Disciples of Steel
MegaSoft Entertainment (developer and publisher)
MegaSoft Entertainment (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for Atari ST; 1993 for DOS
Date Started: 3 December 2015
Date Ended: 8 February 2016
Date Ended: 8 February 2016
Total Hours: 94
Reload Count: 52
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Think about the different RPG eras in terms of the key questions of the time. In the early days (c. 1978-1983), that key question was, "How do we best adapt tabletop RPG mechanics to the computer?" Dozens of titles stood up and said, "Like this!" The best of them--the Wizardry series, the Ultima series, some of SSI's early efforts--advanced to the front of the class. Some of those that didn't make it to the forefront were a mess--fundamentally misunderstanding what was engaging about RPGs--and many introduced mechanics that simply didn't work in the long run.
In the late 1980s, the question changed to, "How can we improve upon the success of Wizardry (or Ultima, or any other previous successful title)?" And again, dozens of developers responded with their own answers. We fondly remember the best of them: Ultima's own sequels, Might & Magic, Dungeon Master, and Pool of Radiance. Again, there were a lot that we don't remember because their answers didn't make sense. We just saw that with Xyphus.
So what was the framing question of the early 1990s? Keep in mind that we've entered an era of hard drives, CD-ROMs, improved hardware for graphics and sound, and memory measured in megabytes instead of kilobytes. I think the key question developers faced was, "What are we going to do with all this extra stuff?" Consumers were demanding games that met the potential of available technology, and developers had a number of ways to respond, including greatly expanded content, better graphics, better sound, more detailed mechanics, and more complex artificial intelligence.
Disciples of Steel feels like a game in which the developers started with Wizard's Crown in mind (although I'm not ready to give up on the idea that they'd been exposed to Knights of Legend, Sword of Aragon, or both), asked the question, threw a bunch of ideas on the board, and tried to implement all of them at once with only the slightest coordination.
The resulting package is intriguing, excellent at times, but oddly disjointed and incomplete. We have fully-voiced audio for a few seconds in the opening screens (the first time I've ever seen this in a PC RPG, although I haven't played a lot of 1980s titles yet) and never again. We have high-quality animation for the opening, a nonsensical final scene, and a few shops in between, but never where it really matters. We have a fully-designed strategy game combat mechanic that hardly ever gets used unless you already know what you're doing. There are hundreds of evocative, atmospheric text messages as you explore--and hundreds of spelling errors. There are three ways to end the game--something you hardly ever see in this era--and yet no real ending.
|Seriously, what was this about?|
To be a fan of Disciples of Steel--and I am an unequivocal fan--is to forgive an awful lot of things that just don't work. There's a food and water meter that never budges, conversation options with NPCs that never tell you anything, a "search" function in the dungeon that never finds anything, "parley" options that never work, skills and spells that have no use, an unnecessary theft mechanic, an unnecessary haggling mechanic, a mechanism for setting the formation of your characters that doesn't matter because enemies are always scattered randomly when combat starts. As much as I liked the tactical combat, I was never able to get the hide/backstab mechanic to work, nor do I understand why there's a "search" option and the ability to pick up dropped treasure in the middle of a battle. I forgot until the end of the game that you can actually change which part of the enemy's body that you target; it turns out that you have an equal chance of hitting each body part, so the head (the default) makes the most sense anyway.
And yet, despite failing in so many things that it tried to do, Disciples of Steel performs excellently in the core areas that make a good RPG: tactical combat, magic, equipment, character development, and quests. I'm hard-pressed to think of a single game previously in my chronology that gets as many things right as Disciples. Perhaps the Gold Box games come closest, but they lack the satisfaction of Disciples character development system, and they have a far worse economy.
|Complete non-sequitur. I just like this image. The text makes it sound like "The Balor" is the name for this section of the hallway.|
In content, Disciples also excels. I love that the game world is so open at the outset, allowing you to blunder into difficult areas before you're ready, allowing you to solve quests before they've been given (although this introduces its own problems if you don't know to keep the quest item). I thought the expedition-and-return quest system was excellent, as well as the way each kingdom had its own questline that integrated well with the backstory. I wish there had been more meaningful choices and more ways to role-play factions or choose sides in disputes, but you can't have everything. The game does offer you the option to just overthrow every kingdom--or ignore the kingdoms entirely and head right for the final dungeon--if you want to make an extreme choice.
The GIMLET is thus going to be a mixed bag. I expect that it will score high in the end, but let's see.
1. Game World. Disciples follows the lead of the best games of the 1980s by setting up the game world in a detailed manual and then following through with in-game events and characters that make sense given the backstory. It does a good job giving a different "character" to each kingdom on Lanathor and setting the events of the game in motion. I'm also giving credit here to all of the flavorful on-screen text descriptions that make the otherwise-bland dungeon corridors seem interesting.
