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Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness is an isometric, party-based, real-time with pause RPG from GrapeOcean Technologies that was successfully Kickstarted back in 2018. A quick glance at any of the game’s screenshots makes it obvious that it draws its inspirations from the old Infinity Engine games, but also Obsidian Entertainment’s fairly recent Pillars of Eternity series.
Right now, the game is expected to launch before the end of 2020. And with that in mind, we decided to check out Black Geyser’s recently released Backer Beta and report our findings to you.
Story and Systems
By the looks of it, this beta represents a vertical slice of the actual game and not some standalone adventure. It lets you control a small group of premade characters and engage in diplomacy in a hostile city that’s being ravaged by a bunch of misfortunes. A plague, a rebellion, mysterious disappearances, cultists trying to summon all sorts of unpleasant things. Even the local mines are running out.
Speaking of the latter, you would think that a game inspired by Baldur’s Gate, a game that itself abbreviates into BG, would at least have the decency to not copy the basic premise of the Bhaalspawn saga. You see, while most of it takes place before the beta starts, based on some conversations and the quick manual bundled with the beta, I’ve managed to piece together what happens during Black Geyser’s intro.
You discover some truths about your origins and set out on an important journey. You predictably get ambushed, and before you know it, your half-brother you never knew you had kills your noble father. And this lands you inside a town that’s having problems with its mines.
If that description fills your mind with words like Gorion, Sarevok, and Nashkel, I don’t blame you. And if you add on top of it the fact that while never explicitly explored in the beta, Black Geyser separates its characters into Mortals and Demigods, these story similarities raise all sorts of alarms.
Admittedly, Black Geyser’s presentation, general atmosphere, and the actual sequence of events never actually devolve into a carbon copy of Baldur’s Gate. It’s just that once you look beneath the surface, the similarities become too apparent to ignore.
At the same time, the beta might not be representative of the final product. The above events may simply be a quick nod to Baldur’s Gate instead of the game’s main conflict. And finally, all of this may still very well change before the full release.
The beta itself lets you explore a handful of areas while working on a fairly robust quest chain and a bunch of minor side quests. Overall, you get a decent idea of what Black Geyser has to offer, even though the actual areas seem a bit on the unfinished and sparsely populated side at the moment.
And while the side quests are nothing to write home about, some of the twists and turns of the main quest chain show a lot of promise. One quest in particular, where you have to travel through time while dealing with certain limitations of time travel was very engaging. Especially if you consider that in order to resolve it positively, you'll have to pay attention to some seemingly random lore you stumble upon earlier on in the beta.
The moment to moment writing is also quite decent for the most part. I wasn’t sold on the beta’s call to action as you have no good reason to help the guy sending you on your big quest, but the lines themselves were fun to read.
However, one big issue I have with the game's writing is its naming conventions. Black Geyser takes place in a fairly standard fantasy setting, but for whatever reason, it pretends very hard that it doesn’t. It's like, if the game's story is based on Baldur's Gate, its world definitely follows in the footsteps of Pillars of Eternity with its unpronounceable pŵgras and fampyrs.
And I’ll be honest, I’m really not a fan of all these funky names that have no good reason to exist. Traditional fantasy names have had decades to establish themselves and so you generally know what to expect when you see a Rogue, a Barbarian, or an Elf.
You want to come up with some cool backstory for your world, an assortment of unique traditions, factions, and kingdoms? You go right ahead. Just don’t mess with the names. Calling your Elves Feldegugs doesn’t make their ears any less pointy, it just creates needless confusion.
The same can be applied to the game’s classes, where instead of a Rogue you have a Swindler, and instead of a Barbarian, you get a Highlander.
And those unnecessary changes, combined with the absence of a tutorial or even tooltips that explain how the game works, make it very difficult to accurately assess the pros and cons of Black Geyser's roleplaying system. Plus, I'm fairly sure that at least some of it is still work in progress, so take everything below with a grain of salt.
In the most basic of terms, Black Geyser’s ruleset is to the second edition of Dungeons and Dragons what Pillars of Eternity is to the third. You can clearly trace a lot of similarities between the systems, but instead of a simple and elegant D20 system, you have to deal with a bunch of percentile-based skill checks.
Each class seems to have access to several Class Skills, General Skills, and Weapon Skills. These skills tend to be fairly limited in number, and closer to something like Baldur’s Gate’s thieving abilities. Upon leveling up you get a few skill points for each of these categories. Each skill point increases the skill by a few percent, which, when combined with a number of other modifiers, turns into your character’s total skill value.
There don’t seem to be any feats or perks, but at least the game’s spellcasters are still beholden to the good old Vancian system where they have to memorize spells between rests. My mage didn’t level up during the beta, so I can’t tell you how you learn new spells. However, some of the existing ones were quite interesting. One spell in particular varied in damage depending on the type of armor the target was wearing.
Spell descriptions could still use some work, though, because some of them are too vague, while others mention duration in turns. And I’m not really sure Black Geyser even has Baldur’s Gate-style rounds and turns, and if it does, you don’t see them and have no idea how long they take.
