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A Farewell to Dragons Review

by Joy Ann "Magerette" Jones, 2009-12-31

Originally known as Not the Time for Dragons, A Farewell to Dragons (henceforth referred to by the acronym AFTD) is Russian developers Arise and KranX Productions’ ambitious attempt to produce an open-world, party-based cRPG with magic, dwarves, trains and guns, derived from a fantasy novel by Russian authors Sergey Lukyanenko and Nikolay Perumov. The game is promoted by publisher 1C Company as an action/rpg, but this is something of a misnomer, since despite a strong combat emphasis, it owes far more to exploration and quest-oriented old-school rpgs like the original Baldur’s Gate and Troika’s Arcanum than it does to the hack and slash legacy of Diablo.

So steampunk, Baldur’s Gate, open world and party-based; what’s not to like? Unfortunately, quite a bit, as we’ll see. This is a game of far-reaching ideas and ambitions mired in poor execution, sloppy coding, and bargain basement localization. The fact that any of this game is addictive and entertaining is a tribute to the creative talents and vision of the developers, who have conceived a world that - however flawed it may be in implementation - often remains compelling and vivid despite its many frustrations.

 

No, Who Are You Really?

The player in AFTD assumes the role of Victor, a doctor from our world and time, transported to an alternate Earth where technologically advanced dwarves mingle with powerful elemental mages, magical beasts, totemic clans and other staples of steampunk and fantasy. For some reason, many of these elements want to kill him. Others are anxious to help. The player is turned loose to figure out the reasons behind it all after getting some rudimentary background through a brief introductory text cutscene and some clouded dialogues with Victor’s guide, Telle, a young girl with surprising powers who leads him into the pivotal quests of the game.

As events progress it becomes obvious that the standard plot path Victor is following is the familiar one of the unknown hero, struggling to uncover his past before it kills him. Along his journey he’ll pick up various NPCs who range from convenient meat shields, helpful totemic clan members and assorted magic or tech users all without an agenda, to the two women who will define his ultimate destiny of universal savior or destroyer. All the cRPG conventions are well covered, and if there are no surprises, at least the predictable plot and character set-up faithfully mirrors the usual traditions without any major missteps.

Steamy

AFTD takes up Arcanum’s mantle of steampunk with a vivid and nicely imagined 19th century-style setting full of period locomotives and gunslinging bandits leavened with colleges of arcane magic wielders and wild clans of catwomen. Dwarves are - as usual - the masters of technology, and in this incarnation rather than being ponderous, they’re agile and nimble scientists as well as miners or smiths. Dwarven gearmasters will provide your party with a large array of potent WMDs, including explosives, poisons, flamethrowers, machine guns, muskets, rifles, pistols, and chain saws, including one entitled The Blood-Stained Maniac Saw. Not everyone can master these weapons, however, and not every NPC fits the bill. Victor is unique in the game in having a variety of skill paths, able to be master of all four elemental magics, a fighter, gunslinger,  or any hybrid of the three.

In general, NPCs in AFTD will be specialists, pre-formed before entering your party. They will have one or at most two skill trees with a few differing paths in each, concentrating on a single area of strength such as weapon use, magic, or their totemic powers. While this might seem limiting, it actually gives the player quite a diverse arsenal, and allows for a synergistic party where members’ strengths and weaknesses are offset in a fairly balanced way.

No Way to Run a Railroad

One of the first things the player notices starting out is the huge, open, off-the-rails game world.  The second is the tremendous difference a poorly implemented 3D camera can make to moving through it. AFTD is set up, again like Baldur’s Gate or Arcanum, with large wilderness maps to traverse on foot and small urban areas with vendors and the occasional quest giver. Hotkeying and learning to accommodate the rotating camera is the first step in being able to see where you’re going, let alone get there. Next is learning to control your lost and confused victims of pathfinding wanderlust. Despite the player’s best efforts it’s not uncommon for party NPCs to become ‘stuck’ in unreachable pockets, sometimes requiring a reload to get the party moving, or for them to get separated and stumble alone into fatal encounters with enemy spawns. This level of annoyance is fairly common in pc gaming, and dealing with it eventually becomes habit, but zooming and tilting the camera and finagling with the interface continues to occupy a considerable chunk of gameplay time, especially in combat.

