Developer: Dead Mage Publisher: Dead Mage Genre: Action, Indie Platforms: PC Release Date: 9 May 2011
Independent developers are becoming increasingly prevalent in the gaming industry. Digital download platforms like Steam, PSN, XBLI, and GamersGate have given would-be game creators an accessible method of distribution to bring their titles to the masses. These days, creating your own game from scratch and publishing it yourself isn’t just realistic; it’s a regular practice. Indie studio Dead Mage is one such developer who has entered the realm of self-publishing with their inaugural title, Garshasp: The Monster Slayer. With it, they hope to change what you expect from an independently developed video game. But while Garshasp doesn’t last long and is rough around nearly every edge, the areas in which it excels make it quite the impressive feat for indie gaming.
The story of Garshasp and his quest is taken from Persian mythology, specifically from the poem Garshasp Naame written by Asadi Tousi. The game begins in the town of Siavoshgard where Garshasp resides as it is attacked by the evil magic-wielding Deev known as Hitasp and his minions. Garshasp’s brother, Oroxia is killed in the attack. From that moment on, Garshasp is fixated on avenging his brother’s death, and sets out on a quest to infiltrate Hitasp’s stronghold and confront him.
The story is told through an endearing narrator who chimes in at particular moments during gameplay, usually following a significant occurrence. The moments where his wise-sounding voice oversees the sprawling landscapes during Garshasp’s travels are some of the high points of the game. It gives the experience a bit of a professional sheen and helps provide insight to the plot. The problem is that it doesn’t happen nearly enough. Consequently, when it does happen, too much information is crammed into a short period of speaking time as unfamiliar names and locations from an unfamiliar legend are thrown around as if they are common knowledge. Even then, it ends up being such a small amount of information that you can never truly understand or empathize with the protagonist. This method could have been an effective way to advance the plot and it is definitely the right idea, but due to these issues, the plot will likely be lost on most who play through the game. Ultimately, it feels like a missed opportunity to take full advantage of an untapped resource in Persian mythology.
However, when it comes right down to it, the mythological setting is just one of many parallels to be drawn between Garshasp and God of War. This game is built from the ground up to look and play as much like a God of War game as possible without being considered outright plagiarism. It’s a third-person melee brawler with a roving camera that alternates between distant panoramic views to close-up studies on brutal kills. Enemies often crop up in packs surrounding the player while he pulls off exciting combos with beautiful fluidity. Successfully executed combinations may be accented by short periods of slow motion to emphasize impact. Some stronger enemies can be weakened to a point where Garshasp can perform a killing sequence in the form of a quicktime event. There are switches that Garshasp kicks aside and large mechanisms that he labors to pull. There are totems scattered throughout that provide either life replenishments or experience boosts to power up attacks and learn new skills. Yes, from every conceivable angle, Garshasp: The Monster Slayer is the indie God of War.
But God of War is an exceptionally executed brawler. Can an indie game truly live up to one of the more famed franchises of the past two console generations? Before that question is answered, it should be noted that it is indeed asking too much to begin with. No, Garshasp does not approach the refined epicness of the God of War franchise, but to downplay the game for that would be unfair. What is special about Garshasp is where it succeeds in copying the God of War formula.
For instance, the control scheme is spot-on. Playing with a keyboard will likely end in frustration, but use an Xbox 360 controller and you’re in business. The left stick is used for movement around the area and the right stick rolls Garshasp in the direction it is pressed. The face buttons cover the jump, standard attack, strong attack, and grab functions. Hold the left bumper to defend, and a tap of the right bumper switches weapons when an alternate one is eventually found.
Impressively, these controls are almost as responsive as God of War‘s. Platforming sequences feel great, and in most cases, when you miss, it’s your own fault. The responsiveness in battle is excellent as well, with one major exception. In God of War, blocking and rolling can be executed at any time, even while in the middle of other actions, which is extremely important when a fleeting moment is all you have to react to an enemy’s attack. Unfortunately, in Garshasp, before a roll or block can be executed, the previous animation must be completed. This really only adds a fraction of a second’s worth of a delay to the command, but it is enough to occasionally fall prey to your enemy’s attack even if you saw it coming. Aside from this small gripe, combat is fluid, satisfying, and very responsive, even if not very difficult.
