Atlus Describes What’s Lurking Inside The Dark Spire

RPGs have come a long way from wireframe dungeons and dice rolls. Since graphics weren’t as advanced in the stone age of gaming, developers used text to capture a player’s imagination. Although it’s a Nintendo DS game, the Dark Spire is driven by descriptive text.

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We spoke with Atlus about localizing the heap of text and the game’s comedic moments. If you haven’t heard, an erotic panda is hiding in the tower.


Can you tell us about the story? Where do the tower climbing adventurers fit in?


Devin Curry, Editor:  The Dark Spire takes place in a classic fantasy world of adventurers, warlords, wizards, and foul creatures.  The story begins when powerful King Kronus is betrayed by his most trusted ally, the Archmage Tyrhung.  In the middle of a victory celebration for the king’s latest conquest, Tyrhung steals the Fairy’s Tears, a mysterious necklace of immense power, snatching it right from the queen’s neck.  Then, as evil wizards sometimes do, Tyrhung transforms himself into a dragon and flies off into the night, eventually fortifying himself within the titular Dark Spire, a foreboding structure that is perpetually surrounded by mist.


King Kronus, enraged by Tyrhung’s deception, decrees that any group of heroes who successfully defeat Tyrhung and recover the precious Fairy’s Tears will be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams.  However, getting to Tyrhung will prove to be no easy task because the tower is filled with all manner of monsters, beasts, and spirits, as well as unsavory thieves, pirates, and all-around scum.


The player-created protagonists (complete with rolling for stats) will join the legions of adventurers who plan to seek fame and fortune by braving the dangers that lie within the Dark Spire and vanquishing the evil Archmage.


thedarkspire_screens_04 These days gamers are used to graphics visualize their surroundings. The Dark Spire feels like a throwback to old PC games with text descriptions of the world. Did you find it difficult to write flavor text to bridge the gap?


Aram Jabbari, Manager of Public Relations and Sales:  The RPGs of ye olden days had a very descriptive, engaging writing style for descriptions of items, people, and events.  That’s not to slight modern day RPGs, but rather point out how much more important the text was when the graphics were not capable of suspending disbelief or immersing the player as well.  What makes The Dark Spire work is that the folks who localized the game really have a lot of familiarity with and admiration for the classic CRPGs, which in turn allowed them to really capture the charm of the writing in older genre entries.


Classic mode is a really neat idea. How does it work? Can you switch graphics on the fly?


AJ:  It’s as simple as jumping into the OPTIONS menu, which can be done at almost any time, and flipping the switch.  Everything changes, from the menus to the enemy sprites, even the music goes retro.  Be warned though: some folks can’t handle retro mode’s extreme levels of nostalgia.


How much text did the Dark Spire have to localize?


DC:  DS games usually have relatively small amounts of localization compared to other platforms, but Dark Spire had a surprisingly – and deceptively – large amount of text.  I say “deceptively” because at Atlus, we generally estimate the amount of work a game requires based on how many lines of text a game has.  The higher-ups then assign an appropriate number of translators and editors to get the job done on time.  For the Dark Spire, they assigned one translator, my esteemed colleague Kaz Fujiwara, and one editor (guess who).


In most games, the bulk of these lines are 1-3 sentences of dialogue.  When Kaz and I began localizing The Dark Spire, however, we discovered that a large number of these lines were actually descriptive paragraphs in the tradition of oldschool RPG’s, such as Wizardry.  The text really adds another level of atmosphere to the game, especially for all you hardcore dungeon crawlers who want to tackle this beast in the wireframe “Classic Mode”.


In a way, working on the Dark Spire was more like localizing a fantasy novel than a game.  It was pretty challenging, especially under our deadlines, but I enjoyed the opportunity to flex my prose skills.


The Dark Spire has skills like “comedy” which let players tell jokes. Does the game have branching dialogue?


DC:  The game has a surprisingly large number of skills that your characters can learn.  They primarily come into play when you go on side quests.  Each quest has several different outcomes based on whether any of your party members have the appropriate skills to solve the puzzle.


