You would think I'd had my fill of RPGs at the moment. In between my continuing reluctance to play Fallout: New Vegas and my recent acquisitions of The Witcher 3, Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Pillars of Eternity I didn't think I had any more room in my life for a game of a similar ilk. The two hours I put into the demo for Whalenought Studios' Serpent In The Staglands quickly changed my mind.
The game, in many aspects, is as classic a cRPG as Baldur's Gate or the recent Pillars of Eternity. You create a character (or characters) and are plunged into a mysterious land. Movement is handled as you would expect and character interactions and looting likewise. The combat, however, opens the floodgates for what makes Serpent In The Staglands a special game. After a quick blitz through the temple you begin your journey in I charged out the door, skipped some dialogue and decided to test my mettle against a fox. I gathered my party, right clicked and sat back to watch the carnage.
So my four characters stood, no weapons in hand, aimlessly flailing at a couple of foxes. Unsurprisingly foxes are no great respecters of unchoreographed interpretive dance and quickly munched on my pathetic corpses. I restarted and realised that this was a game that was demanding a lot more of me than I was used to. I started a new game, read some character descriptions, payed attention to what characters were saying to me and felt I was a little bit more prepared.
I started again, looted a bit more and found a kitchen knife. "That will have to do," I thought, "Foxes must be afraid of kitchen knives." Regardless of whether they were or not doesn't matter; I managed to conquer them (after some pathetic running away to some nearby settlers for their assistance) and decided it was time to read the manual. Race descriptions, spell description, AI commands, menu breakdowns - a total of 174 pages of digital manual awaiting your perusal. What sets Serpent in the Staglands apart, at least so far, is that you want to read it.
Reading is a crucial skill; both comprehension and patience are a virtue here. A scrawled note on a table of the temple shows a hastily drawn picture of a Goblin with "low magic resistance?" written next to it. That piece of information doesn't save anywhere; your journal, while tracking early conversations (only for a short while), is entirely written by you. If there's information you think is pertinent then you better write it down. That goes for incantations, directions or pieces of information that characters tell you. This is not a world that exists to pander to a player; The Staglands exist and you are simply in its world.
There isn't a map; instead you're given the name of your location and two hand drawn maps (which you're told are extremely valuable in this world despite their low quality) and neither show your current position. Serpent In The Staglands invites you to learn that information; glean directions from talking to people, from experimenting and not relying on hand holding for your success.
It would be remiss of me to not talk about the presentation of Serpent In The Staglands as well. While a few people complain and grow tired of "bullshit indie pixel art," here there's a subtlety to both the look and sound that, after a few minutes with the game, looks entirely natural. Grand curtains sway a little in the wind, snow gently falls through the open window all the while an understated soundtrack underpins your travels.
I was reluctant to try out the demo given the sheer volume of RPGs in my pile. It's testament to the work that Whalenought Studios have done, though, that there's only one I'm thinking about. Serpent In The Staglands understands something crucial about gaming; gamers enjoy learning. I mean real learning; not rote nonsense, this isn't a game about reading a lot of tutorials and repeating things. Nor is it a game that once you successfully do something it rewards you by putting it in an accessible menu.
Serpent In The Staglands demands more from its players and, in doing so, respects them a hell of a lot more than many of its peers.