Lowlander is the first game to come out of Flat Black Games, a promising one-man indie developer with a love for old-school CRPGs. What do we mean by old-school? Well whereas most developers tend to use Ultima IV as a yard-stick for the start of their roleplaying experiences, Lowlander pays tribute to the significantly earlier Ultima II, the central part of the original Ultima Trilogy.
The Lowlander games are very much a case of not judging a book by its cover. In this case one could look at the simple graphics and assume that there’s not much going on below the hood of the title. They would be wrong. Flat Black Games has indeed taken the time to reference the early days of the CRPG, but they also have a very solid and surprisingly modern system in place to drive the title and make the experience enjoyable for a new generation of gamers. In short, the game may look and establish the values of an old game, but it feels nothing like struggling against the antiquated systems of these beloved titles. It’s never been verified, but it’s believed that the founding father of the modern RPG, and creator of the Ultima series gave this title his personal nod of approval at launch.
Graphically the game isn’t going to set the mobile market on fire. Black and white sprites stand out against primary coloured backgrounds in a relatively faithful rendition of Apple II desktop graphical capabilities. This does breed a certain lack of visual interest, but it also allows good design in terms of dungeon and town layout to shine through. Flat Black Games doesn’t have a lot to work with graphically here, but it makes every asset work its hardest in order to breed a living, interactive world for the player to explore.
Musically the game uses a series of chip-tunes that give the title a good sense of pace and speed, even when gameplay has been reduced to grinding for levels. The world map and title screen music in particular stand out as well composed and look smoothly. Sound effects as a little muted, but compliment the gameplay throughout. It’s telling that the repetitive nature of the walking effect never grates on the player, which is usually the case when one sound is used on a loop.
Whilst there is a central narrative to this title, it’s essentially a thinly-covered series of ‘go here to do that’ point-to-point excuses to explore a sprawling map and to drive exploration forward. This is at its most evident when the game opens outside of a castle (a-la the original ‘Final Fantasy’ and many other titles) and the king greets you with a swift ‘hey dude, fancy a quest?’ approach. Before long you’re off in search of a Bard and the game begins to roll into a steady pace of story droplets and gameplay. Is it original? No, not really. Is it a lot of fun? Yes, yes it is. There’s competent writing on display here and a wary sense of satire that sends up the same genre it’s playing tribute too.
Gameplay is split across two halves of the screen, with the top half containing your graphical display and the lower half having the direction keys, fight icon and menus. Usually this kind of graphical split would irritate my design sensibilities, but here it seems to fit quite naturally and feels very easy when playing one-handed on the move. The entire world is on a grid, on which you can walk in the four cardinal directions (though some monsters can attack in diagonals!) and uses a turn based system where monsters move as you do. You can explore towns, the world map and dungeons, revealing it as you go to slowly uncover the whole map, and doing so will quickly bring to your attention the game’s biggest genre-throwback. Like a RogueLike, there’s a hunger mechanic that requires you to buy food and stock up on items in case you’re caught hungry, at which point you’ll start taking damage. This adds a lot to the early portions of the title, giving it an exploration/survival feel (indeed, those who go the wrong way from the castle may not discover the game’s first town and perish early) that is refreshing in the mobile market. Combat is as simple as tapping fight and the direction you want to attack, and spells work in a similar fashion by tapping the casting button and selecting a suitable spell for the occasion. It’s a robust system that plays quickly and feels suited for playing on the go. Levelling will at first take work, but like other old-school titles you’ll hit a rhythm and soon be ploughing through enemies, both on the world map and in dungeons.
Overall, there’s a lot to love about Lowlander, especially at a low price point for so much content. It’s file size is small for such an epic journey and it can sit happily on your phone without eating up space, and won’t drain your battery too harshly over long sessions. The game can feel slightly slow at time, as if loading too much of the map causes a moments lag, but it quickly passes, and the games overall progression is well paced. We recommend purchasing this title whilst waiting for the arrival of the upcoming Lowlander II: Lowerlander, which promises to be a real treat for 2017. The two games are chronologically linked narratively, making them excellent back-to-back experiences.