In this decade’s brave new world of crowd-funded video games, one need not be unusually observant to see a trend in throwback RPGs. Among these are massive hits (Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland 2), PlayStation-style JRPGs (Legrand Legacy), and characterful new turn-based adventures that hearken to several different styles (Earthlock)—and among them are also games like Grimshade.
Also inspired by JRPGs of the ’90s, Grimshade combines an isometric overworld—one that actually looks a little bit more like Infinity Engine games such as Baldur’s Gate than Japanese RPGs—with tactical turn-based battles. Boasting a huge world, lengthy story, and a complex battle system, there is certainly a lot of game to be had in Grimshade.
Similarly to the aforementioned Legrand Legacy and Earthlock, Grimshade had to be looked at, in case it was another diamond in the rough waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, when a title comes in this hot (translation issues and all sorts of glitches abound in the current for-sale version) the question is not whether it contains any value in its sheer volume, but rather if it is worth seeing through.
As in JRPGs of yesteryear, players begin with a tenacious young soldier-ish and gather a party of ragtag misfits as they “blah-blah magical war”, “blah-blah verbose world exposition”, and, of course, the trademark mysterious amnesiac kid. The game is nothing if not an on-the-nose emulation of JRPG patterns, filtered through visibly sweaty writing; comprising try-hard humour and sub-Tolkien obliqueness that all fantasy writers probably remember committing to paper at some point.
Part of this might be down to the translation, as Talerock, the developer, is a Russian indie team. The language gap withstanding, however, Grimshade‘s tedious structure cannot be ignored. One way or another, the early hours force a lot of expository dialogue around the edges of a generic dungeon-punk setting.
Purely from an execution standpoint, the look and feel of Grimshade‘s fantasy world Ree’fah is not a weakness. Character designs are simple and effective (though the dialogue portraits can seem off-model from the rest of their depictions) and the city of Brann, where the game begins, is fairly well developed. The original soundtrack is also a highlight, helping bring each setting to life in the tradition of old school JRPGs.
At the same time, the game has far fewer interesting encounter types than there are battles, echoing some of the worst of the JRPG tradition: the tedium and grind. Even the battle backdrops, which remain essential to these sorts of turn-based RPGs for continuity of location, are very limited—one example had an early story sequence, happening indoors, suddenly switch to the city streets for the battle screen.
In the terms of a JRPG throwback, the game has none of the “take a step” sort of random encounters. Enemies can be encountered wandering in the world or during story sequences. Mechanically, Grimshade‘s battles sit about halfway between the relatively hands-off positioning of say, Chrono Trigger, and the detailed, grid-based battles in the Trails in the Sky games, closest to the recently re-released Radiant Historia.
Players arrange their party on a three-by-four grid and face off against enemies that stand on an opposing grid. With no overlap between the sides, the ‘tactical’ aspect tends to boil down to tanks up front, squishies at the back. In teaching this early, the game makes very clear from the word go that player choice is a secondary concern.
Grimshade‘s battles simply do not provide an exciting hook for the RPG fan. Encounters are designed with strict parameters, where experimentation kills and enemies must be dealt with in repetitive, prescribed fashion. The early hours are not button-mashing boring like Final Fantasy XIII, but they are rigid in a way that the aforementioned Radiant Historia never was.
For example, the first time push attacks are introduced makes and breaks both games respectively. In Historia, players learn to push enemies into other enemies for extra damage or to move them side-to-side so that their charging attacks fizzle harmlessly. In Grimshade, enemies start whipping player characters left and right long before the game even introduces a method of delaying their attacks.
Another mechanic, ‘Avoid Tokens’, further restricts player choice by preventing all damage dealt until the tokens are spent. This mechanic should create another layer of strategy, but initially just lengthens each round of combat. Not to claim that such design decisions are explicit missteps , but they reduce battles to little more than Simon-says: not a great foot to start off on.
The game promises a bigger world beyond the early game city of Brann, but the development resources appear to have been spread very, very thin. For instance, the same extreme economy in the design of battles applies to the quest log, which offers very little guidance beyond the immediate next objective. Other games also focus on a linear critical path with little to either side, but even reused locations will have lots of interesting details. The opening of Final Fantasy VII is a clear comparison point, given how it too spends a long time establishing its characters in the city of Midgar.
Grimshade attempts to create a feeling of epic scale by suggesting the bigger world beyond the game screen, but without offering much to cling onto. Perhaps what Talerock has developed was a labour of love, but its love is not necessarily the same as the players’ enjoyment. A less ambitious epic with better quality of life, a shorter, less scattered story, and more time given to designing encounters for variety and experimentation would have mended several of the game’s most egregious problems. With luck, the developer will learn from Grimshade and go on to better and more recommendable success.
One should keep an open mind with long games, especially those that are ambitious and clearly made for the love of the medium (I could not tell you how but I played through days of dull, repetitive musou missions to be extra sure that Valkyria Revolution was not good). Like with so many RPGs, though, one can be tricked into hoping the story picks up, or at least tricked into hoping that the mechanics become intrinsically engaging with more familiarity.
True, too, I do not think I have ever played a game available for retail that was as unfinished as Grimshade. Unfinished games on Steam are a dime-a-dozen, but I cannot be certain I have the strength to trudge through to see the rest of a game that, doubtless, bit off more than it could chew. Besides, if this really is as large a world and extensive a narrative as promised, one should never feel obligated to push through hours of also-ran adventure hoping for an uncertain and potentially imaginary catharsis.
Reviewed on PC.
SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead
The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.
SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.
As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.
The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.
Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.
Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.
The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.
Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.
Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.
SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.
The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.
The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.
The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.
SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
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