QJ.NET reviews The Chosen: Well of Souls

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Rebelmind Games, makers of the memorable Space Hack, re-entered the computer role-playing game scene back in 2006 with Frater, a Diablo-esque, single player-only romp against hordes of bats, zombies, werewolves, and their monstrous folk. Faced by a sinister threat, the player stepped into the shoes of three heroes - each with their own specialty - and participated in the righteous fight against an evil mastermind. Frater was released in Europe and the UK and soon embodied the simplistic hack-and-slash types reminiscent of Rogue, a popular dungeon crawler back in the good old days.

Published by Meridian4, The Chosen: Well of Souls is the North American version of Frater. It was probably renamed to emphasize the plot that beckons would-be heroes. Unfortunately The Chosen, like Frater, doesn't come with the epic storyline you'd be used to with Dungeons & Dragons-style storytelling. It doesn't even offer the open-endedness of Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls: Arena (and yes, its successors).

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Rebelmind Games, makers of the memorable Space Hack, re-entered the computer role-playing game scene back in 2006 with Frater, a Diablo-esque, single player-only romp against hordes of bats, zombies, werewolves, and their monstrous folk. Faced by a sinister threat, the player stepped into the shoes of three heroes - each with their own specialty - and participated in the righteous fight against an evil mastermind. Frater was released in Europe and the UK and soon embodied the simplistic hack-and-slash types reminiscent of Rogue, a popular dungeon crawler back in the good old days.

Published by Meridian4, The Chosen: Well of Souls is the North American version of Frater. It was probably renamed to emphasize the plot that beckons would-be heroes. Unfortunately The Chosen, like Frater, doesn't come with the epic storyline you'd be used to with Dungeons & Dragons-style storytelling. It doesn't even offer the open-endedness of Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls: Arena (and yes, its successors).

Once upon a time, deja vu

Instead, players return to the Hell-besieged European continent after the Master Alchemist, Callidus, calls upon a hero to expel Marcus Dominicus Ingens, the thief of the Emerald Tablet (Tabula Smaragdina) and the one responsible for the unleashing of Hell's hordes after opening Wells of Souls.

The game starts out with an intro FMV with Callidus as narrator - Image 1 The game starts out with an intro FMV with Callidus as narrator - Image 2 The game starts out with an intro FMV with Callidus as narrator - Image 3 The game starts out with an intro FMV with Callidus as narrator - Image 4 

The Chosen: Well of Souls carries a linear plot line, which may have been too constricting for many if it weren't for a few side-quests available to attend to. The similar design in story soon reflects in the progression of dungeons, since a map would usually have only two locations connected to it: one map where the player came from, and another where the player should head next. There was little else in-between.

Don't expect randomly generated monsters to inhabit each new area you visit. Once a level loads, the monsters and their item drops of that map appear to remain consistent. So those who love to reload saved games and get lucky with random drops may feel seriously gimped after this fact.

Don't fret too much, though: on occasion, the item drops partially randomizes with every new game started. It's probably only in the first level that you'd notice that your end-level inventory would differ in content by a few items than last time. And though that impression would leave you thinking it's a roller-coaster ride down deja vu avenue, leaders of monster packs, unique monsters, and super bosses spew randomized magical items for looting satisfaction.

Old dogs can still perform new tricks

The Chosen still has a couple more aces up its sleeves. Unlimited town teleportation - at any time you see fit, even when against bosses - and item customization features sweeten the gameplay potential to significant extent. These, plus an updated 3D graphics engine compatible with low-tier gaming rigs even at high settings may score a plus with gamers who'd like to try their hand with this horror-themed hack-and-slash.

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Graphics setup menu - Image 1Budget gamers would be happy to know that while the game requires at least a 1.5 GHz processor, 384 MB RAM, and a 64 MB DirectX 9-compatible graphics card, the game can render itself with all the bells and whistles (16xAF, HDR, highest texture /water settings, HT&L) at 1280 x 960 resolution with a lower-end AGP video card (ATi Radeon X1150 in our case), 512 MB RAM and a 1.8 GHz processor.

