So here’s how I’m going to start this thing off, everyone: I died in my first battle of the game. I went into it fairly confident, as I had just created my level one team of adventurers and rolled their stats to my liking. There was my stout and trustworthy warrior, the fleet-footed thief, the benevolent healer, and the mage with a whopping four hit points. It seemed to be a pretty well-rounded group. I could tank, pick locks, recover, and shoot Impetus Ardens out of my wand (for the sake of clarity, let’s just assume those are fireballs). I had an answer to everything. Well… maybe not everything. Within my first three steps, I got ambushed by a group of six goblins and had my keister kicked right back to the main menu faster than you can say “I just started this game seven minutes ago.” It wasn’t because I didn’t understand the battle mechanics. It wasn’t because I was distracted by the television. It wasn’t my fault at all. It was because The Dark Spire is what nightmares are made of.
As a throwback RPG, The Dark Spire is a game with little to offer in terms of innovation. What we’ve got here is a title that does everything in its power to take you back to the good old days of RPGs when dungeon crawling and aimless wandering were what the genre was known for. Many before me have cited Wizardry as a game to compare this to, but I’m not here to mimic that, as I’ve neither played nor researched it. I’m just a guy who’s never been one to shy away from a challenge. Though admittedly, The Dark Spire nearly made me forget that.
When you’re not battling, you’ll either be exploring, battling some more, or dying. That’s the gist of what this game is all about. If you’re looking for an epic, story/character-centric tale filled with complex emotions and sub plots involving nonsensical twists and turns, then keep on walking. TDS has a very bare-bones story, one that will diminish into little more than an afterthought whilst you do the three things listed above (two if you skip the middle one and go straight to the latter). As a group of amateur adventurers, you’ve been called upon by the King of Kayanaaya to venture into the Dark Spire, a seven-floor tower located deep within the Forest of Mist. Awaiting you at the top is Tyrhung, his recently appointed archmage who has fled from society upon stealing the Queen’s royal treasure, the Fairy’s Tears. With the King promising fame and fortune to those who defeat the hermitic sorcerer and retrieve the stolen valuables, you and your band of beast bait begin your ascent.
That’s basically all you’re going to get. As you make the climb, mysteries of the tower will be introduced and characters will come and go, but at its core, TDS is one large fetch quest. It’s kind of a bummer, but you’ll be quick to forgive and forget. After all, it’s not the destination that matters; it’s the journey. And my, what a masochistic journey it is!
Everything is set into motion once you acquaint yourself with the patrons of the adventurer’s guild and create your four man party. In traditional, old-school fashion, stats are randomly rolled for your characters. The rolling mechanic also makes its appearance during level ups, though as players will quickly realize, hit points are the only basic stat that seems to be affected. This is because nearly all changes to a character’s stats are completely unobservable to the player. Leveling up, while obviously vital to your progression, never really seems to do much. Not numerically, anyway.
Similarly, changes from new equipment will be hidden as well; there will never be any sort of number indication as to whether your new helmet is better than your last. Players are forced into reading item descriptions and deciding for themselves if something sounds useful or not. Sometimes it might be, sometimes it won’t be, sometimes it will even prevent you from casting spells; it’s all a guessing game. The hindrance, while crippling at first, became less and less noticeable as I played the game, but I can easily see why it might turn off many a gamer. Even I can admit that it’s pretty insane.
The seven floor trek to the tower’s top is a long and arduous one. Grueling, even. With TDS being a traditional dungeon crawler in the truest sense, one can expect a labyrinth of hallways and rooms with traps, puzzles and all sorts of nasty creatures awaiting them at every possible turn. And these aren’t monsters that can be bested with a few flicks from your broadsword. No, no. It’ll take a healthy dose of patience and resource management to best these baddies. The creatures of the Dark Spire are definitely ones to fear, as they can and will decimate you at any given point in the game, be it your first or final encounter.
While the difficulty surely takes some getting used to, the gameplay itself is actually quite simple. Combat more or less revolves around the four options traditional RPGs normally utilize: Attack, Defend, Spells, and Items. Players select the actions of their four party members and watch as they play out amongst the opposition, with the order dependant on everyone’s dexterity. Depending on the player’s preferences, physical attacks and spells can be modified with additional effects. The Lunge Attack option, for instance, reduces one’s accuracy and skyrockets their attack power, while Cast Carefully slowly fires off a spell, but increases precision.
Things start to get tricky once you begin relying upon spells, which, if you’re smart, is basically the second you walk into the tower. Classes that can use magic are limited to a specific number of casts for their spells that increases as they level up, with the maximum amount capped off at nine. What this means is that no matter how godly your characters are, they will only be able to cast nine spells in a particular group (nine groups in total) before they becomes dead wait. The aforementioned resource management mostly applies to this, and it becomes increasingly important to ration yourself the higher up you travel. It’s not until much later that you get a spell that can instantly warp you back to town, so many of your excursions will unfortunately be two-way trips. To put it bluntly, you can plan ahead or die. The choice is yours.
