The Nintendo DS has no shortage of role-playing games. Traditional, action-oriented, and strategy-based RPGs can be found in droves, with both original games and remakes being published frequently for the handheld. With the overabundance of role-playing games on the DS, it is getting harder and harder for a game in the genre to stand out. However, Atlus was able to do just that with The Dark Spire. A throwback to the classic first-person dungeon-crawlers of the 1980s, The Dark Spire is a unique and extremely challenging game that will give gamers an experience like no other available today. However, the game’s punishing difficulty and antiquated gameplay guarantee that The Dark Spire will not appeal to as large a group of gamers as most RPGs.
The Dark Spire has a team of adventurers exploring a mysterious and dangerous tower of the same name. As the player, you have the ability to create a team of four (or just choose from the available characters). Making adventurers feels a bit like a watered-down version of the character creation in Dungeons & Dragons, which makes sense given the context of the game. While there aren’t a ton of creation options, you should think carefully about your party’s formation and order, because this will often mean the difference between survival and death once you get into that tower.
The environments of The Dark Spire are what make the game stand out the most, for more reasons than one. First of all, there are two graphical options you can choose from, depending on how big a fan of old-school RPGs you are. The regular look of the town and dungeon is nicely detailed and polished, while still retaining that retro dungeon-crawling feel. However, for the truly hardcore, there’s Classic Mode, which basically presents the entire game as a bunch of white lines over a black background. For gamers younger than 30 (which includes me, by the way) this option may make The Dark Spire seem borderline unplayable, but for those who have fond memories of Wizardry and other decades-old dungeon crawlers, this extra touch is something you will be able to appreciate.
Complementing the distinct visuals is the soundtrack, which suits the game wonderfully. Each track sounds appropriately epic, and makes the game more immersive experience, which is sometimes a hard thing to do on the DS. As an added bonus, the soundtrack comes with each copy of the game, which should please any RPG fan. The look and sound of The Dark Spire really make the game feel like a polished product, and nothing in the presentation feels like an afterthought.
After a brief tutorial to train you on the basics of combat, it’s up to you to do the rest. You can stay in town, go to the temple, or head straight for the tower. I would recommend making sure your party is properly positioned and outfitted, because otherwise it’s going to be a really short journey. As far as combat goes, the battles are random, and the fighting is turn-based. Your front row of adventurers will usually attack, while the back row defends and supports. Having a good balance is really important, as putting a weak character in the front is usually suicide, and it costs a lot of money to have any character revived.
Like the rest of the game, the dungeon is presented in a first-person view, and you will have to explore to find your way to the higher floors, as well as some hidden goodies. You will occasionally come across some treasure chests, but they are usually guarded by traps, which can be difficult or even deadly to disarm. No matter what graphical scheme you choose, traversing the Spire is punishingly difficult, and will take a lot of patience, careful planning, and some luck. While this will cause some players to quit early on, those looking for a true challenge will stick with it and experience the sheer satisfaction of making it to a new floor, disarming a treasure chest, or coming out victorious in a difficult battle.
The only glaring problem with The Dark Spire (assuming you can look past its unforgiving nature) is the unnecessarily complicated and confusing menu system. Since much of the gameplay involves looking at menus, from the character creator to using an item, this can lead to unnecessary frustration, such as equipping the wrong party member with the wrong weapon, or using a precious healing item on a character with full HP by accident. This kept the game from being as smooth as it could have been, and made things more difficult in a game that did not need any added difficulty. I understand that Atlus was trying to stay true to the dungeon-crawlers of yore, but it would have probably been in their best interests to make The Dark Spire just a little more accessible.
The Dark Spire is a challenging, unique, and well-made game that stands out in more ways than one. However, its old-school look and brutal difficulty make this a title that will only appeal to a small group of gamers. If you’re looking for something different on your DS, this is definitely worth a try. There is a lot of trial and error involved, and you’ll likely get wiped out a handful of times before you even make it to the second floor of the Spire, but there’s also a lot to like about The Dark Spire. If Atlus had made it a bit less grueling and more approachable while still retaining its vintage feel, The Dark Spire would probably be a game for any RPG fan to buy, but as it stands you should probably try it out first to make sure you have the patience for it.