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RPG Codex Retrospective Review: An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire (1997)
Review - posted by Infinitron on Mon 22 February 2016, 13:06:26Tags: An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire; Bethesda Softworks
[Review by Deuce Traveler]
Deep lore, fun character creation, clunky combat, and game-breaking bugs that constantly disrupt the experience. That's right, it's time for another Elder Scrolls review. Battlespire is a little-known Elder Scrolls spinoff title released in 1997, designed to whet fans' appetites during the long wait between the releases of Daggerfall and Morrowind. Despite its short development time, there are some stark differences between Battlespire and the main series which make the game quite unique.
First off, Battlespire has fewer racial options available in character creation - you can't play as an Argonian or Khajiit. I assume this is due to time and budget limitations during development. The game uses a point-buy system in character creation, allowing you to spend points to increase your attribute scores and gain special advantages, disadvantages, and starting equipment. Some of the disadvantages can be quite punishing. For example, there's one that prevents you from equipping weapon or armor above a certain quality. In Daggerfall, you could choose to be incapable of using silver weapons, but in this game choosing that disadvantage results in you being unable to use weapons of better quality (such as daedric weapons) as well. Because you start the game near danger, if you don't spend some of your available points to get a basic starting weapon and decent armor you will find it difficult to survive the first few minutes unless you get lucky with the nearby randomly generated loot. There are no shops in the game, and so you are completely on your own, with only your wits and what you may be able to scavenge from the dead. To add to the necessity of scavenging, your equipment gradually wears down and become completely unusable. Luckily for you, the facility you start the game in is huge, with lots of locations to explore.
The Battlespire is a research facility and school that has been overwhelmed by attacking daedra (the demons of the Elder Scrolls setting), who seek to use it a staging point for a greater invasion of Tamriel. The attack comes as your character is visiting the installation, and you soon discover that nearly every Imperial mage and soldier inside has been killed. A friend you intended to visit is still alive and wreaking havoc upon the daedra, while the invaders themselves are split due to political rivalries. Over the course of the game, you discover that Tamriel is not the first world to have been threatened by the daedra, and you even get to visit other worlds that have suffered from such invasions. Your quest is to survive, sabotage the invasion as much as you can, and escape Battlespire (and the various planes of existence that are connected to it) so you can warn the Emperor.
The planes you explore outside of Battlespire help change up the scenery a bit, while adding to your understanding of the threat that Tamriel is under. You meet various characters and find books discussing what it was like before the daedra invaded. One particular plane is filled with lost souls that cannot easily be killed by the weapons you carry, and you must constantly flee them while trying to find clues on how to lay them to rest. Another plane is the home of an insane mage who was one of the few mortals to get one over on the daedric lords, but at a horrible price that laid waste to the surrounding land. I especially liked one level where you're chased by daedric hunting parties, a frightening charade where they acted as hounds while I was the fox. There's a lot of discussion of the plane of Oblivion - it's described as a purgatory of sorts for the daedra when they are defeated. The game hints that they can never be destroyed, only banished to that bizarre plane. This description of Oblivion does not match what we would later see in the Elder Scrolls game of the same name. It sounds much more dangerous and bizarre than that Oblivion, with odd beings that attack even the more powerful daedra trying to escape it.
Battlespire does contribute quite a bit to the lore of the Elder Scrolls series, specifically the lore of the daedra, who probably have their most in-depth representation in this game. They are shown to be highly arrogant, regarding human beings as we would regard animals. One amusing aspect of this is how often they mistake your character for another human survivor, despite age, race and gender differences. The invaders are often more concerned with jockeying for status and avenging ancient slights than they are with their invasion, and so are often willing to negotiate with you if it means you might be able to cause problems for a rival. However, the game does make it clear that the daedra are not to be trusted. Humans who have dealt with them in the past have suffered betrayals, twisted into monstrosities or tortured and killed when their usefulness ended. That adds a sense of danger to your conversations with them, and negotiations will indeed often break down into violence.
That brings us to the topic of combat. The creatures you'll encounter in Battlespire are quite deadly, but their AI is poor and a few bugs place them at a further disadvantage. Enemies will try to approach you in zigzag patterns in an attempt to surround and flank you, but this movement is often obstructed by furniture and other scenery clutter. If there's a table between yourself and a daedra, it will often become stuck, allowing you to pluck away at it with a missile weapon until it's dead. Enemy spellcasters will throw magical attacks at you without regard to their allies who might be in the line of fire, often eliminating all of their melee protectors before you even have a chance to swing your weapon. Spellcasters also do not deal well with slopes, sometimes blowing themselves up with their own area of effect spells when they are downhill from you. Furthermore, they have limited mana, and will often uselessly waste it when they don't have a clear shot at you, making them far less dangerous after they've run out.
In other Elder Scrolls games, spellcasters are a preferred class because you can make lots of money selling off excess loot and mana is easily restored in towns. Battlespire flips this - there are no safe areas where you can sell equipment or rest. There are potions that restore mana, but they run out quickly compared to the rate you'll want to be casting spells. So unless you choose an advantage during character creation that gives you mana regeneration, magic is probably not the way you'll want to go in this game. Because there's no easy way to repair equipment either, you'll want some strength so you can carry around backup armor and weapons, making melee classes a better choice. Mana is expended quickly in the heat of battle, but your swinging arm never tires.
