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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Pikmin 4 4/5
No Man's Sky 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 4/5
Assassin's Creed IV: Bl... 2.5/5
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands 3.5/5
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Catmaze 4.5/5
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Seasons After Fall 3/5
Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
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Yaga 2.5/5
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Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 3.5/5
Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5

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Dark Quest 2   PC (Steam) 

‘Hero’ and ‘Dark’ are both Four-Letter Words    3.5/5 stars

As we all know, the cRPG – that is, the Computerized Role-Playing Game – is the descendant of tabletop RPGs, which are themselves descendants of tabletop wargames, which are descendants of board games, stretching all the way back to the Chess-like games played by our ancient ancestors. In the early 1990s, this lineage was revealed more plainly than ever when Milton-Bradley, the American toy and board game company, teamed up with Games Workshop, the British tabletop wargame company, to produce a middle-of-the-road ‘adventure’ game called “Hero Quest.” Intended as a sort of ‘gateway drug’ to get American youth interested in purchasing gobs of expensive Games Workshop miniatures, “Hero Quest” occupied a somewhat-ambiguous space between the simplistic world of board games and the overwhelmingly complex world of tabletop wargames and RPGs.

The advertising campaign for “Hero Quest” worked its magic on my young mind, though, and the tagline, “Once you get into it, you’ll never be the same,” proved to be completely true. I attribute/blame the way I am almost entirely to the heady mix of “Hero Quest” and “DragonLance” novels I was exposed to prior to starting high school in 1993. And I am clearly not alone, as “Hero Quest” has something of a cult following. Occasionally, some nostalgia bomb of an homage to this nerdiest of gateway drugs comes out of nowhere to remind us of our misspent youth: “Dark Quest 2” is one such homage.

Whilst “Hero Quest” withered on the vine somewhat in the United States, Games Workshop’s involvement in the UK ensured that the dead horse was regularly and vigorously beaten. Thus, it is no surprise that Brain Seal Entertainment, the Indie development team behind “Dark Quest 2” and its predecessor, is based in London, England.

“Dark Quest 2” makes no effort to disguise its inspirations. The visuals, environments, character designs, enemy archetypes, villain, and absolutely everything else about the game’s look, feel, and identity is a knock-off of the “Hero Quest” tabletop game. Of course, just because something is a knock-off doesn’t mean it is necessarily a cheap or bad knock-off. “Dark Quest 2” manages to capture the vibe of late ‘80s/early ‘90s Fantasy with aplomb. The entire game is rendered in layered 2D, but instead of going the cheap and lazy route that so many nostalgia-fueled Indie developers take and slapping pixel art everywhere, each and every 2D asset is hand painted with no small amount of talent. In general, the art style used in “Dark Quest 2” reminds me very much of the art style employed by Japanese development studio, Vanillaware (only with about 90% less sexual innuendo), which is really the high-water mark for what game developers working in 2D should strive for.

Audiowise, “Dark Quest 2” is quite competent. The game is nearly devoid of voiceacting (which is surely a blessing from such a small Indie team), but the soundtrack is perfectly evocative and well-matched for the visual style, if not a bit generic. Sound effects are likewise well-done, however certain ones of them gave the MJ Crew a bit of a chuckle: Specifically, the hooting sound the Dwarf makes when he gets injured.

Technically, “Dark Quest 2” is pretty solid. We never experienced any major glitches or crashes. However, there are a couple of major downers. First, “Dark Quest 2” advertises itself as a multi-player cooperative experience. The reason I didn’t buy and play the original “Dark Quest” by Brain Seal is that it was a solely solo experience, and games like “Hero Quest” and “Dark Quest” are by their nature a cooperative endeavor. In reality, “Dark Quest 2” only features online coop, and I wanted to play it locally with Chris and Nick. We, thus, had to cobble-together a turn-taking system locally. Second, “Dark Quest 2” doesn’t support Xinput. Thus, while we had our 3 Xbox controllers plugged in, we were forced to use Controller Companion to treat them all as mice, allowing us to take turns (or fight with each other for control of the cursor).

Ask any English professor, and they will let you know at great length just how deplorable and artistically bereft the field of ‘genre’ writing is. Indeed, many of them seem to be stuck in the mindset of a time when ‘Conan the Barbarian’ and other such pulp novels were the apex of High Fantasy literature. Indeed, early tabletop games didn’t lean particularly hard on the story crutch, since, as scions of the wargame, they were still largely about seeing whose hero was the biggest badass. It wasn’t until TSR tried to revitalize flagging “Dungeons & Dragons” sales by hiring established Fantasy authors, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, to write a strong, character-driven core narrative for the launch of the late-‘80s “DragonLance” campaign setting, which clearly inspired Japanese writers at Squaresoft to follow in its wake.

