Before even starting Realms of Ancient War, there was a subtle clue that it was going to be a subpar experience. In the game select screen, it is referred to as Realms of Ancient Wars. This is a silly mistake, sure, and it seems petty to pick on a game for an extra ‘s’. Still, it speaks to the entirely absent level of polish on the game, polish that it sorely needs to transform it from rote genre exercise into a truly special entry in a crowded Xbox Live Arcade catalog.
If there is anything that Diablo III and Torchlight 2 have proven over the last year, it’s that when it comes to isometric dungeon-crawling, hacking, slashing, and looting, polish is everything.
The problem, really, is those bases for comparison. If the Diablo and Torchlight franchises didn’t exist, it’s entirely possible that a game like Realms of Ancient War (abbreviated to “R.A.W.”, naturally) would be perceived very differently. It has most of the essentials of this sort of genre exercise, after all. There are tremendous environs to explore. There are hordes of enemies to eviscerate in gruesome fashion. There are piles upon piles of loot to be picked up and equipped. There are three classes of protagonist to play as. There is a convoluted story that is very easy to ignore. If game development were a math problem, this would all add up to a 90 on Metacritic.
The problem is the polish. The first thing you notice is the visuals, which fall into the “gritty realism” trap of being incredibly dark and overwhelmingly brown and grey. You can make an argument for that sort of color scheme in a first-person shooter that is trying to put the player into a “realistic” world, but in a game like this that takes place from a distant, somewhat overhead perspective, it means that the brown-and-grey bad guys are constantly blending in with the brown-and-grey environs. This problem is mitigated somewhat for boss characters, which are surrounded by a glowing ring, but even these moments tend to actually compound the problem given that highlighting the boss actually makes the boss’s many minions even harder to see, since the player’s eyes are so focused on that glowing ring of light.
Related to this problem is the utter lack of feedback that comes from defeating these bad guys. The death animations are so subtle and the sounds so disassociated from the visuals and the actions of the player so sluggishly animated, the player constantly ends up hacking for multiple seconds after every enemy in a given horde is dead. This makes the player feel silly. The player doesn’t want to feel silly.
The player does feel silly, though, and for a long time.
Realms of Ancient War is designed to be a long game. In and of itself, this is a trait to be expected of the genre and can’t really count as a strike against it, even if its length does mean that the tedium described above has to last an extra long time. Even so, the way the length comes about is yet another strike against the game. The thing is, it’s also a difficult game, and it’s broken up into stages. You get a certain number of deaths in a given stage. Die too many times, and you have to start over. Try to blow through the game, and the first few stages go pretty easily as long as you take some care. After a while, though, you start getting killed, and then killed some more. Getting through a stage in five or six lives gets awfully difficult.
What does Realms of Ancient War do to mitigate this? It actually encourages the player, via a loading screen tooltip, to replay the previous stages to gain levels that will make it easier to win the later stages. They are encouraging the grind in a way that completely takes the player out of the game.
Even if you can accept that stories in these games are a matter of taste, even if you acknowledge that some people might have an easier time with the mechanics than others, even allowing for the idea that the aesthetics are a matter of taste, it’s hard to see any scenario in which this is a good idea. These stages generally take around half an hour to trudge through. The idea that you might sit down, having not beaten the game yet, and the only thing you might do is replay levels you have already played, well, it’s enough to keep someone from ever wanting to come back to it at all.
Realms of Ancient War feels like a genre exercise. Some of the biggest complaints that can be leveled at the game are the direct result of things it tries to do differently from its contemporaries, so you can at least give its developers credit for trying. Unfortunately, that’s about the only goodwill the game ever manages to pull.