In between big-budget isometric RPGs like Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous and Divinity: Original Sin 2, we often forget that the CRPG revival started by Pillars of Eternity has a ton of games that never get talked about. A lot of them are independent stabs into the genre, highly influenced by years of adoration for the design and feel of a CRPG but without the bigger budgets to smooth out the more weathered aspects of the genre. Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness, by independent developer GrapeOcean, is such an example of this. By all accounts, it is a solid game, but it is a game born in another age, one that ultimately comes with the baggage of its forefathers left at the feet of modern players.
This is not to say it’s bad in any way. In fact, for the most part, Black Geyser is a solid first step for the small development team behind it. Even still, the problems that are present hold it back from being truly great or memorable, leaving Black Geyser to be a good - if forgettable - experience.
No School Like Old School
Black Geyser is more anachronistic than most modern isometric RPGs, though that is clearly by design. Most of the modern upgrades found in Pathfinder or Divinity: Original Sin are not in Black Geyser: characters have individual inventory management, they level up based on XP gained while in the party, and you even have basic map navigation based solely on location when you enter or exit a space. Other development choices exude this feel as well; maps are in a fixed location and can’t rotate, and you'll need to toggle different skills or abilities to interact with the environment, such as breaking or opening locks or clicking on a button to see what is grabbable in-game.
Developer GrapeOcean wanted this to be a love letter to the isometric CRPGs of old, and in look and feel, that is certainly accomplished. The problems arise when you compare it to the CRPGS of now, and the very fabric of Black Geyser begins to rip apart at the seams. Everything, from the clunkiness of the UI to the toggling of menus for mechanics, is directly pulled from games like Baldur’s Gate in 1998. A great game, mind you, but innovations have been made since then that make BioWare’s classic CRPG look quaint in comparison.
Is it possible to make a throwback to a game made in the 90s? We see it constantly with games inspired by the fast-paced FPS shooters and 2d and 3d platformers, but those are genres that translate a lot better thanks in part to the familiarity of the mechanics. An RPG, especially an isometric CRPG, is a harder sell without modern production values, as it was already a niche audience, to begin with. Heck, this is something Beamdog had to reconcile with Siege of Dragonspear, and that was an expansion pack and not a full game.
For Black Geyser, there are clear issues from the get-go. Character models are bland, 3-D render with barely any detail to them. Character creation is littered with spreadsheets and restrictions, small detailed explanations of the world and cultures, and offers little in the way of tooltips or guidance for the player. It is not as robust as say, Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, but obsessing over percentiles and seeing little progress in their progression may turn off some players. Many maps sort of bleed into each other as being generic wilderness/forest adventuring, which for a more grounded world like this works, but the lack of variety does begin to wear down the experience. The maps are well made from an artistic standpoint but don’t break the mold in any way.
The relative blandness of the visuals is compounded by more economic choices for the script and design of the game. The main narrative starts decently, with the player going through the process of becoming a noble for a kingdom at war, but then spirals into a sluggish pace of being the toady for the king and interacting with various factions because you were asked to. It tries to be deeper and more complex politically but fails miserably at it. It is also not helped by the sporadic, and honestly, sub-par voice acting that accentuates some of the silliness you do see.
In other ways, the design is more of an economical choice to emulate a 90’s CRPG. Companions, for example, are not the super deep characters that have been expected for the past two decades. Instead, they are just two-dimensional personalities with a singular quest, and no rhyme or reason to be a part of the main adventure. In some cases, they just offer to join you when you first talk to them, which is a direct callback to Baldur’s Gate and the more blank companions who were just balls of stats with the semblance of a personality to accentuate your party.
The Thrill of Adventure
This is not a bad thing to me, mind you it's somewhat refreshing to see characters detached from the overall plot. Save for the player's divine intervention in the game's beginning, most won’t care much about the plot either. In a modern context, Black Geyser plays like an old-school sandbox adventure; you just go around with a vague notion of where you need to be for narrative purposes, but that said narrative is secondary to the smaller interactions of exploring the world and collecting a multitude of random side quests.
The game's writing is strongest with the side content, offering some pretty clever deviations from old, worn-out cliches. Take, for example, the old staple of the “kill rat’s in a cellar” quest. The problem is not that it is a cliche, but rather that few games play with that cliche in a way to make it fresh. For Black Geyser, the cellar is located in a wizard's college, and the rats are mutated due to a spilled potion, so they ask if you can help them. Little things like this offer a lighter tone for side-quests, but also provide more memorable events throughout your adventures.
Some other quest lines are also interconnected to later events. Helping a Dryad to replant a tree, for example, would in turn affect a nearby village and its water source later in the game. These sidequests are also tied to the game's main gimmick, its greed mechanic. One has you accept a Faustian bargain for a powerful magical amulet, only the power manifests if you purposefully be as greedy and lecherous as possible. Refusing to do so will see you face a larger enemy down the line who may try to kill you if you're not greedy enough. Another example is an early quest in the game where you kill yellow spiders in a forest for a wayward druid. If you refuse a reward for the druid, later in the game you meet that character again, and he gives you a better reward.
It is these moments over the glacially paced main narrative that hold your attention in Black Geyser because they enrich the world through interaction and consequences for your choices. The greed mechanic helps this in theory, but in practice, it ultimately doesn’t affect much. For most quests, you can simply refuse part of your entire reward, which is how you measure your party and world greed as the game goes on. I feel if it was implemented further, such as stealing from homes and dead enemies, or even higher prices for goods if the world is too greedy, for example. Instead, prices are fixed (and money is easy to come by) so it kind of renders the greed mechanic almost pointless in the long run.
Ultimately, Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness is a good game, but it’s a good game that will only truly appeal to fans of the genre. Veteran players can overlook the half-baked graphics, weaker script elements, flatter characters, and throwback design elements because it is a source of familiarity to them that has been lost. The underlying gameplay - the actual pace of adventuring and seeing the consequences of your actions - embraces the positives of the genre easily, and id is lying if I said I didn't enjoy the break from story-driven CRPGs. It’s just unfortunate that the extra baggage of mimicking that classic feel makes the overall experience one that will be forgettable for the general audience.
TechRaptor reviewed Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness on the PC with a copy provided by the publisher
- Classic CRPG Design
- Simple to follow Level-ups and mechanics
- Good Sandbox-style adventure
- Throwback mechanics may be too archaic
- Extremely clunky UI
- Mediocre graphics and voice acting
- Weak main narrative and shallow companion characters