Being the classic example of former college/university student become the chronically unemployed, my entertainment dollar aims for the frugal. Keep your fancy blockbusters; keep your games that require a degree in computer rocket science to create, a 3D card outfitted with a space shuttle's heat sink to render, but have all the gaming intellectual depth of an inanimate carbon rod; I'm just a purist gamer who desires quality games on the cheap.
My latest acquisition is Spiderweb's Software's Geneforge series off of Steam for a price of $20 for five games. With about 400 hours of play between them, it's a price that's both encouraged me to try to complete all five games in a row and also encouraged a surprising number of Lets Play videos throughout the Internet. I've spoken before about playing Geneforge 4 (you know, before it was cool). Now, I have a chance to play them all and see what I think of how the series has progressed. So far, one down, one being worked on, and three more to go.
Explaining the merit of Spiderweb Software roleplaying games is surprisingly difficult. They don't have the technical merit of a blockbuster game, nor are they stunningly deep, so what's the big deal? Perhaps the best I can do is relate the situation as best I understand it.
(I think this Malkasphia fellow explains Geneforge 1 most painstakingly in his Lets Plays.)Spiderweb Software is an indy game company that keeps afloat by making old school isometric PC RPGs. Not to be confused with old school console RPGs, or you'd be expecting a bastardized Final Fantasy menu interface, but PC read as "personal computer," not specifically an "IBM clone." Nor to be confused with non-isometric old school PC RPGs, or you'd be expecting a quasi-3D game along the vein of the Wizardry or Might and Magic series. Nor to be confused with extremely old school top-down PC RPGs such as Ultima or Questron. Perhaps the closest mainstream example would be Baldur's Gate or Dragon Age. However, Spiderweb Software RPGs still vary in that the combat is turn-based and the budget is considerably smaller.
Put in basic terms of gameplay, Spiderweb Software RPGs have appeal in that they possess turn-based combat in which you are in more or less complete control of your moves (contrary to what happens in real time affairs). Yet, outside of combat, you have the freedom of a real time system in how you can move about, visit foreign lands and villages, meet interesting people, steal precious unmentionables from their dressers when they're not looking, and consider whether you should be killing them.
Aside from Geneforge, Spiderweb Software has other three series: Exile, Avernum, and Avadon. They're basically all remakes of the same idea of a great underground land made up of people thrown down there from the oppressive surface government. Whether the name of that subterranean realm is Exile, Avernum, or Avadon depends on which game you are playing, but the story is the same in that you're essentially looking to escape, support the underground rebels, or support the overworld government. It's a great story and I can't really begrudge Jeff Vogal (head of Spiderweb Software) and company from remaking bigger and better for newer hardware. (There's also a series called Nethergate Resurrection, which attempts to harken to real civilization lore, but I've no idea what merit that has.)
Geneforge stands out in that it is instead centered on the idea of magic that can shape life itself and how to deal with the problem when that life stands up and asks you for its rights. Do you be a really nice guy and tell your creations they deserve respect? Do you put your foot down and tell them to stop this silly talk of freedom and get back under your iron yoke before they run amok and screw up the natural order? It's Bicentennial Man, but magical, organic, and played from the role of someone who can call the shot. Depending on which Geneforge you play, you may start out as a Shaper or a Rebel, but you'll always have the option of siding with groups of NPCs representing either philosophy, neither philosophy, or something else entirely. While gaming the system and milking all the factions of their hospitality is often possible, it's also the case that you will likely need to do multiple playthroughs to meet all the NPCs versus being enemies with them, granting quite a bit of replayability.
"It's Bicentennial Man, but magical, organic, and played from the role of someone who can call the shot."Another moral issue is the presence of "canisters" which grant you additional power when used but also bend your mind, which is something that may come back to haunt you when you reach the ending. With each canister absorbed making you imperceptibly more megalomaniacal, but your own survival in peril, do you seek the power of canisters out or avoid them? How many can you absorb before going over the edge? These kind of moral quandaries are part of what makes the Geneforge series an interesting experience; despite lacking the graphical firepower of a major game development house, the Geneforge series at least has a highly original backdrop in which there's no such thing as an elf but you will discover what a vlish is.
Also novel is the idea that you are able to create your own party on the fly using "shaping." Your party is mostly just you, the Shaper, and whatever creations you dedicate investing your essence in. If you lose one of your creations, you can recover your essence and recreate them. True, if you keep the same creation alive during the majority of the game, it should have gained quite a bit of power, but this is often not that different than just recreating a better one later with your presumably higher level Shaper. Alternately (and is often the case with the "Agent" or "Guardian" class play styles) you can choose to go without creation support at all and just try to solo all your enemies with sword, ranged attack, and/or spell.
Whether or not you can appreciate turn-based old school RPG gameplay will vary from person to person, but I can recommend giving the Geneforge series a try with the generously-offered demos for each game. Be forewarned that they range in vintage from Geneforge 1 (2002) to Geneforge 5 (2009) and you can expect a bit of refinement to have occurred between each. The single most annoying problem I've had in Geneforge 1 is an issue reported by some others with 64-bit operating systems: whenever flavor text is visible, the mouse becomes highly erratic and somewhat unresponsive. The issue is still present in Geneforge 2, albeit perhaps at a slightly diminished degree. The only workaround I've found that works was restarting the game whenever this became a significant problem, which temporarily alleviates the problem. Though it does not take long to restart these small indy games, it still speaks well for them that I am willing to tolerate this inconvenience. I take solace in knowing that later Geneforges (4 and 5) should not have this issue, but this is not to assume incompatibilities with everyones' PCs are impossible.