Playing through Gothic Classic on the Nintendo Switch has been a weirdly compelling experience, but I have my doubts it’ll find many fans outside of those who loved the original and are looking for a more accessible way to replay it; or those who enjoyed German developer Piranha Bytes’ recent output and are legitimately curious to see where the developer made their start.
There were the expected feelings of fuzzy nostalgia for a few hours, coupled with an appreciation for simpler times with less opaque systems. However, that positivity was soon balanced out by a healthy dose of frustration thanks to the unforgiving difficulty, dubious scripting, some old bugs, and some new ones.
I want to start with the positives though, as 2001’s Gothic laid the foundations for Piranha Bytes RPGs for decades to come – for better and worse – to the point you can still find plenty of shared DNA with 2022’s ELEX II.
Given their prevalence today, it’s easy to forget that Gothic was one of the earliest fully 3D, third-person, action-RPGs (TESIII: Morrowind’s rubbish third-person view barely qualifies). However, given Piranha Bytes’ apparent love of anachronistic designs, it was controlled almost entirely using a keyboard, with tank controls for movement and both interactions and combat relying on keystrokes combined with directional inputs. It felt archaic then, but that might have made it easier to map the controls to a gamepad.
With each new IP, Piranha Bytes have demonstrated a fondness for thrusting players into dangerous worlds they know little about – both with regard to the setting and gameplay mechanics. That all began with Gothic, where your protagonist – later known as the “nameless hero” – is given a message to deliver to the Fire Mages before being unceremoniously tossed into a mining valley for some undisclosed criminality.
It’s a brisk opening – in gloriously low resolution – that reveals the human Kingdom of Myrtana has been at war with invading Orc tribes for years, and magical ore from the valley is essential to sustaining the war effort. At some point in the past, a magical barrier cast to protect the Valley of Mines went awry, and now living things can pass in, but not out. The trapped-under-the-dome setting has been used in other media for ages, so it should come as no surprise that survivors quickly fragmented into different factions and settled in different locations, each with their own beliefs and ideas about how to get out.
The “Old Camp” guards, aligned with the “Fire Mages”, leverage control of the ore mine to demand considerable tributes from the king to keep supplies flowing. Unsurprisingly, they’re happy to sit in their fort and maintain the status quo, tolerating the Fire Mages who are still searching for an errant member who left to study dark magics and the barrier.
The “New Camp” with its own mine is a chaotic partnership between the “Mercenaries” that protect the “Water Mages” – who intend to blast a hole in the barrier using the magical properties of the ore – and an assortment of lawless rogues and free-folk, all occupying a sprawling cavern.
The swamp-dwelling “Brotherhood”, meanwhile, have discovered the mind-altering powers of smoking swampweed, and now follow “Gurus” who supposedly receive visions from “The Sleeper” – visions that instruct them to wake their sleeping god through an elaborate ritual in the hope of granting them freedom and destroying all infidels.
It’s a lot to take in at first but the structure provides players with three starting factions to join – something essential to progressing the main questline – along with six secondary factions that offer advanced training, access to magic, and future quests. Regardless of who you join, you’ll also soon realise that the primary questline has you work with and against each faction over time, including the stranded Orcs, giving you a taste of all the world has to offer. Given there’s no objectively “good” faction to side with, figuring out who to join at first is a challenge – a design that feels more believable than the binary good vs. evil options that were so common in other RPGs at the time.
That said, the writing is about what you’d expect from what was a predominantly male development scene in Europe circa. 2000. There are aggressive, hyper-masculine male leads; belittling insults, sexist quips, and homophobic slurs in dialogue; and the only female characters are slave tributes, with no function other than to follow around faction leaders or scrub floors in some sort of leather bikini. The one unexpected upside is the uniformly godawful voice acting, which makes the entire experience feel like a deliberate parody in 2023.
