Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Anyone who is a fan of RPGS probably has never played dungeon crawlers before, especially in the present day. Dungeon crawlers, if you wish to hear what I consider the definition is, it is basically a first or third person view game featuring D&D rules of balanced parties of nameless adventurers wandering a maze-like dungeon filled with traps, secret doors and tons of monsters. The trick to these games is teamwork with your party and a lot of luck and grinding.
Sadly, this type of game is rarely seen today. In fact, until I picked up “The Dark Spire” for the Nintendo DS, I never knew that these types of games were still being made. “The Dark Spire” is as old school as you can get, you need to create a party of four, which can be a mix of elves, dwarves, halflings and humans with various classes, like warrior, thief, etc. The goal, survive the Dark Spire, a twisted maze of a tower with seven levels of torture if you can make it through that.
Since the game uses simple D&D rules, basically all stats and rules can come from a Dungeon master guide. Magic users can only use spells for set amounts, thieves can pick locks and find traps equal to their level, and warriors can take down enemies with brute force, being your front line fighters. Later in the game you can actually get special classes, like Arch-Mage, which turns into the powerhouse of a tank against enemies and boss characters.
Attaining these classes however is a pain in the ass, simply because of the games design. Simply put, the game is hard. There is no real map to help you, unless if you splurge for a spell, so backtracking through the tower makes things time consuming and difficult, constantly checking the layout of the map and guessing where your position is. The enemies in the game can be difficult if you don’t level up properly, and can literally wipe out a party if one character becomes incapacitated. Again, timing and strategy is key, so if you’re not patient, you will likely not survive.
The game really is this. There are no directions to what you should do. There are quests in the game, but no indication as to where to find them in the tower itself. You can buy and sell items you find or with gold you acquire, but the selections are arbitrary and weak until you level up. The characters that you interact with, from neutral merchants to your guild master, really offer nothing else other than giving out quests or information that you can’t use, or are not equipped to use yet.
The game is all trial and error. A lot of gamers, especially new school RPG fans, will likely be turned off by this. They prefer a straight forward RPG like “Final Fantasy” or “Fallout”, where there is exploration in the game, but there are indications as to what to do and where to go. “The Dark Spire” has no direction, so you need to experiment by using the equivalent of “look” commands from old school adventure games to really find anything. Basically, check every wall you can find, because something may come up in the end.
As you can see, I am kind of repeating myself a lot because there really is not a lot to say about the game. But honestly, those who are familiar with this type of game would relish in the challenge. The game is supposed to be difficult to the players, almost painfully uncompromising at times, and that is the challenge for gamers; perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds and the unknown. The game has more freedom than you think, can cater to any strategy you desire, and if your successful in surviving, the reward is that much sweeter. You can use a guide if you want, and frankly I would recommend it if you’re not familiar with this type of game, but overall the goal is to survive without aid.
The game also has great presentation. The art style is dark and colorful, kind of like a kinetic, 2-D painting you would see in fantasy artbooks. The game is text based and has still shots of everything you face, but it looks good. The music is also very kinetic, sometimes hyper when in battle, sometimes serene when you enter a temple or something spiritual. And as an added bonus, you get a second presentation mode, which makes the game real old school by giving you wire-frame worlds and Midi music. It is a nice touch to the game if you ask me, a bonus mode if you will.
When it’s all said and done “The Dark Spire” is a dungeon crawler throwback that will frustrate newbies and make old school gamers giddy. It’s hard and uncompromising, but it’s supposed to be hard and uncompromising. The design reflects this, even though some tweaks could have been made, especially how annoying the quest system is. Either way, this throwback is worth a play if you can get through the tough exterior that the game is wrapped around in.