Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Best RPG of 2017: Downfall

Occasionally, writing part-time about CRPGs has its benefits. Developers frequently write to me asking if I'd like to take a look and comment on their RPGs in development. I usually say no to such requests--I don't generally have the time--but this one sounded so good from the one-paragraph description that developer Henry Lancaster sent me, I decided to give it a try. Even though it isn't finished, it's one of the best RPGs I've ever played. Henry's company is currently shopping for a publisher, but they have a lot of interest and the game will probably have a 2017 release.

I couldn't get permission to show any screenshots, but I did get permission to offer the first preliminary review on the Internet. I can guarantee that I'm going to plan a week off for this game's release date.

This is my preliminary review of Downfall: End of an Empire by Lancaster Media.


Xaoje: empire of despair. Five hundred years after Xanmaran, the God-Emperor, conquered and unified the 17 kingdoms, most people live without hope. The Precept of Maran teaches that mortal life is meant solely to strengthen souls for the Great War in the afterlife, and to this end, the church enforces a strict caste system, brutal working hours and conditions, and crippling taxation. Many would oppose--even overthrow--the corrupt and merciless Empire, but how does one resist an enemy who can read minds?

Many people have reason to revolt: a child of wealth, disgusted by her family's abuses of its position; a dock laborer whose family was slaughtered by the ruthless Zaüd Seekers; a city guard, haunted by the orders he has carried out; the last survivor of an older religion destroyed by the Maranians. But only one will--through design or luck--come into possession of a vessel containing the soul of Nakata, an assassin of an ancient order. Not strong enough to possess the character, Nakata can only impart some of her will and power. Finding they have common goals, the player and Nakata join minds, skills, and resources to bring about Downfall.

Downfall: End of an Empire takes place in a large city--the capital of the Maranian Empire--and its surrounding environs. The player takes on two roles: the origin character (drawn from one of the scenarios above) and the character he or she becomes when he or she puts on Nakata's cape and cowl and takes to the streets in disguise. The player can choose any name from the origin character but chooses from one of seven names for the assassin; this allows the in-game dialogue to refer to the character by name while still preserving some sense of freedom in character creation.

Although standard weapon-based combat is possible, the game stresses assassination and stealth as its primary mechanic. After the origin story, background, and possession by Nakata, the game becomes completely open. The player must topple the empire by assassinating (or otherwise eliminating) its leaders and functionaries, from the lowliest tax collector to the Emperor himself, but it's completely up to the player to determine who those people are, and in what order to target them. Through research, scouting, reading, listening, NPC dialogue, and other means of acquiring knowledge, he learns who controls what in the Empire and develops his own plan for working his way to the top. The story changes dynamically and plays out very differently depending on the order of execution.

The key is that every assassination produces a reaction. An individual guard may simply be replaced, although the Empire has a limited pool to work from. A mid-level bureaucrat might be succeeded by a more cruel and efficient one--though if the player assassinates several holders of the same office in a row, the Empire may have to leave it unfilled. Eliminate the captain of the guards, and the resulting confusion on the streets may give you a few nights of breathing room--or it might lead to a squad of Zaüd Seekers scouring the poor quarters and killing indiscriminately.

Like any good RPG, the main mission isn't the entire plot. The player needs funds, resources, allies, and practice, and to that end, he or she can take quests from a variety of factions with compatible goals, including a feeble but growing Rebellion, agents from the neighboring Ulanic Republic, the Great Houses, the Merchants' Guild, and the Custodial Confederacy--a secret alliance of mid-level bureaucrats who resent the power of the Zaüd Seekers. As the character gains influence within these factions, he can send them on various economic and military missions, not unlike Dragon Age: Inquisition's "war table," but based on game time rather than real time, and with consequences for specific NPCs the player might care about, rather than just abstract results.
In tone, the environment is similar to George Orwell's 1984 or Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, with a palpable sense of oppressive despair that comes from an immortal ruler who keeps a populace under constant surveillance. In mechanics, the game merges some of the best titles of the recent decade. Think of open-world first-person exploration and inventory similar to Skyrim, an origin story similar to Dragon Age: Origins, NPC dialogue and relationships similar to most Bioware titles, and a stealth and combat mechanic reminiscent of Dishonored.

The half a dozen sectors (including an underground) that make up the capital aren't large, but they're dense. Imagine a city the size of the Imperial City in Oblivion but with as many enter-able structures as the entire game. You find yourself revisiting the same areas frequently, but it's not boring the way it is in, say, Dragon Age II, because you get to experience the visible and audible changes that your efforts have wrought.

