By: George Weidman
Going from making free Flash games to expensive Flash games is beginning to look like today’s de-facto indie game-making career path. The Newgrounds-to-Steam success stories of developers like Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy) and Terry Cavanagh (VVVVVV) have paved the way for more conventional affairs like the Telepath RPG series. Servants of God is the third installment of the Telepath series and will be its first commercially sold product after a run of sponsored free games. Sinister Design (Telepath’s studio) is more-or-less a euphemism for Craig Stern, the one-man design team who managed to earn enough success making free Flash games to develop the kind of fanbase that other Flash developers crave.
Stern has been creating these games on top of a busy schedule of law school and full time employment, and under these conditions one would expect the quality of his product to suffer. Surprise: it doesn’t. Servants of God is a tightly-knit and rich RPG experience that is unfortunately burdened with a crippling visual design that may, combined with the less artsy and more conventional approach, keep it from blowing up into another darling success story.
But don’t get wrong—based on a generously lengthy demo (available here) Telepath is actually shaping up to be kind of good. At heart, it’s a turn-based tactical RPG that feels like what a game of chess would be like if each piece had a big character sheet of RPG stats to take into consideration. Stern must have played a lot of Shining Force and Final Fantasy Tactics as a kid, as he knows how to exploit the mechanics of this kind of combat to demand strategic and thoughtful thinking from the player. It’s brutally difficult, but remains compelling. Thinking ahead and carefully managing character positions is crucial. Plus, your handful of role-playing character units can die permanently, which drastically ramps up the tension and reminds me of the most tragic player-generated moments from Fire Emblem.
In between these bouts of white-knuckle board gaming, you wander through a unique medieval Persian setting rife with political unrest and clearly-defined bad guys. Writing is detailed and flavorful (but by God it’s long-winded). The story itself is one big tight-knit metaphor that stays nice and focused. Atmosphere is helped out by Stern’s keen music-making abilities that sharply convey a sense of place. The quieter tracks heard in empty rooms relish in slow-paced plucking and low-key wind instruments. On the other hand, busy city streets and battles are augmented with background tracks of fast-paced drumming and sinister string chords.
Unfortunately, all this atmospheric effort is greatly hampered by Stern’s wobbly graphical talents. Visuals are the Achilles’ heel of Telepath, and the one major area where its one-man staff hurt the game the most. The literal top-down perspective looks down at the action from a perfect 90-degree angle, and reduces characters to bobbing shoulders. There’s no visual depth, and even if Stern has some great artistic vision of what this world looks like, nothing can really look interesting from this angle: everything simply looks like a flat texture. I’m not entirely familiar with the limitations he had to work with, but there’s got to be a better solution than this (suggestion to Stern: next time, maybe just try some good old fashion pixel art). On top of that, some incomplete rooms feature clearly-defined doors and hallways that lead nowhere. Other completed rooms feature invisible portals that are supposed to be visually obvious. It’s a shamefully amateur attempt compared to the more lovingly detailed combat, music, and storytelling. Let’s hope these visual oddities are patched out in the final game.
Though Servants of God is a one-man project with an unappealing visual scheme, it’s worth a look if only for the fact that we don’t see many entries into the “Arabian-themed tactical JRPG” genre on the PC. Its set to release February 14th on the official website with the current pre-order price set to $25 (which honestly seems a bit high for this sort of game). One last word: I don’t know if it was just me, but the “normal” difficulty was suspiciously hard. New players might want to suck up their pride and try it out on “easy.”
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