Inquisitor: The Sins of Old-school Design

17 Sep 2012

Our own contributor Eric "sea" Schwarz has penned an editorial on Gamasutra where he attempts to point out the "old-school design sins" committed by the recently released isometric RPG Inquisitor. While there's plenty of meat to this analysis, the two most recurrent themes seem to be lack of direction and of balance.

Here's an excerpt:
Inquisitor's second defining old-school trait is that it likes to throw the player into the deep end right from the very beginning. Immediately upon starting the game, you get a class selection (which also changes a few story details and dialogue options), and a fairly extensive character sheet containing multiple character attributes, about two-dozen skills to choose from, and a few schools of magic. In other words, it looks just like a classic RPG.

Of course, like other classic RPGs, this practice of shoving the character sheet in the player's face right from the beginning also makes it difficult to get a feel for what's important in the game. Do I want to take Pagan Magic or Divine Magic? Will I need to revive followers myself or are there priests that do it for me? Is strength important for a magic-oriented class? These sorts of fundamental gameplay questions are impossible to know the answer to without extensive reading, both of the instruction manual and meta-game advice, i.e. on message boards.

This isn't really much different from some of my favorite games of all time. Fallout and Arcanum are my two most-loved isometric RPGs, and both of those games are known for their poor game balance (especially Arcanum) and the ability for a player to make an exceptionally ineffective character through little direct fault of his or her own. A lot of this boils down to the fact that it's impossible to know in advance how useful an ability or skill is relative to other elements of the game. Arcanum, for instance, is set in a neo-Victorian steampunk world, and due to the aesthetic I'd assume that social skills are of the utmost priority... but building a character who focuses on persuasion, charisma and beauty generally is not going to be anywhere near as capable as a straight-up fighter, thanks to the game's large amounts of combat and lengthy dungeon crawls.

Inquisitor suffers from the exact same issue, but to a greater degree. Without knowing in advance how the game plays, it's impossible to make informed decisions. Many players I've spoken with, for instance, found themselves disappointed in the magic system when they realized that spells were extremely ineffective against enemies until halfway through the game. I was annoyed when I discovered my paladin character couldn't complete a quest because he couldn't use the Levitate spell, or when I learned there was a fool-proof spell used to identify items, rendering the Identify skill completely redundant (as well as the points I invested in it). There's no way to change the difficulty level after you've started the game, and there's no way to rebind your keys, because... well, okay, there's really just no justifiable reason for those.

Some of these issues are very difficult to avoid in an RPG with a fair degree of freedom, but many of these could have been avoided with more intuitive controls, more obvious clues in dialogue, books to read explaining game mechanics, or even simple tutorial pop-ups. For example, it is mandatory, if you can't pick locks or use spells to open them, to bash down doors in order to proceed in the game. Unfortunately, without reading through the manual you would never, ever know how to do this. I also spent several hours of the game dragging-and-dropping potions one-by-one, because I didn't realize there was a faster way to buy things - a problem that others I knew also had, thanks to unintuitive user interface design.