Antharion is one of recent spawns from Kickstarter old school renaissance. It’s been in development for quite a few years and was finally released in July. Antharion is a straight up old school turn-based party-based RPG, owing a lot to western RPGs such as the ancient Goldbox games and following, to some degree, the footsteps of modern variants such as the Eschalon and Avenrum series. Despite nodding towards these more unapologetically old school RPGs by liberally strewing around skeletons and severed heads everywhere, Antharion has a much softer gooey center, with far simplified combat and mechanics than its predecessors. It’s an old school RPG, certainly, but its not a traditional (hardcore) RPG, but rather feels like a more grownup version of 90s shareware games – depending upon whether that sounds like a good thing or not will likely influence your interest in Antharion.
Update: 3 August 2015: The developers have since released a number of patches to improve the gameplay experience. As such we have updated the entry to reflect the changes.
Like its peers, Antharion wants to bring back the focus on gameplay and exploration, substance over style as it were, and so those nagging things like “epic scale combat”, “character-driven consequences and development”, or “rich archives of lore that could intimidate Tolkien’s ghost” are not to be found here. Instead, the story is a threadbare mention of some big bad and your four characters have blanker slates than the prisoners in Dungeon Master, ready for you to customise as you see fit then kick out of the nest without so much as a +1 cloth armour to protect them.
Party creation isn’t complicated in Antharion and as such doesn’t demand immaculate planning and endless re-rolls to get that perfect Fairy Ninja, but there’s enough stats and skills to keep things interesting . Each character can be assigned a variety of your standard fantasy fare races like Orcs, Elves, and er, Necrophilians, and classes like Ranger or Black Mage, which determine starting stats and skills. However from here, each character can freely train any skill and equip any weapon, meaning the development system is basically classless. You want a wolfman wizard that’s handy with broadswords? You got it! An undead warrior who likes to brew some herbal refreshments in his free time? No problem! Like the generous spoiling Uncle that annoys your parents, Antharion nods gently and gives you the freedom to play with everything. As you might guess – this means Antharion veers away from the “you have to live with choices that mean missing out on stuff” school, and it appears – in principle – feasible to make a party that will be able to do absolutely everything by the end of the game.
After creating a party, you are then given a relatively flimsy excuse to escape from a prison that is inexplicably hidden in a well under a backwater village, because of course it is, and head out explore the world at your leisure. There is a main quest, but you are basically free to ignore it and wander off into the forest to brutally slaughter the local wildlife for their precious furs or ambush seemingly innocent Orc encampments for their sweet treasure chests. This means, of course, you can pretty much take the most reasonable option and head straight towards the end-game areas with a level 1 party. You’ll quickly be assassinated by level 50 puppies, but at least Antharion doesn’t force you with invisible walls or bridges that have been destroyed by Magic McPlot-Device. This is a refreshingly grown up approach that in many ways makes exploring the world and progressing more rewarding. Antharion also doesn’t even try to stop you from doing probably not a good idea things like immediately attacking the first major plot NPC.
Given this apparent attitude then, it may come as a surprise when some of the seams begin to tear, revealing limitations in other aspects of gameplay. There are a few elements of the design which surely seem like oversights – you can’t change the order of your party, for example, which means if your first two characters are squishy wizard types, they’ll start off most action face to face with some smelly mouth breathing Orcs [update: the devs since provided a warning notice in the party creation screen. It’s something.] Characters also cannot be renamed, as I found out after forgetting to rename “Player 4”. Oops. A lot of the stats aren’t explained in depth, some aren’t even shown – there is no way to see a character’s damage ability, accuracy, defense ability or chance to block with a shield. While the game does specify broad rules such as strength contributing to melee damage, there is no explanation of how much impact investing each point into stats like strength or skills like pickpocketing will have. These aren’t really game-breaking but the omissions seem a little strange for an old school RPG.
More frustrating was some of the UI design oversights which have, thankfully, since been addressed in patches. You couldn’t move your party with the keyboard in combat, despite being able to otherwise, and selecting enemies in combat became frustrating as the cursor didn’t highlight what it was over. You can quickly switch weapons with a hotkey, but it only switches the weapon and not a shield. Meaning you have to manually reequip the shield every time. Defense didn’t seem to affect shields either, making shields even less useful. All of these have been fixed or addressed in recent patches.
