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Diablo II left behind a pair of mammoth shoes to fill in the Action RPG category. There have been a few worthy challengers to come by since then - the Greek Myth themed slaughter fest Titan Quest comes to mind - but none have been able to fill that void. It could be that most developers can't match the legendary "polish" that Blizzard Entertainment applies to all of their products.
Depth of Peril, an independent game produced by Soldak Entertainment on a shoestring budget, comes closest to knocking big Diablo off of its nearly decade long reign. It has the addictive hook that a click-em-up like this needs to have any sort of longevity, but it is ultimately undercut by repetitive gameplay, a weak character development system and a sorely missing multiplayer capability. Still, it's an impressive first effort for an independent studio with such a small development team.
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You'll spend a lot of time killing the roaming monsters that inhabit the world of Soldak. Sorry, there aren't any knitting minigames in this RPG - you'll pick your class, go through a quick (and boringly wordy) tutorial and then hop straight into the mass murder. You can choose between four classes: rogue, warrior, priest and mage, all of which have a completely unique character progression path and style of gameplay. As you level up, you get to choose to put points across three different skill trees per class, deciding whether to specialize or spread out your skill points among many different skills.
This is where the game goes awry. Inexperienced RPG players will rapidly find themselves frustrated as they attempt to build a well balanced character without consulting templates online. Although you can easily correct your mistakes at any time by paying a little silver to re-train your character, it's difficult to remain effective as you level up without hyper-specializing your character. It's no fun to continually click the same ability to kill the same monsters for hours on end. You can easily switch up your abilities on the fly, but the lack of built in skill synergies like those implemented in Diablo II's 1.10 patch makes this largely a waste of time.
To make up for a lack of multiplayer, Depths of Peril allows you to carry along a fully equippable minion with you that can take the form of any of the four player classes. You can recruit several NPCs to man your covenant that will vie against many other competitors. You can trade and conduct diplomacy with the other covenants at any time, and hire monstrous guards to protect your home base from attack. This is supposedly what sets this game apart from its competitors.
Once you master the basics of raiding other covenants - and enough gold to pay for all the potions and power-ups that you need to keep your team going - the pseudo-competitive portion of the game loses much of its appeal. The idea of competing against other guilds to complete quests and kill off monsters is clever, but in practice it just distracts from the focus of the game. When you get a message that your base is under attack while you're trying to kill off a ravenous boss monster halfway across the world, the emotional reaction tends to be one of annoyance rather than anticipation for the coming battle.
Despite all this, the core gameplay remains eerily hypnotic. Downloading the demo is very likely to result in the instant onset of a Depths of Peril addiction that can last for a week or more. The simple cycle of constantly increasing rewards acts as a Skinnerian conditioning mechanism that will keep you clicking maniacally like a rat hitting a button for the chance of tasting a few drips of sugar-liquid.
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The difficulty can be customized fully every time you start a game. You can either put yourself up against crushing odds from the getgo or cripple your covenant rivals and the monstrous inhabitants of the world if you derive pleasure from annihilating helpless creatures with ease.
Creating a mediocre character makes the game far more difficult than if you min-max to delight your inner dweeb, but luckily the customizable difficulty makes it so that you can ensure that you don't get stuck.
For a special challenge, you can start a hard core character that doesn't respawn after dying. This brings to mind roguelikes like Nethack, and it does add a tasty adrenaline rush to any dangerous situation you put your character in. It's such a simple change, but it does wonders to boost the game's replayability.
The enemy AI is very predictable, and once you get enough gold to constantly venture out with a full complement of restoritive items, the game world becomes stultifyingly safe. The friendly AI, however, is surprisingly capable, using most of their abilities to the fullest and applying buffs regularly and intelligently. When they get left behind, they instantly teleport to your position, making it impossible to lose track of them.
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Graphics & Sound
The simple 3D engine's art style recalls a combination of the original Ultima Online and Diablo itself. Items that you equip on your character show up accurately. The spell effects are simple but colorful. Fireballs cast a warm glow on the surrounding area as you roast hundreds of ravenous enemies. Loot pops out of demon hordes like candy out of ugly piñatas.
The texture work is simple and blurry, and there just aren't enough monster models to keep things interesting as you grind your character up to level 100. Your characters never look terribly cool or menacing - they remain rather generic no matter how many creatures you kill off. You'll fight through the same set of five or six tilesets with minor recoloring dozens of times as you go through the game. The dungeon tilesets lack variety. Once you fight through the same randomly generated cave and prison a dozen times, you might start to feel your eyes get heavy.
The sound library is a mix of stock effects, a few repetitive music tracks and a few original sounds. It's about what you'd expect from a game of this size, but there are no aural surprises in the depths.
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Depths of Peril relies on a hybrid interface that recalls both Diablo II and World of Warcraft, with a hotbar on the bottom to use your character's various abilities with the number keys. You can keep multiple hot bars, but you can't add extra rows that you can use at the same time. This is a particular problem for characters with a wide skill set - you can't keep all of your abilities on the same screen as your consumables and buffing spells. You click to move around the world and right click to target your enemies and allies.
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This first effort by lead developer Steven Peeler is comendable, but not laudable. It's impressive enough in that everything seems to work relatively well, and the pacing and difficulty of the game are well balanced considering the small size of the testing staff and community. The price of the $19.95 digital download makes it an attractive game to grab while waiting for the eventual release of Diablo 3, but it's not likely that many people will still be playing it by that behemoth title comes out.
The game would have been better served with greater focus on the core gameplay. It's spread much too thin between the covenant competition gameplay and the monster fighting. That would all be forgivable if the character development and combat system were fresh and exciting rather than just being re-heated and poorly balanced versions of more mainstream games.
The independent gaming community has shown with titles like Mount and Blade that it's fully capable of delivering revolutionary gameplay to the masses using direct digital distribution. Depths of Peril breaks little new ground, but it does manage to provide a good fix for action-RPG junkies looking for a quick high.
It's clear from reading interviews and from Peeler's development blog that he has passion for the independent games medium. The fact that a game of this scale and sophistication runs at all despite being developed by such a small team is impressive. Hopefully, Depths of Peril will be sufficiently successful to encourage further development of this title and any others that might be coming up down the line.