The Champions of Norrath: A Hack n’ Slash Masterwork

Developed by Snowblind Studios, and released in North America on February 10, 2004, The Champions of Norrath is a standout title in the Playstation 2’s library. A third person action-adventure title, Norrath symbolized the amalgamation of the PC gaming culture with the console gaming community. With lore that runs as deep as the dwarven mountains, the game preceded the rise of future dungeon crawlers in the console market and is light years ahead of its competitors at the time. Everything from the grandiose storyline told in five chapters, to the solid online connectivity that allowed players to venture with up to four other heroes, Norrath expanded upon everything that the Baldurs Gate franchise had achieved on the sixth generation console war.

Director Chris Avellone, known for his work in the comic book medium, scripted a title that is both monumental in scope and hits on the tropes established by many of its fantasy forebearers. The score itself is bombastic and evokes a cinematic feel that melds the video game and film mediums into a final product that still holds up till today in the modern video game market. Although it is not the most popular game on the PS 2, fantasy lovers and adventure fanboys alike will do well in picking up this gem of a hack n’ slash RPG. 

The Gameplay

Following in the steps of other Snowblind Studios productions, Norrath is an isometric dungeon crawler that incorporates melee and magic in an episodic adventure. From the start, players can choose from a variety of races ranging from the simplistic Barbarian Warriors to the magic-wielding Erudite Wizards. Each champion class is unique in their abilities and such nuances really affect the outcome of the gameplay. For example, the Woodland Elves are known for their vision and use of archery. Such long-distance ranged combat makes it markedly easier when teaming up with a more melee based player that brings variation through contrasting fighting styles.  The writing of this game is top notch, as Avellone utilizes an episodic storybook framing system that breaks the exposition of the plot in five chapters. Beginning with aiding the elves against the incoming orc hordes, the story then branches off into different plots and subplots as each chapter unfolds. An amazing way to bookend a storyline that normally when handled in other genres can become too expansive and incomprehensible. Norrath avoids such pitfalls in fantasy tropes by focusing the plot on succinct linear exposition that thins out the grandiosity a bit. Whereas other RPG titles center on open world epics, for example, Skyrim, Norrath strives for a more derivative combat based grind fest that is at times mundane but mostly intensive. Furthermore, Snowblind studios utilize a fast travel mechanic that allows players to use Gate Scrolls that transport them to nearby shops and save points. This softening of the difficulty is a  great tool for bringing together newcomers and seasoned RPG players alike in a way not seen on console dungeon crawlers. These Gate Scrolls did away with the frustration of having to find save points while venturing deep into dungeons. With Norrath, players can adventure for as along and deep as they want without fear of death which gives the game’s world an almost open-ended experience. 

The Dawn of Online Gaming For Consoles

But all these design choices would mean nothing if Snowblind Studios did not focus on the online multiplayer aspects of Norrath. Whether adventuring alone or with an online companion, the game provides an expansive multiplayer experience that enables you to import your single player save states into the online adventure mode. Truly remarkable for a console back in 2004. This freedom in cross character leveling made offline and online champions classes one and the same which instilled a greater attachment to one’s choice of race. If one builds an Elf Cleric character offline by scratch, they can still use that champion character while venturing into the greater world of Norrath and not lose a single experience point. This not only helped to facilitate the leveling up of your character but also instills in the player a sense of community that transcends the limited scale of the adventure. Players can join a quest at any time during the campaign with their offline creations. Such an easy drop in-drop out adventure system helped to further facilitate the new defunct online co-op mode of Norrath. 

The Simple Touches Make Champions of Norrath A Standout PS2 Title

Even with all the expansive aspects of online gaming and the variations in races, Champions of Norrath is great simply because of the world its designers bring to life over the course of its five act journey. The land of Norrath is marked by a plethora of varying landscapes from the dark caves of the orcs to the high mountains of dwarves. Each act follows a patch of land that is unique and never repeats in the following segments. The production values are top notch in this aspect, and no two pieces of terrain look the same. Each race is markedly different as the lands they inhabit. Dwarves, Elves, Barbarians, and Wizards look and play completely different from one another to a degree that is game altering. No two character choices play exactly alike if one wants a long distance fighter they go with the bow-wielding Wood Elf Ranger class. For a more traditional sword and shield battle, players are best to go with the Barbarian Warrior race. No two races can branch off too far from their preset statistics. This may seem restrictive at first but eventually one sees how this limitation actually increases the importance of your character class choice. Such design choices enhance rather than inhibit the overall experience of the game and brings new life to a world that is meant to be an offshoot to the Everquest series.

A Classic

From its five champion races to choose from, brilliant world design, expansive online multiplayer, and in-depth leveling up system, the land of Norrath is a wonder to behold 15 years on. Even though the online servers have been discontinued, Snowblind Studios still put enough content into the final product to warrant an offline romp through the gilded fields of the barbarian homelands. Not a single piece of the game’s world is mundane in its appearance rendering a sense of scale in the Hack n’ Slash subgenre not seen on the console market before. The camera positioning is spot on as well, furthering the expansionism of the dungeon crawler experience in Norrath. Instead of utilizing a fixed camera perspective with prerendered backgrounds like in most other RPGs at the time, Norrath allows for a full 360-degree camera movement. Such freedom in camera positioning enables the player to interact with the world and landscapes around you to a degree not seen in other console RPGs during that era. Such touches in production features are simply brilliant to behold and makes this the title to own on the PS2. Champions of Norrath excels in every aspect that makes the role-playing experience such an attractive genre. Even the voice acting is epic in scope and never gut-wrenchingly stale. The dialogue has the pathos of a Tolkien novel with the straight edge combat of an R.A. Salvatore D&D novella.  The exposition and the means by which it unfolds is given top priority by Avellone and his team of writers. All this on a console that housed a 150 MHz graphics synthesizer is astonishing to behold. In the end, Champions of Norrath epitomizes the notion that video games are an art form comparable to that of other mediums such as film or literature. In fact, Snowblind Studios combined such varying mediums into a product that stands the test of time.  

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About Anthony Frisina 65 Articles
Anthony Frisina is a graduate of the City University of New York-Brooklyn College with a BA in Political Science with a minor in Psychology. After finishing his undergraduate degree, Anthony went on to attend Brooklyn College's Film Academy and Writer's workshop program, achieving an interdisciplinary degree in Screenwriting and Film theory in the Fine Arts. Transforming his love for classic American cinema, Anthony went on to adapt a number of his own works into different mediums, including his well-received Western novel The Regulator. Anthony likes to spend his free time writing articles for magazines and periodicals that cover a wide range of topics, from science fiction to popular culture. As a screenwriter, Anthony has had his screenplays featured at numerous spec script writing competitions across the country where he one day hopes to write the next great American film.

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