The Dark Spire - Staff Review  

A Trip Back In Time
by Phillip Willis

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Very Hard
40-60 Hours
+ A tough tower that has a character of its own
+ Additional non-standard combat options
+ Ability to save anywhere
- Lack of game mechanic explanations
- Quirky controls
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   Since the days of early PC gaming, game creators have sought to replicate the traditional pen and paper RPG experience on computer. Due to technical limitations and some high difficulty levels, the appeal was limited, even among RPGamers at the time. Yet, for some, it was the only way to go dungeon spelunking if friends were not available to play the traditional way. The Dark Spire seeks to recreate that vintage experience on the Nintendo DS.

   Gameplay in The Dark Spire will be instantly familiar to gamers who enjoyed the early iterations of computer or console dungeon crawling RPGs. The player first creates a party from several races and a handful of classes. Stats are determined randomly, however they may be rerolled if they are not to the player's liking. There is also a selection of pre-generated characters, but player made ones are generally better.

   Players are then led through a tutorial in their first dungeon. After the tutorial, players are thrust into town where choices are limited. Similar to games of era, there is no 'town' to wonder through. Instead, a simple menu is presented. Players can go the inn to rest, the store to buy supplies, or to the guild to pick up quests and train. There are also temples to heal or pray. But with so few options, it will not be long before the party is diving back into the dungeon.

   Gameplay in the dungeon is instantly familiar to those who enjoyed the dungeon crawling games of those older times. The dungeon itself is graph based and quite large. There are plenty of traps, twists, turns, secret doors, and monster parties awaiting inside. The tower is extremely well designed; at times, it seems that the dungeon has a personality all of its own, including the characteristic of cruelty. Some rooms are completely pitch dark, but learning to navigate and find secret doors, even in the dark, is required for progression. Mind bending puzzles include numerous teleporters and pits which complicate the journey even further.

   Each floor has its own unique theme as well as layout. matters is the fact that the auto map does not show the actual location of the player unless a spell is cast. At that point, an icon showing the current location is shown briefly. Becoming familiar with the tower itself becomes an integral, necessary element to moving forward.

What does dancing do in this game?  It does not say! What does dancing do in this game? It does not say!

   Combat is standard turned based action. At the beginning of each turn, the player chooses the action for his characters. Combat then commences between the characters and enemies based on speed and an element of randomness.. As a nice addition, most standard actions, such as casting spells, have options which modify the speed or power of the action. For example, a caster may choose to cast a spell more quickly than usual, which would increase the chances of completing the spell earlier in the round, but also increase the chance of the spell failing or backfiring. Conversely, one may choose to cast the spell slowly which will decrease the chances of a miscast. Proper use of these options becomes critically important later on in the game, and they are a welcome addition to the standard turn based combat seen in most games of this type.

   Not only combat, but the dungeon itself can be extremely dangerous. It is not unusual to run into enemy parties that are much stronger than your own without warning. Properly assessing enemy strength and knowing what action to take (including fleeing) is very important. Another issue is that sometimes the party may detect an enemy as one thing, but the enemy will actually be a more powerful version. Players will die, and die often. Therefore, it is a godsend that The Dark Spire allows saving anywhere within the dungeon. It is rare that significant progress is lost when this option is used liberally. After combat, often treasure chests will drop, though they are often trapped, so having a thief in the group with the proper skills is critical.

   The graphics in the game sport a dark, gothic look to them. In town, still drawings represent each of the available destinations. In the dungeon, each floor has its own distinctive look. The atmosphere generated fits the personality of the dungeon, and its danger, almost perfectly. The Dark Spire also features a classic mode which changes the look of the dungeon to a bare wireframe model. While it may provide a nostalgic value for some, most will use it when they need to get somewhere quickly as walking speed throughout the dungeon while in classic mode is faster than normal.

   The story in this dungeon crawler is expectedly light. There is a bad guy at the top of the tower, and heroes are being asked to take him down a notch. Throughout the game, there are snippets of dialogue from various NPCs which adds a little to the overall plot. And in the dungeon, as players enter various areas, flavored text engages the players imagination. In most RPGs, this lack of a deeper plot and character development would negatively impact the experience. However, in The Dark Spire the main focus is on the dungeon, and not the story. In this case, the lack of story works.

The graphics fit the tone of the game very well The graphics fit the tone of the game very well

   Background and battle music also support the sense of danger that the difficulty of the game establishes. Sound effects from fighting, spell casting, and other actions also get the job done. There's no voice acting, but it's not missed.

   The Dark Spire is a difficult game. As mentioned before, most gamers will die often. The dungeon itself is complicated and laced with traps designed to both confuse and kill the party. Enemy parties can, and will, quickly overwhelm the party if a wrong or lazy decision is made, or if proper preparations are not made. Difficulty also stems from the complete lack of explanation of some game mechanics. For example, when in the store, while armor shows exactly how it affects the character, weapons are only given a general text description. Aside from experimentation, there is no way to tell if or how the expensive katana is any more effective than your standard long sword. Most gamers will resort to outside resources to find out exactly how stats, classes, items, and such actually work.

   Unfortunately, even the game controls pose an issue, something that's a rarity in RPGs with turn based combat. In most RPGs, when you use an item or cast a spell, you choose it, and then choose who to use or cast it on. In The Dark Spire, some of these items or spells use the shoulder button to highlight the recipient while using the d-pad to choose what item or spell to actually use. Since this runs counter to decades of RPGs, many players will accidentally use critical items and spells on the wrong character. In a game where the proper management and use of items or spells can make or break a dungeon run, this design decision is regrettable.

   Ultimately, the appeal of The Dark Spire will be limited to those looking for a trip down memory lane or those looking for a challenge. A journey into the Tower of The Dark Spire is not for the faint of heart. The creators set out to create a game that carried the spirit and challenge of the dungeon crawling games of two decades ago. They succeeded. And while they did make some minor improvements to the formula and coupled them with nice graphics, they also tacked on some unnecessary difficulties. However, The Dark Spire faithfully recreated an early dungeon crawling experience, that any veteran RPGamer will appreciate on some level.

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