The Dark Spire -- Game Review

Most of the younger gamers I’ve known tend to think of Japanese RPGs entirely in terms of Final Fantasy 7; as though it were the bench mark every developer uses to decide whether or not they’ve made a quality role playing game. For Japan, the sort of colossal impact FF7 had in America was felt a decade earlier on the Famicom with Dragon Quest (released in the US as Dragon Warrior with an awesomely quasi-Jacobean English translation), a series still played by college students, business men, housewives, and others who supposedly reached a stage in life at which video games no longer matter.

But a very select RPG fan will recall a little game from the early ‘80s called Wizardry, the product of the sorely missed Sir-Tech. Translated into Japanese even before JRPG progenitors like Namco’s Tower of Druaga or Falcom’s Dragon Slayer made nerds of young Japanese boys, Wizardry fostered such a following in Japan that their developers continued to produce games even after Sir-Tech’s demise. One of these Japanese made spin-offs actually saw release in the US. (Localized by Atlus, of course) Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land debuted on the PS2 in 2001, and Electronic Gaming Monthly (issue 151) asserted that, “Everything is built upon a rotted foundation. I find it difficult to imagine that anyone really wants an endless dungeon crawl in this vein anymore…” Ouch. The game didn’t sell.

Why all the video game history? Because people who started playing RPGs with Final Fantasy 7 need not apply to The Dark Spire -- I assure them all that they will not like it. Bear in mind that Dragon Quest became the model for JRPGs (including Final Fantasy) specifically to get away from the first person, dungeon obsessive model of Wizardry. Since many younger players find the Dragon Quest games too difficult or “old school,” they ought to know that Dragon Quest was an antidote to something even less beginner friendly. And The Dark Spire is, for all intents and purposes, a Wizardry knock-off. If EGM were still around, they’d probably give this one a bad review too.

The Dark Spire starts the same way any computer RPG starts: simulated dice rolls. After picking your characters races (human, dwarf, elf, and Halfling, naturally) and rolling their stats, there’s a brief and rather vague training sequence, after which you’re free to buy equipment and then go to the titular spire, where the random encounters will likely kill you pretty quickly if you don’t know how to set up a party, equip it, and put it in proper formation. I’m guessing that means that a considerable portion of the twenty-and-under set is going to have a difficult time starting out this game. I’ve actually played various computer RPGs over the years and I had a bit of trouble with it myself, thrown off mostly by the lack of numerical data provided in item descriptions and a leveling system with intricacies that aren’t readily apparent to the untrained eye.

I persevered, however, and find myself progressing in the game. Making it to the third level in the seven tiered tower felt like quite an accomplishment, if only because making my way there felt so counter-intuitive I was never sure if I was doing the correct things. The constant need to check every corner and wall of the spire, the total lack of direction on how to play the game, and the intentionally obfuscated statistical value of equipment and items and the like all recall the older days of the genre, which were well before my time. Granted, it is possible to figure it out by reading and thinking carefully, but you’ll be face palming pretty hard when you realize how badly you’ve screwed up on character creation and equipment. Here’s a hint: physical attackers suck past the second level of the tower. I think a lot of veteran PC RPG fans probably already knew that.

Many are the older RPG fans that have beaten The Dark Spire in a week or two of buying it, telling me how easy it was for them and how nice and simple it was to play a game developed by people who really knew what they were doing. Hearing that pretty much confirmed that no matter how many NES and SNES RPGs I’ve played, no matter how many pseudo-roguelikes I’ve enjoyed, no matter that my first Bioware game was Baldur’s Gate and not Knights of the Old Republic, I am not old-school or hardcore the way these guys are.

Retro gaming always appealed to the nostalgic gamers and poseurs. I am neither. However, the recent trend of pseudo-retro games like Mega Man 9 and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (originally a cell phone game, blech) intrigues me, if only because so much of its emphasis is on stripped down graphics. The Dark Spire boasts impressive, highly stylized graphics reminiscent of the comic book art of Mike Mignola, which matches well with its unsettling musical score. But if you switch to the “classic mode” you get wire frame graphics with adorably pixilated sprites and tinny, digitized versions of the creepy themes found in the contemporary mode. It actually does Capcom and Square one better by being one of the coolest looking games on the DS as well as the most retro at the same time.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before one of these games too closely recreates old-school gaming and sets off a wave of anger and frustration. I await the day when fifteen-year-old boys stop clamoring for a return to the “good old days” that they didn’t really experience. If anybody had played The Dark Spire, it probably would have been the game that slapped some sense into these kids, not only with its design, but with the DS’ aggravating control scheme. Bottom screen stylus control would have actually alleviated the annoying need to use the right shoulder button to switch characters on the bottom screen during item/spell use.

