Verdict: 5/5 Gold Star
“Imagination is one of the main reasons we play games. As the saying goes, our imagination can contain worlds, but it’s also nice when it can frolic in a place already made whole by other, perhaps better imaginations. It’s a two-way street this imaginative back and forth and the people who create these games know that, or the better ones do.”
After the relative success of the 2001 release of the RPG game Gothic, Piranha Bytes quickly followed up with a sequel, Gothic II. Released in Europe in late 2002 and a year later in the US, Gothic II surpassed the first game in almost every department. The team at Piranha Bytes had listened carefully to their most important critics, the people who bought and played the first game. They tweaked the game controls, offering the option to either use the original keyboard-heavy controls of the first Gothic or a scheme more in line with the traditional WASD/mouse combo controls. They increased the size of the game world, added more monsters, more quests, and more characters all while staying true to the gritty, realistic atmosphere of the original. While never as popular in the US as the RPG juggernaut that is The Elder Scrolls game series, the Gothics were a modest hit in Europe. With balanced role playing, real time combat, multiple-pathed story lines and an involving realistic game world, Gothic II brought in more fans and more income. So the devs set to work on an expansion to Gothic II, called Night of the Raven. Obviously tooled to cash in on the mother game’s popularity, this was an expansion with a difference. The team at Piranha Bytes continued to listen to the gamers, responding with alacrity. Instead of grafting on a stand alone smaller game and/or quest accessible from the main game, they went back and retooled the original game, making it harder, longer, more complex and even more involved. Besides adding an entirely new area they changed some of the original quests, tweaking and improving as they went along. The result was what many still consider Piranha-Bytes finest work to date.
The main change was to introduce an new area called Jharkenda, a giant city buried beneath a jungle much like the Yucatan peninsula of south eastern Mexico. Jharkenda, also known as the “add-on” world, was set on the same island of Khorinis as was most of the game world in Gothic II. Long ago Jharkenda had been closed off from the rest of the island and was now forgotten by everyone but the Water Mages and the nogoodniks who still inhabited the place. In Night of the Raven, the Water Mages, followers of the god Addanos, and a guild barely mentioned in the original Gothic II, now have a greatly expanded role. They aid you in opening a secret portal into the add-on world. Once opened, they follow you through and send you on a series of quests around Jharkenda to discover its secrets and find out why it has been hidden from the rest of the world for so long. Accessing the secret portal takes up roughly the first third of Night of Raven and requires you to completely start over again instead of picking up where you left off. There is a reason for this however. Piranha Bytes wove in new clues, items, dialogue and quests into the game proper, so that you begin to hear about this mysterious world right from the beginning. As in the original Gothic II, you start off as a weak character with no armor, no weapons and a single, vague mission. While it’s actually possible to replay most of the entire original game first if you choose and save the add-on world for last, most people complete the add-on world first. It’s got new content, is easier to play and thus level up quicker, and gives you new weapons, spells and armor. It just seems the better way to go. Once you open the passage between the “old world” and the new add-on world, you can travel back and forth at will anyway. I played the two worlds in parallel, experiencing both plot lines simultaneously for a while before finally concentrating on completing all the Jharkenda quests. I recommend this way of playing. It deepens and enriches what was already a great game tremendously.
Before we go any further let me give you a little back story.
The main, unnamed kingdom of which Khorinis is but one small island state, has been waging a seemingly endless war with fierce orcs and has only been holding its own because its warriors used weapons forged from a magical ore mined in a valley on the island of Khorinis. At the start of the first game Fire Mages had attempted to cast a protective spell over the valley. Instead, they accidentally covered it with an impenetrable magical dome, imprisoning guards and slaves alike. Cut off from the rest of the island, the slaves promptly killed off the guards and took over the valley. They split into three groups, the old camp which sold ore to the king directly, the new camp which was made up of outcasts from the old camp, and a third group following something called the Seeker which promised eternal salvation. At the end of the first game the dome is destroyed, freeing the slaves, who swarm out of the mining valley and into Khorinis proper. This is where Gothic II begins. The last of the king’s militia have holed up in the only fortified town on the island, Harbor City. King Rhobar, now hurting for magical ore, has sent in his holy warriors, fierce and dedicated paladins, to return to the mining valley and bring back the ore he so badly needs. Unfortunately the orcs have moved quicker and have now taken over most of the mining valley. The paladins hold only the central castle and a scattering of poorly defended mining camps. The orcs have laid siege to the castle, trapping the paladins inside. More paladins in turn hold the orcs in the valley by keeping the single pass closed. The escaped slaves have now gathered at the north of the island, selling their services as mercenaries to a wealthy farmer who has stopped sending supplies to Harbor City. The rest of the island is an open frontier swarming with monsters, orcs and bandits with only a few friendlies scattered about.