The only caveat for maximizing your visual experience is a couple more seconds added to loading time, but the game itself handles well even in combat with numerous monsters. Framerate becomes bearable at the worst of situations, but this would change from machine to machine. Players would do well to use the highest details their machines could use, because the game's visual appeal rises greatly.

Also, graphical treats often sprinkle themselves into the game into little, mostly overlooked packages. Sunlight seeping through trees, shrubs and the undergrowth swaying as monsters or players pass through, shadow and light reflections over high quality-rendered water, or skills graphically empowering their intended elements (e.g., weapons, armor, allies) and targets (e.g., enemies, allies) - these are just a few of the neat things that may have slipped past even the most wary of eyes.

Day and night cycles, though interwoven into the fabric of gameplay, are not scripted. They happen in accelerated time frames like Blizzard's Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, and the player has little control over it. The current time of day affects the inherent abilities of nocturnal monsters, so players can have an advantage over such baddies in daylight. We'd advise caution during the evening, because not only do the shadows conceal their movement, they also gain more power under the moonlight.

I am a seed buried in soil; watch how I sprout

The Chosen: Well of Souls - The three Heroes - Image 1 The Chosen: Well of Souls - The three Heroes - Image 2 The Chosen: Well of Souls - The three Heroes - Image 3 

Players can step up and choose from a trio of player characters: the magic-dependent and staff-wielding monk, Frater (Frater Simon in Frater); the firearm-toting and lithe Elena; and the martial artist and weapon-master, Khan (Tong Wong in Frater). Interestingly, like Space Hack, the classes of the three characters aren't fixed despite their different backgrounds.

Aside from the pre-determined starting statistics for each character, the player is free to develop their selected avatar as they see fit. Players can distribute points to four straight-forward statistics: Strength, Dexterity, Knowledge, and Vitality, each one increasing their own set of abilities for each point added. The game pretty much limits little else. Often, this writer found himself creating several characters and seeing what stuck well with personal gameplay preferences.

Does this stat make me look fat?

The Chosen: Well of Souls - The character stat screen - Image 1The way you develop your character would eventually define your playing style or vice versa. Fireball-spitting Khan, shotgun-crazed Frater, and dual-wielding melee fighter Elena - the possibilities are endless. This feature is firmly tied to the fact that most of the statistics provided offer abilities that any class would need. Most times, three out of the four statistics will be used by any class, and the distribution among those three depends on what areas the player would like their character to perform better in.

Players who love to create their own "hybrid" builds, like so many other players in MMORPGs today, would feel at home with the character development scheme Rebelmind put in place. That said, however, the player's selection would not affect the assortment of skills that heroes could develop. All three characters share the same skill tree.

Now this new bit may have thrown some RPGers off, but then the open-ended character development makes up for the shortcomings in skills. Remember that your skills won't necessarily develop similarly from character to character. Offensive and defensive skills would taper off to a certain balance in-between, simply because some skills just aren't lucrative investments for certain builds.

The experienced role-player knows that the trick to character development is the measure of the pros and cons gained from investing one skill point in a certain skill tree. With Rebelmind's attention to character development, that same concept applies here.

Tanks wouldn't need to reduce the stamina they consume in running, magic wielders don't depend much on physical weapon damage, and ranged heroes would rather slow enemies and their missiles while they run to a safer distance and pick them off one by one. But then again, why conform to common sense? Skilled players are free to push the envelope of practicality and seek the special, uber-build for taking on the game's ultimate nemesis.

Say hello to my little friend

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Guns, guns, and more guns - Image 1Like a few CRPGs in the third-person perspective, The Chosen: Well of Souls combines technology, magic, and fantastical weapons to provide additional item variety, aside from the usual hack-and-slash repertoire. Like Sierra's Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, The Chosen also includes an armory of firearms to choose from. And better yet, there's no need to tend to ammunition - it's absolutely unlimited.

