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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.
Game pacing & Combat
The River of Time's main plot is linear, but that doesn't necessarily mean the game is. Where its predecessor locked off most areas after you visited them, in The River of Time areas stay unlocked once you find them (primarily done in the main plot), and not only can you travel back to any area, you're supposed to do so regularly, as new quests unlock as you progress along the main storyline.
Like Drakensang: The Dark Eye, The River of Time is not a particularly challenging game, but this open approach means that you're free to search out challenges if you want them. The Dark Eye had one such instance the infamous rat basement but The River of Time is full of them, and does not appear to have any level scaling. This may be frustrating to gamers not used to this mode of design, but it is an absolute delight for RPG gamers who like having to plan and think to take on a monster that is way beyond their abilities. It can make the ending areas a bit of a letdown as they do not scale either, and can become very easy if you spent a lot of time on sidetracks, but this is something I personally can live with it, it feels like the game is rewarding you for your character progress rather than character progress being made meaningless by level scaling.
Similarly, where The Dark Eye would shower you with magical items and gifts like some kind of nervous dungeon master just looking to please his gamers, The River of Time's progression is slower, and better for it. Investing in the crafting skill is more worthwhile as the items you can make are often better than those available to you. It is still pretty easy to become obscenely rich, as I was hauling around over a thousand ducats by the end, enough to buy two sets of full plate. Similarly, the haul of magic items becomes quite rich by the end, and what you don't find you can buy. It's more reasonably paced than its predecessor, but still pretty loot-heavy.
The combat is real time with pause, in the classic style of turn-based mechanics running in realtime, with a pause function allowing the player to consider his/her tactics and issue commands to the party. I'd still have preferred a turn-based system for a pen and paper adaptation like this, but The River of Time keeps the (if it's not broke don't fix it) attitude its predecessor had, both having combat that is very similar to Infinity Engine's system.
This is probably the part of the game where polish and tweaking are most lacking. The party AI system has not been changed at all, still offering only two settings (aggressive or defensive), where one would really expect more options on the automatic use of skills and items. This means you generally have to minimanage your party through even the most tedious and easy of encounters, which makes combat quite a chore.
The enemy AI is still not particularly impressive, making it a bit too easy to manipulate the odds in your favor. The camera problems were briefly mentioned and are an unchanged annoyance. A steady tactical overview is not available, as the camera always pans to whoever you select, which is particularly annoying in tight spaces or if your party is spread out.
But while the mechanics are not improved, the design certainly is. Where The Dark Eye asked you to trudge through seemingly endless dungeons of trash mobs and sleep-inducing, repetitive fights, The River of Time almost completely avoids this drudgery, only offering a few instances of a dungeon of trash mobs (the Temple of Efferd being the only memorably annoying one).
Combat still serves as a filler every now and again, but generally fights are well-spaced and engaging, or even challenging. Dungeons vary the combat by throwing in a ton of puzzles and encounters. Most of these puzzles are well-designed, though some require at least a bit of knowledge in TDE-lore. This could be an annoyance to the many international players who don't know much of TDE, but Radon Labs seems to have seen this problem coming, and for most puzzles has a friendly NPC who offers to solve it for the player. This is kind of an ingame option to use a walkthrough, which is slightly insulting the player's intelligence, but when push comes to shove not really important in an age where solutions are just a google search away.
I wrote in my Drakensang: The Dark Eye review that (Drakensang would have been a much better game with less frequent and harder fights) and it bears repeating here, because that is exactly what they did and it really does make a huge difference. It doesn't make up for a flawed combat system, but this game is much improved due to the fights less frequent and harder, as well as due to the addition of unique elements and challenges to many of the fights boss battles as well as other fights.
One of my favorite scenarios in the game is the fight with the demon Zant, which comes at the end of a puzzle-filled and interesting dungeon. Before this fight, you should have gathered five seal stones, each of which can be used to weaken the demon and lock off one of his unique abilities. However, you are offered gold and items in return for any seal stone left unused by the end of the fight. This appeals directly to the player's greed always a fun move in a cRPG and the fight itself is quite tough. Basically the game is challenging you to make the fight as hard as you can stand I ended up using two stones and rewarding you directly for it. Even if the reward was a bit of a letdown.
The River of Time is set on the continent of Aventuria on the world of Ethra, a part of a 25-year old pen and paper setting, that has been constantly enriched through the addition of modules, lore and novels. The River of Time gratefully uses this lore, both in offering the player glimpses of its history and religions and in offering amusing fanservice to TDE fans, such as appearances by Archon Megalon and archmage Rakorium (both of whom were in Drakensang: The Dark Eye as well) and more subtle inside jokes, such as the fact that you have to fight a huge statue of Answin in your struggle to protect a cause he would later betray.
Aside from its depth, what I find appealing in Aventuria is that it is not standard high-fantasy fare, and doesn't present a world filled with tones of brown and red, with grimdark characters tromping through a (dark gritty fantasy). Those settings are enjoyable, but as they are trendy now it is nice to have a game that does things differently. The setting of TDE is a king of (whimsical) high fantasy, a mix of fairy tales, Tolkien lore and a more ebullient, light-hearted approach.
That's not to say that it lacks in villains, poverty, thieving, corruption and devious scheming. The plot is filled with backstabbers and plotters in every corner. It does mean the game is filled with overdrawn archetypes, including walking parodies such as Prancelot (another NPC who was also in the previous title) or the baron Dajin of Nadoret. Fighting your way into a keep to find the main hallway bedecked with paintings of dogs including a dog version of Michelangelo's the Creation of Adam is great if TDE's sense of humor clicks with you, but annoying if it doesn't. This type of setting won't appeal to everyone, but through no fault of Radon Lab, as they once again do a damn good job at getting the feel right.