Your character in Gothic II: Night of the Raven reenters the scene about two weeks after the collapse of the dome. You are still the same nameless, gruff, and cunning man in his late twenties or early thirties. You still can’t customize your character but are forced to play a “pre-rolled”, pre-determined one. It’s an integral element in the Gothic series, this archetypal character, strong, nameless but seemingly saddled with a singular destiny. With those restrictions in place, there is still a lot of leeway. You can chose three separate paths through to the end, each one exclusive to itself with its own quests and way of playing. There is nothing new here really. It’s standard RPG fare all the way with the Big Three: Warrior path or Mercenary, magician path or Fire Magician or the hybrid path, and Paladin, a mix of the two, a sort of magical warrior. If you choose to take a purely combat path, you join the mercenaries holed up on a big farm at the north end of the island. If magic is your thing then you’ll want to become a novice in the monastery situated in the middle of the island. If you want a mix of combat and magic, then you will want to join the militia which works in Harbor City sited on the south end of the island of Khorinis. Choosing the militia path eventually leads you to become a Paladin with limited access to magic. I took the same path in Night of the Raven as I did in the original Gothic II, the path of the Paladin. Oddly though, this time I didn’t depend nearly as much on runes and spells. Mostly I just wielded a sword and used the occasional scroll. The only advantage the Paladin offered me this play-through was the nifty healing runes I got around the two-thirds point of the game. They allowed me to forgo healing potions and sleeping to heal though I still used both on occasion. For whatever reason, now, years later, playing this new version, I didn’t use as much magic and probably could have just joined the mercenaries and worked my way up to an ass-kicking Dragon Fighter, very much the equal to the Paladin.
As the game begins you are awakened by your bestest pal Xardas, a bad boy magician who has big plans for you. Most of these plans consist of you doing all the work and him hanging out in his new tower reading whatever it is the bad boy magicians read while slacking off. After picking up everything that’s not nailed down you head out into the world and immediately get your behind handed to you. Again. And again. And again. Luckily, having played this game before, I had an advantage, being that I knew ahead of time where not to go. Amazing how the memory works that way. It’s not too hard to remember really, as at the beginning you can pretty much rule out exploring all caves, tunnels, temples, woods, forests, hills and valleys. Your best bet is to get on the path to Harbor City and make haste for the safety of its fortified walls. You won’t make it all the way without being waylaid by a few hair-raising side quests but you’ll need what you gain to get into town anyway.
Trust me, you should save the exploring for later.
No, really. Gothic II was a pretty hostile game world for the lower level character and Night of the Raven is downright punishing. I’ll go into detail about this later, but just so you know, there’s no difficulty settings, no easy, normal and crazy hard settings. It is what it is. Brutal, unforgiving, but fair in its own way. Just as a test, once you are out of the tower, pull out your newly acquired Rusty Sword, straighten your filthy rags and head into the forest just off the path. It’s dark in there and hard to see for all the foliage. But you can hear stuff and then a shape appears in front of you and yawns, flicks a single claw and then you are watching a nifty little movie starring dead you and a cast of monstrous extras gnawing away on your entrails. To Piranha Bytes’s credit they usually give you a fighting chance and only punish utter stupidity. Think what you would do in a real life situation. That’s right. Your two best weapons early in the game are your feet. Your chances against say, a single wolf or low level bandit aren’t bad but if you see more than one of anything bigger than a bunny, run like hell. With a couple of exceptions, whatever is chasing you will eventually give up, usually with a signature growl or roar, signaling you that the chase is over and it’s safe to stop and turn around. Usually the mob will be standing a few feet away and if you linger or make much of a bonehead move toward them they will charge you. Later in the game you can make good use of this behavior but this is barefoot rags and oversized butter knife time here so it’s best to keep moving.
