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Drakensang Review - Gorath's View

by Andre "Gorath" Wolf, 2009-06-08

[Read Corwin's full review here]

RPGs without the prefix „action“ have become a rarity in modern times. Instant player gratification, simple character development and an endless stream of random quests in an open world have become the norm. Drakensang is abnormal. It combines the classic The Dark Eye ruleset with tactical combat and a linear story. Of course, compromises were necessary to make the game attractive to a bigger audience, without scaring the fans away. Drakensang dresses itself up with good production values, a comfortable interface and the quasi standard real-time-with-pause. To what extent did this balancing act between two heterogeneous groups water the game down?


What's DSA?

The Dark Eye ( = “Das Schwarze Auge” in German; DSA) is a pen & paper RPG created in 1984 with three major revisions over the 25 years. Drakensang is based upon the 4th edition ruleset created in 2002 and updated in 2006. Radon Labs' & dtp's game is not related to the classic Realms of Arkania RPGs made by Attic in the early to mid 1990s.

 

World & Story

Drakensang takes place on the continent Aventuria; a nice and friendly mix between a carefully designed medieval and a fairy tale world - the grass is greener and the flowers are more colorful than in other contemporary RPGs. All the cliché fantasy races are at home in Aventuria. So far so unspectacular. Thank god there's more behind it. Radon 

Labs breaks the cliché with a couple of slightly weird characters and consequently light-hearted dialogs, written in mildly old fashioned language. The comedy elements aren't overdone though - they'll put a smile on your face every once in a while and give the atmosphere more personality.
As you can see, that's quite a contrast to the dark and serious RPGs out there. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the story - one of the PR hooks was the involvement of four original The Dark Eye authors. Sounds great – but couldn't they have come up with something more sophisticated than “The ancient evil wants to take over the world. You must stop him, oh chosen one!” ? Not terribly creative. Both the writing and the subplots are generally well made and keep the player interested, though, and this solid execution lifts Drakensang's story and writing above the average.

 

Character Development

As always the first to do when you start a new game is create a character. You can enter a name and choose from a list of ca. 20 archetypes. Each race / profession / gender combination comes with a couple of mali and boni. In the optional expert mode you can fine tune the rolled values.  Other party members are picked up on your journey. They are empty shells of typical RPG standards like thieves, dwarven or human tanks, wizards, assassins, etc. Most of them have a back story, decent to good equipment or spells and the correct amount of

available experience points (XP) to form them as you see fit. This leads directly to one of Drakensang's unique features: XP is the currency for character development and you can spend XP on skills anytime, without waiting until you reach the next level. Levels, on the other hand, become important if you want to learn new skills or increase a skill, attribute or talent beyond a certain limit.

Radon Labs chose a subset of a couple of dozen talents and skills from DSA's endless pool of resources. A good decision, because this makes it relatively easy to get into The Dark Eye. The solid manual and an endless stream of specific tool tips behind the right mouse button explain most things well enough to get a good idea of what's going on. One thing is missing though: manual and tool tips point you in the right direction, but both are a bit short on 100% precise descriptions and formulae. German gamers can find such infos in the “DSA Basic Ruleset 2008” pdf on the DVD, a scanned hardcover book worth more than 20 EUR. Unfortunately international customers aren't so lucky.

 

Combat

Naturally, combat is a core part of Drakensang and around 60-70% of your time will be spent exchanging nonverbal arguments with higher and lesser foes. As already mentioned above, Radon Labs chose real time with pause (RTwP) - it's the risk-free solution known from many games by Bioware and Obsidian.
If you have a look at some of the available combat options it becomes obvious Drakensang inherited a turn based system from its pen & paper ancestor, only disguised as RTwP. For instance, you can set auto-stop conditions like “pause every [full] combat round”, feed orders into one command queue per

party member, spells, talents and items can be used from quick slot bars and every character can be set to either attack or defend. There's much more, just not in the first couple of hours. Throughout the first chapter the fights are pretty easy but after that most encounters are a bit more challenging, albeit not too dangerous for a solid party - only the boss fights are a really tough. 
Casting spells can cost quite a lot of time and astral energy (AE; known in other games as mana). Especially if you decide to try a second mass destruction spell after the usual opener - you may find out that five combat rounds can feel like an eternity; an eternity put to good use by the enemy. Mediocre as the combat AI is, most foes know to hit the mage first.

An important detail is wounds. Upon a critical hit the party member has to pass a dice roll against his or her Willpower skill - if the check fails one or two wounds are inflicted in addition to the normal loss hit points loss. The fifth wound is deadly. Curing wounds can be quite tricky, particularly in combat.

Generally speaking combat works as expected, with one notable exception: when their AE is used up, mages often actively enter melee combat even if set to passive mode. Of course, such death-defying behavior is not always part of the plan.

