Aarklash: Legacy is a new title by Cyanide Studios, made to slip right into the genre with Diablo or old schoolers like Baldur's Gate II, full of lots of brawling in fantasy worlds. And it's got a lot going for it - there's a ton of good art design, and the combat is terrific. But it lacks a certain something sorely, and I'm here to tell you what.
There's a certain thought process when you design a game as to what the scope is of what you're making. Not every story told or game played is necessarily a story that grabs your attention – it's better if a game that's just a big killfest and it primarily focuses on just having engaging combat above all else. This is what most of the NES had under its belt, for instance. Sometimes, to say it simply, you just want a flick like Shoot Em Up or Commando.
Aarklash is a new title by Cyanide games for Steam, and I'm just going to say it – it's pretty much made to be slotted right in the space between Diablo and Baldur's Gate. You have a party of four characters with unique abilities and talents, each of whom fits into the Fighter/Mage/Rogue/Cleric archetypes, and you go through encounter after encounter, collecting randomly generated loot in varied environments, picking up new party members and swapping them around.
Now when picking up a game like this, you first thought is that there's going to be a story focus, that is after all what the genre is based on. But it has a different idea – the story is there, but it's barely worth a mention. It deals with a handful of hired thugs for a legalized ring known as the Wheel Swords, and after a mission four comrades are branded as traitors, their guild dispersed and executed, and they must get to the bottom of the conspiracy through an army of imperial knights, blah blah blah.
No, the story is little more than set dressing, so we're here for a combat game, complete with constant pausing and generated loot. Now grab your head and keep all that brain matter inside because I'm about to blow your mind – Aarklash's combat is some of the best I've seen in the genre.
You know how bad games are, where they create a game that's easy only because the UI and AI and everything horrendously coded and executed piles together to make an insurmountable pillar of annoyances, and without the simple difficulty you'd ragequit in a moment? Aarklash is the opposite of that – the game is legitimately challenging, to the point of me actually dying repeatedly on some fights because of just how much sheer crap was going on at once.
Buffs, debuffs, healing, taunting, crowd control effects, there's a billion things going on that you have to juggle on a rapid pace, because every character has specializations as to what they can do. And because of how efficient the game is to play – even restructuring party formation to keep the tanks in front if you let it – nothing gets in the way of your tactics. But what's really great about Aarklash is how each character has quirks and benefits that befit them.
For instance, yes, the cleric is a strong healer, but her primary way of doing this is by a skillshot nuke, something that can hit enemies as well as allies, and one of her powers is a healing time bomb that can only target enemies. She also can't gain mana passively and has to steal other's life to do so. Similarly, yes the rogue is a glass-cannon blender of damage, but he also has an anti-magic effect he can hit people with, something the mage usually has. And the mage is a high damage nuker, but also has a healing power, something mages usually lack. And that's just the starting party! I'm not even talking about the dwarven demolitionist.
This alone makes it interesting, but what's really great is that each encounter, each combat, is finely constructed so it's actually legitimately challenging. My tank's health rose and dropped like a stone on a trampoline, and if I didn't catch an effect an enemy had and nullify it with my rogue, it'd waste precious seconds I needed to finish a fight before he turned my team into paste. And since mana costs are steep you look at each of the four options on every character's toolbar in a panic as to which is the best option to use at the moment. And this is just in regular fights, not even bosses!
The combat lets you regenerate everything back to full between fights, and there's no limit to this, so if you save between every fight it makes all the fights equally challenging, which benefits the game as a whole. It makes every fight matter, which is nice because the fights then are never trivial, and you don't have to fight the low level goblins just to get through an area because it'd be too hard otherwise. It's all structured and planned, which I honestly did not expect.
I'm not so sold on the randomized loot mechanics, though. The combat is pretty intense and even with the frequent pausing it gets pretty frantic as you try to keep an eye on everything each character does, which benefits well to such a difficult game. It reminds me of Bioshock in that way, where you need every edge you can get to climb above. But with randomized loot, it feels...well, totally random, and therefore irrelevant, which is at odds with the rest of the game's combat.
The talents gained through levels allow you to pump up specific spells, and it fits much better to this mechanic as it gives you decisions to make on level up – a better healing spell, or a better mana restoration? Better nuke, or better escape? I'd have liked to see more specific armor and trinkets so I don't feel like I'm just cycling through newest items from any given zone. Binding of Isaac benefited from planned items, and it's a shame Aarklash doesn't carry such creativity.
Giving credit, the art style has a lot of good ideas, such as the races being crazy mashups of other fantasy archetypes. My favorite is the lead tank, Knokka, being this weird mesh of a human waist up and a kangaroo waist down. She looks tough and unnatural, and I give massive credit to the creators for not only making the character so alien, but also a woman and a front-line fighter. It's pretty cool.
Having said thus, the game seems to try to have its cheesecake and eat it too, with having the healer look like a fusion of a bipedal leapoard, the orcs from World of Warcraft, and Jack from Mass Effect, boob-harness and all. The effect is kind of weird, since the character in question has a snout and giant canine fangs. All of this creates a huge dissonance when her character is supposedly some sort of savage killer, which is just bizzare. And I have to mention with all these crazy characters, the mage couldn't be more of a generic, attractive red-garbed mage with thigh-high boots, which makes her pale next to your goblin rogue with a rat-housed top hat.
Though I like the game a bit, the lone pair of stars I hang on it for being a highly polished combat engine and well-balanced difficulty only get it so far – with these combats feeling so good, it'd be great to have a bit of contrast or something to give the game a bit of variety, but that's not the case. There's no inventory management beyond trinkets, which has nearly unlimited room, and the temptation of new characters doesn't pull me in. With a few story sequences with dialogue trees or something to create a bit of contrast and buildup between fights, it could have been great.
And it's still good, really, but without a bit of variety or some hook the game enters a vague feel of monotony, which waters my enthusiasm greatly. It's a long road, full of enjoyable fights, but once you get used to the really cool scenery and character models – seriously, lots of the stuff in this game looks terrific – the game turns into bar management and Buff/Debuff Whack-A-Mole, and there's little that intrigues you to continue. And man, I just made this computer, and the loading times are just awful, even Tomb Raider loads faster than this.
I'm really hoping that Cyanide Studios makes more, hopefully with a better writer on board – with a more sweeping storyline reminiscent of games like Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment, I would leap upon that game like a starving wolf on a gazelle.