++Review: Aarklash Legacy

Rackham, Cadwallon, AT-43… all of these terms carry little to no meaning to the uninitiated. Once upon a time, there was a French company called Rackham (eventually becoming Rackham Entertainment) that wanted to compete in the tabletop miniatures market. After releasing their game, Confrontation, and supplemental Cadwallon paper & pencil role-playing setting, as well as the small squad skirmish game AT-43, they struggled to reorganize, and eventually liquidated. The game itself didn’t do well, forcing their closure, but the setting an those characters who lived within it were memorable. The artists and other designers that worked on the rules books and sculpted the miniatures were peerless, producing some of the most memorable images for any setting, forcing Confrontation into the minds of those who enjoyed the hobby.

Cyanide Studios, a name you should recognize — Blood Bowl, Game of Thrones, Impire, Game of Thrones: Genesis, and many others — was able to acquire the property, wholly. Miniatures, role-playing settings, all of it. And instead of keeping the game where its core competency lies, Cyanide decided to branch the property out into electronic media. The flagship title, Confrontation, is available on Steam, while the board game adaption of Cadwallon: City of Thieves is available via iTunes for the iPad. Aarklash Legacy is the newest entry in the electronic invasion of the Confrontation setting, and refines the gameplay and play-mechanics of the original to great effect.

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Aarklash Legacy (PC[reviewed])
Developer: Cyanide Studios
Publisher: Cyanide Studios
Release: 09/12/2013
MSRP: $20.99
Words by James Bacon

Your squad of four – Nella, fearless leader and mage adept; Wendaroo, Werewolf healer and debuffer; Denzil, Goblin assassin; and Knokka, the bio-construct tank – Are Wheel Swords, sworn to the Goldmongers Guild, and working off a debt through indentured servitude. This servitude involves security protocols, law enforcement, and debt collection… the third of which is where your group of hapless heroes find themselves at the outset. A certain noble house, referred to as “The Lion,” have a debt to pay. There is a war raging across the land, and the Goldmongers have been instrumental in aiding the houses involved by providing coin to run their armies. The war, at this time, has ended, and so you’re sent to collect. With all of the dukes in significant debt to your guild-masters, they decide to decree the Goldmongers are criminals, and all Wheel Swords are to be killed on sight. Fighting their way through the bloodbath they’ve become unwilling participants in, your party decides to head toward a Goldmonger hold in the mountains, to see if anyone else has survived, and to discuss how to deal with this most unfortunate turn of events.

Upon booting up the game, the first thing that struck me was the music, which is not typical. Usually I wait until the end of any given review to mention it, but I was so reminded of Diablo and Tristram, I sat at the title screen just listening for a few minutes to see where it would take me. The rest of the music throughout the game measures up, and though the maps are colorful, as are the characters you control and meet along the way, the music provides levity through its evocatively dark, somber overtones that really hit the isolation your squad is experiencing home.

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Speaking of colorful characters and settings, the hallmark style that Rackham selected to originally bring this property to life remains. I don’t know if Cyanide is employing the same artists, but the soft shading, bright hues, and oddball kibble that adorn the people and creatures in this game are taken right out of the first edition Confrontation rules set. It’s familiar to long-time fans, and inviting to newcomers. The personalities of your cadre are just as colorful, particularly Knokka, who’s the giddiest, happiest, kindest murder machine you’ll ever interact with. Wendaroo is snarly and quick to anger, Nella is brazen and righteous, and all of the other characters you meet along the way have their own quirks, immediately endearing them to you while establishing unique personalities. The voice acting only elevates the dialogue and character quirks.

Speaking of quirks, there is a LOT of… unusual vocabulary in this game. And it’s used wantonly, without explanation, as though we’re already familiar with it, and most of it isn’t used in a way that will make it instantly familiar. This has been a problem with the property ever since Rakham created this world, and it can really take you out of the game. There’s nothing like missing critical bits of information because you’re preoccupied with reasoning out why ‘Wheel Swords’ are called ‘Wheel Swords,’ or to have a jarring spout of nonsense bury the plot beneath a thick layer of verbal detritus. Again, familiar to veterans of this series (though no more understandable), but the kiss of death to new adopters. I really wish there was a lexicon of some sort, either within the game, or without.

Concerning gameplay, it feels a lot like a squad based Diablo (or Baldur’s Gate, if you prefer), except where in Diablo you essentially control a super-human, angel-demon hybrid; in Aarklash Legacy, power is distributed evenly among all of your squadmates… meaning you will have to employ solid combat strategy, without wantonly waltzing into battles, because you will die. I played the game through on normal, and I died a whole bunch. If characters fall in battle there are ways to recover them, but only one of them needs to die for a forced reload. Having said that, this game absolutely sings in combat. The active pause system allows for critical though and strategic development at your own pace, and complete party management without becoming overwhelmed. You can pause, issue orders, unpause, rinse, repeat. Unfortunately, either I couldn’t find how to, or there simply wasn’t a way to issue multiple commands on a single character, but I found that more annoying than critically obtuse. Oh, and, uh… beware the Chimeric bosses. They ain’t no joke.

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The entire game, as you might expect, can be played with the mouse, and it makes for a very smooth experience. Upgradable abilities via skill trees for all available characters allow a surprising amount of customization. Though each character who joins your band, of which there are eight, only has four abilities with which to tackle your foes; each of those abilities has a branching path on the skill tree, each tier of which provides significant upgrades the skill itself, but also provides a decent amount of flexibility with regard to utility.

Cyanide Studios often releases games to very little fanfare, and though often flawed, I find their development decisions interesting and enjoyable. From Impire to Game of Thrones: Genesis, Of Orcs and Men to Blood Bowl, they’re capable of capturing a certain satisfaction that transcends the flaws to deliver a solid gaming experience. Consistently. Aarklash Legacy continues this homegrown trend the studio has made its calling card, but also continues in the more sweeping trend of recent independent games in this style (Shadowrun Returns, Van Helsing) creating interesting settings and challenging play experiences.

Verdict – 8.0 (+Good): Underneath the veneer of colorful and excellent character designs, and interesting battlefield locations, the meat of Aarklash Legacy provides hours of satisfying strategic squad-based combat, and an excellent active pause system with which to approach any given conflict. The difficulty is severe, but not as prohibitive as its precursor, Confrontation, and the music sets the stage for the world spanning betrayals you’ll be responsible for sorting out. Unfortunately, an abusive vocabulary consistently pulls you out of the game, keeping it from scoring higher marks.