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Developer: Spiderweb Software
Publisher: Spiderweb Software
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
Similar To: Nethergate
Rating: N/A
Published: 06 :26 : 02
Reviewed By: Nick Stewart

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent


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Minimum Req.: PII, 30MB RAM, 25MB hard drive space, Win95
Reviewed On: P3 667, 384 MB RAM, GeForce 2 MMX, Soundblaster Audigy, Win 98SE


If ever there was a genre immune to the constant push for advanced graphics and the steep prices that come with it, it would have to be the realm of the role-playing game. True, many RPGs, including Ultima 9 and the recent Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, have strived to push the graphical envelope with varying degrees of success, though role-playing at its very heart appeals to one’s imagination, finding its true soul within gameplay rather than visuals. Arguably, this has been the operating motto for Spiderweb Software, a one-man development studio dedicated to producing “old-school”-style RPGs, including the acclaimed Nethergate, as well as the excellent Avernum and Exile series. While fans eagerly await the arrival of the much-anticipated Avernum 3 (out now for Mac, due out late summer for us PC types), Jeff Vogel has put forth Geneforge, an ambitious title that stays true to the tenets of classic role-play gaming.

Gameplay: 8.5/10
At Geneforge’s outset, you are not a stalwart adventurer or a battle-scarred mage; rather, you are but a lowly apprentice to a secretive and highly respected group of magic users known as the Shapers. Capable of creating life in the form of creatures and servants through magic alone, the Shapers do not share their knowledge freely; in fact, attempting to use their art without permission is almost an iron-clad guarantee of finding yourself quite dead. Even as an apprentice, you’re obliged to spend a number of years helping and observing your elders on a secluded Shaper island; however, you never quite make it to this island, as your creature-ship is attacked and destroyed mid-voyage, stranding you on an island marked as Barred by the Shapers. Though setting foot on a Barred island would in itself be reason for you to be killed, you’re not left with much of a choice as you search the abandoned land for a way out.

You soon learn however that the island, known as Sucia Island, is far from empty, and that the sentient, intelligent creations known as “serviles” left behind by their creators have formed into camps, living amidst the hastily abandoned and dessicated centuries-old ruins of the Shaper way of life. The discovery and exploration of their philosophies and how they relate to you is part of the fun; in fact, a large portion of Geneforge’s appeal is the constant search for clues as to what happened that caused the Shapers to abandon the island, and the observation of how their creations adapted to their new master-less surroundings, unsafe and unprotected from the untamed wilds. Of course, your exploration does not go unnoticed, as one inhabitant of the island is intent on using the powers of the island’s mysterious Geneforge to wreak terrible havoc upon the world. True to the Spiderweb Software style, Geneforge’s story is rich, fully-fleshed and believable, packed with countless NPCs that each feature their own personalities, lives and agendas. In many ways, traversing the lands feels as though you’re picking through the pages of a good fantasy novel.

The experience you’ll face within Geneforge depends largely on the type of character you select at the game’s outset. Though there are only three character classes, there is a great deal of variety between them. For starters, there’s the physically weak Shaper, whose specialty lies within the creation of various beings to do their bidding and to protect them in combat – and while all outsiders know those within your sect as Shapers, there are further distinctions. For instance, there’s the second character class, the Guardian, who traditionally viewed the burly defender of the Shaper sect; as a result, combat skills are easier and cheaper to increase, though at the cost of lessened magical power. Finally, there’s the stealthy Agent, who relies upon the shadowy arts, diplomacy, and spells instead of creatures to mete out the will of the Shapers. As each one of these three characters is distinctly different in their strengths and weaknesses, each plays completely differently, and may choose to approach a given situation in different ways. For instance, faced with a fortified entrance to a particular area, a Guardian would probably opt to run in sword swinging, while a Shaper might create a horde of creatures to help take out the guards, and an Agent could choose to slink down a hidden back alley, disarming whatever deadly traps he found along the way. Whereas countless other RPGs are happy to let thieves muddle through problems designed for fighters or mages and vice-versa, Geneforge is explicitly designed to accommodate various characters and play styles. Some areas are even downright inaccessible to the wrong class, combining with the situational versatility to send the replayability sky-high.

Although freedom of choice has been an element of previous Spiderweb titles, it has never been so obvious or as clearly integral as it is within Geneforge. As you meet the various factions that dominate the island, you’re capable of expressing your opinions about their beliefs. The more people you talk to, the more your views are known among the inhabitants, and you will find yourself treated accordingly. For instance, encouraging serviles to live as free and equal beings might do you well in certain circumstances, but it won’t earn you any brownie points among those who have spent centuries living in accordance to the old Shaper ways of obedience and prostration, who will in turn respect you less and cause their merchants to boost their prices when dealing with you. It’s a nice system that forces you to pick a personality and role-play it as best you can, a choice that can further be cemented by even going so far as to choose alliances, which offers its own set of advantages and disadvantages. What’s even more impressive is that you can even opt to side with the “bad guy”, effectively becoming a villain yourself. Badmouth the serviles for seeking freedom, openly steal their belongings, kill their livestock, and even after all of this, you’ll still find some who are willing to support you; the life of a villain is very much possible within Geneforge.

