The Good: Stunningly beautiful realm The Bad: containing a lackluster and somewhat dull adventure The Ugly: which I hesitate to call an RPG as most contemporary role-playing elements are missing
I am likely not the best person to be reviewing Arcania: Gothic 4. For one, though I like RPGs a great deal, I tend to fixate on one in particular for a very long time and play it to exhaustion, and so miss many fine entries into the RPG market that would serve as a basis of comparison. So, while I played Oblivion (and the expansion Shivering Isle) for maybe 150 hours, and Fallout 3 and its expansions for well over 200 hours, I missed Dragon Age completely. And though I explored every corner of Mass Effect, I never touched the sequel. Secondly, unless some unusual quirk on the part of the game developers led them to name this Gothic 4 without any prequels, there likely have been three other entries in the Gothic series, but they ring no bells with me. And I don’t mean the Dragon-Age-didn’t-play-it rings no bells, I mean the name Gothic means nothing to me. OK, that’s not quite true – I think I recall a friend of mine several years ago telling me that Gothic 2 was a bug riddled but generally fun sandbox-style RPG, but that’s hearsay, and I could well be mis-remembering the entire conversation. Better for all of us if we just forget that I mentioned it at all. Anyway, if the previous entries in the Gothic series were sandbox style, then Gothic 4 represents a significant departure from those. Gothic 4 is an as on-the-rails RPG as I’ve ever seen, and exceedingly light on RPG elements, and soft on dramatic action. What it does have are mole rats and lots of them. Sound interesting to you? Yeah, me neither, but read on anyway, or I’ll have to look for a real job, and we all know how awful this job market is right now.
Gothic 4 is an over-the-shoulder-camera RPG much like Oblivion or Mass Effect, but it leaves much of the role-playing activities out. The result is a game that would ordinarily be action heavy, like a graphically superior version of Torchlight, had the overall story and action not been so dull. You begin as a nameless shepherd, living a sort of idyllic life if your idea of idyllic is doing menial tasks for everyone from clearing a farm of mole rats to gathering mushrooms, when your life is suddenly ruined by the destruction of your village by a rogue army. The basic plot is one of revenge, and that would be OK if you ever got away from the whole mushroom gathering thing, but after half a dozen hours of gameplay as a level 15 character I’m still gathering honey and looking for a missing peg leg. It’s a game loaded with lame side quests, all of which are linked into the main quest line so as to be unavoidable. When you find your path on the plot train blocked by brigands or a gate, rather than simply killing the brigands or destroying the gate you have to meander your way through a boring list of favors and sub-quests to get the brigands to let you through, or get a permit to open the gate. Yawn.
The entire game seems geared towards the EXTREMELY novice RPG market. There’s no encumbrance or inventory management to speak of – if you want to carry the world, carry it. Ninety different weapons, a hundred suits of armor; it doesn’t matter. You never need rest or food (except to heal). Careers are organized along the fighter/thief/mage lines, but anyone can don any armor or learn any skills (using a skill allocation system similar to Mass Effect), so the lines are blurred and ultimately a player need not decide on any given career at all. Object and potion creation is simply a matter of collecting the ingredients and presto – no chance of failure. There are only three spells in the game – fire, ice, and lightening, and though if you dedicate the skill points to the spells they can become devastating, the presence of only three spells is very limiting against other RPGS that may have hundreds plus the ability to create even more on your own. Even the lockpicking mini-game is overly easy as when you fail to pick a lock you can simply try again without any penalty. How’s this for easy: in the entire game I never died. Not once. Combat is really easy. Partly that is because if the enemy is looking like he is about to make an attack – and all of the enemies telegraph their combat plans hugely – a dive roll to safety is easy to execute. Partly that is because the enemy selection and difficulty curve seems out of whack. As a level fifteen character I’m still killing blood flies and mole rats. I haven’t come across an enemy that didn’t die in three or four arrows or half a dozen blows yet. Oh, and here’s an interesting gaming element: there’s no such thing as a crime in Arcania. You can’t kill anyone you’re not supposed to no matter how hard you try, and you can take anything valuable that you set eyes upon. In the guard tower with guards standing nearby, you can unlock chests and take what you like. Ditto in the city merchant stores. Arcania is truly yours for the taking.
I must confess that the land of Arcania is magnificent. It is full of the same kinds of wow moments that I last experienced when I first crawled out of the dungeon of Oblivion. The scenery is filled with blowing grass, craggy cliffs, amazing castles, and beautiful night, fog, and rain effects (though they have no impact on game play otherwise). The rooms and caves are filled with interesting features and little decorator touches, but you can’t interact with them at all. Piles of food, bottles of wine, interesting looking books – all static eye candy. The character models look a little out of sorts, as the movement of their mouths almost never matches their words and identical people frequently populate the towns as if some enormous inbreeding experiment were taking place.
The music is often rousing, sometimes subtle, but rarely inappropriate and the developers are to be congratulated for that as well. The voicework – hmm, what to say about that? The voicework on the whole is OK, but the presentation and interaction with NPCs is all screwed up. What happens is that when you meet up with another character a kind of movie kicks off using the game engine. At some point comes the time for you to interact, and a menu comes up with your available responses (sometimes only one). When you pick one, your character says that exact phrase, as if you hadn’t just read it yourself to select it. Your selection of response rarely seems to matter, as when you pick one, the others are usually still available afterwards. And for the most part these conversations are really long winded. But they are well voiced.
So on the whole I’m unpleased with Gothic 4. It’s a wonderful graphics engine with an adequate combat system hampered by dull quests and a lack of action. More action would have put them into the action RPG realm, which I personally think is somewhat under-populated on the PC platform. Of course, more mainstream RPG fans are going to be turned off by the lack of common RPG elements. You’ll likely be better off picking up Dragon Age on the discount rack if you, like me, haven’t played it yet.