Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Birth of Shadows Review

Birth of Shadows, developed and published by Precision Games.
The Good: Decent number of spells that compliment each other well introduced gradually in the lengthy campaign, no penalty for death, map editor, online skirmish games, really low system requirements
The Not So Good: No character customization, repetitive combat early in the game, no auto-targeting, can’t queue spells, bland campaign, limited selection of skirmish levels, unimpressive graphics
What say you? An average magic-only role-playing game: 5/8

Every once in a while, I like to appease those elves-and-magic fans with a review of a role-playing game. While it’s certainly not my favorite genre (in fact, my second least-favorite just ahead of adventure games), playing strategy game after strategy game does get boring after a while and I like to change things up a bit. And doing a review of an independent RPG maintains my crusade of highlighting small developers in this world of big money corporations. So that brings us (I think) to Birth of Shadows, a role-playing game from the same people (well, person…for the most part) that brought us Pursuit of Power, one of those real time strategy games the movie stars are always talking about. Let's all give in to deliciousness!

The graphics of Birth of Shadows are essentially the same as Pursuit of Power, and since I didn’t think too highly of them a year and a half ago, I don’t now as well. The game is in 2-D and features the same fuzzy ground textures as before. The 2-D bitmaps of the enemies are objects (like trees and buildings) are decently detailed but poorly animated. There are some relatively nice effects with some of the spells, but again “nice” in Birth of Shadows will disappoint most mainstream RPG fans. Of course, the advantage of outdated graphics is low system requirements; pretty much anyone can run this game. The sound is what you would expect for an independent game: some pleasing background music, sporadic effects, and no voice acting. While Birth of Shadows can’t obviously compete with big-budget titles in terms of presentation, it even lags behind other independent games in terms of graphical quality. You can make 2-D graphics look good, but Birth of Shadows just looks old.

Birth of Shadows is primarily a single player role-playing game where do undergo quests, which usually involve killing stuff or finding people (and killing stuff along the way). The main campaign is quite long: 100 different quests are spread across a number of maps. Unfortunately, the background story and in-game text-only narrative aren’t terribly interesting, so Birth of Shadows isn’t as engaging as other role-playing games. There are skirmish maps for single missions you can play alone or over a network (with a known IP address). Cooperative play is pretty fun, although you need to communicate effectively so you don’t cast contradictory spells and that’s difficult to do in real-time. There are currently only four maps, but more are planned to be released in the future. There might also be some maps coming from the map editor that ships with the game, so while Birth of Shadows doesn’t come with much non-campaign content, the prospects are promising.

Birth of Shadows is a magic-only game, so all of your conflicts will take place from a distance. You can only cast one spell every two seconds (no matter which spells they are) and some (but certainly not most) spells come with recharge times. There isn’t mana in the game, so as long as your spells aren’t cooling down, you can keep on casting spells every two seconds. Because of this fixed time limitation, you would think Birth of Shadows would allow you to queue up spells, especially since so many spells work in concert with each other. But, sadly, this is not the case: you can only press spell buttons after the two second limit has passed, making combat much more tedious than it needs to be. Birth of Shadows also lacks any type of auto-targeting, so you must click on an enemy unit before casting any spells. As for the spells themselves, there are a good number of them (sixteen to be exact) that are introduced gradually as you begin a new campaign. Giving you new tools one at a time is a good design choice, as it would be quite overwhelming to begin with sixteen spells and not really know how to use them. The spells also compliment each other well; for example, a spell that steals enemy rage can be cast before a spell that causes more damage with increased player rage. Spells include the usual health/armor/speed buffs and debuffs, area damage, nightmares that cause your character to disappear, and pets that can attack enemy units. While these run the gamut of the types of spells you will encounter in any role-playing game, there could still be more and you’re not able to customize your character with specific spells as you gain experience.

As you attack enemy units (and get attacked), rage increases, which makes subsequent attacks more effective. Rage is the replacement for mana, I suppose, and it works well as an additional “resource.” You’ll want to attack with rage, but rage is gained from being hurt, so stealing rage from opponents is a powerful (and almost required) tactic. Birth of Shadows also has enemies that are immune to certain spells, so you’ll have to come up with a variety of different attack strategies to make it through the game: using pets, canceling enemy spells, draining life, increasing armor, freezing enemy attacks with fear, and so on. The basic gameplay works well, though it is a bit repetitive when you’re fighting the same enemy types. Casting spells is done through clicking; once you’ve selected an enemy unit, you’ll spend the rest of the time at the bottom of the screen choosing (but, again, not queuing) spells. The game plays out in real-time but you can pause the action; battling several foes at once can be an arduous task. The user interface of Birth of Shadows uses good tool-tips and you can move informational overlays around the screen. Characters also feature good pathfinding: clicking on a far-away location will move your knight there, although they might get attacked along the way and the game gives no indication of this. Like most role-playing games, Birth of Shadows features some stat tracking, keeping track of how good you are against certain enemies. And if you aren’t that good against certain enemies, you’ll appear back at the central respawn point with no penalty for death. In an odd twist, Birth of Shadows has no character customization, typically a defining feature and large part of role-playing games. You’ll unlock the spells in the order the game chooses for you, and there are no health or rage or damage improvements along the way, other than fixed ones the game gives you. It’s very strange to play a game with such a fixed system, since most games nowadays open up character customization options.

Like Pursuit of Power, Birth of Shadows has a solid foundation but misses in the features department. Though the spells are limited in quantity, they are balanced well and executing a string of spells successfully is fun, resulting in generally appealing gameplay. The campaign is lengthy and will keep you playing for a while. The game only comes with four skirmish maps, but a map editor and future patches will remedy this situation. The graphics are behind the times, but system requirements are very low: Birth of Shadows would probably run smoothly on the ENIAC. But there are several annoyances that add up to a game that only devoted role-players will enjoy: no spell queuing, no character experience upgrades, and repetitive combat once you learn the best sequence of spells. It’s these missteps that make Birth of Shadows only mildly interesting, but the game is streamlined so it could serve as a simplified introduction to the genre. In the end, Birth of Shadows is a couple of improvements away from being a satisfying experience.