Occidental Overture: Western vs. Eastern
Western RPGs, from Arcanum to Ultima
Welcome back to our look at the graphic design and evolution of games. Today we’ll be examining the scope and spread of Western-style Role-Playing Games and how they differ from their JRPG cousins.
There are many classic titles that automatically come to mind when one thinks of Western RPGs. Some are more obscure than others, lost to time or lack of popularity. Western RPGs have come a long way from their very humble beginnings on the earliest home computers. These games draw inspiration from classical European fantasy, like the stories of King Arthur, St. George, The Lord of the Rings, and so on. Tales of ancient magic, mystical spirits, and fantastic beasts. It is from this wellspring of lore that our WRPGs have sprung.
Ultima 1: The First Age of Darkness (Apple II, 1981)
Developed by Origin Systems and the infamous Richard Garriott, Ultima 1 was a game of lofty ambitions played out on limited technology [ 1 ]. It has a simple plot: you are a would-be hero from Earth, summoned to the world of Sosaria. Lord British tasks you with defeating the evil wizard Mondain, who has crafted a Gem of Immortality—which, as you might have guessed, makes him immortal. This gem allows Mondain to obtain much more power and influence, making him the new evil overlord of Sosaria. So you, random person from Earth, have to destroy this gem and beat Mondain.
Being an RPG, you have a section of character creation, though it is limited. You add a set number of points into your stats, which are closely modeled after old school D&D stats—Strength, Agility, Stamina, Charisma, Wisdom, and Intelligence. You then pick a race, from Human, Elf, Dwarf or Bobbit. That’s not a typo, it’s really Bobbit. Your race choice adds more to your stats. You also choose to be Male or Female, with some stats differences between the two, such as men having more strength and women having more intelligence. Finally, you choose your class, from Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, and Thief. These choices have no bearing on your in-game avatar—this is the Apple II after all. Your avatar looks like a generic human shape, usually with a weapon and shield. Your clothing colors do change depending on what kind of armor you are wearing, so that’s something [ 2 ].
The game’s interface is basic, though it does change a bit when entering dungeons. The Over-world and town/castle map interfaces are the same—you’ll navigate north, south, east, or west across the screen. Your HP, remaining Food, current EXP and Coin is displayed in the bottom right, with actions you and your enemies have taken being displayed in the bottom right and center. If you enter a dungeon, the main screen changes into a skeletal-box style, mimicking a first-person perspective of walking down the dank hallways of the old tombs and abandoned strongholds. You can bring up your inventory screen at any time, which shows what items you have in teal script, as well as what is currently equipped in red script.
Combat in Ultima 1 is as simple as its interface. You will encounter enemies as you move across the world map or in dungeons, and to attack them you must be within range, with ranged weapons like the bow and arrow allowing you to stand farther away, keeping melee enemies from engaging with you. There are also spells you can use for attacking, though not many, the most common being Magic Missile. The foes here come from typical fantasy stock of Orcs, Dark Knights (no, not that one), Skeletons, Dragons, and so forth. There is not much to the combat system, and the player must rely on having good gear and enough experience points to be high enough level to take on the more powerful enemies. This does mean that a lot of grinding is required—though there are several shortcuts to help you get amazing gear very quickly.
The detail of the world map and dungeons is, well, sparse. There just isn’t a lot that one can do on systems as old as the Apple II. Still, Ultima 1 manages to create a visual setting that gets the point well enough across. You can easily tell what is a forest, or mountains, or the ocean. Towns and castles are very clearly marked on the map, as are dungeons. While there is no in game mini-map, you can easily enough navigate the world and learn where things are—which is probably the most dangerous portion of the game for brand new players. There is limited direction in terms of where you should go first, second, and so on. You do get quest prompts from the various lords of the land, but they don’t exactly give you a map marker to go with it. While dangerous, this adds a bit of mystique to the world, making it a place that the player must explore and experience themselves to truly discover what it holds, rather than being led around by the nose.
There is, technically, a boss fight with Mondain, but it’s not particularly difficult or all that interesting. Once you finish your quest to destroy the gem, it’s a simple affair to kill Mondain, though he does attempt to flee by taking the form of a bat. The actual charm of this game is in how absolutely bonkers it is. It smashes sci-fi and fantasy tropes together, requiring that you slay dragons and demons, get enough gold to buy a space shuttle, blast TIE Fighters (how did they not get sued?) to become a Space Ace, after which one of the Princesses will tell you where to find a time machine, which you use to stop Mondain before he can make the gem. Yeah, the quest line of this game is that crazy.
Although I did get to play a few games on the Apple II when it was relatively new, Ultima was not a part of my childhood. However, the Ultima franchise has been a large and powerful part of early RPG gaming, capturing the imaginations of hundreds of budding gamers. Though its graphic presentation is very simple, it has an elegance to its design that still allows the player to get lost in its fantasy world. The Ultima franchise went on to have a total of 9 main series games, some great and some terrible, and even an MMO that continues to this day. Regarding Ultima 1, If you are looking for nice graphics, this is not your game. If you are alright with very dated graphics and game play, and can find joy in the grind, then this is your game.
