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Soulbringer

Publisher: InterplayDeveloper: Gremlin Interactive
Reviewer: Brian CavnerReleased: 07/10/02
Gameplay: 96%Control: 97%
Graphics: 93%Sound/Music: 92%
Story: 86%Overall: 94%


The magical world of Rathenna has been drenched in conflict until, finally, a great hero by the name of Berek Silvermane rose up to defeat the Dark Warlock, the essence of evil the plagued the world. The hero reunited the world and moved Rathenna to a period of peace and prosperity along with five other nobles who, together, made the League of Six.

This peace was shattered, however, when magical experimentation within the League went awry. The five nobles accidentally summoned demons from another plane who quickly took possession of the nobles' bodies with the most powerful of their kin, Skorn, seizing the body of Silvermane. The age of heroes has ended and the demons plunged Rathenna into a new period of ruling. The end was far from near, however.

Horath, one of Skorn's warlocks, enlisted the help of fellow warlocks to overthrow the ruling Skorn. Unable to match the power of Skorn and his league of twisted demons, Horath searched for a new savior. What arose was a boy, forged in the heat of the epic battle and trained by the warlocks of Horath. The boy, who eventually comes to be known as the Harbinger, dispatches the evil Skorn, but vanishes shortly thereafter leaving behind only his legend. The three warlocks establish their own kingdoms and Rathenna enters another new era.

Suddenly, these three kingdoms disappear from the map, replaced instead by a plague of mysterious occurrences. Bandit activity skyrockets, the undead are reborn to curse the population of Rathenna, vampires terrorize the citizens, and an evil empress captures the great city of Thardolin. The world once again needs a savior, but with the Harbinger presumed dead and the warlocks inexplicably absent, it would seem as if there is no one to come.

You, a simple farmer's son, descend into the world with no idea as to where your future may lead, and with little knowledge of the world's dark history. But the wheels of fate have started to turn, and there is little you can do to avoid your destiny as the fated Soulbringer.

Linearity on the PC? Nah…impossible

Though it would seem as if your humble beginnings could lead to nothing great, the world of Soulbringer has a lot to offer. The scripted storyline provides for a rich and involving storyline, but makes the game quite linear. Though not a problem in the least, it would seem as if non-linearity is the major draw of gamers to the PC, and some may be let down by the rigid requirements. However, the order at which you complete the less important tasks is up to the player, thus effectively creating the illusion of non-linearity.

Fortunately, the main quest is far from shallow. There are over sixty central NPCs with which to interact, and well over 450 additional NPCs that offer side quests and information to help you as you progress. Plus, these NPCs react to you differently depending on your previous actions or responses to their statements. In this sense, towns and their inhabitants never stagnate and seem to take on a life of their own. Certain NPCs also come and go in accordance with your progression, a simple addition that truly helps to breathe life into the cities.

As the story progresses, you learn more about yourself and discover that you are the reincarnation of a warlock, and come to be called the 'Soulbringer'. At this point, the game is radically altered, and you receive your own magical castle and various other perquisites. This revolution seems slightly misplaced in the story, however. It appears as if it was originally made to happen much later in the story and, instead, was put earlier. Whatever the case may be, it makes the plot seem somewhat disjointed, but does not take substantially away from the overall presentation.

Soulbringer, of course, brings a number of side-quests to the table as well, ranging from the typical 'object fetch' quests and the slaying of a particular enemy, to extensive journeys requiring that you discover and explore several different areas before being able to solve the quest. These enhance the story considerably, and make Soulbringer a much more fun journey.

The major problem with these quests, however, is that the journal is severely lacking. Instead of providing all the necessary information, it offers one-line descriptions of the quest, leaving you to forget where it was you were supposed to go and who it was you were supposed to talk to unless you return to talk to the original NPC. This is somewhat frustrating, and could have been easily corrected with the insertion of a more in-depth journal.

Overall, however, Soulbringer's story is presented well and provided for a nice, long journey with plenty of twists and turns to keep you interested. The rich history of the world alone is enough to provide for an appealing read, but the journey of the unnamed protagonist of which you take the role is quite a ride indeed.

"Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow"

The downside to innovation is that you run the risk of ending up with a product that is new, but cannot deliver the way the old systems could. This fear has driven many developers to cling to old methods in order to ensure that at least a few areas of their game worked no matter what. Soulbringer has innovated literally everything standard in the RPG world, and surprisingly, each method seems as tested and as clean as every traditional system to which we have grown accustomed.

