Let's start with a quick survey: anyone here who enjoys a good role-playing game, please raise your hand.
I'm expecting quite a few here. After all, many of the key themes that appeal to the average adventure gamer – story, characterisation, puzzles and epic quests – can also be found in Knights of the Old Republic or Neverwinter Nights. In fact, there are a lot of people who play RPGs largely for the adventuring aspects, and at first glance it is to these gamers that Daemonica, the début game of Czech developer RA Images, appears to be aimed. However, despite its presentation and a small degree of simple combat, this game sticks closely to the tried-and-tested adventure template, to varying degrees of success.
For those who have never heard of Daemonica before, let's take a step back. Set in medieval England, in the aftermath of the Black Death, the player takes on the role of a certain Nicholas Farepoynt, a wandering problem-solver with the mysterious ability to talk to the dead. Summoned to the small town of Cavorn by its mayor in the wake of a murder, Farepoynt is charged with proving that the correct man was hanged for the crime. Unsurprisingly, things aren't quite that simple.
The story really is one of Daemonica's strong points. As the game progresses, Farepoynt is caught up in the lives (and deaths) of the citizens of Cavorn, and the game manages to explore some interesting religious and occult themes. It's an intriguing yarn with a dark, intense atmosphere, and one that is easy to get drawn into.
Unfortunately, the same quality isn't always present in the writing itself, which ranges between the really-quite-reasonable and the ever-so-slightly-iffy. While the writers and translators have done the job of capturing 14th century English town life pretty well, some phrases seem a little out of place (such as an early reference to a character telling "porkies"). To compound matters, one of the major themes in the story, a romance with one of Cavorn's citizens introduced during the second half, is told so ham-fistedly that I felt precisely none of the immersion in this particular sub-plot that I was so obviously meant to feel. Other than this, though, the main character's monologues are well written, and succeed admirably in their job of pushing the story forward without the use of cutscenes.
Yes, you read that right. However, in the absence of cutscenes, the minimalist, low budget alternative of employing narration with a screen full of text and a posed close-up of the main character actually works quite well, and I rarely found it disappointing that the events described weren't shown. What did annoy, however, was the way in which the voiceovers for these monologues, which make up almost all of the recorded speech in the game, rarely match up entirely with the text on screen. While the differences are never huge – just the odd word here and there – the regularity with which this occurs is noteworthy, if a minor issue overall.
Dialogue between characters, meanwhile, is unvoiced, and takes place in a text window that pops up over the main game view. This serves its purpose, but doesn't really help to connect the player with the characters due to the camera setup chosen for the game. Viewed from an isometric overhead perspective, in a manner similar to many RPGs, the system affords a reasonable view of Farepoynt's surroundings, but it also has the effect of distancing the player from what is going on in the game. With no in-conversation animation, and with the characters never seen close up, the player is always left feeling slightly detached rather than a part of the action. This is a minor quibble, though, and the rest of the 3D presentation does much to belie the game's evident budget limitations. There's a reasonably large amount of ambient animation, with rain lashing down, trees swaying in the breeze and animals scurrying under foot. The music, too, is of a high quality, helping to create a sense of tension without ever being too intrusive.
The interface employed by Daemonica will offer little in the way of surprises for those experienced with RPGs, but may be new to some adventure-only gamers. With a click of the mouse being all that is required to move Farepoynt around, pick up objects or start conversations, interaction itself is a reasonably intuitive experience. Slightly less easy is the player-controlled camera movement. Constantly rotating the camera around the main character requires use of the keyboard, as does as zooming in and out, and while relatively straightforward, this system is a little clumsy. Smooth rotation is difficult and the control setup, which cannot be redefined, maps left and right rotation in a way that many may find counter-intuitive. While it didn't take long to get the hang of the default configuration, there are better camera control options in other games that would have made life considerably simpler here.