This delectable addition gets "cherry-topped" with the fact your collection would soon reach the likes of hand-held machine guns. If you thirst for more, there's even early hand-held mini-guns. So how do you deal with eight werewolves springing an ambush from all sides? Three syllables for you: Rat-tat-tat. Zombie shootouts were never this satisfying or LOL-filled for that matter. Good times, indeed.

Players will also find the manual reload feature handy, so they can fill up a half empty, sawed-off, double-barrelled shotgun or massive machine gun in mid-combat and serve up a full serving of lead at the next target of your choice. It also provides a sense of urgency, so players may need to plan tactics carefully.

Not your average hocus-pocus

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Scrolls and books for sorcery - Image 1As the game progresses, you may notice that magic represents the most special of the lot. It's ability to remain so exclusive to classes with high level Knowledge, plus the huge array of spells to collect has convinced this blogger why the European version was so named. And aptly so: Frater's magic-wielding capabilities can rain disaster on even Hell's worst hordes, under the hands of a skillful player.

Skillful is the operating term here; the shortcut keys to magic are plenty enough to get you finger-tied over the Function key row, though with proper combination of spells, you can turn the most threatening of monster charges into a pile of smoking, liquefied or electrified remains. Magic and technology can even mix, so you can cast spells effectively while juggling a six-shooter, and no penalties will be incurred.

Redefining the Tank

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Weapons galore - Image 1Melee lovers aren't left in the dust either. With later armor sets soon becoming exclusive to masters of Strength, fighters will love how much their armor would effectively keep enemy attacks at bay - time and time again. Tanking is an obvious understatement for players with the heaviest of armors. With proper handling of stat point distribution, a player could don a heavier armor earlier than usual and last longer in a toe-to-toe deathmatch against a bulkier foe.

The Chosen even offers dual-wield weapons, aside from the usual weapon and shield combo, though equipment is limited to potions, spell scrolls, spell books, headgear, torso gear, shields, and rings. There's no thigh or foot protection option in sight, but the armor more than makes up for it. Unlike some games, The Chosen doesn't stamp armor with a definite defense rating. Instead, it uses a range of values, such as 12-22 protection factor, that limits the maximum damage an enemy could do.

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Armors and caps - Image 1This may scare off some would-be tankers, but remember that a dodge skill is available for even the heaviest of armor-clad fighters. This skill is reachable only through the tree that slows enemy melee and missile fighters to considerable degree, so you can already imagine the possibilities players would toy with. Building an untouchable, heavy-clad avatar doesn't even cover half of the fun some may have with this. This is probably the first true virtual birth of the uber ninja.

You never had a friend like me

The Chosen: Well of Souls - The Tend skill heals party mates - Image 1One thing that probably makes The Chosen: Well of Souls stand out pretty well is its implementation of allied cooperative play. With the absence of multiplayer features, one would think that the game would be another lonely dungeon dash, but it certainly isn't. Each character can develop party-wide skills that would affect friends within a certain radius. And what's party-wide skills if you don't have a party?

There are some humans left alive, trying to beat back the Hell-spawned monsters littering towns, villages, and cities. And once you've helped them topple the last creeper attacking them, they will accompany you on your journey until you reach a barricade, an important checkpoint, they die, or you enter a new map.

And boy, talk about fanaticism: human allies will attack the nearest monster without fear (and sadly, with little brains), hacking away until their target is dead or your pals are in pieces. Players have little control over what allies should attack, though with proper positioning, they could get away with keeping all friends in defensive stance until a monster happens to shuffle into the players' death trap.

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Friend, friends, and more friends - Image 2 The Chosen: Well of Souls - Friend, friends, and more friends - Image 3 The Chosen: Well of Souls - Friend, friends, and more friends - Image 1

You'd be happy to know that there doesn't seem to be a limit on how many buddies you can earn in a level. If you save two here, another two here, and six over there, you can bring all ten pals for absolute monster-bashing fun.

I choose you, Neferkar!

