The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Realms of Arkania Review

This is the addendum to my Realms of Arkania Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Realms of Arkania yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot. The Backseat Game Designer: Realms of Arkania These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe a game designer'll be Googling for the titles of some classic games, read this page, and be inspired to write a modern CRPG with dungeons as good as these. Ah, well, a girl can dream, can't she? Here's all the news about the Arkania trilogy that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site. Personal Reactions This was a quirky, largely unpolished, and very foreign-seeming trilogy of games, but the interesting gaming system (borrowed from a tabletop RPG that is still popular in Europe today), wonderful dungeons, and unusual attention to detail left a lasting impression on me. Of all the classic CRPG's I've gone back to try playing again in recent years, the Realms of Arkania games are by far the ones that rewarded me most--the old Might and Magic games were too rote, the old Wizardry ones were too thin in plot, and the old Ultima games were so linear that I still remembered everything about them fifteen years later. But these Arkania games are so chock full of interesting details that I had little trouble slipping back into them again. Plot Holes Some of these may have been due to translation issues--this game was originally written in German, and details may have gotten lost in the conversion to English. If this is the case, I'd be grateful of any German-speaking gamers cluing me in as to what us Anglophones are missing regarding these open questions. (-: 1) In Blade of Destiny, there was some strange subplot about Hyggelik in Phexcaer which seemed both unfinished and out of sync with the rest of the game (people claimed Hyggelik was in Hermit's Lake, which he obviously isn't, or in Riva (!), and a prostitute and a priest both agree to meet you later to share information about Hyggelik with you, but it's impossible to get this to actually occur.) 2) In Blade of Destiny, there was some half-functional subplot about a securing a "writ" in Daspota which was impossible to progress (there being no "writ" object in the game.) This was very frustrating, because the town was obviously set up to have different reactions to your party depending on whether you did or did not have a writ, but there was no way to get one. 3) In Blade of Destiny, there was some half-functional quest in the pirate cave involving a mysterious boat and (presumably) the sea chart you can find in that dungeon. No matter what you do, the boat will always go astray, sink, and kill the party. It seems that there should be some way to avert this using the sea chart and/or some quest steps, but as far as I know such a way does not exist. 4) In Blade of Destiny, it's never entirely clear why Hjore's map piece does not add to your map. Other walkthroughs refer to Hjore's map piece as being a "fake," but as far as I can tell there is no information in the English-language version of the game suggesting or explaining this or why it might be so. 5) In Blade of Destiny, there were a number of unusual, intriguing areas in the game that would seem to have meaning and purpose, but you are never able to do anything with them at all: these are the historian's tower, ottaskins, and embassy in Thorwal; the gambling hall, town hall, and carriage house in Phexcaer; and most of the locations in Daspota. You can actually teleport into the historian's tower, but he just shoos you back out again. 6) In Blade of Destiny, there are several objects that would seem to have meaning and purpose, but if they do, it is a mystery to me what they are. Those are the sea chart mentioned above, the scroll of "praises," the Nameless God membership list, and the red moon disk. Even more bizarrely, all these items except for the sea chart export to Star Trail along with your characters (their names changing to "glorifications," "cult membership," and "red moon amulet"), but do not seem to have any effect or serve any purpose there either. 7) In Star Trail, I was left mystified by the 'quest' with the cart and the axle grease in the Dwarven Pit. What the heck was the point of that one? It seemed to have no effect whatsoever. 8) In Star Trail, there were a number of unusual, intriguing areas in the game that would seem to have meaning and purpose, but you never seem to be able to do anything with them at all. One of these is the fiery pit in the Dwarven Pit (you can lower a character with the asthenil ring partially in but still can't find anything there; and tossing the fire powder down causes some lava to erupt, but this has no effect on anything?) 9) In Star Trail, there are two skimpy and very badly done subplots about Ingramosch that made no sense to the main plot and were never explained in the end. One was learning from several people in Lowangen that Ingramosch had been in cahoots with Ailian (who stole the Salamander Stone from you and does, in fact, deliver it to the Nameless God people and sabotage the peace treaty if you don't recover it in time.) For a while I thought Ingramosch was actually a bad guy because of this, but the game declared otherwise when we finally rescued him. Then there's the question of why there was a temple to the Nameless God and a dragon cave buried UNDER INGRAMOSCH'S HOUSE? Now I was really, really sure he was a villain. But no, the endgame says he's a hero. Weird. 10) In the Dwarven Mine in Shadows Over Riva, there was a spike jutting out from the wall that can be hammered in with a sledgehammer (if there's a dwarf in the party to retrieve this sledgehammer.) However, doing so seems to have no effect on anything. Have I missed something? 11) In the finale of Shadows Over Riva, why exactly is it that no one will believe what really happened? The five wizards who have been working with the party are internationally known and respected, and Rohal is a demigod. Why would anyone in Riva believe the word of the corrupt, unpopular, and much gossiped-about Bosper Jarnug over all these prominent and trustworthy figures, to the point that the player characters have to sneak back out of Riva under cover of night? Realms of Arkania Game Advances Things I wish more contemporary games would learn from their elders: 1) The dungeons in all three of these games were exciting, compelling fun. Of all the games I've played over the last 20 years, only these games and a couple of the midseries Might and Magic ones had dungeons that pulled me in this way. What made them so good? Attention to detail. In most games, dungeons all look and feel the same, or differ only in the most generic sense. In the Arkania games, I get the feeling that the game designers spent a few minutes thinking about every dungeon the way a good dungeonmaster does: What's this cave doing here? Who lives in it? In light of that, what kind of ambient descriptions, events and traps should I add? The pirate hideout has pirate trappings and stashed loot; the mines have cave-ins and the skeletons of dead miners in it; the underground orc outpost has latrines and cages with war dogs in them. Playing these games through again brought back pleasant memories of late-night D&D sessions from my youth. 