A deep and challenging retro RPG that's very unforgiving.
First-person RPGs were one of the earliest genres to grace the PC in the '80s, defining for some what a role-playing game is. Early first person RPGs are notorious for their difficulty, and they force players to experiment and discover nuances of how their gameplay mechanics function. The Dark Spire allows players to experience this kind of RPG first-hand, since the game replicates the feel down to the very last detail.
The Dark Spire is quite unlike the modern RPG experience which is typically known to feature engrossing, epic stories and memorable characters. The Dark Spire's story can be summarized in one sentence: Four adventurers venture into a tower to complete quests, solve the mystery of the tower, and defeat Tyrhung, the evil villain who has stolen all the town's treasure.
When you start the game, you are given a default pre-made party that consists of a warrior, thief, mage, and priest. You can opt to either use the pre-made characters or create new ones. A new character's stats are determined randomly; if you are unhappy with the result, you can have the game randomly generate a new set as many times as you want. Once you are happy with the results, you can select one of four basic character classes. The only stipulation is that the character must meet the minimum stats and alignment requirements for that class. You can choose your character's race as well during the final step of the process.
Once your character and party are set, the game begins with a very brief and vague tutorial. The tutorial teaches the basic concepts of the game: navigating the tower, battling enemies, equipping armor and weapons, disarming treasure chest traps, and unlocking doors. Following the tutorial you can start to explore the tower, a sprawling labyrinth that spans multiple floors and is where the majority of the game takes place.
While basic survival is explained well by the game, the rest of the mechanics aren't explained at all. Thus, players must experiment, largely through trial and error, to understand the mechanics necessary to complete the game.
The best aspect of the game is the gameplay. While the game is challenging, this challenge makes it feels very rewarding to complete a major quest or defeat a boss. It's also rewarding to find and explore the numerous hidden passages in the tower. Fans of old school RPGs will definitely feel at home while playing this title, and some younger gamers will definitely appreciate the roots of the RPG genre.
As one might expect, the most unique aspect of the game is the presentation. Though it isn't immediately obvious, the game features two completely separate modes of presentation. Players can chose to play with modern cel-shaded graphics, or they can play with classic graphics, where everything is a wire frame and all the enemies and characters are represented by crude 8-bit sprites. Accompanying the classic presentation is a chiptune version of the modern mode's soundtrack. While I was playing the game, I occasionally switched the presentation styles just to hear how different the modern and classic renditions of each song are. They both sounded about the same to me, with the exception that the modern versions sounded cleaner and had more detail when compared to the chiptune counterpart. This dual presentation is an impressive aspect of the title that sets it apart from other similar experiences.
Unfortunately, the game has a few major issues, the biggest of which is the aforementioned difficulty. The game is extremely hard and never gets easier at any point. In fact, the latter part of the game is the hardest, dissimilar to most modern RPG experiences. When I was in the upper levels of the tower, I ended up saving every five steps or so in order to prevent from losing a lot of progress. If you have no idea what you are doing in the game, you will die often.
The game's second major issue is the interface. Because the game is heavily menu-driven, it's disappointing to see such a confusing menu structure. At times it takes a while to find the specific option that you are looking for. Players will also find themselves inadvertently using items on the wrong character, since they have to cycle through the characters with the shoulder buttons.
Finally, character leveling proves to be quite annoying for a number of reasons. To level up a character, players have to earn EP (experience points), which are gained from defeating enemies and completing quests, and then return to the guild in town to spend it. Players can choose to upgrade class levels, stats, or acquire new passive skills. This is frustrating because of the sheer amount of grinding required in order to obtain enough EP to upgrade such traits of your characters. Whenever you increase a character's main class level, this will increase the character's HP anywhere from 1 to 10 HP randomly. This is frustrating, because if you are looking for optimal stats you will have to save and reload a number of times before a level-up to attain a desirable HP boost.
The Dark Spire is a great game. Unfortunately, it will only appeal to a very specific audience due the game's difficulty and archaic style. Fans of old first person RPGs that want to relive that experience should definitely purchase this. For the gamers that are curious as to how first person RPGs were back in the '80s, a rental is recommended. For all other players, avoid this title.