Game review: Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon

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 Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon is a first-person dungeon delver by Rampant Games with an unusual focus on comedy and characterization. It lacks polish in a few areas, but FK:TSoSD is such an enjoyable (and unique) game that it’s impossible not to recommend it.

More than anything, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon reminds me of the old Might and Magic games. You spend your time wandering around, exploring, accepting (and completing) quests, fighting things in turn-based battles and gathering loot.

As in classics such as Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen, you start the game with a pre-generated party of characters. And just like in those games, combat is a turn-based affair where you issue commands on a character-by-character basis. You don’t get the option to roll up new characters, unfortunately, but you can effectively convert your existing characters to different classes through careful point allocation upon leveling up.

There’s a reason you have to use the four starting characters the game gives you. It’s central to the thing that really makes Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon stand out relative to its forbears–the writing. Writing is generally an afterthought in games like this. Your party is typically populated by mutes who, but for their individual classes and stats, would be all but interchangeable. Not so in FK:TSoSD!

It isn’t that the writing is funny (although it frequently is); it’s that the characters are believable and likeable. There is some strong characterization at work here, with relationships consistently revealed (and complicated) through onscreen interaction.

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Much of the game’s amusement comes from a stable of deliberately silly quests, and your characters’ fourth-wall-breakingly genre savvy commentary on what happens during those quests. Your characters remark on genre tropes, on their own classes and abilities, and sometimes even on the actual player. If your characters all die, they comment on that, too. RPG veterans, in particular, will get a real kick out of the dialog here in a Dead Alewives sort of way.

Frayed Knights works as more than RPG satire, however. It’s a solid, enjoyable first-person dungeon delver in its own right, with loads of quests to undertake as your fledgling adventuring group tries, Rodney Dangerfield-like, to amass some respect.

Frayed Knights occupies a strange twilight dimension between real-time and turn-based. Enemy groups patrol wilderness areas and dungeons in real time. Your movement occurs in real time as well. However, combat is turn-based, as are most other in-game actions (like searching or lock-picking).

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I'm not saying that Jay should have named this guy Sarcopho Gus. Actually, wait, yes I am.

Movement in Frayed Knights is untethered to a grid, which makes exploring town and other non-dungeon areas far more enjoyable than it is in older games of this type. 360 degrees of freedom helps the town feel like an actual town, rather than a dungeon sans monsters. Free movement also works well within dungeons. Paired with visible monster patrols, it adds a certain frenetic quality to the exploration that you won’t find in the earlier Wizardry or Might and Magic games. In dungeons, I often felt pressured to get to “safe areas” where monsters weren’t patrolling, which is something I haven’t felt outside of true real-time dungeon-delvers like Eye of the Beholder or Stonekeep.

Speaking of patrols, it’s also nice to be able to actually see parties of monsters patrolling the dungeons ahead of time, rather than always getting thrown into random encounters beyond your control. (That said, the game does still have plenty of random encounters, most often tied to turn-based actions like searching and resting, but sometimes triggered during exploration.)

There are downsides to this approach, however. The real-time free-form movement system means that there is no proper ranged combat to soften up enemies before they reach melee range. It’s a small thing, but given the obvious gameplay inspiration Jay Barnson took from Might and Magic and Wizardry, it’s a little disappointing to see it missing here. It also complicates actions like searching and sidestepping monsters–I’ll talk about that more below.

I can’t be too sad about the loss of ranged attacks, as the battles in Frayed Knights are pretty good as-is. Jay Barnson has gone out of his way to create a system that is both elegantly simple in its structure, yet complex in practice. Both you and your enemies are arranged into melee and ranged rows, with only characters in the melee rows accessible to either side’s melee attacks. Characters have a sizable selection of spells available to them, with a wide variety of buffs and status effects at your disposal pretty much from the get-go. Enemies get access to buffs and status effect spells too, and they aren’t shy about using them. (I managed to get half my party poisoned and put to sleep before I’d even left the first village.) Combined with the constant need to manage character Endurance (more on that below), combat is just complex and challenging enough to be entertaining. I only seldom felt like I could sail through encounters just spamming the “Attack” command.

