Something foul is afoot at the old moon lord temple, so grab your kitchen knife and prepare for adventure! Serpent in the Staglands from Whalenought Studios is a trip back in time – way back. We’re talking circa 1992, when the wild buffalo roamed the plains and role playing games were for cold, calculating nerds that drew maps on graph paper and carefully studied their statistics like an auditor examining business expenses. Is the overall package enough to turn heads in 2015, or should it be left in decades past with Crystal Pepsi and Hanson?
You most assuredly won’t be mmm-bopping when your entire team is slaughtered by one of the first enemies encountered upon leaving the start area. What were you expecting, Disneyland? Serpent in the Staglands treats its retro influences seriously, pitting you against nearly impossible odds from the very get-go just like ye games of olde. So the journey may begin by introducing you as a moon lord, but that doesn’t mean things are going to be any easier than if you started out as a one-legged baboon.
While resting in your moon-lordly chambers, your dreams are interrupted by the vision of a mysterious, green-eyed lady. As she turns the pages of what would seem to be your obituary, you answer questions about various details of your life up to this point. The ultimate point of this questioning is something I haven’t quite figured out yet, but at the very least it serves as a decent guideline for how you may want to roleplay your character.
Upon awakening, your right hand man Erlein enters the room and notices you look a skosh shaken. You explain that you spent all night casting spells trying to reach the moon, only to find that something is blocking your path. Now, knowing next to nothing about who or what has caused this interference, you head out in the form of a mere mortal posing as a traveling spice merchant. It’s now your duty to explore the lands of Vol to find what the heck’s behind all this tomfoolery.
Before heading out, however, you must create your persona and the avatars of your followers, should you choose to have any. If not, you can always hire mercenaries to add to your team later, or forcefully bind their souls to do your bidding. There’s a nice selection of races and subcultures to pick from, with unique bonuses attached to each. These choices are supplied with a staggering amount of back history for both alike. Points can also be invested in intelligence, dexterity, strength, occult, and perception attributes. Depending on your character build, all of these are likely to be essential in some shape or form, so every point spent should be place with care and caution. On the cosmetic side, a plethora of portraits can be chosen from, along with several hair styles. These details combined with the fact that your skin color will reflect your race ensure that no two of your team members will ever look exactly the same.
Now you’re off the explore the ludicrously dangerous land of Vol. Death wears many faces here, from cave-dwelling monsters, to bloodthirsty bandits, to… foxes. I will admit, the first time I played, I took about ten steps out of the moon lord temple and got killed by a fox. Not exactly how I planned to begin. Things only get more difficult from there, as you’ll be facing increasingly tougher foes in bigger numbers. This is probably a make-or-break area of the game that’s sure to divide players. If it hasn’t been obvious up to this point: This game is not for easily frustrated gamers or anyone looking an easy-going casual experience. While I appreciate the effort the developers clearly put into making the game feel just like an RPG from the early 90s, I can’t help but think several design elements could have been made a little easier to understand.
The user interface is one of these elements. Serpent in the Staglands thankfully came with an in-depth manual that explains what most buttons and actions do, but I still found myself dying repeatedly despite learning how to manage combat as I progressed. The old fashioned HUD tries to fit a large number of buttons so close together that it often confused me what each one did, even after many times using them. Besides that, it just felt like there wasn’t enough information being provided to me about hardly anything. For instance, spell effects were only explained in the spell tab on a character’s stat page, and didn’t seem to have any tool tips when mousing over them to cast. Another important feature missing was the ability to compare items in the inventory, forcing the player to click back and forth on items to see how they measure up against one another.
Fights are a funny thing, in that one group of enemies can be a piece of cake, with minimal damage received to the party, then another identical group is much more difficult. I’m not sure if it’s all luck dice rolls or what, but this unpredictability would surely turn off many players who would otherwise enjoy the combat. The game uses a real-time with pause combat system which works superbly. Combat is strategic and fun on occasions where you aren’t having your butt handed to you, which is to say, sometimes. Melee, ranged, missile, and magic attacks are all possible, and having a good variety of proficiency in these areas spread throughout your team will help swing the odds of victory in your favor.