When it comes to gameplay, Gothic already felt clunky in 2001 and is one of the earliest examples of “euro-jank”: typically role-playing or sandbox-style games, with a focus on interacting systems and player freedom, often at the expense of technical polish and visual spectacle. Playing Gothic Classic in 2023 – even with a new control method, some visual tweaks, and a long list of quest and bug fixes – only amplifies that sensation.
I can, however, understand why Gothic still has a vocal fan base and I legitimately enjoy Pirahna Bytes’ preference for transparent mechanics and progression systems, as well as their sandbox-like worlds with humans, orcs, and creatures all going about their daily routines waiting for the player to interfere. In 2001, Gothic had NPCs that would chase you out of their homes, use angry greetings if you assaulted or stole from them previously, get hostile if you blocked their route for long enough, and comment on your guild choice or rank – small details that many modern RPGs ignore.
That said, Gothic Classic still has a high barrier to entry. RPGs typically reward those who believe patience is a virtue with an easier experience, but Gothic will simply slaughter you until you understand that being cautious is the only way to play – well, at first. The problem is even once you understand the mechanics, the over-world layout, level up several times, and acquire new gear, there’s no shortage of mechanical and AI jank that will do its best to beat you down.
It’s worth noting up front that Gothic Classic is not particularly complex to control as an action-based RPG. You can awkwardly run, jump, climb, and swim around a relatively small but dense overworld with several discrete dungeons. The melee combat feels most developed, with directional attack variations to chain together combos and mostly useless parry that tough enemies will attack through. Target tracking is always a pain but ranged attacks and offensive magic rely on it the most – a system that’s just as likely to target allies as enemies, assuming you’re not just flinging arrows, bolts, or spells into the terrain due to a height difference.
Even with a faction system and several mutually exclusive questlines, questlines are not as impressive as they sound. Interactions with NPCs are menu-driven sequences that lock you in place, and – irrespective of their narrative significance – quests rarely evolve beyond finding another NPC, traveling somewhere with an NPC, collecting something, delivering something, or killing something. There’s a limited number of gear slots and item types to consider and, for your efforts, combat or quest experience leads to new levels with a small health and mana boost, along with skill-points that are only useful if you find and pay a trainer to improve your attributes or a small selection of skills by one or two proficiency levels.
Gothic’s appeal – for a select few – will be the challenge of performing these basic tasks in an incredibly dangerous world – in any way you can.
RPGs are no stranger to the illogical premise of clearly experienced and well-equipped quest-givers sending low-level, under-equipped players to do their dirty work, but Gothic takes this to the extreme. An early encounter with a hunter warns you to lure creatures away one at a time, but even then you’re likely to be pecked to death a few times by a single scavenger that’ll scream like a dying cockerel over your corpse. Creatures are, however, often the least of your worries, as other humans and orcs – even the lowly peasants of each settlement – will outclass you for half the game. Stun-locking is a core mechanic in Gothic, so whoever lands their blows quickest usually wins.
As a result, progression in Gothic Classic is almost entirely gated by combat encounters. The underlying math is clear enough as there are no dice rolls or opaque modifiers, just your total damage output – a combination of weapon or spell damage and the primary attribute – minus resistances; the problem is a complete lack of balance at times. You might find yourself slowly working through tunnels full of minecrawlers or orc scouts, surviving by the skin of your teeth and chugging back dozens of health items, only to run into a minecrawler queen or orc warrior that a) you can only damage with critical hits, and b) fells you in one or two blows no matter how fancy your armour and magical accessories.
At this point, you have two choices. Start again and min-max your protagonist to stay well ahead of the difficulty curve; or embrace the jank and pray to whatever dark gods control creature AI and pathfinding. You see, in Gothic, you should never question how you got a kill, funded some new gear, or acquired a quest item – just celebrate the achievement.