Once you make it to Harbor City and past the guards, you can relax a bit and take stock of where you are. If you have poked around outside Xardes’s mage tower before heading off you will have met an old friend from the first game. Now in town you’ll meet another one, Lares, one of the Mercenaries and an original brother-in-arms. Engage him in conversation and listen carefully to what he has to say. He will give you valuable tips on how to join each of the three main groups. Take notes, take quests and take names but be careful because you can accidentally join a guild before you are ready to. This is a real danger if you aren’t careful. Even though I have played this game before I eagerly assented to to some queries from someone in the Militia just to get the armor and before I knew it I was drafted. I found out the bad news a little later when I was curious about joining the Fire Magicians and was told I couldn’t. I was also banned from joining the Mercenaries. Beside having many quests cut off I also lost access to many of the early game trainers.
Training is how you spend the learning points you make through leveling up. Trainers are everywhere throughout the game ready to teach, some for a price and other for free, everything you’ll need to progress in the game. Strength, Dexterity, One-Handed Sword, Two-Handed Sword, Mana, Crossbow, etc. Some will only train you if you belong to their guild, others will train anyone for a price and all of them will eventually withdraw their offer once you’ve exceeded a certain level of expertise in their specific area. Careful what you spend points on at the beginning as spreading too many points over too many skills will leave you weakened during combat and keep you from successfully exploring the island and advancing the plot. This was the deal in Gothic II and is doubly true for Night of the Raven. One of the ways Piranha Bytes upped the difficulty level was to make skills more expensive to acquire. Not very far into the game it takes many more learning points to up your skill just a little and so you really want to concentrate on one or two vital skills early on. By the middle of the game you should be able to get a little less specialized with your training and by the end you can pretty much throw learning points around like a drunken pirate. I ended the game with about a 100 unspent learning points and was pretty much invincible.
Besides weapons, the other area you will want to work on is armor. Armor provides vital protection from attacks of all kinds and bestows status. NPCs cooperate with you more readily and you can accessorize as you go, adding and removing belts, rings, and amulets depending on the situation. One handy tip is to gather up all the strength items you can find as strength is important early on if you want to carry a decent sword or axe. This is important because Night of the Raven puts the better weapons much further out of reach than the original game did. For instance, it doubles the amount of strength you’ll need to carry the earliest attainable, best single handed sword, the Orc Slayer. When once you only needed 65 STR to carry, now you need 130 STR. Besides letting you tote the best bling, added strength also helps by making each blow a little more damaging, allowing you to bring down your enemy that much faster. You can also up your mana or dexterity the same way. Since your inventory is infinite you can carry all the items you find or buy and switch them out to wield the best sword or bow or staff or spell. Later on you’ll be so beefy it won’t really matter and as with learning points and potions, you will not have to bother much.
Another good way to up your skills is through permanent potions created through alchemical means. These will permanently increase a skill though once you drink the potion it, like a scroll, is gone for good. The plants needed to make these kinds of potions are rare so be frugal with plants at the outset until you know what is what. Also it’s a good idea to wait until skills get too expensive to buy before using the potions.
By the time you make it to the end of chapter two you should be thinking about entering the portal into the add-on world. As I mentioned, it’s easier and allows you to level up faster. By the time you finish the expansion you’ll be powerful enough to return to the game proper and the Valley of Mines where the tough orcs and dragons await. Even the dragons, already bosses in their own right, have been made stronger in the expansion and you can no longer use the strategy of hit and run. This is the time tested method of attacking, doing damage, retreating to heal up and then advancing until you’ve taken out the more powerful foes. Now the dragons begin to heal up automatically so you have to dig a bit into your inventory, taking a look at some of those scrolls that are probably lying around unused and give them a try. Again, I only played this game once via the Paladin path so a Mage might have to use an entirely different approach though I suspect they will be even more effective.
