Gothic provides role-players with a classic fantasy world that changes throughout the course of the adventure. Orcs have invaded and the ruler of the realm has put all the kingdom's prisoners to hard labor in the mines, hoping their toil will help support the war effort. The player's character begins as a messenger from the king, sent to the mines with information that could have serious repercussions. Over 250 non-player characters populate the lands in Gothic, each of whom has likes, dislikes, and a daily routine. NPCs remember their interactions with the player's character and react appropriately in future meetings. Many NPCs follow certain ideologies and a character's alliances can influence perceptions, though as the story develops old enemies may become useful allies and former friends may enter into unforeseen rivalries.
The role-playing game genre has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, thanks to the burgeoning popularity of it's love-child; the massively-multiplayer online role-playing game. Of course, the new focus upon this lucrative subscription-driven genre, has vastly impacted the development of more traditional off-line RPG's, and it was with this in mind that I approached Piranha Bytes' Gothic - a huge RPG title that was released in Germany earlier this year to critical acclaim, and has now arrived in the UK.
Sure enough, the game's ambitions cannot be doubted, with Piranha pouring endless hours of attention into the depth of the game's premise, and it's relationship to the graphical world in which the plot unfolds. I also noted with relief, at the same time, that the translation in language from German to English has been a good one, with good voice-acting, and convincing dialogue. Perhaps this explains why Gothic took so long to reach other countries outside of Piranha's homeland of Germany. Regardless, it was time well spent.
As with any RPG worth it's salt, the story is a good yarn, and fortunately Piranha have crafted a pretty good effort proving, intriguing, immersive, and perhaps most crucially, compelling. The plot surrounds a fantastical realm which is ravaged by a desperate war against the 'Orcs'; the King of this realm is driven, in a bid to maintain the War effort, to put all criminals guilty of any offense, to work in the Mines of the province, providing materials for weapons, etc. Unfortunately, the appalling conditions lead to many escape attempts from the prisoners, and the King is eventually forced to request the powers of the twelve 'Mages', in erecting a magical barrier incarcerating the convicts. This force-field goes horribly wrong however, leaving the Mages trapped inside their own spell. The convicts immediately kill their guards and anarchy ensues forming new alliances in the struggle for power. The King is now forced to bargain with the convicts for the essential ore - it is at this seemingly hopeless stage that you arrive, just another convict pushed into the magical cage to work in the mines. Here you enter the plot. Gothic
The immediate sense upon entering the world is a disorientating one. Where are you? Who are these people? Where do I go, what do I do? It's genuinely quite daunting, and this seems to be a clever move on the part of the designers as you empathize with your character. The world is vast too, and the plot free-form, allowing you to explore, discover and learn the ways of the various Camps, people, and creatures that make up this vivid and bizarre world. You have certain tasks to complete, and people to meet; though no ultimate super-objective or clear path to closure. This is perhaps the most interesting, and most certainly challenging aspect of Gothic. It is both sides of the coin.
The main bulk of the game is in part about influence; who you can befriend to survive and succeed, who you must therefore challenge and fight. This is due in part to the game's very clever real-world ideals; the idea of life continuing and changing independent of your actions. Hence people you converse with might tell there friends, and help you; your enemies may council each other against you. It's a case of who, not what, you know. This makes for a very nice, deliberate, and subtle blend of gameplay too, as the game focuses on intelligent discovery and dialogue, rather than combat, though that's not to say that a little action isn't in there either.
The combat is quite often in self-defense against the occasional aggressive animal inhabitants of the world; but from time to time will also involve you engaging those of a dissimilar disposition to yourself. It's rather fun too, though the control system was occasionally a little cumbersome, the inventory system for selecting and drawing weapons being a little sluggish. The enemy AI is generally good too, especially in the dramatic fashion battle commences, though the intelligence does have it's occasional glitches. Nothing too appalling, though. Gothic As the plot unfolds and your reputation (such as it might be) begins to spread throughout this strange world; your skill will no doubt grow too, enabling new skills and abilities; you make NPC friends along the way, as well - some of whom may assist you briefly in one particular objective, others who might be truer friends, providing greater help. The implementation of this is very well done too, especially as the NPC's are vital to the constant new discoveries you'll be making in a game that boasts in the region of one-hundred hours gameplay. I could see why it took a rumored four years to develop.
Which brings me on to the environment; the world, and it's graphics. Stunning. There's no other word for it. The landscape is among the most detailed, rich and diverse I've ever witnessed. This in a genre with some good opposition, too. Just one look at the screenshots and I'm sure you'll agree that Piranha have done a fabulous job of creating a world which really feels like it's living and breathing; evolving. The weather effects are a nice touch too, once again adding to the game's immersion, as snow, rain and night falls - then dawn breaks. It's all very detailed, some of the panoramas afforded to the player being particularly awe-inspiring. This is without doubt one of the most cohesive and satisfying game worlds created - though you'll need to make sure your system specification is up to the challenge.
To conclude, Gothic should be seriously considered by all fans of the genre, who will no doubt love the detailed world and surrounding story, that offer gamers large helpings of what made RPG's great in the first place: a sense of discovery, and escapism in existing in an alternate world. This it does in exceptional style. It's got a few minor flaws, and isn't quite perfect; but as gaming experiences go, it's one of the most immersive. Simply put, Gothic has to be seen and played to be fully appreciated.
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