One of RPG gaming's best kept secrets returns with a prequel that is in every way better than its previous installment.
Though River of Time is actually a prequel it's hard to believe it when you look at how much of the game has been changed for the better. With the English translation cleaned up (No more confusing 1W numbers instead of 1D), the game's combat being better balanced in the early levels, the experience points doled out in larger chunks and the story paced much slower than the previous game it's hard to really find fault with what Radon Labs has done here. The original Drakensang was one of the best CRPGs I had played in the past five years and besides a few tweaks and more variety in the locations/quests/monsters you encountered I didn't see much wrong with it. The characters were memorable, the combat was fantastic and the rules were the perfect antidote to the watered down 3rd edition D&D I had grown sick and tired of.
Yet Radon Labs managed to somehow shave some extra fat off of this already slender game and dress it up even prettier than it already was.
For those who enjoyed the original Drakensang there is really no reason why you would dislike the sequel. Much of its shortcomings (Such as fighting stereotypical low-level beasts like rats and wolves nonstop in the early levels) have been dealt with and what you're left with in this prequel is a much cleaner, more refined CRPG. The only drawback that I noticed was that the game seems to put a much tighter rein on leveling since even after my 2nd trip whereupon I used an FAQ to maximize my experience gains I was still unable to get past level 12. This was slightly disappointing when you consider that the first game let you leap all the way to level 17 before the last boss fight was even unlocked.
I also noticed that the economy seemed a bit out of whack since even though my characters were swimming in gold ducats I still had to spend hours selectively buying and selling things just to get the equipment that I needed to survive. This constant obsessing over money and equipment caught up to me in the end after I completed a quest that opened up a 999 ducat helmet that I couldn't afford no matter what I sold or traded. It irked me that I couldn't buy it and left me bitter as I went on to the game's final area 728 ducats short of being able to afford it.
Overall however, River of Time is considerably better than its predecessor and the only faults you'll find with it are, as I've said, small gripes that can be easily ignored.
To make up for these small missteps River of Time manages to give you a little bit of non-linearity in your adventure, something the first game completely lacked. Though this non-linearity is basically just a couple optional boss fights and a hunting reserve with a few quests tucked away within it, it's still nice to see that Radon Labs was listening to the fans when they cried out for some optional "challenge" areas.
As a matter of fact one of those challenging optional areas is so hard that it contains the best CRPG boss fight I've seen since the battle with Kangax in Baldur's Gate 2. Not to spoil the surprise, but if you find yourself in an underwater temple and you've just solved a floor tile puzzle to open a door you had better make sure you've bought or found end game equipment because you're going to need it. The amount of micro-managing and aggro-distribution I had to do in the boss fight below that temple nearly drove me insane. With two restarts and over an hour of time spent trying to kill it, I was shocked that someone would green-light a battle like that for their game when today's RPGs are programmed to be completed without needing skills or hours of practice. For that optional fight alone the developers have my respect.
For those who didn't play the first game or didn't read my review of it on this site, you should know that Drakensang is vastly different than any other CRPG currently on the market. Though it often gets unfairly compared to Bioware's Dragon Age, the two games are polar opposites and cater to an altogether different type of gamer.
Drakensang doesn't have scripts that can be applied to members of your party or macros that make combat flow smoother. Drakensang is a game where constant switching between party members and hammering the pause button are not just occasional occurrences but constant happenings that are required in order to fully manipulate the combat system. From what I've seen on the forums many new timers are turned off by this lack of "Hands free" combat scripting and absolutely detest the idea of having to personally take control of every single action of every single character in their party. Though most gamers find this tedious and cumbersome, old school gamers like myself who mourn the passing of that old keyboard-slamming style of micro-management in their games will embrace it with open arms. Drakensang is a game that takes no pity on you and automatically assumes you not only know its rules but also feel comfortable enough with the combat that you can control 4 people on the playing field all at the same time with no scripting or "Easy mode".
It's also worth mentioning that the rules, while not really confusing, can nonetheless be hard for newcomers to grasp. Like the first game it will probably take one full trip through the game before first timers completely understand it and learn how best to "Game" the system the same way they do D&D or Dragon Age's simplified rules. Knowing when and where to spend your experience points can be tough since there are no opportunities for re-specc'ing and very little in-game hinting to help you out. Though Drakensang veterans will feel right at home (Especially since tier 2 and tier 3 combat skills are opened up very early in the game compared to the original one) newcomers will undoubtedly have their patience tested. Don't say I didn't warn you.
This prequel isn't all about the gameplay mechanics or unbeatable boss monsters though, the real meat of the game is in its story and how well it connects to the previous entry in the series.
River of Time is, at least during the loading screens, revealed to actually be a story of Ardo's past being told to Gladys by Forgrimm the Dwarf. In this story Forgrimm tells Gladys how both he and his friend Ardo came to meet the hero (you) and the events that followed. During the story you'll meet several major and minor characters from the previous game, only in much younger forms. You'll meet a teenage version of Prancelot of Scufflewick who is just as much of a liar then as he is now, a still Alzheimer's afflicted Archmage Rakorium, the traitorous Kastan Gamblak, Elven Ranger Gwendala and even Bento, the traveling merchant who gives you your first quest in the original game...and you'll find out that the quest he gave you back then had a deeper meaning than you thought at the time.
Though for many Drakensang fans it's just enough to be able to have Ardo and Forgrimm in your party and even sweeter once you discover the connection Gladys has to them. Though I sort of guessed what her involvement was it still felt great once it was revealed to me. Story-wise, River of time is basically a clever little piece of fan service meant to please Drakensang fans by giving them as much back story as a single PC-DVD can hold. Though some of the interactions with returning NPCs like Tashman and Gwendala do somewhat retcon the first game (How can Forgrimm not remember seeing them 20 years prior?) it's still amusing to interact with them before they were the pivotal characters you remember.
It's always hard reviewing a sequel since it's impossible to go without comparing it to the game(s) that came before it. Though Drakensang looks and plays almost identical to its predecessor, it is so different (and polished) enough that it is able to stand out on its own and be the type of sequel that we rarely see in today's crowded "money first" gaming hobby:
A sequel that surpasses the original and actually builds upon it in several key ways.
The bottom line is this: If you loved the first game you'll like this prequel even more so...Though if you didn't care for Drakensang's obtuse rules or overly-complicated combat then you'd probably find it hard to get into the sequel as well.