Gothic

Review by Old Rooster
March 2002

Gothic, a European-developed RPG/adventure/action single-player epic journey, elicits a range of descriptive phrases—incredible character interaction, eerie A.I., sprawling game world, complex and involving story, difficult control scheme, extreme length, lack of initial orientation and direction.

Most of these descriptors would be superlatives; some refer to warts and minor to medium flaws (idiosyncrasies?) in an otherwise remarkable game.

"I Have a Letter for the High Mage"

You, the player and hero, are literally dropped into the Barrier, an otherworldly prison about the size of a county, being run by the inmates. With little background, you are simply instructed by a helping hand to find the Castle in the Old Camp, be wary along the way, and deliver an important sealed letter. Simple enough, isn't it?

But what is the Old Camp, and where are you? Gothic takes place in the land of Myrtana, a society engaged in a bitter war with Orks. Precious materials needed for the war effort have been enclosed within a protective shield called the Barrier. Unfortunately, the Mages who created the shield have been inadvertently trapped inside, along with the resident prison population. A barter-oriented and fractionalized society has evolved among the convicts, who have taken over life inside the Barrier.

Indeed, there are three distinct societies. The Old Camp consists of the original revolters, who generally accept the fact of the Barrier and have set up an uneasy trade of ore for goods/services with the King. Separating from them was a smaller group, termed the New Camp, dedicated to trying to blow up the Barrier in order to get free. And, finally, some religious extremists formed the Brotherhood—a sect growing a hallucinogenic weed, fostering visions, developing and selling magical scrolls, and praying the Barrier will come down. Tension among these three groups runs high, with even the original Mages splitting into Old and New camps.

How Is Gothic Set up and Managed?

Although installing and running fairly well on my system, which is just above the minimum specs, it's clear that one should look to recommended specs, or higher, as the best way to go with this game. I was able to play it but did experience considerable slowdowns and CD accessing, as well as having to turn the graphics down to a minimal level—800x600, 16-bit. Gothic takes about 700 MB of hard drive space, not bad by today's gigabyte+ standards.

Gothic's manual is sparse, perhaps deliberately so. The Barrier is described, as are character types, weapons, skills and talents. Keyboard commands are outlined, and here is where we encounter the most controversial and criticized aspect of Gothic—the controls. No doubt about it; they are different! Third-person movement (with finely done following camera) enables mouse-look for direction and 360-degree panning, but that's all the mousing you can do. Left and right mouse buttons mean nothing, even with menu selections. Instead, you have two-key combinations for virtually everything you desire. Ctrl+arrow up is used to perform actions (pick up, speak, open doors), while Ctrl+arrows are used for combat and spell casting. It's initially a bit discombobulating, even angering to some. But, if I may use this analogy: it's as if Helga gave me a new BMW with manual instead of automatic transmission. I may not be used to it and may have a learning curve, but it's still a BMW and will drive excellently once I get it going. So, too, with Gothic; give it time, it's well worth it!

A special note: The primary web site dealing with Gothic is run by the good folks at RPGDot.com, specifically at this link. Dedicated players have gone to extraordinary lengths to answer questions and generally embellish your gaming experience. Even very useful maps of the Barrier are available, as well as hints and other kinds of advice. Using this site is a needed component of playing and living with Gothic. I wish all such fan sites, or even gaming homepages, had this level of depth and helpfulness.

How Does Gothic Look and Sound?

As mentioned, I could only minimally run this game on my system. Nevertheless, the depth and richness of the world was still in colorful evidence, despite the resolution being set to 800x600 or even 640x480. Storms, as well as day/night cycles, enrich the huge landscape. With my rig, Gothic isn't as pretty or as fluid as games using the Quake 3 engine, but I'm sure more powerful systems, able to run the available 1280x1024, 32-bit option, will provide quite a higher-level graphical experience.

Since the game is conversationally driven, the most important aural concern relates to the acting and translations from the original German. With very few exceptions, the work is finely done, contributing to the believability of your experience in Myrtana. Subtitles are available, if you wish to turn off the sound. Ambient sounds (crickets at night, etc.) are satisfactory, and the mood-sensitive music is excellent.

"Don't You Have a Plan of Where You Want to Go?" —Tagalong Helper

Initially, Gothic plays more like an adventure than an RPG. Your character is a tabula rasa who, upon arrival to the Old Camp, is equipped with little but a pickaxe. Considerable time needs to be spent building inventory and skills, especially since you are initially quite defenseless.