Hexen: Beyond Heretic (1995, PC)
Created by Raven Software, Hexen: Beyond Heretic is the sequel to Heretic, and part of one of the most beloved series of Doom clones. Yes, it uses the Doom engine, and is primarily an FPS, but it combines several RPG elements that set it apart from your typical ’90s FPS experience, enough so that it’s earned a spot on this list. The plot follows Heretic, where you are attempting to kill the three Serpent Riders, this next one being Korax, who has laid siege to the world of Cronos [ 3 ].
Hexen is the second game in the Heretic series, but we’re starting with it instead of Heretic because it has more robust RPG features to it. Character selection, for one, where you choose between Baratus the Fighter, who specializes in melee combat and can take more damage, Parias the Cleric, who is a middle ground between melee and magic, or Daedolon the Mage, who naturally specializes in magic attacks. The first thing you’ll likely notice in this modified Doom engine is that you can aim up and down, which is very helpful considering this game also has many flying enemies. Each character starts with a different weapon, and can find two more, with a fourth being unlocked after gathering three component pieces throughout the game maps. Outside the starting weapons, all other weapons require the use of Mana, either green or blue, to be fired and/or swung. This Mana replaces what would normally be ammo for guns. Another change included was the addition of an item menu. The player will collect many healing potions, called Quartz Flasks, special items like the Bag of Holding, which increases ammo capacity, armor upgrades, and other special items as they explore the various maps. There is no experience bar or leveling up, but these various upgrades throughout the game have the same effect.
Being a Doom clone, Hexen naturally has a Doom-style interface. The gritty sci-fi theme is replaced with a dark fantasy one, with two gargoyle statues framing the HUD at the bottom. From left to right we see Health, Blue Mana, Green Mana, our Quick Use item, the Special Weapon pieces we have gathered, and our current Armor Class. The inventory appears over the regular status bar when pressing the bracket keys and allows you to pick which active item to have equipped. There is also a Life Chain on the bottom of the screen to indicate how healthy you are with a gem that slides from right to left. As far as I can tell the only benefit of having two health indicators is that the Life Chain is visible when you bring up the inventory that obscures the life percentage counter, though I’m not sure this is absolutely needed. Still, it’s a minor nitpick of an otherwise good interface.
Hexen’s maps are broken into five hubs. Each hub contains portals to other locations, with all but one hub having six different areas to explore, with the third hub having seven (thanks to a secret level). With 31 total maps, Hexen has quite a lot of ground to cover. Most of these areas are dimly lit or dark, with the only light coming from enemy projectiles or the occasional lava flow. While this creates a certain atmosphere, it also hinders navigation at times, as certain platforming sections need a little bit more light to make their gaps more visible. The common visual themes here are old stonework, hellish portals, evil iconography like demon skulls or minotaur heads as switches, statues to profane gods, sacrifices strung up on meat hooks, graveyards, basically every heretical trope in the book. You’ll battle though cathedrals, ancient temples, dark caves, and more. There’s no part of the game that doesn’t look and feel ancient, mysterious, and dangerous.
Foes in Hexen are the various demonic forces commanded by Korax. Most common are the Ettin, large, brown, two-headed monstrosities, lightly armored and wielding spiked maces. Centaurs, or at least a demonic version of these half horse, half men creatures, are armed with shields and swords, and will hold their shields up to guard from attacks. Afrits are flying demons whose bodies are constantly aflame and will attack at range with their fireballs. The Chaos Serpents, which are quite reminiscent of the demon Violator from the Spawn universe, walk on two legs with their slender, snake like bodies arching upwards and ending in a huge, long-jawed mouth brimming with teeth. There are several more demonic foes, like the Slaughtaur, Stalker, Wendigo, Maulotaur, and Dark Bishops. Most of these appear en masse, ready to overwhelm the hero with brute force and numbers, making each area a vicious fight for survival.
