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Fallout: New Vegas
When we learned that Obsidian Entertainment was actually going to get their hands on the Fallout franchise again, Diablo III took an immediate tumble down our most anticipated list. Despite the near certainty that it will be another FPS/RPG hybrid, Fallout: New Vegas overcomes a lot of the associated fears of riding on Fallout 3's FPS-inclined system by doing what most of us would consider a lost dream - returning the Fallout license to some of the people it originally belonged to.
While none of the developers credited as having created Fallout's "original game design" (Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky, Jason D. Anderson, Chris Taylor, Jason Taylor, and R. Scott Campbell) are currently at Obsidian, the studio boasts names like Feargus Urquhart (Fallout 1/2 producer), Chris Avellone (Fallout 2 designer), J.E. Sawyer (Van Buren lead designer), and Scott Everts (Fallout 1/2 designer) amongst its staff.
And so we head into 2010 excited to see what they'll do with the Fallout license, and hopeful they will be able to overcome some of Fallout 3's flaws, most noticeably its less-than-stellar writing. That doesn't seem like much of a stretch, either, considering that these are the same people that gave us Planescape: Torment.
Knights of the Chalice (Winner)
Sometimes genius is indistinguishable from madness, and I’m really not sure which afflicts Heroic Fantasy Games, maker of Knights of the Chalice – our winner for the Indie RPG of the year. Taking “old school” to the extreme in some areas, Knights of the Chalice embraces the very old-fashioned 320 x 200 resolution of the VGA era (fortunately expandable to a less postage-stamp-sized resolution), a 2D perspective highly reminiscent of Ultima VI and Ultima VII, and the D20 Open Gaming License from Wizards of the Coast heavily modified to replicate the flavor of very old-school (1970s era) Dungeons & Dragons.
Amazingly, it all works – and works well. The game is heavy on the turn-based tactical combat, which may give it niche appeal geared more towards the hardcore faithful – but for the audience, the game is all but heaven-sent. With sub-quests drawing inspiration from classic early-era D&D modules, challenging tactical combat, cunning and brutally efficient AI enemies, monsters and spells from a familiar licensed game system, Knights of the Chalice invokes the feel of an old-school dice & paper gaming with a vengeance. Its greatest deviation is in the outstanding item-crafting system, which allows characters to spend experience points and gold to create literally any magic item available in the game.
Knights of the Chalice is a gutsy, ambitious title that is not without some significant flaws. But its aggressive reach is rewarded by far more hits than misses. It is a compelling experience that makes it easy to overlook its more old-school production values and lack of a deeper storyline. Heroic Fantasy Games knocked this one out of the park, and left legions of fans hungry for a sequel.
The Three Musketeers (Runner-up)
As difficult as choosing the best indie game of 2009 was among almost thirty entries was (and that’s about a game every two weeks…), choosing the runner up was even more challenging. Cute Knight Kingdom, two new Aveyond titles, Deadly Sin, Aztaka, and the final chapter of Spiderweb’s Geneforge saga were all solid indie role-playing games that truly showcase the quality coming out of the indie scene, and worthy of honors. Unfortunately, we can’t pick them all.
The Three Musketeers, by Dingo Games, is inspired by Alexandre Dumas' classic novel of swashbuckling adventure in 17th century France, and is the runner-up for the best indie RPG of the year. Featuring a slower-paced “action” combat that rewards timing and tactics over rapid clicking, the game credibly replicates the swashbuckling feel of swordplay and firearm combat of the source material. Combat often goes beyond one-on-one conflicts into group battles with multiple friendly and opponent targets. Besides combat, the game features numerous sub-games to keep the player occupied, including opportunities to gamble and … play tennis. Clothing and equipment, as always, play a critical role in combat – but are equally important in the social statement they make about your character. Success in the circles of French aristocracy demand not the most protective boots, but the most stylish, of course!
But beyond the mechanics of the game, the story, dialog, quests, and world in general capture the romantic, adventurous mood and setting of the book. While adhering to the general narrative of the original story, it still cuts the player loose and lets him explore the game-world, righting wrongs, defending the honor of maidens, and getting into all kinds of conflicts – from minor brawls to large-scale military actions. Offering a familiar world that is nevertheless fresh in the world of computer RPGs, The Three Musketeers is a delight to play, and is our runner-up for Indie RPG of the Year.