The past couple of years have been a wonder for fans of cRPGs. Divinity: Original Sin with its alluring combat and open-ended mechanics; Pillars of Eternity with its superb writing and beautiful world; Wasteland 2 with its post-apocalyptic setting and difficult choices to make. Serpent in the Staglands arrives smack in the middle of these heavy-hitters, with their higher budgets and bigger developing teams, and manages to carve a spot of its own among the more famous games in this cRPG renaissance.
Developed by indie duo Whalenought Studios, Serpent in the Staglands is an isometric, pixel graphic, hardcore cRPG whose heart is still in the 90’s. It has an interface, controls and graphics that both remits to games of the past and maintains itself modern, casting away the clunkiness you’ll often feel playing those games today in favor of a more fluid experience.
Challenging the linear or railroaded RPG experiences we’re very often given, where choices can be made but follow a more or less strict order, Serpent in the Staglands throws you into its world unbound right from the start. You’ll play as an avatar of minor deity Necholai, lord of the moon, who’s had the portal that links the Staglands to his domain broken and must now find out what is happening. A few of your god’s previous choices, such as the deity that he’s allied with upon becoming a god and why he saved a group of sailors, are picked from a small list at the start of the game.
Your mortal body will be that of one of the game’s five playable races, varied and a breath of fresh air in a genre that too often borrows from Tolkien’s works, and will choose one of the three racial variants to further differentiate character creation. You’re given the choice to create other avatars of your deity to fill your party, or set out alone and gather party members from the world (you can also mix and match, creating only one or two avatars rather than four). Attributes and skill points will define your style of combat and your aptitudes for interacting with the world and its people and creatures in a classless system. The game measures between giving you pre-defined roles and letting you choose what you are, marking you both as god and (disguised) spicer but allowing you to define your previous actions as a deity and decide how much of a merchant you are, shunting trading aside or embracing it as you play.
The first thing you’ll notice is the lack of a quest interface and auto-logging journal. Indeed, the smartest thing to do once your temple’s chief has finished orienting you on where to go is to open your journal and manually fill in the more important bits, such as who you need to find and where he can be found. Without a clear quest system that checks itself upon objective completion, dialogue and clues from the world become vital and you’ll need to pay close attention to both to solve the more grisly mysteries of the Staglands. Not only does this further add to the game’s feeling of freedom, it makes each interaction important – the fact that not all NPCs are willing to interact with you, and even those that are, are often terse and laconic, means you’ll never feel like you’re pouring through filler content, something that abounds in games like The Elder Scrolls series and other cRPGs.
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, with insect-like monsters called Harvesters and hard-hitting but slow, worm-like crawlers. 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 I felt amiss regarding the game’s exploration is the lack of interesting random encounters on the world map. You’ll be ambushed and have to fight off enemies every now and then, but the potential of finding travellers, hermits or having interesting encounters with other creatures is entirely wasted, something that would’ve made the overworld travelling more interest than it is, and have you wishing to bump into something rather than hoping you’ll go from A to B without any inconveniences.
The game’s writing tries to keep a careful balance between shorthanding you with too little information or boring you in endless monologues and lore, and while it succeeds for the most part, I couldn’t help but feeling that some interactions could’ve been more fleshed out – you often don’t have the option to tell someone about something important that’s happened, directly related to him, and there’s also an absolute lack of reaction based on your race: as the grey-skinned Varuchovs you’ll be as welcome in the Amethyvian coastal cities as you are in Emerald Metalis, your race’s home. NPCs that are theoretically important, such as one of the heirs of the Varuchov kingdom, get no particular dialogue or preference when speaking to other Varuchov or nobles.
