The RPG Scrollbars: Serpent In The Staglands

My first real act as a god was getting killed. By a wolf. Just outside my own sorta-temple.

If any of my followers are listening, write that down in your scrolls and I’ll drop the moon on you.

Serpent in the Staglands [official site] is a game I’ve been getting a lot of requests to take a look at, and it’s not hard to see why. At a time when everyone seems obsessed with old-school RPGs, here comes one that absolutely embraces the style and yet has slipped under most peoples’ radars. Honestly, that’s not too surprising. It’s not very pretty, and in attitude, reminds me of these Mitchell and Webb sketches. “Where’s my handy journal? Starting equipment? Anything that teaches me how to play?” “They’re gone. They’re all gone. And we’re back. The brutally opaque RPGs that spit in your face for not being one of the designers. Oh, I saw you in character customisation, picking skills because you thought they sounded ‘cool’. Go back to your Dragon Age. You make me sick.

Luckily, it’s got a few things on its side from the start too, not least a fun premise and setting. You’re the god of the moon who likes to head down to the mortal world on a regular basis, suddenly finding yourself unable to get back home. With no allies save for a lord you’ve blessed over the years, and needless to say, no divine power, your only hope is to masquerade as a travelling spicer and slum it on foot through a Slavic flavoured world armed with nothing more impressive than a kitchen knife and some stolen travel papers. And that was after searching. Fists against wolves? Not recommended.

With a little equipment though, it’s a good start, kicking off with a dark mirror of Ultima’s character-creation-by-gypsy system that lets you determine what kind of god you are, and with a script that doesn’t forget it. Pretty much every conversation gives you the option to throw your weight around in blissful ignorage of the fact that you don’t have any right now. Always entertaining.

It’s this layer of character that carries the game through the needlessly frustrating opening, which largely assumes you’re coming to the game from things like Dungeons and Dragons with clarifications like “Strength gives a natural bonus to hit damage for melee and range fighters. Phys Damage: (above base)Strength/2 + equipped weapon damage + item/skill mods.” There’s a lot to juggle in both the raw rules, from that, to the different skill trees that handle basic stats and skills and Aptitudes, which give additional options in certain situations, to the point that I ended picking up most of it by sheer accident. There’s an early quest for instance where a farmer wants you to get rid of a fox from his field, and it was only in the ‘I defeated the foul beast’ options that I saw the option indicating that had I put a point into the right Aptitude, I could talk to it and persuade it to leave.

Even on a basic level though, annoyance abounds. There are barrels all over the world, but you can’t smash those barrels, only these barrels. You pick up emeralds, but then they don’t appear in your inventory because it turns out that those are cash rather than valuable goods. A character will say something like “There’s something in the well”, and the well is clickable, but clicking on it doesn’t actually do anything. Or at least, doesn’t seem to. And so on. Sometimes you smash a barrel but instead of getting items, everyone just falls on their arse because it was full of oil. Thanks!

This game painfully, desperately needs a Getting Started type guide. There’s a manual, which is not optional, but even that is a weak introduction. It’s not complex because the systems are rocket science, but because everything is either poorly explained or just plain not explained at all. I’m aware that to some people that is considered hardcore, but I call bullshit. Games like Darklands had brutal introductions not because scourging is simply good for the soul, but because circa 1992 there usually weren’t any alternatives. Some twenty odd years later, game design by the same rules is like dealing with a civil servant who piously demands all of his staff write memos to him in Latin.

(This is not the same for all its pointedly old-school decisions, mind. To name one, Serpent’s preference for giving you a journal to fill in rather than giving you one that automatically fills itself in feels like a reasonable throwback that fits the style. That at least means you’re never just treading waypoints, and the open world will allow you to go more or less anywhere if you can survive the monsters or find ways to kite them into guards who can then handle them for you. There’s already at least one speed-run of the game that’s only 42 minutes long, and much of that is spent on the achingly slow loading screens. I guess at least they add an extra sting to failure?)

The frustrating/good thing is that behind all of this waits a surprisingly good RPG. It’s bursting with carefully designed areas and clever ideas, as well some really fun gimmicks. You can start with just yourself, or use your god powers to create a few extra empty shells to back you up until you find suitable NPCs to fill slots. When they’re recruited, you can either take them warts and all or use your power to just straight up steal their souls, removing their tiresome free will.

“You grip his shoulder as if he was a comrade and feel the vitality of his blood coursing in his veins. Digging deeper you find his soul, vulnerable and ripe, and whispering the incantation known only to the gods, you mark his soul as yours.”

