Monday, October 25, 2010

Gothic 4: ArcaniA

I've not yet played any of the other Gothic games, so I don't know if G4 is like any of the other games. I'll find out eventually, since I got a deal for all four. I figured I would play the newest one first, since I'd played the demo and it seemed interesting and fun, and not terribly tied in to the previous titles. Well, I'm thirteen hours in, now, and I'm pretty comfortable in saying that unless you're a big fan of the Gothic series, or you're starved for an actiony RPG, you can safely skip this game.
As I said, I'm thirteen hours in to the game, and the last time the main plot moved forward is about ten hours ago, right after I left "Tutorial Island." Minor plot spoiler, but yes, since I left the starting island, I've been searching for an anvil. A scared anvil. Why? Because the bad guy who is taking over the world wants it, and we want to ruin his plans as revenge. That's it. There's been a ton of minor roadblocks thrown in the way. Basically, not a single person in this world is competent. Or if they are, they're lazy. Or being an arse just for the sake of being an arse. If people were either more competent or accommodating, you'd be able to blow through a lot faster. Instead, barons and lords are getting you to do errands that would probably be better accomplished by a squad of their own guards, etc. I know that's standard for RPGs, but in this case, it just feels so artificial. "Hi, I've fought my way through hordes of monsters to get here for this information, can you help me?" "I'd love to, but you see, the person who can give you permission is gone, and you need to rescue them." Personally, I'd prefer if the main quest was slightly more accommodating, and they'd put more side quests in. At least then it wouldn't feel like the main quest was dragging on so much. What's worse is I don't know if finding the anvil is going to be the end of the game. It could very well be, or the game could pull a plot twist out of its butt where you're now chosen to go defeat the bad guy, despite you being a lone guy who was a sheep farmer at the start of the game, and he has literally world-conquering armies at his disposal.

The plot's weak, but if the world is immersive, who cares, right? Well... Everyone kinda looks the same. There's maybe two dozen NPCs in the largest town, and apart from variations in clothing and hair, everyone of each gender is rather similar. No variations in height, body posture, skin tone, body shape, nothing. Laundry day must be an ordeal, since there's no way to tell what clothes belong to who, since everyone takes the same size and style. Outside towns, monsters of a type all look the same, and monster types are recycled quickly. Bloodflies become Lakeflies become Muckflies. And they all look the same, not even recoloured. World geometry is iffy, too. If you slide down a long, sloped cliff, so that you're not free-falling, you still take full fall damage. It's not always clear how to get from one spot to a near-by spot due to a lot of cliffs that you can't climb up, and when it is obvious, it's often a long, windy path. But here's the thing. The people have not only built roads, but castles. Big ones. So why would they make the road go around a six foot cliff, taking it 200 feet or more out of its way? And that's an important question, since travelling the overworld map is time consuming, and you'll be backtracking parts of it fairly often. There are teleporters, but they're not marked on your map, and they only operate in pairs. If you've only activated one, it won't work, and if you've activated both, you only can travel between those two. If you want to travel elsewhere, you need to go find another pair of teleporters. And they don't tell you where they teleport to. Now, really, it wouldn't be too much of an issue, except for how the game handles NPCs. Well, how it seems to handle them. At first, I thought it just put an instance of each NPC where they needed to be, since I'd keep running in to one certain NPC when I was running all over the map. I just figured that the NPC was present at each necessary location at all times, and then despawned when not needed at that location any more. Simple way to handle it, works well enough. But then I broke a quest trigger, apparently. I checked the map and noticed a quest marker back near the start of the overworld, since after you leave Tutorial Island, it's all one area. Due to the bad way the teleporters work, I basically had to run the entire way. A jaunt around 10 minutes or so. I got there, talked to the NPC, and was puzzled at the conversation that didn't fit in any way, shape, or form with the location. I ran back to where I was, continued on with questing, and then figured out what happened. The NPC hadn't moved to where they were supposed to be yet, even though the quest trigger was activated. So apparently there's only one copy of NPCs and they just run around really quickly.

Then there's some graphical issues. Not many that I've noticed, though. The only one that's an actual glitch is that in dark areas, there's a halo of light textures around you. Gets rather annoying, but there's no actual gameplay effects. What does have gameplay effects is that often, projectiles passing too close to terrain will hit terrain, but things like arrows will clearly be hanging in mid-air. This is a big issue. Why? Because of the combat.

Bows seem to be the weapon capable of dealing out the most damage the fastest, after you get certain skills to boost the damage when you hit enemies in the head, and when you hit them while they are unaware. There's no way to improve your stealth skills, so you need to take the shot from as far away as possible. That raises the chances of the arrow getting caught up in invisible terrain. And even if you get lucky that way, some enemies have absolutely stupid hit boxes. I've had wolves, boars, and other similar animals heading straight for me, and even though the arrow clearly intersects the monster, no damage. The arrow just passes through. Ignoring the fact the monster is heading for me head-first, so I should be getting massive damage bonuses, shooting arrows at a non-humanoid monster is a crap-shoot at best. Melee is a  much more reliable, if slower method of fighting. However, the slowness doesn't matter much, if you're patient, or you've got even half-way decent timing. Forget using a shield, just get the biggest, nastiest weapon you can, and then abuse dodge rolling. Every single enemy telegraphs its attack so clearly and so far in advance that you could go have afternoon tea and still have time to get out of the way. The only time you're in any kind of danger is when it's a big group of monsters, with a few ranged attackers, so that you can't pay close attention to anyone. I'm playing on normal difficulty, and I have so many healing items and get hit so rarely, that the only time I died was when I jumped off a cliff and slid down to check how falling damage worked. It ends up so that there's no variety in combat. Every enemy either attacks at range, which is easy to dodge, or attacks melee, with the predictable "swing, pause, swing, pause, swing, pause" pattern.

 What this game does well, though, is the dialogue. I'd say the main character has a case of Unwarranted Self-Importance, but considering he's the only one out there solving problems and kicking butt, it's not so Unwarranted. A bit of reflection on the horror of his village being destroyed would be nice, since he seemed to get over that quickly, but since he doesn't talk to himself, and the game's low on cutscenes, I can forgive that. Character interaction is pretty good, and the voice acting doesn't make me want to puncture my ear drums. I'm calling that a victory.

A few of the problems with this game could probably have been solved with a few more months of QA testing, so there might be a patch eventually. If so, the rest of the problems wouldn't be so terrible that you couldn't overlook them, really. But until then, I really think you should give the game a pass.

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