At the same time, there are plenty of ways to interact with the world around you – tied to your choice of skills. You might not elicit a better reception from a city’s consil by just talking to him with your heiress party member, but improve your nobility aptitude and he might tell you a few things unworthy of ox-smelling peasants. Similarly, the elite warrior you find in Corem may not have people cowering in fear just due to this fact, but an ample amount of points in his harbinger aptitude will mean guards and arbiters are easier to relate to, and bandits and crooks more prone to intimidation. Other than these two there are other four aptitudes – philosophy, herbology, woodwise and linguistics – each giving you new abilities and ways to interact with the world. Linguistics has a particularly interesting use: you can find at the start of the game a book of incantations, and within it write curses and spells that you can cast at any NPC in the game, and can also affect the environment, often being pivotal in the solution of puzzles and quests.
The actions you take in the game affect the world, and often when you re-visit an area after having explored for a while you’ll find it has changed. When entire cities get invaded by demons and outlaws, their people wiped out because of your decisions, you begin to feel the weight a god has when he walks the mortal plane. These cause-effect relations aren’t always immediately obvious, and often you’ll take a decision without putting much thought into it and then see how far-reaching it can be. The quests also vary in scope: from transporting an illegal substance across a dangerous forest to discovering and rooting out a bloodless lair (they’re similar to vampires) and investigating the whereabouts of a goddess. Fortunately, boring fetch-and-deliver quests are few and entirely ignorable.
Combat does its job but doesn’t feel as ambitious as the other game’s parts. Those acquainted with the Infinity Engine games will feel right at home with the real time with pause, party-based isometric gameplay, where your characters attack and cast spells according to their speed. Being a low-magic setting (no +5 Vorpal Swords to be found here) means your casters are relegated to more of a support role: spells take a decent while to cast and lack the oomph given to them in D&D inspired games, and are better used to buff and heal your allies or inflict ailments and debuff your enemies. They also are put to good use outside of combat, often being the only way to traverse certain areas or break certain barriers.
The game does have its fair share of flaws: bugs are one of the unpleasant things you’ll discover as you play. I’ve dealt with conversations that loop without a clear way of getting out of them (I managed to do so by clicking on a character portrait); monsters spawning when you load a game, even if they weren’t there before; being able to recruit someone at one point and, later on, interacting with him with the same character and being unable to recruit him. These are the bugs I experienced while playing the game, and there might be others which I missed by luck or their rarity. Selecting targets can also become somewhat of a chore when there are summons and plenty of creatures on the screen, but what takes the cherry as the most annoying issue are the loading times. With loading times often exceeding the one minute mark, I found myself spending dozens of minutes every time I played the game for a few hours just waiting for the transitions to work out. Certain areas, like Corem, are particularly obnoxious, with every other building locked behind a loading screen.
Your companions are also exceedingly quiet, with few interactions between you and them – truly, most of the lines I read came from Catalina, and it was always some complaint about the city we just arrived at. Banter and the option to speak with them would’ve made traveling more lively, and having them react to certain decisions of yours would give them more personality. This made the game feel less party-based than other cRPGs where you interact with your party and help them with their personal issues, whereas in Serpent in the Staglands the group is mostly there to silently lend Necholai their aptitudes and combat skills.
Something that might deceive you when glancing at screenshots and still pictures are the graphics: the pixel art goes a long way in creating an appropriately eery setting, and the careful thought put into animating everything in the game – from the bushes to your characters – makes the graphics look at their best when in motion.
Serpent in the Staglands is a game that gives the players the tools to solve its problems and conundrums but doesn’t elaborate too much on how to do so. It’s up to the player to figure out the use of a piece of paper containing translated Amethyvian runes, or just how he can enter a besieged and blockaded city without butchering his way into it (butchering your way is always an option, though). This lack of hand-holding and the multitude of applications you can give to your aptitudes lend the game a truly pen-and-paper role-playing game feel, leaning not only on its choices, writing and story to summon this feeling but on the fact that you have many tools you can put to use throughout the game.
A difficult game that requires the player to learn and observe his surroundings in order to play it properly, Serpent in the Staglands isn’t afraid of making you feel not only free, but often lost. You’ll feel the weight of your presence and be glad that your character is important not because he’s a deity, but because of what you decide to do. Like the seafaring Amethyvians that worship Necholai, Serpent in the Staglands’ foremost quality is its ambition, which looms like a mountain over the smaller hills that are its flaws.