Bosses are few, though each is deadly. The Death Wyvern is the first, an entity that looks like a demonic take on a Pterodactyl, with deathly black eyes and wing membranes covered with holes. It shoots fireballs from range, though its flames are more deadly than an Afrit, as they will explode and set fire the area they impact. The next two boss encounters are with the Heresiarchs, large demon sorcerers wearing black robes. They are humanoid in shape, but definitely demonic in face, with blood red skin and massive sharp teeth. They come armed with four spells, creating defensive barriers, shooting out streams of fireballs in a wave, launching bouncing fireballs, and they can portal in Dark Bishops to aid them when their health is low. Next comes the reflections of the player classes. Menelkir, an arch-mage who sold out Cronos to Korax. He appears to be a regular human, though his face is shrouded in darkness under his blue hooded robes. Menelkir has the ultimate Mage weapon, Bloodscourge, making him particularly deadly. Traductus, the Grand Patriarch of the Church of Cronos who also betrayed his homeland, comes with Wraithverge, the ultimate Cleric weapon that summons unstoppable wraiths to tear enemies asunder. You’ll go through many of the special protective items taking him down. Zedek, the Fighter’s mirror boss, did not betray his world, but was slain and risen as a zombified warrior. He wields Quietus, the enchanted great sword that launches a stream of green fireballs when swung. And finally, the demon Korax, who notably spends some of the game taunting the player until the final confrontation. He is a tall, gray skinned demon, his body appearing to have an exoskeleton, with six arms and a horn-crowned, skull-like face. He has the ability to choose any type of projectile from any enemy and shoot six of them simultaneously. His room is also heavily trapped, with moving floor spikes, lava that will consume the ground, and spike bombs that fall from the ceiling. If this wasn’t enough, he will also retreat at regular intervals and summon hordes of his minions to fight you while he readies himself for the next round. It’s a tough fight, but incredibly satisfying when completed.
As far as visual styles go, Hexen takes the extreme dark approach, not letting up in its doom and gloom portrayal of this desperate quest to stop Korax. If you were anything like I was in the mid-’90s, which is to say a teenager with a love for both Doom and the fantasy genre, you’d take one look at a game like Hexen and say, “I have to play that!” I, unfortunately, did not get the chance to do so in the ’90s. Coming to the game today, it’s roughly what I expected it to be—an FPS/RPG with lots of demons to slay and super cool weapons and powers to wield. It has a simplistic storyline, which is typical of ’90s action-oriented games, but none the less delivers where it counts, in the gameplay. Nowadays such a game might be considered #Edgy, but I encourage every gamer to approach it with an open mind, as it is a truly good game.
Diablo (PC, Mac, 1996)
From the powerhouse of Blizzard Entertainment comes the amazing Diablo series. This classic RPG title brings us to the kingdom of Khanduras, where Diablo, the lord of Terror, has manifested himself under Tristram Cathedral. It’s up to you (and possibly friends) to slay this evil and free the land from his nightmare grip [ 4 ].
As we begin the game, we must first create our character. There is a choice between Warrior, Rogue, and Sorcerer, with a little bit of diversity splashed in, the Fighter being a white male, the Rogue being a white female, and the wizard being a black male [ 5 ]. These different archetypal choices determine what your maximum stats of Strength, Magic, Dexterity, and Vitality will be. These stats will determine what kinds of equipment and spells you can use. There is no appearance customization, apart from armor worn, but extreme customization is not always required. Class selection also has an effect on how your character stands and fights. They move only by walking, making the pace of the game a bit slow at times. In combat, they exhibit these differences in movement, with the Warrior showing his familiarity with melee weapons by taking on more stable stances and holding his shield up high, the Rogue shoots the bow swiftly and has faster but weaker melee attacks, and the Sorcerer is able to wield magic staffs with ease and can quickly cast spells. If the Sorcerer holds a sword and shield, he swings it awkwardly and his shield is low. If the Warrior uses a spell, he is slow to cast it. These little visual differences clue the player in as to what their individual characters are best at, and makes their corresponding roles feel more distinct.
Diablo’s interface is glorious in its simplicity. The bottom of the screen has a rectangular space where all your relevant information is displayed. The player’s health and mana pools are orbs of red and blue, the health orb placed inside the wings of a demon, and mana between the wings of an angel. You can see the exact numbers if you hover the mouse over these orbs, but the quick visual cue of the two orbs emptying is more than enough to keep the player informed. There is a hotkey bar between these two orbs, numbered one through eight, where the player can quick use items, usually potions or scrolls. On either side of this central hub are buttons that bring us to the rest of the RPG staples—Character Card, Quest Log, the Map, Main Menu, Inventory, and Spellbook. There is also a square icon in the bottom right to show what spell is currently equipped—you can only have one at a time, but you can hot key your spells to the F keys for quick switching. Hot keys are available for all the menu options I listed before. Finally, the bottom center is the Information Display, wherein you can see the names of monsters you currently have mouse targeted, as well as objects and items that may drop to the ground. As you kill more of the same monster, more information about that monster is shown in this box. It’s like researching your own bestiary. This is an elegant design that is friendly to both new players and veterans of the game, with just enough visual information to keep everyone informed without being too intrusive.
