The GeneforgeA fierce struggle is going on between the Shapers, who want to keep their special power to themselves, and the rebels, who believe that power should be open to all. You come in on the rebel side…and the rebels are losing.

So begins Geneforge 4: Rebellion, which drops you in the middle of a very nasty war. At first the rebels were doing well, but now they’ve lost much of what they had gained in territory. The only hope may be the secret project of the Drakons, hidden away up in the northern mountains.

Getting started is simple: choose one of five cookie-cutter classes and go. After that, you can develop your character as you wish, although going outside class preferences is expensive. The idea here is to choose the profession that most closely matches your style of play.

The five classes are Warrior (combat/shape), Infiltrator (magic/combat), Lifecrafter (shape/magic), Shock Trooper (shape/combat) and Servile (combat/magic). Conspicuously absent is the magic/shape combination, which is very powerful and would certainly unbalance the game.

Probably to ease the graphic burden, Warriors and Lifecrafters are male, Shock Troopers and Infiltrators female, and Serviles, well, they wear hoods so could be either.

There are three major sets of skills: Shaping (creates creatures to fight for you), Magic, and Combat. Each class is strong in one (cheaper to to increase), average in another (base cost to increase), and weak in a third (expensive to increase). A fourth skill set, General (mechanics, leadership, and luck) is base cost for everyone.

That is also true for the four stats of Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Endurance. Regardless of starting values (which differ by class), it costs the same number of points to increase any of them.

You begin with fifteen skill points at level 1, and receive five more at every level-up. The trick is that point costs go up over time. For example, you pay 4 points to increase any stat at the beginning. After two increases, the cost goes up to 5 points. Two more increases, and the cost is now 6. Skills increase at the same rate of +1 for every two enhancements. As you probably guessed, it’s possible, even necessary, to hold points over on level-up once you’re well into the game.

World mapSpeaking of graphics, while they won’t give the Bioshock devs any sleepless nights, they are decent and do the job. It’s a little hard to tell from the screenshots, which have been reduced to save space. Regardless, this isn’t a game for anyone who wants eye candy above all else.

Inventory gives 36 open slots, plus another 4 for quick items. Quick items are buttons on the main screen you can click to use immediately, which includes switching weapons, which is very handy. Another four slots are set for quick spells, allowing fast casting in combat, as well.

Encumbrance is a factor, but only for equipped items. Anything carried in your pack is not counted against your weight limit, which of course is determined by strength. Encumbered characters are unable to move in combat, so it’s important to keep an eye on how much any item weighs before putting it on.

Happy to relate, combat is turn-based, something not seen much these days. Who goes when is determined by a combination of dexterity and a skill called “quick action”. All combatants begin with 8 action points, regardless.

Speed spells can increase the points to 12, a significant advantage. That allows you to attack twice in a round, and includes casting spells. Provided, that is, you don’t move. For that matter, you can’t move after an attack, although, naturally, you can do so before.

During a fight, everyone displays onscreen a hitpoint bar, which diminishes as damage is taken. Also, you can right-click on anyone to see how many hitpoints the person (or creature) has, as well as the target’s name or title.

Casting a firebolt spellThere are no “free shots”, so stepping away from an opponent is not dangerous. It may even be necessary, as standing in melee range means attacking automatically with your equipped weapon, something you may not want to do if you’re a heavy spellcaster and weak in combat skills.

Fighting, especially against groups, is somewhat tactical. Each class has its own style, which can be modified by the situation. Those with a few “friends” (shaped companion monsters) will find it easier than a class that depends more on magic and combat. Even so, many encounters will have to be examined carefully before deciding on a strategy.

The game window is divided into sections. In the upper left are eight slots for the party; below that is the automap, which fills in as you explore. Locations of interest are marked with a “?”, and clicking on it tells you what the place is. However, there is no way to make your own notes on the map.

The right side has the main window where the action occurs, and just below, stretching the width of the screen, are buttons for the various game commands, such as spellcasting and creating creatures. Many of these can also be done with hot keys.

At the extreme right side are four buttons for combat/end combat, party formation, in-game manual, and main menu (which can also be accessed by hitting the Esc key).

Movement is simple: click where you want to go and the party walks to that location (there is no way to run). Party members are keyed to the numbers 1-8, so outside of combat, an individual can be moved by itself. You can also draw a box around select party members and move them as a sub-group.

The full screenThe main screen can be scrolled up/down and left/right by swinging the mouse in those directions. In safe areas, you can swing to a desired location, click on the ground, and the party will troop there automatically. Moving this way in dangerous sections is not recommended.

Travel between areas is done from the world map. It comes up when you exit a level, and shows what places you can go. Green areas are “cleared” and can be travelled through. Red areas can’t be passed, although you can go into them. With this method, you can travel long distances with one click, so long as there is an unbroken route through green areas.

