Simile-based advertising, long a favorite of marketing types in justabout every industry, is a double-edged sword. It simplifies anadvertiser's life by offering a fast and direct means of getting acrossto a potential customer what's inside the box. You ease the demands ofexplaining your product to an easily distracted public when you canpoint at something else and say, "See that? Like that."
The downside, of course, is invoking names from the past unavoidablyinvites comparison and creates in the audience an expectation that thenew product will be better than, or at the very least on par with, theold. By bringing up the names of Diablo and Dungeon Siege, two franchises that have achieved enviable levels of success, Meridian4's The Chosen: Well of Souls has taken the risky path of lining itself up against some very stiff competition.
The Chosen: Well of Souls is technically sound, and kudosto the developers at Rebelmind for that. I had initially expected toweave a tale of buggy woe, as within the first hour of playing I hadone crash-to-desktop and three hard locks; since then, however, thegame has performed flawlessly. Either I was extremely unlucky at thestart or I've been even luckier since, but overall the game has been anabsolute rock. It even alt-tabs like a champ, an important feature forthose of us who don't just game when we game.
The landscapes are also attractive. It's not going to make you forget about Crysis, or even Oblivion, but the environs in Well of Soulsare certainly prettier than those found in its aforementioned (althoughadmittedly dated) competitors. Even compared to more recent offeringslike Titan Quest, Well of Souls stands out. Itsrenderings of lush jungles, medieval cities and rocky, barren desertsare respectable eye candy at the very least.
Unfortunately, the good news is also the bad news, because that'sall there is. Solid technical chops does not a great game make; it'swhy id games are the target of seemingly endless heaps of scorn while abug-ridden nightmare like Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlinesis held up as a pinnacle of design excellence. And as much as the gamesucceeds technically, it fails in virtually every other area.
Character creation is almost a direct lift from Diablo. In The Chosen: Well of Souls,you play one of three classes: a beefy, sword-swinging goon; a mysticwielder of magical energies; or a lithe, agile (and, continuing thepattern of similarity, female) master of long-distance death.Attributes are split between the familiar four categories of strength,dexterity, knowledge and vitality, with a player's health and manalevels derived from them, while a class- and level-based skill treerounds out the proceedings.
It was at the character creation screen, in fact, that I felt the first pangs of trepidation over Well of Souls.Deciding to play the Swordsman (having learned long ago that hokeyreligions and ancient weapons are no match for a good sword at myside), I was introduced to the character with the following:
"Born in the Tien-Szan Mountains, Khan has trained in themartial arts since early childhood. His goal has always been to use hisabilities to help the oppressed. He is known as the Blade of Spring,and has become synonymous with terror among the demons. Everywherepeople suffer Khan appears to ease their burden. He has become a legendfor his battles against the mountain demons, the Qi-Mei."
Impressive, no? You can't help but feel a tingle. As it turns out,however, The Blade of Spring, Legend of the Mountains and Terror of theQi-Mei apparently forgot all his stuff back in Tien-Szan, because hearrives in the demon-infested city of Kamieniec armed with a branch.
That's a tree branch I'm talking about, as in stick you'd pick upoff the ground during a nice walk through the woods on a brisk autumnafternoon. With this, and nothing else - no armor, no shield and noactual skills to speak of (perhaps Khan's branch fell out of a tree andstruck him an amnesia-inducing blow to the head) - the Blade of Springhas arrived to strike fear in the hearts of the demon horde.
OK, so Khan's lack of actual demon-killing cred shouldn't come astoo much of a surprise; new characters in games like these generallystart with no appreciable equipment or experience, pre-fight hypenotwithstanding. But the yawning chasm between the sizzle and the steakleft me a tad apprehensive about what other bits of oddness might bewaiting for me.
I would find out soon enough. While the Well of Souls character creation is straight out of Diablo, the actual gameplay in is pure Dungeon Siege:Your avatar moves through an attractively-rendered and wholly-linear 3Denvironment, putting the hurt on hordes of monsters, all of whom areapparently on some kind of perpetual smoke break, as he goes. You willbe assisted along the way by three separate entities of varyingusefulness: humans, demons and "helpers."
Humans are placed at various locations throughout the levels toserve as semi-random encounters. Some carry melee weapons while othersare packing heat, but they all have one thing in common: Their shirtsare a distinctive shade of red. On rare occasions you'll end up beingfollowed by a large group of them, six or eight at a time, which can behandy simply for the collective firepower they can bring to bear; moreoften, though, you'll be teamed up with individuals, and I urge you notto grow too attached to any of them. Even the redoubtable BorisBoguslav, whose reputation literally precedes him, is distinguishablefrom most of the game's other meat-slab punching bags only by virtue ofhaving a name.
