Realms of Ancient War (henceforth RAW) may have escaped your notice last week. Perhaps you were too busy collecting those bazillion guns in Borderlands 2 or contemplating your perfect Embermage build in Torchlight 2 to notice the quiet release of RAW smack dab in the middle of those two huge titles. It’s certainly somewhat misfortunate timing as RAW is an Action RPG as well. Perhaps, though, it may speak to those gamers who like the traditional top-down design, yet wish to play on a console (as Torchlight 2 is bound to the PC).
I certainly had high hopes for RAW. I’d watched the trailers and liked the dark, gritty look the developer was going for. I also highly support top-down ARPGs on consoles. To top things off, I had a local co-op partner at hand (as the game only supports 2-player local co-op). Things were looking good.
So let’s get the basics out of the way. As can be expected of a game of this genre, RAW’s story is not overly complex. It’s no better and no worse than I expected, and plays a pretty minor role in the game. The game is divided into levels which have a definitive beginning and end. If a level is quit before completed, none of the player’s progress will be saved (as a loading screen tooltip helpfully informed me). Once unlocked, any of these levels can be revisited at a later time. Since RAW is virtually identical in both single-player and co-op play, pretty much all of this review will apply to the co-op gameplay.
Upon loading up a level/map for the game, it’s quite easy to get a second player into the game. If Player 2 just presses the “start” button, he or she will automatically be prompted to choose between the three different classes the game offers: Wizard, Rogue, or Warrior. Player 2 cannot choose the same class as Player 1, however. Now, let me just get the largest co-op oversight out of the way now: Player 2 does not get to keep any progress whatsoever between gaming sessions. Between maps Player 2 will retain any money, gear, and individual XP onto the next map, but as soon as the game is shut down, Player 2’s character will cease to exist. Next time the game is fired up, it will have forgotten about Player 2’s individual character, and will ask once again which class should occupy that slot.
Now, it should be said that there are some slight upsides to such a mechanic. First, Player 2’s character is always leveled up to the level of Player 1, so it’s easy to get a friend to drop in if they weren't playing with you before. It can also give Player 2 the opportunity to switch between the different classes, or experiment with different skill builds. That being said, however, this mechanic kind of killed the game for my co-op partner. We had no idea that such a system was in play until we tried to play the game again the subsequent day. All of his warrior’s gear and money were gone, and in a genre where such things are everything, it was very disheartening to him. We tried multiple things to get the game to remember his character, but nothing worked. We were forced to come to the conclusion that this is how the game was meant to be played. The only semi work-around we managed was guessing when a level was about the end, then have him trade me all of his gear. As can be imagined, though, this isn’t much of a work-around at all, because players don’t get to decide when they leave a level - it just ends. And since nothing is saved until a level is completed, it’s not as simple as just entering a level and swapping everything over before stopping for the night.
So that’s obviously a huge set-back for the game, but what about the actual gameplay? The character classes are reasonably distinct from each other, with the warrior being melee-focused, the wizard being a ranged savant, and the ranger being able to dabble in both. Leveling up with present players with a skill point to distributing in their skill tree. These skills come in both active and passive types (some are shared between all the classes), and they certainly all feel powerful against the endless enemies within the game. Unfortunately, while they all seem powerful, I was actually never very excited about any of my skills. When I play other ARPGs, I often find myself excitedly telling my co-op partners about some of my skills (okay, call it bragging, fine). In RAW, not so much (though I kept giving my partner grief about not purchasing the self-heal skill).
On the presentation side of things, I had a couple of complaints as well. Though I still really like how the game looks, many of the environments come in two flavors: very bright (e.g. sandy desert) and very dark (e.g. rock caves). In the dark environments, I found myself squinting in an attempt to see my character and the enemies, so I I would turn the brightness up. Shortly thereafter, we would be presented with a bright environment, and would have to turn it down or be blinded. A small annoyance to be sure, but when I’m playing a game I would really rather I not have to go mess with the settings each time I enter a new environment.
On the bright side, the UI is intuitive and easy to use. It’s quite easy to map up to 8 skills to the four letter buttons and right click letter buttons. Players can also give an item over to their co-op partner straight from their inventory with a click of a button. Unfortunately ( I really feel like I’m using this word a lot), both players cannot be in the menu at the same time. Players will have to wait while their partner shops, skills up, or manages the inventory. Again, it’s a small thing, but it’s one of those polishes that makes games feel like a much better co-op experience.
Now, RAW isn’t an irredeemable game. Simply put, the game feels unpolished. The tried and true ARPG staples are there, but they aren’t done better than any other ARPG. RAW also tries a couple of different things (like the possession system where characters can possess strong enemies for a limited amount of time), but they aren’t groundbreaking. And, of course, the game just doesn’t lend itself to co-op in a way that would be expected of a game of this genre. Lack of progression of Player 2 in this day and age simply feels unacceptable. If you’re absolutely nuts for the genre and/or have a local co-op partner that would only want to drop in from time to time while you play the game, RAW could be a good fit. For anyone else, though, you may wish to take your dungeon hunting elsewhere (until a price drop or sale, at least).
Editor's Note: The Co-Optimus Review of Realms of Ancient War is based off the XBLA version of the game. A code was supplied by the publisher.