Originally designed for a primitive Nokia cell phone, Gurk, the 8-bit RPG was a minor hit when it was ported to Android devices as a free app in 2011. Larva Labs, the devs behind the port, wisely decided to bring the nostalgia-hungry masses their second and third helping of throwback RPG bliss, and I’m happy to report that the latest installment, Gurk III, carries the retro torch of its predecessor without stumbling. Designing a whole new adventure with the same engine, Larva Labs managed the impressive feat of retaining the best parts of the original without coming off uninspired in the slightest.
For those unfamiliar with Gurk, the gameplay can be described as a stripped-down RPG in the style of the earliest Final Fantasy games. You travel square-by-square over land and sea, through town and dungeon, questing your way up the monster hierarchy. Random enemy encounters interrupt your travel from time to time with some well-designed turn-based tactical combat.
There are no swipe controls or anything that capitalizes on the touchscreen’s functionality, just a d-pad arranged with five other buttons for navigating the various menus. The menu system is somewhat clunky as a result, since you’ll be tapping the on-screen buttons a bunch just to equip a new weapon or heal your character instead of tapping whatever it is you want. Worse, half the screen is taken up by these controls, which can prove especially irritating on smaller devices.
As far as differences: the first thing to notice is the new character creation portion for your archer, mage, and warrior, with randomized stat “rolling” and three archetypes to choose from for each hero (a mild incentive for multiple playthroughs). While Gurk III doesn’t completely overhaul the gameplay of the original, it does a good job of refining and expanding it in this manner. There’s just a lot more game here. The designers also managed to make every environment and enemy type remarkably distinct despite the limitations of the engine, so you’ll be facing off against all sorts of D&D-inspired enemies, from goblins and kobolds to mindflayers and liches, in all manner of fantasy biome.
Aside from the new 8-bit GUI, Gurk and Gurk III are nearly indistinguishable when it comes to graphics. As before, there’s barely any animation, and the blocky artwork still demands a healthy dose of imagination to appreciate. Mountains and forests are expressed by hundreds of the same tree and mountain tile drawn onto an overland map, with whole towns or dungeon as a single tile. Individual enemies all use the same sprites, so once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. It bears mentioning that this is all a stylistic choice, so faulting the game for it is a moot point. Musically, there are some great chiptune jams for just about every zone, and the synthesized sound befits the style well. The story-telling isn’t anything fancy, but this is to be expected when all the NPCs say just one thing only. You’re out to kill some big bad and save the kingdom, yadda yadda. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t much paying attention, but I don’t think I missed out. This is an RPG with emphasis on the G.
The combat in particular is a real highlight, something like Final Fantasy Tactics if it were released for NES. Enemies randomly arrange themselves before your party on a square battlefield, and each character can move a space, attack, pass, use an item or cast a spell once per turn (until later levels when better gear and spells allow for multiple moves). There’s some chess-like long-term thinking involved despite using such a basic system, as you learn to expend the least amount of resources for best possible outcome.
It helps that leveling up doesn’t just bump your stats, but provides a boon of new abilities for you to carve a play style out of. Items too sometimes give spells and special effects, so as you find new stuff you’re sometimes forced to choose between higher stats or a more versatile arsenal. Tougher monsters also have surprising abilities and behaviors of their own, and adapting to unfamiliar encounters makes for a challenging and stimulating experience.
The RPG is one of the oldest video game genres still thriving since its earliest incarnations. Yet, it’s easy to forget it took a lot of titles for RPGs to evolve from text-based adventures to truly immersive blockbusters like Skyrim, and a number of these games were awesome. Rogue, Legend of Zelda, Fallout: these are now something like relics to hardcore RPG fans, standing as testament to how amazing games can be despite the limited hardware available. Though released in 2013, Gurk III somehow takes us down one such memory lane, circa 1987; or, if you’re too young to remember anything before the ’90s, functions as a sort of manufactured time capsule. Yet, instead of just ripping off RPGs from the past and calling it a day, it carves out its own spot with compelling gameplay that, in the end, is pure Gurk and nothing else.
Is it Hardcore?
Throwback but original, Gurk III provides hours of dungeon-crawling entertainment for both nostalgic old-timers and neophyte RPG fans alike.