Monday, May 25, 2015

Game 189: Eye of the Beholder (1991)

Despite the 1990 copyright, I don't think it received a release until 1991.

I think I picked the right game to start 1991. I chose it first because it's a Dungeons & Dragons game, and D&D-based games rarely offer bad CRPG experiences; and second because I knew it was inspired by Dungeon Master, which set the standard for real-time multi-character dungeon crawlers. I didn't know if it would be great, but I knew it wouldn't suck.

Hoping for nothing more than a competent dungeon-crawling experience, I fired up the .exe and was greeted with a great introductory sequence with exciting music, evocative sound effects, and attractive animated VGA graphics, all of which finally said to me: 1) "you're in the 1990s!" and 2) "you're no longer a jackass for choosing the DOS version!"

Yet, if there was one thing that gave me pause, it was this screen:

Westwood and I do not have a good history. Years later, I'm still mad at them about the endings to BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception and Mines of Titan. The first Westwood/SSI pairing, Hillsfar, was flawed at the outset. I like to imagine that after Hillsfar, SSI had a "come to Jesus" meeting with Westwood. "We're going to give you another contract," they said in my fantasy, "but none of your bull$%#t this time. You're going to make a good game, or we're going to bury you." I like to think that the Westwood folks left the meeting shaken, threw back a few drinks, and decided that to avoid screwing this one up too badly, they'd better just copy Dungeon Master.

Eye of the Beholder's dependence on Dungeon Master is so stark that you wonder why there weren't lawsuits involved. The similarities are readily apparent at the macro level--they're both first-person, multi-character, tile-based, real-time dungeon crawlers--and the micro level. You attack enemies in the same kind of interface by right-clicking on the chosen weapon, which makes a "whoosh" sound and requires a cool-down period before you can attack again. Only the front two characters can attack in melee; rear characters can throw missile weapons, and they have a pouch which automatically restocks them with up to four "refills" in the same combat. Picking up thrown missile weapons is tedious. You can do the same sort of real-time tricks, like the side-step attack dance and the fighting backpedal. The puzzles are also the same, involving hidden buttons, weighted pressure plates, and remote door switches. Many treasures are found in little alcoves on the wall.

Tossing a dagger at an approaching giant worm.

There are a few differences, mostly caused by the integration of a Dungeon Master mechanic with AD&D rules: classes are different, the magic system is different, and leveling is by experience rather than use of skills. And of course, being a later game, Eye of the Beholder has better graphics, sound, and animation, though not staggeringly so.

If there's one thing you'd want a developer to copy from Dungeon Master, it's the ability to crush enemies in doors. Alas, that doesn't seem to work here. Even though the door is in the space in front of you, it comes down behind any enemies in that space.

"I'm crushing your h...uh oh."

Unless I'm missing some bit of documentation, the backstory to Eye of the Beholder is left somewhat vague. Taking place in the city of Waterdeep, this is the first CRPG on the Sword Coast, and I was delighted to see Baldur's Gate, Amn, and Neverwinter on the game map. The manual goes into the long history of Waterdeep and its constant transfers of power between various guilds and factions before finally coming into the rule of the semi-anonymous Lords of Waterdeep.

Something or someone named Xanathar--I'm going to go out on an limb and say it's probably a beholder--is causing trouble for the city, but the nature of the trouble is left undefined. The problems seem to be coming from beneath the city, and so the chief Lord, Piergeiron, has commissioned a party of adventurers to enter the underworld and eradicate the threat. The game has the party start with a "Commission and Letter of Marque" giving the party "full rights of passage beneath the City of Waterdeep," as if some guard was going to come along and question our right to be in the sewers.

From the opening animations.

Character creation is all standard AD&D. You choose from the six usual races (human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, gnome, halfling) and six classes (paladin, fighter, ranger, cleric, mage, thief) including multi-classes. The rules for non-human races are a bit less draconian than in the Gold Box series; for instance, elves and half-elves never hit a cap in any class they're allowed to select, and dwarves only cap as clerics. Oddly, gnomes can't be mages; I had thought the "gnome illusionist" was a well-established trope by now.

Even though you can get two NPCs to join you later, I decided to get every class available in my four-character party, so I went with.

  • Starling, a female human paladin
  • Bugsy, a male dwarf fighter/thief
  • Marina, a female elf mage
  • Gaston, a male half-elf cleric/ranger

With Gaston having some ranger skills, this gives me the ability to swap him in as a fighter if Starling or Bugsy (otherwise in the front ranks) get too wounded.

Beholder offers the same ability to modify a character's attributes that the Gold Box games offer, theoretically so you can bring a favorite tabletop character into the setting--not that you can modify levels, equipment, spells, or anything else. Resisting temptation to ratchet everything up to 18 wasn't hard, since a few clicks of "reroll" got some pretty high statistics anyway. Characters start at Level 2 or 3 already depending on race and class.

