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Lora's CRPG Reviews: Realms of Arkania Trilogy

Realms of Arkania (Game release date: 1997)
Quirky, clever series of German games that never got the American attention they deserved.

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Highlights: Excellent old-school dungeons, quirky humor, interesting adaptation of a good European RPG system Lowlights: Technical difficulties, clunky interface, awkward translation, micromanagement of game mechanics

Originally German releases, the Realms of Arkania games never really caught on in the US (despite Wizardry developer SirTech picking up the titles). It's too bad; they're good games. The first two suffer from the clunkiness you'd expect from games their age ("Blade of Destiny" was released in 1993), but there's much to enjoy in them anyway, particularly the atmospheric old-school dungeons and some of Star Trail's innovative quests. The third and final game, Shadows Over Riva, is an all-around winner, with smoother navigation, better graphics, and more interesting characters than the other two. The game system is interesting (particularly to tabletop RPG fans) and developing your characters' abilities is fun, but the real strength of this trilogy lies in its cool dungeons, which are chock full of tricks, traps, puzzles, and side events to keep your interest.

Style: Realms of Arkania is a classic CRPG trilogy with a first-person 2D interface. Movement is tile-based in the first two games, more point-and-click in the third one. You control and develop a six-person party. The plot is a role-playing adventure and there are fantasy and science fiction themes. The games are untimed and require no manual dexterity. Combat is turn-based.

Series: There are three games in the Arkania computer series: Blade of Destiny, Star Trail, and Shadows Over Riva. You don't need to play any of them in order to fully enjoy the next--it is possible to export your party from game to game, but it isn't important to, and there is no continuity of plot. However, if you get all three games (they are often bundled together in one CD set,) you probably want to give Blade of Destiny a try first. This is the oldest of the three games, the controls are most irritating, and the mouse usually does not work. If you enjoy the experience anyway, then play the three in order--it's always nicer to move from a poor interface to a better one than vice versa. If you find that you're just not getting into Blade of Destiny, then skip ahead to Shadows Over Riva, which is the newest of the three and best adapted to modern machines. You can always go back for the others later if you find yourself hooked by the gameplay. (-:

Finding Realms of Arkania: All three of these games are available on CD for Windows. You can buy a 2-CD set with all three games bundled together, called the "Realms of Arkania Trilogy," which is the best value if you can find it ( and CDAccess sometimes carry the trilogy, or you can try Ebay). Star Trail and Shadows Over Riva can also be purchased separately, but as far as I know, the only way to get Blade of Destiny these days is as part of the trilogy bundle or as abandonware (note that the usual security and emulation issues inherent in downloading DOS abandonware apply if you go that route.)

Getting Realms of Arkania to Work: The good news is, if you install the trilogy from CD, you don't have to do any work to get them to run; the conversion has been done for you. The bad news is, this won't completely free you from emulation errors. The mouse control doesn't work with Windows 2000 or XP on the first two Arkania games, forcing you to use keyboard control (only a minor inconvenience), and the automap on the second game frequently crashes Windows 2000 (a major one.) Also, if you import your party from the first game to the second, their character portraits will be permanently messed up. There's a patch to fix this problem linked to my Arkania resources page--it doesn't come bundled with the CD.

Hints For Realms of Arkania: I have a page of Realms of Arkania hints up online, with low-spoiler walkthroughs for the three games as well (the third one is currently incomplete). If you prefer, you can buy a Star Trail hint book.

Pitfalls In Realms of Arkania: You need to hang onto the manuals for password-protection purposes (ah, those early 90's). The only other pitfalls are bugs (see Getting Realms of Arkania to Work, above). There are a couple of critical bugs in Blade of Destiny, which can prevent you from completing your game. To learn about them and pick up some spoiler-free party formation and general playing suggestions, click here.