But as with most things, it doesn't do it perfectly. In particular, "Variz" comes out of nowhere, and his relationship to Rathadon is unclear until the end. (The "forces of Rathadon" are given as the game's antagonists, but the king of Rathadon doesn't seem to be aware of Variz's existence.) Score: 5.
2. Character Creation and Development. Simply excellent. You start with the usual race/sex/class templates, but through the skill systems, you can essentially define who you want your characters to be. For instance, you can load up your warriors with armor and put a lot of points into that skill or keep them lithe and put your efforts into "dodge." Mages can specialize in bows and hang back on the battlefield, or you can give them points in edged weapons and armor and make them battlemages. Any class can develop skills in any school of magic, and the different magic systems mean that each character has a stronger sense of role. The ability to dump experience directly into skills (and attributes, though I never did that) means that development is constant and palpable.
I'm also a big fan of the way experience is earned, by successful action rather than just kills. It's a joy to watch the effects as your skills increase: more attacks per round, more spells per round, more damage, increased frequency of critical hits and stunning, and characters who dodge and block attacks instead of getting eviscerated by them. Until the advent of games where classes really make a role-playing difference and we start to see perks and special abilities, I can't imagine a better system. I was disappointed when the game ended because I hadn't gotten all my characters to their target skills. Score: 7.
3. NPC Interaction. Alas, a weak spot. The various lords serve as NPCs, as do some of the shopkeepers, who will occasionally have a useless bit of dialogue. While some of these NPCs were unique and memorable, a couple of dialogue options would have gone a long way towards cementing Disciples in the "great" category. Score: 3.
|I kind of liked this guy.|
4. Encounters and Foes. In addition to NPC dialogue, a major deficiency of Disciples in encounters. While I appreciate the pre-combat dialogue that precedes many of the key battles, there really is never anything to do on these screens but fight or run ("threaten" sometimes works, but "be amicable," never). Except at the macro-level (do the quests or conquer the kingdoms by force), there are no meaningful role-playing options.
Monsters are about as varied as a Gold Box title but with fewer defenses ("Power Word: Stun" shouldn't work against everyone) and no descriptions at all in the manual. Score: 4.
5. Magic and Combat. SSI had the best tactical combat systems, and Disciples of Steel is the first non-SSI game that seems to recognize that. Throughout the entire game--nearly 100 hours of gameplay--I never got sick of the combat system until the final dungeon, where the sheer number started to overwhelm me. And right then, I got "Wrath of God."
The combats in this game are either easy--in which case your characters satisfyingly mow through the enemies and finish in seconds--or quite hard--in which case you have the satisfaction of plotting detailed tactics. The magic system is excellently balanced; there are extremely powerful spells, but you need time (or expensive mushrooms) to recharge after casting them. I think part of the satisfaction of combat comes from the skill development system; even when slaying the lowliest, most pathetic orc, you know that you just earned a couple of dozen points to channel into your favored skill.
A few days ago, I might have tried to argue that Disciples of Steel is the best game to occupy this category so far in my chronology. But upon reflection, I still have to give a slight edge to the Gold Box series. First, Disciples lacks the interesting buffing spells that are important to the combat tactics in other games. Second, while there are a small number of items to use, we don't have the more robust wand/potion/scroll/grenade options that SSI gave us in the Gold Box. Still, it comes awfully close. Score: 7.
|You don't scare me, Air Elemental.|
6. Equipment. As I pointed out in my post on the topic, I really like games that give you lots of items to equip and use, and Disciples offers more than most, with separate items for the head, body, arms, and legs, as well as melee weapons, shields, missile weapons, ammunition, rings, potions, and occasional special magic items like Phasecloaks and Boots of Speed. The "quality" and "condition" dynamics added add additional complexity.
Disciples is one of the earliest games to introduce us to a dilemma that we still see today: plenty of shops sell good gear, but it's so much more satisfying to loot it from the battlefield. And while the locations of artifact items are fixed, it's not impossible to find a Potion of Strength or some other major boon among the detritus from a random battle.
I wish there had been more weapons with special effects (e.g., nothing does fire damage or increases the odds of a critical hit), and better item descriptions, but in general this was a very satisfying part of the game. Score: 6.
|Some of my warrior's late-game gear.|
7. Economy. If there's one area in which Disciples blows past the Gold Box titles, here it is. The economy in the game is actually meaningful. You get money from solving quests, looting opponents, selling gear, and setting taxation rates in conquered cities. You can even put unused mage points into "Lead to Gold." On the "spend" side of the equation, we have a variety of equipment and transportation, item repair, healing, the all-important mushrooms, and...oh, yes...the ability to raise, equip, and field vast armies.
As I reported in my last postings, I didn't fully engage the economy and thus couldn't take advantage of the "army" options, but I'm glad it's there and it would be fun to go that way on a replay. Score: 7.
