With Redguard, Bethesda Softworks set out to create the "swashbuckling action-adventure epic of a lifetime." While technical glitches and clunky controls prevent the game from attaining such a lofty goal, the excellent story, unique puzzles, and addictive swordplay help make Redguard an immensely rich and enjoyable adventure.
You play Cyrus, a battle-scarred mercenary on self-imposed exile from his home in Hammerfell. After hearing that your sister Iszara has vanished from the war-torn island of Stros M'kai, you are determined to find and rescue her despite the long-standing friction between you. Attacked by pirates on your way to the island and faced with an Imperial occupation force upon your arrival, you begin to realize that things are not at all well on Stros M'kai. Even worse, you eventually discover that Iszara was caught up in the recent troubles on the island, and you become embroiled in a well-developed plot involving rebellion, revenge, and, of course, lots of good old-fashioned swashbuckling bravado.
The game is played from a third-person perspective and, as a result, suffers from the ever-problematic floating-camera woes. For most of the game the camera angle is just fine, but on more than a few occasions I found my view completely blocked because I happened to be too close to a wall. This problem was especially annoying during two of the game's most important conflicts (one with the dark elf Dram and one with the wormy N'Gasta). To its credit, Redguard does allow you to customize the amount of camera glide and the camera combat angle, but this only helps a little when you have to fight your way out of a tight corridor.
While you do have to draw your sword and fight quite a few blackguardly knaves in this game, it is still very much an adventure game. The heart of Redguard lies in its intricate and often unique puzzles. For example, that sword won't help much when you run into the springy mushrooms of the goblin caverns or the revolving hallways of the catacombs. A few of the puzzles - the dwarven scarab in particular - are exceptionally challenging, while others are fairly basic. For the most part, the puzzles are very well integrated into the plot. Some are based almost solely on your agility, and these are the ones that are most likely to cause frustration.
Simply put, the controls in this game are poor. You can use a gamepad or joystick to play the game, but neither is very intuitive. Unfortunately, your only other option is the keyboard. Why there is no mouse control is beyond me. Timing and executing even the simplest of jumps with the keyboard is quite a challenge, while a number of necessary tasks (jumping onto a rope, climbing on top of objects) are more difficult than they should be in several areas. Worse, sword fights often degenerate into a key-mashing mess as you try to sidestep, defend, and attack in quick succession. If nothing else, Bethesda should have included separate keys for sidestepping left and right.
For much of the game, however, you'll spend the bulk of your time talking to the island's residents about the strange goings-on and inquiring about your sister's whereabouts. This is where the game both shines the brightest and disappoints the most. On the positive side, the game offers a slew of NPCs to talk to, each with an exhaustive list of topics to discuss. Fortunately, the game tracks any important comments in an automated log because you'd be hard-pressed to remember even one-tenth of what these folks tell you. Each NPC has a distinct personality and conversational style, and that helps convey a sense of immersion in the gameworld. The dialogue is well written, with a few conversational gems here and there.
Unfortunately, a great many of the NPC voices are horribly annoying - or just plain goofy. One guy, Favis the bell ringer, sounds as if he stepped out of the old Fat Albert cartoon, while the blue-bonneted Mariah is certain to be remembered as one of the most hated computer game NPCs of all time (perhaps in recognition of this, Bethesda built in an Easter egg method for venting your feelings towards Mariah). Don't even get me started about the Daedra Lord.... During sword fights (which are a lot of fun, even with the control problem), your opponents will taunt you and react to your attacks. Most of these comments are pretty good (I still chuckle at the guy who yells "Damn your eyes!"), though they can get repetitive in a hurry. The big bad governor is the worst offender of repetitive taunts, as he basically just tells you to "Reconsider your options, knave" over and over.
By far the most annoying aspect of NPC conversations, however, is the fact that the game tends to distort all speech when you use a PCI sound card. Most likely, this has to do with Redguard's use of a dated DOS core inside of a Windows 95 "wrapper." Whatever the cause, the result is a stuttering sound similar to an old elementary school film projector that's acting up. The problem comes and goes unpredictably, and, although I honestly didn't really mind it much once I turned on the subtitles, it is certain to annoy the hell out of some gamers. As I wrapped up this review, Bethesda indicated that they may have discovered the source of the problem, but that it still may not be patchable.
Though the graphics in Redguard do not compare to those in games like Half-Life or Heretic II, the 3Dfx-enhanced XnGine looks awfully good. The software renderer, on the other hand, is not very impressive, but it is the only option for non-3Dfx users. Since the game still relies on DOS code for its renderer, a Direct3D version or patch is unlikely.
Still, the level of detail in the game is impressive. The port city, the surrounding countryside, and the various other sites you'll visit are all well designed and immersive. You are free to wander wherever you choose, and, except for a few key plot points, you can visit important locations in just about any order. Also, the game locations are nicely varied, and some, such as the Dwarven Observatory, are simply breathtaking. The game does suffer from clipping problems, and I did find a few "black hole" spots (the infamous areas from Daggerfall where players fell through the floor into a black abyss), but overall the world of Redguard looks very good. Nice lighting effects, ample and good-looking foliage (so often overlooked), and stunning architecture are some of the game's graphical highlights. NPC models and textures are decent but pretty plain on the whole. One character - the Boba Fett-like Dram - stood out as being particularly cool looking.
The ultimate game of swashbuckling adventure? Not quite, but Redguard is an impressive adventure game and one that ranks among the year's best. While the sound problems and the awkward controls will turn off a number of players, patient gamers with a penchant for puzzles and Errol Flynn movies will find a lot to like in the intricate world of Redguard.