Realms of Ancient War Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC and Sony PlayStation 3
The cave was dark and dripping. Insects grown far larger than is natural scuttled, the clicking of their pointed legs against the rock sounding like a legion of demonic knitters. Bats squeaked in the blackness. The tunnel curved ahead into the subterranean fog.
'WTF, dwarves?' The wizard pointed out a group of short, hairy men who were charging at them, wielding oversized hammers. 'But I thought dwarves were our friends?'
'Bleuuurrrrgh!' said the warrior and he smashed the dwarves' heads in with his axe.
Realms of Ancient War is an isometric fantasy RPG hack 'n’ slash and though it hangs together well enough it is uninventive and where it tries to be more original is ultimately dissatisfying. The premise is straightforward: you choose one of three classic character classes – warrior, wizard or rogue (i.e. archer), each of whom have a slightly different storyline. You fight your way through hordes of enemies, using slowly-recharging mana to cast spells and use powerful attacks, gaining experience points to spend on improving your skills. Killing enemies and finding treasure chests will secure you weapons, armour and coins which you can equip or trade. If you've got a friend and a second controller they can sub in as player two, choosing one of the other characters (i.e. if you are a warrior they can play as a wizard or a rogue) and fight alongside you - though this is local only, no online. So far so Double Dungeon and Dragon. See what I did there?
The story is regular fantasy fare, if a bit convoluted. In the dim and distant past the land was at war. The kings all went to make a peace pact but three of them came back withered and ill and the Northern king was never to be seen again...spooky! You, as player, have to destroy all in your way to unravel the mystery and save the continent. The fighting itself, which is the core of the game, is fun enough to begin with but soon becomes a repetitive chore. Each character has three basic moves – the warrior has a standard attack using whatever you've equipped, a power smash and a grab attack; the wizard has a fireball (this is an EU statutory requirement) a short range sonic boom and the ability to drop a ‘cloud of poison gas’ (LOL); the Rogue a distance bow attack, short range sword attack and a poison gas trap (unladylike).
The combat should be unproblematic but for the warrior the animations for the smash and the grab moves can glitch, sometimes making the attacks inaccurate. Playing with a buddy makes the fight a bit easier and the wizard can stand at the edge of the screen and burn everything with his overpowered fire attacks whilst the underpowered warrior gets mobbed in the middle of the fray. This occasionally can result in an amusing Benny Hill sequence where the warrior has been killed and the wizard has to run around in circles to avoid close combat. The game would be vastly improved if the Benny Hill theme tune faded in during those moments.
Levelling up lets you increase the power of your starting abilities, gain new perks and learn new skills – including a perk that reduces the mana cost of all non-basic attacks and a special ability that uses a chunk of mana to restore a length of your health bar for example, as well as new and more powerful attacks. Amusingly, after selecting the perk on which you want to spend XP the game instructs you to press A to 'validate' your selection, as if your console is 1990s DOS interface in a chemist's checking if you have the proper authority to dispense prescription-only steroid-based haemorrhoid cream.
After the first few stages during which the player levels up once or twice the rate of XP increase feels sort of slow. In more in-depth RPGs (think Mass Effect, the Elder Scrolls series; even combat heavy-RPGs like Bioshock) gradual levelling is forgivable as there's so much to do but because all there is to do in RAW is press the attack buttons it would have been nice to have new or improved abilities more regularly. Grinding through yet another swarm of spiders, identical to the previous swarm of spiders, and seeing no discernible change in your XP meter is just dispiriting. The frustration is added to by the fact you regularly pick up weapons and armour that is rated a few levels above your current status, forcing you to wait before you can use them.
Another peculiarity of the skill system is that when playing two player only the first player's load-out is saved – so when you start playing again after a power-down the second player has to re-build their character from scratch, although they do start at the same level as player one. It's fun because the second player can choose to change character class each time they begin and spend XP differently, but it's less good in that it scotches any sense of two-player continuity or attachment to character. It’s hardly a team if the second member is different each time.
In regard to items and loot everything can be sold to traders: from potions, weapons and apparel to old leather books and skulls. Even once you’ve amassed a Lord Chancellor’s pension in pieces of eight most of the gear the traders are trying to flog to you is still too expensive, especially in the beginning, and it isn’t much more exciting than the bits and bobs you collect along the way. The items are frankly dull and you would have to be the keenest kleptomaniac to want to fill your display cabinet with the goods on offer in RAW. If you're playing with someone else, you can pass items to one another via the inventory screen. This is handy as much of the stuff you can wear or wield is class-specific, though unhelpfully you can’t tell easily what class something is until you pick it up. Worse, all of the wearable equipment you carry looks so similar in the inventory you have to examine each thing individually to work out which of the umpteen identical breastplates you are carrying are wizard chic and which are part of the rogue autumn collection. (Could you not tell, daaahling? Those blue leather leggings are so last season - so Rivendell, so retro warrior...Oh, totes. Have you seen Galadrial's new collection? Ever since she went to the West her couture is so dreary...ya,ya, couldn't agree more...didn't anyone tell her white went out with the battle of Minas Tirith...).
The world through which you smash and burn is as one might expect – dark woods, sandy deserts, dank mines, mysterious magical palaces. There's nothing here to set RAW aside from most other games in the genre. Fantasy worlds like this have been done and re-done so many times that when developers revisit such well-used settings it creates a sense of dull familiarity. With little attempt at originality a game's environment will be unremarkable and forgettable, which is the case here. The character and enemy models are similarly generic and the enemies have no AI as such, apart from a driving urge to advance and kill you. One innovation is that you are able to possess some non-player characters for a short period of time but this is infrequent and only lasts for a few seconds before you return to your normal avatar.
It's worth mentioning saving and dying too. Although it is made clear at the outset that the game is autosaving when there's a picture of a rotating buzz-saw, players beware: the game only saves when you complete a stage so if you have to stop playing early on be prepared to start again. If you die you are resurrected at the most recent checkpoint you crossed with a nifty animation showing your body rising up from the grounds and two huge angelic wings sprouting from your shoulders. This uses up a 'soulstone' and once you've used all of these its game over. If you're playing two player and one of you kicks the bucket providing your companion lasts five seconds more you come back to life where you fell.
If you love pressing the same buttons over and over again, if your eyes glint at the idea of thimbleloads of virtual loot and if you can bear a hackneyed story and gameplay that's been common since Golden Axe then RAW is for you. Otherwise, well; you can give it a miss.