Life, the Universe and Silver

I think it's pretty safe to say that the Dreamcast's library isn't exactly bursting with legendary role playing games. Naturally, there are some well regarded titles like Skies of Arcadia, Time Stalkers and Grandia II but in the grand scheme of major console releases, the Dreamcast's meagre selection pales in comparison to contemporary systems like the PlayStation; and even more so when pitched against the might of the Super Nintendo. To be brutally honest, this doesn't really bother me because my affinity with RPGs is negligible. I'm not overly enamoured with the genre and much prefer to spend my game time playing racers, shooters and the occasional soccer game.

In recent times though, the vast majority of my free time has been spent guiding one Geralt of Rivia through the trials and tribulations of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, and so my hard and fast opinion of role players has softened somewhat. And while I realise that The Witcher III is probably more of an action RPG than a hardcore, turn-based affair, I think it is testament to the quality of CD Projekt Red's game that someone who doesn't generally dabble in that type of experience has become fully absorbed in the adventure. Also, according to this Eurogamer article, the voice of Geralt lives just up the road from me so the experience is now extra special. I must also stress at this juncture, that the rumours of me camping outside his house and digging through his bins for discarded banana peels and samples of hair and/or skin are wholly unsubstantiated.
"Get away from my bins!"
So yeah, the point I'm failing to make here is that the Dreamcast doesn't have many traditional RPGs. The ones I have mentioned are considered as the cream of the crop, and then there's Shenmue...but is that really an RPG? I guess it does have all the hallmarks of an RPG, and I'd personally be inclined to class it as such but I already get enough grief about these articles from the folk who just see the titles on social media, let alone the ones who actually take the time to click through and read the shite I write; so I'm just going to hold my hands up and say that I both agree and disagree that Shenmue is an RPG. It's both. It neither is nor isn't an RPG, at the same time. It's Shroedingermue. There's also Record of Lodoss War...which is alright I guess. But I've played that one for about 20 minutes in total and that was back in 2006 if memory serves, so I'm hardly qualified to say just how shit it is. Come at me, internet pettifoggers.
Let's get back on track though. You came here because you saw some bollocks on Twitter or Facebook about Silver, and that is what I'm going to give you. Silver, is an action-RPG developed by Spiral House and published by Infogrames in both Europe and the United States (but not Japan) which represents something of an oddity on the Dreamcast; what with its real-time combat and profanity-ridden script. Not that that's a bad thing when coupled with the glorious accents and intonation of northern England - a sacred part of the world from which the author of this piece hails. A land of milk and honey, a rich tapestry of dialects, patchwork fields and dark satanic mills that would put Tolkien's image of Middle Earth to shame. And by 'milk and honey' I mean 'late trains and broken gas mains,' by the way. Oh, and wider social decay and misery than has ever been described in a George Orwell penned, semi-biographical tome...but you get the idea.

Gaviscon required.
At this point, allow me take you back in time. Back in time to a distant period in history known as the year 2000 AD. Due to budgetary constraints we won't be traveling there in a DeLorean, nay we will be using nought but the power of the human mind. Your mind and mine. Combined, melded if you will. Like a veiny, throbbing Dreamcast-shaped hive mind. Still with me? Cool. Let's go back to 2000 AD. I was 18 years old and was happily rejoicing in my Dreamcast ownership status. The only problem was that back then, in those days before iPads and wifi and smart phones, we only had one television in the house. It was in the living room and - get this - it had a meter on the side of it that you had to put pound coins in. It was part of some archaic rental agreement my dad had taken out, and in order to operate the TV you had to put a pound coin in for 8 hours worth of viewing time.
This isn't the meter in question. Just found this on Google.
Naturally, the meter didn't care if you were watching actual programming or playing a video game, once your 8 hours were up, the TV switched itself off. For this reason, I really valued my playing time on the Dreamcast - I literally had to pay to play my own games, as well as having to enter into heated negotiations for use of the TV in the first place. For this reason alone I never really wanted to play anything that involved long, drawn out periods of extended play...and so you see, I invariably didn't want to play RPGs because I either couldn't get the time with the TV...or the meter would run out right in the middle of a play session and pumping pound coins into the TV just seemed ridiculous. For these reasons I didn't really engage with stuff like Silver or other role players until later on, after getting my own place and a TV that wasn't controlled by the mechanical equivalent of Bill Sykes.
Almost 20 years later, I now have the time and inclination to sit down and fully appreciate RPGs in the way they are intended and, as mentioned earlier I have really fallen in love with the world of The Witcher III. So this got me thinking about some of the other western-styled role players on the Dreamcast and the first one that really leapt out at me as a title I've barely touched, was Silver. Truth be told, I've hardly touched any Dreamcast RPGs for one reason or another.

