"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.
In 2001, Piranha Bytes created the pinnacle of action-adventure-RPGs: Gothic. Set in a magically-encapsulated prison colony where criminals are sent to mine magic ore for the war against the orcish armies, the convicts have revolted against the King's guards and now run the colony in anarchy. You play as a nameless convict who's just been tossed into the barrier. Initially tasked with delivering a message to the magicians at the castle, you become a key figure in trying to bring down the magical barrier and in stopping an event that threatens to kill everyone in the colony.
Besides the wonderfully unique setting and premise, Gothic also boasts some of the most compelling gameplay ever. Carving your way up the ranks in a hostile dog-eat-dog prison, where strong beasts and monsters also roam, everything is dangerous and there's always a challenge waiting for you. It's a game that doesn't hold your hand, with death and treacherous enemies around every corner; leveling up and getting stronger is its own reward as you become better-equipped to brave the non-linear, free-roaming world of the colony. Its attention to detail also make it one of the most atmospheric, immersing game worlds ever.
If you're still not convinced of Gothic's supremacy in the world of western RPGs, continue reading for the more detailed description of its feats and strengths, with some embedded gameplay videos to illustrate.
The intro cinematic and initial dialogue.
A large part of what makes Gothic such an engaging experience is the rich quality of its world. Unlike a lot of free-roaming RPGs where things feel stale and artificial (I'm looking at you, Bethesda), almost everything in Gothic breathes with life. Just walking around an outpost, for example, and you notice NPCs going about their daily tasks. They roast food over campfires with frying pans, they stir stews in cauldrons, they work on their huts by hammering new slats in, they heat metal in a forge and hammer it out on an anvil, they eat, drink, smoke, and talk with each other. When it rains, everyone gets inside of a hut or under an awning. At night, most NPCs go to sleep, while others mingle with each other around campfires.
If you walk into someone's hut, they take notice and threaten to call the guards on you. Linger too long and they'll attack you themselves. If anyone catches you taking something from their hut, they attack you on sight. If you draw your weapon around other NPCs, they draw theirs and tell you to back down, or else they attack. If you stand in someone's way as they're walking, they'll tell you to step aside. If you've already beaten up a guard and then attack another NPC within sight of him, the guard will pretend not to have noticed. If you belong to a certain faction when talking to people, they notice and acknowledge it.
These things may not seem very significant today, but bear in mind that this game was released in 2001. And then consider that the massively successful Oblivion (from 2006) with its "radiant AI" didn't really have any of these simple details. It's these kinds of things that Gothic did in 2001 that make its world feel alive and lived-in. You get the feeling that this is an actual, breathing world, not just some virtual stage for your own entertainment.
Gameplay: hunting in the woods.
Another great component to that rich, "lived-in" feel is the sense of society pervading the colony. With the convicts now running the show, they've split up into three sects. The Old Camp still mines ore and trades it with the King in exchange for luxurious goods from the outside world. The New Camp farms rice and digs their own ore hoping to use it to blow up the barrier. And the Swamp Camp developed as a spiritual cult that worships a deity called "The Sleeper" who promises to set the believers free. All three camps have their own goals, and they all trade and interact with each other, despite mutual contempt.
The game makes it clear from the very beginning that, if you want to survive in the colony, you'll have to join one of the three camps. Each camp has its own advantages and disadvantages, but your initial decision is based primarily on whose ideology and lifestyle you support most. Join the Old Camp where folks are content to live a high life inside the barrier; join the New Camp that strives to destroy the barrier and set everyone free; or join the Swamp Camp where you can smoke a lot of swampweed and live easy until the Sleeper (hopefully) sets you free.
Each of the camps give you a unique perspective on the story and gameplay. They each have their own unique trainers who can teach you different things at different times, ultimately shaping what kind of class you can play. The Old and New Camps give you options to be either a warrior or a magician (of different sorts), and the Swamp Camp will let you be a hybrid class that uses heavy weaponry and limited magic. The main story turns out the same no matter what camp you join, save for a few moments along the way, but the different camps give you different quests when you first start out, making you "fit the role" of that camp, ultimately making each playthrough feel unique.
Fun dialogue with Mud and others.
