Updated: Sword of Fargoal Review

The changes included in this highly-anticipated Sword of Fargoal update are not incredibly drastic, so much of our original criticism still stands. However, they do flesh out overall the package in a way we feel warrants a recommendation.

The most obvious addition is a tutorial that teaches the basics of movement, combat, and item management. It is helpful, but newer players still unaware of the conventions of roguelikes (randomly generated dungeons, permanent death on harder difficulties) will still have to discover that on their own the full game.

There are also additional difficulty modes. The hardest, Legend, is as unforgiving as veterans demand. The easiest, Squire, amusingly equips your character with a shield, and lets you return to the nearest temple if you die.

The game has also been given a fair amount of subtle but effective visual tweaks. It is difficult to pin down why the walls look more detailed, the rooms more distinct, and the lighting more realistic, but the game looks better to us.

Along with those major changes is a sizeable list of smaller alterations, including new monsters, spells, dungeon levels, status effects, tools and artifacts. It will probably take even the most die-hard players hours upon hours to find and appreciate all of these changes. It’s appropriate though, since replaying in order to progress is part of the Sword of Fargoal experience.

Sword of Fargoal was originally released on the Commodore 64 in 1983 and was an early example of the simpler role-playing game subgenre known as ‘roguelikes”. Roguelikes eschewed the long, winding tales of traditional RPGs in favor of crushing difficulty and randomized dungeon layouts and enemy placement. By having the player constantly die and restart in order to reach their goal, roguelikes were able compensate for their shorter lengths and maintain the illusion of depth on early computers with limited memory. The genre lives on today through titles like Shiren the Wanderer and the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series, but those have evolved somewhat along with the times. For better or for worse, Sword of Fargoal arrives on the App Store relatively untouched.

While the gameplay of the beloved original remains mostly unchanged here, the presentation in this version has seen some appreciated enhancements. The opening movie as well as the transitional movies that play when going between floors are nicely stylized animations with hints of 3D visual trickery. The in-game graphics also use 3D for the dungeon walls while portraying the characters and modeling the music after 16-bit fantasy RPGs, a step above the blocky sprites and beeping soundtrack of the original. However, the characters don’t really walk around the environment as much as they hop and slide from place to place like citizens of South Park. The same goes for the battles in which you and your enemy slam into one another until somebody dies.

Toasty!

Also, since dungeons are created on the fly, they end up looking somewhat barren and similar, with only certain color differences setting levels apart. You can pinch the screen to zoom out and view your surroundings, but there is perpetual, swirling ‘fog’ covering most of the area since it hasn’t actually been created yet. It makes the game’s twenty floors unpredictable but also claustrophobic.

After creating your male or female character and rolling some dice to determine your stats, Sword of Fargoal dumps you straight into the first level with no context. In true old-school fashion, the entire story is found in the manual under the section known as ‘Fargoal Lore’. Long story short, the point of the game is to retrieve the titular sword from deep within the dungeon and return it to the surface. It’s a good thing that the story isn’t too prominent in the game, as you would get sick of hearing it every time you have to restart the game.

Bad as I wanna be.

Roguelikes are like arcade style RPGs, as they’re about seeing how far you can get in a single session. Battles, items, and spells management are mostly handled automatically and to help make the leveling up process even faster, players can sacrifice gold for experience points at the temples littered throughout the dungeon. It needs to be fast, though, because once you die (and you will die) you are sent back to the very beginning with a level one character and no items. You can save mid-dungeon, but it does not offset the trial and error nature of the game.

Success requires luck and smart thinking, but it’s less about trying to reach the sword than about seeing how close you can get to the sword before being taken out by a hobgoblin or teleport trap. That’s where the fun comes from, since there’s not much interaction beyond moving around the dungeon and initiating battles. But because you end up seeing the early areas so often, progress seems incredibly slow if not non-existent.

Outside of the fully functional touch controls and noticeably improved graphics, Sword of Fargoal is otherwise a respectful remake of the original. Those with nostalgia for Jeff McCord’s C64 classic will probably enjoy it on iPhone too. The rest of us will appreciate the ways it differentiates itself from standard RPGs but be frustrated by the now dated design.

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