Sunday, 26 August 2012

Dark Star One

More well known for their Patrician and Sacred Series, Ascaron's Dark Star One is their attempt to create a Space RPG.  It's a typical Elite clone, you can go around being a trader, a mercenary, smuggler or pirate. Systems are connected by hypergates which you exit from. It has interesting ideas but ultimately fails at being a good fun sandbox. As the only space sandbox game I played was Freelancer I'm going to make a number of comparisons. Many of the criticisms I have of the game is due to the lack of variety and sense of progression.

Let's go over the single point of innovation in the game:
An evolving ship like an RPG character - The idea of an evolving ship where rather than seling and buying a better ship you evolve your ship by finding special biomaterial and then actually choosing your upgrades like an RPG. It's cooler idea than the usual cash upgrades and you get higher armour, cargo space and other perks depending on how you grow your character.

You even get special powers you can employ such as EMP blasts or slowing down time again much like an RPG character.

Technically competent - Relatively solid combat controls and fairly easy to use interface. Those familiar with shooters will easily get the hang of it.

What went wrong with the game?
World starts off locked and you have to very slowly unlock it- These are the guys which created Sacred and boasted about having 70% of the world already unlocked when you start, so it's very surprisingly to see this game extremely restricted in this respect. You have to slowly play through the story missions to unlock more and more powerful hyperdrives which will eventually allow you to very slowly unlock the very large map.

Repetitive and limiting universe which lack variety- Overall the world is static and repetitive just like Freelancer was. Whereas Freelancer at least had a large connected world with a variety of factions, Darkstar One's factions remain largely in the background. This is made worse that every sector is too similar. There will always a trade station with some minor locations. For example a pirate base in the asteroid fields to the left and maybe a mining station on the right.

In games like Freelancer, various regions have different planets and sectors such as a mining sector, or a military sector heavily guarded by ships. You don't have really have that variety in this game aside from more or less police and bandits in a sector. Every single sector seems cookie-cutter with its placement.

Static interactions- Unlike the X-series you can't really affect the politics of the world to any real extent, you can't buy a fleet of ships or base or create a home base of any sorts. Every system you visit has a planet and a trade station. As far as I know, you can't even dock with research stations or have any meaningful interaction with anything but the trade stations where you offload goods.

Lack of weapons and equipment - There just isn't much equipment period. After about 3 hours of gameplay I unlocked three different areas, about 35% of the galaxy and I had only unlocked two kinds of laser cannons, three kinds of missiles and 2 kinds of turrets. The laser cannons and the turrets don't behave in any noticeably different way so they just shoot faster, or deal more damage.

In space shooters, part of the fun is experimenting and trying new weapons and combinations of equipment but there just isn't that many. Freelancer was better was in the variety area. There were different ships with different handling and weapons which felt different despite the maximum speed of every ship being the same.

Repetitive missions and quests - There are about ten or so types of quests that you find in other RPGs such as escort quests and bounty hunting quests. There are some interesting ones such as taking photos or spying but once you've done them you're pretty much stuck doing the same kinds of missions which usually involve blowing up several enemies when something goes wrong.

Overall, I am very surprised in the way that they've gone about creating a space sandbox game considering they also made Sacred and the Patrician/Port Royale series. It lacks variety, tactical depth, interesting regions or any real choices. I say spend your money to better something else like Sacred or Sid Meier's Pirate, Bully or Grand Theft Auto. At least you'll have a fairly large world to explore straight out of the box that has different areas and lots of different kinds of mini-games!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Spirit Engine 2: Game Design Review

Createde by Mark Pay with music provided by the now famous indie game music musician Josh Whelcel, The Spirit Engine 2 is the sequel to the freeware game of The Spirit engine. Both are side scrolling RPGs with a semi-turn based battle system similar to many Final Fantasy games.

If you like the game play of Spirit Engine 1, you'll love Spirit Engine 2 which contains better graphics and better gameplay. The writing is quite solid and I quite enjoyed my time with the various characters in the game.

The biggest and significant change to the gameplay is that it has a slightly improved battle interface allowing you to memories and store attacks together. This allows you to create combos that get unleashed at the same time.

One important point to note is there isn't really gameplay innovation from the first one aside from some new skills. In that vein, I would still like to mention a few minor issues with the game design which I thought hold it back just a little bit.

Limited space in item shop- For some strange reason you can only sell items if the shop has space to receive said item. So if you're like me and like hoard your items and need to sell them off at once you might find yourself unable to do so.

You also can't compared items in shop with currently equipped items immediately (you have to click a button to view the currently equipped items) so you end up switching back and forth between screens trying to compare equipment value. Each shop only has about 7 items on average so it's not a big deal.

Lacks true replayability- Yes you can choose different characters but aside from the dialogue and one or two skills, I'm pretty sure there isn't any real difference. The dialoague is well written but this is quite a lnear adventure. Mind you this linearity also means the balance and variety is controlled and you're never really overpowered and you can easily level up if need be.

However I do think it could use a couple more sub-quests or sub-plots.

Needs more character flexibility and customisation- In my personal opinion rather than having 9 different characters but only able to choose 3 at the game, I think it would have been better to have just 3 characters (knight, rifleman and priest) and then just focus on really developing them or create more levels of the game. Alternatively, a party headquarters where you can swap your characters would be good so for example if you prefer to take on the next enemy with 3 knight you could do so.

Although you sink points into upgrading their existing skills and unlock more as you go on you don't really choose the skills and you don't really know when picking the characters at the beginning of the game what skills they have. Again, because of the linearity, and the fact that you have to pick a knight, priest and gunman type character there is no wrong choice.

Chain system isn't special enough - Basically its a way to program your troops so they act in unison and launch attacks together. It works perfectly fine but I was hoping for a more complicated combo system similar to Chrono Triggers combination attacks. As enemies change tactics occasionally I never really felt the need to use it as manually controlling my troops seemed more effective.

A lot of empty space at the bottom of the screen- I mentiond this in my Spirit Engine review but the 2D nature of the game meant there was as lot of space at the bottom third of the screen. I wonder if something more interesting could be placed there instead. Maybe a map?

I enjoyed The Spirit Engine 2 immensely. For a story driven person like me who prefers story over statistics heavy gameplay found in most western RPGs I have to give it a thumbs up. Considering its now free, there is no reason not to play it.

Personally, I think the Spirit Engine 1 and 2 deserve a special place in video game literature as two very well done indie games. Yes, neither have amazing million dollar production values but like a well written light novel, the tight story, gameplay, graphics, music and unique setting make them well worth your time.

As a reminder, the music is also free and I strongly recommend downloading it.