Review - Realms of Arkania: Star Trail (DOS, 1994)

When was the last time you played a computer RPG that you actually thought was as fun as "the real thing?" Granted, Sir-Tech's REALMS OF ARKANIA: STAR TRAIL doesn't ship with human companions in the box, but it does a much better job of simulating a real RPG than most of its competition, which usually is based on unrealistic, random combat intermixed with extremely basic exploration. If you like that sort of thing, then stick with it. You're obviously not alone, because those games sell like crazy. If you crave something more, though, Star Trail may be what you're looking for.

Designed and produced in Germany, and based on "Das Schwarze Auge," one of that country's most popular roleplaying systems, Star Trail plays much differently than the popular breed of RPGs here in the states based on TSR's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and its affiliated systems. The idea is still the same . . . explore, gain wealth, survive . . . but in Star Trail, the emphasis is put more on the strategic aspects of the game than on hit points and experience points. Let me explain . . .

Any roleplaying game starts with the task of creating one or more characters. In Star Trail, this process could humble the boldest character-maker to ever walk the earth. Beyond the standard Strength, Dexterity, and other attributes, are 50+ skills in which EVERY character has some level of proficiency. In the Advanced creation mode, you choose which skills you want your character to be better at and assign pluses accordingly. Magic-using characters require this process twice over . . . once for the aforementioned skills and once for spell levels. Since the standard party in this game is composed of six characters, I recommend having a fridge, telephone, TV, and toilet near your computer so that the several hours you might spend completing this process will be as comfortable as possible. Or, if you couldn't care less about skill levels, the Novice mode would suit you better.

After character creation is out of the way, you're on your own. Two distinctly different methods of travel exist in Star Trail, and it should come as no surprise that one of them (the one used when exploring a town or dungeon) uses a first-person perspective. This is, after all, the Doom era, and although there are no horned demons to kill (well, not in TOWN, anyway), the view looks the same. Towns primarily contain a lot of grumpy citizens and a few shops and taverns. The latter two are what your party should be looking for. Star Trail adds a twist to the usual "pay-this-price-and-get-this-item" shopping system by letting characters haggle over the price. Haggling, actually, is one of those 50-odd skills that your characters possess, and the better the haggler, the better the discount. You can also pickpocket shopkeepers (yes, pickpocketing is another "skill").

Outside of town there's, well, not a whole heck of a lot. There's some pretty mountains and lush forests, but the villages are pretty far apart. The second method of travel is used when traveling long distances. Using a map metaphor, you can plan your trips along pre-defined routes. When your party grows tired, you make camp and rest, but not before setting watch, gathering herbs, and searching for game and water. What's more, unless your party is very bundled-up well, they're susceptible to frostbite and worse. This doesn't sound very fun, eh? Having to keep an eye on all of your characters all the time so they don't fall into comas? Well, it certainly is a challenge . . . even more so than surviving combat, which is also handled in a more realistic manner than most other computer RPGs.

When your party enters combat, you're presented with an isometric, overhead view of the entire scene. Initiative is decided randomly, after which you control each character individually. Each member of your party, depending on attribute scores and encumbrance, is granted a certain number of "movement points," which they can spend to perform actions such as spellcasting or attacking. If you wish, the computer can control one or more characters for you, or it can simulate the entire fight. After a victory, your party automatically searches the bodies and you can choose what, if anything, you want to take.

Star Trail IS as good as it sounds, but I'm guessing it only sounds good to experienced roleplayers who see that it contains elements that have long been missing from their favorite computer RPGs. You'll have to struggle to win it, so judge for yourself whether struggling with a computer game is actually worth your time. If it is, then Star Trail is worth your money.

Play the demo for this game directly in your browser