The world itself is a lot of fun to explore. The landscape is built in a dynamic sort of way that makes every square unit of the map distinct and interesting. Except for a few isolated areas central to the plot, which only open up with the main quest, you can explore anywhere at any time. Certain areas are more dangerous than others, so when you're starting out you're really only safe along the main roads between the camps, but if you're brave enough to wander into the forest or into orc territory, there's usually some kind of unique reward waiting for you.
This helps establish the compelling "risk versus reward" aspect of the gameplay. There are always stronger enemies than you, which means that, most of the time, there's some kind of valuable loot to be had. There might be a really good sword guarded by strong enemies in a remote part of the map. If you want that sword, you can come back later once you're stronger, or you can devise some clever scheme to get it earlier. This gives you all kinds of ways to challenge yourself in the ordinary gameplay; it feels very rewarding and satisfying to overcome these kinds of obstacles, but you always have the option to come back to it later, which can be rewarding in itself because it's a sure sign that you've progressed and gotten stronger.
You can feel yourself climbing up the food chain. At the beginning you're an untrained nobody; you're inefficient with weapons and have very low stats holding you back from using stronger gear or surviving attacks. You struggle to kill some of the most basic enemies, and even conventional wolves tear you to shreds. Some enemies kill you in one hit and you know to stay away when you see them. This does a wonderful job of making the game world feel hostile and making you feel vulnerable in it. You have to watch your back at all times and be prepared, especially when venturing into uncharted territory. But it's so very satisfying to come back and defeat enemies that were giving you a hard time before.
Casting some fireballs and battling a giant troll.
As you complete quests and kill monsters, you gain experience and level up. Leveling up grants you 10 skill points that you can use with trainers---human NPCs who teach you skills and raise your stats. The trainers help tie your statistical progression into the tangible game world, which makes it feel more realistic, immersing, and rewarding, but the skill point system adds some good strategic decision-making to the system. If you've got 10 skill points, for example, do you use them to increase your strength so that you can use a stronger sword, or do you put it into your weapon skills so that you'll be more efficient with your current weapons, or do you put it into a skill you need to complete a quest, or do you put it into a trade skill that will help you get more money?
The quests are also some of the more engaging ones that I've ever seen in an action-adventure-RPG. They don't give you some sissy GPS device to automatically lead you everywhere you need to go. NPCs give you instructions and it's up to you to snoop around and figure out what to do or where to go. Other times you get a vague objective (like "Get rid of Mordrag") and it's up to you to decide what that means and how to go about it. None of the quests are particularly fantastic, but they're satisfying to complete because they require actual player input to solve; even if they were all scripted to happen a certain way, it's fun to get to the solution on your own.
The combat is also a nice feature that balances statistical prowess with personal skill. It's a real-time combat system where you control each attack, block, and movement, requiring good reflexes and precise timing. You have to be within a certain statistical range to even consider taking on certain enemies, but if your reflexes are good and if you're familiar with how the enemies move and attack, then you can take out stronger enemies before you realistically should be able to. Battles prove to be methodically tactical while keeping up on the action elements.
Montage of images celebrating 10 years of Gothic.
Gothic was successful enough to spawn a few sequels: Gothic 2 and its expansion Night of the Raven, and Gothic 3. Gothic 2 is definitely the peak of the series, offering the most amount of content coupled with the best sense of direction and cohesion. It runs on the same engine as the first Gothic and improves nearly every aspect of the game. Gothic 3 is quite a bit different in style, but still offers some enjoyable gameplay. I didn't mention Gothic 4 because it was done by a different team and totally sucks, and should therefore be avoided like the plague.
So that's Gothic. Clearly the best action-adventure-RPG you will ever experience. Some of its design is idiosyncratic and may take some getting-used to, but it's still highly playable even 10 years later. The gameplay is timelessly compelling and offers an experience unmatched even by industry heavy-hitters like The Elder Scrolls. If you're interested, there's a Gothic Universe bundle available for download on Steam that contains Gothic, Gothic 2: Gold, and Gothic 3, or you can download the first two Gothics from Good Old Games. Really good deals at work.
There's a good reason why Gothic is one of my favorite games of all time. You don't want to miss out on this one.