The game’s maps are varied and gripping. The overall tone and theme of this game is dark and foreboding, and this is well established via the visualization of the town of Tristram. The small hamlet appears to be shrouded in permanent night, with the lights from the inside of the various homes and shops piercing out into the dark exterior. The low population in Tristram adds to this foreboding, creating a feeling of hopelessness and desperate survival. Approaching the evil-infested Cathedral for the first time is ominous, showing the dark red light that pierces out of it, warning of the vileness within. The first few levels of the Cathedral dungeon are dark, with only a few lamps and the hero’s own aura providing any light at all. Its simple architectural patterns give it a maze-like feeling, making the player slightly bewildered at first, but eventually these maps become easy to navigate. The Catacombs, our second stage of the dungeon, are cramped and dank, with stones covered in dirt and moss. The Caves below the Catacombs are lined with lava, with a much more open area and better lit atmosphere thanks to the natural fiery light, though the wide-open space makes it much more dangerous when fighting ranged foes. The final descent brings us to Hell itself, or at least a partial plane of it manifested on earth. The corridors of Hell are paved with black ash, the walls lined with flesh and bone, and what seems to be a flow of blood between them. These grim locales, even in their relatively lower detail, hammer in the dark nature of the game.
The enemies faced in Diablo are horrors pulled from the Hell itself. The classic tropes inspired by Dante’s Inferno, as well as some of the grimmer aspects of Tolkien lore make an appearance. There are several varieties of Skeleton, Fallen, Goat Men, Zombies, Winged Fiends, evil Knights, Balrogs, Succubus, and dark Mages. Their Claymation-like movements and attacks give them an extra creep factor as they close in on the would-be heroes, swarming with brutal intent around every corner. An incautious hero will quickly find themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed, as this game requires careful strategy when approaching its various passageways. Keeping enemies in spaces where they are the least lethal, whilst not trapping oneself in a corner, and not taking on a horde too large to be handled is all part of this strategy. Death is not the end of the game, but it will happen to first time players, and must be learned from.
Diablo takes an interesting approach to bosses, with both regular story bosses and unique mini-boss spawns. There is the demonic Butcher in the final level of the Cathedral who waits in his blood soaked, body covered room. He is a plump demon, grown fat on the flesh of his victims, and wields a nasty cleaver. He has no special attacks but is plenty tough and does a good chunk of damage in melee. Archbishop Lazarus, a re-skin of other evil spell casters in the game, isn’t encountered till nearly the end of the game, guarding the portal to the last section. The mad wizard is accompanied by the unique Succubi Red Vex and Blackjade, as well as Knights, and will throw potent Fireballs at the hero. Diablo himself lies in the final level, only reachable after activating his pentagram portal. The Lord of Terror, naturally, has a nightmarish visage, being a giant bipedal demon with red skin, spikes jutting out of his muscled frame, horns, claws, and large fangs. On top of this, he is a powerful melee combatant, with lots of health and armor to complement his brute strength, and terrible speed, making him impossible to outrun (but not out-teleport). Apart from these, players will encounter uniquely-named world mini-bosses, who are champions of their monster type. These random boss-like encounters promise more powerful loot drops if defeated, usually rewarding the player with one of the game’s unique items.
Diablo’s dark and gripping graphics, as well as it is straightforward and somewhat hardcore gameplay made it an instant hit. Both of the game’s sequels have been met with high praise from critics and gamers alike, and despite some hiccups, the franchise continues to please fans to this day. This is one of the games I got to play in its heyday and enjoyed it thoroughly. It took the fantasy genre into a dark and gritty realm that had, at the time, not yet been fully explored or overplayed. While I got to play powerful heroes, I also experienced the feeling of dread that came with running out of health potions at critical moments in combat, being swarmed by seemingly endless waves of foes. Learning how to properly play each class was also challenging, but none the less quite fun. Though this game is old, I still come back around to it now and then, despite its flaws. It’s one of the classic RPGs that defies its age.
Fallout (PC, 1997)
One of the most beloved western RPG franchises of all time, Fallout was first brought to us by Interplay Productions [ 6 ]. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic 22nd Century setting, after a nuclear war between the United States and China devastated the earth. Before this war, vast shelters called Vaults were constructed underground in the United States, allowing portions of the population to survive the nuclear holocaust. You play one of these Vault-dwellers, from Vault 13. You are tasked by the Vault’s Overseer to go into the Wasteland of Southern California in order to obtain a replacement for the Vault’s malfunctioning Water Chip. Without it, the Vault will run out of drinkable water in 150 days.
The game allows you to select from a list of per-generated characters or create your own. In character creation, you have five points to distribute among your core stats, known as SPECIAL—Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. Each stat corresponds to different skills, your health, your carrying capacity, how well you aim, and so on. You can choose to subtract points from your starting SPECIAL and move them around, putting you below average in some but allowing you to be above average in others. Among the many in-game skills, such as Small Guns, Big Guns, First Aid, Sneak, Repair, Barter, etc, you can tag three that will improve faster and have a larger starting bonus. You can also choose two Traits from a list, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, that further customize your character. Finally, you choose your own name, age, and gender. This vast amount of customization was something not yet seen in RPGs, and marked Fallout as a truly complex and, in some cases, difficult game to play. There is an “optimal” play style, but there is enough wiggle room to explore other options. While all of this stat customization is wonderful, there is no customizing appearance. You either look male or look female, though you will eventually get new gear that changes what your clothes look like [ 7 ].
