Hidden Gems of Game Design: Volume 11

Digging into Victor Vran, Earthlock, and Spellforce: The Order of Dawn

Hidden Gems of Game Design: Volume 11

There are plenty of amazing games that go unnoticed and are not widely played for one reason or another. Maybe it's a diamond in the rough, or the marketing wasn't there, or it could be a game ahead of its time. For this monthly series, I've asked my fellow writers on SUPERJUMP to pick a game they think is deserving of a chance in the spotlight. Let us know your favorite hidden gems in the comments.

Josh Bycer

Victor Vran (2015)

source: Haemimont Games

The ARPG genre has become almost an institution in terms of the developers who make them, and the kind of gameplay we see from it. Would you believe that a very impressive ARPG came out not from a studio with a combat background or RPG, but from a city builder? Victor Vran was developed by Haemimont Games, who are better known for doing the Tropico series and city builder games. I still don’t know what led them to want to make an ARPG, and what they created may not have been the most original in terms of stories, but it is one of the more forward-thinking in terms of gameplay.

We play as monster hunter Victor Vran, curiously voiced by Doug Cockle who may have also played another famous monster hunter. Victor hears voices, and has a mysterious past… as all monster slayers do. He has arrived in a strange city that seems to be monster central in some vagueish European town to find a friend. Standing in his way, of course, is every variety of monsters, ghosts, undead, and other beasts.

If you’re hoping for an original plot with a well-developed story… this is not that game. Every objective relies on you pointing Victor in the direction of mobs of enemies and going to town on them. What you do get out of this game is a surprisingly fresh take on ARPG gameplay. The two things that define your combat strategy are your “class” at the start and the weapons you use. Each class simply defines how Victor builds up “overdrive”, or his super meter. When the meter is full, you are able to unleash special overdrive powers that are designed to be your ace in the hole. Each class has a different way of building it, but they do not impact the utility or combat in any other way.

Combat is more about action, than a traditional ARPG. source: Steam

The different weapons in the game are more build-defining than they are in other ARPGs, with one exception I’ll talk about later. Every weapon comes with three different attacks and different rules for using them. The scythe lets you gain soul tokens when using its primary attack; which can be spent to enhance the other skills. The hammer may be super slow and hard to aim, but it hits like a nuke, does AOE damage, and grants you life steal by using the secondary attack.

You are free to use any two weapons that you want and can swap between them with a push of a button. Due to how the cooldowns work, you typically want to use all the skills of weapon 1, then swap to weapon 2 and use that until the cooldown is up, then rinse and repeat. Unlike other ARPGs, even though there is procedural generation on gear, there are far fewer permutations in Victor Vran. You can power up weapons that you like, but ultimately, the game tends to favor more of an action strategy – find the two weapons with the passives you want, and then power them up and stick with them.

The levels in Victor Vran are handmade (not procedural), and this opens up the game to something that we don’t normally see from the genre – stage challenges. Every stage will have a variety of challenges that revolve around different themes – beat X amount of enemies with a specific weapon, find X, and so on. Complete them, and you’ll gain bonus experience and treasure chests with randomized loot.

To make things harder, you can turn on curses that modify the enemies in interesting/masochistic ways like having them auto-regen health. The more of these you have on, the more gold and better item chance you’ll get. For the game’s hardest challenge of playing on hard difficulty, every curse is turned on for every stage and you can’t disable it during a run.

Victor Vran is one of those games that could only come from a studio not familiar with the usual trappings of the ARPG genre, as it plays very differently from everything else out there. With that said, it does have some slip-ups that come with being a new game from the developers. Loot design is one of the weakest of the genre. While there are multiple weapons and rarities, it doesn’t have the same sense of progression we see in other games. You’re not going to be finding tons of gear here – with loot only rarely (and randomly) dropping from enemies, and found in chests. While you can use unwanted gear to enhance the ones you’re using, there is a limit per stat of how high you can raise it.

the gear classes was an interesting choice that would then go on to inspire other ARPGs. Source: Steam

The idea of having the harder curse modifiers is interesting, but at the same time, they greatly reduce the viable ways of playing the game. Having enemies always regenerate health means that the best strategies are about just dumping as much damage on them in as few hits as possible to try and overwhelm them.

As mentioned earlier, game's story is pretty generic, with Victor constantly musing about things. You are accompanied by a disembodied voice who acts as comic relief, who will probably wear out its welcome sooner than later.

With that said, Victor Vran shows that there is room in the ARPG genre to look at action design, and we could see several games use this as their inspiration. When Diablo 3 came to consoles, the developers implemented a real-time dodging system much like Victor had. And when Warhammer 40K Inquisitor Martyr was released in 2018, it took the concept of gear determining skills much further.

Today, Victor Vran feels like a product out of time. If you haven’t played it yet and are an ARPG fan, I would give it a try to see a slightly different way of handling the genre.

Andrew Johnston

Earthlock (2016)

source: Steam

Any fan of indie games knows that PS2 nostalgia has been creeping into the indie space over the last few years as the sixth generation has gone retro. Most of these nostalgia games are RPGs, probably because this was the beginning of the end of the big-time JRPG. This was an age in which industry experts declared that "Everything is an RPG Now", and those experts feel the industry is just now truly returning to form.