Combat

It is dully typical for PC RPGs to utilize a sort of point-and-click style of combat where you click on a specific monster, and your character carries out the attack. I am very happy to say that Soulbringer leaves this stagnant system behind and utilizes one that is far better.

In this system, clicking on an enemy will only target it, leaving you to decide how to attack via a small interface that appears on the screen. Each of the many weapons available in the game has five attacks that are unlocked as you gain experience. From the combat interface, you select which of these attacks you would like to perform in your attempt to dispatch your opponent. If you notice that your foe is lacking a suitable helmet, several over-head chops will succeed in rapid dispatching. Or, if the opponent has left his or her legs particularly vulnerable, a low pierce may be in order. You must figure out an effective strategy to weaken and ultimately destroy your enemy using this array of different attack methods.

These attacks can even be strung together in the form of a macro that may be pre-programmed into the combat interface and called upon when you see fit. As easy as it is to choose a single attack, dozens of maneuvers can be initiated through the use of a macro. If you determine that firing an arrow at an opponent, then quickly changing to a bludgeoning weapon to deteriorate the enemy's armor, and finally a dagger to thrust into your foe's exposed body is an effective way of eliminating those that you encounter, it is a simple process to set up a macro that does just this.

The downside is, of course, that once a macro is started, it must play to completion. If you string together, say, an arrangement of thrusts, jabs, and slices using your longsword, then kill your foe with the initial blow, you leave yourself open to other attacks while still completing your now moot assault. Thus, macros must be called upon in moderation and cannot be relied on to succeed in every situation. Sometimes there is no substitute for carefully selecting from your repertoire one attack at a time.

While a system of dodges and parries may have made combat much more involving, the developers probably viewed such an addition as too complex and frustrating for the player. Instead, blocks are performed automatically and are dependant on your speed and level of experience. While manual blocking may have been a fun addition, I can certainly see how it would have made an already involving system overly-complex, so I fully understand the reasons against implantation.

Magic

With melee combat already being so entertaining, it would seem as if magic would be completely overlooked. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Soulbringer manages to provide its players with a system of magic that is not only innovative, but also works.

In order to utilize spells, you must first learn them from spell books. These books were written by the Harbinger and are scattered all over the land. But finding the books is only the beginning. Each book is magically sealed and requires a rune to open it. These runes must also be found, and have symbols that correspond to the book so that you know which rune will open which book. Now, with book and rune in hand, you must find a hex, a magical location that will allow you to open the book safely. Once the proper location is discovered, and the two correct relics have been obtained, the spells are learned and are available to use providing that you have a high enough level of experience.

Each of these spells has an effective range, traveling speed, and time to cast. These three criteria must be factored in when deciding what spell to use. It may be vital to shoot off a spell quickly and change to a weapon for melee combat, a situation where a powerful spell with a long casting time would be a poor choice. Also, because some spells may travel more slowly than others, it may be possible for faster opponents to outrun certain spells. Magic weaving is tricky, and if the player cannot decide the proper spell fast enough, he may have lost his opportunity to conjure and effective spell.

Each spell falls under one of the five magical areas: fire, water, air, earth, and spirit. And before you comment on the fact that the utilization of these standard elements does not deserve to be called innovative, consider the interesting twist Soulbringer uses. Each element starts balanced, and is cast will the same relative strength. But, as spells from a certain element are used, they become more effective while making the others less effective. This change can be monitored via an on-screen pie chart. While it may seem an easy choice to devote your spell-casting career to spells of only one element in order to effectively cast incredibly powerful spells, this method will not work at all. In addition to offensive strength being linked to frequency of use for an element, so too is defensive strength linked. Thus, if you decide that you will only cast fire spells through the duration of the game, a weak water spell may be more than enough to kill you. It is thus recommended that you balance the use of elements in order to remain relatively competent in the attack and defense of all areas. This twist makes magic even more requiring of thought, as spells cannot be used on a whim. The spell caster must ensure that he does not overuse a certain element and leave himself weak in another, else certain death is almost a guarantee.

Character Progression

While there is no custom character creation option available in Soulbringer, you can utilize advancement bonuses to construct a fairly unique character.

Upon gaining a certain amount of experience (which can be obtained through killing enemies or completing quests) you will raise levels. At each level, you may allocate points to your five stats (combat, strength, speed, magic, and health) as you see fit. If you choose, you may balance your stat building to create a well-rounded character. Alternatively, you can spend the majority of your points in one area to create a stout fighter, or a speedy magician.

