Geneforge 2 ReviewJoe Shaffer
I'm going to open this review of Geneforge 2 by reminding you of the previous installment, because mechanically and conceptually there's no difference between the two. You still play as a kind of magician called a "shaper," all of the "creations" (creatures you shape) make a return in this one, and the visuals are just as fittingly antiquated as they were before. Heck, even the three factions from the original game, the Servants/Loyalists, the Awakened, and the Takers re-emerge in this campaign, along with a new group to potentially join called the Barzites. Mechanically speaking, you once again command a contingent of creations through the use of RTS-like interface, with a turn-based combat system similar to Fallout.
As you can imagine, some of Geneforge's flaws also rear their ugly heads. For instance, specialty items don't have their own unique sprites, and sometimes share them with mundane objects. Sometimes it's difficult to tell if an item lying on the ground is an ordinary pitcher of red liquid or a demon's bile, an item needed to craft powerful equipment. There are also a few stages in Geneforge 2 that are unnecessary and seem to only be there to pad out the game's length. There's a certain swamp in the north central region, for example, that's basically an open field with nothing in it but splotches of green and some scattered foes. Ultimately, it's a lazily designed area that begets no lasting advantages. Sure, there might be a tacked on quest or two you can complete there, but the game would have been better off without the locale, and others like it that add nothing to the experience.
It's understandable that developer Spiderweb Software is minimalist when it comes to visual and auditory elements. I can tolerate Geneforge 2's presentation, because its rugged old school appearance meshes well with the game's retro rule systems and mechanics. It looks and feels like a PC RPG from the late '80s/early '90s, and I totally dig that. However, what I can't abide is the game's lack of a soundtrack. Don't give me that crap about it not being important or that Spiderweb is indie and therefore incapable of generating much in the way of music. I'll gladly point you in the direction of Hammerwatch and Cloudbuilt, both of which gladly bump two of my favorite indie scores. Even if you're going to make the argument that Geneforge 2 came out long before those two titles, then I'll play the Cave Story card. In comparison, Geneforge 2 boasts a single opening theme that dissipates after a few seconds, and then utilizes the public domain background noises heard in the original Geneforge. Could they not have been bothered to at least use different ambient sounds? Do we have to hear that annoying loud mouth from the first game any time we enter a town? I'm not saying that the Geneforge series needs to have moving melodies, but at very least give us something other than a single ten second track and a bunch of generic racket.
Thankfully, though, Geneforge 2 amends one of its predecessor's biggest flaws. The original game had a very weak middle section composed of tedious regions loaded with pathetic enemies. The going was slow during this phase because it took eons to level up on the paltry amounts of experience your prey was providing. Geneforge 2 not only makes up for this by better scaling its adversaries' levels, but also by presenting a variety of challenges throughout the campaign. Though you'll enter a fair number of levels populated by scores of tough customers, you'll also find locations packed with traps and unique puzzles or events. One level, for example, contains oodles of acid-spraying mines. Such a gauntlet might prompt you to ponder just how important the mechanics stat, which determines your effectiveness in unlocking doors and disabling powered equipment, really is. There's another place that seems innocent, even tranquil, until you hear the blast of a ghostly horn. That's when a contingent of spectral opponents rush toward you, each of them infecting you with deadly status ailments. There's a trick to ending this spree of madness, and doing so nets you one of the best weapons available.
Speaking of which, Geneforge 2 also includes a fair number of difficult but worthwhile locations to visit, possibly to make up for the lackluster sites mentioned earlier. Pounding through these deathtraps may not be easy, but the results are worth the effort. Sometimes brilliant weapons and armor are your spoils, but other cases provide you with containers that instantly boost your statistics or abilities. Some vessels even allow you to craft new creatures. These were my favorite stages, because they required an extra measure of thought and strategy to survive. One such level, called the "Demonic Depot," holds a practical army of powerful and speedy creations called rotghroths, which look like lanky, undead versions of Roswell aliens. You have to be careful in this complex, because alerting one rotghroth sets off an alarm that draws the others towards you. If you aggro one, you have a limited window to eliminate it, and that's assuming the beast doesn't pulverize you with a single blow.
You might be wondering if Spiderweb further sweetened the deal by adding new creations to the list, and thankfully they did Along with the aforementioned rotghroths, Geneforge 2 also introduces gazers (similar to beholders from D&D) and drakons, which are powerful bipedal dragons. As you can probably guess, that also means you'll be squaring off against these beasts, which bumps up the difficulty rating a touch. Although Drakons look intimidating, they're nothing that leveling up and buffs can't fix. Gazers, and their powered up cousins called "eyebeasts," are incredibly troublesome, what with their crushing long range attacks that can strip off a fair chunk of your HP. I'm glad to see the developers flexing their creative muscles in this installment, as it only makes me psyched to try out (and eventually review) Geneforge 3.
All in all, Geneforge 2 demonstrates that a sequel doesn't need to look and feel entirely different from its predecessor, given that there's enough material to work with. That being said, I don't think that Spiderweb can get away with another entry to the series without evolving at least a little bit, because they've just about exhausted the original game's presentation. I'm not expecting a monumental leap in the third title, but at least a slight change would be nice.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.