I contacted the developers at Balcony Team about writing a review for their new game Balrum, and they provided me with a Steam key to write this article.
Not-so Turn-based Combat
I purposefully went into playing this game without doing any previous research, I didn’t want anyone else to warp my first impression about the game before playing it for myself — I know, this may seem backwards for a review, but sometimes you get a negative idea in your head and you go into it looking for flaws.
So I jumped right in to learn how to play. When I first started the game I died within about ten minutes. I quickly realized this wasn’t going to be like most other RPG games that hold your hand, and it didn’t disappoint as I continued on. There is no real tutorial in this game and it REALLY doesn’t hold your hand, but in a way, everything is rather clear with what you have to do or where you have to go. There is logic involved in Balrum’s world, so if you just take a few seconds to think your actions through, you can normally figure out how to play on your own.
Balrum is a single player, isometric open world RPG, with a semi-real time, turn-based combat system. That sounds like a contradiction, so let’s start there and talk about how that works. There is no magical combat zone you teleport to when you enter combat, it all happens on the world map, which then triggers the turn-based combat system. The turns however move as fast as you can make decisions, and sometimes all of your allies and enemies can move around quiet fast, so in a way it can still feel like a real-time combat system when things get really hectic and a lot is going on. As long as you don’t attack or move around, all of the enemies will be frozen in place.
The dialogue box in the bottom left corner displays all the actions taking place, such as which combat turn you are currently on, and how much damage is dealt out per attack. Combat can happen any and everywhere if you encounter a hostile enemy, and they can even follow you back to the main village if you aren’t careful. You can also press the G key on your keyboard to bring up the tactical grid which allows you to see the spaces on the ground that you can walk to. This helps with certain combat actions like setting down traps and luring enemies into them. If you manage to avoid taking or dealing out damage for several turns then the turn-based combat will end and you will return back to real time mode. It took me a little while to get used to how combat operates, but after I mastered it I found it to be a really clever and well put together system.
Even the wildlife attacks you in a logical way, so you won’t have deer, frogs, and birds attacking you. But if you come across giant spiders, bears, a pack of wolves, or something a bit more supernatural, you can expect them to initiate combat. If you kill one of these creatures you will be rewarded with either raw meat, animal hide, or other items that you can use to sell or craft items with. Just like most other roleplaying games, you will also have special attack skills and abilities, as well as magic spells to assist you in various ways in combat, which now brings us to how to build classes.
Story and character creation
Balrum’s story is quite mysterious and surrounds the Darkwood Forest, which is where majority of the game takes place. You play as a young man talented in various abilities, but he doesn’t seem to have a name. In fact, you don’t even choose a name, everyone refers to him as either son, young man, boy, or something else on that line to never directly say the protagonist’s name.
At the start of the game they run you through the past history of Darkwood Forest, they then take you to the character creation screen where the main character tells a bit about himself, and you fill in the gaps in his story by choosing your preference between life skill options — such as, practicing swordplay on his free time or going out hunting with a bow.
These options will help to shape your character when you start the game and which skills you will have at the beginning. This is actually quite important, because leveling up and unlocking more skills is quite the challenge, so you will need to choose your skills wisely.
Additional Gameplay Elements
Balrum doesn’t actually have a class system, once you are in game you have to find and talk to trainers that are masters of their craft to teach you new skills or upgrade your stats. You will quickly find that mastering everything will be extremely difficult, so it is better to focus on a specific build and just stick with it when you start. I went with an Archer Thief build, so in a way you could compare the character class system to something you might see in the Elder Scrolls series.
You will be able to farm, cook food, build your own house, craft your own armor and weapons, pick locks and sneak around, learn alchemy, tame wild animals to be your pets, and more. There is even a hunger and thirst system in place so you have to stay well fed and avoid dehydration to stay healthy. This gives the crafting system more of a purpose and importance as you cook fancy dinners, make your own beer, or farm for food to help you survive; as an additional bonus, the food also gives you bonus stats to help you in combat.
Balrum is like a fantasy medieval version of Project Zomboid, but with an actual story. I found that just adventuring out in the woods and hunting for food, building a tent and camp fire, and exploring everything the world had to offer without following the story was a blast on its own. I had close to ten hours of game time and was still only on the first chapter of the game, so there is a ton of content here.
Running around stealing from your fellow villagers is also similar to Elder Scrolls, so if you get caught you can expect the villagers to chase after you and attempt to seek vengeance. Balrum also barrows a few elements from Thief, so there are a few special items to extinguish torches to lower your visibility, as well as locks that need to be picked so that you can find special rare loot. Yes, there is a visibility meter that determines if you can be seen, as well as a day and night system, and a weather system that can also affect your stats and visibility. If you travel in the dead of night it will almost be impossible to see and navigate the forest, but it can also have its benefits as well.
Another really cool feature that Balrum has is traps! Can we all just take a moment in silence to realize how underrated traps are in RPGs now days? There are both wall traps, as well as various floor traps that can kill you in multiple ways if you aren’t careful, so adventuring dungeons has another dynamic to make playing a thief type rather fun. You can disarm the traps, but sometimes it takes a clever mind and a bit of puzzle solving to get around them. My poor puppy didn’t see the wall trap and walked in front of it. Rest in peace puppy…
All of the sub-gameplay elements such as farming, crafting, and surviving is very well done. Staying at your special “safe place” homestead could have been a game in itself where you raise livestock, farm, and build up your own house in anyway you like. You start off with nothing but a few supplies to get you going, and from there you cut down trees, mine for ore, and build up your land until you have a real house.
The building process is similar to The Sims games, you are given several different floor, wall, and item types to choose from, and then you need the tools and materials to put it altogether. From there, it is just a matter of point and clicking to make your dream house come to life.