This brings us to a more significant drawback: For about the first 3/4 of the game, the “grab” attack can be exploited to make combat far too easy. There are sections of the game where enemies come in droves from all angles, but it doesn’t matter because so many of these enemies can be one-shot killed with the grab. Garshasp will enter a short quicktime event where he instantly kills the enemy, during which he is invincible to any other attacks until the event completes. This completely cripples the otherwise flashy and thrilling combat. It is only towards the end of the game where the majority of the enemies do not respond to the grab attack until they have been significantly softened up, forcing you to employ alternating offensive and defensive strategies, and finally offering some depth to the melee. But by that point, it already feels like more than half of the game’s combat sequences were completely squandered due to the exploit.
There is one sequence that is found in several areas in Garshasp that you will not find in any God of War games. At specific moments, you will need to jump on to a wall, causing Garshasp to thrust his sword into it and ride it down, taking care to dodge obstacles along the way that are often extremely hard to tell apart from the safe areas. These sequences are great-looking and help to break up the pacing of endless melee battles, but they also carry a rather nonsensical nature. It’s kind of difficult to understand why a sword thrust into a wall could be smoothly pulled down for its entire length, and even more difficult to understand why and how its speed could be adjusted. Just don’t think too hard about it and it will continue to be fun.
Some of the visual cues throughout Garshasp are perhaps the most impressive moments in the game. There are several areas where the camera will pan far away, giving a sense of enormous scale with Garshasp as but a single man against a giant landscape. At other times, the camera will zoom in while Garshasp deals a finishing blow to a formidable enemy. There are a few moments where the camera positioning may result in some slight wall clipping, but they are few and far between and really don’t harm the gameplay.
Peppered throughout the game are some surprisingly great-looking CGI cutscenes. One battle begins with a cutscene presenting a huge enemy crashing through a wall to challenge Garshasp, while some other battles conclude with a CGI sequence showing off some flashy moves and violent ends. In fact, they’re so attractive that it’s almost disappointing when the game switches back to in-engine action, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off. The cutscenes are done so well that I can’t help but wish that they were used help forward the narrative rather than only to introduce occasional combat sequences. It isn’t until the final battle of the game that Garshasp finally speaks in one of these cutscenes and you’ll wonder why he wasn’t saying anything the entire time.
The sound is satisfying enough, with Garshasp letting loose war cries as he finishes foes, swiping aside their weapons with his and scoring a killing blow. However, there are some busier moments in the game where sounds will vanish altogether, which is not so satisfying. The music is the obligatory epic-sounding orchestral accompaniment that you would expect to hear, but it is done well and aids the experience. However, it finally truly shines late in the game, when the soundtrack to the inner parts of a temple take on an air of middle-eastern sitar-featured influence, something that would have been appropriate for much more of the game.
Dead Mage were truly ambitious in targeting one of the most epic game franchises of our generation as their primary influence, something that sounds on paper like a losing proposition from the get-go. But when all is said and done, the defining elements of Garshasp are not its flaws, but the areas where it actually succeeds. Make no mistake: Garshasp is a God of War clone. But this not a slight against it, as the game is not shy in confessing to it around every corner. In fact, it’s ultimately a rather significant complement to Garshasp to say that it is so obviously an imitation of it.
But imitating a great game does not make a great game. There are some fantastic visual moments and the later fighting sequences are wonderful, but the exploits in the combat system hurt the experience for more than half of the game in significant fashion. The narrator is a great touch but is used far too sparingly to make any plot points worthwhile. The game itself is also extremely short, clocking in at around 3.5 hours without much replay value aside from higher skill levels. Still, Garshasp does succeed in raising the bar on what an independent development studio is capable of delivering. At the time of the writing of this review, no price point has been set for Garshasp: The Monster Slayer, so it is impossible to determine whether or not the cost provides a good value. Regardless, this game is a short and sweet experience worth having, and a boon to the independent gaming scene.
Matt is a lifetime gamer from his humble beginnings with the Atari 2600. He is also the host of the Default Prime video series, The Bowlingotter Show.
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