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I would actually compare the battles here to some of the fights which occur in Dragon Quest VIII, in that so many of them depend upon the intelligent use of buffs, de-buffs and status effects. That said, Frayed Knights is a game that sees itself very much in the lineage of Dungeons & Dragons, so you have much more randomization to deal with in terms of the effect of attacks and spells than you would in Dragon Quest. I’m not normally a fan of heavy randomization, but in this case it works in the game’s favor, since you’re given so many tools to manage your risk.

Speaking of tools to manage risk, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about drama stars at least a little bit here. Drama stars are Frayed Knights’ flagship gameplay innovation. If Frayed Knights were a Square Enix game, there would be a bullet point on the box that reads “Featuring the brand new Drama Star system!”

“Okay, fine Craig: drama stars,” you say. “That’s fabulous. What the hell is a drama star?” Allow me to explain. Any time you do anything in the game–get a new quest, open a door, disarm a trap, fight a battle, and so on–the game awards you drama points, which start to fill up one of three little stars at the top of the screen. You can fill up the stars up to three times each, transitioning them from bronze to silver to gold. Whenever you want, you can click a drama star to unleash its power in the form of one of a few special abilities.

Now, here’s the catch: drama points do not survive a load. If you save the game, quit, and then later Continue your saved game, it’ll keep your drama; but if you are playing and something bad happens and you decide to Load a save, then you can kiss all of your drama points goodbye. So you’re encouraged to keep playing even when bad things happen, because hitting the Load button will–quite literally–suck all the drama out of the situation. It’s both a clever metaphor and a clever mechanic to discourage save scumming.

While I really do love the idea of drama stars, I don’t think they’re as effective as they could be in FK:TSoSD. Their powers are just too weak relative to the effort involved in acquiring them. In my experience, there are two major situations where RPG players reliably engage in save scumming: (1) where choices made in branching dialog lead to permanent negative consequences; and (2) where they get creamed in combat and don’t have the means to cheaply heal their characters back up. Pretty much nothing can dissuade a player from scumming in scenario 1, so we don’t need to worry about that.

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Scenario 2 is another story, though. Fully recovering your party from even a single tough battle in FK:TSoSD can require a trip all the way back to town to rest in the inn, which is (let’s be honest) a pain in the butt. If things really go that badly in a battle, the easiest option is to load (i.e. save scum)–unless, of course, the drama stars provide a viable alternative. But they don’t. Unless you’ve got more drama saved up than NBC on the eve of a Jerry Springer marathon, you’ll be lucky if you have enough drama points to resurrect a single dead character.

This actually ties into another issue. It’s obvious that Jay Barnson put a lot of thought into the systems of this game (I mean, just read the Strategy Guide), and by and large I think he succeeded. But I do have one big beef with the game’s core design: maximum Endurance erosion.

What am I talking about? In Frayed Knights, character actions in combat (and sometimes, outside of it) all rely on a single renewable resource called Endurance. Attacking uses it up. Special abilities use it up. Spellcasting uses it up, too: every spell has an Endurance cost rather than a mana or magic point cost. Characters, in turn, regenerate Endurance by resting. This provides a nice resource management mechanic to every battle, and forces you to make choices outside of combat as well. Oftentimes, you’ll find that you need to rest in a dangerous area in order to recover Endurance, thereby risking further attack. This is all good stuff: resource management, risk/reward–two of the many techniques a good game designer uses to keep things engaging.

But here is where things start to go off the rails a little. As you go through an area, using up Endurance and resting to recover it, your characters’ maximum Endurance will start dropping. The more Endurance a character burns through, the more that character’s maximum Endurance dips, lowering the ceiling on how much Endurance you can recover. There are only a few ways to reverse the effects of maximum Endurance erosion: (1) use up a Liquid Nap potion, an item which the game gives you a handful of at the start of the game, but which are available thereafter only at great expense; (2) make the long, slow, painful trek all the way back to the inn and pay to sleep; or (3) use up a drama star, which probably won’t even restore your Endurance to its normal maximum.

As you can probably tell, I do not like the Endurance erosion mechanic. I understand why it’s in the game: Jay doesn’t want you to be able to immediately reverse the consequences of triggering traps by just taking a nap. What’s more, repeat visits to the inn enforce economic costs on players who make poor decisions, or engage in a lot of unnecessary combat, and then just rest constantly as a way of dodging the consequences. It also makes sense from a narrative stand-point: your characters need to sleep every now and then, and they’re not going to get very good rest pitching camp in the middle of a dungeon, where they are at constant risk of being ambushed and killed.

