Demons Age is unforgivably punishing, and I hate/love it.
Three party wipes into my adventure playing on Brave (DA’s middle difficulty) and I wonder what I’m doing wrong, or maybe it’s what these goblins are doing right…
This week I had the privilege of previewing Demons Age, Bigmoon Entertainment’s upcoming RPG that will be releasing on all major consoles, as well as PC, Linux and Mac. According to its description, DA is designed to be a modern successor to Baldur’s Gate, and this is apparent when you begin the game. The opening cut-scene explains what world we are in, what happened in the years prior, and where we are now, ending with a ship of prisoners where you choose who you will be. What’s the selection? Five races: Dark Elves, Humans, Elves, Halflings, or Dwarves, with five available classes: warrior, cleric, wizard, ranger, or rogue. Each character has specific base stats with modifiers, similar to the standard D&D setup with races also having specific bonuses that affect the stat spread. Interestingly, some race/class combinations are unavailable, perhaps due to temporary restrictions (it being a trial version) or for lore purposes. Once your favorite incarcerated persona is selected, your ship is dashed upon the rocks of the nearby shore, leaving you and one other NPC as the sole survivors (how convenient, eh?). After speaking with the unlucky gentleman, he dies, and you’re free to start your adventure proper!
Visually, DA looks close to Baldur’s Gate and other similar RPGs (think Pillars of Eternity) minus the fixed camera. The environments are wonderfully detailed with interactive bits like chests or boxes glowing when you approach or hover your mouse over them, and I also appreciated the visual change of armor and weapons on character models in and out of the menu as you outfit your party. I especially enjoyed the change in perspective in the world map; the camera zooms out a bit and gives a miniature view of the party as they travel the various roads, similar to tilt-shift or diorama camera effects. Keep in mind the graphics aren’t groundbreaking or crazy detailed, but they suit the story and convey everything well in my opinion.
Gameplay wise, DA follows traditional D&D rules, using each character’s Initiative (based off Dexterity) to determine the order of turn based combat. Once revealed, this order is unchanged unless the player chooses to hold their turn to allow another character to go ahead of them. Attacks on enemies and vice versa are processed through several steps: type of attack chosen, a player’s chance to hit, the dice roll of a player’s accuracy vs. the enemy’s armor rating (AC), then, if successful, a die roll to determine damage. All rolls and the products thereof are shown in the combat record in the bottom left-hand corner. This can make combat go one of two ways, depending on your party makeup: You can attack everything and absolutely wreck whatever comes before you, or you can sit and watch your characters helplessly miss, miss, miss, et cetera. It seems that at the current build, warriors are the only starting class one should choose, as their higher probability to connect hits and deal significant damage far outweighs the promises of any other class (I hope this is a preview only thing, more on that later).
In the trial version I played, your character will only reach level 4 unless you choose to grind random encounters mindlessly on the world map for more experience, which I didn’t try to do, at all. The best way to receive experience is through enemy encounters, but you also are awarded some for finding lore notes, discovering new locations, and fulfilling quests. Once enough has been won, a character levels up. Whether this is a trial version only thing or not, I’m unsure, but whenever I leveled up, I didn’t choose stat increases, skills learned, or anything at all, I simply leveled up. If your character is a magic user, you may notice new spells showing up in your repertoire, but there is no notification to let you know. I hope this too is a preview only “feature,” but we’ll speak more about this later.
Audibly, DA is satisfactory. Sound effects make sense and play when they should, character interactions are fully voiced and varied, and the background music is scene fitting and usually appropriate: all is well. Most of the music of DA is somewhat muted and left in the background, which is fine in my opinion. The soundtracks are not extremely memorable, but they convey what they mean by being more about accenting the area through ambiance than creating earworm melodies. I can appreciate this stylistic decision, as most players will be concentrating on the next move in a battle or visually scouring the screen for interactive spots in the environment. I appreciate even more the work that went into voicing the main characters and the many NPCs. Just like Mass Effect, the main character is fully voiced in his or her interactions in the world. A single male or female voice is the chosen one for all races/classes, which is understandable, as recording 16 individual voices for an entire game in which someone playing would probably never hear 15 of them would be insane. NPCs, on the other hand, are seemingly individually voiced, as I haven’t found many that sound the same. Sure, tavern owners that all offer the same trade of goods for gold are voiced the same. But who cares when they only say “Welcome,” not “Listen to this little bit of lore or this random fact about an occurrence in my life that is completely insignificant and non-bearing on your quest at hand!” I appreciate when game designers put this much attention to detail in their titles. How many times while playing Skyrim have you thought, "Oh, this guy/gal again" as you hear the same five voices over and over? Even Skyrim’s guards all sound like clones, which is especially annoying when you’re minding your business, walking around Riften, then you stumble upon a gang of guards who trigger their “catchphrase” at the same time, making you listen to “I used to be an adventurer…” overlapped 5 or 6 times. Anyways, every voice I’ve heard in my time with DA has sounded unique and convincing. There haven’t been any awkward line deliveries that took me out of the moment nor sounded out of place. Big ups for that.