Enemy AI is annoyingly stubborn, often targeting one member of your team and following them to the ends of the earth. This leads to comical, Benny Hill-like chase sequences where a badly hurt team member scurries around trying to avoid pursuers while all the other, healthy teammates desperately try to catch up with the monster so they can land a blow. Keep in mind that death is permanent as well, so if that enemy is successful in its game of tag, it’s bye-bye to Benny for good.
To put it bluntly, skills and spells start out being next to useless. At early levels, abilities like war cry last such a short period of time that they’re barely worth using, and spells take so long to summon that the enemy has already moved a mile from where the attack is being directed by the time it’s cast. Just keep pumping those points into them with every level up, though, as they do get better.
In fact, everything in Serpent in the Staglands gets better with time. The game may seem nearly impossible at the beginning, with the major reason being what the player starts out with. You see, despite the player being a powerful moon lord, he/she begins the journey with absolutely no equipment. The most that can be hoped for is finding some kitchen knives in the cupboards of the opening temple and whatever hired/bound mercenaries happen to be carrying. This makes every fight in the first few hours potentially deadly, and yes that includes quarrels with foxes. As the player advances across the land miraculously defeating creatures, however, much better gear is found or can be afforded, slightly lowering the average death rate.
They say beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and to me, Serpent in the Staglands is one gorgeous game. Emulating the pixel style used in its influences, Serpent takes it one step further and adds remarkable detail to every setting. From the lush wilderness areas filled with beautiful vegetation to the candlelit, inviting dining halls, every area feels unique and worth exploring. All items equipped on characters are visible on their bodies, and spells look equally impressive as they’re being prepared and cast. Overall, the designers hit the nail on the head when it came to art style, creating a rare experience where the atmosphere can completely change between locations.
The music composition is fantastic and perfectly suits both the feel and art style of the game. Consisting of mostly low key, melancholic piano medleys, the combination of immersive audio and video will suck you right into this dark, foreboding world. As your moon lord stands on the snowy bridge overlooking Emerald Metalis, you’ll feel like reaching for your jacket in the real world.
Players can point and click to perform most actions including moving and attacking, while spacebar is used to pause battles. Hotkeys can also be assigned to skills and spells for each individual team member, and the function keys can be pressed for auto-saving and loading. Controls are very responsive, and the party has great pathfinding skills when it comes to navigating around obstacles while making their way to clicked areas.
Serpent in the Staglands, while offering little in the way of gameplay altering options, provides many different resolutions for the game to be played in. Windowed and fullscreen modes are available, along with adjustable speeds for menu and area navigation. One settings category of note is for determining when the game should auto-pause, such as when an enemy is encountered or a team member killed.
I’ve mentioned many things during the review I consider to be negative. Unfortunately there’s more where that came from. First are the bugs, which are surprisingly low in number for a game of this scope. What few there are, though, can be incredibly irritating. The biggest of these is the randomly spawning enemies upon loading a saved game. With my death toll reaching the mid billions, I’ve learned to quick save quite often. Needless to say, loading a quick save only to be ambushed immediately by a group of baddies that extinguish me yet again is not appreciated.
One more for the con list are the frequent, strangely long load times. Which if you’re anything like me, you’ll be seeing very often due to premature death. These screens also appear when traveling from one map to another and even when entering and leaving certain buildings. This adds up to a lot of time spent staring at the bleeding tombstone screen, though the tips supplied within can often be helpful.
I’ve played some difficult games in my time, but I can’t remember any that left my lead character crumpled in a bloody heap on the cold ground so frequently as Serpent in the Staglands. It’s quite a task to nail down a solid conclusion about this game, as I feel like the overall enjoyment experienced will vary drastically based on the type of player. That being said, there’s much to be appreciated by all audiences, and I wholeheartedly recommend traditional RPG fans to buy this game now.