Spellshard: The Black
A Retrospective by Meatballsub
Anyone who has played an old school Japanese-style RPG knows that there's just something about them that makes them special. Before the time of flashy graphics and lively music, most games relied on a sound story or intriguing gameplay to keep the player entertained. Rarely did older games utilize both features (in my experience). Fortunately, Spellshard does a great job of using both ideas while maintaining the overall old-school feel that the authors were shooting for in the first place.
Long ago, a faction of fiends known as the Lords of Decay more or less ruled the world. Poverty and famine struck the land, and there was not much hope. That is, until a band of seven warriors stepped up to vanquish the foes for good. All was good in the world for many years, and advances in science, medicine, and technology were made at a vast rate. At the peak of the technological breakthrough age, life as the world knew it ceased to exist. The technology that people worked so hard for suddenly stopped working, and once again, the dark citadels of the group known long ago as the Lords of Decay mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. Along with the rise of the Lords of Decay came poverty and famine, much like the time before. The ancestors of the seven ancient warriors are alive and well, but will they be able to destroy the Lords of Decay like their descendants did before them, or will new heroes rise to the occasion?
Unlike most JRPG's from the NES era, Spellshard actually has a story. While the vast majority of the three hours you spend playing the demo will not be spent conversing with the townsfolk or reading dialogue, there's enough of it there to be acceptable given the length and style of the game itself. In ways, Spellshard's story is better than that of games like Final Fantasy. Why? Because you won't see any one-liners here. Townsfolk generally have more to say than "Wow, the weather is great today!". In fact, they help solidify the plot line, which is what most npcs should do anyways.
Harlock and Shizuma selected a wonderful score for Spellshard. I'm not sure whether the tracks are original or not, but I know I've never heard them before. Regardless, they sound great and really help set the mood and feel of an 8-bit game.
Speaking of 8-bit, the graphics reek old-school NES RPG style. The sprites even look like something that came out of a Final Fantasy game, thanks the deformed-style of graphics that Shizuma is known for creating in his games. I dare say that some of the enemy battle sprites, especially the boss ones, could pass as professional work. Yes, they look that good, even being in an 8-bit style game.
As per the interview with the authors that's bundled in with the game file, the idea behind Spellshard was to create a game that emphasized gameplay mechanics, much like that of old school games. In addition, it was decided that they would use 8-bit style graphics instead of standard ones to so that time wouldn't be taken away from their main projects. With that being said, as a "side-project", this game is amazing. In fact, it is better than most games that are author's "main projects". However, Spellshard is definitely not for everyone. If you aren't a fan of old-school RPG mechanics, then you probably won't last more than a few minutes in this game.
Those who like to breeze through games without too much hassle will not be satisfied here. Random battles on the map can be quite difficult, and you will likely learn to pick and choose certain battles to face and others to evade. Boss battles can be even more difficult, and cannot be defeated by simply mashing buttons. Each boss requires a little bit of thinking to succeed. The final boss is the ultimate test of your skills and will really push you to your limit. Some may be turned off by the fact you might die several times before beating some of the bosses, but I can assure you, it is one of the most rewarding feelings when you finally take them down for good. This is something that is not seen very often in games today and is a refreshing experience to me. Too often are there games that can be easily beaten and require no more than a little time to overcome.
There are additional features that make for a challenging experience as well. Money doesn't grow on trees, and you will have to pick and choose what you purchase. Also, if you die, you must either visit the priest in town to be resurrected (for a fee) or buy an expensive item from the shop; which coincedentally cannot be used in battle either. In addition, you can only save at the Inn in town or by finding an extremely rare fairy in certain dungeons. These aspects together make for an unsettling feeling when you visit dungeons and forces you to make strategic decisions the entire time. Some people might think these mechanics are preposterous, but that's how most old school RPG's used to be like. They could be very unforgiving at times; something that many games lack these days.
There has been talk from Shizuma that Spellshard is still being worked on, but it has been eight years since the game was released and about three since it was said to still be in production. Recently, I've attempted to contact Shizuma about the status of the title, but he has ignored me so far. I'm not sure whether this means that he would like to keep it under wraps or that he just doesn't like me.
Either way, I'd love to see an update of this game. It has a solid foundation that I feel could only get better with future updates. I'd recommend everyone to play this game at least once; both newbies and veterans alike. I think there are lessons to be learned here regardless of where you are in terms of gaming design. Just keep in mind that Spellshard cannot be beaten simply by rolling your face on the keyboard and you will be fine.