Thursday, August 7, 2014

I've never been a hero and I've never been a mage - Betrayal in Antara

So, here's a game with a bit of a weird history. Betrayal in Antara is the kinda-sorta sequel to Betrayal in Krondor. By that I mean it's not really a sequel, but when the developers lost the rights to make another game based on Riftwar series of books they decided to instead make a similar RPG using an improved version of Krondor's engine and an original setting. Thus Betrayal in Antara was born. Then they got the rights back and the real sequel Return to Krondor was released, making this game's existence awkward at best. On top of that the game got pretty badly hammered for not being Krondor, but in my experience it's not that bad.

Betrayal at Krondor is an RPG, and a really oldschool one at that. It's one of those old RPGs where you have to worry about things like food and sleep and there's a lot of stats to keep track of. and there's a lot of factors that go into your stats. fora start, you do not level up in this game or have typical stats beyond HP, instead, you have various skills that increase through use or studying. Studying is actually in interesting feature, you're allowed to select up to a few skills on each character that they'll study, causing them to slowly increase over time as you rest and wander around, however, the more skills you select, the slower the process. The game even lets you change how much time is spent studying each skill so you can study say... 3 skills, but have the studying favor one over the other two so it rises faster. It adds a bit of strategy as you have to think about who needs to focus on what and there's no obvious 'right' answer.
There's a lot of info to track in this game
Magic is another interesting part of the game as you have no MP, instead everything is cast via HP, and the only way to regenerate HP is by camping, staying at an in, or spending a turn resting mid battle. Some spells can even be powered up at he cost of more HP and makes combat with mages an interesting balancing act. you need to make those spells count and really think about when to cast and when to rest or wait a bit. even amongst non-mages the rest mechanic can be important, as your skills take penalties according to your current health and stamina. A beaten up fighter will have a harder time dealing out damage and avoiding hits than one at full health. Surprisingly, the AI does not seem to cheat with this from my experience: enemy mages are damaged by their own spell casting and most enemies seem to be easier to deal with once you've done enough damage.

The game is decently written but bit of a slow burner. The story starts with the man character Aren discovering they have magic powers, and having to wander across half the game world to seek training. there's a decent bit of world building here and talking to NPCs and paying attention will show lots of plot threads and small side stories to get involved in, but the main story doesn't really pick up until around chapter 3-4 which is a good ways into the game. Actually, speaking of side stories, I should notice that the game involves a LOT of side quests, in the process of reviewing this game I managed to get myself a good ways into it and am pretty sure I have missed a LOT of content, if you're not using an FAQ, it could easily take a couple playthroughs to see everything the game has to offer if you're not through.
Cutscenes are given in this storybook format.
That said, since the game is oldschool, it's also fairly hard. Your party at the start is very weak and you'll likely have to rest after every fight for quite a ways into the game. The game does have difficulty levels, along with the ability to automate certain parts of the game like studying. Even then though, the game can be fairly tricky, characters don't die when they hit 0 hp, but recovering them takes expensive temple visits or a LOT of healing items. gold is somewhat tricky to come across and on top of rations, equipment can degrade which does reduce it's stats, and needs to be occasionally repaired or replaced.

Another tricky thing is tracking information: The game does have a full world map and local area map that keeps track of your current position, and you can even place markers on it to track the location of npcs and stores, or have the game do it for you, but there's no quest log. I was able to play well enough without one, though I'm sure it'd be better if I manually tracked stuff. The game honestly leaves it up to you to figure things out yourself. It's great that the game doesn't hold your hand but the lack of info can be a bit annoying. There were times where I wasn't sure if a conversation I had was quest related or just random fluff, and there was times where I didn't have a clear picture of what I needed to do next. Given that the game has a very large world to explore and no easy fast travel, not knowing where to go can be a bit worrying.
combat is turn-based and takes place on a hex grid
 Graphics are probably the games biggest weakness. The game was released in 1997, but as a windows 3.1 game, and it suffers from it. graphics are washed out, pixelated, and grainy, and while there is a huge world ot explore, it's not very interesting to look at. most of the game world is perfectly flat with no interesting terrain. I know as an older game it's not really going to look good by today's standards, but the game was graphically primitive for when it came out and time wasn't any kinder to it.

Sound is a bit of a mixed bag the main problem is the game is quiet, very quiet. Outside of the title and battle themes, There's virtually no music to speak of and minimal sound, not even footsteps, making your long trek through the gameworld a weirdly silent one. On the other hand? The voice acting actually isn't half bad, there's even songs you can hear in many of the the games inns and they're not half bad. What few sounds there are at least functional. I haven't heard anything that made my ears bleed, it's just a lot of the time, there's nothing to hear.
This flat stretch of land is what most of the game world looks like.
 I did encounter a few bugs while playing the game. The game suffers from some heavy terrain pop in as it loads sections of the map, and I once had a section fail to load properly, forcing e to reload an earlier save. I also had a battle that I had to redo several times as it kept crashing the game for some reason. The game fortunately makes an autosave before every fight, though it's a good idea to manually save every once in awhile in case something goes wrong. Fortunately, outside of those two incidents I actually encountered very little in the way of actual bugs. most of the games major problems are the hassles and inconveniences you'll have to deal with like the lack of quest journal mentioned earlier, but that's more a result of the games old-school origins and is pretty par for the course at that.

The game got a bit of a bad rap at release and I'll admit there's defiantly better RPGs out there. But overall it's honestly not that bad. The mechanics are solid and the story gets pretty interesting once it finally gets rolling. The game is fairly cheap and even comes with Betrayal at Krondor these days so at the very least? Buy it for Krondor, but give this a shot while you're at it.

Betrayal at Antara was developed and published by Sierra On-Line. It's available on GoG.

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