Red Faction: Guerilla not only introduced the idea of a fully destructible world, but it remains the only example of it 10 years later. It could have been a revolution. But fully destructible worlds are hard to do. Level designers also have to be architects, because understanding how a building collapses also requires understanding how it’s built. The ingame physics require elaborate rules for destruction. Weight distribution, stress, intricate collision detection, gravity, kinetic energy, all interacting to do something that would be much easier to script with a set of canned animations. It’s much easier to fake it. The rules for chaos are many and complex. That’s why it’s called chaos. So videogame developers carried on, pretending like Red Faction: Guerilla never happened. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. It’s also a perfectly viable approach to game design.
There is no such excuse for why more games don’t copy Depths of Peril, an action RPG with a dynamic world instead of a field that grows loot and monsters to be harvested and grown all over again. Depths of Peril was a revolutionary action RPG in which the world changes as much as the hero. 12 years later and there’s only one guy copying this idea. And he’s the same guy who made Depths of Peril. It’s a failure of videogame development that Soldak Entertainment’s Steven Peeler doesn’t have any competition.
Soldak’s third post-Depths action RPG is Din’s Legacy. Fourth if you count Drox Operative, a fly/fight/trade space action RPG with a similarly dynamic universe. Drox Operative actually has some competition, because developers don’t shy away from the idea of a dynamic universe when they’re doing science fiction. Perhaps because a third of the fly/fight/trade equation involves some sort of economy, and that implies a degree of dynamism. So the X series, Star Traders, Space Rangers, Space Pirates and Zombies — especially Space Pirates and Zombies! — and so on all take an approach similar to Depths of Peril. The universe evolves to varying degrees as you travel through it.
Why isn’t this more common in fantasy games? A fundamental part of fantasy-themed power fantasies is that a lone hero can change the world. As a genre, its most common trope is an imperiled world revolving around a heroic axis. The protagonist has a secret destiny, a unique fate, a place at the center of the world’s engine. He is some Chosen One on a Hero’s Journey. Only he can save Middle Earth by throwing the magic bauble into the crack at the end of the world. So why aren’t these imperiled worlds revolving more dynamically in action RPGs? Why are they static and the hero’s deeds therefore inconsequential? When you kill the Butcher in Diablo, it has no effect other than dropping the Butcher’s Cleaver, which you probably didn’t even want. Kill the Butcher a hundred times and nothing in Diablo’s world will be any different than if you’d killed him zero times. Nothing matters except what level you are and what loot you’ve found. Action RPGs, the ultimate solipsism.
The central fact about the Depths of Peril action RPGs is that the fantasy themed world changes, reacts, progresses. Since the world responds, you matter. Peeler’s games have worked out elaborate rules for a hero’s destiny. Demonic invasions, plagues, scheming monster overlords, uprisings, power doo-dads, captured townsfolk, treasure maps, towers overrun by cultists, orcs waging war on elves. The rules for these fantasy kingdoms are many and complex. Emergent quests in a dynamic fantasy world. One lonely developer has been doing this for 12 years while everyone else just plops a Butcher into a room and calls it a day.
If there were a Butcher in Depths of Peril, and you were to kill him, he would be gone. He wouldn’t spawn more subquests. He wouldn’t get more powerful as he built earthquake machines and anti-magic jammers. The minions in his dungeon wouldn’t level up and make it harder for you to reach him. He wouldn’t eventually open a portal at your town’s gates and send in a bunch of orc mages to attack your walls to get at the NPCs inside. He wouldn’t send you taunts calling you Buttercup even though your character’s name is Wolfhard Darkbringer. Because you killed the Butcher, you mattered. Depths of Peril should have been a Copernican shift in action RPGs. Instead, it’s lucky to be called a cult classic.
