The Dark Eye is a German role-playing game released in the early '80s that outsells the far more famous Dungeons and Dragons in its home country. Both take place in fantasy role-playing worlds powered by magic and populated by monsters, but The Dark Eye’s setting is much darker than DnD’s traditional high fantasy. Hugely popular in Europe, it has thus far failed to make much of an impression elsewhere.
As with DnD, there have been numerous versions of the pen and paper game brought to screens over the years, and to date the attempts have been moderately successful. The original Realms of Arkania trilogy from the ‘90s still has a loyal following, and brought the property to an international audience. The Drakensang games of the late 2000’s were also relatively well-received and earned critical acclaim in Germany. Demonicon is the latest, from unknown developer Noumena Studios.
Demonicon puts players in the role of Cairon, a young man with a “dark family secret” unknown to even himself. This secret shares a history with some troublesome demon worshippers harassing the local populace, and after Cairon rescues his sister in the first act and unlocks his innate magic gift, he sets out to discover who or what is behind all the trouble, which also sheds light on his mysterious lineage.
The core plot itself is interesting, and initially there are some potentially captivating moments, with players forced to make difficult moral choices. There are even occasions where the game takes a very dark turn and offers an unconventional perspective on uncomfortable or taboo subjects. Sadly it’s all very poorly written or badly translated – or perhaps both – so what should be compelling feels almost comical due to stilted conversations and oddly-phrased dialogue.
This has the effect of robbing all drama and tension from each revelation, just as each hits what should be its crescendo. It’s a very deflating experience, and something that unfortunately occurs often.
Outside the main plotline is a trope-laden tale peppered with bland and two-dimensional characters, generic encounters, and a serious sense of “been there done that” that follows the player for the majority of the game. When all taken together, the adventurous travels promised in Demonicon instead feel like walking an oft-travelled path with no adventure or mystery left to motivate the player onwards. The real tragedy here is that there are hints of something truly great amongst all the detritus of half-realised ideas and recycled plot devices.
The linear nature and action focus of this hack ‘n’ slash RPG certainly don’t help it stand out. As in The Witcher, the combat in Demonicon is based around timed attacks that string together to make ever-increasing combos. These combos can also be extended with magical or special attacks to deal with crowds or larger creatures. On paper it seems like a solid system, however unlike The Witcher, the combat here lacks a natural flow, and the animations fail to present the combat in a way that allows the player to smoothly extend combos.
The clunky nature of the animations further hampers things by making it hard to time combos that have longer animation cycles. It’s a flawed system that given a bit more time and polish could have been very enjoyable – instead it’s frustrating and even worse, it’s boring.
Graphically, Demonicon is competent if unexceptional. This isn’t a triple-A title with unlimited funds and a multi-year development cycle, but while not impressive, the graphics do an adequate job of setting the tone and representing everything in a recognisable fashion – even if the game lacks a personality of its own.
The one shining point of the game – especially in the first 6-10 hours – is the progression system, which sheds some of the bells and whistles that fans of The Dark Eye cherish, but at the same time offers a very world-appropriate take on improving a character’s skills and abilities. Progression is split between active combat and magic skills and passive adventure traits that improve abilities like haggling, lock picking, or the ability to learn more about locations and creatures.
It’s a well thought-out system that ties traits to stats so that careful thought needs to be put into the area a player wants to improve. What might seem like an obvious choice initially can actually lead to difficulty later down the line when Cairon is unable to gain important information from an NPC, or lacks the skill to open a door or upgrade an item, for example.
Unfortunately, the design of the system makes it seem much more confusing and counter-intuitive than it actually is, and after a while progression becomes merely linear improvement rather than defined and directed development. Again, it seems that a lack of time and money played no small part in shaping the final product.
Ultimately what Noumena Studios has delivered is a lacklustre and utterly generic fantasy adventure that isn’t so much bad as it is completely uninteresting. There are some great ideas in here, which makes the overall failure to deliver on any of them all the more disappointing.
Nevertheless, Noumena Studios has shown that it has a concept for the game it wants to make, and with some more experience and direction it could — if given another chance — deliver a game more than worthy of The Dark Eye label.