Oooh.

Similar moments are all over the place, from the arrogant conversation options to weird little asides like being able to greet ducks with a cheery “What ho, duck!” that I find far funnier than I probably should, to the inevitable moments of RPG bastardry. There’s a particularly fine bit in the first proper town, down to the South, where a suspicious ship captain will buy a party member’s contract from you for a nice chunk of change, as long as you don’t have any moral objections to quite clearly selling someone into indentured servitude. Or at least, not more than about 200 emeralds worth of them. When ambushed out in the wilds, you get a cute little bit of flavour text to say that you’re not just jumped by goblins, but get waylaid while following a shortcut, or foraging for food. Early on you can find yourself facing “Crap Goblins”, and again, I find that far, far funnier than I probably should.

While this is all obviously window-dressing, it’s the kind that neatly shows the love and care that’s also gone onto the solid and (eventually) enjoyable RPG core. As much of a pain as Serpent in the Staglands is to get started with, it does reward the effort by combining its nostalgia with new ideas and a fun design sensibility that seems to leave it feeling almost embarrassed to be more modern than it wants to be – a throwback to the 90s that does its quests and world design the way that those games secretly always wanted to but were too constrained by the technology of the time to fully realise. This was after all the era where games like Wasteland had no choice but to put most of their plot text into a manual and have the game give page look-up instructions at the right point. As with many nostalgia-fueled RPGs, that leaves Serpent of the Stagland in a good place to emulate the era of games as you remember it, minus some of the more irritating elements that got in the way.

All of this should give you a pretty good idea of whether Serpent in the Staglands is likely to be ‘your’ game or not. In short, there’s a lot of really good stuff here, and the game is mostly excellent, but the path to actually getting into the damn thing is far more frustrating than it is rewarding. Once past it, the amount of freedom it offers in everything from character builds to your path around an open world designed to reward exploration is all great, and knowing the carrot is there does help. Even so, do be sure you have the dedication to keep chasing it while being brutally beaten with the stick.

51 Comments

  1. Dawngreeter says:

    I wonder why the good stuff couldn’t have been wrapped in something less tedious? I mean, even in tabletop RPGs the D&D crap has been an unforgivable offense for at least a decade.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      There are amazing, innovative indie tabletop RPGs like Torchbearer and Dungeon World which have a D&D flavor, but radically different mechanics. It remains a popular theme. As long as you’re doing something new with it (ie, not OSR), great.

      • Dawngreeter says:

        Dungeon World is awesome (sadly ,speaking without actually having played it, bit still)! I don’t mind the theme at all. I’m talking about the ridiculousness of systems mentioned in the (early part of the) article. The “(weapon + time of day / wind direction index – opponent armor shinynocity) * second strength damage index for offhand wielding” one.

        • malkav11 says:

          Pathfinder is that stuff taken further than D&D ever did and was the single most popular tabletop RPG until the launch of D&D 5e. It may still be, for all I know. People like their crunchy mechanics. Heck, I do, to a point. It’s just that I’d rather see that stuff on the computer (where a lot of that is handled by algorithms) than try to play it at the table. At the table, I want to have mechanics that gently guide and inspire extemporaneous improvisation so I don’t have to do any bloody prep work.

          • Premium User Badge

            Phasma Felis says:

            I would say that Pathfinder takes the mechanics precisely as far as D&D took them, since Pathfinder basically is D&D 3rd Edition for people who wanted more 3rd Edition after WotC moved on. But that’s a nitpick.

          • Dawngreeter says:

            Yes, Pathfinder and DnD are very, very popular to the point of marginalizing anything else in the RPG industry. That doesn’t mean it is any good. In fact, both are pretty terrible.

            But that’s not because they are crunchy. I love crunchy games! I do! I am in crazy anticipation of Exalted 3rd edition, which should be out any month now, and it is easily just as crunchy. It’s just isn’t, you know. Crap.

          • malkav11 says:

            It’s 3.5e with another pile of crunch bolted on, from what I can tell. Not -radically- different, just even more stuff.

            But my point was that that stuff is not actually an unforgivable offense in most tabletop RPG circles. It probably -should- be, but it isn’t. It’s the default.

      • jrodman says:

        There are a number of creative and novel OSR games, you know.

