THE DARK SPIRE / Atlus / Nintendo DS

You see the word "niche" used a lot when people talk about the games Atlus chooses to port and translate to English. From my experience, what "niche" really means in gaming is that a game chooses to cater to a particular subset of mild psychiatric disorder, usually some flavor of OCD, at the expense of being a good time for anyone who happens to pick it up.

That's the deal with The Dark Spire - it's here for gamers who chose to piss away a good part of their youth plowing through featureless dungeons, slowly grinding through overly difficult challenges in AD&D style. Now they can piss away some of their adulthood as well!

Not to say that I'm looking down on the game - in fact, I quite enjoyed it for the first six or seven hours of gameplay time. This was the period in which my party was extremely weak, making tentative runs from the starting floor to explore the much tougher second floor and basement, and my imagination was fired by what the floors to come might contain, what quests might open themselves up, and what character classes and abilities would be uncovered as the game progressed.

As I approached the ten hour point, however, I gradually began to realize that the game would have nothing else in store for me for the remainder of its 50-60 estimated gameplay hours but the cold comforts of OCD. While I was enthralled early on by the fact that I could survive tough battles through tactical use of spells like the Sleep spell, after further hours I realized all the tactics the game really had to offer would be using the Sleep spell over and over again, at least until you get the face-melting fire spell that trashes whole enemy groups at once. It would never really get beyond the patterns established in the first few hours of gameplay, even with all the advanced character classes and whatnot.

And that's the thing that ultimately turned me off to the game - not the difficulty, which is actually manageable as compared to other dungeon crawls and which gives you the outlet of a high success probability of being able to simply run from any battle, but the *repetition*. Walking the same featureless hallways over and over and over again just to map out some small new area of featureless dungeon, get jumped by a band of tough enemies or an unexpected pitfall, and be forced to hike all the way back out (no egress-type spells until you get fairly far into the game.) Having to constantly guess where I was on the auto-map and pause the action to refer to it every half a minute, which nicely lays everything out for you, but bizarrely refuses to show your present location. Same old battle groups of the same old enemies over and over and over and over again.

I think The Dark Spire was actually *this* close to being a hardcore dungeon crawl that could actually appeal to the mainstream, but they didn't quite get the dividing line right between old-school elements that are key to the experience of games in the mold of Wizardry, and old-school elements that were only in place because these games were running on computers that only had access to like 64k of memory.

On the plus side, the game has a compelling, pulpy "graphic novel" art style that you wouldn't normally associate with a D&D type game, but that works well, especially in the enemy portraits. The music is also surprisingly excellent, having a very old-school, sort of Castlevania-ish feel, but with modern synth equipment. For bonus fun, a "Classic" mode can be flipped on at any time, which converts the entire game to wireframe dungeon graphics, NES-caliber monster sprites, and catchy chiptune renditions of all the music - a gimmick, yeah, but an awfully neat one. The game also has a number of niceties that would be unthinkable in old hardcore dungeon crawls - saving at any time, guaranteed affordable resurrection of characters, the aforementioned auto-map, and explanations of any item or spell by pressing the X button while in the menus.

There are hang-ups here that really don't need to be here, though, not even to placate the OCD dungeon crowd. Why, for example, do events need to be invisible until you stumble upon the right featureless tile? Encounters with NPCs in the dungeon, and objects/items that can be used are picked up, are not seen in any way - you just have to memorize or jot down what coordinates they are at, because their tile looks just like every other featureless bit of dungeon. The reason for this in the old days was lack of memory. I can't see any excuse for it now except for laziness.

Other problems - the insistence on using the D&D two-dice system to roll up characters and determine success rates, which was designed for a pre-computer era, and really doesn't have any business being in games anymore. Character creation is a tedious, random process, exacerbated by the fact that stat, race and alignment limitations on classes aren't totally made apparent to you at the outset. And how would anyone but a masochist enjoy the areas of "magical darkness" that can't be lit in any way, and have to be navigated by bumping around and stopping the action to look at your map at every step? Does the dungeon layout really need to be so drawn-out with long stretches of dead space, especially when all of the game's quests revolve around fetching something from either outside or some other area? There's a difference between hand-holding and courtesy to the player who just dropped $30-$50 on your product, and the designers here don't seem to quite totally get that.

Ultimately, if you're reading a review for this game, there's really three possibilities to why you're here. One is that you already own the game and are just looking for validation, in which case I really can't help you. The next is that you have the particular mindset to crave the dungeon crawl experience, and you just want to know how well this title will cater to it. If that's the case, I'd say yes, odds are very high this is what you are looking for and you should give it a play. If you're anyone else, however, you're likely just wondering what this is all about, maybe weighing whether or not to pick it up on a sale or something. If so, don't. The game wasn't made with you in mind and doesn't care whether it's a good experience for you or not.

Links :

* The Dark Spire Wiki - Closest thing to a FAQ/walkthrough at the moment

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
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