Predicting the Xbox's future isn't easy, and looking at the upcoming list of games for the system doesn't make it much easier. For every Munch's Oddysee or Halo, there are handfuls of unfamiliar titles by US developers new to the console market. New developers aren't bad, of course; it just means that we'll see lots of games like Circus Maximus, Wiggles, or Malice and not so many of the remakes, sequels, or upgrades that we're used to with every other system. The upcoming Xbox fantasy game Nightcaster is one such title. Developed by console newcomer VR-1 and published by Microsoft, the game is a unique take on the action fantasy genre, integrating the Xbox's twin analog sticks into everything from manipulating your camera and targeting enemies, to controlling your character.
VR-1 has yet to release many details regarding the storyline. We do know that the main character is named Arran and that he is a young sorcerer who uses a variety of powerful spells to defeat his opponents. Apparently, his world becomes threatened by a variety of demonic forces, namely orcs, trolls, goblins, and necromancers (your typical fantasy fare). Though VR-1 has planned a copious number of side quests in addition to its main course of free-for-all gameplay, it has also confirmed that dialogue with nonplayer characters is at a minimum, which suggests that whatever plot there is will take a backseat to gameplay.
If Nightcaster revolves around gameplay, then gameplay revolves around Arran's magic orb--it's the game's most unique and interesting feature. The orb primarily assists you in targeting enemies; with just a button press and subtle manipulation of your analog joystick, you can send your orb flying across the screen and use it as a focal point for your powerful magic. How far or near the orb is to Arran also determines the game's camera angles. Pressing a button brings the orb back to its perch atop your staff and swivels the camera to its default third-person perspective; however, sending the orb farther and farther away from your character makes the camera zoom out to follow it. This comes in handy when you're in an unfamiliar place and want a sneak peek of the area ahead to prepare for the enemies to come.
Make no mistake, Nightcaster is primarily an action game, and VR-1 promises dozens of enemies on the screen at once. In fact, the game has more than a passing resemblance to Gauntlet Legends and Diablo's more melee-inspired moments. You'll be forced to slay the ever-increasing number of enemies with bigger and badder spells. This is where Nightcaster's RPG elements are drawn into the mix. As you progress through each level you'll be able to acquire new spells. Spells are divided into four types: light, dark, fire, and water. Along with acquiring new magic for your arsenal, you'll need to build up the strength of magic you already have. You gain experience for every monster you kill on your adventures that will eventually level up your character, and each time you're able to raise your spells a level, their power, range, and visual effect will increase.
As with any title for a new console, graphics are the key to inspiring public interest. From early screenshots and movies that have been shown so far, Nightcaster may not win any new Xbox converts on visual splendor alone, but it shouldn't disappoint anyone expecting detailed characters, colorful magic effects, and smooth frame rates. Arran, with his chain mail and flowing red cape, appears to be drawn straight from Arthurian legend, but even if his design isn't particularly inspired, he features amazing technical touches, like roving eyes that focus on whatever he's attacking and individually animated index fingers and thumbs. Environmental effects aren't too shabby either, with convincing ripples in water and multiple light sources. The amount of time that was spent on the surrounding landscapes is evident; in one of the early levels, there are colorful and highly detailed houses with dimpled oversized roofs and curling overhangs (fantasy trademarks). The visual atmosphere is somewhat marred, though, by fogging that is plainly used to obscure distances. Hopefully, this graphical throwback will be tweaked before the final product is shipped.
Nightcaster is not the Xbox's killer app, but it doesn't have any designs to be, either. The game hopes to fill a niche for early Xbox owners, offering lots of killing, lots of spellcasting, a little bit of RPG leveling-up, and hopefully lots of fun. Even if the setting of a wizard in a land of magic isn't the most original setup, VR-1 compensates by devising an interesting control scheme that meshes well with the game's 3D perspective and action-based gameplay. Look for Nightcaster this fall at the Xbox's launch.