Realms of Ancient War
Baptising any modern dungeon crawler a Diablo rip-off is excessive, though not entirely unjustified. After all, Diablo itself was an unpretentious succession of the model Gauntlet left behind from its arcade and Commodore 64 days (as well as many other conversions). Realms of Ancient War initially appears to be very much in the same vein as its elder, but it’s soon evident that this is more spiritually bound to the hack’n’slash console-based Baldur’s Gate titles, with its linear path and local cooperative play.
The story makes no attempt to avoid generic convention. Able to choose from one of three classes – mage, warrior, or female rogue, each, thankfully, with their own quick save slot – there’s a war against chaos and segregation amongst the human, elves and dwarves is at a boiling point. Opening with an introduction unique for each character, the plot pops up, says hello, hurls the King of the North’s soul into our hero and sets you off on an adventure across four continents.
As the spirit of the king leaps into the hero they’re granted with the same body-hopping ability. This can be used to temporarily possess specific creatures who are weakened enough, their limited abilities then yours to use as you command. Crushing the enemy below with giant fists is momentarily fun but never reached its true potential. You’re never granted the prospect of causing real damage and stomping throughout the territory, tipping the tables in your favour. So it becomes a skill best utilised to evade injury for brief periods.
The three characters themselves start with a few basic attacks based upon their class. These skills can be expanded upon or new ones learnt as you grind experience in combat and level up. However, the design is set to have the player try the adventure separately with three classes, rather than start with an empty vessel who has access to all skills and weapons and therefore fully customisable.
New weaponry and armour – mostly pigment and statistical variances – can also be purchased by merchants who are conveniently dotted around in the most hazardous and treacherous of scenes. The high price of items is meant as an incentive to grind through the same areas, slowly amassing small quantities of gold to buy an item you may well loot later. Frankly, I couldn’t be arsed.
As new items are unearthed and powerful abilities unlocked the characters become more interesting to play, with up to eight abilities hot-keyed at once. Spells pound down upon the hordes with damage dealt out running into the thousands in one attack. Within the first few hours as the mage enemies were being pinned to the ground with giant roots, choking in giant poisonous clouds and being battered with a volley of fireballs.
Earlier on in the campaign, when encircled by nigh on twenty skeleton warriors who were all rather miffed that their lord had been slain, my mage unleashed a second level spell. The toxic cloud that was cast blossomed into a green fog and dissolved their bones within seconds, leaving our mage to collect the loot and feel pretty damn tough for a newcomer.
As such, combat is smooth, simple and streamlined but soon flows into a drone of fire, arrows and metal-on-metal. R.A.W. suffers from an inherent and hard to balance element of the genre: the grind. As a trade off for the large numbers of enemies onscreen at once – which is impressive – repetitions of the same battle are commonplace.
With simple AI and no individuality within the enemy ranks the engagements soon become a pre-set pattern. Do this, cast that, flee for a second, repeat, loot. By the end this grew tiresome. In one instance I sprinted through corridors of skeletons rather than go through the motions again.
This meant there was never a true sense of threat or difficulty. Death was often a cause of being swamped and not drinking potions quick enough. A respawn then casting me back into the action. Repetition of enemy types that become more difficult hampers the notion of progress. As you level up so do seemingly those around you; it always took precisely three fireballs to take down an archer.
The combination of the panned camera and basic character models also makes it hard to tell what’s what in intense combat and whether a creature is stood up or laying down dead. This is compounded by a largely dry colour palette and generic sound design, with sound effects sometimes missing or audibly compressed. An absence of interesting hooks in the earlier locations leaves many areas a wasteland of forgotten events. The panorama does become more interesting as the campaign progresses and battles commence through castle ruins and flush woodland, with aesthetically varied creatures following the same AI patterns, but the damage is done by then.
Local play is available, allowing two friends to join forces against the chaos. However, there is no online support and a current bug ceases any connection to XBL whilst playing the game, forcing a message before each area informing you your score won’t be recorded.
At the core of its heart R.A.W. does exactly what it says on the digital tin. Perfectly fine in execution, its refusal to deviate or break the mould holds back its ideas from becoming fully realised and providing real character or polish.