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Helpers - Image 1Helpers, as The Chosen calls them, are automated allies that which eventually become available to players. The Golem and the Neferkar will stand by the player's side at all times while their health still permits. The Golem is a brute that doesn't only smash enemies to bits, it even knocks them back a good distance. It's the perfect defensive weapon for the non-melee player.

The Neferkar embodies both magic and ranged attacks, casting a lightning spell from afar. It does little damage compared to the Golem's main attack, but it's cast rate is relatively quick. And the fact that the "spirit" flies allows it to hover over locations usually not reachable by the player.

Its spell also seems to negate line of sight in certain situations, and it was funny to see enemies behind a wall milling about, wondering what was kicking their Hellish behinds. In addition, both the Golem and Neferkar can be developed further, each time they level up. That's right, they sprout, too. Like the player, the Helpers get a stat point for every level up, and the player can choose to increase the damage or the health of their two favorite pals.

Unfortunately, you can only have one Helper out at any time, and aside from the Tend (party health regeneration) skill, there's only one other way to replenish their health: replenishing magical scrolls. It's a blessing that their health fills up whenever they reach another level. That said, it's always advisable to have one Helper out in every moment of your avatar's dungeon crawling life. The experience it gets will be crucial to its performance in later levels.

Ultimate bodyguard for lease

The last but definitely not the least in the player's arsenal is the power to summon demons. These inter-dimensional beings are often characterized as evil creatures in many works, but in The Chosen: Well of Souls, they're neutral. They are the greatest ally one can have and the worst enemy one must battle against. After consuming a significant amount of Faith to summon just one of them, the immortal behemoths will wreak havoc on anyone hostile to the player until its summon cooldown wears out.

"Lucifer, I don't like that one. It looks at me in a funny way. Take care of it, will you?"

I'd like a mocha latte and a custom sword to go, please

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Cauldron of Creation - Image 1And speaking of fun, fiddling around with the item creation system introduces a new angle of customizability. Dubbed the "Cauldron of Creation," you could think of it as magical equipment blender. Armor and weapons can be tossed in to either improve an armor's protection or a weapon's damage range and decrease durability, or increase durability and little else - all in exchange for gold.

The best part is that you can customize each upgraded item's name, and make your character seem a little more special (prefixing all improved items with your character's name, for example).

Magical properties in equipments serving as ingredients can also be inherited by the item you wish to improve. Only select properties get inherited though, which is predetermined by the grayed-out parameters above the item's picture in the item creation panel. The biggest plus is that each equipment improved exponentially increases in value. Most of the time, you could sell customized equipment for more gold than you spent on improving them.

From the old spawns new

Unfortunately even if it sports an updated engine of Space Hack, The Chosen: Well of Souls looks seriously dated in the technical department. Polygon count is noticeably low, and the walking animations could have used a little more tuning. The fact that you stay in combat stance all the time outside the Alchemist Laboratory could have been reinforced with relaxing animations for standing idle. You could get physically tired just watching your avatar holding up a shotgun for half an hour.

The Chosen: Well of Souls looks prettier at the highest detail levels - Image 1 The Chosen: Well of Souls looks prettier at the highest detail levels - Image 2 The Chosen: Well of Souls looks prettier at the highest detail levels - Image 3 The Chosen: Well of Souls looks prettier at the highest detail levels - Image 4

While graphics are immensely pretty even at 1680 x 1050, some objects in-game could have used more definition. This could be considered more of a trade-off for a game that gives low-end machines a little more self-esteem. If a powerful gaming rig can run The Chosen: Well of Souls blindfolded while cramped in a foot locker, a rig blessed with baseline hardware may get away with similar grace if it has the extra RAM to spare.

Gamers with LCD monitors may be concerned about the absence of a vertical synchronization option in the graphics configuration menu though, since partial picture tearing associated with LCD refresh rates was noted in-game. They happen with some frequency, too. And don't forget some loading screen clipping tossed in there, though that could just be another LCD monitor tantrum on our part.

You say "potato", I hear potato

Audio in The Chosen: Well of Souls is also another issue. While the music and ambiance reaches above mediocre at best, it does do the game justice to certain degree. And that's meant in the matchmaking sense; the music doesn't stand out or super-impose itself over all the audio, and it also characterizes the player's current location or situation adequately.

