Arcania: Gothic 4 has a tutorial. That's kind of a big statement from the new developers of this infamously tough medieval hack-and-slash RPG series. They're giving us time to get a feel for their sprawling world before launching every pointy thing they can at our soft, pulpy faces.
New developers (Spellbound, makers of Desperados 2), new rules. Even so, the foundations are familiar: it's another story of an unnamed hero, his home village razed by the King's warring forces. He journeys across the land, three separate islands this time, picking up quests, perfecting skills, raiding dungeons and heading inexorably towards a showdown with the monarch.
Gothic has always been an open-world RPG that shaped itself around your actions, and Spellbound are following that tradition.
But veterans of the series will notice a softening of the game's attitude toward the player. Is that a minimap? Are those quest markers? They are. Arcania is a big place, where you'll be battling intensely. Necessary help now adorns every facet, and although it can be toggled off to return the game to something akin to the nasty Gothic attitude of old, Gothic 4 will never be as challenging as its forbears.
The combat is pacier and it's easier to adapt to whatever situation you find yourself in. Your hero's abilities range from melee to magic – all highly tweakable with a skill-tree that allows points to be distributed along lots of branches rather than locking him into a specific path. The nuts and bolts of skeleton-whacking remain pleasingly direct, the meatless bone-hags crumbling under your mighty sword blows, and there's a lock-on system that'll target the nearest enemy. Your choice of weapons defines how you'll fight: stats, sizes and weights change your movement speed, and some creatures and enemies will be immune to certain assaults. Their attack patterns are all unique, giving you cause to explore the potential of your character's powers. Merely spamming the hit button won't do when you're face-to-knee with a troll, but using the in-game combo marker that causes your sword to glow at the right time will see the giant sliced down to size.
Plucking the game from the arms of another developer, one so in tune with the niche audience they're creating Arcania for, hasn't stopped Spellbound from taking some bold steps towards a more playable game. It's been a good while since a hack-and-slash RPG made much a of splash, and the previous Gothic games were always too difficult to engender much support beyond the fanbase. Spellbound's tweaks to the formula risk offending that loyal following, but they're the right thing to do.
Edit: updated release date.