Atlus has become a favorite among RPG gamers for their localization of hardcore RPGs, finding their own little cult; and one of their latest DS offerings certainly supports that claim. Developed by Success, The Dark Spire is an old-school first-person dungeon crawler, very similar to Wizardry or even Atlus’ very own Etrian Odyssey.
The game may be too traditional for the average RPG fan, so it’s important to take a look at what it offers them. Does it do a good job at delivering an old-school experience? Read on to find out.
Upon booting up the game, you are given the option of using the preset characters or creating your own. You can name them, opt their alignment and race, and “roll the dice” to determine their stats. Sometimes a message will appear, informing you that the stats you rolled don’t meet the requirements, but oddly, the game doesn’t tell you what the minimum requirements are. Not only that, but your created characters are set to level 1 while the preset characters are on level 2. By the looks of it, the preset characters seem to be better selection. Sure, you can create characters with higher stats, but that’s going to require a lot of luck and time. This leaves the initial character creation impression as confusing and frustrating.
After you’ve selected your characters, your party is sent off to the training grounds, and training will be provided by Sir Garland. The training battle doesn’t clarify the battle mechanics. I even asked Garland the basics of battle, and he responded with “you have to experience it by yourself.” It’s like joining the boy scouts and being sent to the woods on your first day without knowing the basics.
Once you’ve finished training, your adventure begins; you are told to explore a tower called The Dark Spire and defeat “Tyrhung” in order to recover stolen treasure. While in the midst of exploration, you’ll meet some crazy characters, like pirates and bandits. Each NPC group has their own back-story as to why they’re in the tower, but their dialogue adds little to the main plot. The plot is pretty simple and isn’t the main focus, so if you’re looking for a story-driven RPG, you might as well look somewhere else.
Instead of plot direction, The Dark Spire focuses on character customization and dungeon crawling. As stated before, the start-up character creation process is annoying and confusing, but the beauty of character customization comes after you’ve leveled up your characters. You are free to leave and enter the tower to optimize your characters. You can go pray to the temple of your choice to build their faith, and go to the guild to select their abilities or spells. As you level up their secondary class, your warrior can evolve into a ninja while your priest can evolve into a paladin. This evolution causes them to learn more powerful spells; the possibilities are endless
The level up process was pretty irritating, and it made me believe that it was just based on pure chance. Sometimes, a character would gain 1 to 2 HP after leveling him up, but after loading up the saved data a couple of times, the character gained somewhere between 4 to 13 HP. On another note, there were a bunch of skills characters can learn, but most of them were useless, like cooking and dancing. They serve a purpose in some quests, but the objectives can be completed without them.
Dungeon crawling is presented in a first person view, and it gets addicting. Each floor has a unique look, personality and music, so dungeon crawling never gets old. As you’ve finished exploring a floor, it leaves you with the impression of “what’s next”, and motivates you to keep on exploring. Dungeon crawling can be dangerous as you can get lost or activate a pit, causing damage to your party. When you check your map, there is no indication telling you where you are. Instead, you have to cast a spell to pinpoint your location or memorize the floors.
The Dark Spire requires you to backtrack throughout the whole game for the main story or quests. Sometimes you’ll need to leave the tower and re-enter in order to gain access to the upper levels. Luckily, you are able to save wherever you want which makes crawling a little easier. While crawling and backtracking, you’ll find your characters on the edge of dying, and reviving them will cost a hefty sum. Money is an issue in the first few hours, and it’s cheaper to create your characters instead of reviving your current ones.
Battles are triggered through random encounters or when you enter a room. You input commands for each character at the beginning of each turn, and the characters with the highest speed attacks first; it pretty much resembles a traditional turn-based system. Some attacks or spells may delay a character’s turn and give enemies the advantage to attack first. Without a doubt, the game is incredibly difficult, which is perfect for those who are craving for a challenge. Battles can get both intense and fun when enemies come in large groups (somewhere between five to fifteen foes).
Like the statistic gain mechanic, part of me felt the battle system was also based on luck. In one boss battle, there were fifteen enemies present, but when I restarted the game, there were ten, which made the boss battle considerably easier. The lack of explanation of how things work contributed to the game’s difficulty. Dark Spire doesn’t inform you how things work, so you’re left to find out on your own. Also, there was no indication that equipping a weapon eliminates the ability to cast spells. If you equip a sword to a priest, the priest can no longer cast spells, but if you un-equip it, the priest will be able to cast spells again.
One of the biggest issues I had with the game was the controls. When I wanted to use an item, I had to select the character instead of the item first. You select the character using the shoulder buttons instead of the d-pad. On another note, the game doesn’t use the stylus, which just feels odd for a DS RPG.
If you’ve seen screens of The Dark Spire, you would’ve noticed how fantastic the art direction is. It’s colorful, yet Gothic art brings life to the tower. You can switch between normal and classic mode, the latter of which brings out the old-fashion Wizardry look (a big bonus for purists). The soundtrack is composed of great classical rhythms and is reminiscent to Castlevania, which perfectly fits the tone.
The Dark Spire was clearly targeted towards hardcore and old-school RPG gamers due to its archaic and challenging gameplay. Even hardcore RPG gamers might not like this game, but for those who find enjoyment, you’ll find yourself spending hours dungeon crawling and customizing your characters. Despite a couple of flaws and annoyances, it does a good job on delivering an old-school experience.
The Dark Spire has a fantastic art style, and dungeon crawling never gets old as each floor has a unique personality. No explanation on how things work can be quite bothersome, and a lot of the game felt it was based on pure luck.
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The game is incredibly difficult and the lack of explanation doesn’t help. Battles can get intense when you battle a huge group of enemies. Character creation is shallow at first, but it becomes great later on. Backtracking is never fun.
Great classical tunes with a Castlevania feel to it. It does wonders on setting the mood.
Character customization is endless. The Dark Spire takes between 30 – 50 hours to complete, but there are optional quests. Upon completing the game, there isn’t much to do.
The Dark Spire is a good old-school dungeon crawler, but its appeal is limited. Even hardcore RPG gamers might not like the game, despite how good it is.