on Jun 2, 2008
Developing a game for an established genre is a difficult task. You have to design the game, drawing from titles you’ve enjoyed in the past and integrating those concepts with your own ideas. You need to polish and refine established gameplay to make the game fresh and interesting while remaining true to the core experience fans expect. I imagine the most frustrating moment for a developer comes when some jerkface reviewer comes along, appraises their efforts, and calls the whole thing a “Diablo Clone”.
Actually, “clone” isn’t fair at all. Diablo “clones” are just games which belong to a genre nobody has bothered to name. They get lumped in the with “RPG” games, which doesn’t make any sense. For whatever reason, “RPG” has come to mean “game where you level up”, which is a genre so broad as to be meaningless.
Pedantic etymology aside, Depths of Peril is a particularly good example of whatever kind of game you want to call it. It’s the first one I’ve seen in years that had the guts to innovate and evolve the gameplay set down by Blizzard Entertainment a decade ago. (Fate was the last Diablo clone I played. My review is here. Dungeon Siege is another I’ve played, and the review for that can be found between the following quotation marks, “Meh.”)
Appraising games like this is like judging chili recipes. Each one is a slightly different mix of the same essential ingredients: Wilderness areas with little side-dungeons to explore. Fixed character classes with set appearances. Random loot drops. Quest-dispensing NPC’s in town. Common, Rare, and Unique item types, along with collect-them-all item “sets”. NPC hirelings to accompany you. Elite and unique monsters. Health and mana potions. A smattering of attribute and skill points to “spend” on each level up. And so on. The ratios of the ingredients change, but in the end they’re all making the same thing.
Depths of Peril hits all of these key notes you’d expect, offering up a nicely polished experience built atop familiar and established gameplay. But the thing that sets Depths of Peril apart is the fact that it’s not really an RPG. It’s a strategy game.
In Depths of Peril you are the leader of a covenant. There are up to five other covenants in town, each with their own house. You have a lifestone, which brings any member of the covenant back to life if they fall, although the lifestone is damaged slightly when that happens. You have to recruit members to your group, level them up, and outfit them with gear. You have to develop your covenant house, collecting books and relics that confer bonuses on the entire group. And you must hire guards to keep the lifestone safe.
This covenant-growing aspect of the game feels a lot like an empire building game. You collect taxes, establish trade routes, trade with your friends, declare war on your enemies, extort from the weak, appease the mighty, and employ subterfuge when martial strength fails you. The major way you grow in power is to undertake quests for the NPCs in town. To put it simply: This is a strategy game where you play “Diablo” against the other factions.
This is the part of the review where, if this were a gaming magazine, I would ding the game for not having multiplayer support. I don’t know when this became a bad thing – as if no game is complete without the ability to connect with random internet people – but it’s now some sort of sin to the gaming
priesthood press. Still, let me just give you a heads up: There is no multiplayer. I didn’t miss it, but I’m exactly the sort of person that makes multiplayer a bad idea anyway, so we’re all better off like this.
The strategy aspect of the game can be seasoned to taste. When you set up the game world you can decide how much of it you want. You can fill the world with rival covenants that are so weak that you can ignore them, or you can arrange things so that the maintaining of your covenant is front and center. One nice twist is that you can see what items they other covenant leaders have picked up, and the game even puts up a nice notice when someone gets their hands on an extraordinary item, or part of a set of items. If another faction picks up something you like you can try to trade for it. This makes finishing sets a lot more interesting.
There is a common container shared by all your characters, so that you can move items between characters. This fixes the problem in other games where you needed two computers in order to accomplish this.
The skill system is interesting. Skills get progressively more expensive to upgrade. This encourages you to spread the points around, giving you lots of skills to play with. This is in contrast to Diablo and its ilk, where you developed one or two abilities at the expense of all others. Depths of Peril encourages variety instead of monotonous min-maxing. Finally, you don’t have to worry about miss-spent points. You can recover skill points and re-invest them in other skills if you need to, so you never have a “broken” character. It costs money to do this, but again, it encourages you to experiment with the skill tree and see what you like instead of just dumping everything into one super-ability. (I’ve heard WoW uses this system as well.)
I could go on, but I worry that everyone’s appetite for obsessive analysis of gameplay mechanics would be sated long before I got tired of doing it. The thrust of it is that the gameplay here shows a lot of forethought into what makes the game tick and what made it fun. This isn’t just something thrown together by fans who wanted “Diablo, but with more better graphics”, this is a step forward for a genre that has been running in place for a decade.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.