Gothic’s PS3 debut feels like a trip back to the early 2000s, and not in a good way.
Reviewing a particular game tends to evoke one emotion more than any other depending on the title in question. It begins from the moment you load it up, and this gut feeling tends to persist, regardless of how many times you attempt to re-evaluate the game. The only feeling to accompany ArcaniA was the sense that it was hugely dated. Admittedly the original ArcaniA: Gothic 4 was released nearly three years ago but, even with this in mind, the game resembles an attitude and a production value more reminiscent of a budget PS2 game than the grand return of a beloved RPG franchise.
ArcaniA is the fourth major entry in the Gothic franchise, originally a PC RPG from Piranha Bytes. ArcaniA was the first instalment under new developer Spellbound, and this shift in developer saw a change in style to a more accessible action-focused RPG experience. Though the fourth Gothic game is inevitably more accessible than its predecessors, a great deal of the magic was lost in this transition, a complaint that was held up in the game’s lukewarm critical reception. The Complete Tale marks the series’ debut on PS3, but is also coming to Xbox 360 and PC.
The original tale of Gothic 4 is high fantasy all over, revelling in as many clichés as possible. There’s a mad king on a rampage dominating other kingdoms by force and your character, a farmer who finds his village raided by this evil king, sets out an a well worn revenge quest. Though it won’t win any marks for originality, the story is presented pleasantly enough. The problem comes in the form of its pacing, something the writers evidently had little regard from. The humble beginnings are rushed through, with an engagement, pregnancy and murder of a childhood sweetheart being rushed through in the first twenty minutes of gameplay. This early story soon gives way to a heavier combat focus, one that is seldom welcome.
The fights are reasonably simple, revolving around a single attack and a block/dodge command. The emphasis is on real time action, something that makes the gameplay accessible and shallow in equal measure. New melee attacks unlock as you level up your hero, but these fail to add much depth to the hack and slash affair that is ArcaniA’s combat. You can also pick off enemies from afar using magic or a bow and arrow/crossbow, if you prefer a hands off approach. Whilst this adds some variety to the proceedings, aiming ranged attacks can be a finicky affair, one that is further complicated by ArcaniA’s mostly broken lock on feature. Holding L2 shifts the camera to lock on to your target. Whilst cinematic and visually pleasing, auto-aiming tends to force your arrows to miss more often than not, a frustration exacerbated by the two second delay that occurs between you holding the trigger and the camera actually locking on.
The engine is fast enough to keep combat reasonably exciting, but repetitive enemy designs and a limp levelling system soon turn ArcaniA into a chore. Progression is a classless affair, a design decision that inevitably removes the usual frustration associated with irreversible progression choices. It winds up being a double-edged sword though, stripping the game of a great deal of replay value and customisation. With all skill trees heading in roughly the same direction, even a snappy pace of progression is not enough to keep things particularly interesting.
These combat flaws become even more pronounced in the Fall of Setariff expansion. Without much story to hold it together, the game inevitably falls apart. Though there is some semblance of scenario to the Fall of Setariff, it lacks the build up of the vanilla ArcaniA story, instead just dumping your protagonist into a mess of combat. The first hour of gameplay consists of about five seconds of dialogue hiding amongst endless fight sequences. The fact that you start off with a huge amount of the game’s skills already unlocked further reduces the sense of satisfaction. The lack of dialogue options also makes the minimal scripting even more obvious. It’s a problem that is further highlighted by the presentation of dialogue. It appears in a text box that gives the illusion of dialogue choices and response selection, but the only options you get are continuing a conversation or ending it. Even basic conversation choices would have been more welcome than this hollow excuse for action RPG mediocrity.
The story, levelling and combat are all fairly flat in ArcaniA: The Complete Tale, but the presentation is a more up and down affair. Animations are fairly competent, offering a decent sense of momentum to combat, though jumping looks oddly “floaty.” Weather is a surprisingly impressive visual effect, shifting quickly to rain showers and glorious sunlight randomly. Countering this though are some dastardly draw distances and character models that are, in truth, terrifying. Uncanny barely begins to describe them. Especially the glowing teeth and eyes. Ouch.
For the price, ArcaniA offers a great deal of content, especially with the inclusion of the Fall of Setariff add on. It’s quantity over quality though; by a long way. There are plenty of other action RPGs out there that are more accessible, better presented and offer deeper gameplay than ArcaniA. I’ve been pretty brutal in my appraisal of ArcaniA: The Complete Tale and, whilst it certainly isn’t the worst game out there, it’s a flat and uninspired title that keeps feeling dated and out of sync with modern gaming; a sensation that remains regardless of how many hours you choose to invest.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.
Easy to pick up, Classless levelling system, Decent animations and weather effects, Oddly engaging scenario, Lots of content
Shallow gameplay, Little regard for pacing, Uncanny character models, Lifeless visual design, Boring dialogue, Fall of Setariff is a poor expansion
The first outing of the Gothic series on PS3 should be a joy but, much like the original ArcaniA, The Complete Tale remains a disappointment in light of the series' history.