I started playing Grandia II last year and quite enjoyed the combat mechanics, but ultimately I got bored. I stopped playing Shenmue II about halfway through because I had to get a job in a warehouse. I stopped playing Evolution because it was far too twee for my tastes and I haven't even started Evolution 2. Lodoss I lost interest in after 20 minutes (see above). Skies of Arcadia? Never even been in my Dreamcast; and the same is true of Time Stalkers. But Silver is the one that bucks the trend for me. Why? Because it's the epitome of what I like to call 'RPG-lite.' It's an RPG without all the usual stuffy RPG crap I tend to dislike immensely.
Yes, it has a pretty stereotypical story line and it looks like a zillion other RPGs with pre-rendered backgrounds and polygonal characters sliding about on top (did someone say Final Fantasy VII?), but for me it makes up for all that with a familiarity that I can connect with, and a play style that I just find easy to get on with. Am I an inhuman monster for holding this opinion? Probably. Probably a complete and utter toss pot wanker who doesn't deserve to hold a Dreamcast controller. But I'm fine with that. This is the internet and I can write whatever I like. And if you don't like it, you too can go and write something about me not liking other RPGs and other people can upvote it and revel in their own collective not liking of what I don't like. It's called democracy. But this isn't a democracy. It's a Dreamocracy. What am I even writing?
So Silver, for those who aren't familiar with it, was first released on the PC in 1999. It was then ported to the Dreamcast and the initial batch of reviews was quite mixed. I recall at the time that the vast majority of UK magazines were pretty indifferent and gave Silver fairly average scores; while US resources were more forgiving. On the subject of the comparisons drawn to games like the aforementioned Final Fantasy VII, in an interview on the making of Silver, the lead developer Bobby Earl said:

"We get asked about the similarities to Final Fantasy VII a lot, and it is flattering to be compared to such a game. But the truth of the matter is that we weren't influenced by it at all. I can see why people would make the comparison but we'd started a good while before we'd even seen much of FFVII!"

Going from information divulged in the same interview, it appears that person behind the original idea for Silver, Warren Lancashire, was however a fan of Japanese RPGs:

"At the time of Silver's birth there really wasn't much out there that was like it. Warren [Lancashire] was into Japanese RPGs though and he was influenced by them I think."

Other than the visual trappings though, that's where the similarities end. And for me, that is a total relief. This is because I simply can't stand Final Fantasy VII. Turn-based combat is just not something I enjoy, and even less when the battles are random encounters. Probably one of the reasons I've avoided Skies of Arcadia to be honest...but there it is. The combat in Silver is completely real time and has more in common with something like Zelda than any other RPG I can think of. You can equip swords, shields and wands via the rotary interface that pops up when you press the B button. Once selected, the chosen weapons and defensive items are added to your character's visual avatar and you're free to hack and slash and fire projectiles as you see fit. The combat system itself is actually quite cool in that you can modify your guard and attacks by holding down the right trigger and using the analogue stick to unleash a whole range of moves - from slashes and jabs of the sword, to whirlwinds of attacks that will damage foes on all sides. It's a cool control system and I love it.
The story in Silver is pretty standard fayre and likely wouldn't stand up in today's age of Twitter SJW outrage, forum flame wars and people being offended by the most arbitrary of subjects, but it goes a little something like this: the eponymous evil emperor Silver has decided he wants a wife. So rather than getting his glad rags on and going down the local boozer to try and pull a bird, he's decided to dispatch his army to round up all of the women in the empire so that he can choose which one he likes the best. Naturally, 99% of the women in the world are captured - being the helpless waifs that they are - and it's up to the hero of the adventure David to set off on a quest to free his Mrs and all of the other women Silver has captured. The story is pretty antiquated stuff, and I'm pretty sure that if Silver came out today there'd be a hashtag about it within minutes of launch...but to be honest the story is pretty forgettable once you start playing. You forget that the whole 'rescue the weak, pathetic females' story is even a thing when you're stabbing soldiers in the face with a longsword.
There are plenty of locations to visit, loads of environments to explore and there's virtually no dungeon crawling. The game is so straight forward...and that is why I like it. You go to point A and speak to a dude. Go to point B and kill a boss. Go to point C and collect an item to give the to the dude at point A. You collect team members who you can switch between with the d-pad. You can instantly pause and select new weapons and magical items to aid you in battle. It's formulaic and very predictable and the story is dumb as fuck. But under it all, Silver is fun. It's fun. That's it. The control system is really intuitive and the boss battles make you think. The enemies you meet along the way are often as thick as two planks and are as easy to destroy as mashing the A button (don't even bother with the advanced attack controls). Silver is an RPG done for people who just want to zone out, look at pretty pre-rendered backgrounds and not have to think too hard. And that is why it's awesome. But you know what makes it even better? The amazing voice acting and dialogue.