It could have benefited from a little more character or melody, because the occasional changes to music - though properly in queue with game events - can soon become monotonous for some and irritating for many. Playing your own music might uplift your dungeon crawling spirits, and The Chosen: Well of Souls switches in and out of the desktop seamlessly with sufficient amount of memory.

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Sound setup menu - Image 1Simulation of 3D sound also borders on iffy, with certain angles just completely wiping out sounds that should have rang out at the loudest volume (a gun fired right in front of your character). This is often exhibited in other games that try to simulate 3D sounds, but the feature doesn't detract the player's concentration on fending off persistent Hellspawn. If you'd rather have the game run audio through simple stereo, there's an option to tone down the 3D sound feature in the audio configuration menu.

Sound effects seem limited to a just a few for guns, weapon clashes, and magic effects and seem to lack more quality or fidelity. Though monsters also seem to have their own set of attack grunts, dying screams, and ambient groans, they're not overly repetitive to tempt your temper. Albeit for a few, especially when the action gets hectic really fast. Lord of a Thousand Arms, I'm talking about arms 1 to 999. Seriously.

Alas, the gripes with sound doesn't end there. Perhaps the most debatable of feature flops would be the game's voice acting - or one could say an attempt of it. It would be generous to salute Rebelmind for trying to recreate an atmosphere of fantasy and horror, but much of the lines delivered were bland at best.

Emotion and emphasis were either absent or misplaced. Though many may find the actors' accents annoying, they must realize the game is set in Europe (Northern perhaps), and with Poland-based Rebelmind at the creative helm, this is as authentic as it gets.

Creativity and perfection just don't mix sometimes

The Chosen: Well of Souls - The prose is crafty - Image 1We do give kudos, however, to the game writers and designers for the cryptic riddles placed at essential parts in The Chosen. It may not be the most creative prose you've heard in your time (not quite Shakespeare), but it reflects the hard work piled behind the story content. It would have been nice to see more effort put into tying the story, audio, environment, and sound effects together, but for an independent game developer, this accomplishment already sits well as a job well done.

A penny saved is a penny earned

Economy may also be something of a difficulty if not an annoying hindrance to gameplay progression. Be forewarned: the game does not forgive easily for decisions leading to bankruptcy. The Chosen: Well of Souls has a tough economy to understand at first, and prices could slap the weak economist silly until he discovers the value of saving each gold shilling.

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Avoid spending on potions if you can - Image 1There are ways to avoid spending on seemingly necessary supplies, such as potions and spells. If you're running low on health and mana, simply teleport back to the Alchemist Laboratory and recuperate there. This adds more to idle play times and may not suit well with some players, but it was easy to jump to other desktop tasks and return to The Chosen: Well of Souls when your health and mana pools were full.

Players can even invest in skill points to drastically increase the regeneration of Faith, HP and MP, while mages should rely heavier on spells offered in books. Scrolls just won't cut it for the heavy user, since it still consumes MP (though from all the combat flurry, we could be mistaken) and must be purchased to use. The economically-wary adventurer would take care to shatter every crate, box, and barrel in sight to milk as much gold and loot as possible. This blogger doesn't only recommend it; he demands it for the player's sake.

I can see you - can you see me?

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Bow outranges gun - Image 1Guns aren't exactly the most accurate hardware (but then again, all ranged weapons aren't 100% accurate), and firing ranges extend farther for bows than rifles. Missing isn't much of an issue when you've got fast reload times.

It's more of the weapon range that becomes a concern. Bows are the only ranged weapons that can fire over obstacles. They do so as the player shoots enemies targeted under an orange reticule (medium range), while rifles will also allow one to snipe enemies under a red reticule (close range).

Rifles only shoot farther than shotgun and pistols. Also, players may notice that firing at enemies from far away is a blind affair; the enemy's life gauge doesn't appear until you reach a certain distance from (usually closer to) them. That's not to say that the bullets aren't doing their job; blood splatters would prove they are.

