Serpent in the Staglands - PC Game Review
Serpent in the Staglands - What are we looking at?
The first thing you'll notice about Serpent in the Staglands is how goddamned ugly the game is. When this game first came onto my radar, I was extremely turned off by the pixelated graphical style to the point where I had almost given the game a complete pass. However, I had been craving a bit of an old school adventure and it seemed from what information I could gather that Serpent could deliver, so I bought the game and dug right in.
Going into a game like this, I obviously checked my expectations regarding production values. This is a game made by an independent studio with a small budget and my expectation was that their development efforts would be more focused on game mechanics and story rather than shiny and expensive graphics. I was pleased to find that these expectations were not unwarranted, as it is clear that a lot of love went into crafting the world of Serpent, and that the role-playing mechanics strike a nice balance between familiar and new.
One thing I can offer you right away by way of whether I recommend this game to you: if you didn't play and love Baldur's Gate or its progeny, then you're already out of your league here. But if you're pretty solid on the form and function of a D20 and have a strong desire to min-max every character into his or her allotted role, then you should feel - not quite "right at home" - but close enough to home to find the basic premise comfortable.
The Story and Set-up
This is an isometric, party-based RPG where you play the role of Necholai, the God of the Moon. Necholai has a bit of a problem, that problem being that while visiting the planetary surface in corporeal form (for amusement), he found himself unable to get home at the end of his trip. So, stuck in a vulnerable mortal body and cut-off from returning to his moon realm, he needs to figure out who has contrived to trap him in such a state and for what purpose.
This is a compelling hook. Good enough, at least, to have me excited as I headed into the character creator. The lore of this world moves away from the standard tropes insofar as races and classes are concerned. There are no elves or orcs, per se, but analogues of the classical tropes can be found along with some fresh ideas. I found that my biggest problem with creating a character was being unfamiliar with the game systems. The different races in the game give you various bonuses or penalties but without the context of having played through some combats, I had no real idea what I was doing. I opted to play it safe and go for a straightforward melee build using my best guessing, and this worked out alright for the most part.
However, there are no classes in the game. Your characters may pick and choose from martial and magical skills as they level up, provided that they have the requisite attribute points allocated to intelligence or dexterity, etc. You get to build what you want and may gimp or min-max as yourself as you please.
What Makes this Game Hardcore?
This game earns its "hardcore" tag for two main reasons. First, the combat is a stat-driven affair governed by the merciless nature of many-sided dice. There's no real tutorial to speak of and you're going to have to do some real interface spelunking to figure out exactly how or why your characters might hit, miss, or avoid combat damage. I had my party wiped by the very first enemy that I encountered - a wolf on the road leading away from the starting area. This is the kind of combat that you can expect.
Second, the game has a "no hand-holding" rule built right into it. And this, I think is the real core of the game and what makes it special. This game does not have a mini map, or a compass, or little icons floating over the heads of people or objects of importance. When you have a conversation with someone, the pertinent information is not extracted for you and placed into a quest log. Instead, you have to read, intuit, and even take your own notes! This is exactly what I was looking for in a "hardcore" role-playing experience.
By not holding my hand, the game confers upon me a level of freedom that I find refreshing. For example, in the beginning of the game - in the very first room - you can open up a magical-looking tome sitting on a pedestal in a little sconce. You can write on this tome in your own blood, making symbols in a free-form manner. I have no idea what this tome is for and I have no idea what to write there. But the fact that it is there implies that there is knowledge to be found out there in the world somewhere - knowledge I'll have to find on my own. But I know that if I just knew what to write, that I could unlock the secrets right there. I like that.
Something else I like is the overworld map. When you're done adventuring in an area, you're presented with an overworld map that looks like the map from Wasteland. It's a big grid overlayed on a map of the continent and there are no landmarks on it at all. To even figure out the destination of your first quest, you need to do some careful reading during conversation and then properly examine some items you receive. All of this contributes to a feeling of exploration and freedom that is really quite refreshing.
Another interesting mechanic - and one I haven't had a chance to really use too much at this point - is the "Linguistics" skill that your characters can acquire. This skill helps your characters converse with various creatures that might not speak English, but it also allows the linguist to write phrases into an Incantation book to cast special non-combat spells. For instance, you can invoke the phrase "Vrosk Rife George" to magically pickpocket George. There are a lot of phrases to learn and I imagine some of them are hidden from the player, although knowledge of the Vrosk Rife incantation is handed to you early on. I think this is a neat mechanic and I'm looking forward to playing with it more.
The final gameplay mechanic that I think is worth commenting on is the magic system. At first I had a hard time understanding what was going on here. Coming from a D&D mindset, a wizard casts a spell like a fireball and then it flies across the screen and does its thing. Almost every game operates with this basic magical premise. But Serpent uses a really cool system where every magical spell is sustained while you cast it, and then the spell "procs" every few seconds. The spellcaster must remain focused on their target for the entire time.
For instance, you can cast a heal spell on a character and the spell might say "heals for 5d4 points, procs every 5 seconds". Which means the spell will pulse every 5 seconds to heal for the indicated amount. Some spells will accumulate their effects as they continue to proc. As spellcasters become more skilled, the effects of the spells increase while the proc times generally decrease. It's an interesting system and one I find that I rather like.
Woes and Complaints
I can't say much to disparage this game. It's an indie effort and that shows both in its heart and in its technical shortcomings. Load times are unnecessarily long, probably because the coders made some less-than-optimal choices in their design. I might also complain that the game can be a bit TOO unforgiving at times, but thus is the nature of the random number generator.
My final word on this game is that if it sounds like something you'd be into, then you probably will be into it. If you're on the fence then let it pass or wait for a sale. I haven't played the game all the way through and I don't know if I will. I do know that I enjoyed the hours I did spend with the game that I will certainly pick it up again as time allows. But a congratulations is in order to the developers of this game for making an excellent RPG that will surely find a niche audience to enjoy it.
Serpent in the Staglands is available now on Steam and other digital portals for $19.99