The puzzles in Daemonica are standard adventure fare for the most part: go to A, talk to B, combine objects X with Y or create potion Z. Okay, then, perhaps they're not quite the standard adventure fare. Much of the puzzling involves working out where to go and who to talk to in order to get the information required to successfully question someone else, and this works pretty well. There are also a handful of inventory object puzzles and a couple of riddles that you'll either find fairly easy or insanely obtuse. Potion making, however, is the novel activity here, as it's a rarely used device in adventures. It is also one that is central to Daemonica's plot, as it is through the creation of "Soulgreep" potions that Farepoynt is able to travel to the Temple of Sacrifices in order to question the souls of the dead. The actual potion creation process couldn't be simpler, as it's simply a case of following the recipes provided, but tracking down the required herbs is marginally more problematic, and may serve to frustrate a number of players.
The herbs themselves are found in and around the town area, and reappear at the beginning of each act. Some of them, though, are very well hidden, and it is perfectly possible to spend long periods of time running around the game world looking for that final herb. Also, because the herbs only reappear with each new act, those who use too many on healing potions may find themselves unable to brew the solution to a puzzle. It is thus extremely important to save fairly frequently; something that becomes even more necessary when Farepoynt is ready to travel to the Temple of Sacrifices. Here Farepoynt is required to make a selection of sacrifices, and if a mistake is made then it's game over. Without the ability to consult your in-game diary notes or to save while in this location, the potential for serious frustration is evident. These problems are avoidable with a small amount of careful planning, but those who choose to make use of only one or two save game slots may find themselves in trouble.
The most aggravating part of the game's puzzles is the lack of any real prompting to the player, particularly at the beginning of each act. It often felt to me like the character that Farepoynt needed to speak to in order to advance the plot was entirely irrelevant at that point in the game, and without any hint that they could be important, it's not uncommon to find yourself wandering about speaking to everyone in the hopes of stumbling across the required dialogue option. The inventory system works well for the most part, but also includes a strange design choice: there is an item limit that doesn't seem to have been imposed for any good reason, as the opportunity to carry too many items only comes late in the game, and even then never goes far over the limit. This is less a problem than it is a curiosity as to why the limit was even included, as it serves mainly to prevent the player from carrying around too many healing potions, which may actually have been a benefit.
Sword fighting is not a very common feature in adventure games, and its presence here is probably what leads to many of the RPG comparisons made in relation to Daemonica. Those for whom action sequences typically prove too complicated or fast paced, however, need not worry. Controlled by the grand total of three buttons (one or two mouse buttons and the space bar), all the fights simply require continued blocking with the odd attack thrown in, and shouldn't pose any problems. The Options menu allows a toggle between two levels of fighting difficulty, but this didn't actually appear to make much of a difference once the standard tactic of holding the space bar and occasionally clicking a mouse button was employed. In fact, the fighting serves more to pad out the game and add occasional moments of tension rather than provide an elaborate dexterity challenge. For adventure gamers who don't like action sequences in their games, this will come as welcome news, though it may end up disappointing those hoping for a closer blend of adventure and RPG. The actual amount of mandatory fighting in Daemonica is limited; it is perfectly possible to complete the game without engaging in combat more than six or seven times, though a couple of optional fights are also available for those with a particular desire to raise the body count.
With all of this said, Daemonica becomes something of a difficult game to judge. It had a lot of potential to be a refreshingly unique adventure with real gameplay variety. In the attempt, it does a number of things well, but then other aspects of the game let it down. The story is well written, but the writing occasionally dubious. The presentation is respectable, but never hugely impressive. Some of the puzzles are cleverly designed, while others will prove frustrating at times. The combat breaks up the gameplay nicely without ever truly justifying its existence. And this is the dilemma. Daemonica sets out to do something bold – to create a blend of adventure and RPG – without ever really doing full justice to either, or to the combination.
To dismiss this game outright would be wrong, and to overlook it would be worse, because it has a lot of things going for it, including multiple endings, optional side quests, and some replay value after the initial 10-12 hour play through. However, there are a lot of little things, and a couple of larger ones, that may prove irksome. Like Farepoynt himself, then, Daemonica is an unsettled game, forging a path between two worlds but stumbling somewhat along the way. It certainly deserves credit, however, for trying something a little different, and that may be enough to justify the attention of those who are tired of the same old thing.
A reasonably enjoyable game that aims to appeal to adventure and RPG fans, but one which never fully capitalises on its potential.