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.