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Page 3 of 3Quest Design
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.