“Dark Quest 2” won’t win any awards for its plot, narrative, character development, or even grammar. The premise is that an Evil Sorcerer has taken over a castle with his army of orcs, goblins, chaos warriors (i.e., copyright infringement warriors), and undead variants of the same, wiping out the royal family and a significant portion of the kingdom’s population. The survivors are holed up in a run-down, nameless village, waiting for death or outside salvation. Thus the town elder puts out a call for adventurous heroes to find their fortune while saving the kingdom. This same elder is a smug asshole whom players can ask for advice between dungeon delves, but who never actually gives any.

The player starts with a Barbarian, who can save up enough money from his first few dungeon-spelunking adventures to hire some friends, and this group eventually rescues a Dwarf, who joins up. All told, the adventuring crew consists of the Barbarian, a Holy Knight (a.k.a., Cleric), a Dwarf, an Elf Archer, a Wizard, and a Dark Monk, none of whom have names (nor can be named by the player) or any real form of character development or personality. But they have a goal, an enemy, and their adventures have a beginning, middle, and end, which is more than can be said of some games.

Perhaps the oddest flaw in “Dark Quest 2’s” story and narrative qualities is the preponderance of broken English text. I know orcs are generally portrayed as stupid, but having them yell, “I will crash you!” as they try to crush a character with a gigantic morning star on a chain is a blatant mistake, and unintentionally hilarious. In spite of the typos and occasional tortured grammar, the game does at least manage to get its point across, so it’s not quite as bad as the Engrish-riddled Japanese games of the 8-bit era… though the fact that a development team from an English-speaking country, AFTER WHICH THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IS NAMED is having such issues leads me to believe they are either immigrants or desperately needed to hire an editor.

Tabletop RPGs can get pretty complex, which can be daunting for new players, especially those who don’t have an experienced mentor to explain the rules in a more friendly and inviting way than a shelf of expensive rulebooks. “Hero Quest” strove to bridge the gap between the mind-numbing simplicity of children’s board/bored games, like “Sorry,” “Candy Land,” and “Chutes and Ladders” and the mind-numbing complexity of “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.”

“Dark Quest 2” strives to do exactly the same thing, only in a computerized format where the Dungeon Master (from D&D) or Zargon (from “Hero Quest”) is played by AI. Thus player characters are represented by a simple collection of stats, can carry up to two pieces of equipment and two potions into the dungeon with them, and can take a movement, and attack, and a special ability action during their turns.

Character movement range is represented by a green border, though enemy movement range is not represented at all. Characters can move in any order the player(s) wish, though they will default to the order they are added to the party before setting out. Also, performing a standard attack is the last thing a character can do on their turn. With these simple rules in mind, the player(s) must guide their party of (typically) 3 characters through a series of designed (not procedurally-generated!) dungeons filled with monsters and traps in search of whatever goal they were given at the adventure’s outset (be it killing a certain monster, finding a certain item, or just reaching the exit). Along the way, they will pick up loot, ranging from gold to gems to magic pots to a handful of relics.

Each character is unique in the items they can use as well as their combination of active Abilities and passive Skills. Each character’s Ability/Skill Tree consists of up to 9 items, each of which can be leveled up from 0 to 3. In our playthrough, the MJ Crew found that the Dwarf, Knight, and Elf make the best team, as their Abilities and Skills complement each other well. We enjoyed this team so much that we ultimately neglected the remaining characters to the point of never using the Wizard even once.

Outside of dungeons, the game takes place entirely within the bounds of one small (nameless) village. There are vendors who sell potions and adventuring gear, a merchant who will buy gemstones for gold, a trainer who allows players to exchange magic pots for Skill/Ability points, an inn that allows the party to recover their health or recruit new members, a gravedigger who will resurrect dead heroes for 20% of the party’s gold, and a brothel, where the Dwarf always went to waste gold in exchange for a small boost to his maximum health (that’s not how brothel’s actually work, Chris/Dwarf!).

For those who find that the roughly 8-hour campaign in “Dark Quest 2” only whets their appetite for more vintage Fantasy adventuring, the game has built-in Steam Workshop support, so user-generated content is always an option. And when the well runs dry, players can always create and share their own adventures (or just copypasta “Hero Quest” adventures into the “Dark Quest 2” engine).

For anyone with fond memories of “Hero Quest” back in the early ‘90s, “Dark Quest 2” does a fantastic job of capturing that particular era of semi-cheesey and generic High Fantasy, all in a computerized form that can be played solo or with friends. However, the lack of controller support and true local cooperative play, along with the bare-bones and poorly-edited story put a damper on the experience somewhat. The nature of the beast, as a bridge between the board game and the role-playing game, also makes “Dark Quest 2” much more shallow than what most modern RPG fans have come to expect (though much deeper than most board games). Still, with a small $8 pricetag even when not on sale, fans of old-school Fantasy could do far worse than this game for their money.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 2.5/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5



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