8. Quests. A truly fun set of individual quests of varying length and difficulty, all culminating toward a main quest with several options for ending it. I supposed technically you could ignore all the questlines and just go kill Variz in his dungeon, but to me this kind of flexibility only enhances the game. There are even a few side-dungeons with valuable items to explore on your own time. Score: 6.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The animated graphics on the encounter and shop screens are attractive. I thought the iconographic views were less interesting but by no means bad. Sound effects are sparse but well-composed and fun. I mostly had no problem with the interface, but I did have some complaints, including the inability to use the keyboard fully on some menus and the necessity of having to acknowledge every critical hit in combat. I give an extra point for the voiced introduction. The dungeon's automap works great--perhaps the first one we've seen that didn't make me feel like I also had to map things manually. Score: 6.
|Simple animations accompany most encounter and shop screens.|
10. Gameplay. Back to "excellent" territory again. Vast, open, nonlinear, and challenging, I thought the game struck the perfect chord here. Yes, at the beginning, when I didn't know if it was ever going to get better, I found the combat a little too hard. But at the end, I don't really mind having gone through the experience. (Creating a patch to start characters with 1,000 experience points was a good idea.) It falls short of a perfect score by being a bit too long, but it scores high on the "replayability" scale; I'd enjoy trying it again with different class/skill combinations and making better use of the army options. Overall, it ties with other games for the highest score I've ever given: 8.
This gives us a subtotal of 59. That would be the seventh-highest score I've ever awarded, and the highest in almost two years. But what do I do with all of those bugs? What do I do with the horribly unsatisfying ending? What do I do with the manual, whose writer ought to have been quartered for failing to explain so much about such a complicated game? What do I do with the time limit, which was long enough for me but apparently was spring upon many hapless players without warning?
On the other side, what do I do about the strategy game add-on? I managed to make it through the entire GIMLET without event talking about it. Disciples is a perfectly satisfying RPG without it, but we can't ignore that there's an optional strategy game lurking in the background, with the same sorts of considerations of equipment, training, and unit composition as excellent RPG-strategy hybrids like Sword of Aragon. (A lack of in-battle magic use makes Disciples not quite as good, but still.) That such large and complex mechanic is offered and made optional is almost baffling.
|I barely explored this game-within-a-game.|
(Aside: the basic problem with the strategic combat in Disciples is that there are no small battles. To overthrow any of the kingdoms, or even their ancillary cities, you have to raise, equip, and train a couple dozen units at no small expense. There is therefore no way to "ramp up" to this part of the game.)
In the end, the positives don't quite equal the negatives, and I've got to hack off a couple of points. Two should do it. A final score of 57 keeps it in my Top 10 but puts it between Might & Magic II (which I agree I liked more) and Champions of Krynn (which I agree I liked slightly less).
However much I subtracted, Disciples of Steel definitely does not deserve a place among the "worst RPGs of all time," and Computer Gaming World's designation in that category, without having published a preceding review, was shameful. It was a decision made by someone who played the game for a few minutes rather than a few hours. They didn't even get the facts of the game right; they list it as a 1993 title and give its publisher as FormGen, which was simply the Canadian distributor.
I haven't been able to find a single contemporary review of Disciples, which makes me wonder how widely MegaSoft distributed or advertised it. Judging by the company's appearance in some computing magazines in the mid-1980s, and its location in a retail area of tiny Webster, Texas, it appears that the company was a brick-and-mortar computer store that entered the publication business for this one title (although it's possible that there were other non-game titles).
The two principals on the game--coordinator Kevin Henderson and programmer Martin Kruse--have no other credits. Graphic artist Patrick Wilson appears later on Daggerfall and some 2000s action games, and game tester Sean Clark has a bunch of later titles as an executive. But these are common names and MobyGames has a way of conflating people with the same name, so I'm not entirely sure that it's the same Wilson and Clark on all the later titles. In any event, they're only credited on the DOS version. None of the graphic and sound artists on the original ST version have other credits.
If any game deserves a sequel that could build upon the lessons learned from its predecessor, it's Disciples of Steel, and the title screen, calling it "the first tale" of the Chronicles of CyHagan, suggests that one was planned. I'd love to find out what the developers had in mind for it. Kevin Henderson commented briefly on a "let's play" at RPGCodex a few years ago; his profile indicates that he was 22 when Disciples was published. I did some searching for both him and Martin Kruse, but I wasn't able to identify them among many other people of the same names, so I can only hope that they eventually find my posts the same way they found the RPGCodex thread.
Thus ends our two-month journey into this flawed-but-amazing overlooked game--the very sort of game that I started this project hoping to find. But now I'm ready for a slightly shorter title; if Vengeance of Excalibur is the same scope as its predecessor it should qualify.