  2. player3 says:

    Serpent in the Staglands is a pretty great game. I think most people who’ve played rpgs before won’t have too much trouble getting into it, contrary to what this article states. If you don’t take the extra party members and don’t pick up some frying pans, with which you can spang enemies, then you might run into trouble early on. Quite frankly if that’s considered too difficult an insight for a player to achieve independently of tutorials and manuals then I suppose that would explain the awful modern rpgs we get.

    There are areas in the game which require a specific item to traverse due to killer leeches, I managed to deduce what item helped and it was all the more rewarding for having had to expend some mental energy. And it wasn’t particularly abstruse. But I wonder, would most people complain simply because they weren’t led around by the ear to the correct shop keep with a giant floating exclamation point above his head with the words “BUY ITEM X TO PROGRESS STORY” in the middle of the screen.

    • player3 says:

      Something I neglected to comment on is the quest structure. Removing automatic journal updates does wonders. It forces you to pay attention to dialogue and it gives you the sense that you’re actually investigating the circumstances surrounding your misfortune. I often find in rpgs that I’m only half listening to the polygon actors because I know the game’s going to tell me the right thing to do, rendering my comprehension skills redundant.

      I’d like to see them improve on this in the future with a more puzzled storyline, so to speak.

      • trn says:

        I’m disappointed to hear there isn’t a QTE leech battle.

        But if there aren’t obnoxious arrows pointing you to your destination at all times its going on my Christmas list.

        • revan says:

          Absolutely no arrows included. Even the map is just a zoomed out regular regular location with no additional pointers of any kind.

  3. revan says:

    True, this game does demand a fair bit of patience from the player when trying to get into it. But once you hit the stride, which happens around your first level up, it really pulls you into an interesting world. Of course, in an age of instant gratification games, most players balk at the prospect of having to peel a few layers of shell before getting to the meaty stuff. That’s why, judging by the comments made by the developers – two of them, Serpent hasn’t been doing that good commercially. Which is a shame. The only reason I haven’t progressed further from the first town is the lack of time. Pesky work is hogging it all.

    • Infinitron says:

      They’re a married couple. There’s a great human interest story here. Why do two married twenty-somethings decide to make a game based on classics they never even played when they were new? How did they manage to make such a big game all by themselves on such a tight budget?

      Interview them, RPS.

      • geisler says:

        What makes you think twenty-somethings didn’t play 90s CRPGs? I did, and i’m 29 right now, Darklands is still one of my favorite games of all time. People that played CRPGs in their teens possibly had a great formative experience as gamers playing these kind of RPGs. Barring the last 2 years, they also have had at complete lack of content for at least 10 years that reached the same depth as CRPGs did back then. Makes sense someone from that demographic would make something like this in my opinion.

        • revan says:

          I agree. I’m thirty years old and isometric RPGs of the 1990s were some of the most influential titles of my gaming life. While people were chasing 3D and FMV (ugh) I really enjoyed these story rich games with plenty of places to explore.

        • Infinitron says:

          I’m talking about these particular twenty-somethings, who actually said so in an interview (with Matt Barton, I believe)

        • ansionnach says:

          Well for them. Definitely makes sense to find out about and play the best games available, regardless of their age. Any well-designed game can be just as much fun now as whenever it was released. Missed a few myself over the years but caught up on a good few. Found the first Ultima well-designed, forgiving and fun, too. Ultima III was great, as was IV. Currently really getting into Ultima Underworld II, which is excellent. If I had a list prioritising which RPGs to play, the shiny, over-hyped new releases wouldn’t get a look in. Even if they are worth a look I’m happy to focus on solid-gold classics and see if anyone remembers Bio Age Imposition when the fuss has died down.

      • equatorian says:

        Maybe precisely because they didn’t play them when they were new? It’s quite possible that they played them recently, and loved the designs for what they were. We people who played them a long time ago do chalk a lot of our love for the old games to ‘nostalgia goggles’ when it may just be ‘engaging’ in its own right. It’ll probably require some tolerance for figuring out arcane rules, but that can be part of the fun for many people. Increases the strangeness and immersion, I believe.

    • Dawngreeter says:

      “Of course, in an age of instant gratification games, most players balk at the prospect of having to peel a few layers of shell before getting to the meaty stuff.”

      I find it incredibly difficult to believe that “peeling layers” is a problem for anyone. Conversely, it’s very easy to believe that people have a tendency to believe they are possessed of rare qualities just for tolerating flaws.

