Nethergate

Review by Enigma
April 2002

We adventure gamers tend to be loyal to our genre. We're peaceful souls, opposed to killing anything. I was among those gentle folks until I stumbled onto Nethergate, a fun, funny and exciting "retro-RPG" from the little shareware company, Spiderweb Software. It converted me. C'mon adventurers! RPGs are our sister game category. They're not shooters. If you think you can't or don't want to try a simple one, let me try to convince you otherwise.

But hey, why should peaceful adventurers want to go around just killing monsters? Well, it's true that there's abundant combat in Nethergate and lots of it is pretty exciting, but that's far from the only thing you'll be doing in the game. You'll be exploring all over a mysterious valley, meeting weird characters, venturing into spooky dungeons, finding hidden treasures, walking through walls into secret chambers that hide lots of tempting goodies, and figuring out how to complete dozens of quests.

Add a sprinkle of wry humor to that mix, and you've got a recipe for one fun game. Nethergate was made by Jeff Vogel, the Grumpy Gamer columnist at Computer Games Magazine. It turns out to be a wonderful way for adventure gamers to learn how to play RPGs and, perhaps, overcome those annoying peaceful instincts.

What a Bargain, and Historical (Sort of) Too!

Set in ancient Britain in about 60 A.D., Nethergate is two games in one. You can play as either the Celts or the Romans, doing battle with the mysterious forces of Shadowvale. If you spend some time with either or both factions, you're going to have some fun. I played Nethergate several years ago and went on to play most of Spiderweb's other games. Now I'm just flat-out hooked on Jeff Vogel's games and cannot wait for him to finish the next one.

Spiderweb operates as a shareware company. You can download the game and play the first quarter of it for free-and that's a lotta game. Vogel has an intelligent concept there. You try it for no risk, then you get addicted and have to register the game in order to finish. By all reports, he's making money.

Despite its magical premise, you'll find lots of historical references in Nethergate, although Vogel misinterpreted the birth and death statistics. Yes, lots of people died young back in 60 A.D., but they weren't elderly in their thirties. Barring that rather amusing mistake, you'll find plenty of interesting historical references in the game, although most of it is just a fun fantasy adventure.

There's Something Strange About Shadowvale

Shadowvale is a grassy, wooded valley somewhere in ancient Britain, and it's inhabited by a large assortment of magical creatures. You'll meet elegant fairies and mischievous sprites, crafty witches, brutish goblins and Formorians, dangerous rats and lizards, wise dragons, hostile ghosts and a variety of giant spiders. Most of these things will try to kill you at one time or another. These magical beings are trying to escape the world and its increasing dominance by humans. If you play the Celts, your main goal will be to help them. If you're the Romans, your main goal will be to stop the Celts. Throughout the game, playing as either party, you'll find references to the other group until you finally meet at the end. Both groups use the same territory and have similar quests but very different goals. This really is two games in one, and each episode will keep you busy for weeks.

You move toward the final goal through a series of ever more difficult quests that usually involve finding special objects. These objects tend to be well hidden and defended in various towns and lairs full of enemies that you'll have to trick, avoid, or slaughter.

Slaughtering Foes

There are those of us adventurers who just don't have the hand-eye coordination to do the kind of combat action games demand. That's not a problem in Nethergate. It's turn-based combat. You have all the time you want to plot your moves before the monsters get their turn to slaughter you.

When I first played Nethergate, I found it to be quite difficult but extremely exciting. I started with the Celts and found myself with a four-person party of two fighters and two druids. If I'd wanted to I could have changed these characters, renamed them, altered their strengths and weaknesses, and even chosen different graphics for them. As a rank amateur in RPGs, I decided to let the game give me a nicely balanced group, so I stuck with the originals.

After exploring my starting village in good adventure style, talking to folks and finding stuff, off I went on my first quest. Along the way I was attacked by a party of goblins who were also wandering about. My peaceful instincts made me want to avoid the fight, but because the goblins seemed quite determined to kill me, I struck my first blow.

All right, so you're going to fight! How do you do it? Your fighters hit with swords, or they stick 'em with spears, or smash 'em over the head with clubs. All you have to do is walk into the enemy and your guy will hit or miss, however the computer rolls the dice for you. Your physically weaker druids fight by throwing a "lance of fire," or "darts of ice," or lots of other spells, as they stand back behind the fray.