2) These games--especially Shadows Over Riva--did the best job of any old-school CRPG I've played in bringing your PC's to life. The game uses cues initially given by the players (for example, which PC you assign the high necrophobia score to, or which PC's 'geography' skill you've worked to increase) to choose which character will be the one to utter predetermined lines like "You're not really going to disturb that grave, are you?", pipe up with information about a faraway land, and so on. As a result, and very uniquely for a 6-character CRPG, each of the characters in my party ended up developing a different and rather interesting personality. Not until the intricate AI scripting of games like Baldur's Gate was I this drawn into a party. 3) This is something that most quality CRPG's do a good job at, but RoA still deserves kudos for it: satisfying character development and leveling that lets you control the career path of your own PC's. Advice from the Backseat Game Designer In my game review, I gave Realms of Arkania a 7 out of 10 (rating: good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Well, these are older games, so asking for graphical interfaces that didn't even exist until after their release would be pretty asinine; I'm going to stick to suggestions that were either entirely possible at the time, or those that could be easily implemented in retrospect. Primary among the latter would be introducing compatability with Windows 2000 and XP. They went to all the trouble of releasing these games on CD for enthusiasts of the classics (greatly appreciated), and then crippled the games' chances at continuing popularity by releasing them in a form that's difficult for Windows 2000 users and completely impossible for Windows XP users (I know of no other game out there so stubbornly resistant to XP use as "Shadows Over Riva," and was reduced to playing it on the old machine I gave my 5-year-old son several years ago.) The services of a more adroit translator could really have helped a lot, too, and--this could have been added SO EASILY--one or two non-Caucasian faces for the pool of character portraits. Or at least the option to add your own. It's just ridiculous that black people exist in these games (one black villain even joins your party and betrays you in Star Trail) but you can't play a black hero yourself. Magic items should have changed to unique names (like "Fire Protection Ring") once you identify them and learn their properties, so that you don't keep getting them mixed up all the time. The conversation mechanism should have been greatly simplified; seeing as how NPC's almost never give you any actually valuable information anyway, having to grill them eight times in a row only to hear them say "Sorry, I don't know anything about that!" over and over again is very boring. And then there's the combat system. Oh, lord. Beginning with the easiest fix, we should have been able to choose a unique-looking action sprite for each character. I had both a sylvan elf and an ice elf in my party (thanks to incorrect information in the manual suggesting that ice elves have a unique form of magic), and the fact that they were assigned identical-looking action sprites made combat even more of a headache than it was to begin with. I also had trouble remembering who each sprite was supposed to represent-- my druid, whose portrait looked like a pouty German Europop singer, had an action sprite depicting a wizened old man with flowing white hair and beard. I never did get used to that one, though I learned to tolerate the slinky-looking witch dressing up like Cyndi Lauper for battle. But more substantively, just about ANYTHING they could have done to the combat interface would have improved it. Get rid of the confusing diagonal movement. Streamline the menus. Get rid of all the extra combat options that have so little effect as to be meaningless. Cull the damn spell list--there's no reason EVERY spell from "Das Schwarze Auge" actually has to be represented in this game, and half of these spells are either never useful in the entire game or are redundant with another spell. And they all have opaque names like "Salother" and "Abvenenum," so remembering which spell does what when so many of them do nothing useful at all is a waste of brain space. These were not annoyance-free games, in other words -- in fact, they were chock full of aggravation. However, the interesting character development and interactions, detailed old-school dungeons, and just plain quirky charm make the aggravation surmountable and, most importantly of all, a lot of fun. Best Quest: Investigating the murder in Shadows Over Riva. There were a lot of good quests in Shadows Over Riva, actually, but the murder investigation really captivated my interest. Lamest Quest: Rescuing Agdan from the swamp in Star Trail. This quest made no sense--who turned Agdan into a swamp rantzy, the witch or the sorcerer? Why? There was no clue letting you know which heather you needed to uproot; you just needed to use trial and error (which I hate). The documents were no help, and Agdan himself didn't explain anything once you found him, either. Best Puzzle: The one with the mirror images at the very end of Blade of Destiny. That was so clever and unusual that it was actually one of the few things I vividly remembered about the game from my first play-through almost a decade ago. Lamest Puzzle: The one in Star Trail where you had to guess the opposite of the words "destruction" and "destroy," and the words "mercy" and "compassion" worked but the word "kindness" didn't. :P Best Plot Twist: I know that it annoyed some people, but I was really amused by Star Trail turning out to be a red herring. Lamest Plot Twist: Having to split the party up to exit Lowangen (Star Trail). Absolutely nothing but a logistical pain in the ass; no emotional or plotty effect is achieved beyond the intrinsic annoyance value. High Point: This trilogy of games didn't actually have a single high point so much as a lot of little ones. For me the high point was walking down the street of a city and suddenly getting a fascinating little interaction with an orcish officer and a little girl, or something. Low Point: Combat. Hands-down. Especially in Blade of Destiny, where you can't just opt out of it. This is the single most tedious combat system I can ever remember having played; even accounting for selective memory, that's pretty bad.