Checks Out Antharion

It took a bit longer than I wanted due to some technical hiccups, but I finally got a chance to sit down and play Antharion while recording the experience. You can see the first 40 minutes or so of the game riiiiight here, complete with commentary:

So! What’d I think?

To be totally honest…I’m not sold on Antharion so far.

Superficially, Antharion has everything I would want in an old school wRPG: a party full of characters you create yourself; the ability to freely explore the world; turn-based combat with an Action Points system; potion crafting; lock-picking; pick-pocketing; a plot that revolves around solving a high-stakes mystery; and weird little touches like allowing you to put members of the undead in your party. Even better, the whole thing runs in a nice isometric engine with real-time lighting and a day/night cycle. In theory, I should love this game!

The problem is, Antharion is a freshman design effort for Orphic Software, and to me, it really feels like one. This manifests most problematically in the game’s combat–not because combat is the game’s worst-designed system or anything, but rather because combat is just so ubiquitous.

Antharion’s early combat encounters suffer from bland design, with fights occurring against groups of a single enemy type and nothing in the way of interesting conditions, objectives, or terrain to compensate. Worse, you’re faced with an almost total lack of tactical options in dealing with these homogenous enemy groups: at the start of the game, each character can perform exactly one type of attack (mages technically have two attack options, but are so fragile and worthless in melee combat that the choice really boils down to “do I cast my one spell that I have or not”). This means the player seldom has interesting decisions to make in combat, which means that Antharion derives its tension in combat almost entirely from the off chance that attacks will miss / spells will fizzle. This just isn’t enough to work as a–indeed, as the–core system of the game.

Antharion’s writing is another sore point. Many games have plot holes, but few manage to have them so large, so early. Here, you’re immediately entrusted with delivering an ear to a Mysterious Man because the guy holding the ear supposedly can’t leave town without arousing suspicion; this, despite the fact that there is an obvious, totally unguarded path out of town that he could easily escape down if he wanted to. So in his place, your party–a bunch of escaped convicts–come traipsing out of a town believed to be totally devoid of survivors, and this doesn’t arouse the slightest suspicion from the guards. Which merely begs the question: why couldn’t Maerru do this himself, again?

You then bring the ear to the Mysterious Man, who immediately jumps to wildly unsupported conclusions about the cause of the massacre in Shadowbrook based on the ear. Next, he claims that you’re in thrall to him because you’re free from prison, even though you’re explicitly told at the start of the game that you escaped by yourselves, picking the lock on your own cell door using a rusty nail. You owe this guy absolutely nothing. Even better, he refuses to tell you anything about himself, which means that you have no reason at all to trust anything he says! (If the Mysterious Man doesn’t turn out to be a villain later in the game, I will eat my hat.) Your characters are literally risking their lives because someone they never met before and know nothing about said they should, based on an ear.

Antharion even manages to make a “clean my basement of rats” quest make no sense. Why are the rats hidden behind a secret passage marked with a magic rune? How are they able to get out of that passage such that the owner of the inn even knows they exist? Are they magic-using, sentient super-rats a la the Planescape Torment cranium rat warren? If so, why don’t we get any dialogue (or abandoned journal entries, or what-have-you) cluing us in?

Not all wRPGs need great storylines, or even terribly logical ones; but they do need opportunities for the player to role-play. Facing story scenarios where you have incomplete information and have to role-play reactions on the fly helps the player feel like a participant in the story, like they’re guiding events along. Antharion misses the boat here: there are hardly any dialogue options for the sake of role-playing. Even just some minor dialogue variations to give the illusion of controlling characters with actual personalities (as opposed to walking bundles of stats devoid of any agency) would have been welcome.

I’m sympathetic to the developers’ position here–RPGs in general are hard to make because of all the systems one has to design, but wRPGs have even more systems than most, which makes them especially challenging. Orphic Software took on a tough damned genre for its first-ever game, and it seems to me that they were probably stretched too thin to make each element of the game really shine.

It is, of course, possible that Antharion gets deeper, more interesting, and better-written after its first hour; if you’re hankering for a new wRPG and you want to chance it, Antharion is available for $17.99, Windows and Mac. There’s more information on picking it up right here.

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