So your tasks become twofold: discover more about the Barrier, and perform a few odd jobs to build your "character." It is in the discovery and building process that Gothic reveals its gameplay distinctiveness. Conversations, responses, decisions, alliances—all become pivotal in your journey. Multiple paths may be taken, as well as "personalities" assumed. Character building isn't done by selecting from a bunch of stats at the beginning, but rather is a dynamic process running the course of the game. From the broad decision of which group (Camp) to join, to other possibilities, Gothic offers multiple paths and different endings. The choice of Warrior or Wizard, and variations in between, is yours to make along your journey (the direction of which is also yours to make!).

As you may imagine, Gothic is potentially a very long game, claimed by the developers to have over 100 hours of play possibility. I can well believe it. After about 40 hours, at a point I guessed was halfway, I became determined to move quickly to some kind of conclusion in order to pen this review. This took another 25 hours of play, even with advice from RPGDot.com. I'll be reentering the Barrier as soon as we're done here, in order to make some different choices, explore, and go other directions. The story outcome, at least with my ending, was rather weak; but it's the process, the joy of the journey itself, that is key to Gothic's fun.

"If You Want to Join the Camp, You Need People to Speak up for You!" —Sly

Having just joined FFC, I knew the wisdom of this advice! But this is a game, isn't it? Even more than The Sims, Myrtana seems populated by NPCs (nonplayable characters) with personalities and even agendas. It's not only critical to take notes during direct conversational trees, but also helpful to listen and learn from background dialogues among Castle guards, for example. You may overhear this kind of exchange: "There must be something true about that." "But, I thought it was cleared up ages ago." "No, that wasn't very clever." "Yeah, it's the same old story every time." If these stimulate your curiosity, you can approach one of more of the NPCs to expand. Of course, depending on your loyalties and status, they may or may not be friendly and receptive. When you do have occasion for combat, the control difficulty initially rears its ugly head, but not in such a way as to be a serious detriment to the fun of the game. Indeed, those action-deprived readers will be pleased to discover that combat can often be avoided and occurs rarely. When it does, it's not so bad—especially if you have taken skill training and are properly equipped. Run, don't walk, when near creatures in the game's beginning!

"If You Want to Join, You'll Have to Earn Some Brownie Points" —Diego

Much as we may expect of a prison world society, the NPCs in Myrtana are wary, skeptical, sometimes unfriendly. Loyalty is critical, and it affects your status, skill development, and ultimately your quest. If you choose smart-ass comments (my natural inclination), you'll get responses like: "Hey, this guy's funny; I don't like funny guys," followed by a sound thrashing (but not killing, at least from guards and prisoners). Further, NPCs remember what's occurred, they talk to others about it, and your reputation follows you! That almost bears repeating, since this "aliveness" of the NPCs is the single most remarkable technical accomplishment of Gothic. You'll have comments made to you like this: "There's Throws over there; you've already met him," as well as references to previous conversations and whether you impressed that NPC as friendly or hostile. I diddled about with this, during my first 40 hours, went back to save games, selecting different NPC encounters and conversation tree choices—every time with a differing outcome. Other games claiming to give "two different branches or solutions" to a story pale in comparison to Gothic, with its complexity and almost infinite variation. Although there are endings, and some necessary funneling, Gothic is still the least linear story game I've ever played. It's the nearest, in my experience, that a single-player game has come to rivaling the depth and complexities of an MMORPG such as EverQuest.

Is Gothic Fun and Recommended?

If you've plowed through my wordiness above, that's clearly a rhetorical question. Yes, indeed, Gothic is fun and recommended—as a Gold Star, Creme de la Creme, must-have, essential purchase.

With a novel, large and intricate set of societies, coupled with excellent graphics and sound, as well as the best A.I. this side of Black & White, Gothic becomes one of the most immersive and believable single-play adventure/RPGs ever. The story (teen rated) is gritty, rather dark, not really uplifting—it is a prison society, after all. But this is a game where the intricacies and marvels of the journey (the "who," more than the "what" or even "where"), regardless of outcome, are well worth the price of admission. Try it out.

Games Gothic Brought to Mind

  • Black & White—for the learning quality of the A.I.
  • Omikron—for the attempt to create a living, believable world.
  • Baldur's Gate II—for the sheer length of the story.
  • Outcast—for the initial strangeness and ambiguity of direction.
  • The Sims—for the lifelike interactions of NPCs.

What I Liked the Most

The socially large and complex world; the A.I. and consequences of interactions with NPCs; the quality (even at a reduced level) of the graphics.

What I Liked the Least

Controls take some getting used to; the game is demanding on my system; the story is dark and gloomy. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: Xicat Interactive
Release Date: Fall 2001 (U.S. version 108j)

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

PII 400 (PIII 600 recommended)
128 MB RAM (192 MB recommended)
16 MB 3D video card (32 MB recommended)
700 MB free hard disk space

Where to Find It



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