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Soldak Entertainment is a small-scale game developer. But despite their size (only a handful of full-time staff members and a host of contracted designers), they've managed to build a game of epic size and scale. How'd they do it? Basically, by borrowing some of the greatest gameplay innovations of the last decade and harmonizing them in ways that no other developer, small or large, has yet attempted.
The meat and potatoes
The three games I consider the sources for Depths of Peril are as follows: Civilization, Diablo, and Warcraft (or any formulaic RTS, really). You start the game by creating your character. Character creation starts with you picking one of four classes (warrior, rogue, priest, mage), and then following through with a typical character creation. For the entirety of the game, this avatar is the sole character you directly control. You are able to recruit a few adventurers (and monsters) to join your "Covenant" (the game's lingo for "guild" or "tribe"), but they function through AI only.
Before the game starts, you also get to choose difficulty level, as well as the number of competing Covenants found in this fantasy world. These competing Covenants function in much the same way as the different civilizations in Sid Meier's classic franchise. The technical "winning" or "losing" of the game (I use the terms loosely) depends on whether or not you can conquer the other Covenant, or at least make strong alliances with them. If you want, you can "beat" the game in a matter of minutes, though this completely defeats the purpose of the game.
But you, the leader of your Covenant, will grow only by duking it out with the hordes of monsters outside the gates of the shared Covenants' territory. By completing prescribed quests and by bashing the life out of every monster you see, you gain experience, money, and indirectly gain power and influence. Your avatar can equip a whole mess of gear, use and learn many different active and passive skills, and do all the sorts of things you'd expect in a top-down Action/RPG/RTS hybrid.
Sounds like standard dungeon-crawling fare, right? Well, yes. But you're on a time limit. Efficiency and strategy are key, because the AI-controlled Covenants are working ceaselessly to do the same thing you are. Slack off, play too inefficiently, or play in an unbalanced manner, and you're likely to get wiped out. Getting "wiped out," by the way, is done only by destroying a crystal in your little hut of a home base. This is your "respawn" point, of course.
Good news, though! Whether you "win" or "lose," the game allows your character to undergo an infinite loop of "new game plus," with some penalties. So if you weren't ready for the world you'd created the first time around, just keep going! However, all quests are reset, so if you were enjoying the series of quests assigned by the NPCs in town, you'll be starting over on them.
There are too many other details for me to even attempt to describe every facet of gameplay here. There's a lot to it, enough to overwhelm anyone just getting started. The learning curve is steep, but once you've got a handle on the way this game plays, it's clear that much time and thought was put into how not only to make this game "balanced" but also still remain fun, fast-paced, and challenging.
Featured flavor: vanilla
So the game is a lot of fun, I'll not deny that. When you're a small-scale developer, that's all you got, so you better get it right. Soldak did get it right (indeed, surpassing any expectations I had for this indie RPG). The rest, of course, is made to be functional. The graphics, the music, even the story are pretty bland.
But, to be fair, let's consider what good can be found in these things. First of all, the graphics are by no means bad. Considering the means available to the development team, the graphics are rather impressive. Equally impressive are all the options and useful explanations in the "graphic settings" menu, so that you can optimize play depending on your PC's hardware. There was a lot of stuff to design, and it all looks decent, but it is certainly outdated for a PC game (looks more like 2004 than 2007).
Of course, there is no voice acting to be found in this game. I don't think anyone would expect that, anyway. My personal opinion is that Soldak could have found more well-suited people to write the music that has been put into the game. I wasn't impressed with this game's soundtrack scored by a "Zak Belica." The sound effects, on the other hand, were just as good as any top-tier PC game you could find.
A little undercooked
So, there is a decent story behind this whole game. It is, of course, back-story. Like many MMOs today, the "story" is painted by the details. In Depths of Peril, it's done in a less than interesting fashion: reading books. You pick up tomes upon completing certain quests; these tomes can be added to your house's bookshelf, which increase your character's stats. The books also, however, give detailed accounts of the events of the world around you, both far and recent past. There are enough details here to create an outline for a decent fantasy novel. It's a nice touch, but sadly, the presentation just doesn't sell. Compared to the fun, fast-paced combat we see in the game, the idea of sitting down and reading a bunch of books seems counter-intuitive. The story feels so far disjointed from the actual game, it'd take a real effort on the part of the player to add this piece to the whole experience.
Granted, there is the story that you yourself pave as you play through the game. But the NPCs do little to facilitate. Thus, I have to say that the "story" is the weakest facet in Depths of Peril.
The control schemes, settings, menus, and UI in Depths of Peril are indeed "perilous." What I mean is, there's a lot to sort through. And, if you ask me, it's worth doing. The default control scheme really left something to be desired. The character didn't move using a typical WADS, NumPad, or even arrow-key design. Instead, the mouse is used to get you going in any direction. The camera is fixed above your character, with no simple method for scanning the entire map. Though it may be more realistic for a single-player, single-character experience, I would've liked the option to move the camera around more freely.
Once you get used to it all, things work fairly smoothly (much like any PC game), but more could have been done with the default control setup to allow an easy transition into the game.
Enough with the food metaphors
Depths of Peril is a game for true gamers. This is rare among anything with the letters "RPG" printed near it. Most RPGs these days excel in presentation: the story, the graphics, and the sound are superb. Soldak didn't have the budget or the manpower to boost these aspects of the game, and even if they did, I don't know if they would have bothered. Depths of Peril doesn't care to be a book, or a movie, or a soundtrack. It is simply a game, and it is a great game, so long as all you want is a solid, interactive experience with none of the frills of high-budget PC titles. For thirty dollars retail (direct from Soldak's website), it's not a bad deal; plus, you can pat yourself on the back for supporting an independent developer!