Game Length: Around 25 hours for Blade of Destiny and 50 each for Star Trail and Shadows Over Riva.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated T (for 13 years old and up) due to mild animated violence and some silly bordellos (no actual sex scenes or anything.) Homosexuality is also mentioned in passing during Shadows Over Riva (one male NPC is said to have a male lover.) There is no sex, bad language, or disturbing themes in any of the three games. Playing the first two games in this trilogy may be frustrating for today's kids who are used to better game technology, though playing Shadows Over Riva remains an easy transition.

Lora's Shadows Over Riva Review: (Very Good)

Plot and Quests: There are a fair number of quests to undertake in these games, and the main plotlines of Star Trail and Riva are good. The quests don't have any flexibility to them, though. There is only one way to complete each quest, and rarely are you required to make choices.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: Realms of Arkania's dungeons are brimming with tricks, traps, and puzzles and are almost uniformly fun to play through. To my great surprise, when I went back to do the Blade of Destiny walkthrough I found I had actually missed a secret door in one of its dungeons. It's been a long time since a game has fooled me with a secret door. :-D There are no spatial or visual puzzles. The riddles have all been translated from the German, so some of them may actually be new to American players. (I always appreciate a riddle that isn't one of the same 15 that have been in basic dungeonmaster circulation since the '80's.)
Characters: You get six PCs in this classic RPG format; all of them are customizable to your liking, including setting various personality parameters that will affect some of their in-game behavior (one character may have a high Curiosity, for example, while another may be particularly Avaricious). You can also have one NPC in your party at a time, who serves as little more than an extra combat hand.
Gameworld: This trilogy is set in the gameworld of the popular German tabletop RPG "Das Schwarze Auge," which has quite obviously evolved from Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, it goes back to a lot of the irritating conventions of pre-AD&D Dungeons and Dragons, such as the impossibility of having both a racial identity (elf, dwarf, etc.) and a character class (thief, fighter, etc.) No dwarven mages or elven jesters here. The people of Arkania have a Teutonic feel about them but are otherwise thoroughly generic. In the third game a few more complexities of the gameworld begin to reveal themselves, to the betterment of the series.
Gameplay (Leveling, Spells, etc.): The Realms of Arkania games are based on the 'Das Schwarze Auge' tabletop RPG, a skill-based system still popular in Europe. The game mechanics are minutely complicated, which is fun in many ways (gaining a level is an exciting affair, and you have great control over your characters' development) and irritating in others (the illness system is a chore, and it seems like every spell from the tabletop is represented here, despite the total uselessness of most of them within the games; as each has a non-transparent name like "Salother," this makes for a lot of flipping through the rulebook).
Interface (Movement, Inventory Management, etc.): These are the most detailed computer games I have ever played. This is not necessarily a good thing. Though the interface is easy enough to use, Realms of Arkania puts a lot of emphasis on tedious repetitive chores like searching for water whenever you camp or changing your clothes to suit each day's weather, and many of these involve protracted clicking, scrolling, and dragging routines to accomplish. Battles are tactical and rather awkward--combat takes place on a diagonal grid, yet you must use horizontal and vertical movement commands to navigate. Thankfully, the interface is much streamlined for the third and final game.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): The player has a Wizardry-style first-person view of the surroundings, except during combat, when the scene switches to an Ultima-style third-person battleground. The look and feel are old-fashioned but fine; the high point is the atmospheric dungeons, which use textual details to help keep you immersed, and the low point is the combat scenes, where your characters have pre-assigned animated sprites that do not match their portraits or the weapons they are wielding and cannot be changed.

Lora's Recommendations: If you're an old-school CRPG fan and don't mind dealing with a few mouse glitches, I recommend that you get this trilogy as soon as you can get your hands on it; if not, you will probably still enjoy the last game in the series, Shadows Over Riva.

If You Loved Realms of Arkania: There are several other collections of great classic CRPGs available on the market now, notably the the Ultima Collection, Ultimate Wizardry Archive, and Might and Magic Millennium Edition. Or you may enjoy one of the great contemporary CRPG's like Shadows of Amn, Wizardry 8, or Morrowind.

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