The saturated realm of beefy heroes and, sometimes, beefy heroines has produced a long line of relatively unlikely Chosen Ones. Amidst this list of deviations from the doughty norm are characters chosen by circumstance for their bravery, spirit, money, legs, mohawk hair, and many other arbitrary prophetic attributes. I’ve seen children in my games, boys and girls, rise to the dire threat of a nation. I’ve played farmers and minstrels and even animals as the champion protagonists in some of these games. None of them seemed truly out of place in their quests. Despite my temperament to these divergent hero types, I still have a hard time adjusting to the idea of a retail merchant clasping the collective destiny of a universe, and arising to power such that a Great Evil would be overthrown.
Jonquil Software presents us with this oblique hero type in their RPG/economy-action game, Spells of Gold (SoG). Now, I don’t want to be too down on the fact that something different was tried here, but what really shines above all else is the fundamental RPG mainstays along with isometric click-and-slash battle action that doesn’t really move the ambitions of the player. Amongst the many glaring juxtapositions in SoG’s gameplay and aspirations, there are a number of things done right – they just don’t rise to what the game could have been, or maybe what it should have been.
A short narrative from the main character kicks the buying-and-trading action into high gear! After finding out that you were witness to your family’s death for no particular reason, and were raised after that point by a charitable merchant who passes on a magical sack to you upon his death, things get under way. Within the parameters of a “healthy” pace, SoG has a hard time getting it into first gear, and this really does make it difficult to become invested in the game from an early point. As the game marches on, plot points glimmer and flash in and out of existence, creating a stop-and-go impetus for the player. I dare you – just try and remain interested in a story that alternates between 10 miles per hour and a dead stop. It’s like shoving a handful of rice cakes into your mouth at 30 minute intervals.
As the game progresses, you learn that the world you’re currently in (named Vayon) is just one part of a conglomerate of previously connected worlds, through a dimensional portal network called the Lokatrienn. Beyond this set of facts, very little else compels the player to really seek out the greater adventure and involve themselves in the game. Sure, there are plenty of other worlds to open up and engage in the exciting trade market, but most of the time SoG tends to lose the player by not giving any direct focus to the player’s efforts. Should I be refining and exploiting the various market values of wares? Is there really a good reason to upgrade and advance the robust characteristics of the “hero” I’m playing? What the hell am I going to do with a myriad of different offensive and defensive spells, fighting styles, and gods to worship when I’m neck deep in counting beans?
There may be some long-term value in SoG. Anyone interested in keeping track of undocumented storylines and spending a tremendous amount of time leveling up their hero to some end will probably enjoy this. Here’s an example of the first five hours of gameplay that I experienced:
Wander between the four initially available towns, fight militant gnomes, and deliver insignificant parcels and notes to the various towns’ figures for paltry cash.
Yup. That’s about it. I could have experimented more with the local mercantile items, compared cost and sale prices, and really turned myself into the uber-merchant I’m supposed to be in this game, but the RPG portion (which I think was supposed to be an aside in some respects) got in the way. After enduring the constant insult of being killed by the small droves of short people that can’t seem to get into the loosely guarded towns, I decided that my limp-wristed merchant needed some training in the art of Ass Kicking. If travel is involved for trade, I needed to be prepared, after all. Now maybe this was the prime directive anyway, but it essentially makes all the light economy gameplay moot.
On top of the confusing premise, unfocused character advancement, and a confluence of cross-genre mediocrity that creates a sort of video game quiche, there is a spiritual element that is designed to allow your character to gain favor with a god or gods, and learn different spells. There are also schools of training that instruct in fighting and elemental magic, which could be considered useful, if it weren’t for the fact that none of this seems to fit together for SoG.
The menu interface and on-screen displays, in a glimmering display of charity, are actually well laid out. Submenus are kept to a minimum and are suitably identified by link buttons on the main screen. Your sale items, itemized personal armor and weaponry, character stats, current quests and more are all very available. What would have been a welcome addition to SoG, especially given its ostensible press as a game featuring trade and commerce, is a central index of towns and their import and export prices. Also missing is a story log of some kind, to keep the player interested in the next step. All things considered, the menu integrity barely hits the mark; if the menu interfaces had been too unmanageable or overbearing, SoG would have been downright unplayable.
Here’s where I start sounding like I’m back-pedaling. Spells of Gold really could be engrossing, especially if you’ve got the time for it, and you’re used to tracking the burgeoning load of several separate key aspects of a single game. I know that for most of us, when we’re digging in to find the best sale price for the slowly decaying apples in our carrier satchels, we don’t necessarily want to switch gears and be too distracted by a whole other table of play opportunities involving RPG character advancement and pinning down a diaphanous plot. But as I mentioned at the beginning, there are notable efforts made to combine some robust play structures in Spells of Gold and for the most part, they’re executed with a deft hand for detail. The biggest problem is that the very different genre elements just don’t seem to co-exist very well within the confines of a game containing little cohesive structure. Because of that fact, the saddest part about Spells of Gold’s inadequacies is that I don’t even know, specifically, to whom I could recommend it.