It’s reached the point where using the term “old school” while describing an RPG means about as much as the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl. Having lost a lot of its effectiveness as a term of splendor and awe, being old school doesn’t seem to mean as much as it once did. With Kickstarter, the indie revival, and Steam Greenlight still going strong, it’s hard to play the “we don’t get enough of these games” card.
That being said, there are still games out there that can use the moniker, it’s just that in this writer’s opinion, they have to go the extra mile to earn it. Simply having pixel graphics, turn-based combat and a deep statistical underpinning isn’t enough. Perhaps the developers behind Serpent in the Staglands were aware of this, because if any game out there deserves to use the term, it’s this one.
Serpent in the Staglands, which I’ll be calling Staglands from here on out, first attracted me to it by showing off those slick Ultima 7 inspired visuals. Though I’m not fond of the old and decrepit pixelated graphics these games embrace, I was impressed that the developers aped the style from one of my favorite classic DOS era CRPGs instead of just throwing together something low-fi while hiding their inability to do world design within the wide umbrella of nostalgia.
Even before you learn the system or create a character, you’ll be drawn into (or away from, if you didn’t grow up in the 80s) the game’s unconventional visuals. The weird foliage, the thick shadows blanketing the ground, the weak fires barely holding back the night…they did a great job creating a suitably dark and gothic mood throughout the game’s medieval Transylvanian world. As low-fi as they may be, even the individual armor and weapons show up on your characters. Though it’s still pixel art, it’s not that bad for looking like an early 90s RPG.
When you get past the visuals, regardless of whether you like them or not, you have to deal with the gameplay itself. In Staglands, that boils down to exactly how *old* you like your old school CRPGs…because in this game, there are some incredibly ancient gameplay conventions that even I found intolerable at times.
Staglands’ developers seem to like comparing the game to the old Dungeons & Dragons goldbox games of the late 80s and early 90s, and as a gamer who grew up on them, I can tell you that they share nearly nothing in common. This isn’t meant to disparage the game or the developers, but I feel a much more accurate comparison would be to claim the title was based on Mindcraft’s 1989 classic RPG The Magic Candle.
The problem with comparing it to the Goldbox games (or even Ultima 7 or 8) is that Staglands lacks a lot of the ease-of-use GUI enhancements that later mouse-driven IBM games started incorporating. What do I mean by that? Well, first of all, there is no journal at all within the game. Sure, you can open up a window within the game and click on a scroll that lets you keep notes…but that’s it. You make your own quest tabs and have to keep track of your many goals by scribbling on an in-game piece of paper. It’s a ridiculous inclusion that should have never been implemented. It’s far better to just scribble them down in a notepad or, if you’re like me, simply toss it all to the wind and memorize what you have to do.
Now, true, the goldbox games lacked a journal too, but they had two ways to make up for this: First of all, they were highly linear. Secondly, they had journal notes you’d look up in the manual that came with the game. Those notes could then be marked in the manual as being valid (Some were fake and only there to throw off would-be cheaters) and used as a reference for when you got lost. It wasn’t elegant at all, but it worked. It was something. In Staglands, this isn’t the case.
There are other odd exclusions, like not being able to resurrect fallen allies, not getting any clues as to whether killing an NPC will ruin your quest, and not being told if an enemy requires a certain level of weapon to do damage against it…but that’s more than likely what they wanted.
They probably also wanted you to constantly reload your saves too, since enemy AI seems to prefer going after your main character and, much like Baldur’s Gate, if your main character dies then everyone dies. It causes a great many fights to de-evolve into a frantic race to keep your main character alive while sending two or three healers over to babysit him as a half dozen enemies poke him to death. I dread to think what a non-heavy armor wearing main do in such circumstances, since my heavy-weapon using, heavy armor using hero was still prone to eating dirt from time to time.
Still with me? Still feel like giving this game a chance, even though it’s brutally old school, lacks certain features and enjoys making you reload your saved games?
Good, because deep below all of that frustration is an amazing RPG that deserves to be played.
