I originally missed Piranha Bytes's seminal 3D action-RPG Gothic franchise, having only discovered the developer through Gothic's "sequel" series Risen. However, having played Gothic (the first one) for a few hours it's clear where most of the blueprint for Risen came from. Hailing from a genre I often refer to as "ERPGs" - the often janky RPG offerings from continental Europe, which make up for their lack of quality consistency with a surfeit of imagination and passion - the first Gothic has, so far, been an exercise in poking around and seeing what I can get away with.
Though technically an open-world RPG, Gothic is only open in the sense you can go anywhere... until you immediately die to an overpowered foe, because you weren't meant to go that way yet. Playing Gothic, and the Risen games, often feels like making your way across Chernobyl with a Geiger counter: though it seems like you could walk in any direction, the sudden and frequently imperceptible increase in danger along all paths besides the obvious designated one would suggest otherwise. However, a particularly brave individual can run past most of these tougher enemies, travel deep into areas demarcated for higher-level adventurers, and possibly get away with some suitably high-level gear for their trouble: this sense of playing the odds for greater gain was always what appealed to me most about Risen, certainly more so than following the rigid rules of survival that the game sets out for its neophyte explorers.
As with Risen, Gothic's all about playing to your strengths and completing quests using methods germane to how you've built your character. When you level up, you're given a bunch of loose character building points, or skill points, which you then have to turn into expertise by visiting a trainer and learning what they can teach you. This not only applies to general combat skills like swords, or rogue skills like sneaking and lockpicking, but actual stat boosts and other miscellaneous skills. Boosting one's strength, for instance, is simply a matter of transferring skill points to strength stats at a one-to-one rate, which becomes necessary for handling better equipment (stronger melee weapons with strength, better bows with dexterity). Miscellaneous skills can include being taught how to skin or extract teeth and claws from enemies you fight: abilities that will, in the long-run, pay for themselves and then some. It doesn't quite have enough of a broad palette of skills to present too many different alternatives to quest solutions - mostly, you can either fight someone in their home to steal their stuff or wait until they're elsewhere and sneak in and take it - but all the same I'm starting to think holding some skill points in reserve in case I meet someone with a unique skill to impart might be the smart decision. It could end up being the key to solving a quest as painlessly as possible.
Gothic's also all about seeing what you can get away with. In the game's story, you're tossed into a prison mining colony where convicts are tasked with supplying the local king with the ore he needs to construct weapons in a costly war with the orc tribes. The prisoners, however, quickly take over the colony and establish themselves as its rulers, demanding tithes, food, weapons, women, and whatever else they think to ask for from the desperate monarch. The reason the King can't march in and take it back, or why the prisoners can't simply run to the hills, is because of a massive forcefield that surrounds the colony and prevents anyone from leaving. When the player is thrown into the colony, they're given a missive to send to one of the local mages - every mage that generated the forcefield found themselves trapped by it in turn, and are feverishly working to free themselves - but otherwise left to fend for themselves. It's very Escape from New York as a premise, and early on the player is encouraged to ingratiate themselves with the convicts running the show, getting enough decent armor and weapons in the process to start carving out their own path.
While that means obeying the laws of these outlaws, it doesn't preclude the player from stealing all their shit, or beating up those lower in the pecking order for their lunch money, or choosing to ally with either of the other two factions that - rather than sitting pretty with whatever scraps the King tosses their way - are actively searching for a means to escape the colony and be free of the forcefield. Given the relative powerlessness of the player early on, they have to be very careful with how much they're willing to risk - getting into a fight with any of the other prisoners, especially guards, will not end well for the hero and will result in him losing all the money he has on him, and that's the best case scenario. Having those restrictive limitations and pushing against them every step of the way is what made the Risen games compelling to me, and it seems Gothic had that paradigm on lock long before Risen ever came along.
That said, there are aspects of the game that are less enjoyable. Chief of these is the awkward combat, which really comes into sharp contrast with the relatively exceptional swordplay of previous May Millennial entry Blade of Darkness. Rather than hitting a button to swing, the player has to first plant themselves, hold the attack button, and then hit a direction to swing that direction. If they get the rhythm right, they can swing back and forth at a steady pace that makes it hard for enemies to approach without getting hurt. Advice about combat has literally boiled down to "stand still, keep swinging, and let enemies walk into your sword over and over until they die" which recalls to mind that Simpsons bit where Lisa and Bart attempt a passive "it's you get hit it's your own fault" fighting style. Until I get this down, I'm getting chumped by everything: mutant turkeys, bees, molerats, a guy in rags holding a pickaxe, a stiff autumn breeze. Might just be smarter playing within the guidelines for now, at least until I get better at killing whatever or whomever it was I just pissed off.
Still, I'm excited about exploring more of this weird Under the Dome setting for a fantasy RPG, about playing multiple sides against the middle for maximum gain like a save-scumming Yojimbo, about learning fireball magic so I can maybe skip the melee combat altogether, and about either becoming a legendary liberator or the King of the Crap Pile (provided I survive long enough). Catch me in a week for a final review.