Atlus wants you to know how old school The Dark Spire is.
It’s nice to see the genres that we love evolve over time. The dungeon crawl (or dungeon delve or whatever term you prefer to append to the activity), as made famous by Might and Magic, Wizardry, and other series, may have included some story and plot elements, but their main purpose was, as their moniker suggests, to provide a dungeon or labyrinth for players to pick their way through. We may have modern day equivalents that owe much to this kind of game, but it is tough to find games that are based on knowing those classics inside and out and strive to be like them.
Luckily for old school dungeon crawlers, Atlus has your back. With Etrian Odyssey and Etrian Odyssey 2, they proved that they could build fun, nostalgic dungeon exploration games that still explored interesting, new ground. I was excited when I heard about The Dark Spire, as brought to us by Atlus, and it promised to be a beautiful recreation of those older games. Mostly set in the titular Dark Spire, it tasks your party of four adventurers with killing an evil sorcerer and getting to the bottom of a dark plot.
This is as faithful as old school dungeon crawling RPGs get without you firing up your old games. It’s packaged prettily and presented on the Nintendo DS, but it also includes a mode where the environment is depicted as wire frame corridors against a black background. Atlus wants you to know how old school it is. The Dark Spire knows exactly what it's about and what we expect from it, and it delivers the goods, both tonally and visually, from its first moments.
The menus and “painted” backdrops are all evocative of an earlier age of gaming, as are the optional “verbose” text blurbs. At any time in the game, you can press the X button and the game will describe the environment that you see before you. Anyone who played old RPGs will recognize this holdover, the need to describe the character’s surrounding in detail, due to the weaknesses of old game engines. Of course, for some gamers, these peculiar, lengthy descriptions will call up even older and (hopefully) fonder memories of table top gaming, of dungeon masters describing decrepit tombs and aging crypts.
Regardless of your level of experience with different RPGs, the game is simple enough to get into. Creating your four character party is quick and easy, each character allowing for “rolls” to determine their stats. This is also where players will begin to get their first inklings of The Dark Spire’s issues, which revolve around usability and intuitiveness. This introduction sets the tone for the rest of the game, a mix of beautiful art and lovingly designed environments marred by inexplicably designed menus and control schemes.
When creating characters, the game randomizes each attribute “roll,” meaning you can still roll a fighter with relatively bad strength (it’s just harder to do). This is great and really enhances the feeling that there’s a “roll” element in role playing games that exists right next to the idea of playing a “role.” However, when you reach the end of the character creation process -- if you’ve rolled a bad character -- you’ll want to start over. However, you can’t re-roll attributes within the character editor once you’ve created a character, necessitating either a restart of the DS (tedious) or rolling a wholly new party with new characters (more tedious). Sure, it’s not game breaking, but it’s worth noting that before you’ve killed your first rat, bat, or orc, you’ve already been struck by both the game’s beauty and its bad design.
As you receive your main task from the guild master (find and bring to justice an evil magician who stole a valuable piece of jewelry from the royal family), you’re introduced to the game’s two principle locations, the outside and inside of the Dark Spire.
Outside, there’s the town (with shops and inns) and two temples, one dark and one light. These temples provide healing, resurrection, and other typical RPG necessities. They also provide an excuse for a barely used morality interface (chaotic or lawful), which can affect gameplay.
As the game’s title suggests, what you’re here for is the Spire, and the adventures that wait within. Again, from a visual and historically minded standpoint, The Dark Spire delivers on all fronts. The Spire is littered with enemies, traps, secret doors, unexpected respites and allies, tough bosses, and swift death. This is not a game that rewards ignorance, nor does it hold your hand throughout the experience. If you created a party that doesn’t have a good thief, then you’ll miss out on a lot of good items and secret areas. The same could be said for fighters, priests, and wizards. Leave one of them out, and your party will suffer.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the game’s difficulty and uncompromising design that will lead to your death, again and again. Instead, you’ll have to combat the game’s interface as well. The game switches between the players need to use the D-pad to navigate menus and using the right and left bumpers depending on what menu the player is navigating. It’s easy to tell the difference between the two, but the game often puts one menu in front of another. Thus, to cast a spell, you’ll choose a hero using the bumpers then cast the spell using the face buttons. This kind of button-switching goes on in almost every single menu. Sure, eventually you will get used to tentatively edging your way through the interface, but every time that you use the wrong potion on the wrong ally or attack the wrong enemy with the wrong spell, you’ll curse the game.
Not so suddenly, the game’s encounters and exploration become a trap for your fingers and brain. Encountering powerful undead and cutthroat wizards ceases to be exciting (despite the excellent artwork used to present each enemy). It’s annoying to second-guess your actions almost every turn, knowing that you could easily lose a battle due to no fault of your own.
It’s really unfortunate that this is how my experience turned out because the game is really a beautiful thing to experience, especially for an old hand at RPGs like me. The details in every floor of the Spire are thick on the ground with different enemies, different artwork, and of course, harder and harder enemies as you delve deeper into the Spire’s dangers.
The Dark Spire might seem simplistic when compared to Etrian Odyssey and the mapping antics introduced in that series. If you’re looking for a lengthy, nostalgic take on old dungeon crawlers, or are new to the entire concept and genre, this game will be exactly what you’re looking for. Take note, however, that the price of admission is high, especially the extent to which players must put up with a nearly broken menu system. It almost feels like it should come with the territory, but as Atlus has already proved, it shouldn’t have to. Unless you’re in the mood for some punishment, you’d be better off trying the superior Etrian Odyssey series, but The Dark Spire still has a few charms of its own.