The game begins on Level 1 of the dungeon, with the party facing the rubble that has crashed down behind them, sealing the exit and trapping them inside. I pick up a couple rocks to use as missile weapons. Nearby, the bones of a slain halfling hold a set of lockpicks that I give to Bugsy. A lever opens a door and we begin exploring the level.

Finding the remains of a previous adventurer adds a nice bit of realism.

Level 1 ends up being quite small, 171 used squares in a 22 x 22 grid. There are only two types enemies on the first level: kobolds and giant leeches. They don't seem to respawn; this might become a problem for my multi-classed characters if no enemies respawn

The first two levels of the dungeon.

There are some light puzzles on this level, consisting primarily of finding hidden buttons and weighing down pressure plates with rocks to keep doors open. Nothing terribly difficult, but of course on this level the game is just introducing me to mechanics.

Level 2 is much larger, over 400 used squares in a 30 x 30 grid. The only enemies on the level appear to be skeletons and zombies, but there are a lot more puzzles: spinners, keyed doors, secret doors, arcane messages, teleporters, slots on the wall that accept daggers and open remote areas of the dungeon, pits that close based on pressure plate--some of which must be weighted down, and at least one of which must be weighted down by throwing something on it from across a pit.

Tossing a rock across a pit to land on the plate on the other side, which will close the pit. Dungeon Master taught me this.

There are buttons that seem to reconfigure the wall pattern, and at least one keyed door for which I can't find the key. Although I've mapped almost all of it, I need to take another pass through the level to make sure I didn't miss anything. There are also a few buttons that I don't understand, and I need to more thoroughly investigate their effects.

The party contemplates entering a teleporter.
A dagger placed in a slot on the wall produces a non-helpful message.

I don't find much in the way of equipment upgrades--just a few daggers for throwing weapons, a single shield, a sling, and an axe that replaced my fighter's initial short sword. One unfortunate adaptation from Dungeon Master is the inability to tell anything about your weapons and armor. Familiarity with the standard D&D equipment list will probably help a little, but why couldn't the game have displayed weapon and armor statistics when you right-click on them or something?

Miscellaneous observations:

  • One thing that I like much better than Dungeon Master is the redundant keyboard and mouse controls. You can do everything from either controller, so it's easy to settle into a pattern based on your own preferences. This is also one of the first games I've seen (maybe the first) to allow you to turn off music independent of other sound.

You can also replace the "bar graphs" for hit points with actual numbers.

  • Floor drains occasionally show pairs of eyes, and clicking on them often produces a message like the one below. I don't know if I'll ever find anything in a floor drain, but I suspect I'll click on every damned one of them.

  • I'm not sure if food is going to be a problem. Each character has a food meter that depletes a tiny bit with each action. You have to eat to restore it. So far, I've found just enough food (packaged rations, not loose ears of corn or hunks of cheese) to restore what I've been losing. But the locations and amount of food seem to be fixed, so I wonder if I eventually get into trouble by doing things like taking a second look through the same dungeon level.

Marina finds a ration package just as her food level gets low. I don't know what the "special quest for this level!" was all about.

  • So far, I haven't done much with magic, mostly because restoring spells involves resting for a long time and exacerbates the food issue. My mage has a few "Magic Missiles" and "Melf's Acid Arrows" (appearing for the first time?) and my cleric has some "Cure Light Wounds" and "Hold Persons."

Preparing to blast some zombies with a "Magic Missile."

  • I like that the maps create irregular wall patterns and don't feel compelled to use every space. It makes it feel like more of a real place.
  • Like Dungeon Master, the game appears to have no economy.
  • Unlike Dungeon Master, the game requires no torches or "Light" spells. The dungeon is just naturally light, I guess.
  • You seem to get experience here for solving puzzles as well as killing enemies.

Gaston levels from finding a hidden area.

  • I have no idea how you resurrect, or if it's even possible before you get the fifth-level cleric spell "Raise Dead." Fortunately, combats have been easy enough that no one has come close to dying. Just for fun, I let some skeletons kill me to see what the "full party death" screen would look like.

Four Level 3 heroes is all that the city had to stand against the Minions of Evil?

  • There are apparently NPCs in the dungeon, but I haven't met any yet. When I do encounter them, I hope they're distinguishable as such and I don't end up killing them by accident.
  • You can save anywhere, but there's only one save slot. That gives me the heebie-jeebies just because of corruption issues. I think I'd better back that up occasionally.

So far, Eye of the Beholder is exactly what I was looking for: not a highly original game, but one that's exceedingly competent at a standard set of RPG tropes. Oh, there are weaknesses to this type of CRPG, and I'm sure I'll grouse about them before the end, but for the moment I'm having a lot of fun.

