When they stopped making those Black Isle Studios RPGs I was crushed.
Games all seemed to be going in a different direction and at the time I figured it was over and I’d never see them again. So when I run across something like this it’s like meeting an old friend I thought was long gone. I want to take it to the bar and buy it drinks and reminisce about the good old days in Sigil.
Although the years have wrought a few changes, for better or worse. Maudlin recollections aside, this game really can be a bit of a mess at times. The main problem is the combat.
It gets old fast. Maybe all the money went into the graphics so they had to cut some corners and couldn’t do much tailoring of individual encounters and items. The system is pretty slick in some ways, but it has no heart.
All of the battles felt the same to me. You’re sent to a generic battlefield and waves of monsters come pouring out of gates and charge toward you like robots. Sometimes there are gimmicky side-objectives for the sake of variety. It’s funny. There’s actually a progress bar as you grind mechanically through the enemy waves, as if the game knows exactly how tedious it’s being. It really breaks the immersion of the setting.
If you take those old D&D RPGs on one hand and the newer WoW-style ones on the other, the combat here is sort of the worst of both worlds. You lose the depth, character and variety of the D&D classes and items as well as the cohesiveness of a well-balanced tank/healer/dps triad. In return you get an abilities’n’cooldowns system with a lot of slop to it and spreadsheet full of stats with a soulless, one-dimensional min/maxing approach to progression, loot and overall strategy. Not a great deal.
The good news is that none of that matters.
If you don’t like it, just swallow your pride and push that difficulty slider right down to Easy. Then the sun comes out, all your problems melt away and you can focus on the good stuff.
Once you get the nuisance of the combat out of the way, the setting they’ve created is absolutely riveting.
Unlike, say, Baldur’s Gate 2 where the bad guy shows up and makes you hate him from the very first minute, there’s really no clear antagonist here at all. Instead they rely on the tower itself to hold your attention while the plot gradually unfolds.
It works. Every level reveals some new wonder that seems to surpass the last. You’ll visit dusty libraries and work arcane machinery, pass through gardens and caves and laboratories, across bridges of light and hallways scarred by magical battles long ago. You’ll cross gateways between dimensions, meet ethereal shades, constructs and mechanical titans.
They must have had a lot of fun making this, because the sheer amount of creativity on display here is jaw dropping.
There’s a tremendous sense of scale, physically and conceptually. The levels are imbued with a depth and purpose that befits the ancient immensity of the tower, each one a unique piece of the puzzle. You can look down onto areas vast distances below and imagine what they might mean, and at the end of every level you descend another stairway, anticipating the new marvels that await you.
You get more than you bargain for, in fact. At first you’re just out to explore a mysterious tower, find some nice loot, maybe take down that guy from the beginning, since anyone who keeps talking in your head like that has to be some kind of evil wizard. By the time you reach the bottom, though, you feel like you’re near the finale of that movie Interstellar where a scary dirge plays for like 45 minutes and all of creation hangs in the balance and you’re in way, way over your head.
A story can easily get out of control if you keep piling on like that but they manage to hold it together. It’s a rare game that aims this high and actually hits the mark. Maybe the way the new revelations sync with your physical progress through the tower helps to keep things grounded, as opposed to giving the player one big mind-blowing info dump. I never felt like there was any falloff in the pace right through the very end.
When at long last I reached the final winding staircase it was 4:30 in the morning, but there was no way in hell I was stopping until I found out what happened.
Man, I get worn out just thinking about it.
Suffice it to say that this is an old friend you’ll be happy to see again. Don’t let him keep you out as late as I did if you have to work the next day, though. That part was a mistake.