Realms of Ancient War (Xbox360)

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Whether you prefer to call it dungeon crawling, hack-and-slashing, or simply an action-RPG, the quintessential fantasy arcade genre has been around for years. When I was a kid growing up in the arcade alleys these games held much of the gaming headlines with masterful gems like Gauntlet and Golden Axe.

What made these sorts of games even more appealing than just the obvious murderous-rampage-to-exterminate-all-things-evil-and-then-still-get-to-loot-chests-along-the¬-way gameplay was the inclusion of co-op support with a choice of character classes.

RAW Screenshot 2

Unlike other genres where the co-op partner was invariably just a clone of the main character, most dungeon crawlers provide players with a choice of characters each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Character decisions would actually have an impact on the way the game was experienced and afforded each player a sense of contributing something unique to the co-op game.

This sense of importance within a team was coupled successfully with character progression, compelling storylines and challenging quests all of which helped to make these games become so popular amongst gamers all those years ago.

Your fantasy comes true – now you can hear me RAW with delight!

Realms of Ancient War (RAW) is an Xbox LIVE Arcade (XBLA) fantasy hack-and-slash dungeon crawler action-RPG for fans of fantasy arcade gaming in its purest form and it promises to deliver an experience akin to the golden days of the likes of Gauntlet and Golden Axe. RAW offers players the choice of three characters – the grizzled warrior, the shadowy rogue, or the cunning wizard. Gameplay basics follow the standard recipe of games of this type: roam, kill, gain XP, level up, boost skills, and all the while looting everything in sight.

RAW Screenshot 4

The plot in RAW is as familiar as any fantasy story you can recall. RAW tells the tale of the realms of dwarves, elves and men which, long ago, were at war (hence the highly apt title, Realms of Ancient War). Following a secret meeting of the realms’ kings, a truce was established moments before the kings were attacked by a powerful and evil force. The kings managed to defeat the evil but the gruelling battle left one king missing and the others catatonic and broken. The ancient realms were at peace but without any meaningful leadership to govern them.

The player enters the story several years after the events of the kings’ battle when the tentative truce between the realms has eroded and you accidentally stumble upon the remains of the lost king and learn the truth of what happened at that secret meeting those many years ago…

Level one – going up!

Most appropriately, players start their story at the beginning of their characters’ journey; level one and not much to write home about, spending the first few levels mashing one of two buttons to pummel clusters of giant spiders and defeat the occasional bandit. Understandably, there’s a limited variety of monsters to throw at a ‘n00b’ adventurer and very little variation in what said ‘n00b’ adventurer can actually do which makes for a slow start.

RAW Screenshot 1

This slow start is actually one of the aspects that appeals to me in RPG’s, though – it is a great sentiment of accomplishment to watch your character grow out of his diapers and become the legendary dragon slayer you always knew he’d become. After progressing through the first few levels you can’t wait to eventually unleash the Two-Handed Backhand of Smackdown on bigger enemies and that’s the appeal: Getting payback on those nasty monsters that used to bully you!

What a disappointment then that in RAW your character starts off on level one already pretty buff. I was practically heartbroken to find my warrior – at level one – could already dual wield weapons and had two magical attacks. The romantic journey of badass discovery that makes RPG’s so much fun had been stolen from me! The worst was even yet to come – the skills available on level up were quite flat and mostly just an upgrade of existing powers such as improved damage, more effective magical abilities, or faster regeneration – nothing fancy and certainly no skills tree to unlock.

Realms of Ancient War Screenshot 4

The excitement of unleashing newfound powers was muted by starting off with pretty much the whole arsenal available, albeit in a weaker potency. Some new abilities unlock at level 10 and 20 but the descriptions are vague and unhelpful as to what they do – for example, instead of saying ‘+20% damage’ and ‘+30% damage,’ the abilities say ‘more damage’ and ‘even more damage,’ which is not much help to anyone.

Chest pounding gets your heart racing

The only major allure in RAW from a character development perspective is the equipment you can loot, but even here you could discover three blandly labelled ‘blue speckled cleavers’ which are absolutely nothing alike with each having different statistics. Finding the best items becomes a stop-start affair of kill, loot, inventory, compare, equip, drop, proceed, each time you find an item just to be sure the fifth blue speckled cleaver you’ve just looted isn’t better than the blue speckled cleaver you picked up five levels ago.

Realms of Ancient War Screenshot 2

Maybe it’s just me but when I kill a giant spider I also don’t expect to find Gold-encrusted plate mail on its body, nor would I expect a cave bat to drop fifteen gold pieces, even if it had just been at an all-you-can-eat buffet at an AngloGold Ashanti convention. This ludicrous loot just leaves a bad angle on my suspended disbelief but again, maybe it’s just me being a perfectionist with my RPG’s.

A tall tale indeed…

The story progresses fairly quickly and there is a reasonable variety in level design as players travel across the various realms, but one nuisance with the graphics is the monotone palette which makes almost everything blend together into a brown blur and it becomes difficult even to make out where your character is on the screen. The added problem with the graphics is how restricted players’ movements are despite a variety of ladders, steps, ramps and other background terrain displayed all over the place – these background items are non-interactive aesthetics and just exacerbate the confusion on screen when you can’t differentiate a valid path from scenery.

The combat is dreadfully mind-numbing in its repetitive button pressing – there are no combo moves to speak of and no way to dodge or defend from enemy attacks. Worse yet is how foes often get confused or stuck behind imaginary obstacles. Even more depressing than a non-threatening stuck foe is a cloned non-threatening stuck foe and RAW offers up the same enemies screen after screen.

Realms of Ancient War Screenshot 1

Giant spiders don’t seem to ever stop their relentless appetite for the player (in other words, get used to them!) and the entire Dwarven kingdom is prepared to down tools and side with the spiders, skeletons and demons invading their realm to dispatch the player because, after all, the dwarves are at war with the humans! The unlikely alliance of enemies just adds to the implausibility of the situation and it’s hard to get past the obvious flaws in logic, including looting giant spiders that carry magic potions.

If you’re going to suffer, why suffer alone?

One silver lining to all of the frustration is the co-op mode. Thankfully, the co-op mode breathes some life into the game and makes things a lot more bearable because you have an ally to empathise with. The challenge with the drop-in co-op is that it appears to be ‘drop-in, not-out,’ with no obvious way for a player to quit the game once they’ve dropped in. It’s also a wonder why the co-op is local only and further, why there is no support for three players since there are three characters (it would just make sense).

A particularly strong reason to play RAW in co-op is the advantage co-op players receive; in solo, a player’s checkpoint restarts are limited to the number of soulstones they have and once these are used up the game is over. In co-op, players need only keep themselves alive for five seconds before their co-op partner revives, without using a soulstone.

RAW Screenshot 3

The glaring disparity in difficulty between solo and co-op, along with the lack of online multiplayer support, makes RAW difficult to appreciate. The game has its moments but they are interspersed with a lot of monotony and things that don’t make sense. Around almost every corner something happens to remind you of RAW’s lost potential, whether it’s the stuck monsters, lack of a skills tree, or the thousandth giant spider you’ve just killed. The multiplayer is fun if you’re open to mindless button mashing and looting with very little emphasis on team-work, but in no circumstances should a multiplayer option present an unfair advantage over the singleplayer experience.

RAW tries to emulate the golden age games of yesteryear but sadly doesn’t meet the same standard. It’s a game of many missed opportunities (why start off with the basic powers already available?) and although it can be fun at times it is also a disappointing experience because it had so much more potential.

Good: It’s an action-RPG with co-op

Bad: Giant spiders everywhere; Monotonous and non-sensible quests; No meaningful character progression.