Geneforge 5: Overthrow (PC) review
"Overthrow is the final instalment in the Geneforge saga, which has delivered an average of almost a game a year since its inception in 2002. While the gaming world has radically changed during this time, Geneforge's internal climate has remained consistent. It's still isometric and visually primitive - though the presentation in Overthrow is vastly improved - but such matters lay outside Spiderweb's focus. This is about interactive, non-linear storytelling of the finest quality. And while its approach may be somewhat familiar to those who obsessed for weeks over the likes of Planescape: Torment, it's hugely refreshing to play something with a similar feel all these years on."
In a world where the role-playing genre has married the FPS and birthed an abundance of beautiful little children, it's fascinating to see things like the Geneforge series still cropping up. Spiderweb Software - a tiny, three-strong developer based in Seattle - have been knocking about on the scene since the mid nineties, but their ethic and output remain the same: the creation of in-depth, traditionalist RPGs, with all the hallmarks of the genre classics.
Overthrow is the final instalment in the Geneforge saga, which has delivered an average of almost a game a year since its inception in 2002. While the gaming world has radically changed during this time, Geneforge's internal climate has remained consistent. It's still isometric and visually primitive - though the presentation in Overthrow is vastly improved - but such matters lay outside Spiderweb's focus. This is about interactive, non-linear storytelling of the finest quality. And while its approach may be somewhat familiar to those who obsessed for weeks over the likes of Planescape: Torment, it's hugely refreshing to play something with a similar feel all these years on.
Despite being the fifth in the series, Overthrow assumes no prior knowledge of the bitter conflict between the Shapers, the Rebels and the game's various other factions. The scale of the mythos is certainly a little overwhelming to begin with, but concepts are drip-fed tantalisingly into the narrative on a regular basis, meaning even newcomers will feel right at home. Plus, any confusion makes some sort of awkward sense, given the game's setup. In a particularly clichť-ridden introduction, your character wakes to find himself the victim of terrible, crippling amnesia. It'd have been nice to see the story introduced in a different way from the seven million other RPGs that offer this opening, but at least it allows for something of a clean slate for players who've never picked up a Geneforge title before.
And, while the world is generally a typical fantasy affair, it's adorned with intriguing and effective touches of science-fiction, in certain parts of the art design and - more obviously - in the gene-forging of the series' title. Shapers are able to conjure the genetic make-ups of helpful critters, who can fight alongside their creators in battle. But without the right care, they can also go rogue, and launch their own hideous attacks on mankind. This is where the story begins, and where you - a mysterious fellow with apparent Shaper powers - come into play.
As you emerge, blinking, into the great unknown, it's apparent something has gone very wrong in these lands. Creations are attacking citizens en masse, and there's much trouble a-brewin' among the various different sections of local society. Thus begins a somewhat predictable but frequently captivating journey into the past, present and future of the world and its characters, and a voyage of self-discovery as you begin to establish who you really are.
The writing is just lovely. Delectable passages, poetic dialogue and vivid description more than compensate for the lack of graphical detail or voice acting. Even in the narrative's blander moments, the script serves to keep you engrossed in this rich universe. Unfortunately, it's a richness that's not always conveyed in the explored locales. Even the more densely populated settlements commonly feel lifeless and artificial. This isn't a criticism of the technology, either, since similarly low-grade engines have managed just fine. The towns and villages are often clumsily designed, with little logic to the blueprints; and the majority of the citizens are faceless nobodies with nothing of interest to say. When the less derivative characters do crop up, they're fabulously portrayed - but it leaves you aching for more, and Geneforge 5 doesn't always deliver.
Indeed, considering the strength of the storytelling, it seems a shame that the world doesn't breathe more. It's deep, and eschews linearity in favour of two primary campaigns and five distinct factional allegiances, all leading to different conclusions. It asks some big questions about how far the human race should push genetic science, a bold territory for the medium to step into. But, at times, it's almost as if Geneforge 5 isn't quite brave enough to commit fully to its narrative. Interestingly, it's significantly more action-orientated than you might expect - even to the point where a loading screen hint informs you that it's far more difficult to succeed in the game if you train your character towards speechcraft and leadership rather than the combat arts. And side quests have a tendency to degenerate into kill-all-the-monsters grinding, hacking away to increase your stats rather than to explore the depths of the plot and its characters.
The pacing of the main quest is reasonable, though: tentative enough to keep you guessing, but brisk enough that it rarely becomes tedious. There are some sections that are a little presumptuous of the player's patience - an early quest involves ridding an area of an evil spirit, one which proceeds to escape your grip twice after you finally manage to track it down - but these are happily few and far between. The game keeps plodding onwards at a respectable speed, broken only by the inevitability of yet more irritating combat.
It's a brave move these days to utilise turn-based mechanics for fighting. It's a system that's largely obsolete, but to its credit Geneforge 5 manages it to reasonable effect. NPC turns are forgivingly quick, though enemies do have a slightly cumbersome tendency to surround the player characters and block the path for potential attacks. It does, however, suffer from the same annoyance as many similar systems: a frustrating removal of player skill. There's no strategy involved: just statistics and a large drop of luck. I've always found it idiotic when turn-based combat engines have you regularly miss opponents from half a metre away with a big sword. There are more plausible ways to convey an increasing skill set than to make your character an utter moron to begin with.
And there really is just too much of it, particularly in a game that proudly states you can complete the whole thing without spilling a single drop of blood. I'd be fascinated to know how this is possible, when entering a number of plot-essential locations results in being attacked on-sight. Characters with a high enough leadership skill can talk potential foes down, but it would be impossible to be a master of this at the start of the game, when combat is equally prevalent.
It's only because Geneforge 5 is regularly so impressively absorbing that these issues are significant at all. More obvious flaws would be the hilariously remedial graphics and practically nonexistent sound design, but they're really not that problematic, and certainly excusable when you consider the size and budget of the development team. Indeed, it's a real achievement - not to mention a statement of intent - to craft such a captivating game out of something so visually prehistoric. The depth of the narrative, the length of the campaign and the aesthetic crudeness have always placed the Geneforge series in something of a niche market position, and this final iteration won't change that. But the niche should be very happy indeed, knowing the series has been rounded off in a satisfying and intelligent fashion. Open-minded newcomers will find a lot to love, and franchise veterans will not be disappointed.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (April 06, 2009)
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