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Din's Curse & Demon War Review
Review - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Thu 30 June 2011, 17:27:09Tags: Din's Curse
"Four hours in, and the town of Sorrim is in trouble. The seven levels of 'Torture dungeon' had spewed out invasions twice already, and I knew more were massing on level 5. Half the inhabitants had been butchered, the remainder (myself included) were cursed, and two of the three NPCs I needed to keep alive were dead. I could forestall the next invasion (and the risk of wiping out the only NPC left keeping the town alive) by getting there killing them first. The problem was getting there - scouring levels 4 and 6 gave no entrances to level 5.
I started from the top of the dungeon and explored carefully, desperation slowly growing - a few notifications sprang up about citizens starving. I found a secret door on level 2 which accessed another half of the dungeon: I waded my way through mobs from 2 to 3, 3 to 4 and - finally! - an entrance to level 5.
The level dumped me into a group of enemy units. The first few were fine, until several champion and elites showed up. I spammed buffs and hacked away, but I was losing health too quickly, despite popping health potions as fast as their cooldown let me. I panicked and backed away, tripping a pit trap that dumped me to level 7. I raged - I would have to get back to level 1 and do everything again all the way back up - and I hadn't even encountered the mobs I needed to kill.. A moment later, the game told me another invasion had started."
It turns out atheism is a bad idea in fantasy land. Having lived an unholy life, you are brought back from the grave by Din to help him save various villages from destruction by the hoardes of evil. This is Soldak Entertainment's second big venture into the world of hack'n'slash. The entire plot was contained above, there are no characters, barely any VA, and certainly no romances. So that is what it isn't. However, is it good for what it is?
The fundamentals of Din's Curse are similar to any other hack'n'slash you've played since Diablo. You spend your time going through dungeons, spanking mobs, completing quests, picking up loot and leveling up, to progress to hitting slightly nastier mobs and using slightly blingier loot.
There are 6 classes (the expansion takes it up to seven), which follow the fantasy staples: druid, rogue, fighter, etc. Each of these classes have 3 specialties, each a suite of skills and spells you can spend your points in (thief gets the Assassin, Trickster and Thief specialties, for example). Three good things about this system: 1) the skills are not in trees - they have different costs, but you can spend points into each independently, so no dumping points into useless skills to unlock the good ones; 2) the game allows you to buy back and spend attribute and ability points, allowing you to experiment or 'smooth out' the gaps between leveling up your 'key abilities'; 3) you can pick any two specialties to create a hybrid class, allowing you all sorts of exotic combination of skills: my own favorite was an archer/necromancer who used pet mobs to keep enemies away whilst plinking with arrows.
The game world is consists of two parts, the town and the dungeon. The town has a load of NPCs, of importance are the vendors and the three main quest givers (steward, apothecary, warmaster) - lose all three, and you lose the town. The dungeon consists of 7-12 levels of map with roving bad guys; each level is linked to the one above and below, but also has a gate which, if found, allows direct transit between that level and the town. Various NPCs will have tasks (standard aRPG fare: kill x monsters, kill boss whatever, find y mcguffins, frob plot coupon here, etc.) which require you to go into a particular dungeon level to do it. You gain reputation by successfully completing quests, you lose it by failing them, or by having townsfolk die. Gain enough reputation, and you save the town, and you can then start afresh on a new one. Do this enough times and Din will release you from your curse, and you win the game (although you tend to manage this about level 18-20, you can keep playing to level 100).
The town. Note the three main quest givers (although others have tasks too). The lightning bolt on the right is because the monsters have built a lightning machine. It strikes randomly in the town, doing damage if it hits an NPC. If I destroy the machine, it will stop. Also note statues in my honor: NPCs will do this, or give loot stashes, when you help them.
Din's Curse is unique in how much of the game is procedurally generated, and how it evolves dynamically. In this game, being told that 'bad guys are starting an uprising' will mean bad guys will actually rise up into your town instead of obediently waiting to be stopped in the nick of time like almost every other RPG. It's fantastic: the 'Diablo with dungeons that fight back' moniker is wholly justified. It is not only the bad guys who get up to stuff (besides invasion, they also lay curses which give debuffs until you take the quest to solve it, produce machines to make dungeons harder, block the gates, fight amongst themselves, etc.) the good guys can also head off to do the quests themselves, turn on each other, or betray the town in any number of ways. Occasionally the system unfairly shafts you: once all three of my key NPCs killed each other whilst the last standing survivor turned rogue and left, losing me the map; another time one of nastier monsters was made a boss type, leading to a behemoth with a DPS almost two orders of magnitude higher than mine. Yet these cases are rare - for the other 30 ish hours of playtime, it worked perfectly. Although 'living world' is inaccurate for a game where the NPCs are primarily objects and quest-givers, it is definitely a 'living situation': there's considerable strategy as to how to prioritize the various quests, most of which are on a hidden timer.
