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Geneforge (PC) artwork

Geneforge (PC) review

"Imagine old school Fallout, but with monster summoning and stock sound effects."

PC RPGs intimidated me back in the day. No matter how practiced I felt, I inevitably painted myself into a corner. Usually my rotten luck stemmed from either an inadequate character build or a cold trail in a campaign. Back in those days, I didn't have access to the Internet and its vast library of walkthroughs. In other words, my options consisted of guessing my way out my current bind or restarting the game and hoping my new character was mighty enough to withstand the forbidding terrains in store for him. More often than not, though, I just gave up entirely.

As a result, I tend to approach retro role-players or their many throwback titles with caution. Case in point: Geneforge. Although Spideweb Software developed it in the early 2000s, it apes RPGs of the early '90s. Based on that, I anticipated a difficulty rating beyond "NES hard," with a trouncing waiting around every corner. Hours into the campaign, though, I skillfully cleared an abandoned school of its vermin. It was then that my tension lifted, and I realized that Geneforge wasn't an unreasonable or unbeatable RPG.

It helps that the game sports a straightforward battle system similar to the one featured in the original Fallout titles. During combat, each character begins a turn with a certain number of points to spend on various actions. Each step you take exhausts a point, plus casting spells and attacking eat up whole chunks of your AP. Obviously, you need to consider your moves wisely, lest you end up in a bind where you don't possess enough action points to heal yourself, use a buff item or defeat a foe.

However, Geneforge revolves less around its combat mechanics, and more around how you form your party. You see, the game lacks extra party members to track down and recruit. Thankfully, you know of an alternate means of amassing a contingent. As it turns out, you're a member of a sect of mages known as "shapers," meaning you're capable of giving life to beings--unimaginatively named "creations"--to serve as your troops during conflicts. Your creation spells require "essence" (basically magic points), and you can even pump extra essence into a creation in order to bolster its stats beyond their base.

The shaping system adds a terrific element of strategy to the experience. You can't win every scuffle with the same setup, as each sticky situation begs for a variant configuration of your troops. Sometimes you need fewer high powered creations aiding you, but other moments call for numerous low-powered beasts to provide strength in numbers. You also must consider whether you need only one type of creation or a variety of them. Sometimes all you require is a single, monstrous "Thahd," a simian creature with high attack power. Other scenarios may call for an army of "Vlish," land-dwelling cephalopods that inflict mind-altering status ailments. Some occasions may demand a multitude of creations, including a front line of melee combatants, some fire-breathing "Fyoras" for range, and a magical creature or two for good measure. Suffice it to say that Geneforge adequately tests your mental capabilities and keeps you pretty well engaged when in combat.

It does for the most part, anyway. Unfortunately, there are a few areas that lie a decent length into the campaign that contain weak foes. Worse, experience values depreciate as you gain levels, so plowing through scores of weaklings will not likely further your character's growth. Heck, even some of the tough adversaries later on become all but worthless in terms of experience value.

Older RPGs sometimes featured disposable storylines, filled with tired cliches involving captive maidens and megalomaniacal sorcerers as antagonists. Thankfully, Geneforge is a far cry from that nonsense. For starters, the game utilizes wonderfully written passages to describe scenery, which adds much needed atmosphere to the experience. We're not talking dull, meaningless text, either. Each passage reads like a page from a sci-fi or fantasy novel, with excellent descriptions of the environment that flow very well. On top of that, Geneforge doesn't focus overmuch on saving the world or developing the protagonist into a hero. Instead, the game's tale mostly revolves around getting your rump off of a forbidden island, whilst dealing with a feuding pair of would-be overlords searching for an ancient shaper relic. By the end of the campaign, you'll have to side with one and defeat the other in order to succeed. It's a nice change of pace from your typical good vs. evil storylines.

Unfortunately, the game seems to use its wonderful narrative style to make up for its deficits in audio and video qualities. I realize that Geneforge attempted to look the part of a retro RPG, but that doesn't excuse its lack of variety in regards to sprites. This flaw is especially evident when you enter a town and notice that nearly every NPC looks the same. Granted, they're all of the same species of creation, called "Serviles", but the developers at Spiderweb Software still could've designed a few different sprites for them. This issue also makes item management troublesome, as certain items also utilize similar sprites. For instance, a weak, early campaign short sword is identical to most late-game blades, which could potentially lead to you accidentally selling a beloved weapon instead of a junky piece of loot you happened to obtain.

Worse than in its visual department, Geneforge suffers a major blow in terms of audio. For starters, the game doesn't offer much of a soundtrack. It kicks off with an opening theme that lasts about twenty seconds before giving way to silence, and maybe three or four different ambient cuts consisting of mostly irritating noises. While I dug the ambiance that played during some of the forest stages, featuring soughing wind and growling rogue creations, I couldn't stand the background racket used in towns. That one usually starts with a girl shouting something incoherently, followed by typical marketplace commotion and a crying baby. A few of these sound effects aren't particularly grating, but they wear away at your sanity with each second they play. Bear in mind that they also loop endlessly, reminding you that there are more irritating sounds out there than cheap, MIDI-quality BGMs.

Despite a few flaws, though, I really enjoyed Geneforge. I found it a more approachable old school PC RPG, but not necessarily an overly easy one. Both its early and late sections offered wonderful challenges, though simpler tasks comprise its middle section. Even with the draggy middle, the game still provided me with plenty of surprises and a shocking amount of depth, mostly stemming from its two major antagonists. Bottom line: Geneforge offers a mostly terrific experience for anyone seeking a clever, rustic role-playing title.


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (December 20, 2018)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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overdrive posted December 20, 2018:

Nice, someone else is hooking into Spiderweb's games! Good review. I'm more familiar with Avadon and Avernum, having not played any of the Geneforges, so I liked reading this to see how it differed from them. I think Spiderweb does a great job with this sort of game, as they're able to create a really intricate world for an indie developer and not make things brutally difficult. I've played through three of their games and am working on a fourth and generally find each game to be fairly easy to go through if I'm playing intelligently, with a few battles that require a good bit more strategy than the norm to get past.

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