Time so far: 3 hours
Reload count: 0

Saturday, May 23, 2015


As a whole, 1990 really started to challenge my CRPG addiction. I took several long breaks while getting through it. I told you that it was because of work and my house, and while both those things were true, my usual M.O. is to find time for games regardless of how busy I am otherwise. A lot of times this year, I just didn't want to play.

CRPGs were new in the 1980s, and hardware and software were primitive. This meant that the even a mediocre game has the virtues of brevity and simplicity. You know what the game wants from you, how it's going to play, and how to win. I don't particularly want to play something like Shard of Spring or Questron II again, but if I had to, I know I wouldn't have a lot of trouble with it. I think what we see in 1990 is an increase in complexity without an accompanying increase in quality. When I think back on 1990, my mind is filled with games like DarkSpyre, MegaTraveller, Tunnels & Trolls, and Dragonflight--games that have...I was going to say a "sharp learning curve" but that isn't quite right. More of a sharp interest curve. I just couldn't bring myself to get excited about them.

But perhaps there's a simpler explanation than improved technologies that developers didn't quite know how to use. I suspect that by 1990, it became clear that RPGs could make some serious money. A lot more people wanted in on the action, leaving a lot more mediocrity to slog through. "Cashing in" would be a good theme of the year. How else to explain such a sudden increase in:

1. Adaptations of tabletop RPGs. Where before we'd seen only Dungeons & Dragons licensed for the computer, in 1990 we suddenly got MegaTraveller, Space: 1889, Tunnels & Trolls, and Buck Rogers--none of which were very good.

2. Licensed properties. In addition to license of tabletop RPGs, we have games based on Elvira and Lord of the Rings.

3. Spin-offs and re-use of engines. These included Escape from Hell, Fountain of Dreams, Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire, and three Gold Box titles: Champions of Krynn, Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, and Secret of the Silver Blades.

Not all of these pursuits resulted in bad games, of course. The Gold Box titles still hold up remarkably well, and Lord of the Rings, Tunnels & Trolls, Escape from Hell, Elvira, and The Savage Empire all had good points. But in general, the 1990 emphasis seems to have been quantity over quality, and it was tough to find a game that got out of the 30s on my GIMLET scale.

What a gloomy way to start the year-end review! Let's segue to some good things:

Game of the Year Nominees

As I'm always explaining, "Game of the Year" isn't just the highest-rated game. In the choice, I look for something that exemplified the themes of the year, that showed originality and courage, and that had a lasting influence. Just like last year, therefore, I have to eliminate several of the titles near the top of the "highest rated" list--Champions of Krynn, Secret of the Silver Blades, and Quest for Glory II--because they didn't offer enough different from a predecessor that already won "Game of the Year." Still, several worthy titles remain in 1990.

1. Escape from Hell. Though flawed, deeply in places, this might be the most starkly original game of the year, with a solid recreation of the Wasteland engine and a clever plot lifted from Dante and other classical sources. We'll have plenty of orcs and trolls in future games, but I guarantee we aren't going have another RPG in which we can team up with Stalin and Hitler to overthrow Satan.

2. Ultima VI: The False Prophet. Whether as good as V or not, there's no question that the Ultima series continues to innovate and delight. VI is the first true "sandbox" RPG, with an open world and plenty of things to do in it.

3. Lord of the Rings, Vol. I. It took me a while to warm up to it, partly because I'm sick of Tolkien references throughout the entire genre, but the game ended up being surprisingly excellent. It offered an open world, a veritable army of NPCs, true role-playing challenges with multiple solutions, plenty of reasons to backtrack, and a plot that wasn't afraid to diverge from canon. I really look forward to the 1992 sequel.

4. Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge. The third highest-rated game of 1990. I may not have liked every element (my comments about the nudity are apparently destined to haunt me for years to come), but it was a solid leap forward from the first five games of the series, and it was the only game of 1990 to offer a quintessential map-making, multi-character, dungeon-crawling experience.

Though I can't justify putting any other game on the nominee list, there are a handful that I'll always remember fondly for one element or another. In retrospect, Captive was a much better game than I gave it credit for at the time. The story was absurd, but the mechanics were quite good, and I often found myself wishing I could fire it up and play a few more levels rather than try to figure out MegaTraveller or Hard Nova. Elvira was a very decent adventure/RPG hybrid and might have made a nomination in an earlier year with better RPG elements. King's Bounty was just a fantastically fast, fun strategy game, and I wish it had more RPG elements to make it worthy of a nomination. Quest for Glory II was one of the few games of the year that I found myself "playing around" in--I finished it four times!--but there was just no way it was going to get the title after I gave it to Hero's Quest (AKA Quest for Glory I) for 1989.

I'll announce the winner in a minute, but first let's talk about...

Year-End Superlatives

Total Games Played: 33

Highest-Rated Games: Ultima VI: The False Prophet (68), followed by Champions of Krynn (56), Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge (53), Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire (50), and Secret of the Silver Blades (50).

