We're back with another early '00s CRPG banger from the archives. The banger archives. Also known as GOG. The game this time is Gothic II, the sequel to Gothic and the predecessor to Gothic III. Go ahead and check if you don't believe me.
OK, so, there's this German development studio called Piranha Bytes (later Pluto 13 GmbH). Piranha Bytes likes making RPGs, but only in a very specific way: there has to be a blank slate protagonist who can eventually learn any combination of talents and disciplines, from magic to weapons to lockpicking to skinning monsters for extra crap to sell; there has to be factions, and a majority of the game is spent working for one or more of them to reap the XP rewards before eventually settling on your preferred group of assholes for the late-game; if you go the wrong way at the wrong crossroads, the monsters there will kill you in one or two hits, so the player always has to poke at their surroundings like they're testing the temperature of a boiling kettle; and any and all voice acting is performed by German nationals who learned all their English intonation from watching over-dramatic Hollywood trailers. It's served them well for three Gothic games, three Risen games, and the sci-fi epic ELEX so far.
Gothic II has the always-neat sequel hook where it resumes almost immediately after the previous game, albeit with a long enough gap for your hero to forget all their old skills, lose their old gear, and de-level back to the rank of "feckless chump". After the first game ends with the protagonist dropping the magical barrier trapping everyone inside the King's prison colony, which may or may have involved the sealing of an inter-dimensional demon in an underground temple but you didn't hear that from me, that same protagonist emerges from their little staycation under some big temple rocks to find that all the old factions of the prison camp have dissolved; the survivors of Gothic 1 have instead fled to every corner of the island looking for a way off, in much the same situation as they were in before. The island's city of Khorinis, which is confusingly also the name of the island itself, is facing no end of problems with orcs, the King's needy paladins, and a brewing civil war with the wealthy owners of the island's outlying farms. However, the protagonist is cognizant of an even bigger issue: the reappearance of the mythical and fearsome dragons, who might decide to fly in and chomp down on everyone at a moment's notice.
They dump a lot on you right from the word go in this game, especially since all you have is a stick and no armor, but I'm liking how I can already make out a vague shape of how I have to proceed: I have to visit the paladins in Khorinis to recover an amulet that will restore much of my power from the previous game (I'll believe it when I see it) but to do that, I must first convince the paladins I'm someone worth paying attention to, and before I can do that I must figure out a way for the local militia to let me into the "upper quarter" where the rich citizens live and the paladins are stationed, and to do that I must become a citizen of the town, and to do that I have to become an apprentice to one of the master craftsmen in the lower quarters by completing tasks for them or otherwise showing them my worth. There are hints to other, more subterfuge-like paths, as well as the opportunity to throw my lot in with the mercenaries working for the greedy landowners outside the city, so I'm in that early phase of the game where I'm exploring all my options and completing every quest that doesn't set me onto a specific path to the next chapter of the story. Specifically, I'm going around talking to every named NPC inside the city and seeing what I can do without much fighting so I can save up for some decent armor and a few levels' worth of stat distribution (like the last May Millennials game, Arcanum, levelling gives you building points which can be spent to upgrade stats and skills alike) before I head back out into the wilds.
I'm enjoying the game about as much as I anticipated I would after playing the first Gothic last year, which is to say quite a bit. It has its janky charms, though it's been patched enough times over the years that I've not noticed anything too glitchy so far, and it offers an impressive level of freedom to pursue its goals that is perhaps less permissive than it appears to be: many locations are blocked off either due to lacking enough faction points with the local authorities or because a big monster is sitting on the path ready to eat my fledgling ass if I come at it with the weak dagger and farm worker clothing I've found so far. It feels like the user interface is much improved since the first game, with a quest log and character sheet that tells me everything I need to know at a glance, and it's still the type of amenable RPG where I don't have to worry about item durability, encumbrance limits, or stamina meters. Combat's still a bit of a real-time mashy free-for-all that vaguely stabs at a combo timing system, evasive back dodges, and weapon parries, but as long as I don't bite off any more than I can chew (I learned those lessons the hard way in the previous game) I'm confident I can master it sufficiently with enough practice. I'm even surprised by how accessible parts of the game can be: while I've yet to find a map or any sort of fast travel system, you can ask anyone in town where a location is (within the town) and they'll go step by step, noting every waypoint on the route between here and there. I mean, yeah, a map would be more convenient, but I'll find one eventually I'm sure (there's even a key binding for it).
So that's where I'm at currently: running around the lower areas of the city filling my quest log with as many tasks as possible that don't involve pissing someone else off, and scraping together enough cash for the local grocer's special armor set and noting where all the relevant trainers are, while also bumping into the occasional familiar face from the prison colony and trying to remember what their deal was. Nothing too notable in the way of surprises just yet, but Gothic II's brand of methodical old-school (but not too old-school) RPGing is why I signed up for another month of low-poly shenanigans for the second year running. (And hey, if you like reading about old CRPGs you'll probably never want to play, be sure to check in with @arbitrarywater and his Wheel of Dubious RPGs blog series. Dude's leaping on the bad game grenade for all your sakes, people.)