Did Sierra wait too long to release a follow up to 1993's Betrayal at Krondor? Undoubtedly, and its belated arrival is unfortunately accompanied by outdated graphics that will considerably lessen its appeal to gamers. But for gamers willing to tolerate substandard graphics and linear gameplay, Betrayal in Antara succeeds in providing an entertaining story and an enjoyable role-playing experience.
Since Sierra On-Line no longer has the rights to produce games based on Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar books, Antara is set in the new world of Ramar (Return to Krondor, the "official" sequel to Krondor, is scheduled to be released by 7th Level sometime in early 1998). Throughout the game, your party will consist of two or three of the following characters: Aren Cordelaine, a neophyte mage who discovers his powers in Antara's introduction; William Escobar, playboy son of one of Ramar's ruling families; Kaelyn Usher, a female ranger/warrior and Xena wanna-be; and Raal, a non-human Grrrlf ("I was a teenage werewolf").
Antara is a good, old-fashioned adventure, complete with a princess, otherworldly monsters, and a noble quest. Gamers familiar with Krondor should be right at home with Antara, which uses an enhanced version of the Krondor engine. Like Krondor, the world of Ramar is besieged by political corruption, warring factions, plague, and civil unrest. Unfortunately, Antara is also assaulted by universally poor voice acting and occasionally horrendous writing (glib jokes about "cooking your companion for dinner" and "witty" suggestions that a potential sexual assault victim must have "put too much mayonnaise in the chicken salad" are prime examples).
Like Krondor, Antara is divided into distinct book-like "chapters" of varying lengths during which your characters must complete certain objectives in order to advance the plot. There are usually five to six sub-quests in each chapter, and these optional sub-quests have traditional RPG objectives (take object X from person A to give to person B, kill the scary blue monkey beastie, yadda, yadda, yadda) and give you the opportunity to strengthen your characters while adding depth to the game. One of the strengths of Antara is that the world of Ramar becomes an increasingly interesting place as the plot develops. In addition to the various factions of human inhabitants, each with its own agenda, Ramar is populated by a number of other intelligent races: the formerly war-like Grrlf, the flighty bird-like TrKaa and subterranean Montari molemen. Although Antara only gives a shallow introduction to the inhabitants of Ramar, with much of the world's complexity implied in conversations rather than displayed, Antara fleshes out the characters and their motivations sufficiently to keep you interested in the story. Colored charcoal sketches and a stoic narrator advance the plot between chapters in an original and creative fashion. Although this manner of presentation is not as illustrative as traditional animated cutscenes, the sketches and narration are of high quality and add to the story's drama, especially in later chapters.
Gameplay in Antara essentially consists of traveling from town to town and discovering treasure while occasionally (perhaps too frequently) running into bands of enemies. The biggest flaw with Antara is its 3-D graphics engine, which is, unfortunately, likely the first thing you'll notice when you initially boot up the game. The quality of the graphics is less likely to concern die-hard role-playing gamers, but Antara is unlikely to attract a broader audience with such a sluggish and unattractive 3-D engine. Even though Antara is one of the first RPGs to utilize high-resolution SVGA graphics, the graphics are, frankly, as ugly as an orc. All of the game's 3-D objects are blocky, with square edges and predominately monotone textures. Graphics within store shops and other buildings, on the other hand, replete with colorful scenes of medieval life, are detailed and well done - although occasionally repetitive (there are one too many Dan Aykroyd-look-alikes in temples. Actually, in hindsight, even one Dan Aykroyd look-alike was too many). The 3-D engine also has clipping errors and it's possible to get caught in buildings or inside mountains. Although these incidences are rare (except near certain "swampy" areas of the landscape, which seem to have a life of their own), they ruin any sense of immersion the game has created. Worst of all, the world from the game's first-person perspective looks like an indistinct blur of brown and green speckles. It's as if the game's color palette was selected by an amateur French Impressionist painter who was in love with one shade of green and one shade of brown - think muddy Monet.
