Drakensang: The Dark Eye
By Greg Giddens
The city of Ferdok awaits, but the path is blocked. No drama – all I need to do is gain favour with influential citizens of the village of Avenstrue to grant me passage. Three hours later, I’m ready to proceed to Ferdok. Wait a minute, three hours? I’ve hardly done anything, I don’t even know what the main story is all about – but nonetheless, I’m having fun.
Drakensang: The Dark Eye has an amazing ability to draw you in and not let you go. RPG fans will realise within minutes that they are playing a well designed and engrossing game, with elements we’ve all seen before but implemented in such a way that you can’t help but continue playing. There is something special here: underneath the flaws is a game of high quality and perplexing intrigue. You won’t quite know why or how but I’m willing to bet, like me, you’ll enjoy this one.
Non-RPG fans, however, will find the beginning to feel sluggish to the point of irritation. Depending on how much dialogue you sit through and how many side quests you complete, it can take several hours before the main storyline presents itself, and this is when Drakensang begins to show cracks in the armour. Audiences who are not familiar with The Dark Eye, the German pen and paper role playing game that Drakensang is derived from, will instantly feel a little lost. The background of this world is only partially explained, and if you don’t pay attention, everything can become alien very quickly. The only sure way to understand what’s going on is to talk to everyone and take it all in, but unfortunately not all gamers will have the patience to sit through the overwhelming amount of text dialogue.
The dialogue itself – penned by an experienced team of The Dark Eye writers – is fairly well written, but the voice acting is truly horrible and makes each and every character sound immensely stupid. Thankfully, voice acting – if I were to be so generous as to call it ‘acting’ – is kept to a minimum, with only a handful of characters subjecting you to their oratory “skills”.
The Dark Eye saga shares many similarities with Dungeons and Dragons, and Drakensang in turn shares many similarities with various D&D-based computer RPGs. The control method, the environments, races and classes have all been seen before; the originality comes instead form the story and the levelling system. In Drakensang, each time you gain experience you can spend it on traits to enhance your characters on the fly. You can upgrade your traits at any time and levelling up will raise your base traits automatically as well. This system, to begin with, is rather perplexing, but after a few levels your confidence grows. It allows players to really shape their characters – a micro manager’s dream. Unfortunately, if you fail to get to grips with this system quickly, you will struggle to proceed – but it does help hide the grind of traditional levelling, and is a welcome change from the norm.
You choose your character from several races and classes, consisting of the clichéd characters from every RPG and its dog. The problem is, regardless of what character you end up choosing, the dialogue options will be pretty much the same. There are no evil characters and no individual personalities to choose from, so the only criteria in choosing a race is down to personal preference and which class you wish to be.
The story of Drakensang is centred in and around the city of Ferdok, in the centre of the continent of Aventuria. You start off in a small village, having received a letter from an old friend in Ferdok who has asked you to visit him regarding a yet unexplained concern he has. After no more than four steps you are informed by a village guard that the path to Ferdok is currently blocked due to a series of murders in the city. You are then tasked with finding people of influence to vouch for you so you may proceed, and of course each of these people demands you embark on a number of quests – mainly of the ‘go here, kill that’ variety – in order to prove yourself.
This first area you can explore is basically the tutorial. You’ll see information boxes teaching you about each aspect of the game, and have a good chance to familiarise yourself with the controls, combat, quests, and levelling. The difficulty within this area – and, in fact, the rest of the game – is consistent and fair, so won’t overwhelm new players and won’t become too difficult too quickly. There is also a priest in the village who will patch you up for free, allowing you to experiment with different approaches when in combat, and providing a great opportunity to figure out how you want to customise your character.
The combat is simple but effective. You can tactically control each character from your party of four either individually or in groups, allowing you to use strategy to overcome your foes. The action pauses when you target an enemy or when an enemy targets you, and you can then dish out commands to each character, un-pause and let them deal with the threat. You can also pause in battle to adjust strategies. The only set back is that pausing and un-pausing all the time to dish out commands can get tedious, especially considering that commands don’t stack. Casting spells can be quite awkward too, requiring you to choose the command, wait for the spell to be cast then pause, select the character and choose another spell, rinse and repeat – this can really slow things down in battle, making a fighter class character an easier choice.
When in and out of combat, camera movement is controlled by holding down the right mouse button. Drakensang would have benefited greatly from a more dynamic camera, as this method can prove to be fiddly and takes a little while to get used to. Another strange design choice concerns the act of following quests. You have a journal that gives you a brief explanation of what you’re meant to do, and occasionally a question mark on the map as to where to go, but several quests give you very little information at all, and no waypoint marker, making it difficult to figure out what exactly you need to do – especially after reloading a saved game or after you skipped the quest dialogue in fear of the dreaded voice acting.
If it’s not the gameplay that tells you you’re playing a fantasy RPG, it’ll be the art design. Once your character is picked, you are thrust straight into a beautifully crafted, high-quality environment, with bright, welcoming colours and lighting, making a nice change from the shades of grey and brown we’re used to in more ‘realistic’ games. Drakensang a good-looking game, and the experience is further enhanced by a beautifully composed musical score that fully compliments the atmosphere.
Drakensang: The Dark Eye is a well-designed RPG, and will certainly capture the imagination of players willing to immerse themselves in the world. The story is interesting once it gets going, and while the gameplay is tried and tested with little new on offer, what is here is generally nicely executed. With a little more polish in certain areas, and a faster pace regarding the story, this game would be truly great – and with a prequel already announced, perhaps we’ll see even better things from The Dark Eye universe in the coming years.