Fallout’s interface is multifaceted but manages to be succinct. Everything is displayed by your Pip-Boy, a future-low-tech device that keeps track of everything. Your basic display HUB is on the bottom, with green text over a black screen on the bottom left that tells you relevant information about your surroundings as well as what occurs in combat. To the right is your Inventory button, Options Button, Switch Active Item Button, Skill Index button, current Action Points, equipped weapon, HP, Armor Class, as well as the Map, Character Card button, Pip-Boy button, and the name if your current location. If you encounter an enemy, the game switches to combat mode, indicated by the bottom right corner where a mechanized window opens up, highlighting green when it is your turn.
The world map starts out black and the fog of war lifts as you explore the wasteland. When engaged in dialogue with an NPC, a faux television-like window appears over yourself and who you are talking to. Most NPC interactions will have several dialogue options. Some key NPCs even have 3-D animated faces that appear and have voice lines. To use a skill like Sneak, you need to click open the Skill Index and activate it. Your inventory display shows what you’d expect: currently equipped armor and weapons, other items you can equip, and a brief summary of your current stats. The character card is also standard, showing a comprehensive breakdown of skills, perks, and base stats. The designers did their best to stylize these various menus into their vision of primitive-future-tech, with rusty metal outlining old style computer screen green text. It’s a well composed presentation that adds to the game’s landscape of post-apocalyptic survival.
Locations in the wasteland vary from expansive deserts to shanty towns to large communities, some of which incorporate pieces of pre-war civilization, with great variance in lighting and brightness. You’ll witness the artistic vision of a post-nuclear war California, where those not lucky enough to have lived in a Vault struggle day to day, but somehow still make life happen. You’ll come across rivers of toxic waste, piles of junked cars and old storefronts. The ruins of old cities, with crumbled skyscrapers and battered roads, may hold many valuables, but their dangerous inhabitants are loath to give them up. While every location has many opportunities, not every character is equipped to handle them the same way, creating a divergence in both gameplay and storyline based upon character specialization.
Combat is turn-based; with a set number of actions you can perform per turn based upon your stats. Usually, you’ll be firing a gun, be it the simple pistol you start with, a scavenged shotgun, or even futuristic laser and plasma guns. Enemies may have these weapons too, so it’s always best to be cautious. The player has several actions they can perform in combat, each of which takes a different amount of action points. Aiming at specific limbs, for example, takes one additional action point, which may lower the total amount of shots that can be attempted. There are also a few special combat effects, like strong blows knocking someone prone, that add diversity to this system.
You’ll face off against regular human Raiders; gigantic rats; the deadly Radscorpions—which are a much larger and more deadly breed of scorpion; nightmarish, radioactive Ghouls, whose once human bodies have been mutated and desiccated by radiation; the aptly named Deathclaws, beasts that resemble large demons, standing bi-pedal with long talons, horns, and a tail; and the ever dangerous Super Mutants, huge green humanoids created by The Master, who carry heavy weaponry like Gatling lasers. With a few exceptions, these are rather inspired foes to take on, and though their in-game models are simple, their art design is fantastic. Fallout lacks any real boss encounters apart from some named villains, but these aren’t traditional boss battles, just fights with slightly better equipped enemies.
If I can point out one problem with Fallout, it’s the pacing of the game. Yes, it’s an older game, and they often played slower, but even comparing it to the relatively slow Diablo, Fallout moves even slower than that, and that’s saying something. This is one of the titles that completely passed me by as a teenager. None of my friends talked about it, and while I may have seen a few ads for it, I can’t clearly recall any, and that’s rather unfortunate in my view. While this isn’t a perfect game by any means, Fallout has its own charm and many great qualities, particularly its story. Had I had the chance back then I likely would have sunk many hours into this game, trying to discover all the hidden nooks and crannies while grinding XP. The Fallout franchise has seen a lot more success recently, particularly from Fallout 3 onward. While many newer fans, like myself, may not have gotten the chance to play the earlier titles, it’s still important to acknowledge their successes and faults, because we would not have the great new installments without these classics.
Baldur’s Gate (PC, 1998)
This is perhaps the penultimate single player isometric RPG. Created by BioWare, Baldur’s Gate takes us right into the traditional D&D setting of the Forgotten Realms, taking place primarily on the Sword Coast. It starts with a plot to contaminate the iron supply of the Sword Coast, and ends with a confrontation against Sarevok, a Bhaalspawn that is prophesied to bring chaos to the world [ 8 ].