Ranged and magical attacks are pretty straightforward, with the option to assign spells to hotkeys. Melee attacks are more complex, and are conducted using mouse gestures. With the appropriate gesture, you can attack with quick forward thrusts, right and left swings, or a powerful overhead slam. Thrusts are most effective against single enemies, but I found that the longer swings can hit multiple opponents at a time, which is particularly useful when you've got your back to the wall. Since enemies move erratically and try to flank you, you have to be mobile. If you're especially good with the mouse and keyboard interface, you can strike at enemies and then step away before they counterattack. Opposing spellcasters can be dangerous if they close in on you - they like taking a couple of swings and then moving away unexpectedly to fire a magical blast that can blow you back a few feet. Listening to the game's audio is crucial, allowing you to hear the daedra before they get the drop on you. The best weapons in Battlespire are ranged weapons such as bows and crossbows, since they automatically hit if you aim correctly and can do significant damage, but munitions are finite and cannot always be recovered off of the corpses of those you kill. In my playthrough, I hoarded all the daedric arrows I could find, a choice that paid huge dividends when I reached the final stage of the game. But even with this habit of hoarding, I still had very few arrows left in my quiver at the end of the game.
Even the most physical character in Battlespire will start out with at least one spell, and more can be learned from scrolls that you find in randomly generated stashes. The game's spells are of varying usefulness, consisting of healing spells, attribute buffs, utility spells that let you do things like breathe underwater, ranged elemental attacks, and so on. You can boost a spell's power by expending more mana to cast it. Spells that you don't know can still be cast using potions or magical items. Such items decrease in condition as you use the magic stored in them - when their condition state reaches zero the magic is expended. In theory, the most useful spells should be spell absorption and spell reflection, which allow you to reflect enemy spells back at them like in Arena. However, the effectiveness of this tactic is reduced in Battlespire, since enemy spellcasters will avoid casting spells at you when you are covered by such protection. You'll need some impressive timing if you ever want to see a spell actually get reflected. All enemy ranged attacks in the game seem to be spells - I don't recall ever encountering daedra archers. Enemies are not randomly generated and do not respawn, so once an area is cleared it stays that way unless you lure them in from elsewhere. No matter whether you're a melee, ranged or spellcasting character, you can probably defeat them if you have a decent build and use hit-and-run tactics.
Planning your character build in advance is vital to your success in Battlespire. RPG veterans should have an easy time of it, but more casual players will likely get frustrated as they get closer to the end, as the game seems to compensate for poor AI with hordes of enemies in the final levels. You gain a level for each section of the dungeon you complete, and since there are only seven of them, don't expect huge advances. You get a certain number of points for every level up, most of which you'll want to invest in attributes, as your skills will increase on their own with usage. Because there are only a limited number of level ups in the games, it's highly recommended that you plan out your attribute increases in advance, focusing on either a melee brawler build with ranged weapons as backup, or exclusively on spellcasting.
Battlespire's interface is a very mixed bag. The standard movement and attack functionality works well enough, but everything else is quite the mess. When you access your inventory, some elements of the game pause while others do not. Enemies remain frozen in place, and attacks don't you, but time moves forward in other ways, such as the timer showing how much oxygen you have left if you're underwater. There were times when I was swimming and opened my inventory to look for a potion, only to find my character had drowned in the meantime after exiting it. Buff timers work in the same way - if you apply multiple buffs on yourself, the first one will have a reduced timeline remaining by the time you exit your inventory. Compounding the problem, the inventory screen can be difficult to navigate, although this can be mitigated with foresight. Hilariously, this flawed mechanic can also serve as an exploit, since negative status effects also wind down while you're in your inventory. A few times in the final level of the game, I went into the inventory screen, left my computer to read a page or two in a book, then returned to find that the poisoned status effect I was suffering from had expired, all without losing any health.
So, I've slammed this game and now it's time I wrapped up this review by reiterating and highlighting some of its good points. First, the dungeon levels are very well designed. When you discover some hidden item or switch the rewards feel earned. Sometimes the levels are set up to give the advantage to your enemies, with ranged attackers on raised platforms overlooking areas that you have to traverse. Second, the game has more cerebral puzzles than the other Elder Scrolls games, with challenges such as deciphering daedric glyphs. Unfortunately, some of these puzzles are broken. For example, there are raised platforms that the designers forgot to add a way to reset if you slip off of them. But hey, it's a Bethesda game, so the bugs are part of the experience, right? Finally, the pixelated breasts are quite nice. I actually got caught by a seducer who was flirting with me, and allowed myself to 'play' with her, then found that my health had been drained. This game knows my weaknesses. The ending is pretty titillating also, but I won't get into spoilers. Let's just say that this is the last Elder Scrolls game to be so sexually charged, at least until modders 'fixed' the last three.
In conclusion, Battlespire is a mixed bag. The game is a buggy, poorly coded mess that's reminiscent of Arena in its half-baked glory, and of Daggerfall in terms of interface. I started out with a legacy DOSBox version of the game, then purchased the GOG version when it became available there, but in both I experienced crashes every hour or so. The combat is quite difficult compared to some of the other games in the series, with massive hordes of monsters who are proficient with both sorcery and melee, though those often seem like they're there only to offset the poor artificial intelligence. I wasn't planning to play Battlespire until Crooked Bee asked me to. It's her favorite game in the series, and I can see why - it's got the puzzles and the deep lore that she appreciates. But I can't say that it was a fun experience on the whole, and its problems often caused more frustration than it was worth. I'm glad I got to play though it. Many parts of the game were quite memorable, breathing more depth into the series than I had expected. However, unless you are a real fan of the Elder Scrolls or really enjoy a solid dungeon crawl, I personally can't recommend it.