Friday, September 21, 2007

Depths of Peril Review

Depths of Peril, developed and published by Soldak Entertainment.
The Good: Very interesting diplomatic options in a dynamic world, fast-paced with almost constant combat, good AI, minor penalty for death, lots of items to find, neat method of recruitment, existing characters can carry over to new games
The Not So Good: A high density of enemies results in lots of dying at first, sporadic tutorial messages are confusing rather than helpful, generally useless map, relies heavily on quests for experience, house guards are very tough to defeat, no multiplayer
What say you? The unique diplomacy and conquest-orientated goals makes this action role-playing game stand out: 7/8

Two role-playing reviews in a row? What is the world coming to?! Regular readers of this site (both of you) will note that I rarely review role-playing games (not my favorite genre), so having two in a row is something quite unique. The one on the docket today is Depths of Peril, an action RPG in the Diablo style that infuses some grand strategy elements in diplomatic relations with other factions. I’m all for unique features in an existing genre, so will Depths of Peril up the ante for role-playing games?

For a game that’s played from an isometric perspective, Depths of Peril looks pretty decent. The title has a lot of little details that make for a nice environment, elevating the game above what it could have been. The characters in Depths of Peril all look nice with a good attention to detail, and the different areas are varied in their appearance. My only issue with Depths of Peril results from the inability to zoom really far out, resulting in a lot of clicking to move short distances. The map is ineffective, as clicking somewhere won’t move your character. This limitation applies to the mini-map as well. Depths of Peril has some nice effects, in the form of spells, treasure indicators, and so on. I like the graphics of Depths of Peril, and the ability to zoom out or use the map would sweeten the pot. The audio of Depths of Peril is pretty standard stuff: nice indicators of proposals from other factions and a good variety of effects accompany the graphics. The background music is well-done and fits the theme of the game well. I think the production values of Depths of Peril are above what is typical for an independent product, so that is to commended.

Depths of Peril has its roots in the hack-and-slash role-playing game, in the vein of the venerable Diablo. This is a single-player only game, so there is no cooperative or competitive multiplayer action. I think that competitive multiplayer would be an interesting addition to the game due to the strategic overtones of the objective, so its omission is notable. Getting into the game is more difficult than it should be: Depths of Peril relies on copious amounts of messages to act as a tutorial, and they do a poor job while interrupting the gameplay too much. A more guided approach would have worked better to get new users accustomed to the game. The object of the game is to make your faction the most dominant force in the city of Jorvik. You do this by destroying NPC monsters and completing quests, and negotiating diplomatic agreements with other factions to form alliances or declare war. This is certainly an interesting approach to a game and I don’t remember seeing a grand strategy/RPG amalgam previously. The game is very fast-paced, and you can complete an entire match in a couple of hours. All of that leveling up isn’t wasted, however, as you can carry over your characters to a new game, and the rival factions will also maintain their levels of excellence. This is a good feature: you don’t have to start over with a low level character each time you start a new game.

The first thing you’ll need to do is to create a character and customize the game world. The options are quite limited: there are only four classes to choose from (warrior, rogue, priest, mage) and each class is pretty limited in what they can do. In one game, I kept coming across “mail” (as in chain mail) armor that I couldn’t use as a mage (only warriors can), so that was disappointing. Depths of Peril has a random name generator, which is kind of cool, although this does not extend to naming your covenant. You can adjust the difficulty of each game, which will essentially change what level your opponents will be. I thought that the default values were tough enough, but experienced players can make it even harder on themselves and create an outrageously difficult game.

Each game will contain a number of rival covenants, and victory is gained by eliminating them all or forming an alliance with the remaining powers. If you are part of the winning alliance but not the most powerful member, you can choose to fight for overall victory and more fabulous prizes at the end of the game. You will start out as a very exclusive, single-member-only covenant, but you can (and should) recruit new members. This is done mainly through quests. Occasionally, someone will become available for recruitment and the first faction to complete their quest (which usually involves killing a number of monsters) wins. This is a pretty cool dynamic and it can result in some tense moments as all of the factions are trying to attain the same goal. This would be even more exciting in multiplayer, but, alas, that option is not available. You can also find neutral NPCs scattered around the map, but these are rare. Your headquarters contains your lifestone, which heals friendly units and can be destroyed to eliminate a covenant. In order to prevent against attacks while you are out killing stuff, you can recruit guards to protect your house. These guards are a little too tough to defeat, and you really need a multiple-player covenant in order to bring down a rival faction. Death is a common occurrence during raids, but you will respawn at your home base, assuming your lifestone has enough hit points. Your HQ can also hold relics: found scattered around the map, these are bonuses that are applied to every member of your covenant. You can also collect tomes for attribute bonuses and stash extra items for all members to share. The diplomatic options in Depths of Peril are common for a 4X strategy game: you can sign non-aggresion pacts and treaties, establish trade roots, or exchange items. The AI factions are very hesitant to agree to anything without giving them a bunch of free stuff first, even if you are much more powerful than they are.

The way you gain influence in the town and become the most powerful conveant is through killing monsters and some quests. These methods have a dual effect: making your faction seem better by “protecting” the town, and increasing your own experience points to level up. You really don’t gain much experience by killing things: you will need to complete quests in order to do that. You can embark on as many quests as you’d like at one time, and since most of them concern killing a certain number of monsters, you should just undertake as many as possible and you’ll complete most by accident. There are a lot of items to find around the game world, either on fallen foes or in the many chests that are scattered around each of the game’s areas. Depths of Peril allows you to teleport from any explored area back to your base, making defending attacks easier. There are a lot of enemies to defeat in Depths of Peril (that’s the whole “Peril” thing, I guess), and new players will have a tough time when engaged by a gaggle of enemy units. Once you gain a partner, however, monster hunting becomes a lot easier. It’s a good thing, then, that the penalty of death is not that bad (just a experience reduction for a period of time). The AI in Depths of Peril is competent, both as an ally and an enemy. While the monsters aren’t too smart (they are monsters, after all), the friendly units will engage enemy units and not be a hindrance to your efforts. The enemy factions will also war at the appropriate times and not just gang up on the human player, resulting in a nice game of diplomacy and war. Some games that attempt to combine two genres just result in a mish-mash of good intentions, but Depths of Peril nails it, resulting in a great strategic role-playing game that offers grinding combat and tense negotiations in one package.

Depths of Peril makes itself much more than a simple Diablo clone with its unique implementation of diplomatic goals. The 4X-like portion of the game, where you must balance relationships with rival faction and eliminate the weak competition, makes for some very interesting gameplay. Not only are you battling the NPC monsters, but you are also battling rivals who are battling the NPC monsters. The game switches seamlessly from traditional RPG combat to diplomacy and back again, and the end product is very entertaining. You never spend enough time in either part of the game to get tired of it, and alternating between grand strategy and action role-playing varies the overall experience in a good way. You might be a high-level monster-killing machine, but if all the other factions gang up on you, it will not matter. You have to master both aspects of the game, and this dichotomy is where Depths of Peril shines. There are some missing features and it’s not the easiest game in the world to get in to thanks to the sub-par tutorial, but it sure is fun once it gets going. Depths of Peril is a highly recommended title that seamlessly blends two genres into a unique and compelling gaming experience.