There is a serious, fundamental problem which lies at the heart of PC action RPG gaming. It's a problem which dates back over ten years - to 1996, in fact, when Blizzard dropped its own take on the action RPG genre, Diablo, in our decade-younger laps. It's a simple problem to describe, but seemingly fiendishly difficult to solve.
The problem is this; nobody has yet made an action RPG better than Diablo.
Actually, that's not strictly true - someone did. It was called Diablo II, and it casts an even bigger shadow than its predecessor. That's not terribly helpful, I know. The sad fact is that even seven years since slicing and dicing Baal with my trusty paladin, every game which takes a stab at the action RPG genre has to measure itself against the notch in the wall set by Diablo. They all come up a little short - even the Dungeon Sieges and Titan Quests of this world.
It's not rose tinted spectacles, either (says he in a cunning piece of comment-thread pre-emptage). Diablo is one of those rare games which gets hauled out for a replay on a relatively regular basis, and each run through is further confirmation. Nobody has quite touched Diablo (and its sequel) when it comes to providing brilliantly balanced, astonishingly deep and vastly compelling play.
So, Silverfall. It's an action-RPG, developed across the channel in France. It's very pretty, if a little uninspired - a comment which goes equally for the game mechanics and the art style, come to think of it. It's not as good as Diablo.
Which, if Diablo was the only game you'd ever want to play in your entire life, would be the last line of this review and we could all go home. Of course, that's not the case - and even if you've played the superior Diablo, there's plenty to enjoy in games which don't quite reach that high water mark. An eye-poppingly expensive meal in Nobu won't stop you enjoying a bowl of cornflakes the following morning.
In a lot of ways, Silverfall is a very nice bowl of cornflakes - honey nut, in fact. There are some delicious morsels to get your teeth around in here, like a character development system which provides a superb degree of flexibility and customisation and AI-controlled companions who actually act intelligently. The graphics are lovely, even if in many places it's pretty obvious that the development team has been spending a lot of time in World of Warcraft, which can give you a certain sense of deja vu as you explore the world around you. Even the storyline, often a very weak point for fantasy-themed RPGs, is really very good.
Let's talk a little more about that character development system. Unlike most other action RPGs, Silverfall opts to discard the class system entirely, instead allowing you to gradually build a character which aligns perfectly with your own play preferences. You choose a race (you can be a human, a troll, a goblin or an elf), which confers certain racial benefits and unique abilities, but from there onwards everything is defined by skill tree which you use to upgrade abilities. The major choice is whether to spend the bulk of your points in Combat or Magic abilities (although each of these has major sub-categories for you to specialise in); a third major category holds a variety of nature, technology and racial alignment skills, a varied hodge-podge which can be filed under Other.
That's pretty interesting, although the chances are that you'll end up building a character not dissimilar to the class you would have chosen in the first place. Mages will upgrade their ability to nuke things; Warriors will want to swing big swords. True to form, I ended up with heavy weapon wielding grunt with various light-elemental magic skills up his sleeve. Pally 4 life, or something. However, this tendancy towards pre-defined classes isn't really a problem with the game; and it's certainly nice to have the ability to create in-between classes and play around with everything the game has to offer.
Augmenting the development of your own character is the ability to recruit AI-controlled party members to fight alongside you. Some of these arrive as part of the main storyline, while others join you as a reward for completing specific quests - and they offer sufficient variety to ensure that you can build a party which makes up for any weaknesses in your character. While they are entirely AI controlled (and the AI control is very good, it's worth emphasising), you do get the ability to customise their behaviour using a variety of different settings. Of course, their presence also helps the story to bubble along nicely, not least since often your allies will give you the chance to deviate from the main path of the game to go on specific quests related to them.
The problem, as with many action RPGs which reach for Diablo's crown but fall short, is that Silverfall is very good at the big ideas, and not so hot on the details. Coming up with a big idea like ditching character classes is, in a sense, the easy part; building a delicately balanced skill tree is a lot harder. Sadly, Silverfall's balance is all over the place - and it tends to skew very heavily towards melee skills, with magic abilities feeling very underpowered by comparison. What should be a great opportunity for players to craft a character based on their personal preferences falls down badly when it becomes apparent that there's far, far more to be gained from hitting things with swords than from following the arcane path. This failure of balance also hurts the second to second gameplay; a mix of magic and melee would spice things up, whereas pure melee play is almost a matter of holding down-left click and waiting for it all to be over.
The same problem is apparent with other parts of the game; the big ideas are absolutely fine, but the devil (or rather, the Diablo) is in the details. One of the best aspects of the game is that it ditches the old Good vs Evil storyline for a somewhat less hackneyed stab at Technology vs Nature. Your choices in the game don't push you down clear moral right and wrong paths, which is interesting, but, unfortunately, it's barely exploited at all - let alone to its full potential. Half the time it's not even really clear which alignment a certain quest is following, because the quests themselves are largely oh-so-familiar "Fetch 10 of these. Kill 20 of these. Deliver this to Sparkly Wiggle in the next village." variety. Even as you do gradually shift in alignment, the abilities which open up to you aren't actually terribly well differentiated, or particularly interesting.
In the graphics department, the same rules apply. The environment art is lovely, but rarely does it show you anything new; pretty much all of the zones in the game are straight out of the "vaguely medieval RPG" cliche-book. What is very nice, though, is the character art, or, more specifically, the semi-cartoonish black bordered shading of the character art, which lends the game a unique look and makes all the various spell effects look fantastic. The game doesn't lack for content in the art department: there are tons of creatures to fight, loads of weapons and armour to deck yourself out with, and plenty of great animation makes the game nice and varied. We just wish there was a little more innovation in all that variation.
We should add that there's some pretty rough localisation in places, too, although it's never bad enough to make quests confusing or misleading. Most quests give you waypoints to aid their completion, which helps a lot. Unfortunately, as mentioned, the quests themselves are pretty dull for the most part. The storyline initially sees you playing a powerful mage who defends the eponymous city of Silverfall while its inhabitants escape, before switching the action to a young mage's apprentice (that's you) who has to help the refugee citizens through various dangers before going out to seek his now-missing master. It's one of the best parts of the game, and a well-considered plot shines through some slightly clumsy dialogue. Unfortunately, it's let down quite a bit by the culmination of most story elements being the completely random necessity to kill 82 badgers before the tale can progress again.
In spite of such misgivings, Silverfall succeeds where it counts: it's a competent, attractive action RPG which is pretty good fun to play. There's absolutely nothing here which will make you want to play an action RPG if you've never fancied one before, and it certainly suffers badly in comparison to giants of the genre. Diablo, as I've mentioned a few times, is simply better at getting balance and play mechanics down pat, while the likes of Dungeon Siege and Titan Quest have polished presentation which Silverfall can't match.
If you're looking for an action RPG and haven't played any of the above, then the choice is clear; they are better games than Silverfall, and there are quite a few more where they came from. On the other hand, action RPG veterans who are looking for a new challenge for their over-muscled index fingers could do a hell of a lot worse than investing a few hours (and indeed a few pounds) in Silverfall. It's no giant of the genre, but it's a pretty decent snack between meals.