terrible, I didn't really feel that it offered enough to keep me interested. Still, things are slowly looking up for the series.