Slaying legions of miscreants is transformed into a comical escapade in Realms of Ancient War. Hordes of malevolent attackers–skeletal warriors, brutish orcs, and slinking spiders–follow you around the battlefield like a deranged parody of the Pied Piper. Any semblance of tactics is discarded as you wind your way around craggy stalagmites and past molten lava, waiting for your attacks to recharge so you can thin the herd nipping at your heels. The problems that stem from the chase-me encounters trickle down to the core elements of Realms of Ancient War, diluting much of the appeal of the hack-and-slash adventuring.
A trite story does little to draw you into Realms of Ancient War. Trying to muster the energy to care about the deceitful practices of evil monarchs is mighty difficult, especially when none of the characters are particularly fleshed out. What’s most striking about the story construction is how little thought was given to the lore. Examine “a leather book” in your inventory to discover that it’s “a very thick book.” Or if you want to know more about that “skull” you picked up, you can read on to find out that it’s “a skull.” The abruptness of these descriptors is initially amusing, but without even sundry minutiae to pore over, you trudge through the run-then-attack combat without a morsel of narrative appeal to whet your appetite.
Stereotypes continue in the character classes. From the onset, you choose to control the melee-specialist warrior, magic-flinging wizard, or jack-of-all-trades rogue. You’ve seen these tropes before, and there’s little in Realms of Ancient War to distinguish them from the crowd. Felling baddies earns experience points, and when you reach a new level, you can put one point in a new ability. These range from passive traits like enhanced mana regeneration, to character-specific attacks such as the rogue’s ability to temporarily turn invisible. The dangling carrot approach does serve as adequate motivation. However, absent is the flexibility to upgrade specific attributes. There’s no way to sink points into strength while ignoring dexterity, for instance, so there’s very little variety among characters in the same class.
As you walk through foggy forests and forbidding castles, swarms of enemies pour from every cranny to cut your adventuring days short. Ambushes trigger your instinctual flight-then-fight response. Without any defensive abilities (no roll, dodge, or block here), you can only run from attackers, and because your pursuers are remarkably stupid, they simply follow your lead. As a rogue, you might place a poisoned trap on the ground, summon a pack of spectral wolves, fling a few arrows into the mass, and then continue running until your powers recharge. Fights play out similarly if you’re a wizard. Replace the poisonous trap with a poisonous cloud and the arrows with fireballs, and you’d hardly notice you’re controlling a robed magician instead of a fiery rogue.
Despite the predictability of the encounters, there is still some satisfaction in cutting down your persistent foes. Blood pools around defeated enemies, making it feel as if your swords are imbued with incredible power. After a hard-fought victory, you see corpses litter the battlefield. Instead of disappearing into the ether, they remain where they fall, offering a constant reminder of just how much death follows your every step. And though deeper strategies are lacking, there’s a sadistic glee in tearing through dozens of foes. You might lead them to a bottleneck, maybe a bridge or tree-lined path, and watch as too many enemies try to squeeze through too small a space. Once they’re stuck, you’re free to hack away without repercussions, and it’s empowering to watch them fall to your blade as they desperately try to reach you.
Hordes of enemies ambush you because no creature can survive a one-on-one fight against you. Even the toughest bosses pose little threat because their slow, easy-to-avoid attacks take away only a smidgen of your life even if they somehow hit. Still, Realms of Ancient War can be difficult at moments because it’s often impossible to avoid being swallowed up in the throng of chaos. Once enemies surround you, there’s no way to push through the mass, so you succumb to their aggression. Lives are tied to soulstones. When you die, you use one of these magic rocks to come back, but once you’re out of soulstones, you have to restart the level from the beginning. Such a punitive system sounds scary, but as long as you’re nimble on your feet, you shouldn’t fall to your enemies too often.
Environmental diversity can often distract you from the middling combat. Each location you tromp through has a style all its own, and though some are certainly more eye-catching than others, all serve to make your travels more enjoyable. Every place you visit fits comfortably in fantasy tropes, though that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of taking in a creepy graveyard or suffocating cave. Unfortunately, your character isn’t treated to the same attention to detail. The zoomed-out camera leaves too much to the imagination, making it difficult to become attached to your avatar. Visual problems also affect the action. There are times when pieces of the environment obstruct your view, and it’s maddening to die to a cluster of spiders because you couldn’t see the onscreen events.
Realms of Ancient War is a by-rote action role-playing game. But even though it doesn’t offer anything you haven’t seen in the genre, the fundamentals work well enough to keep you plugging along. It takes more than a dozen hours to reach the end, and though there are few surprises, there’s a pleasing rhythm to the scurry-and-slay combat. Teaming up with a friend in local co-op doesn’t change things significantly, but it’s nice having the option to kill wolves with a buddy. Even with some fun elements, Realms of Ancient War is an uninspired action RPG that rarely rises above basic competence.