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Silverfall PC Review

by Michael J. Anderson, 2007-06-13

Entering the crowded action-RPG market is a risky proposition. In my preview I stated that the developers were "hoping that the more open world and skill system combined with the mixture of nature and technology will satisfy gamers looking for something different mixed in with loads of action." So how did they do? Does it manage to stand out from the crowd? Read on and see ...

There was a game that I remember playing as a kid - we called it 'kill the guy with'. We played with one of the original Nerf balls, and the object was to tackle the person holding the ball, while the ball carrier wanted to evade getting knocked down as long as possible. When you were about to get tackled you'd throw the ball at someone else and then everyone would begin chasing them, because if you were successfully tackled you were 'out' and subject to ridicule. When everyone got tired the ball would go to one of the younger kids and everyone would rub him (or her) into the dirt. That was how I felt playing Silverfall - I was swooping through villages in a rampage of mass destruction in near-constant pursuit of this elusive evil that was always just out of reach, and whenever I got close the goal would simply move away once again.

The Attack of the Clones!

I'll get this out of the way right now - despite anything I talk about in this review, this game is easily dismissed as just yet another Diablo clone, and not even one of the best. You could go from start to finish and never really learn anything about the story and characters and not have missed much. You have to WANT to get more from the experience than just a simple hack-n-slash. Certainly that is true with any of the games in the genre, but the reason I point it out here is that if you already like the action-RPG genre and decide to dedicate yourself to getting the most from every corner of Silverfall, there is a lot to do and discover. The usual caveats are present - given that this is clearly in the mold of the Diablo / Sacred / Dungeon Siege games, consider liking those a prerequisite to liking Silverfall.

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends!

There is a story to Silverfall, but just don't be peeking behind the curtain! You have to *believe* in the great and powerful Oz for any of this to work! Technology has come to the lands of Silverfall, lands that have been under the influence of benevolent magic for ages. This has caused a fundamental rift, with each site digging in and looking at the other with distaste and mistrust. The spread of technology is being countered with entrenched areas free of any technology, with people being forced to take sides in the widening disagreement. This insecure state is perfect for the forces of evil and darkness to sow discord and cast a widening net of influence. And so it is that we enter the game - the tutorial as it were has us playing a nigh on invincible mage (an archmage names - wait for it - ArchMage) who is the primary guardian of the city of Silverfall as it is under attack by the forces of evil. After the climactic battle ends strangely we are transported to the refugee camp, where we (now in the guise of the character we have chosen to play) meet the daughter of said mage (or son if you play a female hero) and begin taking on quests and side-quests.

Of course, as the story unfolds you will move from town to town and discover more about the larger plot that is at work. You will meet up with people who will give you quests or information; those who will join your side if you can complete their quests; and massive amounts of monsters standing on hills or by sides of roads just waiting for you to come along. One thing that is different and really cool about Silverfall is that the world is very open to exploration - you will fairly quickly get quests to go to a place called Cloudworks, but you can just wander that way whenever you please. Or you can roam the marshes and clear out everything (in time to have it respawn of course). There is a general sense of openness that is extremely rare in this genre - of course, since most things trigger off of the main quest, running to Cloudworks without any reason will result in a boring trip indeed (aside from killing dozens of beasties, of course).

You ought to be in those new-fangled moving pictures!

The first thing that will smack you across the face about Silverfall is the art style ... actually, the first thing you will see is a splash screen with a close-up of the stereotypical scantily-clad red-haired elf from the game box as the game loads. But once you have started the game you'll notice something really cool - the characters all appear cel-shaded and the world is realized in gorgeous 3D. This visual distinction between the two styles is stunning, and will continue to impress you right through to the end of the game.

Don't underestimate that last statement - I play tons of games, and the majority of the typical hack-n-slash isometric games I have played on my Mac, PC and PSP all start to blend in after a while. Many of them I identify by their interface rather than a specific visual style. And while Silverfall does have a distinctive interface, it is the unique stylings of the characters against the environment that immediately identify the game.

Speaking of the interface - while it is distinctive and mostly functional, it also looks pretty lousy. Compared to the nicely executed look of the game, the jaggy fonts and rough graphics used for the interface really stand out and look like placeholder art that was meant to be replaced before release. There are separate dialog boxes for inventory, skill and character stats which all work fine, but the entirety of the map system looks awful.

Looking beyond the basics, you get the requisite types of terrain and structures: there are swamps, grasslands, forests, mountains and ice-covered tundra. There are dungeons and castles and villages and even a city in the sky! The game cannot be accused of a shortage of environments in which to carry our your onslaught of killing. The developers did a solid job of giving each area a unique feel - when you're in the sewers it feels different than in a palace, just as the snow and ice regions are different in many more ways than just the color of the stuff you drop dead bodies.

