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The Dark Spire (DS) artwork

The Dark Spire (DS) review

"Contrary to word-of-mouth, this isn't a Wizardry-style journey. It certainly pays homage to its legendary predecessor, but its wicked sense of humor and creepy atmosphere lend the adventure a personality all its own. The Dark Spire is an artistic, engrossing RPG that achieves immersion via intense exploration, puzzle-solving, and surprisingly addictive level-grinding. It's an experience, but more importantly, it is game."

I'm a huge fan of Wizardry-style dungeoncrawlers, but their time has long since passed. In today's world of artistic visuals and immersive gameplay experiences, it's difficult to enjoy the exploration, multi-floor puzzle solving, and level-grinding required to master such hardcore, oldschool adventures.

Just kidding! Only a goofball would claim to be a huge fan of something then turn around and dismiss the entire experience. To this day, I still appreciate the inventive layout of The Bard's Tale, the charming atmosphere of Dragon Knight, and the overflowing imagination of Might & Magic. Some things just never go out of style; quality game design is one. As evidenced by recent entries such as Etrian Odyssey and a multitude of iPod adventures, the art of dungeoncrawling hasn't been forgotten.

Way back in April 2009, when the world was young and heroes aspired to great ambitions, The Dark Spire was one of my absolute favorite dungeoncrawlers. Its wireframe graphics weren't particularly attractive, but the smooth scrolling and Castlevania-esque soundtrack held my attention long enough to sink into a surprisingly intriguing adventure. Per dungeoncrawler norm, my quest was to slay an evil wizard who had stolen some important thing (the game even admits that no one knew it was important until he stole it) . . . but the introduction of new characters -- and the pieces they contribute to the mystery -- assembled a picture that was ultimately more inspired than many of The Dark Spire's wizard-slaying brethren. The ability to save at any time (instead of being forced to return to the Guild) made the brutal challenge fair, and the multitude of skills and abilities to be learned and mastered made that challenge rewarding.

One month after . . .

It's May 2009. The wide-eyed wonder of youth has given way to the skepticism of age; I'm older, wiser, and more experienced. Having completed the game on "classic mode", an updated version of The Dark Spire -- with picturesque 3D visuals and an elaborate musical arrangement by Kenichi Arakawa -- awaits me. The classic version compared favorably to adventures of yore; would the modern mode compare favorably to adventures of today?

Players who want to skip straight to the modern mode may do so (and can switch back to classic at any time), although I found that playing through the "old" version made the "new" audiovisual changes -- in particular the robust soundtrack, replete with electric rhythm and operatic vocals -- that much more striking.

The game begins with character creation, including a bit of dice-rolling to determine starting stats. Four classes are initially available, although multi-classing is possible at any point, and new classes (such as the ever-popular NINJA) can be unlocked by completing various quests. The Guild can store a host of adventurers, which lets players mix and match a party of four to tackle each floor of the Dark Spire with the most advantageous combination possible.

Every advantage will be needed, because this game is tough. I died frequently (and paid the resurrection fee) until earning enough experience to advance to the next level. With 7 additional hit points and some fancy new armor, my warrior tank -- a rugged chap named STAN -- shielded the party from Goblin Sergeants and Pirates just that much longer. I suppose I could have selected the "aggressive" formation and opened the rest of my party up to attack (to spread the damage evenly), but it seemed smarter to stick with the "heroic" formation and pour all of my money into one person, letting everyone else fire arrows and cast spells from the back row. Another neat trick: warrior STAN briefly trained as a thief, earning the "hide" ability. So, when battle began, the monsters all targeted him, but then . . . he disappeared! What a sneaky fellow, that STAN!

Such trickery worked for a while. Then the monsters began breathing fire, paralyzing STAN before he could hide, and poisoning the rest of my party. When enemies became more resistant to physical attacks, STAN actually lost his spot in my four-character lineup, replaced with a second mage . . . until I unlocked the samurai class. With new abilities under his belt, STAN returned to the party, taking the fallen RUNIN's place. Dark Spire forced me to change tactics and party members often. That's a good thing; it kept me engaged.

The adventure also kept me engaged with its surprising sense of humor. Early on, while in Garland's Training Grounds, the party encounters a locked door. My thief -- a scurrilous chap named AAA -- attempted to pick the lock. Being a newbie thief, and this being his very first lock-picking effort, AAA failed.

"What's wrong?" asks a voice from the other side of the door. "You'll be in trouble later on if you can't pick a simple lock. You better practice!"

A faint click is heard.

"I've unlocked the door for you, but pretend you did it yourself, okay?"

Now the party must play a degrading game of make-believe. AAA pretends to unlock the door, and it opens easily.

After unceremoniously passing through the unlocked door, my final test was to defeat Garland. It's pretty common for tutorials and training modes to end with a battle, so I thought nothing of it. Following several rounds of combat, I defeated my instructor.

Sir Garland spits up blood and collapses. He slumps over a pool of his own blood, his eyes starting to glaze over. This can't be good. STAN realizes that the group may have overdone it. Murdering a fellow citizen is a serious crime, even if it was a training accident.

Just as worry starts to set in, a door in the back opens and a man wearing robes enters. He begins to chant what sounds like an advanced healing spell. Within moments, Sir Garland gets to his feet. He seems a bit dazed, but is most certainly alive. "You pass!" he exclaims.

He continues to talk as if nothing happened.

People who beat the evil wizard, then keep playing until they achieve the true ending, then keep playing some more, will discover a supremely silly -- but amusing -- monument erected at the site of their ultimate victory.

The Dark Spire isn't just wickedly funny, it's also genuinely creepy. Tinted lighting and off-kilter angles make the spire's claustrophobic corridors feel like a nightmare, and scenes depicting demonic twists on Alice in Wonderland lend a disturbing sense of familiarity. Early in the game, a living doll begs to be destroyed; I couldn't complete my quest until I assisted its suicide . . . by smashing it with a hammer.

Despite being only seven stories tall, each 22 by 22 floor of the Spire is packed full of treasures, secret doors, traps, puzzles, pitch-black tunnels, and such odd scenes as men playing "catch" with logs (you'll need to chop down a tree with the Golden Axe to participate in their game, although acquiring the Golden Axe is a puzzle in itself). A multitude of quests are assigned by guildmasters, thieves, wicked kings, and mysterious women. Some of the special abilities that each character learns are immediately evident (disarm trap), while others -- knitting and stage magic? -- are not. This brings back fond memories of Wasteland's "toaster repair" skill; some things are so weird that I just knew they'd eventually be useful! And killing monsters to earn those skills was actually fun.

Even though I love dungeoncrawlers, I was initially skeptical. I thought The Dark Spire was just going to be a quick time-killer until the next big thing. However, contrary to word-of-mouth, this isn't a Wizardry-style journey. It certainly pays homage to its legendary predecessor, but its wicked sense of humor and creepy atmosphere lend the adventure a personality all its own. The Dark Spire is an artistic, engrossing RPG that achieves immersion via intense exploration, puzzle-solving, and surprisingly addictive level-grinding. It's an experience, but more importantly, it is game.



zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (May 23, 2009)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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zippdementia posted June 17, 2009:

Wow. I seriously doubt my ability to have as much fun with this game as you did, but it was very cute listening to you review it.

Of course it's another good review. It's by Zig. If he writes a bad review, he signs in as EmP before releasing it.

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