      • revan says:

        Look, I make no apologies for badly designed games selling themselves as “hardcore” experience. Those are just badly designed games. Serpent in the Staglands isn’t one of those. Everything is perfectly intuitive and at your fingertips.

        “Peeling layers” comment was meant to convey that you have to learn to play the game. You aren’t treated as a moron in need of GPS assistance for every little thing. Developers actually had faith in their player’s ability to think things through and figure where to go next based on dialogue and documents.

        For instance, you pick a scroll with bounty information on it. It tells you who the target is, what they did, where they were last seen and reward amount for bringing the proof of their demise. What it will not do is ink every pertinent detail in your journal. If you want it there, open the scroll in your inventory and transcribe everything to the journal, or just keep the scroll for reference. It’s up to you. Also don’t expect longitude and latitude of your target’s location to be marked by a large shiny x on the map. There are no satellites orbiting this rock at this time.

        All of the above, in my humble opinion, is perfectly reasonable.

        • Dawngreeter says:

          I don’t mind any of that. But not properly explaining the mechanics your game uses is not a feature. Same for needlessly complicated systems (though I’m not saying those exist here – it just smells like a case of DnDitis).

          • Arglebargle says:

            I know I’ve gotten real allergic to the hair shirt brigade style of games. Watched an intro to Serpents, and decided it was just a little too far in that direction.

            Too bad, parts seem interesting otherwise.

          • chargen says:

            Not sure what DnDitis is but the systems are simpler than Baldurs Gate. They’re new though, so a quick read of the manual or really just one or two level ups will make everything clear. Is BG really now part of the “hair shirt brigade”? Or does it get a pass because there was a tutorial no one used?

            Seriously Rich spends half his pseudoreview complaining about the inaccessible masochism of a game with simpler (and much better designed and implemented) rpg systems than his beloved and accessible Pillars of Eternity.

          • Dawngreeter says:

            Baldur’s Gate is DnD.

          • chargen says:

            Yes of course it is, that’s why I gave it as an example, so I could fish out what is so difficult about something with “DnDitis”. Is that really an impenetrably complex system to you?

          • Dawngreeter says:

            I am reasonably well versed in every edition of DnD except for 5th. It isn’t impenetrable to me. It has complexity which does nothing except needlessly complicate things. It has subsystems with little to no use. It simulates things that have no business being simulated. It revels in pointless mechanical details just for the sake of it. It randomizes values for no purpose. It has a tendency to become a Rube Goldberg machine of RPG systems.

            Hence, DnDitis.

    • EhexT says:

      Being ugly for uglies sake doesn’t help the game sell either.

  4. KillahMate says:

    It’s not very pretty

    What’s not pretty is the tileset, which is decidedly second-rate pixel art. Everything else, particularly the menu and interface graphics, looks very pretty indeed, and absolutely would have been considered AAA quality in the mid-90s (I don’t mean it as a slur – it’s what the game aims for).

  5. Erithtotl says:

    Those are some of my favorite Mitchell & Webb sketches.

    Why oh why do we have like 100 decent to great RPGs right now while 5 years ago we were lucky to get 1?

  6. JB says:

    Huh. I was reading it as Crop Goblins.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It may be, it’s that kind of font. But in my heart, they’ll always be Crap Goblins.

      • JB says:

        To be fair, I pummelled 2 in quick succession and then wandered on and got beaten by the wolf that got you too.

        So they must be fairly crap goblins at least.

  7. Herzog says:

    I am only halfway through Wasteland 2, did not install Pillars of Eternity or Dead State. And now this thing comes along to the top of my wishlist. Guess I need to quit my job to get through all these rpgs. I

  8. Fnord73 says:

    All of this says one thing to me: Someone should put a decent amount of money into recreating Darklands.

  9. bobbyk says:

    What blows me away here is that all the characters are pixel-painted by hand in an isometric game… That’s so much work, it’s nuts!! Even Baldurs Gate, Pillars of Eternity etc use 3D models because it’s much faster to create. And games like Pokemon/Link to the Past only do a top-down so you don’t have to cover isometric angles. Kudos to the devs.

  10. Geebs says:

    I’m entirely in favour of games that let you greet ducks and fight ghostbusters.

    Question, though: I have a seriously diminished tolerance for excessive dialogue in my old age. Is this game going to annoy me?

