Arcatera: The Dark Brotherhood is a role-playing game with familiar character archetypes in a traditional fantasy setting. As an RPG, the focus in Arcatera is to provide players with as much freedom as possible, allowing the story to progress according to the player's decisions. Any character, be she a murderous bandit or a humble townsperson, may be approached with either friendly words or with a drawn weapon with the player's character will benefit or suffer from the approach chosen. The story includes ten different endings, providing a realistic outcome for a wide range of player choices.
Much of the game takes place in the land of Senora and the surrounding forest where players will meet many NPC's, some who may have useful information and others who are best dealt with by sword or spell. Another uncommon feature in Arcatera involves the game clock, which is always running when the game is played. No matter what choices the player makes, or what tasks are accomplished or left unfinished, the story and the game end after three weeks of game time.
It's not often that an anonymous company launches class ideas in the RPG market, and it certainly wasn't the case with the German Westka Entertainment, and their rather crude adventure, entitled Arcatera: The Dark Brotherhood. This game features both RPG elements and the adventure-like exploration. Unfortunately, it failed to meet some basic standards of the market, and it's a shame that a good RPG system came up short of quality because of bad coding and design. The developers made an obvious attempt to create a completely open-ended gameworld, where freedom of movement, and a vast range of possibilities would attract potential fans. In that respect, the game offers an ounce of the atmosphere it was supposed to.
There are four main characters available in the game: Adventurer, Thief, Magician, and Monk. Character class can be generated through nine categories by rolling the virtual dice: strength, luck, charisma, physical resistance, intelligence... All attributes are linked to the characters' abilities to attack and parry. Also, the Magician and Monk classes choose two basic spells. The characters increase their statistics through levels and gaining experience through in-game action.
Each character has a different motivation for exploring Arcatera. The Adventurer and his family are workers, and he is seeking a better life for himself. He is also looking for the woman of his dreams. The Thief and The Magician are looking for the men that killed their fathers. They wish to take their revenge on a mysterious man with green skin, and a knight in a black suit of armor. The Monk has amnesia, and remembers only the fire in the monastery, a monster that caused him to fall unconscious, and his expulsion from the Order by the Head Priest. Each character begins the story identical. They stand in font of the city gate of Senora, being briefed by a strange wizard that disappears with the promise to return in the near future. The game, so far, sounds attractive, but the rest of it was, I'm afraid, poorly done. The main character, regardless of his class, faces a whole bunch of, albeit, identical mysteries... The mission received from the wizard concerns two separate sources of evil, which will attempt to conquer the world. They intend to begin their brutal campaign right here in Senora. The first source of evil is a clandestine cult called Black Sun. The rumor has it that this organization intends to overthrow the local prince, and usurp power, introducing full dictatorship. The second force to be reckoned with is called Rog Gwenuar, a barbarian big in size and dangerous by reputation. Luckily, the barbarian has been caught, and his execution is being prepared. The problem arises when Black Sun decides to join forces with the Barbarian. The hero's goal is to uncover the mystery that surrounds these two forces, and end their brutality.
As I said, the game begins at the gates of Senora. From there, the players can roam to wherever they wish. Midtown is the section of Senora the player enters first, and it's a lot less dangerous than the rest of the city. This is the part of the city that is home to nobility and the middle class. To begin with, to enter the walls surrounding Midtown, you have to solve a riddle. As opposed to Midtown, Eastwarts is a slum occupied by the poor, and the entrance is free. The buildings in this part of the town are mostly bars, warehouses, stores, and domiciles. If you decide to leave the city walls however, you'll get the chance to enjoy, and explore the local wildlife --- the swamps, caves, a canyon, and the forest of Kandt...
