Outside a town lies the Woods of Mist, a foreboding place obscured by thick fog; one day, the mist suddenly parts, and an enormous tower rises from the ground: the Dark Spire. The Archmage Tyrhung, once the King’s trusted advisor, betrays his liege by stealing the most precious royal treasures, and fortifies himself within the Dark Spire, with the King requesting the assistance of any adventurers to defeat him. The Dark Spire, developed by Success and published in North America by Atlus, is a Japanese RPG that seeks to imitate old-style western RPGs, and for the most part succeeds at this, although this imitation of archaic RPGs is the source of most of the game’s faults.
Before exploring the Dark Spire, the player can either choose four pre-made characters at the Guild or manually create four characters, with the player then able to choose various factors such as their race, each having certain strengths and weaknesses; and alignment, including Order, Chaos, or Neutral, which affects what skills they can learn. Characters can also be of one of four initial classes, including warrior, thief, mage, or priest, with the player, during character creation, able to randomly select stats until satisfied. The player can also select spells for priests and mages to use, with the number they can have increasing as they level.
Once the player begins exploring the Dark Spire’s large first-person dungeon, random battles will regularly occur, with the highest chance of encounter oddly being whenever the player passes through a door. Outside combat, moreover, the player can put the four active characters into three different formations utilizing the front and back rows, with certain weapons allowing characters to attack from the back row. Once a battle begins, the player’s party faces off against the enemy, with the player, as in most old-style turn-based battle systems, able to input commands for all characters, including attacking normally, using magic, defending, using items, or attempting to escape.
Unlike most other RPGs, however, there are some twists to attacking normally, using magic, and defending, for instance the existence of many different kinds of normal attacks depending upon the weapon, such as precision attack, which increases the attack’s accuracy but lowers attack speed, and swift attack, which increases an attack’s speed while decreasing accuracy. As for using magic, characters can attempt to cast it quickly or cast it carefully, with the former option having a certain chance of failure and the latter option guaranteeing a spell will be cast, although doing so will take longer. Defending comes in two varieties, counter and hide, the former option allowing a character to counterattack and the latter making them hide from enemy attacks.
The Dark Spire’s magic system, furthermore, is reminiscent of that in the original Final Fantasy, where there are different levels of MP, and using a spell from a particular level consumes one point from that level. As in most other turn-based RPGs, moreover, characters and enemies take their turns in a round after command input through a combination of speed and randomization, with the typical inability to determine who will go when, and thus, things such as the occasional tendency for healing to come too late.
Once the player has vanquished all enemies, each character gains experience, along with money and an occasional locked and trapped treasure chest that a thief must disarm to open. If the player fails at disarming, the trap will affect the party, with the chest typically containing an item. Unlike in most other RPGs, moreover, leveling doesn’t occur automatically, and instead, the player must manually level up characters in their particular classes at the Guild in town using experience (in which case they gain a random HP increase), with experience points also able to increase their individual stats and allow them to learn a variety of different skills, such as Arts and Crafts and Cooking, most of which are admittedly useless, although some like Disarmament for trapped treasure chests and Lock Picking for locked doors in the Dark Spire are critical.
It is also possible for characters to upgrade to secondary classes, in which case the kind of equipment they can wear and kind of spells that they can use increase, although the specific method for doing so is somewhat vaguely explained in the game, along with most of the general mechanics, such as the exact attack power of certain kinds of weapons. Since HP can also be somewhat critical, the player may wish to reset constantly to get the best HP gains for their characters after leveling. All in all, the game’s mechanisms are reasonably solid, although the vagueness of certain aspects is a definite turnoff.
The game’s interface could have also been cleaner, although the ability to save anywhere is a definite plus, given the game’s difficulty. The menus, though, can feel somewhat clunky, and in an odd design decision, the game requires players to cast a certain spell to see where specifically they are in a floor of the Dark Spire (and thus, having great visual memory is a necessity). It can also be somewhat difficult to complete Guild missions or advance the main game without a guide. All in all, interaction is somewhat clumsy, but tolerable nonetheless.
The Dark Spire is a throwback to old first-person dungeon-crawling RPGs such as the Wizardry series, and feels even closer to them than other contemporary old-school-style titles such as the Etrian Odyssey games, with the inclusion of a wireframe mode, in addition to modern presentation, allowing for a truly retro experience. The modern art direction, though, is fairly unique for a first-person dungeon crawler, and in the end, while the game is an imitation of archaic western RPGs, it still has a unique feel among more contemporary titles in the genre.
As with most first-person RPGs, The Dark Spire is fairly light on story, and makes the rare decision of having story text in prose rather than standard drama form. The plot is by no means engaging, although there are multiple endings and extra post-game events. Like most old-school-style RPGs, however, this title is far more about its gameplay than plot.
The soundtrack, though, is one of the game’s high points, fitting the gothic style of the game, with energetic music during battle and dungeon trekking, although sound effects are somewhat limited; setting the game to Classic mode also makes the music sound 8-bit, but the tracks sound just as good in Classic mode as they do in Modern mode.
The art direction of The Dark Spire is especially unique for a first-person RPG, with gothic character and enemy portraits along with colorful dungeon floors. There’s no animation during battle, but the game looks gorgeous nonetheless, with players also able to give dungeons a black and white wireframe view with Classic mode.
Finally, The Dark Spire can take as little as thirty hours to finish if the player uses a guide (which may be a necessity for players not used to games of this kind), although post-game content, and trying to play without a guide, can boost playing guide to around sixty hours.
Overall, The Dark Spire is a solid imitation of old western RPGs having generally solid mechanics, along with good presentation values, what with the solid soundtrack and art direction. However, it imitates old western RPGs to the point where it ends up mimicking their flaws, given the vagueness of certain mechanisms, not to mention the difficulty of playing without some kind of guide. Nonetheless, those hoping to get a taste of what RPGs were like before they appeared on game consoles will certainly find The Dark Spire to be different than most contemporary RPGs, and those that enjoyed titles from that era will definitely be in for a treat.
+You can save anywhere.
+Good sounding and looking dungeon crawler.
-Interface can feel somewhat clunky.
-Poor in-game explanation of most elements.
-Light on story.
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 6/10
Playing Time: 30-60 Hours