This is a game that gives as good as it takes. If you like real time combat as much as I do then you are in for a treat. Unlike the more turn-based type of combat, you control the fighting second by second. I described this style of fighting in an earlier review of Risen, a game by the same developers. As with everything else in Risen, the devs lifted the fighting style almost completely from the Gothics. So, in the spirit of all things self-appropriating:
“Sword fighting and melee in general is a matter of timing, not just mashing the left mouse button until everything is dead. You need to find your rhythm, learn different timing for different foes….Each enemy has its own fighting style and you must learn it and adapt to it. (Enemies) will advance and retreat, try to flank you and take you down from different angles.”
While that quote aptly describes the sword fighting, you have other options. You can equip yourself with a bow or a crossbow, up your dexterity and fight from afar using ranged combat though I expect this would be frustrating, especially early in the game. You would still need a sword, dagger or axe to finish things off. Even if you want to take the path of the mage, up your mana and use the powerful spells this game provides, you want a sturdy melee weapon close at hand. Which ever way you decide to go, it’s vital to master combat as soon as you can because the greatest pay off in Night of the Raven is exploring every nook and cranny of Khorinis, old world and add-on world alike. Though the graphics are dated at this point, the exploration is still rich and rewarding. You can climb steep hills, leap over chasms, slide down mountainside, plunge to your death if not careful. You can jump from roof to roof in Harbor City, clamber along the outside walls and even sneak onto a ship by climbing up a rope. You can swim to islands, around cliffs to beaches and hop onto rocks and stumps to fight from a better angle. If you have played Gothic II you’ll notice that you can no longer depend on high places to protect you as before. Now when you climb to a vantage point that same luxury is afforded your targets. Take too long to, say kill a lizard with a crossbow or fireball, and you find yourself trapped on a cliff staring into its fanged mouth while trying desperately to draw your sword.
One of the best ways to progress in Night of the Raven is to observe your enemies and memorize their fighting styles. There are dozens of beasts, human, undead and monsters populating the island of Khorinis and you’ll spend much of the game just fighting them off. Orcs will aggro easily and from a pretty far distance. I avoided them until I was at about level 10 and then I was careful to approach them slowly so that I didn’t set off the entire group. They keep coming regardless of how hard you hit them so be prepared to dodge, sidestep or back up. It’s not a good idea to try to turn and run immediately after a sword blow as your character will pause a beat during which the advancing orc can inflict heavy damage. The same is true in most situations and never did seem to improve through the game. There are dozens of monsters, beasts and human foe you will have to kill to clear the way to the farthest corners of the island. One to watch out for early on is the mighty shadowbeast. This large black behemoth, sort of a cross between an oversized wolf and a rhino spends most of its time sleeping in dense forests or caves. It’s slow to awaken and slow to attack but once it does, it can usually kill you in a single hit. Avoid it early on. Later when your armor is better, the best strategy is to rush in quickly to catch it off guard. Wargs are another problematic beast early on. They too have a black pelt and travel in packs. They are pretty much super-wolves and easily riled. They are one of the few animals which can run you down and they have powerful biting strikes. They can follow you most places you try to flee so this is another one best left to later in the game. They attack with a series of swift darts forward but can be momentarily driven back with the right kind of sword work. Be ready to side step, slash and have a full health bar. Other animals you’ll encounter early on are snappers. They resemble a sort of miniature T-Rex. They are everywhere in the game and attack with quick forward snaps (thus the name). Like most situations, you’re best advised to “pull” them to you one at a time as a small pack of them can be a problem even late in the game. A beast exclusive to the add-on world are mantises. They are exactly what they sound like…big praying mantises. They hide easily in the jungle terrain of Jharkenda and sort of dance toward you with juddering motions. Like most enemies you have to be careful or they will quickly flank you. This is common theme throughout the game. Those little goblins you find everywhere? They love nothing more than to swarm toward and around you, making you spin around and around to keep them within range. There is a “lock on enemy” key command but that is risky with mobs. It works best when you are fighting with friends and want to avoid accidentally striking an ally, a move that can quickly set that handy band of buddies at your throat.
