Role-playing games (RPGs) routinely clock in at 30 hours of gameplay or more, but bigger is not always better. Sometimes too much of that time is spent stumbling through maze-like dungeons, scrolling past overly long-winded dialogue, and being pummelled by endless random monster encounters. Refreshingly, Dawn’s Light avoids these common pitfalls. The sprite-based RPG from John Wizard Games is a smart, well-balanced adventure that should prove engaging and creative enough to impress even the most jaded of RPG veterans.
The funny thing is that the game does contain all the usual RPG fixin’s. There’s a hero, Harvey, who sets out on a fairly typical quest to avenge his family and cleanse the world of demons. There are the various companions who join him along the way, a heap of monsters to vanquish, an array of different items and equipment to find, a vast world to explore, and plentiful side quests to keep you busy for dozens of hours. But instead of merely maintaining the status quo, Dawn’s Light manages to take a fresh and innovative approach to these tried and true RPG conventions.
Take the dungeons, and the enemies that dwell in them. Dungeons are, without fail, logically laid out and never so complicated that you feel hopelessly lost – even given the lack of an in-game overworld map. Enemies aren’t the random kind that pounce on you unseen, but are walking around so that they can be engaged or avoided as the player wishes. However, in another clever twist, the number of enemies you defeat is directly tied to the rewards you get at the end of the dungeon. At the end of most dungeons is a treasure room, but the amount of treasure you can take depends on how many monsters you defeated along the way.
Enemy encounters are turn-based, with the enemy or groups of enemies on one side and your party on the other. Party members can be told to attack, guard, use a special skill or item, or attempt to escape. Vanquishing a foe earns experience points through which the players will routinely "level up" and become more powerful. In yet another display of developer creativity, players earn additional skills by finding statues scattered throughout the game, as opposed to earning them through levelling.
The dialogue, too, is particularly snappy and well-written. There’s enough of it to flesh out the story and characters but not enough that you ever get the sense you’re scrolling too much. It’s funny too, especially if you’ve played your fair share of RPGs and are wise to a lot of the typical stereotypes, which Dawn’s Light happily lampoons.
Dawn’s Light is controlled exclusively with the keyboard (as opposed to the mouse or a combination of both) and the system works quite well. You can’t save at any time, but rather have to record your progress in special red books that are scattered liberally throughout the game. One quirk I encountered was that enemies rarely – if ever – seem to drop items. You can, however, scavenge pretty much anything you need from barrels scattered throughout the world. These healing items are plentiful enough that you can use them without needing to run back to town every few encounters to heal, but not so ridiculously common that you end up finishing the game with 200 extra Health Potions in your inventory.
In a genre where games can all start to resemble each other, Dawn’s Light boasts an attractive and unified art style, with cute sprite-based graphics and nice larger anime-style headshots that are displayed when the characters are talking. The soundtrack is a little more eclectic, with blues and jazz mixed with more "traditional" fantasy numbers. The rapid shifts in style can be a bit jarring, but the music never goes as far as to grate on the nerves.
There was just one design decision in this exquisitely designed game that I didn’t care for. Travel in itself is – again – very clever. Very early on in the game you’re given control of a ship and can sail between a network of islands. However, you can’t actually dock at a particular island until its location has been formally revealed to you, either through conversations or by finding the right map. This is a very cool way of doing things, but the world itself is divided into several self-contained regions. You can’t sail from one region to another in your ship, but instead have to use crystals housed in a specific building in each region. It seems like a needlessly cumbersome way to switch between regions. Why can’t you just access the full world map by sea?
Aside from these nitpicks, playing Dawn’s Light seldom feels like a chore. From the dialogue to the battles to the quests, everything just smacks of competent and clever game design. Dawn’s Light is a marvellous role-playing game. Download it now!