Character creation here is modeled after 2nd Edition D&D, with all the virtues and foibles of that older system. You choose your character’s gender, then you select one of the wonderfully illustrated character portraits—though this is before you pick a race or class, a bit of an oversight. You choose from Human, Elf, Half-Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Dwarf, or Half-Orc. Each race has its own bonuses and penalties to stats and certain special quirks, like Elves being immune to sleep spells. Next, you choose a class, all of which come directly from D&D—Fighter, Ranger, Paladin, Cleric, Druid, Mage, Thief, Bard, Sorcerer, Monk, and Barbarian. Take note that certain races cannot become certain classes, taking the example of Elves again, they cannot become Paladins, Druids (what?), Bards, or Monks. You also choose your Alignment, with the full range of Good/Evil, Lawful/Chaotic and Neutral. You then go to your Abilities, or stats.
You get to roll for your abilities, as well as add or subtract points to any of these six stats, and you can re-roll if you don’t like your results. Then you pick Skills, which include weapon proficiencies that function as specializations. For example, you can specialize in Longsword with two points, and then specialize in the Sword and Shield fighting style for two points, making you great with a longsword and shield combination. If you are a spellcasting class, you then pick your starting spells. Lastly, you pick appearance, which is limited to hair color, skin color, and tones of clothing, then choose from a selection of voices, and then name your character. Naturally, with this amount of customization, you could end up spending a lot of time in character creation alone.
The main screen interface is big. Seriously it’s a lot to take in and can look very intimidating to new players. On the right-hand side, we see the party portraits display, where each party member’s portrait and at-a-glance status will be shown. Under these are the buttons for Party AI, and Select All, meaning all party members. On the left hand side, we have many more stylized buttons, which while looking like lovely bronze reliefs, do not adequately convey their function. From top to bottom, we have Return to Game, Area Map, Journal, Inventory, Record—which is this games Character Card, Mage Book—for Mage spells, Priest Scroll—for Priest spells, Options, Save Game, Help, Rest, and Pause. Of all these buttons, only Map, Options, Save Game, and Help have properly representative art pieces that would let you know what they do, for the rest you need to click and find out. The bottom of the screen displays the character action bar, which will change depending on which party member is selected, as each party member has their own abilities. If you have all members selected, the Formation buttons appear in the bottom right of the action bar, which naturally allows your party to take different formations. It should be noted that the Inventory, Record, Mage Spell and Priest Scroll buttons display the relevant information for the selected party member. If that party member does not cast spells, for example, the Mage Spell and Priest Scroll sections will be empty for them. My gripes aside, the interface goes to long lengths to be as comprehensive as possible.
The world of Faerun is vast, as one might expect from the decades of lore created by Wizards of the Coast for this fantasy setting. The various towns, wilderness landscapes, fortresses and cities are presented in bright coloring, with superbly detailed textures and props. Some wilderness areas do become repetitive, like masses of the same tree appearing over and over, or the same rocky ground repeating, but despite this, the art creates a wonderful looking game world. Grasslands and forests are lush and verdant, with birds flying overhead, various bushes and piles of leaves, trees of various colors, and the occasional way shrine. Mountain ranges and rivers are beautifully painted, towns are extensively detailed, and even the smallest one is quite large. Buildings have vast interiors filled with tables, chairs, pillars, rugs, shelves, candles, drawers, beds, art, plants and more. The day and night cycle and weather effects bring additional dynamics to the art and gameplay, with different animals and people active during the night and day, and weather influencing party morale. This game has so many locations that trying to categorize them all would take up an article, and that makes the dedication to their detail all the more amazing.
Enemies come from standard fantasy stock. Roaming bandits are common in the wilderness, as are wolves and bears. Among other foes are the hyena-like Gnolls, the common Goblin, Skeletons, Zombies, Spiders, Golems, Ogres, Trolls, and more. Their sprites and animations are somewhat simple, which isn’t a bad thing, as over-complicating such a vast array of enemies could have bogged the game down quite a bit. Each foe comes with its own unique art and dangers. Fighting these foes can range from simple to incredibly difficult, requiring the use of strategic positioning and many spells to defeat. Combat tends to be unforgiving in Baldur’s Gate, with mistakes such as dropping an Area of Effect spell in the wrong area possibly costing the life of one or more of your party members. This is where the ability to pause the action comes in extremely handy, allowing the player to plan out their approach even in the heat of battle. Spell effects are flashy, but not overly complicated affairs, and again I’d say this is a benefit rather than a drawback. There can be many spells going off at the same time, and the screen overlap of overly detailed effects often leads to player confusion. While confusion can still occur, the most common spells quickly become recognized, and again the ability to pause allows a more thorough examination of the game state.
