If it wasn’t apparent by now, my most beloved genre in the gaming space is the Role-playing game. RPGs tend to showcase ambitious overarching story-lines, moral decisions, multiple characters, with an engaging power curve, which usually presents it’s own set of decisions on how you would like to build your character. Towards the end of an RPG, with a well balanced power curve, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment for how far your character has come, along with a connection with the story decisions you made along the way.
There is one RPG series that perfectly encapsulates the rags to power archetype. I have yet to see any other RPG perform it as well. Developed by the German based studio Piranha Bytes, the first of the game in the Gothic series was released in November 2001. I remember it still, back in 2002, I was browsing Amazon, hungering for an RPG when I stumbled upon this game and it’s rave customer reviews. I was not disappointed in the slightest.
Gothic has you playing an unnamed convict that is about to be thrown into a prison-mining colony that is cut off from the outside world by a magical barrier that had backfired. While it is safe to enter the barrier, it is impossible for anything living to pass back through the barrier once inside. An uneasy agreement between the king and the convicts has resulted in an exchange of goods for the magical ore the convicts mine. Your character is plunged headlong into the situation when asked to contact the Mages trapped within the barrier.
|Gothic 1 & 2’s graphics have not aged well, but the gameplay is fantastic!|
Your character has absolutely nothing at the start of his journey besides the clothes on his back. You must make your way through the prison colony, finding gear, gaining power, influence, and combat skills. The colony is a rough place mostly ran by former criminals and bandits, who mainly only respect strength of arms. As you progress, you will discover the colony is ran by three factions, one of which you must choose to side with. This decision determines what armor types, and combat training will be made available to you throughout the game.
For the year 2002, Gothic was a marvel. While Morrowind was impressive in it’s scope; being released later that year. Gothic provided a large open world with the freedom of choice that not many RPGs in that era could emulate. Plus the difficulty of the game was extreme, if I got a penny for every-time I had to reload my game, I’d be rich! These were the days before the Souls series, when video games were starting to curve into the more trivial side of the difficult spectrum.
The best feeling about Gothic is the path of gradual power you gain throughout the game. When you first start, you’ll be lucky enough if your puny self can defeat a mole rat. You’ll wield a club as if it’s a tree trunk; with both hands, flailing wildly and ineffectually. As you gain some combat training, your stance, and how well you wielded your chosen weapon type will improve. As you gain more combat experience you will become faster, and maneuver more smoothly into combos and parrying.
In a colony full of former convicts, muggings are something you’ll see often. They won’t kill you, but they sure will shake you down. If you refuse to pay up, they’ll find other ways to get your hard earned ore. (The currency of the cut-off colony) This is where the Gothic games got the silly moniker of being a ‘mugging simulator’. Once you become more powerful, you can do the same to other characters, gathering wealth and equipment on the backs of others you are able to defeat. Or maybe getting back what was taken from you way back, when you couldn’t defend yourself. Pay back always feels so sweet.
If you become powerful enough, or skilled enough at the combat to take down a guard, you’re really in business. Guards that you have previously beat up will remember you, and refuse to see you perform any crimes. They will even go as far as to turn away and exclaim that they saw nothing. Something about that simple sort of persistence really impressed me back then, and to this day still does. While the goal of mugging every character in the old camp isn’t a story goal, it’s a fun one to strive for in between odd jobs and quests.
|Deciding between vying factions is a Piranha Bytes staple.|
The three factions could be differentiated by the designs and colors of their faction specific armors. Once you decide on, and join a faction, you will be presented with the armor set corresponding to that faction and your rank. As you gain more prestige within your chosen faction, you will get better and cooler looking armor. This creates a fun curve that combines the acquiring of armor and an evolving character design, along with the game’s story, which is a beautiful combination for any RPG gamer.
To this day, every couple of years. I find myself playing through Gothic once again. To be terribly honest, the graphics have not held up that great. However, once I get back into the fantastic gameplay, I find myself hooked all over again. Working my way up to mugging those jerk-wad guards that always shake me down! This is always my ultimate goal when playing Gothic.
While the first Gothic was a pretty large game, three years later Piranha Bytes came out with Gothic II, an even larger game with a huge open world. The sequel’s play style is practically the same gameplay, combat, and power and equipment curve of the previous game, but of a much larger scale. This large scale was increased even more with the release of the expansion; Night of the Raven, which added a whole other continent to explore, full of Pirates and Bandits.
A third iteration was also release in November 2006. Gothic III is a breaking off of the series. While the game was absolutely massive in scale, it lost its interesting combat system, and a lot of its focused story telling, not including the numerous bugs, and performance issues at release. It is believed that the release of Gothic III was rushed by the publisher, JoWood, which lead to Piranha Bytes breaking off from it’s former publisher.
JoWood retained its ownership of the Gothic name, and in an even larger departure from the Gothic series; Arcania was developed by a completely different studio. The game was not well received, a vindicating victory for Piranha Bytes. The game was formerly subtitled, Gothic 4, however, Piranha Bytes had the subtitle removed later, after having the rights to the Gothic name returned to them in September 2014.
Fortunately, something good has come out of the split between developer and publisher. Piranha Bytes went on to create Risen, which was released in October 2009 to favorable reviews. Loyal fans of the Gothic series were overjoyed. Risen went back to the roots Piranha Bytes had created with Gothic 1 & 2, with a similar play-style and power-curve, but with updated graphics and animation.
|Risen was a huge leap in graphics from Gothic, and it also went back to its gameplay roots.|
If you’re looking to introduce yourself to this sort of RPG, Risen may be an easier to look upon alternative than the original Gothic games. The Risen series also went on to have two more titles: Risen 2: Dark Waters and Risen 3: Titan Lords, both of which were well received, though most fans of the studio agree that the first Risen is definately the stronger of the three. Still, both games are worth playing for any RPG fan though.
To say that Piranha Bytes is one of my favorite RPG studios would be an understatement. I’ve followed them for a long time, and just recently discovered they have another game in the works, paired with their publisher Nordic Games! The new game is titled Elex and there isn’t much information regarding it yet besides a homepage and a Polygon article. But the description of a ‘post-apocalyptic science fantasy universe‘ already has me chomping at the bit for any tidbits I can get!
We’ll find out more at Gamescom (think of the European version of E3) at the beginning of August, where they plan on showcasing the first glimpses of the game. Elex is expected to release late 2016 or early 2017.
|‘Post-apocalyptic science fantasy universe‘ – Yes, Please!|
If you’re a big RPG fan like myself, it will be well worth your time to explore some of the games that Piranha Bytes has to offer. Gothic I and II are such old games, that you don’t even need an impressive rig in order to play them, your laptop could probably run them! All the games mentioned in this post can be found on steam, and the Risen games can be found on consoles as well!
What’s your favorite RPG or RPG Developer?
Rad’s Recommendations QuickList:
- Gothic (PC Only)
- Gothic II (PC Only)
- Risen (PC/360)
- Risen II (PC/360/PS3)
- Risen III (PC/360/PS3 & PS4 enhanced release in August)