For some, getting into the Indie Game business is an attempt to realise the life-long dream of creating the next Doom or making a game as pervasive and genre-defining as Tetris or Snake. But for Romanian indie developer Bacioiu Ciprian (who goes by the handle @Zapakitul), his goal is simply to create perfectly-formed fun little coffee break games to satisfy the time-constrained RPG-loving gamer.
If you think about it, he does have a point: Most of the mobile games designed for short sessions tend to be fairly brain-null score-chasers like Bejewelled or Temple Run. So is it possible to create a very short game that requires some strategy and has depth and a (mini) story?
Zapakitul (or Zapa)’s style is to take an existing game or concept, say Minesweeper, Eye of the Beholder or the Game of Life, strip it down to its core elements, rebuilding it from the ground up while adding (or retaining) the RPG and Rogue-like elements.
“OK, I get Minesweeper for a coffee-break game, but how can you make Minesweeper an RPG or EotB a coffee-break game?” I hear you asking. That’s a good question! To answer the first half, you need to go check out his Itch.io site (http://zapakitul.itch.io) and play the rather entertaining little game RogueSweeper! For the second, that brings us neatly to the most recent game he’s released, one called Ebony Spire.
Ebony Spire was released for free on his Itch page over a year ago, but he’s been adding a lot of spit and polish, giving it more material and re-releasing it as a paid-for version “Ebony Spire: Heresy” on both Itch and Steam, with the free “demo” version still available on Itch.
Zapa describes his creation as “a love letter to dungeon crawlers of old with a twist”. Having played and finished the game several times, I can certainly agree with that. The biggest twist is that, as with his other games, he’s successfully squeezed out the essence of those old games, like the juice from an orange, and condensed it into one very short, sweet and delicious drink, retaining all the flavour of the original, without all that pith and skin.
So, how does an indie developer take a grid-based RPG and condense it down so much that it can be picked up and put down during a coffee break? Well firstly the game is simplified to just ten small levels. Then, there’s a limited set of weapons and spells. Finally, the game uses turn-based combat: As long as you don’t take an action, you can pause the game indefinitely, allowing it to be minimized and returned-to later.
Starting out, you can choose from a few game modes, which define whether the levels are hand-built or randomized. You can also choose whether you want permadeath or not. I’ve found that once you’ve selected your preferred play style, you don’t tend to alter this much between games. Personally, I enjoyed playing with “scanlines” on, for that old school EGA feel, as you can see from my screenshots.
To begin any RPG you start out by choosing your class. To keep things simple, Ebony Spire has only three (fighter, thief, mage). Which one you pick will define what your ‘affinity’ is for combat styles in the world (i.e. melee, ranged or magic). You can alter that affinity by your play style, but the game does play easier if you carry on with what you’ve chosen. Once you have, the game takes you straight into the combat without any more mucking-about.
The first level is really just to learn the game’s mechanics. It’s after you ‘climb the stairs’ to level 2, the difficulty starts to ramp up. (as an aside, in a little homage to Rogue, the key to climb stairs is ‘>’ which is a nice detail).
Your goal is to continue battling up the “spire” in order to confront and defeat the big boss at the top. As with most dungeon crawlers the game is spent levelling up and optimising your armour and weapons in order to be a credible adversary for the terror that awaits you on the final level (think of the Balrog in Moria). Doing so is simply a number-matching exercise: 14 is higher than 8, therefore I’ll drop the +8 and take the +14. Done, move on. Since there is no weapon degredation, you’re completely freed from that inventory juggling of having a main item and two spares ‘just in case’.
To play the game in a very short time, it’s possible to just run from stairs to stairs, reaching the summit in under five minutes. Doing so, however, would result in your rather abrupt death at the hands of the final boss’s minions unless you have a cunning plan!
At the opposite end of the scale, the game allows you to grind and re-grind the levels over and over to maximize every statistic, getting the best of every weapon and armour. With this method, you can arrive at level 10 a gameplay-hour or two later as death incarnate. How you actually play, between those two extremes, is left entirely to you.
Each level also features a single portal, which will teleport you out of the tower into an ‘outside’ location, such as a town. Travelling through the portal is not compulsory, but some of the best kit can be sourced on the other side. Similarly, the enemies are a little harder, which makes taking the portal a riskier proposition. Within the ‘outside’ area, there’s a portal back into the level you just left.
The outside areas are nicely varied, with some very old-school graphics, featuring opponents reminiscent of foes from Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Bard’s Tale or Stonekeep.
The enemies have an inventory, just as you do. So if you throw something at them, they can just pick it up and throw it right back. Similarly, if you kill them or break open crates but leave the dropped loot lying around, you’re basically leaving ammunition which will ultimately end up being used as a projectile weapon back at you.
Almost everything in the game has a use. Often that use is directly, such as armour which can be worn, or swords equipped. Sometimes the use is that the item can be thrown. Unlike other games, things like potions work if you drink them, or throw them at enemies, which adds some interesting strategies.
Inventory management is simple and obvious, ensuring the game doesn’t get too complicated. Everything is done via the keyboard. Loot is everywhere, so the game provides a ‘View’ command to look at stuff before you bother picking it up.
You can quit and reload your run from where you left off with little or no penalty. If you do have to do this, re-establishing where you left off is accomplished simply by looking at which level you’re on and checking to see what armour and weapon you have. Once you’ve ascertained those, you can carry on playing relatively seamlessly, other details aren’t really all that important.
Defeating the end of level boss is, as with everything else in the game, left up to you. Zapa has been very responsive in the discussion groups, and was very open about plans for improvement and balancing issues he’s working on. In one discussion about an issue I was having with the end-of-level boss, he admitted that he’d considered a few ways to defeat the boss (other than the usual stab-with-big-stabby-thing), but people were coming up with more innovative ways, and he was considering adding some special endings for those who were finding fun and experimental ways to complete the game.
I have to admit that I was impressed by Ebony Spire and inspired to get involved in its continual improvement. It’s a very fun little grid-based RPG evoking the old style, with extremely simple fun cartoonish EGA/VGA-like graphics, big blocky sprites, and almost zero unnecessary ‘fat’. It doesn’t pretend to be anything except exactly this, and in this regard it delivers on its promise.
I did come across a few idiosyncrasies to do with English translation, and a few little graphical glitches. Also, the game doesn’t hand-hold: There are some things that the game doesn’t really explain, but leaves it to you to work out (very much in the old school!), so there is a little learning curve.
One of the idiosyncrasies did stump me at one point, requiring a quick check of the discussion groups to resolve. None of these broke my enjoyment, however. The fast-turnaround of games means it’s enjoyable to experiment. It’s a different game each playthrough, and with the different classes and strategies, there’s a lot of replayability.
If you have a little spare time and feel like a little bit of classic grid-based RPG, but without all that D&D char-stats and classes faffing-about, Ebony Spire might just be something you could enjoy blasting through in a lunch break.