“ Manufacturer: Atlus / Genre: Role Playing / Release Date: 2009 „
For those of us out there that are old enough (ahem) to remember the golden age of 8-bit gaming, 'Dark Spire' opens a portal back through history to the eighties and the popular Role Playing Games (RPGs) of the day. For those in the know, what we have here is a modern day 'Wizardry'.
*** Nostalgia ***
I can remember getting a Commodore Vic20 for Christmas and being particularly intrigued by a game called 'Dark Dungeons'. The game started off with a character generation; a randomly generated set of qualities, with a numerical value assigned to each one. Words like 'dexterity' and 'stamina' were quite alien to this seven year old; my father was not going to divulge their meaning, that was for certain. A near-useless instruction manual accompanied the game and you were pretty much left to die a grim death at almost every corner, helplessly waving a shoe at a rather mean looking basilisk.
Doesn't sound too impressive does it? The thing is, among the meager graphics and basic sound effects, there lurked a sleeper; after some perseverance the game became interesting, then compelling and soon downright addictive. This was my first experience of the RPG Dungeon crawler genre and little did I know that this type of game would pop up over the next few decades on numerous game platforms along the way. When I first picked up and played Dark Spire there was a serious case of déjà vu; the sparse instruction manual could almost have been written by the makers of Dark Dungeons or Dad himself. I was instantly flung backwards to my earlier travails on the old Vic20 such is the enormous retro factor apparent in this gem of a game.
So Dark Spire is harking back to the 'good old days' of the eighties when we ran home from school eagerly anticipating playing on our home computers. With the continuous sniping between Commodore afficionadoes and Sinclair devotees and confused Johnny-in -the-middle BBC owners the order of the day, the one constant we could rely on was that games ruled.
If you don't remember computer games from the eighties, let me paint a picture of programmers earnestly squeezing every scrap of performance out of machines that had no more than 64k of RAM. The Vic 20 itself only had around 3k of RAM. 3000 bytes; about the size of a short email. No flashy graphics, no voice overs from Hollywood Z-listers, just pure, distilled playability. As I devoted much of my spare time to Dark Dungeons so many years ago, so I have come full-circle and find myself drawn towards Dark Spire, having lately eschewed all other glossy over-produced titles that the Nintendo-DS can offer.
*** What's it all about? ***
The general premise behind Dark Spire is the familiar story of a sorcerer, Tyrhung, who has stolen a powerful necklace from the Queen and you have been enlisted to retrieve it. Tyrhung is holed up at the top of the Dark Spire and so the quest begins...
First up is character generation, where the player has to choose a band of four comrades, choosing from humans, dwarves, elves and halflings. From this list of races the correct balance of warrior, priest, mage and thief must be chosen. A series of random number generators then assign levels of skills in a number of different characteristics. The warrior needs no explanation, priests have a mostly support role within the group, mages are the offensive magicians and thieves are essential to pick locks and open the many treasure chests that litter the Spire.
After some basic training and buying a few weapons, armour and supplies, our intrepid explorers can embark upon their first tentative footsteps in the Dark Spire. In my first foray in to the Spire a group of four confident, well trained individuals entered and after just a few steps were promptly routed by a group of giant mushrooms. Two of my group were dead and had to be carried back to town by the remaining members of the team who were just about clinging to life.
This is where it becomes apparent that The Dark Spire is HARD. This is a difficult game; learning the basics is an attritional process as the user is basically left to figure it out for themselves. This is where this game will quickly divide opinion. Anyone expecting a hand-holding 'on-rails' adventure will be blown away by the complexity, the variety and the open-ended nature of The Dark Spire.
Progress is slow and often painful at first, but as you learn how to fight the many denizens of the Spire, treasure is accumulated and experience points (EP) attained for every kill. Treasure can be used to acquire better weapons and equipment and EP gained can be used to upgrade each character's abilities. Soon your brave party can handle the myriad groups of goblins, mushrooms and flying bats on the first floor of the Spire without any problems as some bitter grudges are evened out.
Combat within the game is very familiar to those experienced in Dungeon-crawling RPGs. Everything is turn-based, so each character has the choice of attacking, running, casting spells or hiding. A seasoned campaigner will know the right time to use all of these options as they ascend the Spire.
The graphics within The Dark Spire are nothing to write home about. That's the idea, you see, as Atlus, the game's developers wanted to hark back to the early RPGs. Your intrepid band of adventurers creep around the Dark Spire in the first person and any enemies or tasks faced are seen in the top screen, with commands and dialogue in the bottom screen. What graphics there are within the game are smartly presented and each creature you encounter is drawn well, but there is no animation to speak of.
A neat little bonus aspect to the game is the wireframe graphics mode. At any time during the game the user can switch to 'Classic mode' whereupon the dungeon is transformed in to a basic black and white wireframe, with an 8-bit version of the in-game music playing throughout. Younger users will no doubt view this aspect of the game with bemused suspicion, I mean why make the graphics worse?! The old-hands amongst us, however, will crack a smile and then play a significant portion of The Dark Spire in Classic mode just to remind themselves of the 'good old days'.
The 'universe' within the game is diverse, with a host of different creatures to encounter and dispatch in an ever varying number of ways. The scope for dying a horrendous death never diminishes, as the strength of your would-be foes increase as your heroes' skills improve. It does not take long before you realise that this game is not simply a procession of nasties for you to dispatch. Oh no. There are numerous puzzles to solve along the way, some of them crucial to progressing and ultimately completing the game, some of them not so. A number of quests also whet the appetite, where the adventurers have to fulfil a task for treasure and EP. The tasks involved here often require a serious amount of brainwork and only add to the experience as completing each quest is very satisfying.
*** Final Opinion ***
So who will like The Dark Spire? Let's be under no illusion, the game does not welcome the user with open arms and a significant number of gamers will be put off by the level of difficulty and retro feel. BUT, anyone who is willing to invest a bit of their time familiarising themselves with how the game works will recognise The Dark Spire as a deep, varied and accomplished game. This is old-school RPG action at its very best and I commend to you one of the best titles to ever emerge on the Nintendo DS.