Russian developer Nival Interactive are probably best known for the "Rage of Mages" games published by Monolith, which met with mixed reviews thanks to a mish-mash of real-time strategy and role-playing elements which didn't quite gel and some rather uninspiring graphics. No such accusations could be levelled at their new game though...
"Evil Islands" is set in the same game world as the Rage of Mages series, but it is an entirely different beast. By focusing on the role-playing side of things rather than trying to straddle two genres, Nival have produced what might just be the best game to come out of Russia in recent years.
You play a young man by the name of Zak, who awakens to find himself amongst the ancient ruins of a strange land, only to be proclaimed as the Chosen by a group of superstitious villagers who live nearby. As their mythological hero you are expected to carry out a series of tasks for them, which range from the mundane and the tedious to the truly heroic. What lifts this above other sword and sorcery fantasies is that Zak is a reluctant and at times downright sarcastic hero, a man who has had greatness thrust upon him very much against his will and now finds himself forced to cater to the whims of the villagers.
Before long he has been sent off to kill a goblin sentry, and it's a slippery slope from there on in as Zak finds himself being asked to slay wolves, spy on brigands, attack goblin camps and carry out a million and one other tasks for the villagers, most of which they could probably have done themselves if they put their minds to it.
Along the way you will gradually build up a party of up to three characters, giving you a wider range of abilities and equipment to draw on. And you will need it, as the world of Evil Islands is a dangerous place. Combat is often lethal in the early stages of the game, and if you get careless even a humble poison spitting toad can bring you down a few pegs.
As a result Zak must be a sneaky and devious character rather than your usual run of the mill Conan style fantasy action hero. Sneaking and crawling are an important part of the game, allowing you to creep up on enemies and deliver a highly effective backstab attack, or simply to get past someone without them even seeing you. Stealing is also part of your repertoire, and in one of the early missions you will have to sneak your way into a heavily guarded brigand camp and then pick the pockets of the chieftain and his wife to recover some stolen tools. This is no "Thief : The Dark Project", but it does make for a more intelligent and cautious approach to playing.
Combat is also a little more complex than in most games of this kind, adding the ability to aim your blows at different parts of the body, and this has an obvious and graphic effect on your enemy. Hit them on the left arm and the appropriate limb will become increasingly bloody, while the rate and strength of their attacks will diminish. Whack their legs and they can't run as fast, hopefully allowing you to make a swift exit if necessary, while a blow to the head will cause more damage than usual but is harder to pull off. Of course, if your target is missing the requisite limb your attacks will be adjusted accordingly. And if all of this is starting to sound a little overwhelming, you can always pause the game and give orders to your characters in your own good time.
Blood and gore are certainly prominent in Evil Islands, and this game is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Blood splurts out as your weapon makes contact with flesh, and the damage skins used in the game leave little to the imagination as the wounds mount up.
Graphics on the whole are very impressive, with a variety of huge landscapes dotted with trees, rocks, buildings and giant statues. There is a whole array of different creatures to slaughter, and everything from wolves and boars to banshee and trolls are nicely detailed, with smooth animations and sharp high resolution skins. The now traditional 3D rotatey-spinny™ camera is easy to use, and can be zoomed in close to get a ring-side view of the action, or panned right out to let you almost literally see for miles.
The lighting effects are particularly good, with almost everything in the game capable of casting a believable shadow if you select the appropriate option in the menu, although this will start to hurt your frame rate if you get over-ambitious. The game features a day and night cycle, and you can see shadows lengthening in the evening as the sun goes down, eventually pluging the land into an eerie darkness lit only by the faint glow surrounding your characters and the camp fires and torches that dot the various locations.
The game world itself is split up into three vast flying islands, remnants of some kind of cataclysmic event in the distant past, each of which contains several seperate playing areas, ranging from the small village you visit near the start of the game to vast forests and deserts which will take you several minutes to walk across.
To prevent the onset of boredom, the game features a time acceleration mode to help you get from one side of a map to the other without falling asleep. There is also an island map which pops up whenever you reach a designated exit point, and which allows you to travel directly from one area to another without necessarily having to pass through all of the locations in between which you have already visited. Which is nice.
Some of these larger zones can be home to many different quests, and just the first one kept me occupied for several hours, running various errands for the villagers. In all Nival are estimating that the game will take anything up to a hundred hours to complete, and with an interesting branching storyline and dozens of quests to undertake there is plenty to keep you involved.
Evil Islands has already been released in Russia and Germany, and the English language version is certainly looking promising so far. The beta copy we were sent still needed some work doing, as while the text was all in English the voices were mostly in German. But assuming that the game doesn't lose too much in the translation this could well be a pleasant surprise for role-players on both sides of the Atlantic.