Serpent in the Staglands is a cRPG released in 2015, created by indie developers Whalenought Studios. A first look might have you thinking that you’re playing an RPG from the late 90’s, and you’d be wrong: Serpent in the Staglands is merely disguising itself as such. Behind the isometric, real time with pause, party-based game that marked a generation of memorable RPGs are novel mechanics and an intriguing setting that places it apart from classics such as Baldur’s Gate and IceWind Dale.
You play as moon lord Necholai’s avatar, whose past you can shape at the game’s introduction, where you’ll select a few options to define your associations among Vol’s pantheon and personality. These choices are brought up a few times across your journey, changing a few of the game’s aspects. Trapped in a very real, very mortal body of flesh and bones, your first order of business is to choose a race out of five choices and one of their three variants, which represent groups and factions within the races per se. The five first minutes already had me impressed: each race is richly described and unique, managing to escape from the typical Tolkien-esque tropes you often see in other fantasy role-playing games.
The head of one of your temples will give you directions and tell you what to do in your quest to learn how to return to your domain, and at this point the game starts to set itself apart: there are no quest markers or waypoints – everything you see or hear that you think might be of interest you’d best write down in your journal – and the path you’ll need to tread to your goal is not only unknown, but multiple and different each time you play. This also means that if you aren’t careful enough your memory might fail you and you’ll have to re-discover what you’re supposed to do and where you’re supposed to go.
Along with the main character you can have four more party members, created at the beginning as other avatars or chosen from the large amount of NPCs who can join you along the game (I’ve counted over sixteen, so far). As there are no classes, what you’re apt to do in battle and in the game is mostly decided by how you allocate your attributes, equip yourself and choose your skills. I did get the impression that the heavy damage-dealers will wield weapons, as spells are much less explosive and destructive than in D&D-inspired games, resulting in casters being shifted to a more support role, where their spells are best used to buff allies or debuff enemies rather than hurt them. Here, the game sets itself apart from most other RPGs once more: spells may have uses outside of combat, to traverse areas or interact with barriers – sometimes in ways less obvious than others – and these uses you’ll be able to infer from their descriptions or what you’re told by other people in the game. One thing I felt amiss was being able to interact with your companions: you can’t speak with them and there is no banter, such as there was in Baldur’s Gate and as we’ve grown accustomed to due to modern RPGs such as Pillars of Eternity, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, only a couple of scripted interactions depending on where you go (I’m fairly sure they won’t object to anything you do, as well, from sacrificing a party member to butchering children).
Aside from spells, another thing that can modify your interaction with the peoples and creatures of Vol are your Aptitudes: harbinger, nobility, woodwise, philosophy, linguistics and herbology. A party with a member versed in woodwise might be able to get valuable information from a passing rat or convince a fox to stop predating someone’s livestock, while if you’re versed in the languages of Vol (via linguistics) you’ll be able to banter and arrive at peaceful solutions with Natives, Ieles and other creatures with tongues of their own. All aptitudes have frequent and important uses, conferring to the game what RPGs should always have: multiple ways of solving a problem and, sometimes, the inability to solve it at all.
Like any RPG worth its salt, Serpent in the Staglands has a few puzzles of varying difficulty scattered across the games – sometimes you’ll find a mystery whose solution you’ll only come upon, without necessarily being guided to it, several hours later. You’ll work translations, discover novel uses of your incantations, figure things out due to progression or appropriate use of your aptitudes (you can ‘investigate’ objects with your aptitudes and sometimes that will yield more information), play with patterns and levers while you attempt to traverse dungeon and enter ruins. You’ll often have to reference previous letters, books about the world’s languages and the ‘Guide to the Staglands’ you’re given at the start by Lord Erlein (which is a PDF you can access outside of the game).
Serpent in the Staglands is set in Vol, a setting that draws inspiration from bronze-age Transylvania (1500 – 600 BC), and has its own races, creatures, monsters and myth, avoiding to lean on common, previously established tropes such as elves and dragons and drawing instead from Romanian mythology. The Staglands, the titular peninsula where the game plays out, is a dangerous place, littered with outlaws, evil, fairytale-like (as in, Brothers Grimm “I eat little children” style) monsters and witches, and you’ll traverse it via an overworld map, where time passes by quickly and you can be ambushed. There’s a day/night cycle that modifies what NPCs are where, as well. It doesn’t modify normal NPCs routines, and shops, just as houses, are open twenty-four hours a day, but you might miss a pack of grave robbers if you never visit the cemetery during the night.
One thing that might have a ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’ feeling to it is the amount of writing: contrary to what games like Skyrim and Pillars of Eternity are fond of, there aren’t piles upon piles of books, notes and inscriptions for you to read regarding the world, and its inhabitants are also very terse: many dismiss you immediately or refuse speaking with you altogether. Quests are also given a much more organic feeling than their scripted counterparts from other games, fewer one between the other but a result of your exploring, and not necessarily someone telling you what to do.
The game offers a solid presentation under its pixel graphics, which look at their best in motion – once again, while it may look like a game from the 90’s, a comparison between RPGs from then and Serpent in the Staglands will leave evident that only the style is old: the graphics are crisp and the animations smooth in a way games weren’t a decade ago.
Combat itself is fine and not much different from the standard affair we’ve seen in the Infinity Engine games: you issue commands and they occur based on each character’s attack/casting speed, with the ability to pause the game and direct your characters calmly. The locked camera will sometimes intrude on your capacity to pick targets during combat, a nuisance that happens too often to be ignored. Combat will be initially hard, specially because encounters aren’t scaled and you’ll need to pick your fights (something that might be harder at the start of the game), but as time goes by you’ll become a better judge of what to fight and what to flee. There are some minor bugs, such as conversations looping indefinitely without a clear way to exit them, monsters appearing when you load a game even if they weren’t there when you saved it and being sometimes able and sometimes unable to transition between areas while in combat, but for the most part it goes by smoothly. The main complaint I have about its performance are the loading times: lasting up to a minute and happening often (specially early on, where you’ll reload multiple times), they break the flow and made me wait dozens of minutes every game session.
Serpent in the Staglands is an ambitious foray into role-playing games, catering to hardcore fans of the genre by offering a truly open experience, offering no hand-holding but giving you all the tools necessary to learn the game by trial. It has a few bugs and the loading times are truly annoying, but they don’t mar the final product, with its novel setting and old-school mechanics. The writing consolidates the experience, the Staglands being a place of politics, racial conflicts and dubious people where you’ll have your share of serious themes and dark motifs, but will also laugh every now and then – conversations about the Moon Lord (and how (un)important or benevolent he is) are specially funny, you being him unbeknownst to other people and all. I don’t know how it’ll develop further into the game, but so far exploring the Staglands has been a joy, each place made lively with witch covens, criminal bands and monsters.
For this segment the game has been played for 40.5 hours, and is an early evaluation based on what I’ve seen so far.
Serpent in the Staglands was played on retail code provided by the developers.