Moving between areas is simple. It boils down to finding the right course (the cursor turns into an arrow), and clicking away. If you manage to get your character in trouble, and you certainly will, the best thing to do is double-click, and start running. Controlling the party is easy (a few of the NPC's can be recruited). Members of the party follow the character that the player promotes into a leader. As usual in P&C adventures, the cursor pulsates over an entity of interests, or offers options for a certain action or conversation. Other elements of the interface feature pop-up menus that appear in the bottom part of the screen. By the way, this is a badly designed option, because during the game, menus overlap with the direction of general motion. The menu features the option to speed up the passing of time in the game, which is useful when traveling from region to region. There are options of feeding the character or making him fall asleep. You can also view, fairly detailed character stats, pick any of the characters within your party, and view their inventory. Instead of using the popular limitation by weight, the size of the inventory is presented through slots. Their number depends on the strength of the character. The transfer of objects between characters, and trade in general is done through a confusing menu, which offers the value of objects in gold and silver coins. As for the rest of the object manipulation, there is a possibility of interacting with several other objects that come in handy when you have to break a crate or open it with a crowbar to find a secret passage. Putting too much emphasis on the object manipulation, really takes away from the game dynamics, and, frankly, gets a bit tedious after a while.
For a game full of mysteries, and unsolved riddles, Arcatera has serious troubles keeping the players in suspense for long. Although the NPC's confirm and explain the existence of Black Sun, your character refuses to believe or make a note in his diary. Unfortunately, all of the mysteries are revealed in the opening few sequences with each character, and it's up to you to simply prove them. During the conversation with the NPCs, the hero has several choices in asking questions, depending on the mood of the NPC. The conversation is a simple process, but a very important one for the progress of the game. A window is activated with topics of discussion, along with some other parameters. The number of topics heavily depends on the Charisma statistics of your character. If the NPC's give you a quest to complete (usually "Go Fetch Something For Me" quests), their mood changes significantly out of gratitude. When the NPC grows tired of being questioned, he/she will simply end it. To continue a conversation with a character, try using flattering and compliments; it should do the trick. Naturally, there is a way of ending a conversation with an insult, and sometimes start a fight. The player decides whether to attack, or simply question a NPC. While attacking a NPC, or breaking into a house within city walls, the character runs a risk of being arrested by the guardsmen.
Experience Points are gained by talking with other characters, unveiling secrets, solving quests but seldom through battle. Combat system looks a lot like the one in Return to Crondor, but with simplified commands. The game is real-time based, and the hero, as well as the members of the party can, by default, attack or defend themselves. The system is rather rudimental, as it doesn't require any complex actions from the player. There are possibilities of casting different spells (like Fireball, or healing companions) or switching between weapons. This includes placing characters in strategically significant places, and all that... It is also possible to run away from a battlefield, or surrender to the enemy (like when the Goblins surround you in the woods with intentions of using you as the main ingredients for their soup...).
The whole point is to trigger certain sequences in the engine, in order for your character to familiarize with the ongoing plot and advance through the game, activating pre-rendered movies. Each character has a set of cut-scenes that add to the impression of big effort being put into the graphic design of the game. With all the animations and separate intros for each character, you could say that the authors wanted to create the grandest cinematic feeling possible. The graphics are 2D rendered, therefore boasting some nifty attention to detail. The backgrounds are static and don't scroll with the character's movement; instead, they jump from one screen (scene) to the other. Wouldn't it be better if the artists created a pseudo 3D perspective, with a distant landscape, to add to realism?
The background music is simple, and uninspiring, although each location has its own music score. It also reflects on the present mood of the characters, or the change in tempo, in case of danger. Narrating highlights each turn-point in the game, and each character has its unique voiceover. Voice acting is done in a lousy way, and it can get very irritating at times. The characters don't have well fitted vocals, or comments for certain occurrences. (Who did the voiceovers for this thing anyway? Off-stage Broadway theater pushovers?) The designers chose the old English pronunciation, in order to provide medieval atmosphere, but have failed miserably. As is the case with the overall music score really...
Arcatera offers nine different endings to the game. This certainly increases the replay value, and should appeal to the hardened P&C adventure fans. The game's non-linearity will make the coherence of the storyline a little dubious; although it's mainly preserved through the supporting animated cut-scenes. Arcatera: The Dark Brotherhood is a game that was inspired by a Pen&Paper game by Sascha Hussock. It was under development for 12 years, and should've represented a near-perfect RPG system. Some of the guys on the developer team are Pen&Paper Arcatera players, and it's obvious that they worked on it more out of enthusiasm then to create a profitable mainstream game. The computer iteration of the game could intrigue hard-core RPG players eager to experiment with new, and odd concepts --- meaning all five percent of the whole RPG population.
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