But the folks at Snowcastle Games were aping the style of PS2 RPGs before it was cool. Thus we have Earthlock, their first release - and it was a really sloppy release. There are actually two versions of the game: The initial 2016 release (termed Earthlock: Festival of Magic) and the later 2018 version (sans subtitle). The first version was an absolute mess that clearly featured a load of cut content. That content was reinserted for the later version, along with a thorough rewrite of the script.

The plot of Earthlock is pretty standard, following everyman scavenger Amon and his ragtag group of weirdos on a quest to uncover the secrets of their world and stop a usurper from misusing those secrets. Umbra, the world itself, is much more interesting. A cataclysm has stopped the planet from rotating, meaning that half of the world is a desert under perpetual daylight while the other half is lost in an eternal, wintry night.

Earthlock's combat system is an interesting divergence. It is built around an FFX-style staggered turn-based system but with a few quirks. Each character has multiple stances with radically different abilities, and switching between those stances is critical to winning hard fights. Individual fights also give little experience on their own, but there are bonuses for winning quickly or fighting large, diverse groups of monsters. Gaining levels quickly means staging fights to stack those bonuses.

source: Steam

But maybe the best part of Earthlock is something that critics of the time didn't like: The graphics design. As with the basic combat system, the visuals draw heavy inspiration from PS2-era Final Fantasy titles. While the assets are quite simple, there's still a lot of detail put into this desert world. Umbra is at once familiar and exotic, with locations that differ enough from the norm to be memorable.

Earthlock 2 is already in development. We'll see if the next game irons out the issues from its progenitor, but the first still has a lot of charm and a few elements that future throwback JRPG developers should consider.

Antony Terence

Spellforce: The Order of Dawn (2003)

screenshot from the platinum edition source Steam: 

I fondly remember publisher JoWood (acquired by THQ Nordic) by its uncut gems, experiences that blended genres or flipped tropes while falling short of their true potential. Spellforce’s two-decade-old legacy is one such experiment, bringing together real-time strategy and role-playing in a mix we take for granted today. While Spellforce: The Order of Dawn’s strategy elements weren’t as refined as the competition (a year after WarCraft 3), its RPG chops and design cascades salvaged what was otherwise a mundane experience.

By design cascades, I mean the freedom that Spellforce grants you. As a rune warrior in the world of Eo, your life force is tied to a rune stone. This makes you immortal at the cost of serving whoever owns said stone. The protagonist is an exception though, with a mage freeing you from slavery by giving you your rune stone. It’s ironic and rather fitting that the next thing you do is use worker runestones to summon slaves of your own.

Spellforce’s missions give you access to runestones via chests or vendors scattered across imposing maps, offering warriors and heroes from six races, each with unique traits and resource requirements. These units are summoned at monuments devoted to a single race.

But your character walks the “chosen one” trope with an imposing skill tree that turns you nigh invincible to enemy attacks. Leveling up, slotting points into attributes, and learning spells might sound pedestrian in 2023. But striding into battle with a range of units feels incredible, especially with a hero to control at the helm.

screenshot from the Platinum Edition. Source:Steam

Entering the game’s third-person mode with the protagonist gives Spellforce’s battles a sense of intimacy sorely missing from games of its time. Its graphics are solid by 2003 standards and this makes battles and their special effects even more satisfying.

The game even has nifty ability bars that highlight abilities based on whether you’re targeting a foe, a friend, or yourself. This makes spell-casting a simple two-step process instead of rummaging through individual unit menus. The devs at Phenomic tried to make Spellforce’s abundant menus less of a chore and it shows.

The game is still tiresome at times thanks to hulking enemies with massive health pools that take minutes to vanquish. Fetch quests that ask you to walk from one end of the map to another were just as infuriating. Enemy camps are deliberately placed to level your character up so skipping them only makes your life harder. While zooming in to see your customized protagonist and their army is impressive, combat is where Spellforce begins to stumble.

Without an “attack move” command that was already the industry norm, your army’s iffy pathfinding and error-prone directions mean that you’ll spend an absurd amount of time just getting your troops to fight. Mages run heedlessly into combat with zero mana and your healers are just as brave. Even your protagonist isn’t immune, especially in their third-person view where attacks need to be landed right next to enemies. It made for an additional micromanagement hassle that I wouldn’t appreciate as much today as I did when I was younger.

All these battles featuring a diverse cast of races and characters would mean little without a plot that ties everything together. Shifting through forums and posts made me realize that Spellforce has quite a number of twists and revelations. Its level design also sets up unique encounters, be it fighting multiple battles across the map or tossing your strategy out mid-level for a new one. Spellforce’s world is one worth exploring but its disastrous voice acting rid me of any interest in its narrative arcs.

screenshot from the Platinum Edition. Source: Steam

Having spent a good amount of time in Spellforce 3, I can hardly compare the two. Both games share a burning ambition of marrying strategy with role-playing but the older game takes far more risks, making it the game I’d play despite the sequel’s refinements. Absurdly impossible enemies or situations forced me to strategize and brute force my way through them. It’s the kind of challenge that fascinated me as a kid, one that rewarded me with nostalgia in exchange for my then-boundless patience and curiosity.

Spellforce: The Order of Dawn is ridiculously large by RTS standards, clocking in at over a hundred hours of content. And that’s before you get to its two expansions. While you’re better off reading about its narrative beats online, the world of Eo has a sense of irreplaceable charm that is well worth a casual exploration. Spellforce stumbles quite often but you can’t help but admire the impossible weight it attempts to lift.

Thanks for reading, come back next month for another entry and more great hidden gems to check out! You'll find all previous Hidden Gems stories here.


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