As for combat, which is arguably the most important aspect of an old school RPG, Antharion has fast and simple combat which can be quite fun once you’re party has some pretty gear and spells. The combat is turn-based in all its glory – characters each have action points which cost 1 each to move per space, and actions like using an item or swapping weapons also consumes a point. Attacking or spellcasting requires at least 1 point, but afterwards ends the character’s turn. Accuracy of ranged attacks and spells generally reduces over long distances, and line of sight does matter (to a degree). This naturally necessitates some basic tactics in your approach.
However, while it is fun and quick, it is somewhat basic for an old school RPG. Formation and position don’t technically matter – enemies are free to waltz right past your tank to chew on your mages. In theory at least. Reading a forum posts by the developer (and gameplay seems to confirm it so far), it seems the AI has been programmed to select targets based on their position. So if your tank is in front of a caster, the AI is most likely to target the tank. While this gives a rough approximation to the more usual systems to make positioning important, it’s not quite the same as some actual movement restrictions and staple strategy elements like defensive positions, backstabbing, attacks of opportunity or overwatch systems are not present. The offensive side of combat – that is the attacking and spellcasting, suffer a similar mix of tasty fast paced action with a bit of over-simplicity for the genre. Combat-orientated characters in particular are limited to attacking with the equipped weapon. There are no usable abilities or traits or anything like that. Spellcasting is similarly straightforward, but does provides a more interesting range to pick from. Aside from the usual fireballs or heals, options such as a web or teleport spell give magic some much needed variety. Unfortunately mages tend to require a ton of mana and resting to be useful, and while that makes sense in concept for balance reasons, it feels a little too limiting (a recent patch claims to rebalance this a bit, however).
Having written all this, the obvious point here is that I’m relying on the view/assumption that anyone interested in old school RPGs is fond of the more complex systems and tactics of things like ye olde D&D-based ‘Gold Box’ games, or The Bard’s Tale, etc. Most of the negatives I pointed out due to expectations or preferences based on this particular subset of RPGs. With those preferences aside Antharion is much less involved with states and rulebooks and more action and exploration orientated.
Whether the ‘old school RPG but RPG-lite’ aspect is by design or oversight is still hard to tell. On one hand Antharion looks like it wants to be unashamedly old school – enemies in the first areas can kill you, freedom to explore means wandering into potentially dangerous areas from the get go, and it does not railroad or handhold you with quest direction or progressions (it’s up to you to decide when to level and when to resume the main quest), there’s a ton of stats and skills to freely tweak, and a minimal plot without little exposition all suggested to me at first that the game is aimed at old school gamers like me, who did grow up with arcane rules and penciling in dungeon traps on maps on grid paper (rather than using it for math homework). On the other hand, the underlying systems are relatively shallow (for this genre) – fighter classes have no abilities or combat skills aside from hitting things with an equipped weapon, characters do not have any distinguishing active or passive traits at all, and positioning is only tactical in the most basic sense. It seems Antharion doesn’t want to make it too hard on you, and keeps things simple. If it wasn’t for the trappings of the genre, this probably wouldn’t be an issue.
The game is still a joy to play, even if not as involved as it could have been, and has a ton of content to discover, freedom to work in any order you want and customise your party how you want, and is full of branching shady looking paths and treasure chests to find. If you are looking for a challenging but straightforward tactical RPG, Antharion delivers. But if you are drawn to the old school allure of complex tactical combat systems such as D&D, Nethack and its spawn, Final Fantasy Tactics, Helherron (for the five or so people who have played it), etc you may find Antharion lacking. If you are more excited by the action, exploration and adventure aspects, Antharion may be a more pleasing experience.
Posted on July 29, 2015, in RPG and tagged $15-20, Influence: Avernum, Influence: Eschalon, Orphic Software (developer), Party-based, Tactical, Turn-based, Western cRPG, Windows. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.