Review by antimony
Solid old-school RPG
Nethergate is a shareware turn-based strategy RPG for Mac & Windows, from Spiderweb Software. Before I say anything else, I'd like to point out that there's a free demo (that cuts off the area you can explore, but doesn't cripple gameplay) available at www.spiderwebsoftware.com, along with demos of the rest of Spiderweb's RPG games. So I recommend downloading it and figuring out whether you like it yourself.
The first notable point about the Nethergate storyline is that the first thing you do is choose sides. The game is set in Britain during the Roman conquest. Except in this Britain, magic and magical creatures are very much real. And they're up to something, of course. To find out what, you'll have to play the entire game, as most of it only becomes clear at the end. It's not super-deep, but it will make you think, and it does do a good job of building characters that are neither all-good or all-bad. There are lots of sidequests with little stories of their own, and a lot of nice touches. (And with the old-school graphics, you really wouldn't *want* to see any FMVs. It's all text-talking characters.) Both stories are linear in that you have several main missions, and you complete them in order. But there are lots of sidequests you can do at various times, and many of those have multiple outcomes.
Basically, the story isn't what you might expect if you're new to the RPG world and are used to cinematic, twisty plots. But it's also not as meager as most ''old-school'' games, which often had absolutely no motivation for sending your characters on a quest. The story is solid, occasionally poignant, and gives you good enough reasons to dive into the gameplay, which is the real point of playing Nethergate.
You can play either as a team of Romans or Celts -- the Romans are initially portrayed a little bit as the ''heavies'', but both sides have their foibles. Missions will differ between the two sides, although most major dungeons will get used by both, though for different reasons. And as I'll cover in the Gameplay section, they play very differently. The two stories are consistent with each other -- things happen to one side, and then you play the other side and you get to play those missions.
Your characters have very little in terms of individual backstory -- you start out as four junior warrior-types, who've been selected for a special mission. Something about prophecy, though everyone is dubious whether or not you're even competent. All of the backstory emphasis is on the world around you, not the characters. (You do have the option of recruiting a fifth party member, and he/she has some backstory, but not much.) I don't have a problem with fairly colorless PCs, since then I can just explore the world through my own viewpoint. But if you really want your PC to be a fascinating character, you'll be disappointed in Nethergate.
As I said before, when Nethergate starts, you have to choose sides. The Romans don't believe in magic, much, but are superb fighters and are much more adept in making armor and weaponry. You start with three hack & slashers and one healer-mage, who never gets very many spells, or much power. The Celts, on the other hand, cannot equip body armor, and all of them have some magic skill. You'll still want to beef some of them up into the meatshield category, though. The Celts are harder in the early game, IMHO.
The levelling system is very tabletop-RPG style -- as you get experience, you gain points that you can spend at training centers to improve your characters' stats. The stat system is a little more involved than most computer/console RPGs, but it's not difficult to learn or use. Spells are learned by purchase or quest-completion. You shouldn't need to actively try to ''go out and level'' to beat the game -- there are lots of sidequests, and if you can't beat the mission you've been sent on, look for a large sidequest that is about the difficulty you're ready for. It'll be there somewhere.
Battle works in the following way: there are two map-scales: the world map (you can see wandering monsters, though not spiked spaces), and the dungeon/town map. An encounter on the world map brings you to a small dungeon-scale map (which varies by terrain) and puts you in ''fighting mode''. In a dungeon, you can switch in and out of ''fighting mode'' at will. In ''fighting mode'', each character and enemy moves separately, and you can use battle spells, etc. Battles are turn-based -- each character gets a certain amount of action points per turn (4 is normal, but speed boots or heavy armor can change that), which is enough to move a little and attack or spellcast once. Character placement is often extremely important, as is the layout of the dungeon or terrain map.
If you're not in ''fighting mode'', when you move the first character into an enemy (the other characters just follow along behind), you attack with only that character. This greatly speeds up running through areas with low-level monsters, since you don't have to go in and out of battle all the time -- just run through them.
There are a few unbalancing spells/items, and if you play with a walkthrough or with experience, you can get powerful items early enough that they make things much easier. And you can overlevel, if you want. But if you play straight through, without trying to level or going straight for special items, the game is a nice even challenge.
When I call Nethergate old-school, well, I'm serious. The graphics are sprites, with a 2.5-D view (at an angle, so things appear 3-d, but you move in 2-d). The sound effects are a collection of sword clangs, beastly grunts, magic zaps, etc. There is no music. Don't play it for the graphics. As an upside, this game requires very little in terms of computing hardware. You will have to play in Classic if you've got OS X, which is a pity, but you can also play quite happily in system 7.5.3 on a 100 MHz PowerPC.
Basically, don't play Nethergate for the graphics, or the sound. Play it for the gameplay.
Let me preface this section by saying that I rarely play RPGs more than once. I've got a stack of unplayed games that I haven't gotten to, and I work a real job and have other hobbies, too. So the fact that I've played Nethergate three times (once on each side, once with some challenge conditions) through means it gets a 9/10 in my book. I didn't time my playing, and it doesn't have an in-game timer, so I can't tell you how long I spent on it. Sorry!
The ability to choose sides means you'll want to play Nethergate through at least twice -- the two stories interleave quite nicely, and the gameplay varies quite a bit because of the different strengths and weaknesses of the two sides.
I definitely think Nethergate is worth the price ($30 by itself, $37 with hintbook (which I don't own, so I can't comment on), or $15 with the purchase of any other Spiderweb Software game).
You can't rent this game, but you can try the free demo. Just download the demo, and by the time you've finished the part available in it (two missions/dungeons per side, if I recall correctly), you'll know if you want to buy it.
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