Before I leave the subject of fighting monsters I want to mention my new favorite and most hated monster in the add-on world, the swamp golem. A big part of the expansion game takes places in a dense, festering swamp. The first time I entered it I saw what I assumed to be a kind of troll with ferns growing out of its head. Now, if you have played the original Gothic II you’ll know that there is a trick to fighting those big, lumbering trolls which makes it pretty much cake. I won’t reveal the trick as it’s quite enjoyable to discover it for yourself. So I saw what I assumed to be a troll, quaffed a special potion and head towards it. The ground began to shake, signaling a troll attack but as I tried my trick, I was shocked to find myself face down in the water. Figuring a lucky break for the troll I reloaded and as I was attacking again noticed that the little monster label above the thing read Swamp Golem, not Swamp Troll. Now golems are another thing altogether, some easy, others, like that cursed fiery variety, downright lethal and among the hardest monsters in the entire game. It chased me and didn’t give up. Some very memorable and funny scenes involving unsuspecting bandit camps ensued. So, the lesson is assume nothing in the game cause if you do, you can easily assume wrong.
With all this going on, it might be easy to get lost in the details but to the game’s credit the main quests are always pretty clear and if you forget what you are doing, there is a rudimentary journal system that works well, sorting quests into failed, completed and current. It also gives you a running tally of percentage points toward completion in current quests and even gives you the occasional direction and hint, though those are used sparingly. This is not a game that leads you by the hand, flashing hints up on the screen in bright letters. To its credit you never really get lost or stuck either as most quests are woven so tightly into the main plot that you don’t lose sight of your goals. There are hardly any Quicktime movies to hurry things along and what few there are are mercifully short. More entertaining, at least to my sick mind, were the dying animations. Kill one of those big trolls and it sways, roars and then thuds to the earth. I would always instinctively jump out of the way as one began its descent though they can land on top of you without harm. Zombie deaths are also exciting. They wail, then let out a hideous scream before expiring in a flash of blue light. Orcs fall with a satisfying plop but one of my favorite death scenes were of the swampsharks you encounter in the the add-on world. They slither through the murky waters surrounding the bandit camp and when you finally kill one they rise up, and up, and up, then teeter back and forth for several second before splashing down in front of you. Finally there is the unforgettable Harpy scream of perpetual piercing, perhaps the most irritating death sound file in all of RPG-dom. Or the most satisfying, depending on the kind of day you are having. Too often you won’t have the luxury of stopping to watch during combat but if you get a chance, pause and check them out.
Night of the Raven is a feast for a gamer like me, a PC fanatic with a thing for huge open world role playing games with real time combat. Still there are problems. What will become obvious quickly is the voice acting. It suffers from spreading too few actors across too many scripted lines. The decision to use a single voice for all the boss battle dragons was bad enough but then to use the same actor for several of the human NPCs you meet earlier in the game is just wrong. Also, some of the English voices had obvious regional accents more suited to say, Brooklyn, New York, than a besieged medieval kingdom. Personally, I have low expectations for gaming voice work going in, so I wasn’t too let down. This comes in no small part from the sorry attitude that the industry seems to have toward dialogue and voice acting. I’m not going to dwell on this point other than to ask devs to try and get localization right. Please?
The other main weakness in the game, and one that will only get worse as time passes is the graphics. I think I described the graphics in Gothic II on Tap-Repeatedly’s forum once as warmed-over road kill and my opinion hasn’t changed. The one area where Piranha Bytes really dropped the ball in terms of improvements over the first game was the graphics department. To put it bluntly, the graphics are crude, sketchy and in places downright ugly. For instance, there is a cliff face on the north end of Khorinis so hideous, so retina-violating that I often just stopped and stared in disbelief. Apparently it was supposed to be a texture for a vertical span of stone but it looks to be little more than a series of wide horizontal stripes. The first time I saw it I thought it was some sort to alien easter egg ala Fallout, some giant, zebra-striped space saucer long ago locked in Khorinis bedrock. The skins and textures throughout are rudimentary at best so its probably not a good thing to look too closely. To the game’s credit there is an odd kind of visual continuity that somehow stitches everything together. I guess when everything is sort of blurry, then nothing looks too blurry…almost. Also there is a great game world lurking just beneath the so-so visuals so if you don’t look too closely, you’ll eventually adjust to the ugliness.