For certain situations, you will be required to say the right thing, and your character’s skills (and charisma stats) may affect the outcome.


Kaz Fukiwara, Translator:  Not all skills are “useful”, few skills will be necessary in order to go further into the game, some skills help in certain situations.  Dialogue doesn’t really branch out by the skills, but they do differ as when players stumble on certain situation where they have to decipher and by having specific skill helps.


thedarkspire_screens_11 What characters do you favor? What skills do you deem invaluable?


Rob Stone, QA Lead:  All of the classes are important.  The game was designed so each class is amazing at one thing, but horrible at everything else.  So Warriors are great at surviving a battle, but they don’t have any skills that help you navigate the dungeon otherwise.  At the beginning of the game, your Warrior is probably the only person that will survive more than one or two attacks from even the weakest enemies.  They’re also the only class that can use decent equipment.  A Thief is a necessity, because you can’t progress through the game without the ability to unlock doors and chests.  The Mage class is basically the only class that can deal big chunks of damage, and they also possess an invaluable skill that shows where you are on the map.


I’ve found it possible to get through the earlier sections of the game without a Priest (+ maxed out inventory of healing items) and opted to use two Warriors instead.  Later in the game, you can create prestige classes which combine two of the base classes together.  So, if you’ve put points into both Warrior and Thief levels for one character, you can turn them into a Ninja.  All of these secondary classes are amazing, and the player should definitely go for them if possible.


KF:  A character who can cast the spells is very handy in the dungeon, especially in this game.  There are limited quantities of items you can carry as far as healing, and when you continue to go deeper in to the dungeon, it gets tougher, and your supply will become scarce.  So having character(s) who can cast spells is a great help when exploring the dungeon since there’s no easy way out of the dungeon.


Are the dungeons and events in the Dark Spire mostly random?


RS:  There are no randomly-generated maps or events in this game.  Think of it like Etrian Odyssey.  Each floor is incredibly complex in structure, and completing even a fraction of a floor takes a lot of work.  All of the side quests are scripted, and only open up after certain objectives have been met.


thedarkspire_screens_07 Let’s talk about battles. Does combat emphasize weaknesses or do you use the “fight” command a lot?


KF:  Not so much emphasizing on weakness, but it mostly depends on balance of character.


RS:  Considering how difficult this game is, skills are VERY important to success in battle.  The game doesn’t lay out the enemies’ weaknesses for you like a Shin Megami Tensei game, but they are there.  For example, many of the enemies in the earlier floors are susceptible to the Sleep spell (weak mental defense).


I can’t count the number of times that spell has bailed me out of hairy battles in that game.  And even if you are choosing the “Attack” option frequently, you can just hold a button down to act as an auto-battle function.


Were any changes made for the North American version?


AJ:  One significant change from the original Japanese release is a visual one.  We found the overall brightness of the game was a little dim on a DS Lite system, so out of curiosity we tested it on an original DS unit, only to discover the game was incredibly difficult to play and enjoy.  Working closely with the developers in Japan, we found a visual sweet spot, if you well, that keeps the game unique “dark” style, while being equally playable on either piece of hardware.


I have to ask since the ESRB mentioned it… where does an “erotic panda” fit into the tower?


DC:  Regarding the Erotic Panda, the question is not “where?” but “how?”  And the answer is: quite nicely.


AJ:  Zing!


Does the Dark Spire have an undercurrent of humor?


DC:  Definitely.  While the main story arc is pretty serious, many of the side-quests are filled with funny and often strange humor.  I think the mad scientists behind this game were really trying to capture the vibe of the original Wizardry games, sneaking in absurd situations, Monty Python references, and the occasional morsel of pop culture junk food.


Kaz and I did our best to capture the spirit of the Japanese version.  There are tons of quests in the tower, and I think that gamers with the skills and intestinal fortitude to brave the fearsome dungeons will be rewarded with some genuinely hilarious moments.

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