The story starts interestingly enough, with you playing as the god that governs the surrounding environments. While enjoying a bacchanalian celebration in your honor, you awake to find yourself unable to return to your god form and re-assume your place in the heavens. Instead, you are caught in your human body and trapped in a portal, unable to call for help or even walk away. Discovered by one of your acolytes, you decide to find out who has trapped you in your corporeal form and why they did so. This quest leads you to discover how the people in your land really feel about you and the other gods, making for some clever discussions between your party and the Stagland’s faithful.
Which brings me to the act of forming a party and why that’s such a big deal in Staglands.
At the start, you are given a chance to create your own helpers. You can perfectly tailor your starting four mercenaries and continue forward without any care in the world…and that’s a perfectly reasonable (And thankfully, difficulty-lowering) way to finish the game. However, if you want to roleplay, you can opt instead to recruit a full 5-person adventuring party from the game’s NPCs.
The game has quite a large number of NPCs who will join you. Though some are tied to quests, like my favorite fighter “Vasile” who joins when you take on his mission to fight a god, most will join for just some money and a contract. The upside to this is that you get a character who will chime in and add their own unique observations to each new situation. The downside is that they will leave when they want to and often have a certain point at which they terminate their contract with you. Especially if you recruited them during a quest.
You can get around this, cleverly enough, by “bonding” the NPC’s soul to your own. This forces them to follow you and obey your commands, but also makes them angry and results in them showing you hostility for essentially enslaving them to you. This was not a system I expected to find in such an old school game.
Speaking of not getting what I expected, I was shocked to learn that, when getting into my first battle, the game was not turn-based. Having bought the game on a lark, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I assumed it was turn-based, but in reality the combat is real-time with pause. This creates a strange dichotomy where you have the feature-lacking, deliberately rough old school systems of the game rubbing up against the awkwardly “new school” Baldur’s Gate-ish combat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did strike me as being a somewhat odd choice of combat for a game that is so unapologetically late 1980s in its design.
That being said, combat is especially brutal. Though strategy obviously plays a big role in the fighting itself, it suffers from the fact that no scaling or helpful placement of adequately leveled enemies has been done by the developers. This seems to have deterred a lot of folks from getting past that tough “five hour wall” that surrounds the game, since the early going is so rough that you need to have almost superhuman patience to overcome it.
This review almost didn’t happen because after the first few days of playing the game I was still stuck outside the first town and couldn’t even beat the local wildlife. Forget starting the quest, I couldn’t even reach the second destination and was being held hostage by an unusually strong mob of wild foxes. After restarting the game a dozen or so times and trying out different party combinations as well as battle tactics, I finally, four days later, started to make some headway.
It wasn’t until I discovered the weaknesses of the AI (Exploiting aggro range and the fog-of-war) and how powerful the continuous healing spell was (Putting two healers on one tank makes it a lot easier) that I started enjoying the game and gaining levels. Shoot ahead a week and I hit level 10 and was already approaching the real meat of the game, having cleared a good 75% of the map.
Of course, to get that far, I had to reload my saves a few hundred times and throw my headphones off in anger more often than I care to admit. It wasn’t too fun when a roving band of ice imps attacked me at night in an area where, normally, the enemies that spawned in that area of the map were of a considerably lower level.
Like any good European CRPG, Staglands isn’t looking to hold your hand or babysit you. It may pit you against hordes of non-leveled foes, but it does at least give you plenty of powers. Matter of fact, the powers it gives you access to are pretty robust for an indie game developed by a very small studio with little game development experience. The skill system, which is divided into three sub sections, contains over 50 different disciplines to specialize in.
Split between aptitudes, skills, and spells, the game gives you plenty of ways to craft a unique combatant in what is a completely classless system. While skills are the typical “Increase critical rate” or “Bash an enemy for 1d3 damage with a shield” sort of thing, the spell and aptitude part of it is a bit more exciting.