It would have been nice to have been allowed to modify your character a bit before the game began in order to start with a unique character, but the ability to build however you like is a suitable replacement. This adds a bit to the replay value of Soulbringer, as the gameplay is quite different when playing a healthy warrior versus a frail but powerful wizard.

Fluid, flowing, and fantastic

Every aspect of the game is rendered using a high-color, 16-bit, 3D polygon engine. This makes the backgrounds look particularly nice and full of life. Soulbringer is richly designed and contains an extensive world for the player to explore. Though the scenery is often far too dark, it is nicely done and makes the game's backgrounds graphically pleasing.

The problem comes with the aesthetic side of characters. At times, their models just seem clunky. While the paper-doll appearance may be alright when seen from a distance, viewing the action up-close causes enough graphical problems to be somewhat distracting

But this flaw can easily be overlooked when viewing the animation that Soulbringer has to offer. By using the accurate collision detection and physics model, the game can make objects roll down hills, and severed limbs fly through the air with a speed dependant on the strength of the blow. In addition to this, each character has motion-captured movements. This means that if your character is running in a certain direction and you decide that he should begin running in the opposite direction, he will plant his feet into the ground, slide to a stop, and wheel around to begin his dart in the specified direction. It is amazing how far realistic animation goes to improve the overall look and feel of the game.

Combat animation is equally as fluid and exciting. Your main character will block blows, sidestep attacks, and jump back to avoid strikes. Sparks literally fly when weapons collide, and it is hard not to be exhilarated by the captivating animations that play before you.

Soulbringer also includes technical aspects that are often overlooked by other games. For example, the resolution can be set all the way up to 1600x1200; a far cry from games that lock you into 640x480. This flexibility allows for those with larger monitors to take advantage of the extra screen room without unrealistically bloating the characters and landscape.

While the graphics of Soulbringer cannot compete with the more resource-intensive games prevalent in the modern era, they are certainly nice enough to keep the player attracted. There may be the occasional graphical glitch, but the overall look and feel of Soulbringer and the realistic collisions and animations are more than enough to make up for these. The game is nothing short of beautiful in some areas.

Following the footsteps of a stranger

Soulbringer's music is not particularly incredible, and really takes a back seat when it comes to the rest of the game. While it is successful at supplementing, it falls short of inspiring me to listen to the soundtrack regularly. It could be better, but it does get the job done.

Sound effects are one of the things that make the audio category shine. We have enhanced sound animation, 3D effects, and over 200 special sound effects. The ability to find a source of water based on the sound of waves, or to track an opponent based on his footsteps is attainable only with immersive sound; something that Soulbringer certainly has.

Voice acting is done quite well, and voices always seem to fit their character. While some characters have voices that do not quite go with the face, the overall impression that the voices leave is a good one and it serves the game well. While some games have sub-par voice acting that detracts from the game, Soulbringer has wonderful voice-overs that can only enhance it.

Elegance for the veteran; simplicity for the novice

Most games with fighting and magic systems as complex as Soulbringer usually have equally complex controls to accompany them. Thankfully, this game completely avoids being unnecessarily complex. The interface is like a dream in that it is so intuitive. Point and click on an enemy to initiate combat. Click on specific attacks to activate them. Click on items if you want to pick them up. Hold the right mouse button and move the mouse to rotate the view if something is hidden. Shortcut keys make items and information only a stroke away. Not often is it that you can honestly say that you are not only comfortable with the controls, but pretty much proficient with them when first beginning the game.

Good gameplay is nothing if you do not have the controls to make its finer points accessible. Soulbringer did an excellent job at making complex systems that would dazzle even the most seasoned RPGer simple enough to be handled by a complete novice.

Soulbringer will capture your soul

I have always been a huge advocate of innovation. But when it comes down to it, I would much rather play a fun game than one that strives to be different but fails. Soulbringer succeeds in producing a game full, not only of innovation, but of quality. Watch the main character as he moves around, engage in a single battle, or marvel as you follow the path of a single snowflake from sky to ground and I guarantee that you will be as hooked as I was. Every game is with its flaws, and I would be a liar if I tried to claim that Soulbringer was flawless. But a game that can incorporate such a fresh breath in each of its various areas while still having the stability that comes with methods that have been successful since the dawn of RPGs is a success in my book. If you tire of the typical RPG, Soulbringer may be just the game for you. It is living proof that you need not constantly revive old methods of gaming to produce a solid product.

Brian Cavner

The combat system is innovative and wonderfully done.

The beautiful 3D-rendered backgrounds help to bring the world to life.







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