Japanese-style RPGs, while popular on consoles, have been woefully underrepresented on the PC. Those few that have been released to date are mostly shareware fan efforts or no-frills console ports, Final Fantasy VII being the most notable example. Now French publisher Infogrames, in an effort to fill this void in the market, has released Silver, a purported Final Fantasy killer designed specifically for the PC. And while Silver won't unseat Final Fantasy as the reigning champion, the game is nonetheless interesting in the way it attempts to rethink some of the genre's conventions.
As the game begins, your alter ego David witnesses his wife's kidnapping by the minions of the evil wizard Silver, and he sets out to rescue both her and the rest of his hometown's stolen women. Helping David in the pursuit is his incredibly tough granddad called Grandad. It's a loopy, enjoyable start to the game, which is a good thing because Silver's success or failure rests almost entirely on the strength of its story.
Silver plays out on prerendered three-dimensional backgrounds through which you must guide polygonal characters. The environments themselves are essentially static bitmaps with a few looping animations. They look good for the most part, and some are spectacular, though everything tends to have that overly clean, computer-generated feel that Final Fantasy VII managed to avoid. The characters themselves are not particularly detailed but are especially well animated.
Silver's developers chose to streamline the traditional console-RPG formula by removing many of its standard elements. Thankfully, the thousands of random encounters typical to the genre are gone. Instead, most screens are stocked with monsters that must be fought once, then never again. The exits to each area are sealed during combat and reopen only when all enemies have been defeated. A few sections have regenerating creatures that reappear with each visit, but these are the exception rather than the rule. While this removes much of the tedium associated with this type of game, the finite number of available battles makes open-ended stat building virtually impossible.
Silver does include character stats and levels like your typical RPG but eliminates experience points completely. Instead, levels are gained by reaching key plot points and defeating boss monsters. Only a few instances exist where extra levels can be accrued out of sequence with the story, so in general, you are kept in strict parity with your foes. This tends to dilute the sense of escalating power that is a key draw of RPGs, but the discarding of an endless series of uneventful brawls makes that sacrifice more than worthwhile.
The fights themselves occur in real time and are very fun. Melee attacks are launched using only the control key and the mouse, with various mouse movements resulting in different thrusts and slashes. This feature could have become a cumbersome bore, but the number of moves is kept to a reasonable five, and each has its own clear use. Once the control is mastered - and it doesn't take long - the battles become both more exciting and more tactical than your average turn-based fare, which, strategic pretensions aside, tend to degenerate into attack, heal, repeat. Since you're free to move around each environment, positional advantage becomes a big factor, and many of the battles are staged as sort of minipuzzles wherein landscape features must be utilized to win the skirmish.
While things may look bleak in the land of Jarrah, everything seems to be pretty great in the actual playing of the game. At least at first. Like many console RPGs, Silver's story unfolds completely linearly for the first few hours before opening up somewhat. Grandad accompanies you throughout this beginning section. He is controlled by the computer and is generally pretty helpful. Later in the game, you're saddled with up to two companions whom you must control yourself.
This wouldn't be so bad if they were as intelligently autonomous as Grandad, but you're expected to directly control everyone. Unfortunately, such a plan is utterly incompatible with the game's arcade-like combat system. Unless you've got unusually evolved hand-eye coordination, you'll eventually end up using one character to kill everything while the other two stand motionless as monsters hit them on the head with clubs. It's true that you can select all the characters at once, at which point the secondary heroes become marginally effective. But the flaw in this strategy is that everyone then tends to clump together and, in the mouse-clicking frenzy of battle, you'll accidentally click on just one character and break the grouping, returning the remaining combatants to passive-observer status. You can direct the unused characters to stand back and fire their ranged weapons, but this is nothing more than a quick way to deplete your ammo. And instead of noting this problem and properly addressing it, the developers seem to simply kludge it by having any dead companion automatically return to life after each battle.
Silver's story is an equally big problem, although it starts out strong. Each game character actually speaks his dialogue. Bucking the trend of having friends of the programmers provide the voice talent, Infogrames has hired what appear to be professional actors, and they do a uniformly good job. Unfortunately, the plot soon devolves into a typical tale of magic-orb fetching and simply runs out of surprises long before the end. This is a critical flaw in a game that has consciously pared away many of the gameplay elements, annoying or not, that compose the bulk of other entries in the field.
Silver is simplified by the removal or retooling of much of the complex stat-based baggage of its console RPG brethren. It's a good idea that almost works. Every element starts off strong, only to reveal its weakness as the game progresses. Infogrames has come close to successfully creating a new subgenre - one based on enjoyable fast-action battles mixed with rich story. It's fun while it lasts, and even if you find yourself unmotivated to complete the entire quest, you'll at least enjoy the ride to the halfway point.