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[Quickie Nr. 004] Prelude to Darkness Retrospective Review
Review - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Tue 23 August 2016, 12:31:10Tags: Prelude to Darkness; Quickie; Zero Sum
I know that a lot of the regulars around here were holding their breath, anxiously awaiting the next entry in the prestigious RPG Codex [Quickie] review series, and despite that it took years for the next entry to emerge, Konjad bounces back big time, bringing us his retrospective review on the merits of Zero Sum's Prelude to Darkness.
Stay tuned, fasten your seat belts, and follow Konjad into the depths of the rabbit hole. Read the entire [Quickie Nr. 004] here.
- Zero Sum homepage
- download version 1.7
- download version 1.8
- here's a small patch by Codexer Fowyr that fixes a few things (see readme)
Read the full article: [Quickie Nr. 004] Prelude to Darkness Retrospective Review
Prelude to Darkness Review
The turn-based RPG called Prelude to Darkness was released many years ago. So many years that its most current version is already a decade old. Nonetheless, few role-playing games fans have even heard of it and even fewer played it. Here, on RPGCodex, we even have an official subforum for this game… and it’s almost dead. Posts rarely are written there and few people bother to even visit the place. Is the fate of the game well deserved or is it just a decent product that never managed to gather enough players to reach the critical mass of popularity and spread around through positive word-of-mouth?
The game begins with the player creating a three character party or accepting the default one. How good the default one is I cannot say as I’ve never chosen to play it, but I had a cursory look at it and I suspect it’s decent enough. I do like to make my own characters and in both my playthroughs I have played the game with my custom party. When making each character the player chooses a portrait, sex, bloodline, hair, attributes, background and skills. The portrait and hair have no influence on the game whatsoever except an aesthetic one. The gender can lead to very minor differences in some dialogues, for instance as a female character you'll not be able to use girls in a brothel. The rest of the character creation, however, will have influence on how the game can be played. There are two distinct bloodlines and a mix of both of them to be chosen. Some quests are exclusive to a certain bloodline. An easy way to get access to all quests is simply making one character with the Flame bloodline and another one with the River one. This way the player is able to do quests limited to each bloodline, but it must be noted that to unlock a specific quest you have to talk to the quest-giver using a character with the correct bloodline. Fortunately, when speaking to an NPC with the wrong kind of character it is usually obvious and the player can just switch to another party member right away.
There are six attributes to spend points on and they are pretty much the standard RPG fare. Strength, dexterity, intelligence, willpower, endurance and speed. For most characters any kind of attribute will be useful and even a fighter with average strength can be good by balancing it with a high intelligence (and therefore more skill points) and speed, which allows for more attacks per round. In consequence, there are actually very few possibilities to make a character underperforming in the game.
Backgrounds are what we usually call “classes”. They don't affect dialogues, but they affect the character’s starting skill sets, attributes and some equipment. I would like to note here that the game has many checks in dialogues and therefore it’s a very good idea to make the leader of the party have a high “Speech” and “Literacy and Lore” skill, otherwise many quest options might be locked to the player. The other two party members can have any skills, but it’s best if there’s at least one fighting character as the combat in this game cannot be avoided. That said, even if you go wrong with making the party it’s not a big deal as you may recruit up to three NPCs to join the party and balance it out. There are eleven NPCs to choose from, albeit some are not easy to find, so whatever your original party was you can always round it out to your heart’s desire. The characters can develop their skills by spending skill points received by completing quests, and by simply putting their skills to use – if you fight with a blunt weapon your “Blunt” skill will increase by a point from time to time, similarly “Literacy and Lore” will increase when reading books and “Speech” when talking to NPCs.
After the player finishes party creation, the intro is played and the party hears about a rebellion breaking out. The party must stop it, albeit at some point in the game it is possible to join the rebellion instead. This choice can be - which is worth knowing - reversed at almost any time until late game, so if you feel like you have made a bad decision it is still possible to change your mind. After the first NPC interaction, the party arrives at a small settlement named Kellen and from there on the player can do whatever he wants. It is a genuinely open-world game. There are no artificial limits to what you can and cannot do. It’s possible to travel to any part of the game world right away, with a very few exceptions, and nothing blocks your way. There are many side quests and no zones with stronger and weaker random enemies. Some quests might require higher skills, but most can be solved even with a rather undeveloped party. It’s good to follow areas along with the storyline though because most quests requiring better skills will be encountered where the storyline directs the party later in the game. While we’re talking about quests, I can’t but praise the side quests – they received just as much attention to detail as the main story. They are diverse, interesting and you’ll never have a feeling you’re doing the same thing twice. Moreover, many quests will have many solutions, which might require different skills at different levels. If you have high enough “Speech” you can talk your way through, or use “Tinker” to obtain the needed item, or you will have to fight your way through if other skills are not at a sufficient level.