  11. XhomeB says:

    The game has two, maybe three very serious flaws.
    – exploration is pointless and pretty much a chore. If there’s, say, a cave you happen to stumble upon, you can be 100% sure it’ll be filled to the brim with repetitive encounters and beyond empty corridors with absolutely nothing interesting to find there. No hidden secrets with cool loot, no strange markings on cave walls telling a story long forgotten, SOMETHING to break up the monotony and emptiness of the places you stumble upon.
    – bugs are aplenty, though it’s excusable somewhat – the game is big, there are some cool choices and consequences etc.
    – Combat = Real Time with Pause, UGH. That’s a preference thing, however, as I consider RtwP boring and chaotic (which it is here, it doesn’t help that there are way too many trash mobs to chop through).

    • bobbyk says:

      funny I find pure turn-based mind numbingly boring. Give me “real-time with pause”, every time anytime, please. It basically allows you to “fast forward” to critical points in a battle and makes things 10x more exciting

      • Premium User Badge

        JiminyJickers says:

        Absolutely agree. I like turn based combat in many games, but for most RPGs recently, I have found it to be very boring. There are exceptions but Real Time with Pause makes it so much more exciting.

        With turn based, a lot of combat, especially against weaker enemies, just becomes a complete chore.

        • jrodman says:

          1 – Lightweight turn based against easy enemies is not slow.
          2 – Lots of combat with nonthreatening enemies is dull regardless of system.

    • Relani says:

      One thing I really didn’t like about this game (and mind you, I only played about two hours of it, so this might change when you get to higher levels) is that mages seem to be relegated to merely a support class. There are no basic attack spells (like, e.g., magic missile). All the spells have LOOOONNNGGG cast times and seem to do slow damage over time or slow debuff over time or slow heal over time. Boring boring boring.

      I want my glass cannon, damnit.

  12. aratuk says:

    Richard Cobbett, here you are only reinforcing the stereotype of lazy-mindedness among people who play video games in their leisure time. Your point about the need for an in-game tutorial is not without merit, but it is given so much emphasis that it recalls a neighbor complaining about last week’s papercut. You’ll be FINE, Richard. It’s good for you.

    • alms says:

      FUCK people who play games in their LEISURE TIME, like they were entertainment! Who cares about them!

  13. ffordesoon says:

    I’ve talked to cRPG fans who act like that waiter. And they’re serious!

    I hate overt hand-holding in games, too, but that doesn’t mean I think you should be forced to put the amount of time required to earn a pilot’s license into the game before it starts being halfway enjoyable.

  14. unguided says:

    This article confirmed that I’m in this game’s target audience. I feel sort of obliged to finish Pillars (I backed it for loads of money on Kickstarter, and my ‘trial of iron’ playthrough ended with my character dying near the end), but then this is my next CRPG for sure.

    • bobbyk says:

      The ending is kind of weak imo. So you’ve been warned if you try it again… The Fallout games, Baldurs Gate, Planescape Torment all have amazing endings… Pillars… There’s no deep story elements in the final act, you get to the place you kill lots of things, kill the big bad, and it kind of ends.

    • revan says:

      I’m pretty burned on Pillars after some sixty odd hours of playtime and reaching middle of the second Act. Now I’m waiting for patch 2.0 and White March to rekindle my interest and force me to finish the damn thing.

  15. Tom Camfield says:

    Hey Rich,

    I’m a little concerned this will provoke some negative feedback from others, but to be open and honest: I always thought Dragon Age was pretty opaque behind the scenes too. It’s easy to plow on forward (which I guess is part of what you mean), but by the time I finished the game I was still unsure about which elements to use against which enemies, or whether one stat boost was better than another; I had questions along the lines of, was +1 damage better than +1 strength or +1 to hit or +1 fight-iness? It was actually really frustrating when I got a new item, and had no idea whether it was better or worse than any of the items I currently had. See also the spells, and talents; was knocking someone down for a few seconds better or worse than a stat boost for a few seconds, or tanking, or poisoning. It felt like I was playing half the game, kind of randomly hitting buttons the way I play all fighting games.

    Less controversially, I think I’d like a different solution to these problems that an in depth guide or tutorial. What I would have liked to have seen is a series of videos showing different tactics and builds in different fights, with explanations for why the player was using the tactics and equipment they had chosen. I think a variety of short Let’s Plays from the developers would be much better than going back to slow, dull tutorials. A lot like that Hearthstone guy (Turtle or something) who plays and explains his tactics as he plays. That would have also kick started my creativity in various fights, where I felt so unsure about the mechanics that I stuck with tried and tested routes, making the game far more boring to me then a lot of other people have reported.