They have added a lot of detail to these systems, so it makes choosing a profession quite fun. I took the time to even test out how to tame animals and I had a blast. The game starts you with your own doggy, but I decided to tame another wild wolf just for the heck of it to see how it worked. You can give your pets commands to move to a specific location, whistle to call them closer, rename your pet, and give it special commands to use abilities to help you out in combat.
The only real problem I had with the pet system was that sometimes my pet would run away and get lost for hours. At first I thought my pet wolf died, but nope, I would walk past a random tree and out would run my wolf. It appears that for no reason they get stuck, and when they can no longer follow you they just give up and stand there until they are able to teleport closer to you, which is normally triggered by a loading screen.
Controls, Graphics and Sound
The controls in Balrum can be fully customized for the most part, but you will still require a mouse and keyboard (I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have controller support, and that would be quite difficult anyways). If you have ever played any type of online RPG game then you will be familiar with the quick key setup. I opens your inventory, J is for your journal, M is for your map, etc.
You can choose to navigate by either using the WASD keys, clicking with the left mouse to move a short distance and interact with the world, or right click to travel slightly longer distance to auto-walk to a certain location. The auto-walk function however is limited to your field of vision and also when you are outside of combat. So even if they let you, you can’t auto-walk from one end of the map to the other, he would never make it.
The reason is because there are a lot of obstacles ranging from bushes, to trees, to mountains, and of course monsters. Even when manually walking I found that I would get stuck on random bushes at times and couldn’t find my way around them. This can especially be annoying in combat as you get cornered by a giant vicious level 2 spider that constantly keeps paralyzing you and pins you up against a tiny bush that you can’t walk through or go around. I was thinking “Seriously dude, you are about to die to a giant spider, just crawl through the tiny pointy bushes…”
Walking through a thick forest is dreadful because it is full of scenarios that I just named in the above example. Since you also can’t pass through other enemies or objects, bumping into things will happen quite often to impede your progress. This can make traveling tedious if a quest requires you to go from one side of the map to the next, and the only thing to help you get there is a speed potion.
The music and sound effects are mediocre. I wouldn’t say it is the type of soundtrack that you would go out and pay $20 for, or even $5, but it matches the game and helps to set the tone for the most part. The sound effects are a bit weird. Picking herbs from the trees makings a cloth tearing sound, the main character sounds like a forty year old man when he gets hurt, and weapons and damage makes a generic THWAK like sound. Does it break the game? Not really, because it feels like something you may have played back in 1999, so in a way it is giving off classic gaming retro vibes without going full cliché retro (odd how being a retro game is now becoming a cliché).
You can also choose to zoom the camera in and out, but I highly recommend you don’t do that, because the digitized pixels will murder your eyes. Graphically, Balrum looks very similar to the original Diablo. However, I never actually played the original Diablo so I can’t compare them too much. Armor and weapons do show up in game, but there are only very minor variations in armor and weapons choices, so for the most part everything is quite basic, even when it comes to animations.
One thing I also would like to point out is that the options menu has a Colorblind mode option. As a person that suffers from Red/Green (deuteranope) colorblindness, this was a genius — and rather considerate, feature to add. It doesn’t change much overall, but certain mouse cursor colors that are normally red or green are changed to more vibrant colors to help you out. Thanks devs for looking out.
Now let’s do a quick rundown of everything I like and don’t like. When it comes to glitches, they are far and few. I had the game screen go black on me and then randomly crash once, but I don’t even know how it happened or why, it was so random that I don’t even know what might have triggered it. Other than the problem of walking through the woods and getting stuck on tiny bushes, the game is actually rather solid.
I did find the story a bit long winded and drawn out. Attempting to get through the first chapter wasn’t very fun or exciting. There is SOOO much reading and dialogue in this game, and a lot of it isn’t very clever or witty, it is just a bunch of words. This can make the main story feel a bit pointless and dull, but there were a few dream sequences that got me curious that reminded me of the Baldur’s Gate series. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say anymore about the story.
The wold map is gigantic! The map design is rather clever, it looks like an old-school hand drawn map, but the four-way crease in the middle of the map (where it looks like the character folded it up) also divides the four parts of the forest and the loading screens, so when you reach that crease in the map it will lead to the next area. You can also click on the map to create your own notes, which encourages you to adventure and discover hidden places or objects that you might want to revisit later in the game.
After I left the village and opened my map to compare where I was and where I needed to go for the first time, it was only then that I realized how massive the map really was. On top of this, there are also underground dungeons for players to explore, so there is literally hundreds of quests and locations to keep most players entertained.
So, for the following I would rate each category from 1 through 10-
Graphics: 6 (it matches the retro RPG style).
The fact that this game is loaded with so much content is what makes it amazing. You can explore, build, craft, tame, fight, and survive without ever following the main story, so that is what intrigues me the most about playing Balrum.
If a player wants to do so, they could play as if Balrum was a Minecraft style survival game, and there would be nothing wrong with that or stopping you from doing so. Furthermore, there are a few quests with multiple choice answers, so you can choose to follow a darker path to mix up gameplay and choices.
Balrum is quite unique and a blast to play. I quickly found myself getting addicted to playing it and exploring everything Darkwood had to offer. Anyone that grew up playing classic Fallout and Diablo would probably eat this game up. In my opinion I think it is well worth the asking price of $14.99 USD. If you like old-school fantasy RPG games (with a heavy focus on Roleplay), tactical combat, large open worlds, adventure, and the freedom to play based on your own playing style and preference, then I highly recommend you check this game out. The initial learning curve might catch you off guard, but if you can stick through it then I think most players would really enjoy this game.