But the fun of adventuring isn’t limited just by the game engine; the game design itself plays a major role. The open, fully explorable wilderness maps are huge, but also mostly empty except for the odd barrel to smash and an alternating trio of repeating monster spawns every few paces. The same tilesets appear in each and every one, making the initially attractive landscapes seem monotonous and repetitive. There’s no way to travel from one map to another except on foot from the entry point to the furthest corner, so most of your time is spent walking through what looks like the same forest, smashing the same barrels and fighting virtually identical enemies. Yes, there's a trans-map railroad, but due to various plot points in the early game you're seldom able to use it, while later there's not much need to. 

After playing awhile, the end result is flat; each map requires hours to fully explore and yet feels like something you’ve already done too many times. Each town, too, is virtually identical, and while it may appear to be full of NPCs, only a very few will be interactive.

 

Of Love, Hate & Chainsaws

Once past the initial learning curve, the game starts to pick up pace and pull the player in a bit more. And that's where the love/hate relationship with the game begins. Some of the best moments of A Farewell to Dragons are the impressive mage battles which providentially show up just when the boredom of fighting one more round of bandits or forest rats is about to put the player to sleep. Intense and intelligent combat like this is the bread and butter of most classic rpgs, and affords a test of all the time and effort invested in character development as well as whatever innate resourcefulness the player has. It’s always a pleasure to see these kinds of classic encounters revived, even if once again there are some flaws in the implementation that prevent them from being an unalloyed joy.

In AFTD, you have a mostly romance- and conflict-free party of 4 to 6 combat focused characters with a wide array of skills, ranging from traditional swords or fireballs to totemic animal abilities or devastating attacks with guns, flamethrowers or chainsaws. Available skill trees vary from character to character and this individualized development system gives the player an impressive palette of combat choices and a well-rounded assortment of attacks. Unfortunately, with diverse and really interesting resources like this, the intrusion of a poor interface implementation and limited AI is even more noticeable and off-putting.  Put more simply, you have all kinds of nifty skills but it can be a major pain to actually use them.

All Your Real Time Will Be Paused

Out of the wide range of spells and skills your characters acquire, you have a grand total of ten quickslots and their associated hotkeys to access them. Two of these are probably best devoted to mana and heal potions to avoid opening the inventory screen constantly during combat. That means to use any more than eight skills you have to pause, open each character’s skill book, and manually vacate and reassign a slot. After the first fifteen levels, spellcasters have well over a dozen useful buffs and attacks, warriors another ten or twelve feats, and Victor, with his more diverse skill selection, has dozens. Coordinating a multitude of spells and skills this way is time consuming and awkward, and most modern games have evolved radial menus or other more efficient methods of doing it.

Combat is real-time-with-pause but as mentioned, most of your real time will be spent paused while trying to select and issue individual orders for each of your party members. After each action, you must manually reselect the character to order the next attack as well as retarget it if necessary because if you don’t, characters will use only the first skill in their quickbar (unless hotkeyed on the fly) and frequently attack with a pronounced death wish, so using real time without the pause is pretty counterproductive except for low level encounters.

With up to six party members, this hands-on approach involves a lot of micromanaging. Using the hotkeys is usually more effective than the mouse, since it’s very easy to click an inappropriate target or spot by mistake when you’re looking at the small and congested area of screen where your battle is playing out, while spell and skill visual aura effects also add to the confusion. You have the option of using an auto-attack style AI scripting, but it has to be done with care since among the usual suicidal AI tendencies, party members regularly sprint off directly into huge groups of off-screen enemies while in unnecessary and unwanted pursuit of a fleeing target with 3 remaining hitpoints, or fail to pick up their next target and stand there absorbing punishment till they pass out. There’s no perma-death here, though, and they’ll be up again as soon as the combat is over.

Say What?

Quests and dialogue are a vital part of any cRPG, and AFTD is no exception to this rule. The main storyline quests involve Victor’s initiations into the four elemental magic schools and uncover his past and future roles. Every map--and there are many--also provides a few sidequests; from basic FedExers to more convoluted and complicated ones where choice and consequence influence Victor’s good/evil development axis. A good part of the game is devoted to keeping the player happily occupied sorting things out for the locals, and there’s a lot of potential here for some real depth, but once again, it’s all too often a swing and a miss.

Due to the dramatically inept English localization, even being sure of the main points of the plot can be difficult at times, and getting any nuances is totally out of the picture. I’m a fan of many games where English isn’t the primary language, and I’m usually unfazed by rough translations, but this isn’t just a question of a few garbled sentences or even the often humorous misuse of words. It’s dialogue boxes that scroll through minutes of incomprehensible or nonsensical questions and answers, assigning quests that have you wandering cluelessly across multiple maps or have to be reloaded and redone several times because pertinent information is just not there. The old adage ‘Save Early and Save Often’ is indispensable here. About the only thing to be grateful for in these exchanges is the lack of voice acting.

