I’d like to think I’m not the kind of person that’s susceptible to hype. I tend to avoid reading about upcoming games, not because I don’t want to get excited about something intangible, but because I don’t really see the benefit. It’s hard to justify lusting after something I can’t have for months when my backlog contains so many untouched titles that deserve attention instead.
Well, that’s my typical stance anyway. During the daily touring of the newly-listed Steam titles to build a comprehensive wishlist, I came across Whalenought Studios’ Serpent in the Staglands and my willpower abandoned me.
Having now had a chance to play some of the game myself, I can only say that it meets and then exceeds every hope and expectation I had for it.
Before you enter the world of SitS, you are faced with an Ultima-esque inquisition that will shape your avatar in ways that are much more ambitious and personal than most RPGs I’ve played. The beautiful fortune teller questions you on subjects such as the deity you worship, the form in which you first appeared to the mortals and the gift you left behind for your lover. As if that wasn’t tough enough, you’re then invited to make some of the most difficult decisions we all face in these games; character creation.
There are five distinct races each with their own three sub-divisions, as well as the usual cosmetic choices so there’s a wide scope for multiple playthroughs. From the grey-skinned Varuchovs to the rune-marked Lachovinians, you have a wide selection of unconventional species and so it takes more than a few minutes to consider, let alone drink in the lore provided on each one. There are no pre-set classes either, so you can shape your hero with great freedom.
Once finished, the mystic closes her book and the screen fades to reveal a grand throne room. The curtains billow as the cold morning wind blows snow into the room and round pools ripple with the current, candles floating atop the surface offer a slight light. The great walls and columns overflow with detail, from gold flourishes to winding vegetation; every moment of architecture teems with a lavish display of attention and real love. Most games in the genre opt for a pre-rendered, semi-realistic style such as Baldur’s Gate. Whilst Serpent in the Staglands is entirely pixelated, you’d be forgiven for not realising during gameplay.
Much like Whalenought Studios’ previous release, Isle of Bxnes, SitS is exceedingly beautiful. Every single location is strikingly detailed despite being made of simple pixels; lending a unique tone that is both memorable and breath-taking at times. The character portraits are a real highlight; displaying personality with squares is no small feat and yet each picture provides a great platform from which to roleplay an intricate back-story for your avatar. The unusual and wondrous nature of the game’s visuals really adds to the sensation that you’re exploring a world so very unfamiliar and alien. The creature design delivers the fear factor when you stumble across one of the denizens of the darker haunts.
As you take your first steps into the world of Vol, there’s a sense of mature storytelling with no-holds barred akin to Game of Thrones. You can manipulate, lie and threaten those on your journey, all depending on how you view the mortals in this world; you can even bind their souls to yours giving you complete control over their bodies. The Transylvanian-esque lands are a dark and tough place to live and every piece of lore weaves an epic, yet foreboding, tale of hardship and intrigue. I spent the better part of two hours walking around the very first building due to taking in every possible detail and reading all the tomes. If you’re the kind to absorb all the additional information on offer, then your trip into SitS will be quite the extended holiday.
You control your party through very typical cRPG means. Dragging draws squares to highlight characters you wish to control akin to an RTS and a simple context-sensitive click decides the performed action. Genre fans will hit the ground running; with many of the conventions being followed such as space to pause and “I” for inventory. The ability to enable attacking friendly units is also appreciated for those of us that like to engage in the occasional chicken slaughter. You can try to deny it; we’ve all been there and nobody’s judging you. The little buggers ask for it.
My first steps into the wilderness beyond my sanctuary were less than heroic with my hero meeting a quick and bloody end at the paws of a pair of foxes. Hardly a fitting end to the story of Necholai; a minor god seeking either vengeance or explanation for an earlier malfeasance. The story may be an epic to rival Tolkien’s but my own personal adventure didn’t quite do that justice. Fortunately, I’d saved recently and so I was quickly back on the road, disguised as a humble spice trader except this time, taking every step a little slower.
My biggest mistake was neglecting the loot I’d procured from a dozen destroyed barrels and ransacked cabinets. A rookie mistake, perhaps, but one made purely out of excitement for the prospect of exploring the wide world I’d discovered. Thankfully, equipment management is a simple affair that forgoes independent inventories, making drag and drop adjustments a speedy task. The sheer range of items I’d found in one building was hugely impressive and I was soon far better equipped to spill vulpine blood.
The combat is exactly as genre veterans would wish it to be. You can pause mid-battle to give out commands to your party, setting up combos of spells and techniques that flurry into action once the game is restarted. There’s no reliance on this feature though, as the focus is on forethought and party management. You’ll be buffing and positioning your allies beforehand to seize the advantage and then signal for specific skills during micro-pauses. Battles are fluid and engaging, but also difficult and satisfying. My defeat at the hands of the foxes became less embarrassing with the realisation that all encounters in SitS should be taken very seriously.
Unfortunately, as with all good things, my time in Vol was too short. The beta version is a great taster for what’s to come in Serpent in the Staglands and it does exactly what most teasers should do; leave you hungry for the main course. If you can stomach the wait, then your appetite will be sated on May the 28th. I, for one, cannot wait to sink my teeth in!
There have been a number of interviews with Joe and Hannah of Whalenought Studios, which I wholeheartedly recommend watching if you want insight on the development process and even more details on the game itself. In particular, their discussions with Matt Barton in his Matt Chats Youtube series offer a refreshingly stripped-down and personal insight on a lot of the background workings. My conversations with them via email and Touch Arcade have been really enlightening and friendly, so, combined with previous experience of their games, I’m excited and hopeful that Serpent in the Staglands will be everything this old cRPG fanatic could ever want it to be.