Although the graphics of Antara may be dated, the interface and skill systems are topnotch. The interface is intuitive and lets you quickly access desired information. There are approximately a dozen basic skills and 20 spell skills (only available to Aren), which can be improved through use and by training. As Aren improves his magical skills, he can research new spells. Both the skill and spell systems are relatively simple but work well - it's rewarding to continually be able to see your characters' progress. Worthy of particular mention are the automap, which can be annotated, and the flashback function, which allows you to replay conversations with key non-player characters. Both of these features are outstanding and greatly enhance the game. The automap can be used to check the location of non-player characters, inns, chests, shops, and other areas of interest and can be viewed at varying scales. The flashback function allows you to search past conversations by speaker or by topic, allowing you to quickly see what different non-player characters have said on the same subject. The only minor problem with this innovative feature is that it didn't go far enough - it should have encompassed all conversations with non-player characters. Antara also features a good variety of excellent and appropriate music, although it only plays in buildings and during combat. The bar songs in various pubs are a nice touch as well.
Combat in Antara is played from a third-person perspective in turn-based fashion, on hexagonal grids of varying sizes. It's fortunate that the tactical combat engine works well because Antara is fairly combat intensive and it's not unusual to fight four or five lengthy battles walking between towns. Although combats can, in theory, be resolved quickly by allowing the computer to control your characters, doing so usually results in a speedy reload after your characters are dispatched. Enemy variety is also particularly limited, as there are only around 30 distinct types of enemies, and most of those are similar human opponents. The combat spells have some pretty entertaining effects, although the combat engine slows to a crawl whenever these effects are displayed on the screen. Instead of having separate mana or spell points, mages actually use up their hit points and therefore get weaker by casting spells, creating some interesting tactical dilemmas.
Although one of Antara's strengths is its well-developed story, it is perhaps one of the most linear RPGs ever released. There are no options to vary or individualize the starting attributes of your characters, there's rarely more than one solution to a problem, and during each chapter your party's freedom to explore Ramar is limited by seemingly arbitrary boundaries. These limitations are not unheard of in a role-playing game (Krondor certainly had its share of them), but I couldn't get over the uncomfortable sense that I was constantly being "funneled" along. If you try to do something that intuitively should work within the context of the game (such as putting a bucket down a well), not only will the game prohibit you from taking such action unless the story requires you to do so, your characters will actually rebuke you in a condescending fashion with quips such as "What am I using for brains?"
The paternalistic gameplay is occasionally more than a little frustrating. Want to put your characters into a forced march to get to the next town before morning? Expect to be informed every 20 seconds or so that your characters are "tired and need to rest." Want to wander down the road to pick up a shovel in the next town? Expect to be informed that one of your characters "doesn't think you should go that way."
In addition to the riddle chests, which return from Krondor, Antara also has bead chests, which require you to fiddle with a series of beads in order to arrange them in a particular order. These occasionally frustrating chests add little to the game and simply slow down gameplay. There are also a few bugs in the initial release of Antara. Many gamers, including myself, have gotten stuck because of a bug that causes a fatal error at the beginning of chapter 9. There are also other, easily avoided bugs that cause crashes if you attempt to act outside of the linear plot imposed by the story. Sierra has released a beta version of a patch that should squash most of these bugs (including the chapter 9 bug).
Antara clearly isn't a groundbreaking new role-playing game, notwithstanding Sierra's claims on the game's box cover, which are, uh, "immodest," to say the least. I couldn't help but cringe every time my characters gleefully skipped into a wall of fire even though the box cover espouses the game's "incomparable artificial intelligence" and "advanced combat system." Most of the flaws of Antara are evident in the demo - so, as always, it's a good idea to try the demo prior to picking up Antara. If you played and liked the demo, chances are you'll enjoy the full game as well. Dated but occasionally innovative as well, Antara ultimately provides over 100 hours of entertaining storytelling.