The voice acting in Silver really is what makes it so enjoyable. In recent times we've been treated to the fantastic vocal talents of actors like Troy Baker and Nolan North and the amazing banter that results when two similar personalities are placed together in the same game. Back in the early 2000s this wasn't the case and precious few games had decent voice acting - even less in the RPG genre. Silver is an exception to this rule. The voice cast does a stellar job not only with the acting itself but also the humour, timing and dead pan delivery. I know it's a cliche to say that a game made you 'LOL,' but I honestly did at times while playing through Silver. The character interaction is so cool and totally not what you'd expect from a game from the era.
Maybe it's a result of Silver initially being a PC game and its contemporaries were already pushing boundaries in these areas that console games weren't...but still, it's really cool and impressive to be treated to such a great cast doing such a good job. Incidentally, many of the cast in Silver have gone on to star in Hollywood movies and other AAA games, and some of the incidental NPC voice are - I'm convinced - delivered by British comedian and TV personality Sean Lock, even though I can find no credits for him online. I've seen too many episodes of 8 Out of 10 Cats and his stand up routines not to recognise his voice now, so I'm convinced it's him. But even if it isn't...Silver sounds great.
I'm aware that this article is turning into an essay now, and I'm pretty sure nobody will have read the entire thing. What will happen, is that people will see the Twitter ad or Facebook post about this whole thing and just comment saying "great game," or "I've never played that - is it any good?" or simply just reply with a photo of them holding their copy of Silver, and that photo will get approximately 300 times more interaction than this entire article ever will. But ultimately, that nonsense doesn't matter. This article allowed me to talk about my dad's tight-fisted TV meter and explain why I think Silver is actually my favourite RPG on the Dreamcast...even though it's not really ever mentioned in the great debates that rage on the more 'hardcore' forums about the greatest RPGs. Silver is nothing more than a footnote in the memory of people who consider the monumental Japanese RPGs to be the final word in hack and slash adventures, but I don't care. Enjoyment is a personal quest, and not one that can be quantified by stats or figures or hit points. At the end of the day, I know what I like and I like what I know. And I like Silver.

Anyone got a pound for the telly meter?

5 comments:

Doc Rob said...

Well I read the whole thing, and share your feelings of rpgs (I made it to the second disk of skies of ARCADEA but keep not playing due to the rear I have of random encounters). But I do say this convinced me to buy it on eBay and give myself a break from poorly playing the shumups fighting games and blue stinger that normally fills my dreamcasting time. So thanks for that.

BlueSwirl said...

I found Silver hard to get into but once I did I loved it, btw we also had a TV with a coin meter on the side, but ours was old school, it was mechanical so you had to physically turn a cog thing like on those gum ball machines, but this was probably around 1983-85, ours took the old fashioned giant 50p's, no idea why my parents had this, I'll need to ask them lol

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for the comments guys. Doc Rob - yeah you should give it a go, although I haven't looked at how much Silver sells for these days. Apparently it can be quite pricey, which is odd. BlueSwirl - yeah, the coin meter my dad had started as a mechanical thing stuck to the TV that you had to spin a little handle around on to make the coin go in. Then they changed it to an electronic one where you just dropped pound coins in. Sometimes, you'd drop a coin in and it wouldn't register...which lead to much gnashing of teeth when you had no more change and the shop round the corner was shut!

Doc Rob said...

It was not to bad for the U.S. Version the pal version was a bit high for my blood was thankful for being American, which isn't always the case when it comes to dc game availability. As always great read now just waiting for your Valentine's day special on Japanese dating games ;)

weekendgamer said...

Good review....rushes off to post photo of said game on twitter whilst linking loads of people with 50k plus followers.
Sorry could not help myself. I really liked you humour in this articleTom and I have had the game since way back when, but like many of my games never gave it the time this clearly deserved. I enjoyed what I played but I am now interested to go back and give this another go. Thanks.