Exploration takes place from the first-person perspective, so all you’re going to see is wall after wall after wall with the occasional door thrown in there to spice things up. But even then, everything looks exactly the same. Luckily, there’s a map that constructs itself step-by-step as you make your way deeper into the tower. The only problem is that you, the adventurer, aren’t displayed on it, so unless you’ve got a spot-on internal compass (or a handy spell from your mage), chances are that you’re going to get lost every so often. I don’t care how adept you are at navigation, there will definitely be a few times where the general lack of direction will lead to frustration, even if it’s only for a few seconds.
And just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the monsters will swarm in and mess it all up. Tell me reader: Can you multitask? Can you maneuver your way through mazes and stay alive, all the while maintaining a calm demeanor? If the answer is no, then you’re going to have one heck of a time with TDS because juggling these aspects is an oh so painful necessity that can quickly begin grating away at your psyche, regardless of how immune to impatience you are.
Oh yes, and then there are the tower’s obstacles. The Dark Spire is loaded with traps and layouts that are out to make your life absolutely miserable. At one moment things can be peachy, then all of a sudden, a hidden warp panel on the floor can zip you off to an unknown location. Once you’re there, you might take another step and activate a harmful pitfall trap, or perhaps you’ll enter a hallway that is completely pitch black. Some doors might blindside you with a blast of noxious gas that poisons the entire party while others force you into enemy encounters. Treasure chests that drop post-encounter can also be rigged with traps, forcing you to pick them apart in order to get at the goods inside. If your thief botches, it could very well mean instant death for your entire party. It’s one thing to get killed by a monster, but the degradation of being torn asunder by a wooden box is simply unrivaled!
In terms of sheer difficulty and ridiculousness, however, it’s the puzzles that will undoubtedly bring a twitch to your eye. Some of these puppies were so vast, obscure and completely obtuse that I began to wonder if I could possibly surpass them without the aid of a guide. Every item you find needs to be kept. Every wall of every square of every map needs to be examined. And surely, every option needs to be thoroughly explored.
It was during some of these puzzle sequences that I began to realize TDS’s lone, nearly-fatal flaw: Its lack of direction. The intricacies presented here are unlike anything I’ve really experienced in past games, and while I admire the deviancy, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was lost the entire adventure. A part of me digs that. The Dark Spire is supposed to be this overwhelming place with endless corridors and confusion aplenty, and Success captured that exceptionally. The other part of me wanted to punch holes in my drywall after I had been stumped for the umpteenth time. I was clueless when it came to most of the puzzles, I had trouble finding the dungeon’s hidden doors (the dozens upon dozens of hidden doors!), and I couldn’t even single-handedly uncover the secondary character classes that, for me, were necessary to completing the game. I have no doubt in my mind that there’s an audience for this stuff, but for those seated elsewhere, the challenge will probably be a bit off-putting.
One final thing you might be relieved to hear is that despite all these hardships, there is a lifeline thrown your way to make everything a bit less burdensome: The save-anywhere feature. Yes, you can save wherever you like. Had it not been for this, I honestly don’t think I would have made it to the credit screen. The fact that I was dying every other battle made it an absolute imperative, and by the end of the game, I relied upon it just as much as my healer. But believe me, when you’re basically blackmailed into saving battle after battle, it’s not a godsend. It’s called an annoyance.
But enough about the gameplay. For me, some of the more interesting aspects of the game were the visual and audio departments. Normally, I’d cut these areas into two different sections, but this game does something that ties them closely together that I find absolutely fascinating. TDS has a total of two presentation styles that players can shuffle between on the fly in the forms of Modern and Classic Mode. The former sports detailed, colored graphics and orchestral tunes. The stylized art and dank, deathly colors look quite nice, with each of the seven floors donning a different look and sound to keep your climb varied (I couldn’t get enough of the carnival-themed area, complete with freak show attraction!). In short, by using this option, you’ll be playing an average DS game with average DS technology.
But upon switching to Classic Mode, the game pulls a time warp on you and sucks the quality right out of everything. Field graphics become completely wire-framed, menus are nothing but text and lines, monsters shrink into low resolution models, and the music and sound effects are reduced to midi renditions. Suddenly, you’re right back in the 8-bit era where everything looks and sounds like hell. It’s pretty awesome. Actually, scratch that. It’s all sorts of awesome! The music especially (bloop, bleep, bloop, blip!) sounds, in a word, spectacular.
My only complaint? We can’t blend the modes together and harmonize the new-age art style with the senile-tastic beats. That definitely would have helped straighten my frowny face (you know, from all the dying). Still, I can’t help but appreciate the concept, one of the game’s distinguishing features. I can’t say as though I’ve seen something like this done before, and it just reeks of nostalgic undertones and inventiveness.
Have you ever been so amazing at something – the best at a sport, the valedictorian – then all of a sudden be one-upped by someone who was leagues better than you? In a way, The Dark Spire was that someone for me. I’ve played tough games before, but this was something I really wasn’t expecting. I was blindsided, and in a way, feel defeated due to my inability to handle it at times. With that said, if you take one thing from this review, let it be this: The Dark Spire is not for everyone. I know that’s a pretty clichéd blanket statement that you might see thrown around a lot, but I really do think it’s the best way to describe it. The sparse story is not for everyone. The simplistic battle system is not for everyone. The difficulty? Definitely not for everyone. But regardless, at the end of the journey, after the countless deaths and billions of bruisings, the stat rolling and puzzle solving, you will undoubtedly feel accomplished.