If you were born in the eighties (or did your retro homework), you may have have fond memories of a little Commodore 64 game by the name of Wizardry. I was only four years old when it came out, but I managed to get my hands on it a few years later, and I clearly remember wandering through the game with a sense of awed fascination. The game became famous for spearheading the dungeon-crawler genre (although the first real dungeon crawler was Pedit5, back in 1974) thanks to its dark atmosphere and brutal difficulty.
Twenty-eight years after Wizardry, Atlus has come to the table with The Dark Spire for the DS, a 3D dungeon crawler that clearly pays devout homage to the great crawlers of old. Boasting a Shadowgate-turned-art deco aesthetic, the game places you in control of a party of adventurers who must ascend The Dark Spire and defeat the mad wizard Tyrhung. Sounds like a good old fashioned adventure, indeed.
However, if dungeon crawlers are well known for anything, it's the level of skill and tenacity required to successfully play one. Atlus is never a company to back down from such a challenge, and The Dark Spire is difficult indeed. But the big question is, will it appeal to more than just thirty-something gamers with a soft spot in their heart for the days of old? Follow me past the jump to learn the answer...
The Dark Spire (Nintendo DS)
The Dark Spire begins simply and, like any good retro game, throws you more or less directly into the action. You'll find yourself face to face with the guildmaster, Eventail, who will ask you to create your party before heading into the training room. This part of the game will be old hat to anyone who's ever played a proper dungeon crawler before, but for those of you who haven't, the character creation allows you to choose a name, a race, an alignment, and then asks you press a button a few times to randomly set each character's stats.
After creating a party (or if you like, you can use the four characters already created), you'll be shipped off to combat training. This will be taught by Sir Garland, a knight with a strange sense of humor and a few weapons for your woefully underequipped motley crew. Be smart and equip yourself with the goods he gives you and then get ready for a battle.
Your first fight is a good introduction to the basic menus. For each action you take, there will be a little arrow to the right of it that will allow you to tweak it a bit. For instance, when attacking, you can choose a swift, precision, lunge or rage attack, and when defending you can either choose to counter or hide. In many games, what you choose in these types of battles doesn't really make a vast difference, as you will probably be able to win anyway. In The Dark Spire, making the wrong choice can cost you the death of the entire party, you included. You'll need to put your strategy cap on if you expect to get through this alive.
Defeating Sir Garland will also introduce you to your first treasure chest, as well as your first trap. By inspecting a treasure chest, you can tell whether or not it has a trap on it. To disarm the trap, you must choose a party member to do so (your thief is always a good one to go with) and then choose which parts to disarm in order. Despite success or failure you still get the items within, but screwing it up means a nice dose of poison or some flying needles to go with them.
After returning to the guild and reporting your success, you'll be given the main quest, which is to climb the tower and defeat the wizard. Before leaving, you can prepare your characters by visiting the shop for items or the inn to rest and cure party members. After leaving town, you'll also notice that you can visit the Hall of Order or the Hall of Chaos. Both halls will offer you services such as reviving dead party members, curing ailments and praying, which levels up your faith stats. However, your ability to enter one or the other is alignment-specific, so you cannot enter the Hall of Chaos if your party members are all Lawful or Neutral, and vice-versa for the Hall of Order.
The training session is not too difficult, but once you enter the tower, things become truly hard. After all, if you use the default party, your strongest warrior starts out with a whopping total of 13 hit points. If you barrel forward without taking some time to level these guys right at the start, you're destined to die and die fast. Use a little patience though, and you'll quickly learn the rewards of thinking before each move you make.
One thing that will help you out here will be to spend some time paying attention to your items and how they work with your party members. For instance, you can equip your warrior with a wand if you so desire, but expect to see his status suffer for it. There's no guide that tells you what weapon is best on each type, except the tiny bit of info you can glean from pressing Y while in a shop, so it's all about trial and error when it comes to equipping your characters properly. Pay close attention, as it could save you a few dozen deaths.
Of course, if you're all over the hardcore difficulty, you may enjoy a little lagniappe that the developers threw in called Classic Mode. Hit start and select this from your menu, and the game will revert to wireframe mode, which ought to hurl you directly back into 1981. The average gamer is totally not going to get into this feature -- it is all about the hat tip to the dungeon crawlers of the past here.
So let's say that you do persevere and manage to push your party past the first round of early deaths and actually advance a bit, you'll really get a taste of what elevates The Dark Spire from being good to great: its personality. For instance, while wandering about on the first floor of the dungeon you randomly encounter a guy who wants to sell you an "Important Item". No word on what it actually is, mind you, and he won't tell you anything about it, but you can either choose to take it or leave it. During this encounter I actually found myself thinking of the Goriyas in The Legend of Zelda who says "grumble, grumble" to you -- something about the subtle humor of both encounters has a charm that too many games miss entirely.
That being said, The Dark Spire is simply not a game for everybody. The patience it takes to level your characters up enough to even pass the first few levels of the dungeon is of a quality that many gamers will not possess. However, for hardcore fans of dungeon crawlers and roguelikes, The Dark Spire will provide a stylish and enjoyable experience that will keep you busy for some time. You have to hand it to Atlus and Success for taking on a project that's aimed at such a niche audience -- their passion for giving gamers a hardcore title obviously ranked above any need to dumb the game down. Bravo!
Score: 7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)