Simile-based advertising, long a favorite of marketing types in just about every industry, is a double-edged sword. It simplifies an advertiser’s life by offering a fast and direct means of getting across to a potential customer what’s inside the box. You ease the demands of explaining your product to an easily distracted public when you can point at something else and say, “See that? Like that.”
The downside, of course, is invoking names from the past unavoidably invites comparison and creates in the audience an expectation that the new product will be better than, or at the very least on par with, the old. By bringing up the names of Diablo and Dungeon Siege, two franchises that have achieved enviable levels of success, Meridian4’s The Chosen: Well of Souls has taken the risky path of lining itself up against some very stiff competition.
The Chosen: Well of Souls is technically sound, and kudos to the developers at Rebelmind for that. I had initially expected to weave a tale of buggy woe, as within the first hour of playing I had one crash-to-desktop and three hard locks; since then, however, the game has performed flawlessly. Either I was extremely unlucky at the start or I’ve been even luckier since, but overall the game has been an absolute rock. It even alt-tabs like a champ, an important feature for those of us who don’t just game when we game.
The landscapes are also attractive. It’s not going to make you forget about Crysis, or even Oblivion, but the environs in Well of Souls are certainly prettier than those found in its aforementioned (although admittedly dated) competitors. Even compared to more recent offerings like Titan Quest, Well of Souls stands out. Its renderings of lush jungles, medieval cities and rocky, barren deserts are respectable eye candy at the very least.
Unfortunately, the good news is also the bad news, because that’s all there is. Solid technical chops does not a great game make; it’s why id games are the target of seemingly endless heaps of scorn while a bug-ridden nightmare like Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines is held up as a pinnacle of design excellence. And as much as the game succeeds technically, it fails in virtually every other area.
Character creation is almost a direct lift from Diablo. In The Chosen: Well of Souls, you play one of three classes: a beefy, sword-swinging goon; a mystic wielder of magical energies; or a lithe, agile (and, continuing the pattern of similarity, female) master of long-distance death. Attributes are split between the familiar four categories of strength, dexterity, knowledge and vitality, with a player’s health and mana levels derived from them, while a class- and level-based skill tree rounds out the proceedings.
It was at the character creation screen, in fact, that I felt the first pangs of trepidation over Well of Souls. Deciding to play the Swordsman (having learned long ago that hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good sword at my side), I was introduced to the character with the following:
“Born in the Tien-Szan Mountains, Khan has trained in the martial arts since early childhood. His goal has always been to use his abilities to help the oppressed. He is known as the Blade of Spring, and has become synonymous with terror among the demons. Everywhere people suffer Khan appears to ease their burden. He has become a legend for his battles against the mountain demons, the Qi-Mei.”
Impressive, no? You can’t help but feel a tingle. As it turns out, however, The Blade of Spring, Legend of the Mountains and Terror of the Qi-Mei apparently forgot all his stuff back in Tien-Szan, because he arrives in the demon-infested city of Kamieniec armed with a branch.
That’s a tree branch I’m talking about, as in stick you’d pick up off the ground during a nice walk through the woods on a brisk autumn afternoon. With this, and nothing else – no armor, no shield and no actual skills to speak of (perhaps Khan’s branch fell out of a tree and struck him an amnesia-inducing blow to the head) – the Blade of Spring has arrived to strike fear in the hearts of the demon horde.
OK, so Khan’s lack of actual demon-killing cred shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise; new characters in games like these generally start with no appreciable equipment or experience, pre-fight hype notwithstanding. But the yawning chasm between the sizzle and the steak left me a tad apprehensive about what other bits of oddness might be waiting for me.
I would find out soon enough. While the Well of Souls character creation is straight out of Diablo, the actual gameplay in is pure Dungeon Siege: Your avatar moves through an attractively-rendered and wholly-linear 3D environment, putting the hurt on hordes of monsters, all of whom are apparently on some kind of perpetual smoke break, as he goes. You will be assisted along the way by three separate entities of varying usefulness: humans, demons and “helpers.”
Humans are placed at various locations throughout the levels to serve as semi-random encounters. Some carry melee weapons while others are packing heat, but they all have one thing in common: Their shirts are a distinctive shade of red. On rare occasions you’ll end up being followed by a large group of them, six or eight at a time, which can be handy simply for the collective firepower they can bring to bear; more often, though, you’ll be teamed up with individuals, and I urge you not to grow too attached to any of them. Even the redoubtable Boris Boguslav, whose reputation literally precedes him, is distinguishable from most of the game’s other meat-slab punching bags only by virtue of having a name.