Even thought it’s kicked my ass so many times, The Dark Spire draws me back invariably. I think there’s a sense of accomplishment there that other games don’t give me. There seems to be a growing audience for this type of thing too. This game was released on the heels of Atlus’ in-house developed dungeon crawlers, Etrian Odyssey and its sequel. They also recently released Class of Heroes for the PSP, another first person, turn based RPG that looks much like a later entry in the Wizardry series except for all of the drippy anime character designs and school setting, which The Dark Spire thankfully lacks. But despite the recent releases of newly developed games, dungeon crawlers are not really back in style. Frankly, they’ll never make enough concessions to the current audience to achieve lasting popularity, and I think the pseudo-retro thing is a passing fad. The actual fans of these games are fairly few, and many of them are content to play the genre's classics. You can currently buy The Dark Spire at Gamestop, brand new, packaged with a soundtrack CD, for $10. That does not bode well.

So enjoy The Dark Spire for what it is, because even with a Japanese company planning to revive Wizardry yet again, this is likely the most interesting rip-off we’ll ever see localized for the United States.


  1. "If EGM were still around, they’d probably give this one a bad review too."

    They did. 1up's Jeremy Parish gave it a bad review mainly because he found the menus annoying. He didn't seem to play the game much.

    "I’ve actually played various computer RPGs over the years and I had a bit of trouble with it myself, thrown off mostly by the lack of numerical data provided in item descriptions and a leveling system with intricacies that aren’t readily apparent to the untrained eye."

    I think you need to understand that these games had lengthy manuals at the time, as well as a D&D-playing fanbase that often discussed this stuff, or read about it in magazines.

    Regarding Wizardry appearing in Japan, I'm not sure those were translated there until the mid to late 80s with their own ports, unless they were playing imports. Dragon Slayer came early, but is action-rpg rather than turn-based. The first "Japanese" turn-based RPG is said to be The Black Onyx by Henk Rogers, who was living over there and wanted to make a Wizardry-like game. He had to introduce it to them, as he says in Edge Online and again in a report by The Epoch Times.

    Not sure enough about history to know if he is 100% right. Yuji Horii says he was already a fan of D&D and had seen Wizardry in America beforehand and makes no mention of Black Onyx. It may be that things were all happening at once and it's impossible to really sort this out, as many things tightly nested in history are.

    The Dark Spire was a good throwback to that era, but it had some uniqueness too, particularly in its odd soundtrack with operatic singing. I couldn't beat parts of it without a walkthrough, whereas I did beat Wizardry I in an Apple II emulator pretty much on my own, though I knew about Murphy's Ghost beforehand and perhaps a few other things.

    I think it should have gone the full Monty and required you to do the mapping by hand. Or had an evil sorcerer in the game erase parts of your map at will depending on how well you do.

    I also didn't like the leveling up system and other obscure things I couldn't figure out without reading the boards at Gamefaqs. In all honesty, Wizardry is less obscure, easier to understand for a beginning. The menus are clumsy in it (like the way it asks you if you want to ascend the ladder right after entering the dungeon), but that was because the earliest versions had almost no graphics and that message popped up in order to inform you of where you were. When they started adding graphics more, like to the walls, in subsequent versions, they left that ladder message in.

    I think Etrian Odyssey makes good use of the grid system because it incorporates the idea of enemies (FOES) who also use it, so you can time their movements, when to pass, when to stay out of the way, which is a feature I don't remember in other 1st person dungeon crawlers.

  2. Legend of Grimlock is superb. I feel like a total idiot ignoring the headlines related to it on gaming news sites. It keeps the grid-system of these old games like Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master, but allows you to look around in a fully rendered 3D environment! The graphics are good, too. I didn't expect to see a game like this come out and get good reviews.

  3. You're probably right about having a background in D&D being useful when trying to play older games or newer games that affect retro style/mechanics.

    There's actually been some debate recently about whether or not The Black Onyx really is the official start of RPG development in Japan. It's hard to say for certain as early Japanese PC games are poorly documented, especially in Anglophonia. It's also important to remember that a Famicom port of Ultima 3 was already available when Horii was making Dragon Quest. I still get the impression that Dragon Quest was an attempt to simplify what had been one of the least penetrable genres in the east or west. Try playing The Black Onyx in emulation (there is a fan translation out there), or a game like Falcom's Dinosaur; they're every bit as obtuse as the earlier Wizardry games, and not as good.

    I agree, though, that Etrian Odyssey does some really good things with its grid system. The third game actually adapts it into its own little mini-game with the the sailing expeditions.