 

Forgot to Spray for These

On top of the issues mentioned above, the player will be up against several known bugs that diminish enjoyment of the game to one degree or another. I’ve already discussed the problem of NPCs getting ‘stuck’ in the sides of mountains or in landscape cul-de-sacs. This happens much less frequently than objects from broken loot containers falling into areas where the player can’t get to them. Also, occasionally dialogue will fail to initiate on a major quest and an earlier save is the only way to continue forward.

Then there are the amulets given to Victor by each totemic clan. These are supposed to allow clan members to fight alongside your party, and groups of them are stationed at various points in the game to offer their help in tough battles. Unfortunately, attempting to activate the amulets causes an instant crash to desktop, so instead of adding an interesting little tweak they’re just one more item to carry around or sell. There is also reportedly a bug in the endgame where the entire sequence plays in Russian, but I can’t confirm that one, as sadly I have not mustered the endurance to play past sixty hours.

Conclusion

Far from being an action rpg, A Farewell to Dragons walks a road that few have traveled in faithfully attempting to recall the glories of past classics in the genre, and has an interesting character development system as well as a strong focus on story and exploration. There are many times in the game where the player is swept along in a well-choreographed and intricate drama with satisfying encounters, enigmatic characters and a vivid environment. Unfortunately, in the end the game falls short of its ambitious goals by a failure to pay attention to the basics, making it as much a frustration as a pleasure to play. For lovers of free-roaming, classic party rpgs or the steampunk setting, this game may provide a whiff of nostalgia and a decent experience if the price is right and expectations are low. Others may just want to replay Arcanum.

Box Art

Information about

A Farewell to Dragons

Developer: Arise

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Steampunk
Genre: Action-RPG
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Voice-acting: None

Regions & platforms
Russia
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2007-11-16
· Publisher: 1C Company

UK
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2009-10-30
· Publisher: 1C Company

More information

Summary

Pros

  • Huge, open, fully explorable world
  • Interesting skills system and setting
  • Interesting characters and quests
  • Intricate mage battles
  • Many hours of gameplay

Cons

  • Game world lacks content and variety
  • Awkward camera and interface issues
  • Cumbersome combat mechanic
  • Way below substandard localization
  • Buggy and unfinished, the game badly needs a patch

Rating

Review version

Unpatched retail release

Opinions from other editors

Michael "txa1265" Anderson

I am a big fan of Sergei Lukyanenko from his Night Watch books, to the point where I have seen the films made from the books and played the uneven Night Watch and terrible Day Watch games. So, when I learned that he had a book called Not the Time for Dragons being made into a game I was intrigued. When it appeared on Steam for what I considered a reasonable $30, I was sold. The game promised many things that intrigued me - an author I liked, in a genre I loved, with a mixture of a steampunk world and a game style reminiscent of many games I loved ... what could go wrong?

Well, as magerette describes, quite a bit went wrong. On the whole, I have a more positive impression than she did - yet I don't dispute any of her findings, nor the final score she assigned. If anyone has played Night Watch - and particularly Day Watch - you would realize that there is much you need to endure to find the diamond in the rough underneath.

The short story on this game is that it starts fairly slow and then really picks up. That is true ... but sadly from there it remains terribly uneven. I like the fact that I was often reminded of a sort of Arcanum meets Neverwinter Nights, but didn't like the times I was reminded of games like Metalheart and Day Watch. The skill system is very good, but the usage was cumbersome; the story was interesting, but the translations ranged from good to terrible to non-existent. I can confirm that at least in the current Steam version of the game there was plenty of Russian dialogue at the end of the game. I also hated that no one I recruited got their level perks (though it was nice that you got to assign their skills).

As magerette said, if there was a massive patch, I feel this game could be recommendable as a solid effort - it will never be a classic as there are just too many fundamental issues, but it could be a good bit of fun. However, as it stands now it is hard to recommend as a full price purchase to any but the most bug-tolerant RPG fan. The recent Steam sale that puts the game at $15 for a limited time makes it a more intriguing purchase, but as I thought about it, my recommendation really doesn't change unless the game dips below $10 - there is clearly that much fun to be had even for several hours before abandoning it in frustration, which is what I see most people doing.

It is a shame that the game was released in such a state of disrepair without a single patch applied since launch on Steam. With a nice world, good backstory, solid skills and characters and decent combat system, some polish could have gone a long way to making this a sleeper hit for RPG fans.