Once considered a dying genre, it seems like role-playing games are more popular than ever before. Games like Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim have received huge sales numbers recently, and just about every other gaming genre has been incorporating RPG elements in order to increase gameplay depth and replayability.
Still, some things are missing from modern RPGs. Although their high-quality 3D environments and full voice acting create impressive cinematic experiences, the development costs involved mean that there are fewer character choices and a bit less actual role-playing in most modern games. Likewise, the action combat systems that are currently popular don't appeal to all players and all moods, particularly when players are looking for a strategic combat experience that involves a party of characters.
Kickstarter has given a number of veteran RPG developers the chance to resurrect an older style of RPG that nonetheless holds appeal for modern gamers. In this article, I'd like to look at four of these games and what they have to offer us. Three of these big RPG projects have been fully funded and are coming out next year, while the last one is still looking for backers.
Many younger or console gamers don't remember the original Wasteland, a game from the 1980s that preceded and inspired the Fallout series. It was considered one of the best RPGs of its generation, blending character-based role playing with a desperate game of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Now that Bethesda owns the rights to Fallout, many of the people who developed Wasteland and Fallouts 1-2 have gotten back together at inXile entertainment and successfully pitched Wasteland 2 on Kickstarter.
Wasteland 2 puts players in charge of a group of rangers (think Texas Rangers, not elves with bows) who are given tough assignments in the post-nuclear American Southwest. Combat will use a top-down view and be highly tactical. The setting is grimmer and has fewer goofy references than the Fallout series, though there are still plenty of satirical elements. The developers are focusing on giving players tough moral dilemmas and on making sure that player decisions actually change the game's storyline. Many companies give us that line and then under-deliver, but with the work that this team has done in the past, in this case we can actually believe them.
Several companies have tried to make a game using the pencil-and-paper (PnP) cyberpunk Shadowrun setting, but nobody has fully captured the feel of it. This time around, Shadowrun's actual creator, Jordan Weisman, is leading a crew of developers in creating a computer RPG that faithfully depicts both the world in which the game is set and the feeling of doing jobs as part of a group of Shadowrunners.
Shadowrun Returns will have an overarching story, but the game will be structured as a series of missions for the player's party of characters to take on, much as a PnP Shadowrun session would work. The team has assembled a group of writers who contribute to the PnP setting (some of whom are also published novelists) as well, so there should be some excellent writing behind the game's stories. The game will be turn-based and will involve different character classes interacting based on the way they're able to see the world and the different kinds of expertise they bring to bear. There will even be a level editor released with the game so that players can create and share their own Shadowrun missions.
Perhaps the highest-profile of the Kickstarter projects covered in this article, Project Eternity's Kickstarter just wrapped up after earning nearly four million dollars—three million more than its original fundraising goal. Obsidian Entertainment is also the largest and most well-known company on this list, and Project Eternity is the only pure fantasy RPG here. It seems that despite a general glut of fantasy RPGs, people are still jonesing for some hot dwarf-on-axe action.
Project Eternity is being made by a bunch of people who contributed to the popular isometric-view RPGs of the late 1990s like Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. This time around, though, the game isn't shacked to the Dungeons and Dragons combat system, which the developers believe will allow them to make an even better version of the poplar "real time with pause" combat that was used in those games. The game design is focusing on allowing players to create a character from an interesting array of races and cultures within those races, and the team is focusing on giving the player a wide array of dialogue choices, including the possibility of the ever-popular "low intelligence" dialogue options.
Shaker is an interesting-sounding project by RPG veterans Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall, who worked on excellent but lesser-known RPGs like the Wizardry series and Anacronox. While the other old-school RPG projects are using a top-down or Baldur's Gate-style isometric viewpoint, Shaker will be a party-based game with a first-person viewpoint in the style that was popular before Black Isle and BioWare came on the scene. It also resurrects an older type of setting that mixes science fiction with fantasy—much like many RPGs that are still created in Japan, but without the anime character tropes.
Shaker has an interesting premise, with a machine that can see the past and future and a group of operatives that have been sent to the past to stop a series of events that will have catastrophic results. The game begins when these operatives become stranded in a feudal society without the support of their future-tech corporation. With a party of four customizable characters plus two slots for recruiting locals, players will have to survive and complete their mission using their own ingenuity. The combat will be turn-based, with the interesting twist that the recruitable NPCs won't be fully controllable until they come to trust the player.
Shaker made the mistake of launching during the massively popular Project Eternity campaign, and has a long way to go before meeting its million-dollar funding goal. Having played and loved some of the later Wizardry games, which had many ideas that were long before their time, I think that's a shame. Brathwaite and Hall are highly creative and talented RPG designers, and I hope that RPG fans will give the Shaker project another look.
Why Should You Try These Games?
It can be hard for some gamers to get into the classic games from which these Kickstarter projects drew their inspiration. Most of them don't look so hot graphically, and their interfaces could be quite difficult to work with. However, the core ideas and gameplay they featured were highly enjoyable. Many of them featured strong writing and tons of role-playing choices, both in terms of story and game mechanics. They also featured turn-based combat systems that required strategic decision-making, a far cry from the mindless random encounters many gamers think of when they hear the phrase "turn-based combat."
These projects give us the chance to re-experience the good parts of old games while enjoying high-quality graphics and the kinds of modern, user-friendly interfaces we now expect. Even if you didn't Kickstart the first three games, they're likely to be pretty inexpensive when they come out in 2013-2014, and they'll probably run on a fairly wide variety of PCs. I encourage everyone to take a look at these projects, see if one looks interesting, and keep an eye on it as it's being developed. They may be different from many of today's games, but they offer a compelling experience that just might leave you coming back for more.
Date: October 23, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*