First things first. This is not a review/verdict or anything similar. I set out with the intention of giving Drakensang a fair, long and ultimately helpful review, but I can’t. I just can’t get far enough into the game to give it a proper review, so this is an impressions piece.
That said, what this piece will also attempt to illustrate is the need for the first chapter of a game to be engaging and, above all, entertaining.
It’s not that Drakensang is a bad game, but it certainly doesn’t have the most exciting opening scene. RPGs often fall into this trap, especially fantasy ones. The game begins with you being sent to a town for some reason that wasn’t interesting enough for me to remember, when, surprise surprise, there’s a quarantine on. Stuck outside the city, a guard helpfully informs you that he might let you in if you get some references from citizens who happen to be outside the city. Off you toddle to go and grab them.
Almost every fantasy RPG I’ve played has something like this in, and it is always annoying. I’m going to use the Witcher for this example, entirely because Chris is playing it while I write this. The exact same situation happens in the Witcher, but is mitigated by not being the very first thing that happens. The Witcher introduces you to its world by having you fight a giant insect beast in a decrepit castle before bonking a witch, then sends you off to Quarantine City, Fantasyland. You get a taste of what the rest of the game will be in that first half hour, manic combat against big opponents, boobs, and the occasional smarmy dialogue line.
You don’t get that impression with Drakensang’s opening. It may be somewhat childish of me, but in RPGs I tend to start judging the quality of something by ranking the awesomeness of the basic spells. When given a choice, I am always some form of wizard; I blame this on the romantic notion of strolling around hurling fireballs at people I don’t like. When playing a magical class, that’s what I want – fiery death. What I don’t want, as became quite quickly apparent in Neverwinter Nights 2 for instance, are spells that look pathetic. I don’t want to bring Warcraft into this, but I feel that I must. The spells in Warcraft look powerful. Yes, they do start to get repetitive, and a great deal of it is just levelling up the same spell to make it’s animation bigger, but they are still impressive. Not so in Drakensang.
I understand that starting spells are supposed to be a bit crap, being, as they are, training spells and all, but they can still look impressive. The fantasy equivalent of a card trick, they should have an effect. My experience of the early spells in Drakensang was very much one of disappointment, my bland looking spell glancing off a generic wolf with nary a scratch. It made me sad.
Also, I hate the camera. Seriously, I really hate it. There’s a strange voyeurism about it that makes the game a little disjointed. It’s not tied to the movements of your character in the same way as other RPGs, instead it clumsily follows you as you run away, like an overweight documentary crew, consistently requiring you pause the game and forcibly move them into a better position just so you can see what you are doing. It’s annoying and was possibly the main reason I lost interest in the game.
It is important that you understand, however, that I’m not saying Drakensang is a bad game. I am in no way entitled to make such a judgement with what I’ve played. You’ll notice I’ve not touched on the plot, or characterisation or any of that business, and that’s because I couldn’t get far enough to get my teeth in.
People will probably say “give it a chance, it gets better once you sink a few hours in” and that may be true. I myself have said that about a number of games in the past. But Drakensang has caused me to rethink this position somewhat. When considering the whole nature of the medium, the vast catalogue of video games currently and soon-to-be available, it is important a game grab you from the outset. Games are all about living a dream of some description, and you need to be sure that the dream the game is going to provide is the one you want. Good games use the first level as a sort of taster of the sort of thing you will reach at the end; they’ll show you a powerful wizard decimating foes, give you a brief play as an ultimate bad ass character, boobs, whatever, then stick you back in noobsville with the knowledge that you will, eventually, become that good again. Sticking you in tedium and saying “the game will get better eventually” without any proof doesn’t provide the necessary hook to draw you in.
Sometimes, I’m glad I don’t get paid for reviewing games. If I was being paid I would have had to have played through Drakensang in its entirety, and I really don’t want to. I have other, more exciting games to play with my time. But still, this is an important point that I think all developers need to understand, from consumer to developer, the first scene of you game must categorically be engaging and interesting, otherwise how do you expect people to stay around until the end?