Smiling Dragon RPG studios - Tested on Steam in 2019
Review thanks to a free Steam key from the developers.
A few weeks ago, I received a very friendly mail in my inbox - from Smiling Dragon RPG studios, along with a free Steam Key to test their game, Heroes of Shaola. This is the review of this game.
The synopsis is quite intriguing - there are several political parties fighting for more power. There is a mighty nation in the center of the story with several lands dependent on that country. In the world of Shaola, a new country has developed powerful firearms which are a threat to other underdeveloped nations - only a huge desert between this aspiring country and other nations helped to prevent further conflict up until now.
Heroes of Shaola promises to be a classic RPG that plays like a JRPG, looks like a classic western RPG and even has some gameplay elements from 2D Zelda games. And indeed, the game keeps its promise. It looks a lot like old RPGs, is presented from a top down view and bears some resemblance to both Suikoden and Phantasy Star III alike. The rendered avatars of the characters look pretty nice, the menu is easy to use and the music is just great to listen to!
So is this another story of a great indy RPG that is still under the radar but will become famous at some point?
To be honest, I'm not so sure.
When I first started the game, I noticed it runs "strange". The game window (which is very small) could not be resized and the full screen mode changes the resolution of the monitor - which turned out to be a zoomed mess on my screen. I have an app that forcibly resizes windows which helped a little, but ended up being a quite pixelated experience.
But of course that's no reason to dislike a game, and I had lots of fun getting in touch with the game's hero, Leonardo, the quite likeable sidecast and believable foes. Yet, while playing, I thought something was a bit off.
For one, there is this really great soundtrack. There are various battle themes, all done in different styles, and everyone could be the single battle theme of a full fledged RPGs. I have some experience with once unknown RPGs that have really great soundtracks (Evoland 2 or Undertale), but this one was outstanding. So I checked out the files and documentation of Shaola.
The music folder from Shaola consists of royalty-free music that is available in some RPG Maker forums. It's a great soundtrack that you get for your buck, but it's not an original one. Same goes for the avatars and character portraits. The game uses assets from Pioneer Valley Games (PVG), a small company that provides renderings and character sprites and assets for RPG Maker.
The battle system was done with RPGMaker scripts as well. Long story short: Shaola is a RPG Maker game. This is not a bad thing, and given the price point of around four dollars, it's absolutely okay to not create a game engine from scratch.
In the end, however, this makes the creative effort behind Shaola a bit shallow. Key art from key characters can be found in "Free character packs" from PVG in the Steam Workshop community. The music is great but not really made for this game.
So what really makes up this game is its script, the customizing in battle system and gameplay elements. The script, as written above, is pretty good, and the political intrigues are well worked out. A downside here is lots of spelling and grammar mistakes, especially at the beginning of the game - this gets a bit better later on, though.
Battles are classical turn based battles and pretty good balanced, but they tend to be a bit long. The Zelda Elements (bombing walls, jumping with items) are okay, but not as good integrated as one might hope. Players can stand in front of a bush and hit it, but the characters do not show any sign of swinging a weapon, there's only a short animation and then the bush vanishes.
The game is very fair and tries to be not frustrating. Enemies can be seen on the screen (which has some resemblance to Lunar) and there is lots of story going on at all times. The scenery is nicely put together.
It's really clear to see that the developers put lots of love into that game and tried to think about presenting a logical, well worked out story.