The Dark Spire should come with a large warning label on its cover, and not in the good way, like a new Wu-Tang compact disc, or whatever the kids listen to nowadays.‚ Rather, the warning should concern its anachronistic gameplay:
CAUTION!‚ Game will cause flashbacks to mid-1980s and early 1990s computing exploits.‚ The game programmers would like to take this moment to laugh at you if you were expecting any sort of overall story arc, automated functions or general helpfulness present in games released when more than 16 colors existed.‚ Also, please check any responsible feeling of popularity at the door, as otherwise, you will surely lose it playing this product.
Apr. 14, 2009
With this pseudo-warning, I don’t mean to rag on The Dark Spire, but instead to put everyone on notice for what you can expect.‚ If you love Dungeons and Dragons, or wonder why they don’t make ’em like they made Wizardry and Might and Magic and Ultimaanymore, then The Dark Spire will have significantly more appeal than if you grew up with the post-SNES Final Fantasies and gaudy full-motion video of PSX and PS2 titles.‚ The only game I can think of that is kind of like this game that came out in the past five years is Etrian Odyssey. This is a game that throws you into the middle of things and expects you to know how to plot a course – literally, because its map does not keep track of where you are at any given time.
If you have no idea what I’ve rambled about for the past three paragraphs, then honestly, this game probably isn’t for you.‚ If you’re kind of curious, realize that The Dark Spire has practically no graphics, outside of cardboard, non-animated models for its enemies and slightly-shifting backdrops, depending on whether a wall or door is in front of you.‚ The music is simple as well, strictly bleeps and blips as effects with a background theme underneath. It is a bare-bones, turn-based, dungeon crawl role-playing game that will only appeal to diehard fans of the genre.
The result is a bit mixed though, even if you grew up playing these sorts of games, like I did.‚ Playing this sort of game now seems masochistic.‚ The lack of refined graphics and sound isn’t as much of a killer as the crippling lack of options and accessibility.
The most glaring example of this would be the complete lack of information about any of the game’s weaponry.‚ The only idea you have of a weapon’s quality is 1) its price and 2) a short, one-paragraph description.‚ Traditional table top dice rolls are used to calculate damage, with modifiers based on class and race, but I only know this because of exhaustive testing done by hardcore gamers on various message boards.
Nowhere in the game does it tell you that a short sword is an 0d6, one-handed weapon.‚ Heck, it won’t even tell you if a shield can be used with it until you buy the damn thing and try to equip it.‚ And even though price is a guideline of a weapon’s efficiency, it’s not perfect.‚ A katana costs 3,000 gold, but if you have a dwarf warrior, a battle axe that costs a fraction of the price will do just as much damage.‚ But then, if that dwarf takes on a secondary class of ninja, it’ll do a ton of damage with a katana.‚ Such reasoning seems more random than logical and intuitive to me.
The other “why is it THIS hard?” issue would be the lack of direction and positioning on the auto-map for The Dark Spire.‚ In other games like the Might and Magic series, you can either cast spells or purchase skills that will reveal your position on the map for more than one move. ‚ Not so in The Dark Spire–if you get disorientated, you either have to cast a one-use spell or to keep compasses stocked in your (limited) inventory.‚ Neither is a satisfactory option for an issue the programmers could have simply solved.
Overlook these two annoying gameplay quirks, and you have a game that would be above-average if we time warped back to 1985.‚ It is at its best when your characters are churning through floors of the ominous tower, earning experience points to power-up base stats, class levels, secondary skills and spells.‚ There is the full array of traditional, esoteric quests that require you to do things like finding a pirate’s journal to gain access to their ship so that you can go up a couple floors to feed a squirrel pickled beer nuts to later get the elevator on the first floor working.‚ Weird?‚ Absolutely, but it is charmingly old school lunacy, as opposed to the frustration of the auto-map and weaponry.
In the areas of level grinding and quests, The Dark Spire is second-to-none, as you don’t have to re-roll your characters’ stats 50,000 times to get an 18 in one area.‚ Why bother with that when you can earn experience points to raise it later?‚ Later quests allow dual class characters to take on an uber-class combination.‚ For example, a character with level 10 training in thief and warrior can become a ninja, a front-line killing machine.‚ If you can master the mage class piously enough to retain your priest skills, you can become a druid, which has full access to spells from both classes.‚ These uber-classes also have their equipment restrictions lifted.‚ A thief can’t equip plate armor, but a ninja can because of its previous warrior training.
Because these battle and customization aspects are so good, The Dark Spire gets a moderate thumbs-up.‚ Like the latest independent flick, it clearly has a very defined, narrow audience, but it does provide snack food nutrition for that group.‚ However, if anything, The Dark Spire just stoked my nostalgia for the genuine article–After a few weeks with it, I just re-installed my copy of Might and Magic III with a DOS emulator, and found that entirely more satisfying overall.