While there are some quests to kill certain NPCs and large monsters, calling these encounters Boss Fights in the traditional gaming sense would be incorrect. They are combat encounters, yes, but these special creatures simply follow the same rules for their slightly less powerful counterparts. The game’s big bad, Sarevok, is simply a level 15 Fighter with extremely high magic resistance, strong attacks and good gear. He’s nothing the party couldn’t overcome by the time of the final confrontation, and simply requires good use of the skills honed during the meat of the game. I’d say this is a fine design choice, since adding a gimmicky boss fight to a traditionally styled RPG would be both complicated and likely un-fun.
The Baldur’s Gate series has continued on into modern day gaming, with both direct sequels and spinoff games to this beloved title. Even if you have never played an isometric RPG, you have probably heard of Baldur’s Gate. Its effects on all team-based RPGs have resonated throughout gaming, its format improved upon by popular titles such as Dragon Age: Origins. It also helped spur the creation of more D&D video game titles, like the beloved Neverwinter Nights series. It’s hard to fathom how different games as a whole would be without Baldur’s Gate. If you are a fan of party-based RPGs, and if you have a lot of time, Baldur’s Gate is a great game to play.
Arcanum (PC, 2001)
The very ambitious and somewhat glitchy creation of Troika and Vivendi, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is a brand-new world and setting that has yet to be imitated. Its plot centers around the survivor of a zeppelin crash, shot down by bandits. He is given a ring by a dying Gnome passenger, who tells him to “find the boy” whom the ring belongs to. A witness to the crash believes the crash survivor is the fabled “Living One;” a reincarnation of an Elf prophet [ 9 ].
Character creation is not as varied as Baldur’s Gate was, but it still holds many options, including race selections of Human, Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling, Half Elf, Half Orc, and Half Ogre. Each race has its own starting stat and skill bonuses, for instance Dwarves having more Strength and Constitution, and a +2 in all Tech skills, but less Dexterity and Charisma. You can further customize with special Backgrounds that offer a balance of benefits and drawbacks. You then get to extra points to put into your main stats, skills, and any schools of magick and magick spells you wish to learn.
There are a lot of skills, including Combat, Thieving, Social, and Technological. There are also Technological Disciplines, being Chemistry, Electric, Explosives, Gun Smithy, Herbology, Merchanical, Smithy, and Theraputics—all of which allow the player to craft different items, some of which can mimic the effects of magick. On top of these, there are 16 schools of magick, each with its own breadth of spells to choose from. Keeping in mind, characters can lean towards magick or tech, but not both, as magick interferes with technology in the world of Arcanum. Now imagine that you start with only five points to distribute among this vast network of interconnected stats and skills and realize just how far you have to go to have a character become even mildly competent in something. This design makes the game a bit grindy, but it also assures no one character is too powerful.
The interface in Arcanum is decent. Our HUD consists of a top bar, with buttons for the Character Card, Spellbook, Map and Inventory. The center top shows how many concentration spells can be maintained at any one time, with a higher intelligence character able to maintain more. To the top right is the hourglass and day/night cycle indicators, displaying the passage of time with a rotating sun and moon. The bottom of the screen looks like a wooden relief with cathode ray tubes that display health and mana, or energy in the case of this game. Other RPG staples include the hot key bar for quick selection of items or spells; the information display, which shows text based upon where the cursor currently hovers; an action bar (we’ll get into that), XP bar, buttons for thieving and stealth, and buttons for the various skill disciplines. It’s got just about everything you’d want and remains relatively un-intrusive, leaving space for more of the screen on the left and right sides, and manages to be nicely stylized on top of this.
The game’s locations are part high fantasy landscape and part industrial revolution shrinking world, which fits well in the theme of this game. Wilderness locations are standard fair for isometric RPGs, showcasing forests, mountain ranges, grasslands, and the like. The cities in Arcanum, going through their industrial revolution, are rife with early technological advancements like electric lamps, steam engine trains, paved roads, plumbing, and bowler hats. The art design of this world does an excellent job at re-creating what turn of the century industry looked like, while still giving it a fantasy world spin that keeps it fresh. While ancient Elven cities still exist, with their networks of trees and simpler homesteads, this race has fallen on hard times, and their culture is diminishing greatly. Traveling to the various locations in Arcanum portrays just how far the world has moved away from the old ways of magick, with old ruins of magick power long abandoned, and now overgrown and overrun with dangerous beasts, and brings home how forgetting those ancient ways may have dire consequences.
Combat in Arcanum is strange. It takes parts from games like Fallout, having a turn-based option with an action point economy, and allows for complete real-time combat. These combat styles can be switched to on the fly, which is a nice option to have, but this unfortunately ends up breaking the combat system in some ways. Slow moving enemies are easy to dispatch in active style combat, allowing the party to run circles around them, dealing damage at a distance. In turn-based mode, very fast enemies are at a big disadvantage, unable to use their speed to swarm in and surround the party. This flaw means that if you want to play smart, you must switch combat styles based on what you are encountering. It perhaps won’t bother some, but it made me scratch my head as to why one or the other wasn’t chosen. Still, this does not make every fight easy, as there is a lot of positioning strategies to consider, and many kinds of spells and tech to watch out for.