Maybe you gain the sneak ability and pickpocket an NPC; maybe you pick the lock of their chest while they’re busy with their daytime routine; maybe you just grab it right through a locked gate thanks to poor collision detection; or maybe you transform yourself into a meatbug and just try to rush through. You could defeat a group of orcs one by one in awkward combat, or you could lure them into a group of high-level creatures; get them stuck on the terrain; take a detour while exploring with an immortal NPC to use as a distraction; or perhaps glitch your way up a steep slope and then pepper them with arrows while they jerk about in a T-pose at the bottom (and hope none of them have bows or crossbows). Just remember that if you managed to jump, slide, or glitch your way somewhere unexpected, enemies might do so too.
If it works, it works, and Gothic Classic’s somewhat dubious journal and mission scripting – even after the new patch – is only interested in whether you’ve satisfied several conditions. How you got there is irrelevant and this is obvious given how few immortal characters there are, allowing you to kill off much of the cast and still progress – albeit after paying off grudges or waiting for hostilities to die down.
All of that said, it’s time to move on to the quality of the Nintendo Switch port. Gothic Classic can both thrill you and push you to your limits thanks to its original flaws, but the new control scheme introduces several more.
Again though, want to start with the positives. This is still Gothic in an accessible form; presented in widescreen with updated menus and quick-menus; it looks as good as the base PC version while running with only minor framerate drops in some over-world areas; it’s also mostly stable outside of a few locations prone to crashing. By any modern standard, the visuals, character models, and animations are godawful, but there’s a blocky charm to them so common in that early-3D era, while the use of vibrant colours, some basic weather effects, ambient audio, and traditional fantasy soundtrack all generate a decent amount of atmosphere.
The controls are, on balance, far more intuitive than the original keyboard layout. General exploration, menu navigation, and combat can feel fine much of the time, while there are some much-needed PC-style features like a quick-save and quick-load that you’ll want to use frequently – if only to exploit resetting enemy detection and aggression mid-fight!
The problem is like so many ports of older PC games, emulated gamepad controls often combine multiple inputs that older keyboards could never handle, and developers probably never accounted for. As a result, Gothic Classic is full of moments you can chalk up failure to the controls rather than your skill.
Examples include needing to use your right stick to swing your view to change directions, as the character turns like a truck if you only use the left stick, making it easy to run off cliffs or misdirect a jump to your doom. Switching between melee, ranged weapons, or spells mid-fight is also a nightmare, as trying to use shortcuts while side-stepping or backpedaling simply doesn’t work, often leaving you standing there empty-handed while being slashed, bludgeoned, pecked, or stung to death.
On top of input issues, you have new bugs like the character drawing a bow with no arrows in hand; getting stuck in jerky animations as they try to ready a sword or bow; or sometimes clipping into the terrain and sliding around. Mercifully, most issues can be fixed by saving and reloading, even mid-combat if need be.
Wrapping up, Gothic Classic is, as in its original incarnation, a mix of highs and lows. As a fan of preservation, I’m just happy this release provides a more accessible version of the game that can hopefully form the basis of fresh ports to other platforms, or maybe even a PC version with proper gamepad support. Ultimately, it’s still the same old Gothic in 2023, with both a weirdly compelling gameplay loop and many, many frustrations – just now with a marginally better control scheme that adds its own layer of jank to an already janky game.
If you loved Gothic and want to replay it on the go, or if you enjoyed the recent Risen re-release and want to go even further back into Pirahna Byte’s history, Gothic Classic is at least a reasonably-priced curiosity. For everyone else, you might want to get your share of entertainment by watching compilation videos of all the weird and wonderfully broken things in this game instead.
Gothic Classic was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided to gameblur by the publisher. It is also available on PC.
Gothic Classic (Nintendo Switch) Retrospective ReviewGothic Classic (Nintendo Switch) Retrospective Review
- It's still Gothic
- Figuring out your own way to survive its brutal world is still satisfying
- Widescreen support, updated UI, smooth performance, and new controls for the Nintendo Switch
- +1 for game preservation and increased accessibility!
- It's still Gothic
- Encounter balance is all over the place
- Some new control scheme jank can infuriate