Your character in Balrum lives with his grandfather in the dark forest. Its a horrible and dangerous sort of place and once your neighbors disappear you begin to ask questions. How you got to live in such a horrible place, and the people around you are really secondary to Balrum, though. If there is any game where the journey is more important than the goal, then its Balrum. Balrum is a wonderful game of exploration (of the dark forest and what lies beyond). Its just too bad that the other aspects of the game aren't nearly as good.
Story and Atmosphere.
The story of Balrum isn't bad. It's a sort of classic fantasy story where the character's mysterious origins are revealed, where an ancient evil awakens, and where in the end only the character can make things right. The writing also isn't too bad. Most of the background story is revealed in text discussions with npcs or in the various notes you find throughout the world. Unfortunately there is nothing particularly interesting going on here either. The characters you meet in Balrum are for the most part as flat as cardboard. Since you can't interact with them much, and the few side quest are pretty uninteresting, that's not really so important. Indeed the story's main goal appears to be to sending you from one corner of a map to another, so you can explore first the Dark Forest and then the world of Balrum as a whole. Though you spend hours wandering around, you really only interact with the story and its characters for a small portion of the game. Players who are looking for a story oriented game or clever or interesting quests probably should avoid Balrum. That's simply not the kind of the game it is.
Balrum's story unfolds in small text windows and rarely excites.
In terms of presentation, Balrum isn't anything special either. Its visuals come pretty close to those of Eschalon. While the developers have nothing to be ashamed of, Balrum is clearly an indie game. Its music, sounds, and graphics are sufficient, but nothing to write home about.
Once you leave your little village you enter a huge world full of mysterious ruins, dark dungeons, and stange puzzles. Balrum is chocked full of places to visit, resources to gather, treasures to find, monsters to defeat or sneak around, and secrets to reveal. It reminded me very quickly of an isometric, turn based, Elder Scrolls game. While Balrum's story may ask few revealing questions, its enviornment asks many. What, for example, is beyond the invisible wall in the forest? Or how does one navigate a cavern full of seemingly invulnerable crystal golems? What is beyond the teleporter in the ruins and how does one activate it? How do you get to the part of the sewers beneath the castle that you can see but which no passageway seems to connect to?
Exploring is also worthwhile. One of the most rewarding part of exploration is finding a rare weapon at the end of an insect filled tunnel, or even for my character who was good at cooking, to find a stockpile of salt, which is a rare resource in Balrum, but key to making a useful meal. Balrum is a huge sandbox type of game, and gamers who like to explore will find numerous interesting places to visit.
There are plenty of places like this in Balrum that invite experimentation.
Balrum has an interesting character development system. At first glance it would seem Balrum has three elements, namely combat, survival, and crafting. There are three main combat skills, two of which your character can learn, namely melee, ranged, and magic. It's important to note that a character with no ranged skill can't use a bow at all, and a character without spellcasting can't cast magic. Once you've purchased one of these skills you can eventually learn special attacks or spells. In Balrum your character can starve, become dehydrated or exhausted. That means you need to regularly eat, drink, and sleep. Unlike in many games, Balrum actually positively motivates you to do so. A well satiated character is able to regenerate health outside of combat, for example.
Balrum is also full of things you can craft. Smithing allows you to make armour and melee weapons, carpentry to make bows, cooking to make food, alchemy to brew potions, mining to gain resources to smith, and so on. In reality all these systems really effect combat. For example, my melee character was actually served better early in the game by developing his smithing skill than he was by developing his melee skill, since the armour I was able to create was much better than what I could initially find. Food you cook gives you a low but long lasting health regeneration bonus, and that compliments potions which are more powerful, but which have a cooldown if you consume too many. That is to say that every skill, whether crafting or survival, can help you out significantly in combat if used correctly. Obviously, carpentry, for example, is a poor choice if your character is not trained in ranged weapons.
All of Balrum's skills directly influence combat. Here you see how a recipe for Cheesy Wolf Steak can significantly buff your character over the length of a battle.
The survival elements in Balrum should also not be overstated. Early on you get the ability to teleport to a “safe place” where you can build a house. There is a well, some fruit trees, and its easy enough to build a bed and a few crafting stations there. Thus with minimal planning its always easy to just teleport to your house when you're hungry, thirsty, or tired, even if you're in the middle of the wilderness or in the depth of a dungeon. Its strange then, and totally unnecessary that you can build a camp in the wilderness with wood. This is probably the remenant of Balrum initally trying to be a survival game, something it since strayed away from.