Combat in this game is a frequent event and it fills my heart with delight that the combat system is well done. Sometimes it feels more like a tactical game than a role-playing one. The turn-based combat relies on action points, meaning that not every character performs the same amount of actions in a turn, but that is based on a characters' attributes and equipment instead. In consequence, this leads to additional choices for a player, as heavy armor deflects many blows but slows characters wearing it so much that they can only move a little on the battlefield, while no armor allows to move quickly and perform many attacks, but leaves characters susceptible to injuries and quick death. Light armors are obviously a balance between those two. Comically, the helmets and shoes, no matter how heavy, have no disadvantages at all, so even the most lightweight character can wear full plate helmet and boots without penalties. Different kinds of weapons have different advantages. For example, polearms can attack from two tiles away and between the attacker and the attacked can be a friendly character that will not receive any damage. Therefore polearms can be used as a second row’s attack weapon. The amount of weapons available to the player is what you can expect from this kind of game. There are different polearms, swords, axes, bows etc. Albeit each group of melee weapons have their own skill, all ranged weapons are grouped into one, which allows switching between f.e. bows and crossbows at any time without worrying that the character will perform worse.
There are different attack types that either give the character higher chance of hitting the enemy, or inflict higher damage, or use less action points, so the character might attack again or move during the same round. Prelude to Darkness doesn't limit the player to a simple “attack” command. One thing that the combat lacks is the action point preservation. You cannot save some points for the next turn, because they will simply vanish. This is unfortunate as it would allow more options during fights.
Character encounters are another story though. There are satisfying and difficult fights and there are filler combat encounters that seem to exist only to annoy and take time. The latter occurs especially often nearing the end of the game. From time to time I had to hack through a group of “Dwellers” to finish a quest, too much time was spent on this artificial lengthening of the game. It is simply superfluous and I wish these parts of the game were redesigned. Nonetheless, there aren’t a great number of these encounters and even if you get easily annoyed it shouldn’t take too much from the pleasure of the game.
Overall, the combat system is satisfactory and few turn-based RPGs do it this well. While I wouldn’t play Prelude to Darkness for the combat alone, I think it certainly complements the game very well. Faults are mostly related to some filler combat, which is generally a plague in RPGs as too often developers try to pad their games by artificial means to boast how long their game is. It’s not very bad in PtD, in fact I might be nitpicking here, but it sure enough does appear in the game.
The game maintains the quality from the beginning to the end, and unlike in so many other RPGs the ending does not feel rushed – unless you take the Rebellion’s storyline, which ends abruptly and without a proper outro like the default storyline does. When you decide not to side with the Rebellion, and finish the game suppressing it, then the game shows you an ending not only presenting how the story ends, but also showing the consequences of your actions in various settlements, like in Fallout. This is a nice touch that gives the player a feeling that what he did had some long-term consequences. I really like this kind of details.
What I really like about this game is that despite having a large open world, every NPC is unique, even if not all of them have unique dialogue lines. Even in cities where there are dozens of NPCs, many of them will give you quests. The consequence of that is that the game-world feels alive and you actually want to talk to everyone around instead of just running past them to finish other quests. Nonetheless, one might wish that the world was a bit more responsive to the player's actions, at least some of them. For example, nobody ever noticed in a certain village that I blew up a temple in the middle of it.
I will not write much about the story to avoid spoilers, but it does deserve some words of praise. It might not be very philosophical or deep, in fact it is cliché in some ways, but it is absorbing and well written, which surprised me as I did not expect much from this game story-wise. It was good enough to make me play it twice to uncover the full story, choosing a different side during the replay.
When it comes to graphics, the game is detailed, albeit for today's standards the textures are of low resolution and the meshes are very boxy. The game was made a long time ago, so it is understandable. Besides, it still looks decent. The strong point is the graphic representation of the game’s world. It is sinister not only in setting and story, but also in appearance. It creates a depressing atmosphere of solitude and suspense. It is disappointing that there was not enough time or money for some finishing touches to the technical side of graphics, as sometimes the background blends with items, or characters using ranged weapons look as if they are throwing ammunition at the enemy instead of shooting it, which is comical. In addition, while I very much adore the music in the game, I wish it had more tracks, because so few quickly become repetitive.
The game uses an isometric camera, which can be can be turned around 360° and the angle can be changed to some extend as well. Nonetheless, the camera is quite difficult to manage and is quite inconvenient, especially during combat encounters. The only way the game is playable seems to be when the camera's completely zoomed out. Unfortunately, the camera defaults every time the player loads a save game, and therefore he is required to adjust the camera again. For some reason, highlighting enemies during combat is also a tricky thing, as they often do not seem to be registered under the mouse cursor although it seems to be both over them and their tile. This leads to some annoyance during gameplay and the best solution is to enable the option in the game's settings that allows you to click a tile instead of the enemy character.
Another major issue are constant crashes. It is said that version 1.8 crashes and fails to run so often that version 1.7 is recommended over it because it is more stable, but in my experience both are playable but crash often enough to be annoying. I did not notice a difference in stability between those versions of the game. Fortunately the game has an useful autosave option that allows you to specify the time interval between autosaves, so when it is set to two minutes or so it doesn't lead to a significant loss of progress even if a player forgets to quicksave. Nonetheless, crashes are a major nuisance and if you plan to play Prelude to Darkness, then be prepared for a lot of them.
Is Prelude to Darkness worth your time? Zero Sum seems to have learned from the classic RPGs and even improved upon them. They made a very good game with few flaws that is likely to be enjoyed by all open world RPG fans as long as they can get past annoying crashes, which are the curse of PtD. The game features an interesting world and story, very enjoyable combat and diverse quests that won’t bore you, but the crashes will be annoying. If you are patient enough to tolerate them you will have a great time, otherwise the game might seem to you to be in an unplayable state.