 

Non-combat Gameplay

Quests in Drakensang cover a wide range of topics, from typical “kill xy” or “find z” tasks, which can often be dealt with on the fly, to a few puzzles to really interesting jobs like winning a court case. The most enjoyable ones are the few quest rows with the possibility of choosing your side or playing side A off against side B, A Fistful of Dollars style. Not all quests can be solved on autopilot - sometimes the player has to put on his thinking cap.

The quests are good entertainment, especially in combination with the unique writing style. Even the weaker ones, the main quest for example, are on the better end of average. Unfortunately Drakensang lacks choices between good & evil, and

most quests are strictly linear. In more than one case, creatures in an area I had already cleaned respawned because the quest structure wanted it. To be fair, the linearity has been communicated from day one, and unrelated quests in the same area can be solved in any order.

The world is split into areas. Except for a couple of big cities an area is closed when its part of the main quest has been solved. Although this sounds problematic, it's practically not much of an issue: it's hardly possible to accidently leave and lock an area because the game informs the player about the consequences and asks for confirmation. All content on this map has been seen when you really leave it, so there's not much reason to return later, anyway. Most territories are quite large, and all combined are gigantic. Sadly, bigger is not always better. Yes, Aventuria is beautiful, graphically consistent and its cities are full of detailed, realistic architecture. But the world around the cities lacks interaction and explorers will feel underwhelmed. Little interaction in combination with big maps and limited quick travel leads to a lot of boring walks. That's a general genre problem, though.

 

Technical Stuff

Let's get this out of the way quickly. Drakensang looks and sounds good. It has low system requirements even if high-res textures and anti-aliasing are activated. The amount of polish is a positive surprise, as well as the low number of remaining bugs and the game's stability.

Drakensang's interface is clearly above genre standard. It's clean and gets the job done comfortably. Even the camera is quite okay for a party RPG, although a bit of trouble is unavoidable because the game cannot predict which character you want in focus.

 

Joining the Dots

Now for the juicy part. The pieces certainly sound interesting, but how do they combine? To make a long story short: very well.

Drakensang's heart and soul are combat and character development. They are one. Modify either and you'll get a completely different game. The Dark Eye is a rock solid, time-proven roleplaying system with an abundance of character development options. Radon Labs' game makes a fair share of them available little by little. Even after 60 of ca. 70 hours Drakensang still has something new to add. This continuous increase in scope

simultaneously opens up the combat system, making it more interesting throughout almost the whole the game. The fun follows the same upward trend.

Unfortunately, the developers were a bit overcareful not to scare away DSA newbies. Drakensang's first couple of hours - more precisely the whole first area, also used in the demo - are way too slow and too simple. Slightly more demanding gameplay early on would have lessened the problem that the main story needs time to get up to speed. As it is, the beginning is weaker than the rest of the game and it feels a little bit detached. Tutorial syndrome, and one of only few obvious compromises for a mainstream audience.

Something which can be seen as either plus or minus is that Drakensang is extremely streamlined for a Euro RPG. Where are the rough edges? Give us something to talk about.

Another general tendency I have noticed is that Radon Labs often stopped when they had a good result. Understandable behavior when the budget is tight, however, pragmatism can be a curse when the final result reaches such a high level that the unrealized possibilities start to shine through. Drakensang is good, and at times even better. But how much better could it have been with less micromanagement, less repetition, a more compact world design, optimized walking and a little bit more polish on the combat system?

 

Conclusion

Drakensang is one of the most addictive and entertaining games I've played in years. Radon Labs' and dtp's game gets better and better for 60 hours, with only one exception I won't spoil here. The gameplay can be characterized as positively old fashioned - most of the elements have been seen before, but seldomly in such a pleasing implementation. Naturally this is not a game for the action crowd, but Drakensang is easy to recommend to serious RPG fans.

Box Art

Information about

Drakensang: The Dark Eye

Developer: Radon Labs

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: Action-RPG
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced

Regions & platforms
Germany
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2008-08-01
· Publisher: dtp

North America
· Drakensang: The Dark Eye
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2009-02-01
· Publisher: THQ

Europe
· Drakensang: The Dark Eye
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2009-03-26
· Publisher: Eidos Interactive

More information


Other articles

Summary

Pros

  • A lot of fun to play; with an upward trend for 60 hours
  • Excellent, rock solid character development system
  • Interesting quests, classic gameplay, nice boss fights
  • Easy to get into, increasingly more complex
  • Stable, polished, comfortable.

Cons

  • Slow start == slow demo
  • Too much walking
  • Sometimes too much and too repetitive combat
  • Story is unremarkable [but the writing good]
  • Mediocre manual

Rating

Review version

1.02 German incl. HighRes Textures