Serpent in the Staglands - Review  

The Highest of the Highs and the Lowest of the Lows
by Charalampos Papadimitriou

20-40 Hours
+ Effective open-ended design
+ Great premise and intriguing world
- Uninspired combat
- Repetitive visuals and sounds
- Abrupt and painful ending
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    Serpent in the Staglands is a game released in the recent past with all the trappings of an early 1990s cRPG, resolution included. Overall it offers a mixed experience, excelling in some areas while failing in others. The game's free approach to exploration is successfully realized and will strongly appeal to players who enjoy truly forging their own paths. However, the limited combat system, repetitive visuals and music, and abrupt end disappoint and may leave players dissatisfied.

    Serpent in the Staglands tells the story of the moon god Necholai, opening with a mystical dream scene where the player sets up Necholai's history and personality. Unfortunately, on his annual visit to the land of Vol, his portal back to the moon disappears, leaving him stranded there in mortal form. With only brief guidance from Erlein, head cleric of Necholai's temple and Necholai's trusted friend, Necholai sets out to discover why the portal to the moon has closed and what can be done to reopen it.

   Although the game broadly points in a couple of potential starting directions, Necholai is able to freely explore the Staglands, a barren and desolate part of the world of Vol filled with dangerous animals, monsters, and criminals. Play is very open-ended, and very few things need to actually be done to reach the end — if only the player knew ahead of time where to go and were powerful enough to survive there. In actuality, the game will take many hours to complete and involves hunting for clues, uncovering what is going on and where to go next, and finally finishing the story, all while completing side quests and leveling up along the way.

   The open-ended aspect is very well executed and is where Serpent in the Staglands shines. The story unfolds not through overt exposition but through pure exploration. Clues for progress can be as vague as the names of interesting locations or important people. As Necholai explores the Staglands following up on these leads, more of the story is revealed, often through discovered scrolls and writings. Sometimes all leads become cold, at which point the "world map" of the Staglands that is provided as an external PDF file can be consulted to identify unexplored locations in the hopes of finding new leads. The game never handholds the player, but because of the aforementioned map showing the different areas and towns, players always have somewhere new to try. This approach offers a rewarding sense of discovering the world and story rather than a sense of being led through it. There is no dichotomy between the main quest and side content in its open-ended approach — it all happens cohesively together. There aren't many games these days that pull off an open design without drowning players in inane fetch quests and endless, practically empty caves that contribute nothing to the sense of the world and story, and the likes of Bethesda and others can learn from what the developers have done here.

All leads gone cold?  Just pick a place on this map you haven't explored and head on out! All leads gone cold? Just pick a place on this map you haven't explored and head on out!

   Although exploration is generally very rewarding, a number of poor design decisions can sometimes make it tedious and even frustrating. The game's limited inventory and Diablo-like use of dropping items for extended storage is unworkable in a world that is not centered on a hub and doesn't feature fast travel. This problem is exacerbated as certain seemingly unimportant items are needed to enable hidden dialogue choices or craft equipment. Exploration is rewarded with information and world lore but not often with equipment due to limited itemization including a lack of equipment progression and item diversity.

   Despite its promising approach, the story in Serpent in the Staglands ends up bitterly disappointing. It starts off with a wonderfully strong and interesting premise, and stays engaging until the very end, making the letdown that much worse. As the player uncovers pieces of the story, often out of order, a simple, intriguing, dark, fairytale-like narrative takes shape. The way the story unfolds through open-ended exploration is masterfully executed and gives the sense that the world of the Staglands exists for its own sake, not merely as a backdrop to Necholai's story. However, the story comes to an abrupt end, one that is inconsistent with the developing narrative and characters, and feels as if parts of the story that should have led up to it are missing.

   The graphics in Serpent in the Staglands are a mixed bag. The game features an old-school 1990s pixel art style and runs at ~320 x 240 resolution. The amount of detail the artists have been able to pack into such a small number of pixels is rather amazing, and the fluidity of many of the animations is very impressive. Each environment looks full, complex, and organic, and although it may be using the same resolution as 1990s RPGs, Serpent in the Staglands handily outdoes the games that inspired it. Unfortunately, such a small resolution looks blockier than the classic RPGs we remember on today's larger, higher fidelity monitors. Serpent in the Staglands aims for the classic feel but somewhat misses the mark because it focuses on replicating the number of pixels rather than the visual experience. Although detailed, the number of different environments is limited, and new areas do not feel unique after the first few hours of play. A few times the low resolution can even make important pictures like runes and icons hard to see and interpret. However, even though the graphics initially seem a bit too blocky, it is easy to adjust because of the sheer amount of detail packed in that small pixel space.