As you kill more monsters you earn points, which you can spend to increase your skills and strength. By the end of the game you'll be pretty strong, but you'll also be coming up against more and more difficult foes.

That's a lot of options, allowing each player to develop an individual style. You can get yourself into some tight spots, though. When I made the mistake of entering the goblins' temple and found myself mobbed by goblins, and I was running out of spell energy and my fighters were losing health, and I'd saved my game in the wrong place, I found myself in a heart-pounding dilemma. How could I get out of this? Well, I managed to do it, and in the process I developed bloodlust. I felt like Arlo Guthrie during his Army physical in the movie of Alice's Restaurant.

Greed!

Now, as I replay the game, I'm finding the combat far too easy. Having subsequently played Spiderweb's major series, the Avernum games, I've really learned how to do the fighting. However, that's not the only feature, by far, in Nethergate. All over the place you'll find interesting objects and treasures you can use or sell, to get money to buy even more spells, food, and other useful stuff. Actually, there are many times more stuff than you'll ever actually use, but it sure feels good to grab the loot.

I found that my major goal in the game, along with completing every quest I could find, was finding every spell available. As I replayed it, I found stuff I didn't find the first time, such as "Sylak's nourishing bowl," which comes in handy when you're venturing through the underworld and can't eat anything there. If you find "Sylak's talking skull" you'll get even more useful clues and game playing tips, along with a sort of Borsht Belt style of humor.

Little Tiny People

Nethergate is a "retro-RPG" because it focuses on lengthy, exciting and amusing gameplay, not on graphics. Your little characters are small indeed, and they patter around in a large world. You view everything from above, and you read all the dialogue and all the story developments. In fact, Sylak's talking skull is the only thing in the game that audibly speaks. You'll hear lots of ambient sounds, such as yells from your characters when you cast a "battle rage" spell on them, and clangs of swords, and short sound effects when you cast spells or earn skill points.

The marvelous opening music deserves a mention here, too. I sometimes load the game just to hear that theme.

There's a nice map feature, although it's hard to position the map so that it doesn't cover up other things you need to see. With my favorite spell, "piercing sight," you'll be able to find lots of secret passages and chambers that lead to unexpected discoveries. You can find these areas just by walking into solid walls, but you won't miss them if you use piercing sight with the map frequently.

While the graphics are irredeemably primitive, most of the time they're quite enough to enhance the gameplay. That said, it's sometimes difficult to see some characters, especially the yellow goblins, when they're positioned over a similar-colored background.

Along with all the combat and suspenseful exploration, you'll have lots of encounters with Jeff Vogel's humor. From childlike, friendly giant spiders to excitable sprites to huge, bestial Formorians who've converted to nonviolence, Nethergate's characters had me chuckling throughout the game. Vogel's descriptions of various items and characters also contain lots of humor, one of the most attractive aspects of his games.

Bugs

Just occasionally, if I let the game sit for too long some of the sprites would blur, although the game remained playable. Quitting and reloading solved the problem every time. Other than that, except for giant spiders, I encountered no bugs at all in Nethergate as I played the Mac version.

My Verdict

Nethergate offers a fun and exciting entry into the world of RPGs for novices to the genre. It incorporates many elements of pure adventures: plenty of thoughtful play, including a few puzzles and riddles, abundant exploration and quirky humor, all sprung from Jeff Vogel's bubbling imagination. True, the game will be easy for veteran RPGers, but the exploration, suspense, interesting storyline, length of play and humor more than make up for that limitation. Novices probably won't think it's at all easy.

Nethergate is just a whole lot of fun. Go ahead, download the free demo and give it a try! Be careful, though. You may develop an addiction.

Okay, enough of writing reviews. I've finished the Celts—I've gotta get back to the Romans! The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Spiderweb Software
Publisher: Spiderweb Software
Release Date: 1998

Available for: Macintosh Windows

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System Requirements

PC:
Windows 95/98/NT/2000
80 MHz
8 MB free RAM
16-bit color

Macintosh:
PowerPC
80 MHz
8 MB free RAM
16-bit color

Where to Find It

Spiderweb Software

 
   
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