One thing you do have to worry about is the vermin which can get into your backpack and eat your food. You have to keep on the lookout for messages that something is moving in your backpack and then promptly kill it.
Combat in Balrum is fairly challenging. You have a pet who fights with you (who also can be improved with the pet training skill), and depending on your fighting style, you can attain a fair number of abilities which work on cooldowns, ranging from pretty short to fairly long. My fighter for example, could stun, bleed, blind, or reduce the armour of an opponent with a succesful hit. I only got through the tougher fights with the careful use of consumables, like food and potions. Fighting multiple enemies is usually deadly, so its better to draw of one monster on its own if possible.
The battle against this troll was challenging enough that I had to lay him a path of traps, drink multiple potions and eat a handcooked meal in order to win.
Balrum is not the kind of game to hold your hand. Even though the beginning of the game sends you on a number of quests which are designed to help you understand how the various crafting systems work, there is hardly any tutorial per say, and you are pretty much thrown in. Personally I didn't have a problem with that, but the game targets experienced rpg players.
Balrum is a very slow paced game on many levels. There aren't many quests, but it took me a long time to finish most of them. It takes a long time to level up, and grinding isn't encouraged because combat itself takes a long time in comparison to similar games, and yields meagre XP.
Balrum's main quest is the big source of xp in the game and it throws you from one side of the map to the other. If you actually went on a straight line from one place to the next you probably could complete the quests relatively quickly. But that would defeat the purpose of the game, since Balrum's focus is exploration, and since the resources you need to properly craft things, and the items you can equip to improve your character are in every nook and cranny of Balrum's world. Most of your time will be spend finding things on the way. I spent whole evenings travelling from quest giver to quest point, without getting to where I wanted to be going.
This means that you level up very slowly. Each time you level up you gain six learning points. Learning points can be used to buy or improve skills with the appropriate trainer. While almost every skill in Balrum is useful, they aren't all worth the same in terms of investment. The entry level costs of most crafting skills is pretty low. Its actually worth investing a few points in alchemy, for example, regardless of your character since you can brew low powered healing and mana potions immediately and they are useful throughout the game. The cost of crafting skills then rapidly increases. The entry level cost of combat skills, though is extremely high. You need 10 points to learn a new combat skill which is almost two levels of character advancement, which is probably close to 9 hours of gameplay. At one point in the game you need to make a burning attack to advance the main quest. This proved quite a challenge to my melee character, and wasn't something I could simply solve by investing skill points. This means you really have to weigh how you spend your learning points carefully and also makes your build meaningful.
Combat, in my opinion, takes too long. Even simple creatures take a large number of rounds to wear down. While this lets you make good use of your skills and items, it really takes away from combat. I can't think of a similar game where fighting standard opponents proceeds at such a slow pace. Since combat yields little XP, I tried to avoid any unecessary combat unless it yielded me something useful I could craft with. This meant I fought bears and wolves, whose meat I could cook with, but did my best to avoid most of the game's other monsters if they weren't blocking my path.
I don't mind slow paced games per say. It didn't bother me in Stardew Valley, but that was a relaxing game in its tone. In Balrum's dangerous world, I found it, to be honest, somewhat annoying. I found it difficult at times to start the game, and then once I got it going it seemed that two-three hours had just breezed by, but I felt like nothing had really happened. At the 24 hour mark, I just couldn't motivate myself to start the game again and moved on to something else.
Here's my magic house. I can teleport there pretty much at will, sleep, eat, drink, and craft.
There are a ton of indie rpgs on the market today, but the vast majority of them fall into one of three categories: they are story based, dungeon crawlers, or roguelikes. There are very few open world sandbox type indie rpgs, and that's because developing and balancing such a game is a tremendous task for a small team. That means that Balrum definitely has found a niche which very few other games fill. So if you love playing a single character, exploring a world, and crafting, you'll probably have fun with Balrum, if you don't let its slow pacing, lack of story and quests, or presentation get in the way. So what I can offer is a very conditional recommendation. In the end Balrum wasn't a game for me. I like games with either lots of complex mechanics and character development (preferably with a party) or a well balanced crpg, and Balrum is neither. But all of you explorers out there will probably want to give Balrum a shot. A lot of people seem to really enjoy it, so you just have to figure out if you're likely to be one of them.