I gots me sum m4d sk!llz and kewl tewlz!!!

One of the most important aspects of an action-RPG is the character advancement - your very life depends on the choices you make during level up. Silverfall has a massive skill-tree system that appears to be completely open - there are no preset classes, only skills to select. There is nothing to say you cannot take low-level skills in all areas. Nothing except for the desire to live to see yourself progress a few levels! Each tree - such as magic - has multiple 'branches' with elements you can choose to advance. These have prerequisites based on your character level, alignment and attaining a certain level in the lower skill on the branch. There are passive and active elements as well - some are always active, enhancing skills you already have and making spells more effective, while others must be cast or activated to take effect. There are some that fall in between, such as the ability to meditate when stationary between battles to quickly regain health and mana. And while there are really no 'right' or 'wrong' choices, there certainly are choices that will make your life easier or more difficult.

Character advancement in Silverfall has another element - will you side with the forces of magic or technology? There is no 'good' and 'evil', and this is somewhat of a problem. As you progress through the game you will obtain quests that will advance the cause of technology or magic in the region and thereby earn you an 'alignment shift' towards one or the other. Most of these are pretty obvious - things like "install gas harvesting devices in the swamp ... wipe out whatever creatures you find". But there are some that seem to play on your desire to rebuild the city of Silverfall, only to end up with a shift in one direction or the other. So why does that matter? Much of the best equipment depends on being strongly aligned on either side, and certain vendors (again, with good equipment) will only speak to you if you are aligned a certain way - and will just insult you otherwise. There are also separate skill trees for nature and technology alignments - but you will find that these are largely interchangeable. Taking Lycanthropy is a wonderful boon for melee warriors, but there are plenty of cool technical options to make your body into a frothy technological nightmare for enemies! Trying to remain neutral is possible - but that simply precludes you from getting the best gear.

The other area that allows you to become more powerful through the game is obtaining better items such as weapons, armor and protective items. There are all of the usual item slots and each item has the possibility to raise your defensive rating, improve your character stats, grant extra skill levels or other bonuses. Items can be bought, found in chests scattered throughout the world or collected from fallen enemies. And yes, it is possible to get a two-handed stone hammer and a full suit of armor and some boots and a set of potions out of a mandrake fairy that looks to be about the size of a small winged chimpanzee. There are different classes of items, with white lettering denoting ordinary items, yellow for good items, blue for excellent items, green for superior and brown for ultimate items. Each item also has a 'level' associated with it - so an 'ordinary' level 40 item could be better than an 'ultimate' level 10 item. The inventory system allows you to simultaneously ready a ranged and melee weapon.

Killing mobs is its' own reward

All of the character development and equipment and graphics goodness doesn't mean anything if the gameplay isn't fun and engaging. So how does Silverfall play? Well, this is ultimately where the game falls from the dizzying heights of excellent visuals to the mediocre execution of a standard click-attack combat-fest. Left-clicking performs the action currently assigned to that button - either melee, ranged or elemental attack - continuously on the selected target until it is dead. Right-clicking unleashes a single magical attack on a target that consumes Chi power - these are spells like Fireball or special melee attacks like Double-Strike. As you could guess, if you are dual-wielding weapons you want to use the double-attack most of the time since the attack bonus greatly outstrips any loss of defense (which you can also make up with armor). This means that in a crowd of enemies you will be clicking your way into the RSD (repetitive strain disorder) emergency room!

Mobs are what you will usually be fighting - you will enter an area and see a bunch of enemies simply standing around waiting for *something* (don't know where the buses stop in Silverfall, maybe that is it), or perhaps if you have spent skill points on speed you will see nothing until you are right on top of a mob of enemies. Either way, enemies stand around until you 'aggro' them - they have a specific radius of sensitivity, and you could wipe out twenty other monsters but as long as you stay outside that radius and don't cause them any hard they will not respond. This is at once bad and good - bad for the obvious immersion-breaking effect of wiping out a group of goblins while another group is within a few meters watching the whole thing happen without reacting. But it is good in that it allows you to heal up and regenerate mana. One of the best skills to take on early is a passive self-healing technique called 'Serenity' that quickly regenerates health and mana.

