Atlus is a funny publisher. While other gaming companies try desperately to cling to the newest fads, Atlus is hell bent on delivering the niche games. The Dark Spire is the latest example of this practice. With The Dark Spire, developer Success offers as old school an experience as any RPG fan could want (or in the case of newer genre fans, not want). While it has its audience, The Dark Spire is a game that won’t appeal to everyone – not that it tries.
The Dark Spire begins in an unnamed kingdom following the robbery of a local royal heirloom by the game’s central baddie, the Archmage Tyrhung. He then retreats to his mysterious tower, which your party of custom made adventurers must predictably explore and conquer in your quest to recover the pilfered jewels. The game is one massive fetch quest. Though a few story elements unfold during the course of your adventure, it never gets deeper than that.
The rest of the game is similarly stripped down. Game play is all based around those lovely turn based battles that larger developers have been trying to phase out. If that wasn’t traditional enough, the entire game is menu based, and all action is relayed through text. Simple game play doesn’t mean a simple game, however. Compared to other recent RPGs, The Dark Spire is one of the most strategic role-playing games to come out in years. The combat may be menu based, but you’ll never find yourself mashing on the attack button. When attacking you can choose different styles that change the physical power, speed and accuracy of your blows. When casting a spell, you can choose to do it quickly or opt for more a reliable incantation. Even defensive stance offer multiple options.
These options aren’t superfluous either – players must make clever use of all of them. Like western dungeon crawlers of yore, The Dark Spire is brutally hard. Over the past few years Atlus’s similar Etrian Odyssey games reintroduced ball-busting difficulty in RPGs – and The Dark Spire is an even harder beast of a game. This isn’t a game you will plow through. Without a well balanced party and a healthy dose of caution even the lowest level monsters will tear you to shreds. For some, this will make the game too frustrating to be enjoyable. Gamers that enjoy a challenge will get a lot of satisfaction with The Dark Spire. Going from constantly losing to aptly handling the monsters in any given floor feels like a real accomplishment – just be prepared to die, a lot.
Artistically, The Dark Spire is an interesting game. There is no animation in the game. The random encounters are all static displays with the action described textually. Even so, [i]The Dark Spire[i] is a stylish game, painted with a gorgeous palette of lights and darks. There is a frustrating lack of variation; floors look the same throughout. The battle graphics in particular are nice, and while static, the enemies are well drawn.
The developers took retro dedication above and beyond with The Dark Spire. In addition to the standard visuals they also included a “classic” mode where all the visuals are translated into 8-bit wireframe a la old dungeon crawlers like Wizardry. The music is surprisingly good for a game this small, and the 8-bit renditions that accompany classic mode are a surprising delight.
The Dark Spire is not a game everyone. It is intentionally archaic, targeting a group of fans yearning for a genre of play that modern gamers aren’t aware existed. For those looking for a simpler, more challenging, or more succinctly, absolutely retro, experience – this game is a must buy. The Dark Spire is everything most modern RPGs try not to be, and it is a joy.