Throwback Thursday: Gothic was the Dark Souls of my generation
When I was a younger lad transitioning from my wide-eyed childhood years into the dangerous frontiers of middle-school and eventually highschool, the PC gaming landscape was a lot different than it is now. The idea of being able to simply buy and download games from the internet was still in its earliest stages of infancy, which meant that if I wanted to play a new game on my parents’ computer, I had to go out, buy a physical boxed copy, bring it home, break out the multiple game discs it came on and get to work. I went through a real PC RPG kick during my pre-teen years, cutting my teeth on classics like Diablo and flawed (yet fun) gems like Dungeon Lords. But there was one game that captivated me more than any other, showing me just how immersive, difficult and engaging RPG’s can be. That game was Piranha Bytes’ Gothic.
The Times, They Are A Changing
I recently managed to pick up a new Steam copy of Gothic as part of a sale and proceeded to reacquaint myself with a game that sucked up a lot of my free time as a young teenager. Gothic, for those who don’t know, is a third-person action RPG set in the original fantasy world of Khorinnis. Players play as an unnamed convict who is thrust into the middle of a three-way conflict between a king, a penal colony, and an army of orcs. The king needs ore mined from the colony to fight the encroaching orcs but a misfired means of magical imprisonment has trapped all of the prisoners inside of the colony, leading them to revolt and form their own sort of pseudo-kingdom. In exchange for the precious ore the colonists mine, the king sends in fresh supplies to the colony, creating a semi-stable yet obviously very tense sort of truce.
When I jumped back into the game after having not played it for probably seven or eight years, I was quickly reminded of just how unique Gothic really is. The game is PC-exclusive but Piranha Bytes made the odd decision of crafting a control scheme that doesn’t require a mouse, just a keyboard. After many years of playing other PC RPG’s like Skyrim and World of Warcraft, this obviously took some getting used to. The odyssey that is Gothic’s control scheme doesn’t end there though. Simply pressing the “Use” key isn’t enough to pick up items off of the ground; you must hold down the key and then press the “Move Forward” key to pick the item up.
Combat involves pressing a separate key to unsheathe your equipped weapon (or ready your character’s fists if unarmed), then holding down the “Use” key and pressing the directional buttons to choose where your character attacks (pressing forward performs a lunging strike, pressing left or right does a standing side slash, pressing back performs a block/parry). This sort of combat which, again, doesn’t involve using the mouse, feels very awkward and unintuitive and it makes trying to fight more than one enemy at once a surefire way to get your character killed. It’s also strangely realistic however, since trying to fight multiple assailants in real life is never as easy as it seems in movies.
Ahead Of Its Time
What Gothic lacks in the combat and movement departments, it more than makes up for with its exploration and RPG elements. Gothic was the first RPG that legitimately made me dread what was waiting in the world’s dark forests and deep caves. The game has a stunningly large world inhabited by a sizable variety of different monsters and other threats, each with their own attack patterns and behaviors. There’s also a robust hunting system where the player can learn specialized skills that allow them to take the skin, claws, fangs and other salvageable parts from creatures and sell them for extra ore (which functions as currency in the colony).
While you can’t customize the unnamed prisoner’s cosmetic traits (he’s always a human male), you can decide several other factors such as which of the three colony camps he joins (the Old Camp, the New Camp, or the Swamp Camp). This in turn has minor effects on how the game’s story plays out, although it always comes to the same conclusion no matter what.
Thanks to the game’s semi-robust skills system, you can also guide the prisoner into one of several different combat archetypes. You can be a traditional melee fighter using one-handed or two-handed weapons, a long-distance archer, a stealthy rogue or a mage wielding spells from one of several schools of magic. You can even be a weird hybrid if you want, playing as a mage who wields two-handed weapons or a scout who softens foes up with long-range weapons before finishing them off in close quarters.
Other little touches also make the world of Gothic feel alive, despite its dated graphics and laughable voice acting. NPC’s all have their own routines and behaviors, walking around the game’s various settlements and engaging in routine tasks like cooking, hunting, drinking and training with weapons. NPC’s will also react if you try to draw your weapon in a public space, giving you a stern verbal warning that your threatening actions aren’t appreciated. By the time I got around to playing more expansive RPG’s like Morrowind, I had already seen much of what made those game so memorable in Gothic.
An Unsung Legacy
Despite its obscurity, Gothic did well enough to produce not one but three subsequent games; Gothic 2, Gothic 3 and Arcania: Gothic 4. I only ever played Gothic 2, and, much like its predecessor, I ended up enjoying it and playing it through to completion. I managed to snag both Gothic 2 and Gothic 3 as part of my recent Steam purchase, so I might go ahead and play through the entire trilogy, if only for the nostalgia and to see how the third game holds up. If you’ve never heard of the Gothic series and you’re curious as to how PC RPG’s used to function back in a time when physical PC games were actually still a thing, I’d recommend giving the first game a shot. You can probably find it for a pretty cheap price and even your older computers are pretty much guaranteed to run it. Just be ready for dated graphics and one of the weirdest PC control schemes you will ever encounter.