Looking for something to tinker with between tromping around Northrend and eviscerating mole rats? How about the new demo for the grand followup to the old 1990s Realms of Arkania series, Drakensang?
Realms of Arkania? You know, Sir-tech Software‘s DOS-based computer roleplaying trilogy based on the German pen and paper game Das Schwarze Auge (“The Dark Eye”). Ring any bells? Don’t confuse the English translation of Das Schwarze Auge with inSCAPE’s similarly titled The Dark Eye, an adventure-horror game with creepy puppets narrated by the late William S. Burroughs. No relation to the German RPG.
Never mind. You don’t need to know a thing about Arkania or the pen and paper RPG to appreciate Drakensang. It’s by a completely different team. In fact even the name “Arkania” has undergone a translation change to “Aventuria,” the setting’s continental mainstay. Think European-style medieval fantasy with humans, dwarves, and elves, ogres, goblins, and trolls, plus a few outliers like lizard-men (Achaz) and elf-orcs (Holberker). Customary Tolkien riffing, in other words.
The Das Schwarze Auge rules system, on the other hand, has a few intriguing wrinkles:
Character can spend experience points on-the-fly. They’re actually called “adventure points” here, and while they’re still manually distributed to improve stats and abilities, you can spend them instantly, no waiting for arbitrary level-up-dings. Levels are still here as a derivative of overall experience points, but merely to cap your spending in a given area.
Combat resembles Atari’s Neverwinter Nights 2, but it’s less fatalistically rules-bound. Instead of thinly veiled spreadsheets clinging ridiculously to buckets of numbers, Drakensang cherry picks appropriately. Combat paces in rounds, but runs in realtime, and you can pause the action as you like to issue orders to up to four party members. Selecting characters and maneuvering tactically or banging out spells is effortless thanks to a spare but muscular interface that’s clearly studied MMOs like World of Warcraft in terms of its ability quick-slots and easily scannable action queues.
The hybrid turn-based/real-time tactics model is nuanced and tinker-friendly. If you receive more damage points at once than your Constitution score, you’re tagged with a wound (in addition to physical damage) — an interesting twist that adds a secondary index to your tactical considerations. You can receive up to four wounds, vaguely simulating a bunch of debilitating hits, and each of these mitigate your ability to attack, parry, fire ranged weapons, dodge, or use agility-related abilities. They also either require special abilities and items to treat, or a trip back to a healer. Also interesting: weapons can be tilted slightly to favor attacks over parries, or parries over attacks.
Spells can be quickly modified in the midst of battle. Running low on astral energy (i.e. “mana”)? Click the spell and choose its slightly less powerful iteration. The results are less impressive, of course, but the option to fiddle with your output feels like a forehead-slapper in a genre where magic is typically “clap-on, clap-off” only.
The Nebula engine powering the game looks fantastic, even on modest hardware. Think Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online by way of The Witcher. I can’t say it’s captured my sense of the Realms of Arkania trilogy, but then those were DOS games that required considerably more imagination anyway. It suffers a bit from bloom-saturation (every last branch and leaf glows like it’s been drizzled in sunlit honey) but I’m a sucker for Euro-themed fantasy games, and this one’s gorgeous.
The 500MB demo is available here. The German version’s been out since August. The English version ships in mid-February.
The official demo blurb, from the game’s homepage:
Today we offer you a free demo version of the English language version of the highly anticipated RPG Drakensang – The Dark Eye.
The demo, which is available at the download section, offers…insights into the Drakensang story and gameplay. Visit Aventuria, explore the beautiful medieval scenery which will remind you of traveling through Central Europe. Take on the first quests of the game, fight the first battles and explore villages full of beautiful framework houses, dark woods and dungeons.
Three different characters are available in the demo version: Play either as [a] Dwarf Mercenary, Andergastian Battle Mage, or Silvan Elf Ranger. The full game will offer more than 25 characters.
When playing the demo version, gamers will receive special bonus items which enable them to explore the huge diversity of the game even in their first hours of playing. Other features, such as magics, special attacks or the expert mode are reserved [for] Drakensang’s full version.