"Soul Reaver with a few twists" might be the best way to sum up Archangel, a forthcoming action-adventure game from Metropolis Software. The Polish developer is seeking to make a big splash with the game, which will be the company's second North American release after last year's turn-based strategy effort, Odium (known as Gorky 17 in Europe). Development appears to be on track to make the current projected ship date in early November, judging by the demo build that we received last week.
The demo reveals Archangel to be fairly similar to Crystal Dynamics' related Soul Reaver and Blood Omen series, albeit with some added complexity for the PC gaming audience and the option of switching between the (default) third- and first-person views. You take on the role of Michael, who is something of a stereotypical video game protagonist in that he begins the game by waking up in an unknown location, knowing almost nothing about his past. He remembers a beautiful woman and a car accident where someone was killed, but nothing else before the cobwebs start to clear in a room that seems to be far removed from his last conscious memory. As is par for the course in these sorts of scenarios, greatness is immediately thrust upon him. In this case it comes in the form of two monks of the Azure Order, who tell a familiar story about his role (as you might expect, he's the "Awaited One" whose coming has long been foretold) in some sort of grand design of the gods and then hand over the mystical Sword of Light that only he can wield. After some added information about people disappearing in a village near the Azure Order's monastery and some veiled allusions to an apocalypse being planned by the Master of Darkness, Michael is set free to try to answer questions about both himself and what is going on in the world at large.
That world at large is pretty expansive. Archangel's first act of three takes place in what appears to be a medieval monastery and soon moves to an outside realm that bears rough similarities to traditional fantasy lands. Overall, however, the graphics lean toward the disturbing. Even the rough sketches that accompany the interface screens look like something that Hieronymus Bosch might have doodled in his idle hours, with every figure appearing either demonic or in the throes of agony. This appearance has been translated to the actual game as well. Although the visuals in the demo aren't bleeding edge, they are effective. Metropolis seems to be going for a surreal setting, with the world that Michael travels in appearing like something out of a dream. Actually, the terrain more closely resembles a nightmare, with fog shrouding all of the swampy features and an unearthly sky casting a pallor over the entire scene. The art director at Metropolis is certainly doing a good job of establishing a spooky atmosphere.
Monsters are also atypical. While you will encounter some garden-variety creeps--zombies make up part of the initial opposition--many of the beasts seen in the demo are weird, almost Lovecraftian creatures. Evil spirits come in many-tentacled, diaphanous forms that wouldn't be out of place in a Cthulhu mythos story from Weird Tales. Even enemy warriors have been dressed up in what could be described as art deco armor, in apparently another effort to get away from the routine. If this is representative of what's on tap for the two later acts (not included in the demo build), which apparently take Michael to a futuristic Berlin and the City of Evil for a final encounter with the Master of Darkness, gamers should be prepared for an experience that is very out of the ordinary.
Gameplay seems to include a little more than you would expect from a contemporary action adventure title. As with the varied settings, some aspects of play appear to be more sophisticated than the usual. For starters, some role-playing elements have been incorporated into character development. Just after leaving the Azure Order's monastery, you're greeted by the Lord of Light, who gives you your marching orders and provides you with the opportunity to be transformed into one of two character classes: warrior or ghost. Pick warrior and you're given the option of changing into a black and red fighter with superior physical power when it comes to attack and defense but with weaker spiritual abilities. Choose ghost and you can morph into a phantom with slighter physical attributes but more powerful spiritual powers. Both physical and spiritual strength are tracked with red and blue bars visible at the bottom left of the screen at all times. Each character's appearance befits the surreal look established elsewhere in the game. The warrior, for example, wears armor that wouldn't be out of place in Mel Gibson's Mad Max movies.
Other aspects of play further the "role-playing lite" mood. In the demo, Michael has access to an inventory where he can keep various weapons and other items collected during his adventures. Weapons include all manner of medieval swords, axes, and the like (modern weapons such as pistols and submachine guns are planned for the later acts set in a futuristic time period). Quests are assigned by nonplayer characters, and essence points are awarded for their successful completion. These points are also given out every time you kill a foe in combat, so they function almost exactly as experience points in a mainstream RPG. Essence points are used during play to activate skills such as darkness vision and regeneration. They are also used to purchase upgrades for existing skills and to learn entirely new skills. There seem to be fairly strict limits here to keep you from creating too offbeat a character, although there should be enough room to keep customization fans happy. At the very least, there should be more character-building options than are featured in the traditional action adventure game.Role-playing extends to what you do during play as well. While combat is frequent--and often typical hack-and-slash stuff where you need do little but move around with the mouse and swing your weapon with the left mouse button--there are times when strategy becomes a concern. Using certain special types of weapons, such as the powerful Sword of Light, drains your spiritual bar. Every slash brings it down a few notches. You can't just wade into a group of foes and let them have it, because you have to take a break every few swings and let the power recharge itself or use a special skill like regeneration to rapidly replenish things. Monsters also appear to possess rudimentary intelligence--in the demo they would occasionally back off if they were in imminent danger. A not-so-welcome trait is their forgetting about you whenever you leave the immediate vicinity. If you move more than a few feet away from a monster in the demo, it will often forget that you're there and cease attacking. Metropolis will hopefully clear this up before finalizing the code.
At any rate, swinging a sword isn't all that you'll do. Michael also has the ability to crouch, which softens his footfalls and allows him to either sneak around enemies or creep up behind them for a backstab attempt. The demo didn't have many chances to try out this ability, although there is plainly the potential to use such an option to good effect in the complete game. Michael also has the ability to jump, so expect this to come into play at various stages. Metropolis is promising that the final build will feature a range of activities--including puzzles--in addition to traditional combat.
One potential weak spot may be the dialogue. Archangel seems to be plot heavy, which means there's a lot of voice acting. And as with many games produced in non-English-speaking countries, the quality of that voice acting is all over the place. In the demo, the actor portraying Michael is obviously reading his lines off a printed page, often with all of the expressiveness of someone reciting Yellow Pages listings. Dialogue is also awkwardly written at times, making what purports to be an epic come off more like a penny dreadful potboiler. Sound effects and music fare considerably better at the moment. The demo build uses appropriate special effects to bring the clashing of weapons to life, along with unique sounds to herald the arrival of each particular monster. Airy chords accompanied by eerie synthed choral voices and the occasional drumbeat make up much of the soundtrack, which applies a welcome layer of tension underneath all the visual action.
Archangel is expected to ship to retail on November 7. Check back with us at that time for full review coverage.