Dark fantasy RPGs are doing pretty well these days, thanks to games like Dragon Age, Dark Souls, and The Witcher 3. But back in 2001, it was Gothic sitting on the dark fantasy throne. This game featured a bleak yet complex interactive world, a full day-night cycle, open-ended gameplay, and many other traits that inspired future developers. And while it all holds up remarkably well, there’s one aspect Gothic excels at – roleplaying a character nobody expects will become the hero of the story.
Gothic takes place in a dark fantasy world where a savage human-orc war devastated the countryside. To turn the tide, the human king orders a prison colony over a mine, where every criminal will be forced to dig up a magical ore. He even orders twelve powerful magicians to erect a protective dome over the colony – but the spell backfires. The dome grows so large that it covers the surrounding valley, trapping prisoners, guards, and magicians inside. What’s more, it instigates a revolution that leaves the guards dead, and the criminals in complete control of the colony.
Now the king is at an impasse. While anything can enter the dome, nothing living can leave without being destroyed. So he forges a trade agreement with the colony, exchanging goods for ore mined by the prisoners. Left to their own devices, the prisoners organize into three groups. The Old Camp is the most powerful, ruling over the colony while maintaining the status quo. The New Camp wants to escape by securing enough ore to cast a powerful spell. Finally, the religious Brotherhood worships a god called “the Sleeper”, which it believes will awaken and free them from bondage.
So where does the hero fit into this? Is he a veteran of the war effort? A humble warrior with dreams of setting right the world? None of the above – he’s just criminal making his way to the dome. Nobody’s interested in your past, and even NPCs don’t want to learn your name. It’s purely by chance that someone official makes a tantalizing offer: Deliver a letter to a magician in the Old Camp, and you can name your reward.
Gothic was clearly a precursor to dark fantasy, open-world RPGs like The Witcher, right down to putting strange magic symbols on the box art. You’re free to explore the game world, join various factions, and accept quests from morally questionable individuals. The open environment is smaller than The Witcher 3 or Skyrim, but well-designed, packing an impressive range of encounters and secrets into its space. Even today, the interactive gameplay feels highly robust – you can hunt animals with unique behaviors, cook meat to regain health, follow NPC work schedules across the day/night cycle, and much more.
Mechanically, one of Gothic‘s biggest standouts today would be its leveling system. Your hero starts the game as a blank slate, with no proficiency in any ability. You earn skill points over time, but can’t spend them immediately – you need to locate teachers who can unlock skills for you. Some will enhance your strength or dexterity. Others might improve your abilities with melee weapons. Mages can increase your mana or teach you new spells. While there are a huge range of character types available, your hero only masters them if you’re willing to explore and meet the demands of your teachers.
But what is Gothic‘s most unique feature? Simple: You, the hero, are not special. Your character is not the chosen one, a savior of the people, or anything else this prison colony especially cares for. Even your character model is largely interchangable with any of the other convicts. You’re just a new arrival sitting at the bottom of Gothic‘s social ladder, no better than workers forced into the mines under their new masters.
Everything you encounter brutally reminds you of this fact. NPCs only look out for themselves, offering quests which greatly favor their interests over yours. Some will lie to you, lure you into traps, or threaten you into doing tasks they’d rather not handle. Even when quest-givers are honest, money is rare, and rewarded so sparsely that you’ll under-equipped for most of the game. Every layer of Gothic‘s economy is geared against you, and in any other game we’d call it broken. But it’s not – it’s pretty much the entire point.
Your character can’t even begin the main quest until you’ve (a) earned 1000 pieces of ore, or (b) completed dozens of minor quests to gain the trust of the colony. And remember – your main quest objective was simply delivering a letter. It took ten hours of proving my worth before I came close to achieving this goal, and I still found myself two character levels short of being formally accepted into a camp. (Spoiler alert: Once you’ve completed the necessary tasks, navigated lying NPCs, leveled up, and crossed the castle threshold to deliver your letter? The recipient is gone. He defected and left the castle. In all my years of gaming, I have never resisted the urge to throw my keyboard through a screen more than this game.)
Oh, it gets better. Gothic has a strict “no hand-holding” policy for the entire game. That means no automatic maps, no directional pointers, and no tutorial. Even reading the manual – an essential practice for retro games – will barely help you here. Your journal records key details, but it’s in written in a long-form note format. There’s a merchant in the Old Camp who sells individual maps for at least 50 ore – but if you don’t feel like paying and aren’t skilled enough to pick-pocket? Get used to exploring the environment for that location your quest-giver mentioned. And when a quest-giver gives you directions to an objective listen very carefully.
Punishing as it may be, Gothic is at its best if you’re struggling. When the whole world is against you, that makes every victory, however small, feel like a major accomplishment. Finding safe paths between camps, timing sword swings to halt enemy attacks, or overcoming a challenging monster are rewards in and of themselves. Spending so much time on the ropes helps you feel more invested in Gothic‘s story. The actual plotline is pretty standard, but after spending so long exploring the colony, the subsequent battles which break out seem far more significant. Certainly more meaningful than just having those crucial quests handed to you.
Gothic‘s tone also impacts your roleplaying style. When I play RPGs, I’m almost always the friendly hero, the paragon, a collector of good karma. That approach won’t work here – saying kind words to most NPCs will simply earn you an insult in reply. And the longer it’s clear everyone’s trying to screw you over, the more likely you are to start lashing out in kind. At one point, I was getting so frustrated I started intimidating everyone into giving me what I needed, something I’d never have considered in another game. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is how real prison cultures function on some level.
That’s not to say Gothic has aged well in every regard. There are no autosaves, so failing to save often means you’ll be retracing your steps once a monster kills you. Its controls are atrociously unintuitive. More than once I was killed trying to peek over a cliff edge and flinging myself over instead. And the voice acting is laughably inconsistent – some characters have strong performances (Gomez in particular), but many veer dangerously close to The House of the Dead 2 in terms of quality.
But Gothic still holds some great surprises, especially with its emergent encounters. Perhaps you’ll be swimming across the river for a shortcut, only to find yourself chased back to camp by a lurker. Maybe you’ll spot a few enemies fighting each other, and take advantage of the chaos to sneak by. But that pales compared to my personal favorite – realizing I was hopelessly lost, pulling out a map to check my bearings, and then immediately being tackled by a freaking dinosaur.
Gothic was a true gem in its time, merging survival mechanics, open-world exploration, and roleplaying into something greater than the sum of its parts. The fact that it’s still compelling over a decade later, despite its high difficulty, is a testament to Piranha Bytes design. It also leaves me excited to see what the sequel improved upon… although I suspect I should recover from these initial wounds before diving in again.
For the rest of the month, Good Old Reviews will be covering retro horror games! Check back next week for our first entry.