For keeping track of things, you have a journal. This holds your current quests, special items you carry (not shown in regular inventory), and notes. This is a nice feature. Whenever you talk to someone, you can hit a “record” button and the NPC’s exact words are saved for later reading.

Conversation is the usual “click on NPC and dialogue pane comes up” routine, although in some circumstances, a person will initiate talk with you automatically. An interesting feature here is the “OK” button lower right, which allows you to break off the conversation without having to choose a response.

There is a crafting system of sorts, with two types. The first uses almost any weapon or armor and an item with special properties. These are merged on a magic anvil. Typically, weapons receive a damage ability, and armor a defensive ability.

The second type is more elaborate, requiring more items, a recipe, and the anvil. This creates potent special weapons and armor called “artifacts”. Neither the anvils nor the items are easy to come by, making these things precious.

You can save anytime except in combat. Eighteen slots are available for “named” saves, along with one for quicksave and another for autosave, done when you cross boundaries. Restoring can be done even in combat, handy for times when you’re in over your head.

The automapGeneforge 4 is structured around the usual “linear path with side quests” model. Certain things must be done to advance, but you can always hold on those while you run off on other errands.

While there are some nuisance (“FedEx”) jobs, most are related one way or another towards helping a faction. And no one will ask you to clean out their cellar. A big plus right there.

What puts a twist on this is that the game does not offer any clear moral choices. You start on the rebel side, but you can also work for the Shapers as a double agent. Or, you could walk the tightrope between the two, doing what you see fit for yourself alone.

And there’s a third faction, the Trakovites, who believe that shaping in and of itself is wrong. They are mostly in the background, hated by both sides which think they’re insane and should be wiped out.

So how you go through the game is at your discretion. You get the rebel perspective, the Shaper point of the view, the refugees’ opinions, and the Trakovite’s convictions. From that, you decide who is right.

In some ways, that’s a bit of fluff. How you act in the game really affects only you and your relations with each side; nothing actually changes because you decided to do this for the rebels or that for the Shapers.

The crucial moment comes at the very end, in Northforge Citadel, when the power to choose the course of the war is literally in your hands. What you do here brings about one of six endings.

There are two each for rebels, Shapers, and Trakovites. The rebel and Shaper conclusions are modified by certain actions you take (or don’t take) during the game. The Trakovite finales are modified only by your actions at the very end.

All I will say about these endings is don’t expect cheering crowds. This isn’t a “Kill Foozle and save the world” jaunt. It’s about war, and war is a grim business.

The game played cleanly. No crashes, glitches, or weird happenings occurred, and this was with the PC v1.0 release. These days, that’s something of a marvel. Imagine, a game fully playable without a patch!

Which is not to say it’s perfect. For one thing, I’d liked to have seen some results for helping one side or another beyond just the effects on my relations with the factions. It would have made various choices, in some cases, more difficult from the moral perspective, and that’s what GF4 is all about.

Stealth is mainly tip-toeing out of enemy awareness range before you’re noticed. There are several items that give a bonus to this, but there is no stealth skill, a serious omission. It certainly ought to have been included among the general skills. Players who want to sneak around thus have a harder time than they should.

Inventory screenInventory seems generous, but isn’t. By the time you’ve stuffed living tools, pods and sporebags (simulate magic effects), magic charms, and a couple other things in your pack, there’s often not room enough to pick up new items, or only a few. With no stash available, you have to run to some friendly camp and stick items in a barrel or closet or somesuch, and hope you remember where you put what. A better method is needed here.

In the unfairness department, enemy Shapers can make creations during combat, but you can’t. This does not happen often, but still, it’s an extra advantage for the opponents they shouldn’t have.

On the other hand, this is not a big-budget production from a major studio, but a game from a small indie developer. The credits list three – just three – people who worked on GF4, not counting beta-testers. So there’s no reason to quibble much here, and I’ll leave it at that.

Overall, Geneforge 4 is of the old-school tradition with some nice touches. I especially appreciated the absence of “alignment”, of “these are the good guys, those are the bad guys”, allowing you to choose for yourself in this regard. And I loved having turn-based combat again. It was also nice to see dialogue (no voice-overs) that wasn’t silly.

You can try GF4 for yourself. The “demo” is actually the full game, with about the first quarter open to play; after that, you have to buy to continue. That is more than enough for you to decide if you like it or not. At a mere 25 meg (tiny these days!), it’s worth the download time.

While not a “blockbuster”, Geneforge 4 is a pleasant (and inexpensive) alternative to the glut of “action/RPGs” on the shelves these days. For this relief, much thanks.miniscorp