When you die - and you will die, especially early in the game - you get to go on a 'corpse run' that is entirely too familiar to many fans of the genre. Basically (for anyone who hasn't played a MMORPG or the Dungeon Siege II Broken World expansion), when you die you lose everything and respawn in town, with a marker placed where you died. You then get to run back through respawned enemies and battle your way back to your stuff - and regain a bit of the experience you lost as well. But think about the implications of the previous point I made about monsters standing around waiting for someone to stroll into their zone of influence - when you return to the point you died, you will likely find the same group of monsters who killed you still standing around your corpse. If you are badly outnumbered it could take two or three spawns to thin the mob. Fortunately an early quest will acquaint you with a goblin that is a distant relative of Marlin Perkins - he will insure your life in the Wild Kingdom ... for a price. The more you die the higher the price - but the result is that you will respawn in town without losing any items or experience.

Silverfall has co-operative multiplayer available, but it is surprisingly limited and problematic for an action-RPG. I liked that there is a full co-op that will take you through the campaign as well as a 'free mode' that allows you to ignore the main quest and just take on side quests and loot-chasing battles. But you can't simply level up your single-player characters and then take them in - you need to start new characters for multiplayer sessions and use them only for that specific mode. I also found that the performance was not very good - I tried it initially over our home wireless network but then moved to a wired setup just in case that was the issue. I even played during my lunch hour at work over a gigabit line and still got lag and stuttering performance that was unlike the smooth performance I experienced in single player. Given the crowded field of excellent multiplayer games in the genre, this really felt like a non-starter for me.

Role-player Time Out

I played quite a few hours when doing the preview for Silverfall, but then when the game was released I had a hard time playing it again. I played a couple of hours and then just couldn't face it. I started again and got further but still quickly needed a break. I found that the 'attachment' factor was pretty low in this game - it was just not one of those games that jump out and demand to be played. This is one of the bottom line elements for me in a RPG - get my into the game with such ferocity or piques interest that I just won't let go untli I'm completely swept up in the experience. Failure to hit that is one of the things that makes me want to give the developers a 'role player's time out'.

Another thing that will either annoy or enthrall you is that the entire world scales to your level. So if you are running to and from a quest giver and level up along the way, the Mandrake Fairies you meet going to the quest might be level 10 and on the way back they could be level 12. There are limitations to this - there are some local scaling limits so that you won't ever hit a hard battle in the area of the refugee camp once you've broken level 10 or so. But it is there with you throughout the game - you will be killing level 75 Skeletons eventually, though at least they introduce a stream of more interesting characters along the way. The most annoying thing is to level up mid-battle and watch all of the enemies level up in kind. I only noticed this once, but needless to say - since I was 'watching' I soon died.

The final thing that really bugged me is the way they denote friends and foes. Generally in games enemies are 'red' and friends or neutrals are 'something else'. Generally this also extends to having the text label and the graphic outlining the character when selected appear different based on whether or not they are an enemy. Silverfall gives everyone the same text and graphic, but colors a portion of it blue if the character is not an enemy. It is an annoyance more than anything since neutral characters are few and far between outside of main towns, but it is an annoyance.

Controls, balance and that crappy map system

The controls run the gamut from excellent to poor with very little in between: assigning skills and spells to hotkeys is a simple matter of drag & drop, and choosing the skill to use with the left or right mouse button is a simple keypress. Calling up the inventory or map or character or skill sheet is as simple as pressing the I, M, C or S keys that have become fairly standard over the years. You can have multiple sheets open at once, so the developers have chosen to ignore the 'Esc = cancel' standard and require pressing the same key a second time to close the window. Fortunately, the Esc key works to call up the game menu so pressing it with the intent of closing a dialog is only a momentary frustration.

The camera system is an entirely different story - most people will start out using the default settings for a game, and that is a terrible mistake with Silverfall. The defaults allow you to use the mouse to zoom in and out and steer your character around the game world, but edge motion and rotation are disabled; instead you are expected to use the arrow keys to rotate the camera. This is a very unnatural - and uncomfortable - position for your hands. Fortunately you can enable edge movement so that moving your mouse to the edge of the screen will rotate the view. This is a critical feature - especially in light of the map and directional control issues I'll get to in a second. A further problem with the mouse has to do with a lack of precision - clicking an enemy to death is one thing, but once they fall if you have excess clicks in process you will run to the click point, which usually means charging into a horde of enemies ... and dying.

I said before that there are no right or wrong choices in terms of the skill tree - I lied. Well, not really, because eventually it will all work out. But early on the game favors the magical skills - you can freeze enemies and do massive elemental damage before they unfreeze. Most games favor melee from the early phases until mages become massively overpowered later in the game. This game is terribly balanced - mages are the easiest class to play from the beginning since they favor ranged attacks which break up the 'mob tactics' of the enemies, and since the magical attacks do much more damage than non-magical, you can dispatch foes much more quickly.

