I am riddled:
And so I ask, if I want to get back the magic of a good, non-mmo, U4 type crpg, where do I go? It may be too late for me because I’m not sure I can stand weak graphics anymore, but there was something special about those old games, and it wasn’t just that they were the only games in town, and where did it go and where can I find it?
The above quote comes from the comment thread from my Eschalon post, from contributor Patrick. Unfortunately for Patrick, I'm not sure Indie CRPGs can or will do what he wants. The fact of the matter is that life on the indie side of things typically means games have far less visual splendor than B or even C-list titles from "big gaming". They aren't all ugly (though with CRPGs, they generally are pretty ugly to hideous), and sometimes the production values prove to be pretty good (especially when one factors the limited resources used to create them). It's just not easy to put together a good looking or stylish game, and RPGs are a genre with a pretty high ceiling for game complexity. This means that with finite release schedules and very limited resources, good looks generally aren't part of the equation. One must be ready to live with graphics that are decidedly not bleeding edge if one wants to partake in the Indie CRPG scene.
What made those old games special? That's a topic that might consume many, many 0s and 1s before we exhausted it. Patrick mentions Ultima 4, which is a game I consider to be one of the five best electronic games ever created. I'm going to try and keep it condensed, here, which is already hard enough (I do tend to ramble on). A "garden variety" classic-era CRPG had turn based combat and character development systems that ranged from modestly detailed to complex, and tended to present stories minimally but often artfully (once upon a time, Richard Garriot was counting bytes as he prepared all of the spoken dialogue for Ultima IV, just like he had counted them for the first 3 games in the series. Different times, man). The great ones excelled in one or more of those areas, generally. So, looking at those major areas:
1. Turn based combat – alas, it's become something of a quaint "old timer's" thing in "big gaming". There are studios who still make turn based games, but on the PC side of things the AAA studios who do so are rare; Firaxis is a notable example (I feel comfortable speaking for the participants of this blog when I say: we love you Firaxis. And at least a few of us dream of a spiritual successor to SMAC), another is Stardock entertainment & the Galactic Civilization franchise. Our European brethren (eastern & western) have produced a steady stream of turn based games, but they tend to be "B-Game" quality at best (with exceptions, of course). Many people who do enjoy the company of a good indie CRPG do so because they miss turn-based CRPGs. It isn't that real time combat RPGs, or the so called "phased real time" (such systems model turn based systems, so that actions are basically queued up and there is some "mechanical order" to the proceedings in terms of who goes when as opposed to totally free-flowing), are bad. Though I think several of the combat systems in some of the bigger titles have been pretty flawed.
But turn based is good too, and has it's advantages. And a number of indie devs recognize that there are people out there who still like to play turn-based RPGs. Not only do several devs do turn-based combat games, but some of them are pretty detailed and present a very rich and detailed combat experience. Tom Proudfoot, inspired by Wizard's Crown and the Gold Box games, released a couple of games with particularly detailed combat systems. I'm going to talk about them later this week in a little more detail. Helherron is a game Ken and I both really like that itself was inspired by Nahlakh. It's got a very similar combat system to Proudfoot's stuff. It's especially rough graphically, which isn't the end of the world. But the interface is probably best termed "lacking" (and that very nearly is). It's free, though.
2. Detailed Character development systems – Big Gaming CRPGs have generally done ok in this area. The release of the Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons pen & paper rule set has mostly benefited PC gamers as well, and several games have used it (or glorified versions of it). Sadly, for party-based CRPGs that's pretty much been it in recent years. EVerything is either a 3E game or D20 (an open source version of the ruleset). The unique systems tend to be from games like Oblivion or Gothic (which are alltogether different types of RPG).
There's a nice variety of stuff sample-able in the indie world. Proudfoot's games are pretty good in this respect. Eschalon has a solid (if a little uneven) system. Spiderweb Software's games in particular tend to have very strong character development systems. For Party-based CRPGs, Avernum 4 is a fine start (the previous games in the series are good, however they are behind 4 technologically). The Geneforge series features a single protagonist who will occasionally have party members or summoned assistants. It's a different type of game but also pretty good.
3. No muss, no fuss. I don't really know how else to put this into words. It has been a very long time since the CRPG genre was helping to really push the technological envelope (back to the SVGA era at the latest; Origin played as big part as anyone in the 80s and 90s). Still, the genre has seen a lot of progress over the years, even if for the last 15 or so it's been well behind other genres like First Person Shooters. It isn't a bad thing, but the increased complexity seems to have done more than just make bugs a bigger issue and game development more expensive. In today's CRPGs, it always feels like it takes me more time to do the little things than it used to. Like walk from A to B. Or perhaps fiddle with my inventory, and get my would be band of heroes (or hero, where applicable) ready for the travails ahead of them. Load times are sometimes significant and occasionally sanity-draining. I'd still like Bioware to pay me for all the time I spent traversing already uncovered maps or parts of a city I needed to walk through to get somewhere, not to mention gathering my #@$@#! party before venturing forth. It's partly a question of representation of scale, I think (I can walk from one end of Avernum to the other in a couple of minutes tops, but the game still has a very high wonder-of-exploration score IMO). But I think that modern CRPGs just have inherently higher hassle factors, and that it tends to pervade the entire game (if at a low level in any one area). Meanwhile, indie CRPGs run great on older boxes and laptops.
4. There are some solid to very good plots in Indie games. Eschalon's plot uses one well-worn cliche, and has a Tolkien-esque feel. Once you get past that Cliche, though, I think it's fairly enjoyable (and it's Tolkien-ish in the right way). Spiderweb's games tend to have very solid plots and re-use the setting in the same way that Ultima's 4-7 did; Avernum 2 remains my favorite, story-wise. Then there's Nethergate (also a Spiderweb game), which is set in Britain, and tells the story of why Rome was never able to fully conquer the isles – a fantasy game that makes heavy use of mythology. It has my favorite story in an Indie CRPG to date (on the downside, while it recently got a face-lift it's a pretty old game).
5. Lastly, they tend to be much cheaper than their AAA counterparts. Also, since most of them are true-shareware, you get ample opportunity to try them and the "demo" portion is always representative of what you get.
We will speak more of these things, and of other indie CRPGs, in the coming days. Talk amongst yourselves.
Last 5 posts by Grandy
- Graphic Novels and Web Comics I Put on Patrick's Reading List - December 31st, 2015
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