Now everything so far has been mostly positive and gives me hope for DA’s final release, but I’m not done just yet.
Saying I love DA for being unforgivably punishing wouldn’t be the whole story. My initial reaction was true, but once I finished my first playthrough of the demo I received, some of that love waned. Combat tactics such as flanking aren’t present. Some spells or their effects are incorrectly implemented according to their rules (e.g. “allies” means anyone near you, apparently). Some equipment was simply labeled clothes_1 or armor_knight.
Despite these discrepancies, I played a second time, but on Suicidal (the hardest difficulty, in contrast to Lucky, DA’s easy mode). This time I chose to be a rogue to see the benefits of, according to the manual, being nimble, deadly, and equally effective in close range combat as well as in long range via bows, all to the dismay of finding out rogues are lame. Sometimes hitting people with a dagger to deal 2 points of damage on their HP pool of 30 is lame. Using bows to shoot giant arrows that sometimes hit for a max of 5 damage is also lame. There I was, sitting, watching my character attack two level 1 lizards (the first two enemies in the entire game) and miss over and over, while also being “nimble” enough to dodge most of their attacks for at least five minutes. I almost gave way to tears. It was painful. Eventually, I beat them (hooray~, I guess) and met my first party member, a warrior (thank god). Now that I had the muscle of the group, I knew I’d be able to survive the next few skirmishes of the dungeon, hopefully learning some new rogue tricks to sneak around and cause some serious damage! Long story short, that never happened.
The final dungeon battle is two encounters back to back, which means that while your wizard can refresh his spells (you get a wizard in the dungeon), your party isn’t able to heal before the next fight. I’m currently stuck with a dodgy rogue that can simultaneously not touch anyone while not being touched himself, a well-worn warrior that’s my only hope of survival who is almost dead, and a glass cannon of a wizard, if said cannon was literally made of glass, i.e. couldn’t fire anything. Game over. So I think, “What you need is a healer! That’ll make the last encounter more survivable!” So cleric, right? News flash: level 1 clerics can cast Cure Minor Wounds, which heals (drumroll) 1 HP. ಠ_ಠ
It’s not until level 4 that they learn Cure Light Wounds, a level that I wouldn’t be until I didn’t need it anymore, as I would’ve BEATEN THE DUNGEON BY THEN (which I did, by the way… on normal… just to find out… don’t judge me). Plan C: Warrior. As stated before, warriors have the highest chance to hit anything, and when they do they can instagib minions. A critical hit can see as high as 20 hp gone to the right enemy, and boy, did we connect those crits. With the warrior, all my prayers were answered, and I was able to double team the scenario on the hardest difficulty, which made me wonder: Is everything that I found wrong with the game only wrong because I wasn’t given the right section of it to explore? Perhaps the first dungeon isn’t enough to make a decision off of? Perhaps all classes start to shine once they hit a specific level bump? Maybe my dreams of playing a dope rogue who shadow steps and backstabs enemies left and right is a few levels away? And my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know if combat advantage or opportunity attacks will make their way into the game. I don’t know if spell effects will all work as intended. I don’t know if other classes will be worth it. I don’t know if min-maxing stats will matter, or if it will even be possible. I don’t know if level ups will be automatic or manual in the final build.
What I do know is that I generally liked what I played and am interested in playing DA when it’s released, but I don’t even know when it will be released. Bigmoon states it’s slated for a Q1 2016 release date, but we’re already Q3. Does that mean that it’s actually still in development, or are they finishing up some final touches? Are they using demo versions like mine to test features, or is this it? There are simply too many questions I have after playing this demo that seemingly don’t have answers at this time.
But don’t let your takeaway be that I don’t like DA.
I enjoyed my time with it overall and am genuinely curious to see what the end result will be when it’s officially released. I like this rich genre and am always excited for new blood to enter. Pillars of Eternity was amazing, and we’re all looking forward to its upcoming sequel. Paradox Interactive is also working on Tyranny, a new IP in the same style. Banner Saga, too, is another gem of this genre whose creators are allegedly cooking up a number 3. The upcoming, indie developed Liege should also be out later this year, but enough about other titles of this genre. If what I played was an actual final build of DA and exactly what we’re to expect, I’d still play it. The problems I encountered were present, but by no means game breaking, just thoroughly annoying. But in the event that it is, just know that your best bet is to start with a warrior. You can hire other classes at taverns once you’re a higher level.