Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon is an upcoming indie RPG from developer Jay Barnson, a name you might know for the candid and insightful RPG commentary that he often posts to his blog. He has been working on Frayed Knights for quite a while now, and eventually realized it was getting too big for a single release, so the Skull of S'makh-Daon is to be the first of three titles. Barnson provided GameBanshee with a beta copy and then a release candidate copy to play around with, and I had just found the Skull of S'makh-Daon after about 6-7 hours into the game when I figured I'd seen enough for a quick preview leading up to a likely release tomorrow.
Frayed Knights is an old-school, turn-based, first-person RPG, with the focus of the game being dungeon crawling in the most classic sense: fighting through monsters, disarming traps, and finding your way past magically locked doors. There isn't a whole lot of puzzling and none of the quests are particularly complex, usually exploring a dungeon fully is enough, but the game lacks that annoying modern staple, the quest marker, so you do have to pay attention and solve things yourself. A few quests take place only in town, by talking to various townspeople and solving their (often very minor) problems. The game seems fairly linear, though you're free to decide in what order you want to explore dungeons and solve quests, and occasionally are offered a few choices on how to approach a problem.
The player takes control of a party of four: Arianna, Dirk, Chloe and Benjamin, following the staple of warrior, rogue, sorceress and priest. There's no character creation or customization at the start, and the characters are always represented by the same portraits. The character system is fairly complex, with upgrades divided over attributes, enhancements, proficiencies, skills and spell-casting, which provide a variety of passive enhancements, fulfilling item requirements and providing active combat skills and spells. There's a good variety of items, weapon types that interact with weapon skills well, armor with disadvantages for the non-warrior types, supportive items for spellcasters (wands, scrolls, gems). It's a good and seemingly well-balanced system, though obviously I didn't test it to its limits.
You can upgrade any character as you like, but the game is built to encourage to stick to the character's specialization, so you'll want to focus Arianna mostly as a brawler, and Benjamin as a supporting spell-caster, but you can get creative with some secondary skills. The system is certainly expansive enough where RPG fanatics can puzzle with skills and proficiencies and specific items to optimize their characters, but on the other hand, I just jumped in with no preparation, and the game isn't so complex as to make that style of play impossible.
The very earliest combat is pretty simple, just pressing “a” for attack to win the first few fights, but it doesn't take long until the game starts throwing tougher opponents at you, and spellcasters that buff their allies and cast blindness and sleeping spells on the heroes. Simply attacking and casting direct damage spells isn't the right way to go, sleep/stun/blindness spells are a great help in fights, as are buffs and other supportive spells. It's easy to grow some favorites (I am particularly fond of tryptophan, deep fat frier and fade attack so far), but you have to adapt your tactic depending on your opponent and the state of your heroes.
The two big stats to keep an eye on during fights and while exploring are health and endurance. When health runs out, the hero is incapacitated and unless you spend a potion or drama stars (more on that later), he/she will be out until you find time to rest in the local inn. Spells and skill provide healing during and between combat. Endurance is a catch-all stat for fighting stamina and mana. Whether you just attack or cast a spell, it always costs endurance, though how much depends on the level of the spell or special attack. You can take breathers in combat, and between fights you can rest anywhere in the game world, but if you do so you run the risk of being attacked by wandering monsters, though in my personal experience so far this isn't a huge risk, and in-dungeon resting is very useful. While you travel each fight creates exhaustion, which caps how much endurance you can regenerate by resting. When the exhaustion level becomes too high, you've got no choice but to quaff potions, use one of the rare endurance-healing opportunities in dungeons (I've seen only one so far) or return to town to sleep.
Other standard elements in dungeon crawling are traps and searching for hidden items. Traps are taken care of in a pretty straightforward manner. It's mostly based on character skill, but the player decides which parts of the trap to target, with different difficulties and threat levels to each part, and whether to use special tools, the goal being to get the completed bar full before the threat bar is full and the trap goes off. Searching for hidden items is done by pressing X, and a screen pops up to tell you if you found nothing or whether the smartest party members spotted something, and if so numbers it 4-1 depending on proximity. This is perhaps improved upon by proficiencies but so far has been a really annoying affair for me, it's pretty tedious and frequently interrupted by random encounters, as every press of the X passes a turn.
The drama stars are a fun little concept used in this game. Every time you take any significant new action (opening doors into new areas, finishing fights, have Arianna drink from a dodgy pool of water, turning a lever) one of eight points in one of three stars is filled. When you reload a game, the stars are cleared and you'll have to start filling them again. You can fill up the three stars, first to bronze, then to silver, then to gold. As you upgrade them, you can spend them for ever-increasing one-time fall-back options, able to lift negative effects or awaken knocked out characters. The intent is to encourage you to play through dungeons rather than rely on constant saving and reloading, and it works fairly well, I find myself saving with a much lower frequency in this game than in others, and rarely reloading at all.
The graphics aren't great, as you'd expect from an indie. Once you're underground everything can look a bit samey, which can be a bit tiring and confusing. That said, the design of different monsters and dungeons has a good variety, and animations are decent. The music is very intrusive, which isn't my preference in video games, and I found myself turning it off for long stretches of play. I'm not sure if this release candidate is the final one, but if it is that's fine by me, I encountered nothing but the most minor of glitches. Loading new areas (and saves) takes a very long time, but this is because it loads in very large areas in one go, so it's all fluid from there on out. This further discourages reloading, though I doubt that's intentional, and it can be a bit annoying.
Last but not least, one of the big selling points of this title is the unique, humorous writing. It is pretty present throughout the game, with frequent dialogs between the main four characters (the player rarely has any input in dialog, except occasionally to accept or decline quests or actions), humorous notes or signs, visual gags, word jokes in location descriptions, etcetera etcetera. Writing comedy into a game is pretty risky. Personally didn't have a lot of laugh out loud moments, but neither did the writing ever become annoying, and it usually amuses.
It'll rub some people the wrong way that your characters are preset and unchangeable, but that's pretty much necessary to make the comedic writing work. The better you get to know the characters and their quirks, from Arianna's short temper to Chloe's ditziness, the better the jokes between the four start working. The game also plays around with a lot of cliches, including the normal habit of heroes being worshipped by most NPCs they meet. Instead, this is replaced by people knowing the group as the "frayed knights" due to events taking place before the game, and few people seem to have much respect for them. Another good example, with a mild spoiler, is being sent out to check a farmer who might have rats in his basement, only to find out the intelligent(ish) rats took over and are trying to pose as the farmer rather unconvincingly in a mechanical construct.
From what I've played so far, most of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon is a lot of fun, with combat and a character system that strike the right balance of intuitiveness and complexity. Some elements can get a bit tedious (like searching for hidden items or wandering around the same dungeon fighting overly similar groups of monsters), but those are fairly minor niggles in an otherwise solid package. If you're in need of a party- and turn-based RPG to play (as many of us are these days) and like to support indies, then you'll want to look for this one tomorrow.