Drakensang: The River of Time is the prequel to 2009's Drakensang: The Dark Eye, with both titles coming out of Berlin-based development studio Radon Labs. It was originally released in February 2009 in Germany, though there was a long period of silence before we saw an English language release to the Benelux area in October 2009 (the version I played for this review). This was a full English port, but it took until January 2011 for it to reach the US, meaning the US consumer could only get their hands on the official English port via unscrupulous methods months before they could pick it up through digital download or retail. When it was finally released in the US, it was unceremoniously dropped to a $20.00 price point, without any marketing or PR accompanying it.
I often have a hard time figuring out exactly what publishers are thinking when they bring select titles (usually European) onto the market without any noticeable PR (not even a press release, really?), and The River of Time is probably the quintessential example of a botched US release of a European title. Still, often enough these kind of releases happen because the publisher has no faith in the title, and consider it to be a sub-par product. Is that the case for The River of Time?
If you've played Drakensang: The Dark Eye then The River of Time will instantly seem familiar. It is a prequel that heavily recycles from the original, in engine, gameplay and assets, comparable to Fallout 2 to Fallout, or Fallout: New Vegas to Fallout 3. Rather than reinvent everything and start from scratch, the title is produced in a relatively short development cycle, polished, refined and offering a new adventure.
So, like its predecessor, The River of Time is a cRPG based on the immensely popular (in Germany) The Dark Eye pen and paper RPG, with inspiration drawn from BioWare's Infinity Engine-era cRPGs. It is a party-based, real-time with pause cRPG, telling a linear story in which the player character gathers a group of followers to battle evil, resolve quests and grind through dungeons. At its core, the gameplay is left unchanged, with a few tweaks and additions, and The River of Time's greatest improvements come in the form of design and pacing more than gameplay tweaks.
That said, there are a few objects of interest in its additions. Two playable classes have been added to the pile of 20 archetypes available at character creation: the geode – a kind of dwarfish druid – and the tribal warrior, as well as adding a deont of Phex – the god of thieves – as a follower and possible character option for roguelike characters. In The Dark Eye's setting, deonts are followers of a god who can call upon divine favors, by the use of karma points which recharge when the deont performs actions that please their god. It is great to see this class added to the cRPG version of The Dark Eye, albeit only for one particular god.
If you haven't played The Dark Eye pen & paper or the original Drakensang game, the character system can be a bit daunting, with 8 attributes, 9 derived statistics, 13 combat skills, 23 non-combat skills and 11 branches of special abilities. If you've played the previous game, you'll note this one doesn't add any skills or attributes here (though I will note it utilizes them better, but more on that later). What does the game add? Well, it has a few new combat special abilities (frenzy, taunt, bleeding). The new classes add some unique casting abilities, with five divine miracles of Phex available to the deont, and the geode has six unique spells. Only one other spell is added, but considering the original had 45 spells that might be enough.
The game guides you well through this complex system, allowing direct access to the game by simply accepting an archetype. However, experienced RPG players will want to look at expert mode, which allows you to change pretty much anything within the bounds of the class you picked. The River of Time adds another option here in the ability to add and remove up to four advantages and disadvantages, each costing or granting leveling points and allowing further customization. The visual customization of your hero or heroine is very limited, with a handful of body-types, faces and hairstyles being about the gist of it.
Both the original and The River of Time are PC-only games and have refreshingly intuitive interfaces and easily mappable hotkeys, and an easy-to-use combination of keyboard and mouse controls. The camera can feel a bit restrictive, especially in combat where its flexibility is further limited.
One of the biggest new bits of the game is a very simple one: the addition of quick travel points within the area map. This seemingly minor addition has a large impact gameplay, as one of The Dark Eye's biggest problems was the prohibitively large amounts of time spent walking. Better map design but especially these quick travel points – which require no loading as they occur within a single area – make a huge difference, even though for some reason it did not occur to Radon Labs to increase the walking speed (albeit now with an always run on/off toggle included), and you still move at a bit of a snail's pace.
Tech & Graphics
Drakensang: The River of Time has gone through its patching process in its German release, and comes to the US in a polished state. Most of the issues I ran into were minor and related to the game's localization. Loading screens can get a bit long – especially further into the game – but generally load into large areas, large enough for multiple hours of gameplay without encountering any further loading screens.
There is not much to separate The River of Time from its predecessor graphically. Both are games that do not technologically compete in the graphics section, but do have strong art design and an interesting setting to work with. The River of Time seems to have a bit more attention to detail than its predecessor, with more finely crafted areas and more small details to make the gameworld come alive visually.
The graphic fidelity is certainly good enough to support some solid art design, and the animations – a few wonky dialogue animations aside – are generally solid. The game looks pretty good while also being very well-optimized, capable of running well on pretty much any PC gaming rig built in the last half-decade.
Sound, Music & Localization
The sound & music design of The River of Time is solid and unspectacular. Ambient sounds support the game's visuals without being obtrusive. The game's soundtrack is the usual high fantasy score, but fits the setting to a T, and rarely becomes intrusive in a bombastic attempt to sound “epic”.
Sadly, the localization is not a particularly high-quality job. The opening cinematic already sees some oddly unemotional delivery of lines, and this is a trend that continues throughout the game. The voice acting can best be called uneven, with some characters having decent or even pitch-perfect performances, but many others falling short. It never gets to the point of painful that the worst localizations usually do, but that's about the best you can say for it.
The previous Drakensang kind of avoided the issue of budget constraints and voice acting by not being fully voiced, instead opting to voice only the opening lines of dialog from an NPC, as well as fully voicing cutscenes. The River of Time is fully voiced in all but floating dialog lines, and doesn't shirk adapting dialog to the player's gender, class or race, adding to the amount of voice recording needed. Being fully voiced is expected from current releases, but one can question how much value this adds when the voice acting isn't particularly strong and the game doesn't have any lipsync for its characters.
Additionally, as mentioned above, The River of Time's rare blemishes mostly occur in the localization, with odd errors like the voice actor skipping over lines of dialogue that are still present in the text box, or the wrong voice track being played for a bit of dialogue.