Thankfully, the weapon skill that allows fighters to strike all adjacent enemies works flawlessly, and Whirlwind attacks against mobs are effective enough to be considered more of a superhero power than a plain skill. Also, issues with camera focus and manipulation may confuse players who are also used to first-person shooters, since the controls are mapped to the ASD/QWE keys (they are configurable though). A few hours of angle-tilting and view rotation would remedy the quirkiness fast.

Playing monster scorekeeper

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Remaining monster count - Image 1Players' concerns should be more focused on the limited amount of experience that can be farmed (pardon such frankness) from each map, since there's only a fixed amount of monsters in every level. Missing out on even just one or two on one of those levels could mean everything from an early level up to being left with a weakling for an avatar in the end-game.

Luckily, The Chosen: Well of Souls keeps tabs on how many monsters are left in a map, so player's wouldn't have to comb each area blindly to ensure they picked every last werewolf. The indicator also sits right beside the gold stash indicator, so it can be easily referred to when scrounging for the sneaky ones that remain.

The Chosen: Well of Souls - There's vast dungeons to crawl through - Image 1Huge maps and your slow movement could make monster hunts pretty tedious though, and given the length of the gameplay time, you might spend more than eight hours before tackling your first encounter with one product of Marcus Ingens' dastardly deeds: a Well of Souls. That estimate could go even longer if you constantly bide your time with health and mana regeneration.

Luckily again, Rebelmind came prepared to reward the meticulous dungeon crawler: if a player succeeds in mopping up the last creatures left, they instantly get awarded an additional stat point for their character. That's one point for every level, and players would do well to take advantage of every good thing rolling their way.

I dub thee, Sir Worth Playing

Overall, The Chosen: Well of Souls is a mixed package of sorts. On one hand, it's one of those games that you'd probably ignore when you have Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Gas Powered Games' Dungeon Siege 2 on-hand to play through. But on the other hand, it's also one of those games you'll come back to after Oblivion's console-ish clashes with your mouse and keyboard setup flares tempers or Dungeon Siege's adventures cease to amuse.

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Play werewolf hunter for an hour - Image 1Because believe it or not, for a single player romp The Chosen: Well of Souls carries that type of light, fun factor. You may find yourself laughing at the monsters' futile attempts to gang up on your powerful Golem or how easily your summoned demon wades through mobs like Godzilla leveling downtown Tokyo.

Certain types of magic spells may suddenly turn into favorites, and combat using Whirlwind against mobs will always bring a sinister smile to your face. Maybe it's because the poor mindless creeps didn't even try to retreat, or maybe it's because with your unique weapon, they didn't just have the opportunity to do so.

Pumping lead with a sawed-off shotgun is every bit as satisfying in RPG, third-person style as it is in first-person. And you'd find yourself always looking for an opportunity to manually reload, because popping in a shot to each barrel doesn't just add to your tactical security, it also just feels so refreshingly satisfying.

And though the fun eventually dies after grueling hours clearing up tough mobs, it gets revived once when you load up the game for another short dash down The Chosen's next level. It's an RPG that drops most complexities and basically sits players down with the basics: role-play and worthwhile fun. With LOLs and lots of it.

The Chosen: Well of Souls - Cutscenes are refreshing, too - Image 1And if you've played Space Hack, The Chosen would definitely stand as a worthy successor to Rebelmind Games' RPG and adventure game line up. Thus, it becomes an ample contribution to Rebelmind's momentum in role-playing games. Although it's likely that only the most avid of gamers would give the game a try, we're sure that fans of past Rebelmind games will find something special in The Chosen: Well of Souls.

The game hit North American shelves on October 1, 2007 and will set you back about 20 bucks. At this price the game's practically a steal for the financially blessed. We're hoping for something more from Rebelmind in the near future (hint, hint: Space Hack 2/Maximus XV Abraham Strong - Space Mercenary 2 with multiplayer), but in the meantime, The Chosen: Well of Souls satisfies.

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