The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is a Critical Hit
When comes to video games, the term “role-playing game” has become synonymous with anything that involves a fantasy setting, experience, and leveling-up. It’s far removed from the tabletop systems that spawned the term. Sure, there were text adventures and MUDS/MOOS (look it up, kids) but outside of throwing dice around a table, video games haven’t managed to capture that feeling. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain manages to sum it all up without having to find those pesky friend things people talk about.
Based on a single-player role-playing module from the 80’s, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain takes the pages for framework and creates one of the simplest interfaces I’ve ever used. You’re in a place. You see some stuff. What do you do? That’s almost all there is to it. Even the combat strips everything to a base and gets you through at a reasonable pace. Attacks and movement are decided simultaneously. Click on the spot in the grid where you’d like to interact and the game will show you your options. There’s really nothing to it. How does it manage to have so little to it and be one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had all year? Style.
There’s very little animation in Warlock. Instead, you’re given a choice of mini figures for characters in which to choose. As you make decisions, the game builds the environment for you. The rooms, creatures, and environments are all miniatures and each set piece looks like it would be right at home on your table during game night. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain spends no time making the adventure into a video game. If you’re going to get lost in the world you’re going to have to read all the text and get lost in it.
This is where the reviewing this game gets dicey. I accept that it speaks to a specific audience and I am that audience. I can’t imagine many people are interested in a dungeon crawl sort of adventure that forces the player to read. Some gamers may describe The Warlock of Firetop Mountain as an interactive story, but that’s not quite accurate. The combat system certainly gives it that little oomph to categorize this as a game, but that’s still scratching the surface. While researching the Fighting Fantasy book series this title is derived from, I read a lot of folks talking about how often they’d hold pages or read different sections of the book, and it made cheating inevitable. Warlock doesn’t let you look forward and only gives you what is meant for each character, leading me to my next point.
A game like this could get stale fast considering the paths are identical each run through. I played the game as far as I could with four different characters. Each character interacts with every room, trap, and enemy in a different way. Sometimes you’ll get different dialogue options, other times you’ll notice or miss a trap other characters have seen. The memorization actually plays to the game’s advantage. Meta gaming was a blast. In one of the early rooms there is a box filled with snakes. Some characters can hear the hissing and you get the option to stab the box rather than open it. This new character didn’t hear anything, but at this point I knew not to open it. It may not sound like much, but initial runs of a game like this has players constantly making decisions to find out what everything is. Once you start discovering the many facets of Firetop Mountain you’ll keep getting better and better. There’s something special about curiosity diminishing and creating a heroic aspect in your psyche. I knew better because I was a seasoned explorer.
Unlike traditional video game RPGs, your stats remain relatively unchanged throughout the run. You’ll lose and gain stamina, luck, and skill, but from the get go you’re just as powerful when it comes to killing enemies. Once I got comfortable with this fact I realized every combat was winnable. This realization meant it didn’t matter if I was fighting five skeletons or a giant cyclops, I was going to take them on. Every creature you kill in combat gives you souls which can be spent unlocking new characters. As of the writing of this review there are four playable characters and eight more to unlock as you play. That’s twelve different ways to see this adventure, giving The Warlock of Firetop Mountain plenty of staying power.
I mentioned it before, but I won’t pretend like this game is perfect. The music and atmosphere are great, but having no voiceover seems like a simple thing to overlook. The audience is really niche, as well, which is a shame but understandable. This isn’t going to have the same effect for people who have grown up with Diablo or Dark Souls to compare dungeon crawling madness.
What this game does have is heart. The graphics are gorgeous and fun, using miniatures and dice to recreate that tabletop style works great, and maybe this could even get a new audience into tabletop role-playing. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain may not be a perfect game, but speaking from the heart it manages to create something special and unique in a world full of overblown AAA fantasy titles. Warlock has tons of heart and style and comes highly recommended.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Mac, Linux ; Publisher: Tin Man Games ; Developer: Tin Man Games ; Players: 1 ; Released: August 31, 2016; Genre: RPG ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on a digital copy of the game supplied by the publisher.