When an NPC goes off to do a quest for themselves, they can succeed, die, or, as here, be taken hostage.
The dungeon mechanics are very good, with a variety of items you interact with to stop it being an oddly-shaped field to hunt the monsters in. Besides stashes of loot and destructible, there are pillars you can attack to cause cave-ins, doors and destructible you can set on fire to damage monsters, traps, obelisks which confer various spells on frob, temporal vortices that slow down ranged attacks, and more. The monsters can even build machines to make the dungeon more difficult to fight in (darker, foggier, etc).
Some examples: A healthstone (left) that gives heal over time, candles (bottom, top) that can be turned on and off to increase sight range, alight destructible (top) that do damage to anything that walks into them and will eventually be destroyed, and a chest (right) with loot.
However, not all is in perfect harmony. Although there is a healthy diversity of loot (using the 'set prefix/suffix gives certain modifiers' school) which scales well, but the system suffers from over-detail: even common items have several modifiers, and I quickly converted from trying to work out if 0.2% more critical hit chance and +2 intelligence was worth more than a +4 defense and 0.6% chance of a spell cast on hit to just equipping myself with the most expensive items I had. Besides this, it makes the loot pretty faceless and generic: even ego artifact weapons (which level up if you use them enough) will not be able to keep up with the newer items you get on level up.
Further, although the strategy of what fire you are going to put out next requires brainpower, you rapidly hone in on the tactic of your character build (buff and walk forwards, shoot and scoot behind summons, etc.) and then do that in every encounter you face. If your tactic doesn't work, there isn't much you can do to improve your chances than burn more consumables. This is a pity, because both skill and monster selection are varied and clever (there are few straight up beaters, and most have a variety of wrinkles: favorites are plaguebearers which spam mini-units from behind the lines give AoE poison damage after death, and Amorphs which split into two smaller units when you kill the bigger one), yet things don't quite fall together to give players a challenge in mapping their skill use onto particular encounters.
Selecting which monsters you raise from the dead to be pets for the necromancer is rewarding in a pokemon master sort of way.
If I was going to try and diagnose the underlying problem, I would plump for lack of granularity: all the statistics 'smudge out' leading to little variation or discontinuity in effect, and consequently little opportunity for rock-paper-scissors-esque strategy and counters. This is understandable - it would be very hard for this system not to break when the encounters are all procedurally generated, but a minor shame none-the-less. On the bright side, the game balances and scales well - I recommend setting the difficulty to 'hard' to get a proper sense of panic.
Look, sound, and feel
Din's Curse looks pretty basic, which is par for the course of indy development. Some bits are better than others: the monsters look good, the human models look blocky, and the built environments like dungeons look much better than the more organic ones like caves. There are plenty of tile-sets used, so you shouldn't get too bored.
The not-so-good cave environments (also note the pit trap throwing me into a ganking by dark elf assassins).
Less forgivable than the visuals are the steep performance costs for what you get. My aging desktop replacement could run it fully tricked out, but my slightly lower speced laptop or netbook chugged to death with everything tuned down. Whether it is bug or poor optimization I do not know, but it is a shame for those hoping for a game to play on the go.
Another minor quibble is the interface, which takes a few minutes to get used to as you navigate your way through the screens - not as good as the best, but far from the worst: about on a par with games like Baldur's Gate 2.
Sound is fine: Din's voice acting is hilariously hammy, but the environmental and audio cues are clear. They are not vital to the game, which can be played on mute.
Expansion, Demon War
Din's Curse has an expansion: Demon War. It fittingly old-school fashion, it is a 'more-of-the-same' sort of thing. A new class (Demon hunter), more monsters, new quests, more NPC behavior, etc. (even Soldak's blurb says "Basically experience a lot more of what makes Din's Curse incredibly unique"). The extra bits are fun, although not game-changing (they are also well-balanced, which is a refreshing change from the plague of overpowered goodies DLCs that do the rounds in the mainstream). If you enjoy Din's Curse, Demon War is worth a look; if you are not a fan, the expansion is not going to change your mind.
Din's curse manages to nail the fundamentals of the genre whilst extending it in a new an innovative way. The basics of the game-play, although not perfect, are solid, balanced and, most importantly, fun. The procedurally generated, dynamic worlds that Din's Curse throws at you to play in are extraordinary: they reliably bring up cool situations like I narrated at the start, keep mixing things up, and demand strategic, reactive play. Everything else is fine print.
Clever, carefully honed, and more addictive than a skinner box that mainlines heroin, Din's Curse is a blast to play. Aficionados of the genre, as well as dabblers like me, should definitely give it a look.
No 'deferred success' in Din's Curse.