Beautifully combines the old school with the new.
Eventually though, they made a comeback in the mid part of this decade, thanks once again to Bioware and Bethesda. Unfortunately, to bring this style of RPG back into vogue, they had to make some rather huge compromises. Those compromises can be seen in modern Western RPGs like Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic and Bethesda's last two Elder Scrolls chapters. In these games you see that not only has combat been dumbed down but the statistics part of the system, which is the core part of every RPG, was diluted to the point of impotence. Gone were the fabulously large manuals full of verbose descriptions of statistical formulas as well as the strategic combat systems that required them. Western RPGs were made easier to understand and simpler for a generation that lacked the mental acumen to grasp such things...and it worked. Bioware and Bethesda basked in the glory of a new age, one where they could get away with making games that were only "half" an RPG yet were still lauded as being intensely deep and "old school". It was the final slap in the face to real role players everywhere.
Since the rise of these watered down western RPGs, "real" Western style titles have been very few and far between. We've had Wizardry 8, Temple of Elemental Evil, and the first two Gothic games...but that's about it. Until recently, when the old German pen and paper RPG Das Swarze Auge made a comeback after almost two decades of inactivity.
Drakensang is more then just a spiritual sequel to the old "Realms of Arkania" games of the DOS era, it is a throwback to the Western style RPGs of our past. It wraps itself in stats rather then run from them. It embraces heavy combat instead of avoiding it. It revels in its large dungeons rather then purposely shortening them. Drakensang is, near the end, unforgivably difficult and extremely combat heavy...two "features" you won't find in modern RPGs no matter how hard you look. In short, Drakensang is everything a true Western style RPG needs to be.
I could end the review here while giving the game the grade it deserves and not disseminating it any further, but that would be unfair. Especially since the vast majority of the people reading this won't enjoy the game at all. At least, the internet reviewers didn't. They complained about the complexity of the character creation system and how frequently they were subjected to those boring things called "Battles". If that sounds like you, than you'd be doing yourself a favor by avoiding Drakensang like the plague.
The biggest hurdle new players will encounter is the completely original character creation system. Coming from a longtime player of all the D&D "editions" as well as the first three Shadowrun systems, I found Drakensang to have no safe "point of entry". In other words, the system was so different from other RPG rule sets that I had no common ground to build on when trying to understand the game. It's like when someone knows Latin and discovers most European languages contain derivatives from it, only with RPGs you have certain aspects of their systems that carry over to others. Drakensang, unlike other RPGs, shares no common ground with them. The system is completely different and even had me confused for the first 5 hours or so.
I believe this hurdle, like Gothic's infamous control scheme, caused weaker games to pack up their keyboards and go home.
It's a shame too, because once you figure everything out you are rewarded with a pleasurably deep rules system that gives you much more flexibility than current 4th Edition D&D or even any other CRPG made since The Temple of Elemental Evil.
Although each character has their own "Class" with its own limits and specialties, you can still learn abilities from other classes with heavy penalties assigned to your dice rolls. At extremely high levels of course, it doesn't matter much, since even an Amazon can be made to be a half decent lock-breaker or healer. It's this kind of penalty-versus-flexibility character creation that has been missing since the great dumbing down of CRPGs. Drakensang hearkens back to a time when you couldn't make jack of all trades characters that succeeded at everything they tried. Drakensang is as old school as you can make an RPG in today's mainstream-pleasing genre.
This is a good thing if you enjoy lots of combat and dungeon exploration. While the genre has moved away from gratuitous combat and large dungeons in the past ten years, the European RPG developers seem to have embraced it. Drakensang follows this trend and assaults you with a large number of monsters at every turn, forcing you to either learn the combat system or give up a few hours in. The frequency of combat increases the deeper you go, up until the end when you are constantly being interrupted every few seconds by large re-spawning mobs of high level spellcasters. The combat becomes so intense that even a battle freak like me was slightly turned off by it in the final area. Were it not for my love of the game's rule set and determination to "conquer" it, I would have quit and never went back. Thankfully, I pushed through and wasted the last boss without a single heal potion to spare.
While the game is joyfully channeling its old school siblings from the 80s, it does a remarkably good job of creating modern-looking visuals. While a lot has been said of how low-spec its graphics are, I feel that those who have written such blasphemy are merely incapable of playing this game at its maximum detail settings. If they had, they'd see that the graphics are every bit as good as Mass Effect, only without the god-awful repetitiveness in its model design or tileset usage. With bloom, HDR and very little repetition in NPC faces or voices, Drakensang doesn't have that amateurish "cookie cutter" feel that Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Mass Effect fell victim to.
So you have great visuals, lots of combat, a deep rule system and rewarding character creation...so what about the "other" aspect of the modern RPG, the storyline?
Drakensang, once again, goes back to the genre's roots by doing the old fashioned "We need a chosen one" story. Like Ultima 4, you start the game as an unknown adventurer thrown into a world in need of a hero. Chosen by the gods, you are asked to finish a series of tasks that slowly reveal your destiny as well as the destiny of the fools who tried the "test" before you. It's nothing to get excited about, but that's fine since it isn't the narrative that adds the literary spice to the game.
Like what Minsc did to Baldur's Gate, Rhulana the Amazon does to Drakensang. She is your "Minsc". The one NPC with enough flair, personality and passion to make up for the parts of the game where these qualities are found to be lacking. While most of the voice actors are fairly good, Rhulana's voice is exceptionally well done. Her spoken inter-party banter (Of which there is *quite a bit* of in this game) adds what the rather ho-hum medieval game world of Drakensang can't. which is to say, it is the pepper in an otherwise bland tasting soup. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying her character, even the most cold-hearted of oldschool RPG'ers.
Drakensang is a near perfect CRPG. Everything I look for is there in spades, and while I'd like the game to be longer and a bit better balanced in the rather easy first few areas, it still stands head and shoulders above anything else released in the past four years. The only gamers who should ignore Drakensang are the diehard newbie CRPG'ers that think Mass Effect, Jade Empire and Oblivion are the best the genre has to offer. If you prefer watered down, cookie cutter RPGs and think Fallout 3 was an RPG, than you'd be better off saving yourself fifty bucks by avoiding Drakensang altogether.
Everyone else, especially old school genre diehards such as myself, should go out of their way to get a hold of this game...regardless of the costs. Not only should the developers be supported with our money, but they should be encouraged to re-use this engine and the ruleset for several more RPGs. Without a doubt, Drakensang is the best PC RPG I've played since Troika left the business. While that doesn't seem like it's saying much, in a genre that has been beaten to death by wannabe fans and posers, it means much more than what my feeble words can hope to convey.