The third chapter in Sirtech's Realms of Arkania series, based on the German pen-and-paper role-playing game Das Schwartze Auge, is a reminder of just how captivating an RPG can be. Though it packs its fair share of flaws and shortcomings, Shadows over Riva offers a long, challenging, compelling quest and just about all the stats, weapons, spells, and monsters that you could ever want.
Creating a party to explore the city of Riva is an amazingly intricate process. Though you can jump right in with a premade sextet of heroes, sitting down and carefully rolling up a half-dozen warriors and magic-users proves one of the highlights of the game. Statistics uncommon to other role-playing games, such as courage and intuition, are regarded with the same importance as strength and wisdom; in turn, negative statistics, ranging from acrophobia to violent temper, must be determined. As the character increases in proficiency, he will improve in a number of different abilities from swordsmanship to dancing, while at the same time conquering his debilitating traits. The character classes you choose from are also out of the ordinary and include huntresses, jesters, witches, and more.
You will encounter many interesting characters over the course of the quest (an executioner and a madam to name a couple), and here the low-resolution display proves particularly painful as the onscreen text is blocky and somewhat difficult to read. Combat plays out in a turn-based isometric perspective, which will feel comfortable for those who've played pen-and-paper RPGs using a hex map and miniatures. Unfortunately, the combat interface itself is ineffective, as a large pop-up window appears for each character and lists his available options, meanwhile obscuring most of the screen. If you can acquaint yourself with the interface, though, you'll find the battles themselves to be exciting and enjoyable. And if the tactical combat isn't your thing, you can always let the computer take over for you.
Shadows over Riva looks much like its 1994 predecessor, Star Trail. Indeed, some of the graphics are lifted straight out of the older game. The result is a less than state of the art appearance. The game is played in large part via a free-moving first-person perspective, which is considerably simpler to navigate with keyboard than mouse. The 3-D terrain shows the vast scale of the city of Riva well. However, this view is entirely devoid of any activity, as conversations and battles exist in completely different and disjointed environments, thus downplaying the immersive nature of the first-person view. And while the 3-D navigation window looks attractive enough, with fog and flickering torch light effects as well as realistic texture maps, the combat system shows real signs of age - the little party members crowd each other and are difficult to manage when packed tightly together. At other times, Shadows over Riva's graphics are outstanding. The huge, animated portraits of many of the nonplayer characters you'll encounter throughout the game are fantastic. Surprisingly inspired sound effects, as well as a superb (albeit repetitive) orchestral CD-audio score make up lost ground where the graphics fall short. Shadows over Riva is an aesthetic mishmash and, as a result, requires some real getting used to.
This game is by no means a technological marvel, so those seeking the highest quality 3-D and special effects need not apply. In turn, you mustn't expect to be able to jump right into Riva unless you're familiar with the previous games, as it plays quite differently from most RPGs. Both a print and an online manual are included in the package and will make life easier as you learn its nuances, but ultimately Riva requires patience and commitment, much like all great games of its kind. Shadows over Riva pulls absolutely no punches as a role-playing game, and fans of the genre hungering for a new title to work through need look no further for their fantasy fix.