Story & Companions
The story takes a completely different approach than Drakensang: The Dark Eye did. Whereas that title was your cliched "chosen one" tale, heaping praise on you for being the hero of Aventuria as you set out to save the entire planet, The River of Time's story happens on a much smaller scale.
The story is a prequel to the events of The Dark Eye, and it really is the story of Ardo's quest to recover a certain object. Ardo died at the beginning of the previous game, the protagonist being an old friend of his. It is introduced and narrated by another one of the characters from the previous game, Forgrimm (who is a companion in both games), who is relating the story to another companion from the previous game, Gladys. This serves to create an immediate connection for people who played the previous game, but even for those that didn't this form of narrative is entertaining enough.
Without wanting to give away too much, the story centers on a regional conflict, a problem that at the outset of the game seems simple enough (smoosh the pirate problem), but slowly, as you uncover more information, you discover it is part of a larger conspiracy. In addition to being a smaller scale, the main narrative actually follows Ardo and his two friends (Forgrimm and Cano), while you and one other person (Fayris or Jaakon) tag along. The main quest isn't about saving the world, but it isn't a frivolous problem either, and as far as I'm concerned the game is much better for telling a story that is more focused in scale and that uses the group dynamic much more strongly. I found the story of the previous game hard to get into and filled with needless ego-stroking, whereas this story is immediately engaging and well-paced.
The choice to scale down the number of companions really helped here. As mentioned, you only have four companions throughout the game, and less than that for significant parts of the game. Radon Labs seems to have opted for this so they could craft characters with much more personality than those in The Dark Eye. They are also much more involved in the game itself, actively making suggestions as well as speaking for themselves in dialogue, especially at the end of the game where Ardo really takes over and the protagonist is almost reduced to a companion himself.
The game uses the smaller NPC group to its advantage. The party is fairly balanced regardless of what the player brings in, and unless you invest only in combat skills from there on out you should have and use a wide array of crafting and social skills throughout the game. Furthermore, the companions suggest different approaches to quests, especially early on in the game, where Forgrimm suggests going in axe waving while Cano prefers subterfuge. Different approaches are available throughout the game, though it really only seems to offer greatly different paths at the start, particularly in the Tollgate quest which plays out completely differently depending on if you follow Cano or Forgrimm. The choices you make generally don't have plot-altering consequences, but they do impact the way specific areas play out.
The game is heavy on quest markers in its quests, and many quests are or can be resolved by simply killing everything. This means the go-there-and-kill method is often the way to go. The game does offer a bunch of minor quests that are not marked in your log and thus lack quest markers, but all other quests are guided on your map.
But more so than its predecessor, The River of Time offers different paths and choices even without your companions suggesting them. The social skills especially fast talk and human nature are used very frequently, with results varying from slightly better rewards to getting betters odd in a fight to avoiding the fight completely. Seduce and etiquette are used less but even those skills have their uses. As mentioned, crafting skills are very useful, and various thieving/exploring skills, like disarm traps, lockpicking and dwarf nose, see frequent use in dungeons, though the game does not really allow you to sneak by more than a handful of encounters.
To round up both story and quest design, it is worth noting that both generally decline throughout the game. Starting with more interesting discoveries and more richly designed quests, the game seems to run out of ideas later on. The methods used to railroad you into the plot at the end are laughable, and while you can avoid quite a bit of large-scale combat you are forced into a bunch of fights at the end, including fights with people you avoided earlier. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is how after all the nefarious plotting and scheming, all the problems are solved by finding the cookie-cutter two-dimensional villain and beating him up. The final fights are impressive in scale, but in narrative it's a bit disappointing.
Before I started on this review, I went back to read my review of Drakensang: The Dark Eye. I was amazed to find how many of my major problems with the game have been at least partially resolved in this prequel. Too much walking? Quick travel points. Too much boring trash mob combats? Less frequent and more interesting combat encounters. The original had an uninteresting, cliche plot? A smaller, more interesting plot.
None of these changes are huge, but add them together and they make The River of Time a much better RPG than The Dark Eye, and The Dark Eye was already pretty solid in its own right. Granted, The River of Time still has a handful of issues that mar the experience, including the uninspired combat system and shoddy localization. But it is definitely a better game, and easy to recommend to anyone who enjoyed The Dark Eye.
Radon Labs took an interesting risk in creating a smaller scale story in which the protagonist is just one member of a group rather than "the special one". Game designers like dungeon masters often exert themselves in heaping praise and prophecy on the protagonist in an effort to make the player feel like they've been chosen, and this direction can easily feel trite and overdone. Still, in an age of epic-scale (you are the one from my dreams) storytelling, I find The River of Time's approach refreshing. But it is a risk and, much like its setting, won't appeal to everyone.
It took me over 30 hours to play through The River of Time's main quest and a whole slew of its side quests. That is only half the time it took me to finish The Dark Eye, yet a significant chunk of the missing half was spent in endless walking sequences and fighting trash mob upon trash mob. At $20, this game is an absolute steal for North American CRPG enthusiasts, and it most definitely deserved better treatment than from its publisher.
Regardless of what I think of The River of Time, however, our journey with Radon Labs into Das Schwarze Auge CRPG territory is pretty much over. With Bigpoint's acquisition of the company, Drakensang will continue on as nothing more than a browser-based hack 'n slash. An ignominious faith for a franchise that was showing such improvement from one title to the next. It's unlikely that we'll see the Phileasson's Secret expansion pack translated to English, but at least this last hurrah is a very good one.