Tuesday, June 07, 2005


I wrote last week that the three best PC games I’ve played this year have all been low-budget games by independent developers: Darwinia, Mount & Blade, and Fate. I’ve discussed Darwinia and Mount & Blade at length, so today I’m going to discuss Fate.

Here’s the short version: Fate is a terrific game. Absolutely terrific. I’ve played for fifteen hours and the game just keeps getting better and more interesting. Remember the name Travis Baldree (producer/design/programming/art direction), because Fate is a textbook example of excellent game design.

Here are some basics. Fate is a single-player game with a ¾ overhead perspective, and it borrows from the Gaunlet/Diablo dungeon crawl tradition. However, and this is a big however, it also uniquely extends the genre and does so with an enormous amount of personality and style.

It has so much personality, in fact, that I far prefer Fate to the single-player mode in Diablo. It’s not even close.

Fate isn’t ambitious in a conceptual sense. Your character is an intrepid adventurer sent into a dungeon to defeat Foozle. The genius of this game, though, is that it can take an exhausted concept and fill it with fresh air. The world of Fate is vibrant and fun.

Here’s why: choices.

To start with, there’s your pet. You choose to have a dog or cat as a pet when you begin the game. I chose the dog, and so a little terrier follows me around. As an example of the level of detail that went into this game, the dog’s animation is outstanding. He doesn’t just follow you—he runs off to investigate things, he sits beside you and wags his tail, he barks.

In other words, he acts like a dog.

Your pet isn’t a throwaway, either—it’s a key part of the game. When your pet is fed fish, it transforms into another animal—a giant lizard, a wolf, a unicorn, a giant spider—well over a dozen different animals. It all depends on the type of fish you feed your pet, and to get those fish you can either pay a vendor or catch them yourself. Fishing is quite fun, and you sometimes get the added reward of a magical item being found inside a fish.

Remember what I said about choices? Trying to decide which fish to feed your pet in a dungeon is a critical strategic element to the game. A pet transformed into a relentless beast makes a tremendous difference in your combat abilities. The most powerful transformations, though, usually only last for two minutes, so you must constantly evaluate the strength of your pet, whether it needs healing, and how long his current transformation will last. The idea of a transforming pet creates a wealth of strategic options in combat and an endless number of possible approaches. There are even chances to permanently transform your pet with the right fish (but I'm keeping my terrier, thanks very much).

Choices create variety, and that’s what Fate does so brilliantly. Weapons? There are hundreds, and they all look different, sometimes spectacularly so. Not only that, but many of them have individual names, further distinguishing them. Some also have sockets where gems can be installed, and the capabilities of the weapon change depending on which gems are used.

Armor? Again, hundreds of variations, all visually distinct and many individually named.

Magic spells? Just as plentiful.

The naming of weapons and pieces of armor creates instant lore, so to speak. It gives the world a rich, distinctive feel, and while the story may be simple, it takes place in a richly detailed, vibrant world.

Weapons also have skill requirements, and this creates more choices. After gaining a new level for your character, do you add dexterity points to enable use of a magical crossbow, or do you allocate them to strength to enable the wearing of significantly more protective armor? I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve played “just a few more minutes” because I was close to finally using a weapon that I’d had in storage for several levels until my skills were adequate.

There’s a home base, a small village where you can buy supplies from various vendors. Local villagers also give you quests to perform as you fight your way through the dungeon. Completing these quests gives you experience points and added fame, and you’ll often be given an item as an added reward. As another example of choices, if you decide the quest item you retrieved is highly desirable, you can decide to keep it yourself and cancel the quest. Again, choices are everywhere in this game, at every level, and they keep the game fresh.

It’s also possible to use a portal back to the village if you find yourself overmatched in a dungeon. I’ve used that a few times. It’s also, in a design sense, an excellent way to change the flow of the game. You’re not trapped in a dungeon for hours, unless you want to be.

The dungeons themselves are highly detailed, use over a dozen different tilesets (to reduce repetition), and are filled with an amazing assortment of beasts, all beautifully drawn and animated. For the first ten levels of the game, I thought combat was interesting, but around level thirteen or so, when some of the more exotic creatures start to appear, I was immersed to an even greater degree.

Dungeons have several unique elements. For one, there are places where you can fish, and some of the most desirable fish can only be caught inside the dungeon. Also, the levels will regenerate over time, both the design of the level and its creature population.

Here’s another example of the beautiful, meticulous game design. When you die, you’re given three options:
--be restored to full health at your current point, but with a substantial penalty in experience and fame
--be restored to full health and transported to a nearby level, for a payment in gold
--be restored to full health and transported three levels up, but all your gold remains

There’s even a fourth option—you can choose to quit and your game will be continued at the last loading point (a level entry or exiting from a town portal). So death, like everything else in this game, is full of strategic choices. And while the second option—transported to a nearby level for a gold payment—looks the best, that nearby level may be up to three levels deeper in the dungeon than where you died. Believe me, it’s usually a hairy trip back down.

Then there’s retirement. If you defeat the last Boss and complete the game, you’ll be given the option to retire your character. If you choose to do so, then your adventurer’s descendant becomes your new character, and the retiring hero can pass one heirloom down to assist the new hero. That is a very nice touch.

It’s quite a package: extraordinary design, meticulously balanced gameplay, a vibrant and detailed world. Surely, though, there must be compromises in such a low budget game, right?

Graphics? Outstanding. The world looks wonderful, it has a high level of detail, and it’s visually very striking.

Music? Some of the most charming music I have ever heard in a computer game, particularly the music while you’re in the village.

Sound? All the voice acting and sound effects are excellent.

Interface? Just outstanding. Everything is so well-laid out and so easy to get to. And while levels are loading, there is an excellent series of game tips that display.

Okay, something must be wrong. The manual must be crappy, right?

Nope. It’s actually far better than most game manuals I’ve read in the last year, and like everything else about the game, is extremely well-written and very clear. You can find it here:

What a triumph. What a great game!

Here’s where to go:
http://www.playfate.com/. You’ll find game information, screenshots, forums, and a download link.

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