But we all know that just because something is realistic, that doesn’t mean it’s fun, right? Besides, Frayed Knights already has this covered; your characters face risks resting (or, for that matter, even just moving around) in a dungeon. They’re likely to get attacked. Triggering a trap or grinding through lots of battles therefore puts them in danger even if they could theoretically recover both full health and full Endurance through resting afterwards.

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"You will experience a great adventure...in bed."

Meanwhile, maximum Endurance erosion basically forces me into making a lousy choice at the end of every dungeon (or oftentimes, right in the middle of one), when my characters are exhausted from slogging through battles. I must either (a) face the most difficult fight(s) of the dungeon with half the maximum Endurance my characters normally have, or (b) drag my party all the way back through the dungeon and back to town, spend 25 silver to sleep, then go back through the whole freakin’ dungeon again just to get back to where I was. The battles in this game are not trivial, and as such, it pays to go for the second option if you don’t want to get TPK’d. And it’s the only option that makes sense, given the maximum Endurance erosion rule. But dear God, it’s boring. I don’t want to play a Sleep Quality Simulator; I want to explore dungeons. And every minute I’m spending trudging across the countryside to get to to the inn is a minute I’m not exploring dungeons.

While writing this section of the review, I wondered to myself: “What if there was a way to incentivize conservation of Endurance without requiring players to constantly go back and forth to the inn?” And then I started playing back through Might and Magic IV. It turns out that they’d hit on a near-perfect solution way back in 1992: food. In Might and Magic IV, players can carry up to 10 days worth of food at a time, and can fully recover health and mana by sleeping. Sleeping causes 8 hours to pass; passing time means food used up. When players run out of food, they have to return to an inn to buy more rations or start suffering disastrous health effects. This system has all the virtues of hitting players with an economic cost for resting too much, but requires players to spend far less time trudging back and forth to inns. Frayed Knights would benefit a great deal from something like that. (Alternatively, I’d settle for just adding a “fast travel back to the inn” button.)

While I’m picking nits, I might as well talk about the other notable design issue Frayed Knights has: the interface. It works well enough for the most part, but there are a variety of small irritations that I wish had been cleaned up prior to the game’s release. Like bird poop on the windshield of a brand new sports car, they distract from what is otherwise a very good experience.

Some of you may have read my rant about how to improve turn-based RPG combat systems. In my view, FK:TSoSD needs a little work on virtue 2 as it relates to its combat interface. Visual indicators are stretched a little thin here. The game has a grand total of three icons that it uses to show the existence of status effects: a flexing arm, a ball-and-chain, and a human silhouette surrounded by blue arcs of electricity. It took me an unreasonably long time to work out that these stood for “a buff,” “a de-buff” and “something affecting a character’s ability to move or act.” (Don’t judge: if you got poisoned and a ball-and-chain suddenly appeared on you, you’d be confused too.)

These aren’t even used consistently: when your characters fall asleep in combat, their portraits change and the word “Asleep” appears over them. If you put an enemy to sleep, however, the enemy picks up the “electricity man” symbol. For all other paralytic abilities, though, both you and the enemies use the “electricity man” symbol. Also, blinded characters get the electricity symbol. Why? I haven’t a clue. I guess what I’m saying is, art assets are expensive, but it couldn’t have been that much for an image of a green bottle with a skull on it, some sunglasses and a picture of ZZZ’s.

Interface issues extend beyond combat. For instance, it’s never really clear exactly how far a monster patrol’s “sight” radius extends, which leads to exciting moments like hiding out near a monster’s patrol path, sure it’s going to pass you by, only to end up in a combat encounter you neither wanted nor expected. It’s like ignoring a call from your mother-in-law only to walk out the front door and find her standing on your stoop.

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Expect to see this a LOT.

Searching suffers from similar problems. When you search, it isn’t really clear how far that search extends. You can no longer go space by space to search an area as you could in grid-based games, because there are no defined spaces. So you’re put in the unenviable position of having to guess how far to move before searching again, weighing the chances of blowing way past the bounds of your last search against the tedium (and risk) of performing unnecessary searches. A simple user-interface element showing the outer radius of a search would have fixed this problem easily.

Other interface issues: the Journal features buttons placed literally underneath other buttons, and casting spells can require up to four clicks just to select the right target for a friendly heal or buff. There are hotkeys for much of this stuff, which helps, but there aren’t any for selecting targets or navigating sub-menus. This means that even for spells that are in your characters’ Quick-Cast slots, you’ll have to use the mouse to cast.