That lack of clarity extends to weapon attacks too, because I don’t think the game mentions attack speed or attacks per round at any point. And if you consider that at least some spells deal damage multiple times per turn, the whole thing becomes too convoluted to even try to unravel.
Despite that, the game's real time with pause combat system is perhaps a bit too simplistic. Without flanking, sneak attacks, attacks of opportunity, or combat maneuvers, enemies mostly attack whoever is closest and tend to never switch targets. This turns most encounters into a DPS race.
And seeing how most of the beta fights are ridiculously easy, the one challenging boss fight near the end doesn’t really break the mold, it merely takes longer.
In a way, I blame the game's systems for my lack of enthusiasm towards its combat. In D&D or Pathfinder, where you can at a glance know how armor class and attack bonuses interact, there's always this desire to optimize your character through better gear, skills, and buffs.
With a percentile system, you merely know that a bigger number is better. And this isn't helped by the lack of clarity in the character sheet.
Nothing really has a description. So even though you have an impressive list of resistances, you have no way of knowing how they work. Do they subtract the damage you receive? Do they make it harder for an effect to land? How?
And if that wasn't enough, the game even lists Depressive and Arousal effects among the things your characters can resist. It’s never explained what those effects are, so you’re left to ponder what exactly an Arousal effect is, and how resisting it can help you in a dungeon.
On top of resistances, characters also have evasion and armor stats. Evasion combines block, dodge and parry, and is pretty self-explanatory.
Armor, on the other hand, is a total mystery. It’s not unreasonable to assume that evasion handles damage avoidance while resistances deal with damage mitigation. What does armor do then? I honestly have no idea, especially considering that none of the items list any armor values, but then your character sheet has an armor stat.
Your offensive stats are in a similar boat. There's accuracy, damage, and crit chance. Fairly standard, right? But then, weapons also have some mysterious “status” bonuses. I’ve no clue what those do.
Thankfully, this is still just beta and the developers still have some time to rework the UI and add detailed tooltips to everything. And while they’re at it, they should make inventory management less annoying and add combat formations, because right now there aren’t any.
I should also mention here that just as advertised during the Kickstarter campaign, the game does have a greed meter. However, I don’t think it does anything in the beta.
There’s also brewing and drying, Black Geyser’s take on a crafting system. I have no idea why it was such a selling point during the Kickstarter campaign or why it had to be separated into two tabs on the inventory screen.
Here’s how they work. You find a recipe, you use the right ingredients and a crafting tool, you rest for 8 in-game hours, then you forget that you need to manually move the potions from the brewing screen into your inventory, and go about your business, potionless.
Finally, judging by the game’s UI, at some point you will get your own stronghold, but it wasn’t present in the beta, so I can’t clarify anything there.
In the end, I want to stress that based purely on the beta, my understanding of Black Geyser’s systems may be somewhat flawed. And while the game itself is at least partially to blame for that, I don’t want you to think that all those assorted issues and mysterious systems make the game unplayable. It may not be quite there in terms of quality, but I can see a great deal of potential underneath all the confusing elements.
On the technical side of things, Black Geyser is nowhere near ready for a full release either. Even though the game was fairly stable and didn’t have any major game-breaking bugs for me, its performance is far from acceptable right now.
Fortunately, the developers seem to be aware of the fact that after a few area transitions, the game starts to stutter and take a while to load. However, I’m still not entirely convinced that they’ll be able to completely fix those issues. In my experience, CRPGs and the Unity engine don’t mix too well, especially when there are multiple sub-areas involved. Even on an SSD, the initial load took close to a minute for me, and that’s not exactly great.
The game’s visuals can range from pretty decent to terrible depending on the preset you chose, and that is a problem. You can’t manually enable or disable things, only choose a preset. So, if you want to play the game with great textures and effects but without any bloom or shadows, you can’t do that right now.
The game's voice acting deserves a special mention since it was great. Not AAA great, but charming and cheesy to the max great. Black Geyser's limited voice acting is mostly used for character introductions and some important story lines, and while a lot of it is surprisingly competent for a crowdfunded game with a limited budget, some of the lines are so over the top ridiculous, they can rival Baldur’s Gate’s famous, “My hotel’s as clean as an elven arse.”
Some areas that are still in dire need of improvements include animations and NPC pathfinding. A proper stealth system would be nice too, as at the moment, you mostly can steal stuff without any objections from the NPCs. The ability to resize the game’s UI and text would also be welcome. Right now, they’re too small for my taste.
Another thing I always like to mention here is the game’s save system. Already, Black Geyser’s save system does pretty much everything that a good save system should. The game takes mere moments to save and offers multiple quick and autosave slots on top of manual saves.
Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness, or at the very least its Backer Beta, is a strange game. It’s clear that a lot of care and effort was put into it, but then at times it almost feels like it simply tries to ape some other RPGs that came before it.
In the end, Black Geyser walks a very fine line between that and being its own thing full of interesting or at the very least unique ideas. And I can’t deny that despite whatever shortcomings the game’s backer beta may have, it also oozes a certain charm that makes you want to keep playing it.
And if you ask me, the number of technical issues and minor annoyances present in the beta the developers manage to fix by the time Black Geyser launches will determine if that charm is going to last. And I really hope that it does.