As the player is successful in objectives, he or she gains experience, which can be spent directly on skills and abilities. Although a composite character is possible, the game encourages the player to specialize in one or two of five "paths":

  • The Path of Blades stresses traditional weapon-based combat, including melee weapons, archery, and defense.
  • The Path of Traps has a number of skills that allow the player to set both simple and complex traps for the chosen targets after studying their routines and movement paths.
  • The Path of Poison allows the player to specialize in alchemical skills, including poisons of direct and indirect effect. Pour a toxin in the target's drink, dust some powder on his front door knob, frenzy an innocent guard into attacking him for you, or frenzy the target into attacking an innocent--and leading him to be cut down by bewildered guards.
  • The Path of Guile is about speechcraft and persuasion. Get unsuspecting allies of your target to spill secrets and convince others into doing your dirty work. Eliminate targets by planting evidence that gets them fired, arrested, or executed rather than drawing suspicion to you.
  • The Path of Sorcery is about recovering Kata's memories of the arcane arts in the ancient kingdoms. Magic is not flashy and destructive in Downfall; there are no fireballs or meteor swarms. Instead, magic imparts subtle but effective bonuses to the actions taken in the other paths, such as improved weapon skill, more dangerous traps, more deadly poison, and more persuasive cajoling. Different arcane talents can cause distractions, weaken staircases, and even read minds (why should the Zaüd Seekers have all the fun)?

Common to all paths are skills necessary to stay alive and hidden, such as pocketpicking, sneaking, and lockpicking, all of which are handled with controls that blend character attributes with player skill. In between missions, the player can burglarize homes and businesses for equipment and gold. Thefts from the Empire itself, of course, count against its resources and further the player's goals.

The game is not organized into "missions" but rather "nights." Each night, the player has a fixed amount of time to accomplish whatever objectives he or she has set. The next day, the Empire reacts to what he or she has accomplished. That reaction might help set the plans for the next night.

Surviving a night can be difficult. The game bucks the typical RPG by providing few ways to quickly heal. There are no healing spells, and healing balms, salves, splints, and bandages don't work instantly. The character has a health meter, and individual parts of the body can be wounded or broken, with consequences such as slowed movement and reduced visibility. These wounds heal slowly on their own--faster than in real life, of course, but extremely slowly in typical game time--and it's easily possible to bungle an objective early in the evening and have to cut the night short, or do something with limited risk for the rest of the night. Players are encouraged to role-play injuries and other misfortunes rather than simply reloading. Since the player can only save in between nights, reloading isn't as useful as in other games anyway.

Fortunately, there's plenty to do that doesn't involve combat, as the player must use stealth, eavesdropping, burglary, and dialogue to uncover the Empire's secrets. And there are plenty of those. As the game goes on, the player learns that not all is as it seems in the Empire; new facts and perspectives call the very backstory into question. A player who doesn't care about this kind of thing can ignore it, but if you're the type of player willing to commit 4 hours to a burglary mission just to get your hands on a scroll filling in a bit more of Xanmaran's secret biography, this is the game for you. 

While creeping about at night, the player also has to keep up his primary guise. The Seekers are constantly trying to identify the mysterious assassin, probing the minds of anyone who might know anything, and a "Discovery" meter keeps tabs on how close they're coming to fingering the player. Remember: the Empire operates by a strict caste system by which everyone has a job and a place. If the nobleman's child is absent too long from the home and fails to meet social obligations, if the guard stops reporting for guard duty, and so forth, people around him or her start to get suspicious, and it's only a matter of time before the Seekers read that suspicion. Other actions, like getting spotted by guards or Seekers during missions, also serve to increase the "Discovery" bar, while taking a break for a few nights, taking off the cloak and cowl, and checking in to "home base" will cause the "Discovery" bar to drop. Checking into home base also serves as a mechanism for advancing an origin-specific plot and series of quests in which the player will have to make difficult role-playing decisions if he or she wants to maintain the disguise.

The endgame is triggered when the "Discovery" bar reaches the maximum and the identity of the character is revealed to the Empire and everyone else. The player can force this outcome relatively early in the game (by, for example, openly attacking a group of Zaud Seekers); otherwise, a few plot paths will make it inevitable. The nature and difficulty of the final missions, as well as what kind of city arises from the ashes, are dependent entirely on what the player accomplished during the game--number and type of assassinations, number of resources drained from the Empire, and allies made in other factions. When the cry goes up that the assassin is going for the Emperor himself, who will be in front of him, and who will be behind him?


Now that you've read all that, I hope you're as excited for Downfall as I am. Unfortunately, I lied above. There is no Henry Lancaster, and the game is not in development. It exists solely as described on this page. This was the result of a challenge from Irene to conceptualize the type of RPG that I would most like to play. I made up the proper names on the fly in seconds; they could be improved.

Did you like it? Someone go and make it.