Another, more striking aspect of how Geneforge differs from its predecessors is in how your exploration takes place. In the Avernum series, you’re given the freedom to explore the lands as you see fit, traveling extensively on foot. However, within Geneforge, the free-roaming terrain has been replaced and broken down into specific segmented areas, presented to you on a lavish island map. If you manage to “complete” an area in any number of ways, either by completing a particular objective or defeating a certain number of monsters, you may then automatically skip through that area via the island map, completely cutting down on the time required for travel, and allowing you to focus on the story. Although this largely removes the illusion of having completely free reign of an open territory, it works wonderfully and definitely helps to cull the tedium of constant travel.

In the usual Spiderweb style, combat is turn-based, with each individual possessing a set number of action points that decrease with every movement and action. At first, it seems as though little has changed in this department since Avernum 2, though spending some time within the throes of combat will quickly dispel this notion. For starters, there’s the fact that enemies now possess a more solid AI in that they will flee and cry for help, march about in patrols, and are more inclined to attack in groups. Monsters and other baddies now seem to have a much better sense of who and what poses immediate threats to their safety, and are more prepared to deal with those threats. There’s even an option to set your party in one of a handful of formations, which can help to keep your weak Shaper at the rear of the group, or your stout Guardian at the front. Though these differences might sound somewhat minor, they renovate the face of combat and make the game’s many battles much more fresh, interesting, and fun.

Central to Geneforge’s appeal is the aforementioned ability to create your own minions, an extremely well thought-out and balanced affair. Apart from health and spell energy, you also have a certain amount of “essence”, which dictates exactly how much of yourself you’re allowed to invest in your creations – an important factor, since you’ll often find yourself wanting to increase your creatures’ statistics, especially if they follow you for long periods of time. As a result, you’re often forced to choose how you want to spend this essence: do you scale back and make a couple of weak creatures so that you have enough essence left to heal your party, or do you invest the bulk of your essence to make a hardier, stronger minion? It’s a terrifically well-designed system, especially when you consider that your creatures follow you wherever you go, even gaining experience, levels, and skill points as they participate in your adventures with you. Losing a creature that has followed you since the early game can be a truly sad event, which is a testament to this aspect of Geneforge’s ingenious design.

Graphics: 8/10
Though pixel-shaded waves and bump-mapped hills are certainly stunning to look at, sometimes it’s refreshing to sit down and enjoy the relatively simple classics of old, a look that Geneforge does well to emulate. Simplistic without being plain, lavish without being overdone, Geneforge’s graphics are easily the most colorful and attractive in the Spiderweb repertoire, and constantly hearken back to the brightest points of the genre’s early days. Not everyone will appreciate this return to a simpler visual time, but those who do will likely find themselves charmed by its nice, charismatic touches. Colors are bright, characters and creatures are nicely detailed, and the animation is fluid; all in all, it’s a visual ensemble that very effectively manages to convey a sense of wonder and beauty without sacrificing its old-school appeal.

Sound: 6.5/10
As with graphics, sound has never been a crucial part of Spiderweb’s excellent games, and for the most part, Geneforge is no exception. While there is a fairly decent variety of effects and noises scattered throughout, there are few reasons to keep the sound on during your exploration. Background noises have been infused into the game, leaving you with the background bustle of a busy city as you haggle with a merchant, or the distant cries of skulking monsters while you wander through a forest. These add somewhat to the experience, though the considerable amount of hissing and popping can grate on one’s nerves after a time.

Control: 8.5/10
Among many other things, Geneforge represents Spiderweb’s continuing dedication to evolve and perfect its products with every release, and in no other aspect is this more obvious than within the realm of control. Whereas previous titles relied almost exclusively upon the keyboard, one could practically explore all of Sucia Island using nothing but the mouse. Movement, spells and creature-making require nothing more than a simple button-click, which is distinctly more intuitive and straightforward. Similarly, NPCs and static objects need only to be clicked to be spoken to, opened, or read. You also may now scroll the screen outside of your character’s range, something for which the new clickable mini-map is extremely useful. There are even a handful of hotkeys to speed things up if you so desire, though it’s a shame that certain items were left out: it can be a real pain to be forced to repeat the process of clicking on your living tools (Geneforge’s lockpick) and then on the locked object fifteen to thirty times when your character has a terrible Mechanics skill. Nevertheless, it’s a minor complaint, especially in light of the fact that the control scheme is otherwise quite sophisticated and streamlined, rendering the exploration of Sucia Island a joy rather than an annoyance.

Overall: 8.5/10
Spiderweb Software has a habit of besting itself with every release, a habit that very much lives on through Geneforge. Its successful blend of classic visuals and rich gameplay is every bit as addictive as the engrossing storyline that accompanies it, and the drastic improvements to its interface only help to broaden its appeal. The unique twists and ideas littered throughout help to solidify its status as an eminently replayable game, making its minor missteps almost imperceptible. With atmospheric, deep-seated old-school appeal and a deep, multifaceted storyline that one could expect to find within the pages of a fantasy novel, Geneforge is a terrific example of how classic RPG fans can have their cake and eat it too.

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