Realms of Ancient War (abbreviated as R.A.W. for some reason) is a trip down memory lane: it conjures up memories of console hack-and-slash greats and even does it convincingly enough to instill excitement. The problem is once those memories fade and that excitement turns to the task at hand, you’re left with Realms of Ancient War.
R.A.W grapples with its own identity, lost somewhere between the frenzied arcade action of Gauntlet and the character building elements of Torchlight, it never quite figures out where it belongs. The setting alone illustrates confusion by tossing the obligatory elves and dwarves of high-fantasy into a blender with The Four Elements and a D&D Monster Manual – an effort that tries to please everyone but never really congeals.
That doesn’t matter because Realms of Ancient War is ultimately a game of numbers. Your character, the standard melee, ranged or caster shuffles along, slaying monsters and collecting items-in-threes to unlock doors or open portals. The process is constant and only thinly veiled in a narrative that’s delivered primarily through text windows.
Those clusters of dialogue pepper the gameplay with speed bumps to the point where stopping to read them becomes laborious by comparison. The stop-and-start pacing almost encourages you to just skip them and get back to the frenzy, which is okay because you don’t need context to frame the key-finding, portal-opening, monster-killing cycle.
In fact, reading text in Realms of Ancient War might be the game’s toughest challenge. The difficulty screen introduces you to the carelessly localized text that you’ll find throughout the title. Easy difficulty is described as, “This is your first-hand experience on Hack’n’Slash games” while Normal difficulty is similarly defined, “You have several battles in your account and want something challenging.” Ugh.
In this day and age there’s no reason for stories of hilarious translations in videogames. Companies specializing in these services are common – so why is this undead lich threatening me with, “Endure my wrath”? It’s never game-breaking, but poor localization pops up frequently reminding you that nobody cared enough about the final quality to verify these kinds of things.
Quality itself is in short supply throughout Realms of Ancient War with visuals taking the largest portion as they’re clearly the best this title has to offer. Endless tunnels, forests, rocky deserts and ancient temples are all highly-detailed and pop to life thanks to impressive lighting. Unfortunately it all looks dated due to archaic design elements eerily reminiscent of the ten-year-old Dark Alliance era.
Realms even chugs at times when too many creatures or particle effects share the screen – though sound takes the biggest hit. It stutters and hisses as dozens of noises fight for priority during especially large battles, an issue prevalent enough to sour the effects themselves.
Despite everything the real problem with R.A.W. is that it’s just not fun. It takes the expected repetition of hacking and slashing inherent to this genre and somehow makes it more tedious. As the Wizard you rely almost entirely on one spell for over half the campaign, occasionally casting an area-of-effect spell when they’re not recharging. Variety in play style is practically non-existent because you’re never given an effective alternative to hurling fireballs in a straight line, which renders the accessible button mapping system pretty much useless.
Speaking of maps, Realms does away with anything resembling one in favor of a directional arrow that points toward the objective. It’s fine on paper but completely fails when your arrow points to an objective in the northeast corner that can only be reached by heading south along a snaking path. It’s a cruel joke that sends you running into walls more often than not and doesn’t begin to address the issue with hidden collectibles.
For all Realms iteration, it’s only real innovation is the ability to possess specific creatures from time to time. It’s a unique premise, hijacking a troll to crush waves of lesser beasts with a single swipe of the club, but the realization is something of a missed opportunity. Each monster is equipped with a single attack that’s usually less effective than your hero. The infrequency and often irrelevant placement of these creatures are the final nails in the coffin for a genuinely promising mechanic that turned out to be a throwaway gimmick.
Local co-op adds value to R.A.W. by turning a dull solo adventure into a less-dull social event. Online leaderboards exist, though the criteria for scoring could be anything. At the time of this writing I’m currently ranked 96th on the leaderboards with a score of 5766 – a number that might as well have been pulled from the ether because if its relevance is explained somewhere I haven’t found it in over a dozen hours with the title.
That’s par for the course with Realms of the Ancient War, it contributes just enough without ever really working with you. Pressing the Xbox Guide button doesn’t pause the game, so checking that achievement that popped up could potentially get you killed. Data is only saved when completing a level meaning exiting for any reason during the stage will negate experience, equipment and progress earned.
The worst part of the whole experience is that I genuinely wanted to like Realms of Ancient War, but after a few short hours I just wanted to make sure I gave it a fair shake. The sad truth is that anything positive this title has to offer is quickly eclipsed by the mediocrity of everything else. The whole experience takes about 6-10 hours and to my disappointment that actually felt too long.
Realms of Ancient War has the foundation of a good throwback dungeon-crawler, but at 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) you can do a lot better.
Realms of Ancient War is available for download on Xbox Live Marketplace and Playstation Network. It will be available for PC on October 4th.