Enemies are a mixture of classic fantasy tropes and the advanced mechanized menaces of a steampunk landscape. You have your giant rats and spiders, wolves, bears, demons, elementals, lycanthropes, orcs, and so on. From the tech side of things, you see Mechanized Arachnids, bipedal Automatons, and various types of tech-wielding thugs and bandits, with weapons ranging from simple pistols and rifles to devastating flame throwers and grenade launchers. The sprite art of these foes is reminiscent of Diablo, appearing as psuedo-Claymation avatars that give the game a slight tinge of old-time feel. While the animations are simple, they never needed to be complex; they just needed to get their point across, and they very much do.
Arcanum only has one real boss in the form of Kerghan, the first Necromancer. His out-of-combat appearance is that of a human man dressed in fancy red robes, but being that he is over 200 years old, that is obviously a facade. When he faces the party in combat, he turns into a gigantic skeletal monstrosity of bloody flesh and bone. He is standing on a long, spine-like tail, with rib bones jutting outward all the way up to his torso, his long, slender arms protrude with bony spikes, and his head a massive, dragon-like skull. This form is terrifying to behold, and with it Kerghan can make quick work of even experienced party members. It will take a lot of grinding and some trial and error to stop this once human madman.
While Arcanum has perhaps the most original take on a world of magic and technology, it remains a buggy game even to this day, despite having a fan-made patch that works out most of these bugs. When this game was first released, I was quite taken by it, but also very frustrated. Its complexity made the game particularly hard in its early stages, where you have only your character and one party member to get things done. It also presents a problem in choice overload, where having so many options in character skill trees leads to a non-decision, or at least an exceedingly long decision-making process. Still, if you have the time to put into this long haul of a game, and the patience to deal with the occasional bug, I’d highly recommend it for its storyline and role-playing elements alone.
This concludes our look into western VRPGS. There are many that I didn’t list here, and most of these games have sequel titles that are smoother and more graphically pleasing. Even so, these classic titles are the baseline, the references for all RPG staples that came after them, and rightly so. Their unique blends of art, storytelling, and interesting mechanics make them the stand outs of their time.
- “The earliest outings, while charming, were truly humble.” Ultima: First Age of Darkness. Origin Systems. 1981. PC.
- “As we transcended from 2-D to 3-D, as seen in Hexen, the renderings got more sophisticated.” Hexen: Beyond Heretic. iD Software. 1995. PC.
- “Diablo, the seminal isometric, was a significant step forward. So much so, that it’s been adapted to consoles, even mobile phones.” Diablo. Blizzard Entertainment. 1996. PC.
- “Baldur’s Gate represented a triumph on several levels, and was an exemplar on how tabletop and video gaming could once more bridge back together.” Baldur’s Gate. Interplay. 1998. PC.
- “The game Arcanum was a different breed entirely, wall drawing upon many of its forbears and contemporaries.” Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. Troika Games. 2001.
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
- Terok Nor et al. “Ultima (1981).” MobyGames, Blue Flame Labs, mobygames.com/game/ultima. Accessed 3 January, 2020.
- “Ultima I — Technical File.” Edited by Ultima Dragons Group, Ultima Online, Ultima Dragons, 5 May 1995, web.archive.org/web/20080320145909/http://www.uo.com:80/archive/ultima1/u1tech.html.
- Raven Software Staff. “HeXen.” Game Detail – Raven Software, Raven Software, web.archive.org/web/20120324031651/http://ravensoft.com/games/hexen/view-game/. Accessed 3 January, 2020.
- Activision-Blizzard Staff. “Classic Games.” Blizzard Entertainment:Classic Games, Activision-Blizzard, us.blizzard.com/en-us/games/legacy/.
- “Diablo Wiki.” Edited by Diablo Wiki Users, Diablo Wiki, Gamepedia, 16 Nov. 2017, diablo.gamepedia.com/Diablo_Wiki.
- Interplay Staff. “Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game.” Interplay, Interplay Productions, web.archive.org/web/19970415010914/http://www.interplay.com/fallout/. Accessed 3 January, 2020.
- Vault Dwellers Survival Guide (Fallout Manual) [PDF file]. Bethesda Softworks, 1997. Retrieved from cdn.edgecast.steamstatic.com/steam/apps/38400/manuals/Fallout_manual_English.pdf?t=1447352407.
- Faceless et al. “Baldur’s Gate for Windows (1998).” MobyGames, Blue Flame Labs, 9 Jan. 2000, mobygames.com/game/windows/baldurs-gate.
- Steam Staff. “Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura on Steam.” Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura on Steam, Steam, store.steampowered.com/app/500810/Arcanum_Of_Steamworks_and_Magick_Obscura/. Accessed 4 January, 2020.