What year is this, again?
We all know the feeling. Your party is an hour deep into a dungeon, low on health, and without a way to escape. Whether or not they are a roguelike, or Dragon Quest, many role playing games have a built-in mechanic that forces you to gamble with hours of your time. Do you attempt to escape to that floor with the healing spot? Do you push forward with the hope that you will find refuge in the next section of the dungeon? Or do you get trapped in an encounter and die?
Dark Gate initially gave me the sense that I was back in an older RPG. In fact at first blush, I thought this was much worse than the typical role playing system. The dungeons can be massively difficult, and I found that my party members were dropping like flies only two battles in. Enemies can easily one-shot your warriors, and you don’t have much in terms of healing mechanisms early on.
It wasn’t until I took advantage of the newer things in Dark Gate, that I saw just why the game was designed in such a manner. Outside of battle, there is always the option to escape out of a dungeon and onto the world map. No questions asked, no penalties, no expensive warp items, and no chance of happening upon additional random battles once you are on the node-based world map. Dark Gate asks you to gamble, but with much smaller increments of time. The intensity of battles increases, and right along with it so does the player friendliness.
I can write a list of how Dark Gate simplifies role playing for the player. Inns don’t charge ridiculous fees, switching between job classes is a breeze, the player can save their game at nearly any point, and the leveling progression drops new abilities in the player’s lap every few battles. Dark Gate does all this, and ramps up the difficulty in battle. Even if you do fail in battle, you haven’t lost much in terms of time.
The battle system in Dark Gate is fast-paced. A largely automated system is something I usually don’t care for, but the player can interject at any time to use tactical abilities, spells, and items to sway the course of the battle. Switching the targeted enemy is simple, and so is selecting characters. This automated system comes closer to making the player feel more like a tactician, only calling out commands when something needs to be done differently. Battles are over quickly, and if you are the kind that wants to grind out extra levels, this is a boon.
In general, I like the interface in Dark Gate. Some of the choices in menus can be confusing at first – I got stuck on trying to assign new job skills to my troops, but it is primarily an easy to use system. Even walking around outside of battle works well. The game uses a tap to use system, and your character’s pathing is spot on.
Pathing likely works because of the old-school simplicity of the graphics. They aren’t bad, and they don’t have that hollow ‘retro charm’ that some titles try to execute. One gets the feeling that whoever designed dungeons and battlefields wasn’t taking any shortcuts. I didn’t care too much for the linear town designs (see also: Zelda II), because while they do simplify things in favor of the player, they diminish from the sense of place. If you like Super Nintendo RPGs, you will enjoy the graphics in Dark Gate.
One thing I don’t care too much for is the character portraits. They remind me of the Ivalice Final Fantasy games in a good way, and they seem like care was put into their creation. However; they don’t seem to be scaled properly, or at the correct resolution for the iPhone’s screen. Character’s faces look great in the small preview in menus, but not as good during conversations.
These conversations are where the game stumbles a bit. Just like every other aspect of the game, one can tell that heart was put into it, but I think the script’s localization tries a bit too hard to be funny. Filled with blatant references, call-backs, and regrettable spelling quirks, the dialogue does not do a good job at pulling me in to Dark Gate’s world. The plot isn’t all that far off from The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, as the player is stomping about the world destroying ‘Dark Gates’ that act as monster portals. While there is an unmistakable level of polish in Dark Gate, the writing and certain graphical elements make it feel a bit more rough around the edges. The quirky characters and story, while decent, weren’t my favorite part of the experience.
No, my favorite part of Dark Gate was its refreshing take on the mechanics of an old genre. There have been several good attempts at reviving the Japanese Role Playing Game over the past few years, and Dark Gate stands out as having some of the most player friendly design. Dark Gate doesn’t hold players’ hands, nor does it hold back in terms of difficulty, but it still manages to feel fair and respectful of the player. In response to my initial question, Dark Gate is unmistakably new.
Fair warning to IAP conscious players: Dark Gate does include in app purchases. The game does not feel balanced to steer the player towards extra purchases, and at no point have I felt that I could not progress without sacrificing my real-world cash or excess time. They essentially seem like paid extra cheats. To which I say, nicely done.
This game won’t blow you away with screaming visuals and a massive development budget, but it will impress you as an earnest attempt at improving the classics.
Dark Gate is available on the App Store for 86% off during the launch window ($0.99), it is an iPhone exclusive title