As we mentioned yesterday, successfully Kickstarted classic RPG Paper Sorcerer has been released. And looked rather attractive. Especially at $5. But is it? IS IT? Scientists say the only way to find out was to play it. So I did. Still am. Here are some thoughts on a rather charming game.
The older I get, the less patience I have. That counts for games, idiots in supermarkets, the loading time of Spotify... I'm an impatient man. Such that often going back in time to play classic games of the '90s leaves me in wonder at how I ever sat so still for so long doing so little. Also, when the hell did I ever have 200 hours to play anything? So it is that I'm always a bit nervous when a game attempts to capture part of those days of yore, lest it reveal to me how future-addled my brain has become. It's perhaps one of the most interesting features of Paper Sorcerer that it seems to have taken this into account, and somehow given me the essence of 1988, at a speed I'm now used to.
This is, to some degree, an incredibly traditional RPG. Combat is turn-based, in near-static screens dominated by menus rather than agility. My party of four lines up its swipes and spells, then unleashes them in order at the array of enemies politely stood facing toward me. That's the classic. The modern is how the enemies retaliate with some degree of randomness - never while you're racking up your attack, but at different points throughout its execution. So your weakly Witch who needs to cast a healing spell on herself to survive - that may happen in time, or they may attack her first. It adds a good deal of tension to what are otherwise orderly encounters.
Then, to another degree, it's a first-person game without tiles, letting you move freely around the corridors of the noirish dungeons. The visual style is striking, superbly clever in its minimalism, while still feeling sleek. Monochrome scenes spell themselves out more with shadow than light, genuinely artistic and often very interesting. There's nothing turn-based as you explore.
But that first degree again. Enemy encounters don't really take place in that 3D world. They don't even appear within it. The closest you get is a fuzzy cloud of floating black, indicating a battle will occur when you walk toward it, but not what or whom you'll be attacking. And then, only sometimes. Other times fights can be entirely random, because the enemy is "sneaky" and you don't see it coming. This feels madly ancient, almost like those latter text adventures with the meticulously rendered image of the scene created from five hundred lines. Just those lines are in 3D now, and you can move around inside them.
I've found this collision of styles to work rather well, as it happens. It's deeply peculiar, but all rather charming, and the game itself delivers enough nice ideas and added elements that it keeps being interesting. It's a game where visiting markets and equipping characters all takes place in text, but with a look and feel like nothing of its type.
It helps that the writing is strong. The introduction rather wittily rushes through a tale that would usually form the narrative for such RPGs, the game itself beginning after all that. A party of four heroes, each of differing skills, fights their way through the many levels of a mountain to defeat the terrible enemy, trapped him or her in an ancient magical book, the minions wiped out from the world. Then things start. You're the terribly enemy, and you're trapped in a magical book (hence the look of the game). Summoning more minions (the likes of ghosts, skellingtons, vampires and minotaurs) to fight in your party, you're aided by other baddies trapped inside this device, in an attempt to escape.
But it's not hokey. That could easily have been such a flippant, even "wacky" idea. Goodness knows, games where you play the enemy are invariably dreadful, assuming that their dulled sense of humour is replacement enough for quality mechanics. Not so here - it's nonchalantly done, calmly delivered, and more interesting for it. The story, minimal as it is, is kept to text boxes, the core game focused on exploring, looting and battling. And those battles are tough - equipping your crew carefully is essential, and keeping everyone alive is no mean feat. Even in the first couple of "blocks" of the book, and especially in the floors of the bonus catacombs, I was having to revive fallen allies or reload and attempt to do better.
I'm not far enough in to make accurate calls as to the balancing. At this point, I'm impressed with it. Things lean toward difficult, to that point where I'm wondering if I might start over with a better understanding of how to spend my gems and where to focus my talents. But not in that, "Dammit, I have to start over," way at all. It's in that, "Ooh, I could try this again, do better," way - I think players of classic RPGs will understand the difference there. Or I won't and I'll carry on, tweaking and fixing and seeing if I can get this mysterious puppet character I've now added to my team to be anything useful. I'm getting a lot better at having the enemy attention focused on my Skellington, and keeping the Witch safe to heal the others, while my Werewolf delivers some mighty blows.
Best of all, this entire game is only $5. If you're not sure, it's an entrance fee that accommodates that. And there's lots going on here for something so cheap, while still being a very stripped back RPG for modern standards. The concept is novel, the approach is intriguing, and the challenge enough to keep things interesting. I'd say this is well worth a poke.