Your remaining backup options spring from more otherworldly sources, either as a golem or neferkar (a small, fairy-like Egyptian spirit of protection) or in the form of demons you’ll acquire as you play. Golems are large, tough heavyweights, handy in a fight and able to absorb punishment as well as dish it out; neferkar, being more akin to houseflies that spit, are essentially useless. Both can be summoned at will and healed with scrolls purchased from the Society of Alchemists.
Demons operate a little differently. Unlike most RPGs and other fictional depictions, demons in The Chosen: Well of Souls are neither good nor evil, and are happy enough to sign up with just about anyone who comes along and asks. Demons are controlled by Faith, similar to a self-replenishing mana pool, except that instead of powering spells, it allows you to summon infernal beasts from other dimensions. They’re immortal and fearsome fighters, fantastic allies save for one rather glaring flaw: Like drag racing or sex, demons last only about 10 seconds at a time, and since Faith replenishes at a slow, fixed rate they cannot be immediately re-summoned like the golem or neferkar.
Facing off against you and your stalwart pals is a bestiary that can generously be described as limited. The game offers only a few different monster species on each level, creating variety, such as it is, by dividing each species into five types: Velox, the melee-fighting base model; Mitter, who throw rocks; Incantator, who throw spells instead of rocks; Sanar, who can resurrect other fallen monsters; and Magnus, basically the same as Velox but roughly doubled in size and hit points. Aside from minor variations in coloring – and size in the case of the Magnus sub-species – the enemies are virtually identical to one another save for their attack types. Largely as a result, strategy in the game can be reduced to “Kill Sanar first.” Everything else is just clicking on the nearest bad guy.
This is where the wheels start to come off. You will click. And you will click. You will click some more. You will continue to click until your mouse, your finger or your patience gives up under the strain. To paraphrase the Bard, “The click’s the thing wherein you’ll cause permanent tendon damage to your fing(er).” And while it’s true that many other games don’t offer a whole lot more in the way of actual gameplay, they’re able to disguise this fact by rewarding the player with a definite sense of progress as he makes his way through the game. New and more challenging enemies appear; equipment becomes progressively more powerful and effective; wealth accumulates. The Chosen: Well of Souls, on the other hand, provides none of this. Along with repetitive gameplay, you’ll also encounter repetitive levels, enemies and loot drops; your character at level 20 is very likely to be using largely the same type of equipment as he was at level one. It’s a very damaging aspect of the design; without “money and stuff” to measure your advancement, it becomes easy to lose sight of why you’re bothering to play the game in the first place.
The game does attempt to insert a layer of strategy by introducing day-night cycles and designating some monsters as nocturnal, making them tougher and more dangerous at night. But there’s no gradual progression from day to night to allow the player to prepare for the change, or even as a nod to realism. One minute the sun is up and it’s day; the next, the sky is dark and it’s night. Not that it amounts to much beyond a slightly-increased rate of potion guzzling – and believe me, you’ll be doing a lot of that, no matter what time it is – and anyone sufficiently determined to avoid the heightened difficulty can skip night-fighting entirely by just standing around waiting for the sun to magically and instantaneously appear in the sky. It’s an interesting idea that’s reduced to near-worthlessness as a result of stumbling execution.
Numerous other small issues plague the game throughout. The voice acting is bad, particular the cut-scene narration, which actually approaches Beyond Divinity in terms of brain-jarring awfulness. Equipment wear occurs at such a rapid pace that I began to wonder if it was actually broken; the few magical items I found or purchased deteriorated so quickly that I simply could not keep up with maintenance, and having expended what little gold I had accumulated on repairs, I was forced to abandon them in favor of making do with whatever happened to be dropped by dead monsters. Camera height cannot be adjusted, and while the camera can be zoomed with the mouse wheel, camera rotation, a far more important function, is keyboard only.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must make an admission: I didn’t finish the game. The now-defunct Computer Gaming World magazine had a rule dictating that reviewers were required to play a game to completion before they wrote their review; Old Man Murray, on the other hand, said once that if a game wasn’t fun within the first 10 minutes there was no good reason to think it wasn’t going to suck all the way through. Caught between these two extremes, I settled on what I felt was a more-than-fair compromise: I put my head down and bulled through hour after tedious hour until not even guilt was enough to propel me further. It takes a lot to keep me from the end of a game, and in that sense, The Chosen: Well of Souls is in rare and elite company.
The Chosen: Well of Souls never descends into the realm of the truly bad, but neither does it manage to be good. Ultimately, it fails not on a catastrophic and memorable scale, but on a mundane and forgettable one, the victim of odd design choices, minor bugs and unrelenting monotony. The game does nothing that hasn’t been done before and done better. There’s just nothing here to recommend; gamers who are tired of Dungeon Siege but can’t get enough Dungeon Siege-style action might find something to like in it, but anyone not fitting that particular demographic would be better taking a pass.