Geneforge ReviewJoe Shaffer
Entering PC RPGs back in the day was intimidating for me. No matter how well-versed I was in the category, it was inevitable that I would become hopelessly stuck. Usually this stemmed from either an inadequate character build or a cold trail in a campaign. Back in those days, I didn't have access to the Internet and its vast library of walkthroughs. In other words, my options were to guess my way out my current bind, restart the game and hope my new character(s) was mighty enough to withstand the forbidding terrains in store for him/them, or quit all together. The third item was my most common choice.
Delving into Geneforge was similarly frightening. Although the game was developed in the early 2000s, it apes RPGs of the early '90s. Based on that, I anticipated a difficulty rating beyond "NES hard," with a trouncing around every corner. Hours into the campaign, though, I skillfully cleared an abandoned school of its vermin. It was then that my tension lifted, and I realized that Geneforge wasn't an unreasonable or unbeatable RPG.
It helps that the game sports a straightforward battle system similar to the original Fallout titles. During combat, each character begins a turn with a certain number of points to spend on various actions. Each step a character takes during battle, for instance, exhausts an action point. You must be careful, then, not to wander too far, lest you not have enough remaining action points to execute an attack, cast a spell, or use a healing or buff item.
Geneforge's standout feature isn't merely its combat system, though. You see, the game lacks in the way of extra party members to track down and recruit. However, you possess an alternate means of amassing a contingent. As it turns out, you're a member of a sect of mages known as "shapers," meaning you're capable of giving life to beings--unimaginatively named "creations"--to serve as your troops in battle. Forming creations requires "essence" (read: MP), and you can even pump extra essence into a creation in order to grant it stat bonuses.
The shaping system adds generously to the experience, not only because you can breathe life into monsters, but because it adds an element of strategy to the game. Each sticky situation you find yourself in might beg for a variant configuration of your troops. Think of it this way: do you want fewer high-powered creations or numerous low-powered beasts, providing you with strength in numbers? You also must consider if you want only one type of creation or a variety of them. Sometimes all you need is a single, monstrous "Thahd," a simian creature with high attack power. Other scenarios may call for an army of "Vlish," land-dwelling cephalopods that inflict mind-altering status ailments. Some occasions may call for a multitude of creations, including a front line of melee combatants, some fire-breathing "Fyoras" for range, and a magical creature or two for good measure. Suffice it to say that Geneforge adequately tests your mental capabilities and keeps you pretty engaged when in combat.
...for the most part, anyway. Unfortunately, there are a few areas that lie a decent length into the campaign that containing weak foes. Worse, experience values depreciate as you gain levels, so plowing through scores of weaklings will not likely aid in your character's growth. Heck, even some tough adversaries later on become all but worthless in terms of experience value.
Older RPGs sometimes featured disposable storylines, filled with tired cliches involving captive maidens and megalomaniacal sorcerers as antagonists. Thankfully, Geneforge is a far cry from that nonsense. For starters, the game utilizes wonderfully written passages to describe scenery, which adds much needed atmosphere to the experience. We're not talking dull, meaningless text, either. Each passage reads like a page from a sci-fi or fantasy novel, with excellent descriptions of the environment that flow very well. On top of that, Geneforge doesn't focus overmuch on saving the world or developing the protagonist into a hero. Instead, the game's story mostly revolves around getting your rump off of a forbidden island, whilst dealing with a feuding pair of would-be overlords searching for an ancient shaper relic. By the end of the campaign, you'll have to side with one and defeat the other in order to succeed. It's a nice change of pace from your typical good vs. evil storylines.
Unfortunately, you might get the feeling that the game uses its wonderful narrative style to make up for its deficits in audio and video qualities. I realize that Geneforge attempted to look the part of a retro RPG, but that doesn't excuse its lack of variety in regards to sprites. This flaw is especially obvious when you enter a town and notice that nearly every NPC looks the same. Granted, they're all of the same species of creation, called "Serviles", but the developers at Spiderweb Software still could've designed a few different sprites for them. This issue is also makes item management troublesome, as certain items utilize similar sprites. For instance, a lame short sword bears the same sprite as most late-game blades, which could potentially lead to you accidentally selling a beloved weapon instead of a junky piece of loot you happened to obtain.
Worse than in its visual department, Geneforge suffers a major blow in terms of audio. For starters, there isn't much of a soundtrack. There's an opening theme that lasts about twenty seconds before giving way to silence, and maybe three or four different ambient tracks consisting of mostly irritating noises. While I dug the ambiance that played during some of the forest stages, featuring soughing wind and growling rogue creations, I couldn't stand the background noise used in towns. That one usually starts with a girl muttering something incoherently, with a hint of attitude, followed by typical marketplace commotion and a crying baby. As a parent who keeps a child monitor next to his computer, this mixture of sound effects was maddening for me. Having to listen to that annoying girl on an endless loop nearly inspired me to taking up stabbing as a hobby, while the bawling child constantly had me thinking that my son was experiencing middle-of-the-night distress. Honestly, I would rather suffer through lackluster MIDI-quality music for a BGM than the ruckus that Geneforge offered.
Despite a few flaws, though, I really enjoyed Geneforge. That's a good thing, as its four sequels currently sit in my Steam library, awaiting download. I now know that they won't be in my backlog for long, as I am truly inspired to play them thanks to their predecessor. I look forward to diving into Geneforge 2 soon, mostly because its antecedent sports such a well designed combat system, a great plot, and an awesome monster creation feature--all of which are likely to make a return in the sequel. Be proud,Geneforge: you did the category you were attempting to imitate justice. That's not a feat that many throwback games can claim to have pulled off.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.