So what’s new with the latest title, Din’s Legacy? The visuals have come a long way, even if the character models and animation still fall short of other action RPGs. You could be charitable and call them quaint. But the graphics are clean and combat is easy to read. If I had to choose between the swirl of colorful nonsense in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 and the clear information in Din’s Legacy…? Okay, it would be a tough choice, but they both have their place. Speaking of place, the different biomes in Din’s Legacy look better, with more detail, with rolling hills, misty graveyards, abandoned towns. Where you used to just unfog connected boxes, these maps are more varied, with intricate layouts involving winding roads and secret tunnels. Exploring, discovering, and navigating Din’s Legacy’s procedurally generated worlds is more gratifying than ever.
Because there’s none of Zombasite’s town management or survival gameplay, Din’s Legacy almost feels like a repudiation of the last game in the series. But it also feels like it was built on top of Zombasite, like an imperfectly paved lot over a torn down building. Bits of Zombasite stick out like weeds. Why do I have stats for an NPC’s morale, happiness, and sanity when I’m not doing any NPC management? What do I care if someone in the settlement wants to talk to me for a morale boost? Why do I want to rebuild a house in town when I don’t have to assign people places to live? Why do the NPC screens list traits like “eloquent” or “trustworthy” or “skittish” when character interaction is no longer relevant? Why do they have settlement related skills like jeweler, painter, and actor? Why do I get quests from a clan diplomacy screen when there’s rarely more than one clan on a map? Even more than the rough graphics, these jagged bits of lower-case “L” legacy give Din’s Legacy the flat tint of amateur game development. After 12 years and five games, Din’s Legacy should shine.
The main new feature is mutation. As your character levels up, he gets randomly rolled skills and random skill modifiers. Supposedly, an out of control mutation determines the shape of your character. One wizard might have a fireball spell that also stuns monsters. Another wizard might have a fireball spell that splits into multiple fireballs. Yet another wizard might not even have a fireball spell because the mutation process replaced it with a backstab ability that he’ll never even use. Oh well, that’s one fewer place to spend skill points.
While this might seem unique, it’s not very different from finding an item that boosts a particular skill in Diablo. So I found some pauldrons that make my spider corpse jar do lightning damage. Pauldrons of Electrical Corpse Jars, or some such thing. I didn’t expect to find these, but I did, so here I am playing a build based on the spider corpse jar skill. The mutation system in Din’s Legacy is pretty much the same. So when I mutated, I got a lightning damage bonus to my shield bash. So here I am playing a shield bash character build.
I don’t really intend this as a criticism. It’s an observation that, in practice, the mutation system doesn’t offer anything you can’t get in other action RPGs. The slot machine unpredictability and anticipation that characterizes the loot chase is shifted partly into the character progression. Which is an interesting idea, but the character progression in the Depths of Peril games has always been so desultory anyway. Soldak’s tech trees are referred to as “tech bushes” for how you can just pick whichever berry you want, whenever you want. The mutation system means an occasional berry falls into my basket without me having to pick it, which furthermore minimizes the supposed difficult choice about which character class to play. My approach so far has been to use the easily earned mutation points — you’ll accumulate plenty of these without much to do with them — to make sure I get a healing skill from the healer, which means there’s no point ever rolling up a healer and now I’m not reliant on health potions. In fact, there’s no point rolling up much of anything, since I can spend mutation points to get whatever I want. All those unlockable character classes are awfully enticing when you first boot up Din’s Legacy. Very soon, they’ll seem utterly superfluous.
But what are you going to do, go way back to Din’s Curse, the second game? No need, as this is state-of-the-art for action RPGs in Soldak’s fantasy worlds. If you want the town management and survival challenge of Zombasite, there’s always Zombasite. Din’s Legacy, on the other hand, finds that familiar groove carved out by Soldak’s reliable, effective, and still proprietary formula. The latest lonely member of the Depths of Peril revolution unspools with the same easy pull of any good action RPG. But instead of simply hoovering up loot and experience points, you’re untangling an emergent tangle of quests spawning quests spawning quests, working your way toward saving whichever world you’ve rolled up. Before you know it, you’ve got a high level character not because you were trying to get a high level character; but because you were getting things done that only your hero could do. How nice to be back in a world where you matter for a change.