Elminage Original harks back to the early days of dungeon crawlers. It's an RPG that revels in simplicity, yet cloaks it in a shroud of ill-explained character classes and nonlinear progression. It very much looks and feels like its 80s and 90s ancestors, such as the Wizardry series and early Dragon Quests. It imitates the challenge of said classics, too – but once you get to grips with the game, it proves to be a decent adventure for fans of the genre.
The release makes exploration simple. Instead of trekking to and through towns, cities, forests, and plains, you'll instead navigate by using a text menu or by selecting a location on the world map. You'll then be whisked away to these destinations, underlined by a change in the static background art and a new menu for that scene. From here, you'll be able visit taverns to recruit party members and find jobs, inns to rest up, stores to purchase items and equipment, temples to heal ailments or resurrect the dead, and castles to talk with royalty. Once you're ready for an adventure, you can select a dungeon from the world map, and roam through it from a first-person viewpoint, slaying the many monsters that dwell inside it using turn-based combat.
It's a simple concept, and a design that cuts out a lot of the downtime in order to allow for more dungeon crawling. Unfortunately, it's not the most intuitive title at first. Within moments of starting your adventure, you'll be thrust into a text menu with a static city background and little idea of what to do next. It's your job to recruit a party and speak to the king to trigger a quest to the only dungeon currently on the map, where you must search out a special ring and prove that you've recruited a formidable enough party to take on the far grander adventure of saving the world.
Once you've passed this test and acquired the ring, everything's much clearer and easier to fathom, but the 'no hand holding' approach is a significant barrier early on. Additionally, the sheer scale of hireable characters makes recruiting help a confusing task, and will leave you adopting a trial and error approach. This is also the case when equipping new armour and weapons, with the game failing to offer feedback on who can use specific pieces of kit. As a consequence, you'll find yourself moving equipment around until you've tried it on everyone in your party. You'll get a feel for the game eventually if you persist, but the complicated nature of the experience is likely to deter more casual players very quickly.
When in dungeons, the visuals are very basic – but nostalgically so. You must explore one step at time, and this invokes the sense of trepidation that you'd probably experience in real life when exploring such dangerous environments. As you investigate, your map will be filled in, marking the locations of items of interest, secret passages that you've uncovered, and traps that you've found. Hand drawn, static images of monsters, all shapes and sizes, will represent your foes in battle, with only the swipe of your weapon or the odd visual effect incorporated to animate the experience. It's old school through and through, with all of the charm and frustrations intact.
The narrative eventually opens up, depicting a group of dark priestesses who are attempting to bring down a barrier between two worlds to bring forth a great darkness. You and your party must find five rings to stop the sorceresses, but you must first make a name for yourself. It's up to you to visit towns and find quests to raise your fame and eventually uncover the aforementioned rings. Unfortunately, this nonlinear design does lead to unfocused progression, and with all of the dungeons open at once, it's very easy to stumble into an area that you're not ready for, where you'll almost certainly meet a gruesome fate.
Elminage Original's classic design certainly offers an alternative to more modern dungeon crawlers, but its inability to explain even the simplest of mechanics make it a difficult game to get into. If you've got fond memories of classic RPG titles, then this offers a reasonable way to revisit that nostalgia. It is, however, a title that can only truly be recommended to a very small niche.