   Serpent in the Staglands uses a 2D bird's eye view with RTS-style controls and a real-time-with-pause battle system. Players control Necholai and up to four custom-created characters or any four of a multitude of NPCs found throughout the Staglands. There are no class divisions and characters can learn a variety of abilities as they level including melee skills, spells, and aptitudes, many of which are both interesting and mechanically fun. One aptitude allows a character to use the keyboard to type word combinations that exert magical effects in the environment or at his enemies, while a certain magic spell turns the entire party into bats for faster movement and allows them to fit into small spaces. Characters have a number of statistics like strength, intelligence, and dexterity, and points can be allocated to increase them with each level gained. The effects of each statistic is made crystal clear. For example, clicking on the Hit Chance shows the full equation of how abilities and items contribute to the dice that determine the chance to hit an enemy.

Check out this great variety of spells you'll never use because both of your mages will be sustaining the heal spell on your tank.  Neat! Check out this great variety of spells you'll never use because both of your mages will be sustaining the heal spell on your tank. Neat!

    Despite the interesting abilities, combat itself is severely lacking in all aspects. Most spells have long cast times and need to be individually sustained to work, limiting the actions and choices magic-based players can make. In practice each magic user ends up doing a single thing in most fights, and low magic damage combined with a constant need for healing leads to one or more magic users being locked to maintaining heal spells. Melee play also lacks variety. Each character can set up to three melee skills that will auto-activate in combat, and with only enough skill points to upgrade two to three skills to higher levels, changing between skills is not encouraged, nor are there situations that demand it. In fact, most fights play out much the same, with no notable boss type battles, and very few that require a change of approach.

   Serpent in the Staglands also features permanent death. If Necholai dies, it's game over. If any other characters die, they are gone forever. Even though other NPCs can be recruited to replace them, many players will likely prefer to reload a save file. The permanent death mechanic is actually enjoyable due to forcing a more cautious play style. Unfortunately, it interacts badly with the inability to control enemy aggro, especially in situations where all party characters are forced to encounter enemies simultaneously. The one redeeming aspect of combat is that it's underdesigned and somewhat unconstrained. Unlike modern games that often try to constrain player actions thus stifling creativity, in Serpent in the Staglands players can gain the upper hand in combat through clever use of non-combat game mechanics. Kiting strategies, pulling strategies, fear spells, and the fog-of-war that affects player detection by enemies can all prove highly effective in certain situations. Working out these unconventional and creative approaches can be immensely rewarding.

   The sound in Serpent in the Staglands seems to be an afterthought. The soundtrack contains just under thirty tracks, but it's hard to know that while playing the game. Tracks are generally slow and ambient. While the music fits well into the setting most tracks fail to stand out, making it feel as if the same small selection plays over and over. Combined with the lack of graphical variety, game areas tend to blur together. It is hard, for example, to recall the differences between the cities of Corem and Emerald Metalis even though the former is a port city leading in trade and the later is a city near the mountains.

   Serpent in the Staglands offers an experience covering the full range from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Its refreshing premise and great sense of exploration are very rewarding. Players are truly made to feel that they are exploring the world freely, not being led through it. The way pieces of the world, lore, and story slowly surface and come together into a dark fairytale-like experience makes the Staglands seem like a world with many stories of which Necholai's is only one, though perhaps one of the more significant ones. The graphics are a mixed bag touting great attention to detail and fluid animation but fidelity that is perhaps too low for modern-sized monitors. Unlike its lore, game areas lack visual and aural variety, and combined with the uninspired combat system and poor itemization can sometimes make the game feel somewhat bland. If you crave an exploration-heavy, open-ended, lore driven game Serpent in the Staglands will satisfy that craving like few other games today. But take care to brace yourself for the jarring impact that will bring it all crashing down in the end.

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