None of this stuff is game-breaking, but it does slow things down and hurt the game’s flow. Some of you may remember the copious amounts of crap I gave to Dubloon for its horrendous control scheme; Frayed Knights is not even remotely on the same level, but I feel its interface issues are still worth mentioning. After all, the interface is the means by which the player interacts with a game; it is literally the one thing the player spends all of his or her time using. For that same reason, interface is one of those elements of a game that quickly becomes invisible to the developer, and issues can slip through the cracks. Hopefully, some of this stuff can be tightened up in a patch.

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"Hi! I'm Evelyn, and this is my friend Nightmare Fuel."

Frayed Knights’ graphics remind me a little of games from the Unreal Tournament era in terms of poly count, lighting and complexity. There are frequent particle effects in combat (and sometimes in the environment itself, such as Ardin Village with its frighteningly huge pollen). Frayed Knights isn’t going to win any awards for visuals, but aside from a sometimes-noticeable variation in asset style and quality, there’s nothing really all that objectionable to get in the way of the game.

Musically, Frayed Knights is a mixed bag. Combat triggers one of two high quality songs that lend some drama without calling too much attention to themselves. The outdoor music, however, has a throwback MIDI sound to it that I found rather grating. Oddly, the music that plays in the Temple of Pokmor Xang appears to lift a motif from the Aladdin soundtrack. And so on. I mostly played the game with the sound off; your mileage may vary.

The Verdict: 4/5. Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon succeeds both as satire and as a proper dungeon-delver in its own right. With great characters, enjoyable writing and solid combat, I’m more than willing to overlook some interface issues, the odd mismatched asset, and the need for frequent trips to the inn. Frayed Knights is well-made, fun, and entirely unique. If you enjoyed the old Might and Magic or Wizardry games, I’d strongly recommend snatching this one up.

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11 Comments »

 
  • ratking says:

    Very interesting read!
    My friend and I founded our little indie gamedev studio because of a big dream: making an RPG. Of course, this has not happened yet, as we need to make small games first (getting money, getting fame, etc.). It always is interesting what new and good ideas (Drama Points) or new and bad ideas (Endurance Decay) other people come up with in the field of RPGs, because sometimes I fear making an RPG as an indie can’t be feasible because it isn’t innovative enough.

  • Helge says:

    Good review, very balanced!
    I tried the demo and was underwhlemed by the UI so I quit for the moment, hoping for a patch to address some of the issues you mentioned.

  • Charles says:

    I disagree with the endurance decay issue. It calls for more careful consideration of every move, which is what combat in turn based RPGs is about. I do agree however that it calls for a few modifications outside of combat to counter-balance it. You mention the trips to the inn, which I don’t mind so much. My thoughts were more like “maybe slightly fewer trash mob fights”.

    The trips to the inn are punishment, which is essential in RPGs for the sense of achievement. A quick button to return to the inn would take half the punishment away (assuming you’re left with the trip back). I would have been happy with a “keep walking” button. Press once, then just navigate with the mouse. The one big pain about those trips is keeping a hand extended to the keyboard the whole time.

    I also agree that the search feature needs some fine-tuning.

    Other than that it’s a great game. Being a dev myself, I can’t play nearly as much as I would like to (always a part of my mind on the current unfinished task, nagging, nagging) so I haven’t finished it yet. I’ve only done a couple dungeons and decided to leave it for later. After release and once past the daunting marketing phase I’ll be able to give it a few hours a day for a week or two.

    Something to look forward to :-)

  • [...] Game Review – Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon [...]

  • laplace says:

    “Frayed Knights occupies a strange twilight dimension between real-time and turn-based.”

    You mean…just like dozens upon dozens of other games ? It was a “strange dimension” in the mid-90’s, now its terraformed and very domestic.

  • Craig Stern says:

    Within the first-person dungeon crawler subgenre, I think the way Frayed Knights blends real-time and turn-based is fairly unique. I could be wrong, of course. Do you have any examples?

  • [...] Gegensatz zum Indie-RPG-Experten Craig Stern sehe ich darin eine geniale Spielmechanik! Kämpfe werden durch die Bedrohung von [...]

  • [...] Game review: Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon [...]

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