It wasn’t so long ago that THQ Nordic dipped deep into its back catalogue of vintage PC games to release Risen on the Nintendo Switch. That Western RPG “classic” remained a fun time for its Caribbean-fantasy-with-pirates theme, despite being almost unplayable in places. Now it’s Gothic’s turn, and you’ve got to be really nostalgic to forgive this one’s warts.
The problem with Gothic is that the qualities that it was celebrated for back in 2001 are all things that relied on it being seen as ambitious and expansive, and in 2023… well, it’s neither of those things. On the Nintendo Switch along Skyrim and The Witcher 3 are there, and they dwarf Gothic in every way. Furthermore, unlike Risen, Gothic doesn’t have an interesting setting going for it, either. This was a grim European-themed fantasy about a criminal tossed into an expansive prison. A large section of the world has been covered in a magical dome, and while people can go in, they can’t come back out again. Consequently, it has become a dumping ground for felons. From the moment our anti-hero gets pushed in, he then needs to make his way between three separate factions, pick his allies and… try to escape. As that summary makes pretty clear, there isn’t much original to Gothic’s story, though at the time it was celebrated for its scope.
It was also celebrated for its branching dialogue, but by today’s standards that comes across as pretty mundane. There are a fair few characters to meet and interact with, but where once the number and flexibility with which you could approach those characters was seen as “deep,” today it comes across as pretty shallow and artificial. The world, once seen as massive and filled with exploratory potential, now appears as positively tiny, with everything within a short wander. A difficult trek because enemies are placed every few steps, and the combat… well, we’ll get to that. But as the crow flies, Gothic is the 15-minute city of open-world RPGs today.
I could go on and on. The side quests lack Witcher 3’s world-building qualities. The “cities” are really empty spots to collect quests, and not the playgrounds of activities of a Yakuza or Elder Scrolls. Character customisation is limited, and while the developer, Piranha Bytes, continues to build on the formulas it established with this game – Elex 2 being the most recent example – and these games are always good fun at the time they are released, Gothic just highlights how transient they are. It’s incredible to think that Baldur’s Gate 1 was released just one year later in 2002, but maintains its timeless quality thanks to truly memorable characters and world-building that, to this day, continues to be iconic (Minsc, anyone?). Baldur’s Gate also has taut game design that continues to feel current today.
Gothic by contrast has some brief nostalgic appeal, but if you haven’t played it in the last 20 years, it will be far more linear than you remember. It will also be far clumsier in design than you remember and not nearly as interesting overall. And that’s before you get to the combat…
Gothic’s combat is absolutely woeful. There is no nuance or combo system. Nothing you can do other than mash the attack button and hope you down the enemy before he drops you. Wander off the beaten path before you’re meant to and some lizard-thing is going to rip through your health in seconds, and the lack of a dodge and proper parry/block system feels more painful with every year we progress past the release of Dark Souls. It’s even difficult to judge the range of attacks (thanks to the positioning of the camera), and as the icing on the cake your character strafes with the movement control stick, rather than turns, and so it is just painful to try and line your character up for an attack if the opponent does anything more than walk directly in a straight line to you. Thankfully most enemies have no AI built into them so that is all they will do, but it hardly makes for the most riveting battles, even when it is relatively playable.
Finally, despite the game being more than 20 years old, it really struggles to run on Switch. I’m going to assume it’s because the engine is so poorly optimised for modern hardware. There’s both pop-in and slow-down, compromising what was already a game that was already raw enough. I don’t remember Risen being quite this compromised, but then I am possibly glossing over those bits where it was because there was at least the theme and setting to enjoy.
Gothic is getting a full remake, which will release in 2024. I actually expect that to be good, because the developers can use the modern tools they have to modernise and restore the original vision of the game. Unfortunately, though, that’s the final nail in the coffin for the original. Unless you have a very academic reason for wanting to play an artefact of B-tier game design from the early turn of the century, there’s just no reason to play this port.