Spells are not held back by mana points or cooldown rates like in most other RPGs. In Staglands, a spell can be fired off as many times and for as long as you so desire. This helps a lot, since magic is extremely powerful in the game and having at least two dedicated casters in your group is an absolute must. Though there are only three levels of spells (a 4th will be introduced in the upcoming expansion), you do get a very wide variety of incantations within each of those levels.
The real beauty is in the aptitude section of the skills, where occupational abilities come into play. Including abilities woodwise, linguistics, nobility, herbology, philosophy and harbinger, the aptitude part of the game’s character creation system is the most important one to master.
It’s also the most difficult, since the real uses of these skills are hidden and not talked about in either the manual or their in-game descriptions.
Take woodwise, for instance. Though it claims to be used to identify plants, its real use is much stranger than that. First off, it enables you to talk to animals…which much like Divinity: Original Sin, acts as an avenue towards obtaining new quest information. The second and even stranger use for woodwise is that it lets you detect fairies inside of glowing plants. These fairies, which you then have to read a forum post to figure out what spell to cast on them to get them out, are then checked by your woodwise skill again…only this time, your ability within that aptitude decides whether you can eat the creature or not. Eating the fairy then adds 1 point to your base statistics. How anyone is supposed to figure this out on their own is beyond me.
The other skills, like linguistics giving you the ability to understand foreign languages and harbinger governing how powerful the monsters you can summon will be, are a bit less odd. Though they too have strange unspoken-of uses that you have to find through trial and error, they thankfully don’t involve devouring fairy-folk.
…and that should give you an idea of how dark the game is. Most of the world’s people are either one foot in the grave or mentally deranged. You have corrupt government officials, a woodworker that tells you about his torture fetish, and bounty hunters who are just as happy to clear out a cave of thieves as they are murdering you for your spare coins. There is very little help to be found in the Staglands.
One thing I will say is that many of the game’s quests, at least those not involving incredibly complex and nonsensical puzzles (HP-draining fog in the ice ruins, I’m looking at you), are very clever. There was one that required me to summon a portal to fight an ancient monster, and to do so I needed to prick my character’s finger on a needle and draw special runes on a blank page with the blood. The game then has you, with the mouse, trace the runes on the paper. The blood realistically sinks into and dries on the paper, making for a macabre effect that I thought went far beyond what any other modern RPG would do. It was made even more amusing by the fact that my monitor is a touch-screen and I could (and did) use my own finger to trace the shapes. It was my favorite moment of the game and the first time in my playthrough it that I realize I was hooked.
It should also be said that Staglands is somewhat of an “open world” RPG, with no real order required of the tasks you have to complete. As a matter of fact, you can go anywhere and do anything in any order you want without any repercussions. Though you are limited by your party’s own fighting ability and experience level, nothing is stopping you from saving and reloading until you walk to the far northern end of the map. Those who enjoyed the openness of the first two Fallout games will feel right at home in the Staglands.
So should you buy Serpent in the Staglands and take up the old school challenge this game provides? I believe that if you’re the kind of CRPG fan who grew up playing C64 and DOS games in the 80s and 90s, then yes, you’ll probably enjoy Staglands. Though you might have to work hard at it for the first few days until you bang your way through the game’s idiosyncrasies, once you do you’ll be rewarded with a very stylish and deep CRPG that is about as close to triple-A quality as an indie developer is going to get.
Granted, it could use a few modern features to make it more palatable to the everyman, but you take what the developer gives you and learn to work around it. If you’re fine with that, then you’re in for one hell of a treat. Serpent in the Staglands should give you at least a good 40 hours of play time in the first trip, if not more. You can’t ask for anything better than that.
Serpent in the Staglands was reviewed on PC using a code purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.
The Verdict 8.0
- Beautiful looking world, even with the pixels
- Highly non-linear
- Deep character creation & customization
- long quest, lots of content for an indie game
- Combat feels lopsided, AI can be tricked very easily
- No quest journal, easy to lose track of goals
- Overall lack of user-friendliness