Another feature of the game is that you will almost immediately stumble across a healer that you can enlist as a companion. There are a number of possible companions, each with different skills to complement your own. I located eight that would follow me from town to town, with two in my party at any given time. But if you take the mage path as I did you will quickly discover something - taking companions feels more like a FPS 'babysitting' mission than it does getting help. You get enough skill points quickly enough that you can improve your attack and defense skills as well as adding some healing abilities, thereby making your companions redundant. What ends up happening is that they do foolish things and you rush around keeping them out of trouble. If you are playing melee you have little alternative to taking on the healer since you need to maximize your attack skills, but since you will be in the center of the battle all the time it tends to work better.

But whatever path you choose, if you maintain tight control over your skills - for example, as a mage I focused on elemental magic, and as a melee warrior I focused on one-handed melee and powder ranged weapons - then you will find yourself at a certain point in the game with an excess of available skill points. My pure mage became a very competent battlemage, with a massive two-handed sword being used as often as fireballs and lightning bolts to decimate enemies. And once my dual-wielding warrior could take on some magical attacks I ditched my companions for good and flew solo for the rest of the way. Did you notice something? Yep - my characters more or less converged! Of course, your experience might differ - I sought to explore every possible corner of the world, killing everything I encountered for much of the game and ultimately finishing with both characters above level 75. I have read of others finishing in their 40's, which would restrict the skill point choices considerably.

Here is the quick version - everything about the mapping and directional systems in Silverfall are about the worst I can think of in any game ever. There is an onscreen mini-map which shows your immediate area and a larger map that can zoom in or out to show the region. The main map has fog of war areas as well as X's that mark quest locations and circles for hub locations. There is never enough detail for you to discern whether you are heading toward a mountain pass to get to the next area or towards an impassible area. The mini-map has arrows to point you toward the main quest and your selected side quest and red dots indicating the presence of enemies. Once you have traveled to a hub you can return by clicking on the map. Or you can attempt to traverse the countryside. This is one of the most difficult things in the whole game! There are three directions in the game - the camera facing, the character facing and the direction of travel. Once you start moving the camera and travel directions align, but getting used to managing the camera and travel direction is the most confusing and frustrating things you will encounter and something I still have a hard time explaining - but fortunately it becomes habit as you progress into the game. You will eventually learn what to control and move to get your character where you want to be, but don't expect it to be fun.

So ... is this all leading somewhere?

Some final thoughts - I have just spent about a thousand words decimating Silverfall for its' faults, and a few hundred before that describing my insecurity that if I stopped playing I'd never start again. I even mentioned that the multiplayer is certainly not worth the price of admission (this wasn't a big deal for me since I tend to focus on single player games) Yet you should have noticed something else - I played through the game twice, taking characters through loads of combat and exploring just about everything and getting them both above level 75. So there has to be *something* there that kept me going, right? I stayed in for the character advancement and the really cool skill system. I loved when my melee character had so many points in speed and special dual-wield attacks that a right click would close proximity fast enough that it reminded me of the Force Jump attack from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I loved tossing out spells that would decimate a whole crew of Ghost Knights.

But there are so many little things that are wrong - and more than a couple of major ones - that it is hard to recommend Silverfall for anyone who didn't absolutely love the demo. If the controls frustrated you then, they will continue to grate on you in the full game. Getting to flesh out your character skills is very nice, but it is not enough to carry the game. The plot is also fun to see through but as is often the case it is more of an excuse to carry on than a driving force for the game. With some good and some bad elements, the overall picture is decidedly average. Compared to other recent games in the genre, I would place this above Mage Knight: Apocalypse, but below Titan Quest (and expansion) and also below Dungeon Siege II and its' expansion. As Dawn of Magic isn't released in the US yet I can't speak to it fully, but from what I've seen I'd say that the combat system of SilverFall is more visceral, but the story and quests of Dawn of Magic are more engaging.

 

Box Art

Information about

Silverfall

Developer: Monte Cristo

SP/MP: Single + MP
Setting: Steampunk
Genre: Hack & Slash
Combat: Real-time
Play-time: Unknown
Voice-acting: Unknown

Regions & platforms
France
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2006-11-21
· Publisher: Monte Cristo

Europe
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2007-03-21
· Publisher: Deep Silver

North America
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2007-03-21
· Publisher: Atari

More information


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Summary

Pros

  • Excellent visual style and graphics.
  • Wonderful variety of locations and environments.
  • Very good skill trees for all character types.
  • Combat varied & intense enough to be constantly challenging

Cons

  • Map and directional control system are just plain terrible.
  • Unfinished feel to the interface and tech/nature choice.
  • NPC and enemy AI is lacking.
  • Balance issues can make the game extremely frustrating.
  • Multiplayer game not nearly on par with single player game.

Rating

Review version

1.16