There’s something quite appealing about a Plague Doctor. I don’t know what it is, but something about that beaked mask that just exudes coolness.
Imagine my excitement on seeing a medieval action-adventure game where you control an alchemist plague doctor that can do experiments on the fly. That kind of unique quirkiness makes my excite-o-metre go off the charts.
Can the game live up to its exciting premise, or should it be cleansed with fire?
Many thanks to Team17 for the review code.
Surprisingly, The Serpent Rogue is quite light on storytelling, instead setting up an overarching situation – that of the alchemical Warden working to fight off the corruption in the land – and instead focus on environmental storytelling.
The tale is not so much about your battle with the the corruption, but instead learning about how the world exists, and researching the life contained within. The game is less about narrative and more about the exploration and discovery. That is where the game’s charm lies – but is also the thing that holds it back the most.
SNAKES AND LARDERS
After a brief introduction to the corruption and the trouble it causes, you soon find yourself thrown in at the deep end after the game feeds you some of the very basics and then leaves you to find out the rest. After finding an abandoned house with various supplies and a portable lab, you then are encouraged to research things and figure out how to concoct potions. It’s a little bit confusing, especially since you’ll fail many potion attempts until you realise that you’re missing a key ingredient – something found in the next area.
After going further, you’ll find even more things available to you in the neighbouring camp – from blocked entrances to something that hints at having usage for your human followers. There’s no real guidance to help you with these things, with the former having a glitched NPC outside that you can’t interact with nor talk to (who presumably hints at how to proceed), and the latter being something I never figured out how to use during my entire playthrough. Aside from finding some additional materials here, the game pushes you forward towards the corrupt tree where you will meet the first boss (and likely your first enemy). This is also where you will inevitably die – partly because you’re completely unprepared for battle, but mostly because the combat in the game is absolutely dreadful.
The combat consists of a slow attack and a near-useless block, combined with a lock-on that never seems to work properly. It’s clunky and ineffective, and makes dealing and avoiding damage a pain. An improved lock-on system, and some kind of evasive manoeuvre would have made things a lot better, but I found that the simplest solution was just to throw damage potions at a distance. Following that, I realised it was simpler to tank damage from weaker foes since the only other boss enemy in the game (aside from the final one, of course) was easily avoidable. As an alchemist, you can make lots of potions to heal up when needed, so there was no real reason to worry about getting hit most of the time.
The exploration, crafting, and combat will form the key gameplay as you try and accomplish your main goal of clearing the corruption. This typically requires gaining enough money to acquire a vessel and then protecting your human companion as they carry it to the next infection point. The game hints at being able to recruit people, but the only method I was able to find was to just buy them from the harbourmaster whenever a ship is in port (which isn’t all the time). Again, it’s left for you to figure out, which you may not necessarily be able to do. There are other quests and sidequests between these corruption points, but most of them are optional so the amount of exploration you decide to do is up to you. Sidequests can grant you money or items, but only the former seemed to prove beneficial as it helped reduce the grind for the next vessel slightly.
The game certainly has a rough start as you are working out what do do, but when things start clicking into place you start to see some of the charm in the game. In addition to recruiting allies, you can tame animals or even turn into one yourself if you can uncover the right potions. My time with the game hinted at a variety of different playstyles you could potentially utilise as you try and deal with the corruption…but only if you can figure it out for yourself. People who like that sense of self-discovery and a hands-off approach will probably find it quite liberating, but I found it more frustrating during that the first half of the game felt a little aimless as the game refuses to help you out at all. Figuring out that I needed a Vessel to destroy the corruption points took a while – and even then I broke it because the NPC carrying it just put it down instead of actually planting it inside the point – effectively wasting 100 coins and forcing me to grind for more.
To make matters worse, there are a couple of gameplay elements that I also found to be more frustrating than fun. First of all, we have the obligatory Dark Souls-like loss of equipment upon death and one chance to regain it. The problem is that without any of your stuff, it’s hard to get equipped with enough stuff to be able to make it to your equipment in one piece if you died in an enemy-heavy area. Crafting lots of potions and forcing your way through seemed like the best way of assuring that you can recollect it. The problem is that many areas are affected by corruption storms that destroy (reset) everything within it. Get caught in one of those and you’re pretty much dead. If you get caught in one on the way to your lost equipment, like I did on two separate occasions, then say goodbye to it forever. I understand what they were going for, but it ended up making the game even more of an annoyance on top of everything else.
Whilst I found myself having a rather mixed experience with the gameplay, the one thing that I can’t fault is the game’s presentation. The beautiful, almost cel-shaded, visuals have this dark eerie look to them that really sell the grim desolation of the world you’re trying to save. Insidious fog pours into the corners of the bleak locations, and the creepiness of the corrupt land really shines through. It makes for a compelling world that you want to stay in, despite the frustration you may have elsewhere. The final area in particular that leads to the boss is breathtakingly beautiful, and almost made me forget the irritating journey to get here. A lot of love has been poured into the presentation, and it shows… even if there are semi-frequent framerate drops that spoil it a little.
It’s not just the visuals, but the music too. The medieval tunes fit the game perfectly and are quite memorable considering they’re only really designed to add to the atmosphere. Again, it’s a shame that so much love has been poured into this, whereas gameplay elements are left feeling unpolished at best.
The Serpent Rogue is stunningly presented and has excellent world design, but its decision to throw you in with almost no guidance will likely put a lot of people off within the initial few hours. Those that appreciate the sense of exploration and discovery will likely find a charming experience here, but they’ll have to be willing to forgive the absolutely dreadful combat.