Realms of Arkania: Star Trail (2018) – Too old school for cool

Among my very earliest memories of gaming are the kind of RPGs that simply couldn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) succeed today. I’m talking about classics like Mike Singleton’s seminal Lords of Midnight or the later, more visually impressive, Eye of the Beholder. These games eventually gave rise to several different kinds of RPG, including isometric affairs like Baldur’s Gate, or perhaps more directly, first-person efforts in sprawling worlds, like The Elder Scrolls series — which is no spring chicken itself. The subject of today’s review, Realms of Arkania: Star Trail, ignores almost all of that evolution by throwing itself back to the mid-nineties in terms of presentation, visuals and even how it fails entirely to inform the player about what is happening.

With that damning introduction out of the way — and assuming you’re still reading — you might just have the intestinal fortitude required to tackle Star Trail after all. I won’t lie to you (after all, it’s my job not to) but there is a hell of a lot wrong with this game. Played on a PS4 Pro, it looks like a game that would have been barely acceptable at the outset of the previous generation, albeit upscaled to 4K in an appalling parody of games designed specifically for modern systems. Perhaps even worse are some of the more prominent technical issues — the loading screens mid-conversation, when a menu is opened, when a door is opened or basically when anything happens at all.

The presentation overall is dismal, in fact. Poor graphics could be forgiven for a riveting script delivered by compelling voice actors, but alas, Star Trail features neither. The voice acting in cutscenes is delivered sporadically and poorly when it comes, with some characters rambling on about one thing whilst the onscreen text tells another story. It’s a shame that cutscenes featuring key story elements come across so poorly because in normal conversations (which are all text driven) the world of Star Trail does begin to take shape. In fact, it’s only through exploration of the world, the characters and most of all the systems — oh god, the systems — that you’ll see any shine on this star.

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I should begin at the start, much as you will. The game opens in a temple, with the player provided with a prebuilt party of adventurers. It’s possible to do some character creation and customisation here, though you’ll need to work it out on your own. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most comprehensive sets of statistical options that I’ve seen in a game for years. This is important, because if you don’t balance your force correctly and understand it in intricate detail, you’ll die — probably over and over again. Every character comes complete with powers, abilities and spells aplenty, many of which are unlocked slowly over the course of several levels and as the result of countless battles.

It may come as a surprise to many modern RPG players that many (if not most) of these skills are actually relevant outside battle. Star Trail features tonnes of classic RPG skill testing and invisible rolling to resolve the outcome of events. From tavern games to critical conversations, you’ll need to know who in your party is good at what in order to succeed. Unfortunately, thanks to its old-school approach, even if you do have your most charismatic character do most of the talking, you’ll still often fall foul of tests that have completely unknown success conditions applied against them.

When not testing your wit, skill or silver tongue, you spend your time wandering in two of the Star Trail’s different modes. The first (the one that I’ve talked about most so far) is the adventure mode, which is basically a first-person romp through key locations. Towns, cities, dungeons, castles and certain outdoor locations are all represented in this way and, to give the designers credit, what the game lacks in actual visual appeal, it makes up for in variety and scale. Traversing between these notable locations is done via a world map that simply lets you wander freely, occasionally happening upon scripted (or possibly random) events which can result in battles, loading screens, more loading screens… then sometimes a conversation.

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The actual battles represent by far the most interesting thing in Star Trail, with a completely different visual style (grid-based isometric) and a turn-based structure. You get to control your whole party and usually face overwhelming odds. Some battles, I am convinced, are unwinnable, whilst all battles are bloody hard. As I said earlier, you’ll need an intricate understanding of who in your party does what and when to do whatever ‘what’ is. Often as not, spells and attacks miss completely or even backfire, which is frustrating, but it’s all part of the game. Whilst annoying, learning the fighting system in Star Realm is at least rewarding and the battles are long and tough enough that every victory feels significant in a way you can take some satisfaction from.

So here we have a bit of a conundrum. Part of me can see the appeal of a game like Star Trail. It harks back to a part of my life that is long gone — a time when I had more… time. A time when I could spend as long as I wanted doing and redoing things until I had the formula perfectly correct and I could inch one step closer towards the conclusion of a game like Lords of Midnight.

Sadly, I don’t have that time nowadays, and I don’t have the patience either. Dark Souls offers the same kind of cautious advancement, but it does so with much more immediacy and a lot more style. It even offers a world that is far more mysterious and appealing than that of Star Trail. Star Trail isn’t attempting to be Dark Souls, though, it’s more like a Pillars of Eternity, but where Star Trail hides its systems behind invisible screens filled with numbers, Pillars streamlined the whole experience to draw players into a world that is exceptional in every way.

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And so I’m forced to conclude that there is simply no reason to pick up Star Trail unless you are absolutely out of better options and/or because you really, really want to feel the pain of gaming in the 1980s, delivered through a graphics engine conceived in the 1990s and polished for televisions of the present day. I honestly do not know who this game is for or why it was remade in the way it was. If it was intended as a homage, or a labour of love, then why not fix the myriad of frustrations it carries? Why not make it appeal to modern gamers? Why not use the technology available to iron out the loading screens, add proper voiceovers and animation that is even remotely credible? The answer is: I don’t know. And because of all these things, I just couldn’t enjoy Star Trail — so I can’t recommend it to you, now, either.

Realms of Arkania: Star Trail is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.

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