Your remaining backup options spring from more otherworldly sources,either as a golem or neferkar (a small, fairy-like Egyptian spirit ofprotection) or in the form of demons you'll acquire as you play. Golemsare large, tough heavyweights, handy in a fight and able to absorbpunishment as well as dish it out; neferkar, being more akin tohouseflies that spit, are essentially useless. Both can be summoned atwill and healed with scrolls purchased from the Society of Alchemists.
Demons operate a little differently. Unlike most RPGs and other fictional depictions, demons in The Chosen: Well of Soulsare neither good nor evil, and are happy enough to sign up with justabout anyone who comes along and asks. Demons are controlled by Faith,similar to a self-replenishing mana pool, except that instead ofpowering spells, it allows you to summon infernal beasts from otherdimensions. They're immortal and fearsome fighters, fantastic alliessave for one rather glaring flaw: Like drag racing or sex, demons lastonly about 10 seconds at a time, and since Faith replenishes at a slow,fixed rate they cannot be immediately re-summoned like the golem orneferkar.
Facing off against you and your stalwart pals is a bestiary that cangenerously be described as limited. The game offers only a fewdifferent monster species on each level, creating variety, such as itis, by dividing each species into five types: Velox, the melee-fightingbase model; Mitter, who throw rocks; Incantator, who throw spellsinstead of rocks; Sanar, who can resurrect other fallen monsters; andMagnus, basically the same as Velox but roughly doubled in size and hitpoints. Aside from minor variations in coloring - and size in the caseof the Magnus sub-species - the enemies are virtually identical to oneanother save for their attack types. Largely as a result, strategy inthe game can be reduced to "Kill Sanar first." Everything else is justclicking on the nearest bad guy.
This is where the wheels start to come off. You will click. And youwill click. You will click some more. You will continue to click untilyour mouse, your finger or your patience gives up under the strain. Toparaphrase the Bard, "The click's the thing wherein you'll causepermanent tendon damage to your fing(er)." And while it's true thatmany other games don't offer a whole lot more in the way of actualgameplay, they're able to disguise this fact by rewarding the playerwith a definite sense of progress as he makes his way through the game.New and more challenging enemies appear; equipment becomesprogressively more powerful and effective; wealth accumulates. The Chosen: Well of Souls,on the other hand, provides none of this. Along with repetitivegameplay, you'll also encounter repetitive levels, enemies and lootdrops; your character at level 20 is very likely to be using largelythe same type of equipment as he was at level one. It's a very damagingaspect of the design; without "money and stuff" to measure youradvancement, it becomes easy to lose sight of why you're bothering toplay the game in the first place.
The game does attempt to insert a layer of strategy by introducingday-night cycles and designating some monsters as nocturnal, makingthem tougher and more dangerous at night. But there's no gradualprogression from day to night to allow the player to prepare for thechange, or even as a nod to realism. One minute the sun is up and it'sday; the next, the sky is dark and it's night. Not that it amounts tomuch beyond a slightly-increased rate of potion guzzling - and believeme, you'll be doing a lot of that, no matter what time it is - andanyone sufficiently determined to avoid the heightened difficulty canskip night-fighting entirely by just standing around waiting for thesun to magically and instantaneously appear in the sky. It's aninteresting idea that's reduced to near-worthlessness as a result ofstumbling execution.
Numerous other small issues plague the game throughout. The voiceacting is bad, particular the cut-scene narration, which actuallyapproaches Beyond Divinity in terms of brain-jarringawfulness. Equipment wear occurs at such a rapid pace that I began towonder if it was actually broken; the few magical items I found orpurchased deteriorated so quickly that I simply could not keep up withmaintenance, and having expended what little gold I had accumulated onrepairs, I was forced to abandon them in favor of making do withwhatever happened to be dropped by dead monsters. Camera height cannotbe adjusted, and while the camera can be zoomed with the mouse wheel,camera rotation, a far more important function, is keyboard only.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must make an admission: I didn't finish the game. The now-defunct Computer Gaming Worldmagazine had a rule dictating that reviewers were required to play agame to completion before they wrote their review; Old Man Murray, onthe other hand, said once that if a game wasn't fun within the first 10minutes there was no good reason to think it wasn't going to suck allthe way through. Caught between these two extremes, I settled on what Ifelt was a more-than-fair compromise: I put my head down and bulledthrough hour after tedious hour until not even guilt was enough topropel me further. It takes a lot to keep me from the end of a game,and in that sense, The Chosen: Well of Souls is in rare and elite company.
The Chosen: Well of Souls never descends into the realm ofthe truly bad, but neither does it manage to be good. Ultimately, itfails not on a catastrophic and memorable scale, but on a mundane andforgettable one, the victim of odd design choices, minor bugs andunrelenting monotony. The game does nothing that hasn't been donebefore and done better. There's just nothing here to recommend; gamerswho are tired of Dungeon Siege but can't get enough Dungeon Siege-styleaction might find something to like in it, but anyone not fitting thatparticular demographic would be better taking a pass.