reviews\ May 5, 2009 at 8:00 pm

The Dark Spire - NDS - Review

Thanks to the success of remakes and re-releases of old games, nostalgia has become an important part of our industry. More and more developers are designing their games to play like they were made 20 years ago. If you’re not a gamer, that might sound crazy. Who in their right mind would make a movie that way? (Black and white overlays don’t count.) But if you loved the NES or any game machine before it, you know that there are some classic gameplay styles that must be relived.

The Dark Spire, a new RPG for Nintendo DS, is retro role-playing in every sense of the word. The Dark Spire differs from other retro RPGs in that it cuts the traditional (and often expected) elements out of the picture. Played from a first-person perspective, most of what you experience is visualized as simply as possible. Battles are presented with fewer graphic details than Pokemon; the details themselves, however, are quite expansive. This is more severe than the average RPG, which typically allows players to blast through the game with brute force. The Dark Spire is much less forgiving, dropping several bombs – traps, difficult enemies and few gameplay explanations – that’ll really test your skills and determination.

Classic or Really Classic

As is, The Dark Spire is the epitome of old-school. If you want to go back even further to the genre’s introduction, players can switch to a classic visual display that converts the backgrounds, character info and menu screens to wireframes. Even the sounds change, allowing the game to fool anyone into believing it was made 20+ years ago. For the nostalgic effect alone, this mode is pretty cool.

Regardless of the graphics you wish to view, The Dark Spire’s gameplay remains unchanged. In the beginning, you’ll have to build a team of four characters whose health, strength and semi-random stats may not be optimal. There are four races to choose from: Human, Halfling, Elf and Dwarf; each has an advantage in battle abilities, alignment choices and/or class selection. Your alignment decides who you choose to support: the Gods of Order or Gods of Chaos. Neither seems to be better than the other, though it’s impossible to know that up front since the game doesn’t indicate any pros or cons in either direction. Humans and Halflings may choose either side or stay neutral; Dwarves, however, are always lawful (following the Order), and Elves insist on remaining neutral.

Whichever races you choose, stat points must then be assigned (to strength, vitality, intelligence, dexterity and charisma) to determine which character classes are available. Now suppose one of your characters has at least 11 strength points – he can choose to become a warrior. Suppose another character has at least 11 intelligence points – he may choose to become a mage. The other two classes are thief and priest, the latter of which is gifted with holy spells.


Battle of the Past

As you venture out into the world, tough battles are delivered at random, making the game very difficult from the start. Enemies appear as a single-frame image; attacking them will not reveal how much damage is dealt per strike. Since this is a menu-, not visual-based RPG, repetition is unavoidable. That, however, is not as disheartening as watching the enemy defeat your weak party time and time again, a fate that is guaranteed to befall even the most skilled role-players. World navigation consists of moving through a generic first-person world, with walls and corridors that often look the same. Unquestionably, this is a game of acquired taste.

If this were a more modern RPG (or even a typical 2D release), the battles may have been too frustrating for their own good. But in the spirit of really old-school gaming, The Dark Spire is unusually compelling. The music is the partial culprit – despite being a game that wants to have come from the ‘80s, the score sounds like it was inspired by the last 15 to 20 years of RPGs. There are hints of early Square games ranging from Final Fantasy to Parasite Eve, but never once does the game approach the point of sounding like a knock-off. Every song is a leap in another direction, and yet there is still enough continuity within the music to prevent it from sounding like a compilation. The Dark Spire currently comes packed with a CD of music from the game, and let me tell you – there aren’t any DS games that deserved it more.

If games were recommended based on music alone, The Dark Spire would be a must-play. Taking the gameplay into consideration, this is not an RPG that everyone will embrace. It was specifically designed for one group of gamers, leaving the Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest fans to look for something else (which is hardly a problem considering that most other RPGs were designed for them). Those who have been craving what The Dark Spire has to offer will be overjoyed and potentially overwhelmed – while the basic elements (such as character creation) may be simple enough, only the most patient players will be able to make it through the game’s darkest, most difficult hours.

Review Scoring Details for The Dark Spire

Gameplay: 7.8
Cutthroat role-playing without any of the bells and whistles of modern-day gaming. Great for a very specific class of gamers.

Graphics: 6
Take a look at any of the screenshots and you’ll see a game that is very primitive. The artwork is good, especially within the context of ‘70s- or ‘80s-era gaming. But the graphics are hardly standout.

Sound: 9.3
A monumental work of art that will be cherished by anyone who loves great music.

Difficulty: Hard
One of the most difficult RPGs made for the DS.

Concept: 7.9
It's not easy to say that The Dark Spire was a good "concept" – it is, after all, based on RPGs of the past. But the end product is very well conceived.

Overall: 7.8
If you acquire the taste of The Dark Spire, it will engage and entertain your senses for hours.


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