There are other, less offensive, flaws. As mentioned earlier, there’s no adjustable difficulty level. This feature, almost a universal requirement in modern games, is simply not there in Night of the Raven. That’s right. There is no way to lower the difficulty. (Well, you can search the internet for that nifty .ini mod that will allows you to readjust a few of the settings…wink, wink.) Another problem, at least from my point of view, was the lack of a hot key for healing potions. You can reset an .ini file to activate this and I recommend you do unless you want to spend the first three chapters running away to find a safe place to heal up. Finding and brewing healing potions is hard enough and you’ll quickly go broke early on trying to buy your way to health and happiness so making potions almost impossible to use on the fly as well is downright evil. And while you’re poking around in the .ini files you might as well find the settings for quick save and quick load and activate them as well. They are turned off in the default settings and there are no menu settings either. Considering the amount of times you will be reloading at the start…well just consider it. Another problem for those who have completed the game once already might be the hard fact that you have to start over from scratch just to experience the new content. But I think it’s fair to argue that so much of the existing game has been changed and tweaked that it’s replayable enough.
One finally gripe and I’ll wrap this us. The inventory management is just insipid and why Piranha Bytes didn’t at least break it down into basic categorizes of weapons, magical items, armor, documents, and everything else is a mystery to me. Items in these categories are grouped together but together on one ever-expanding, mega-monster inventory screen. This forces you to constantly scroll up and down the page in an endless search for what you are looking for. As there is no limit to what you can carry in your inventory, this gets damn unwieldy about 5 hours into the game. But enough kvetching.
As chapter six starts and you finally sail off toward the island of Irdoroth for the final showdown you will have easily spent 50 to 60 hours in the first five chapters. Unlike the more recent, and more forgettable, Risen, Night of the Raven holds up to the very end. There are a few of the dreaded temple trap puzzles but none too onerous and everything organically arises from prior gameplay. You even get to take a crew of hand-picked buddies with you. These NPCs, along with the ship you sailed in on, will act as a final base of command, a place where you can replenish supplies, rest, chat and even get hints on how to proceed. They just won’t be much use in the actual fighting, at least they weren’t for me. Still, it’s a nice touch and shows how the developers really cared about this game. There are many small details like this throughout. After you have finally achieved paladin status, for instance, the first time an NPC acknowledges you with honorifics is oddly satisfying. Even one specific orc gives you respect before pulling his axe on you. The respawning is smartly done as well. There is nothing more grating to me than to de-mammalize an area of a game only to have everything pop right back as soon as the next chapter starts. In Night of the Raven, while you’ll still run into more creatures or foes in areas you have cleared out, there’s always a solid plot point behind their appearances. In the later chapter orcs begin to wander across the island. They are followed by migrating snappers and other beasts and it somehow seems right. Other areas are repopulated but to a very sparse degree as if animals haves wandered into virgin territory. There were a few too many unexplained ice golems in the mining valley in the last few chapters but otherwise it all worked quite well. The biggest, most glaring problem in this department was the way the paladins in the castle in the mining valley seemed unaware that I had decimated the entire surrounding orc population. Including the one orc I found in a small grotto near the castle. In the dark. Alone. With a single sheep. Truly a memorable moment in game play… or a sign that I have an overly active imagination.
But imagination is one of the main reasons we play games. As the saying goes, our imagination can contain worlds, but it’s also nice when it can frolic in a place already made whole by other, perhaps better imaginations. It’s a two-way street this imaginative back and forth and the people who create these games know that, or the better ones do. Many game devs try and fail to deliver something that will keep us playing, keep us coming back again and again, day after day, to play in their sandbox, to make it our sandbox. And now that games are getting more and more realistic and vivid, in an odd way they are failing more and more to engage us through to the end. We still play them and still get plenty of bang for the buck but how often do we finish them? How often do we rush to finish them? We do and we always will with the good ones, regardless of how advanced the technology becomes. If you are looking for a good, solid old school RPG romp that will challenge and engage you for weeks and weeks, you could do worse than to check this title out. I’ve played it twice now and probably will return again in the future to play all the way through as a Mage and experience the game in yet another way. Leaving it for now makes me a little sad but it will be waiting for me like an old friend, ready when I am.
Email the author of this review at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minimum System Requirements (PC): Windows 98, Pentium III, 256MB, 3D Accelerator,
Reviewer’s System: Windows 7 Home Premium 64 Bit, Intel i5, 2.66 GHZ, 4 GB, ATI 4850, 1GB