I can preface this review by saying that Elminage Gothic is not going to be for everyone. This is an old school dungeon crawler in every sense of the word, for better and for worse. Where as similarly built RPGs like Etrian Odyssey have some gentler options such as the ability to map on your screen, or even more recent takes on the genre automap for you, Elminage wants you to break out graph paper and to fight monsters that can very easily kill your entire party. It reminds me of the older Wizardry titles, or Shining in the Darkness back on my Sega Genesis. It is a brutal formula and I love it.
I had an opportunity to play and review Elminage Original back on PSP, so when it was announced that Ghostlight was bringing Elminage Gothic to Steam, I was quite excited. The story here really does take a backseat to the exploration and grinding. Some characters are bumped into here and there in the dungeons, but the long and the short of the tale itself is there is a great evil that needs to be defeated. If you are looking for a deep and twisting storyline with lots of nuanced characters, Elminage Gothic is not the RPG for you.
In true D&D fashion, you can roll up an entirely original part from scratch or simply use the ones that are already made. I went with creating my own, as I tend to do in these types of games when given the chance. One minor bummer is that unlike Elminage Original, Gothic does not let you import your own portraits to be used by the characters. This is a very minor thing, but it was a nifty feature in the PSP title that seems like it would have been even easier to implement on PC, but is not there.
You will (or at least should, if you want to survive) spend plenty of time building up a well-balanced party. No one's role is wasted and while combat prowess is an easy thing to look for, the ability to detect and disarm traps and use a variety of magical spells will go a long ways towards keeping your party alive as well. Of course, keeping your party alive is easier said than done. Enemies hit hard, status effects are unforgiving and you will be frequently returning to the hub city to have someone cured or resurrected.
Exploration is what the title is all about, but hasty exploration is not encouraged - it is punished. Balance can be a concern, especially earlier on while the levels and overall numbers are smaller. Some skills, like behead, are brutally frustrating and can spell quick death as well. I feel comfortable in saying that Gothic is far more challenging than Original was (a bit more 'cheap' in some of the deaths delivered).
It is quite easy to get lost here. I made a reference to graph paper earlier, but that is not entirely accurate. There are 'magic maps' that can be brought up as a single use item, and they are very helpful in case you zigged when you should have zagged. The floor designs are often devious, but thoroughly entertaining. Finding the right switches and paths to move from one floor is satisfying. Beating mobs of enemies that a few levels ago were stomping me felt good. If exploration is the heart of Elminage Gothic, then progression is the soul. New items and higher levels are what will help you make progress.
The interface, like the rest of the game, does very little to hold your hand. It would be nice to have some sort of an in-game help system so one is not required to run a manual in a separate screen or to tab back and forth between programs. Like the direction, the bells and whistles are pretty sparse. The music is good enough, even if the sound effects are so basic and repetitive that they serve little to no purpose. The creature art is quite good, but this is a first person perspective with basically no animation to speak of in combat.
Elminage Gothic is a great throwback to a style of game I grew up on and loved over the years. However, it is not for everyone and there are undoubtedly players who wish that true dungeon crawling games would die off completely. I for one am glad they are still around, and while Elminage Gothic could do a bit more to polish the edges here and there, the core game is very appealing to me personally.
Review by Nick