Lowest-Rated Games:  Saga (15), The Stone of Telnyr (15), Dragon Lord (22), Crystals of Arborea (23), and Dragon Sword (23).

Longest Played: Dragonflight, at 58 hours. It rated a 36.

Longest Between Start and End: Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan, at 379 days. I took over a year off in the middle of it.

Percentage Won: Of games with a winning condition, 30/32, or 94%. I'm still working on Operation: Overkill and may not win it. I couldn't win Legend of Faerghail because of bugs. I counted Dragonflight as a "won" even though I technically didn't see the endgame screen because of a bug.

Highest Category Scores: Ultima VI got a 9 in "Gameplay" and 8s in "Economy" and "NPCs." Quest for the Unicorn got an 8 for "Economy." Lord of the Rings, Vol. I got an 8 for "Game World."

Lowest Category Scores: A ton of games got 0s for "NPCs" and "Economy."

Best Games with a Bad Category: Champions of Krynn and Secret of the Silver Blades with 2 and 1, respectively, in "Economy." The Gold Box games will never learn.

Other themes from the Year

1. Independents' Day. We've seen plenty of independent games in earlier years, but 1990 feels like the year in which they really took off. While few of them came close to rivaling the best commercial titles, they're certainly improving. John Carmack's Dark Designs titles were both satisfying and offered solid RPG experiences in their short lengths. The Dragon Sword did a good job mimicking Wizardry, if making things a little too big, and Quest for the Unicorn offered an excellent adaptation of D&D rules in an open-world, roguelike setting.

And here's something I can't even say about many of the top-rated games of the year: I will remember Fallthru (technically a 1989 game, but I played it in 1990) until the day I die. It was staggeringly original, and if the developer had possessed even the slightest awareness of other contemporary CRPGs, it could have been staggeringly good.

One of the few text RPGs. Not a text adventure, but a text RPG.
2. Sex Sells. Either Escape from Hell, Wizardry VI, or Quest for Glory II offered the first nudity in a western RPG, depending on which was released first. In the case of Quest for Glory II, it was fleeting and only on-screen if you took some special effort. The other two games, in particular Wizardry VI, were far more blatant. Even when tops and bottoms didn't come off, developers used improved graphics to offer titillation in Elvira, The Savage Empire, and a few others, and nudity or quasi-nudity are destined to be a part of our lives from now on. While I don't have a problem with it, too much of it presented too artlessly makes me roll my eyes, and the entire trend makes it harder to play games in public.

I don't know which deserves credit for the first, but Wizardry VI definitely gets the award for the most.

3. Over There. The USA is still clearly the king of computer RPGs, but we're starting to get more interesting stuff from the continent. Legend of Faerghail, Dragon Lord, Dragon Flight, Crystals of Arborea, and Lord of Chaos were all interesting misfires, demonstrating enough competence that I think we're going to see some true European contenders in 1991. That brings us to...

1991 Preview

It took me 21 months to finish 33 games in 1990. Granted, I was still picking up early 1980s games at the same time, but I'll be doing that through 1991 as well. My list has 56 games from 1991, and even if I end up rejecting 25% of them as RPGs (about my normal rate), we're looking at 27 months to finish the year if I progress at the 1990 rate.

DOS had clearly stopped sucking by 1991, and a lot of titles had only a DOS release. The next most popular platform, primarily among European titles, seems to be the Amiga. We're going to have two Commodore 64 games (Twin Morg Valley and The Ormus Saga) and a single Apple II title (Dark Designs III). I'll have to dig up a Mac emulator for Shadow Keep, but that should be the only new one I have to learn.

About one-third of the 1991 games are from outside the U.S., including an unprecedented 8 from the U.K. and 4 from Germany. Japan is still mostly staying away from western personal computers, and only a single Japanese title appears: Dragon Knight III: Knights of Xentar, a 1991 game that received a DOS release in 1995.

1991 is solidly in my personal "dark ages," when I was occupied by school, the Army Reserves, and a girlfriend, and not really playing RPGs. Of all the titles on the list, I've only played four: Eye of the Beholder, Death Knights of Krynn, Pools of Darkness, and Might & Magic III, and I don't really remember any of them. (I think that of the four, I only won Might & Magic III.)

We're still in the heyday of the Gold Box series, and in addition to Death Knights and Pools, we're going to see Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Neverwinter Nights. Although I'm sure that I'll like some of these more than others, I know that all will deliver a solid RPG experience, so I'm going to spread them out evenly through the year as cornerstones.

Might & Magic III is definitely my most anticipated game of the year. The bits I can remember, I remember enjoying a lot, and the series really never makes a wrong step until IX. I'm also sure I'll have a good time with The Magic Candle II. As for the others, I'm completely in the dark. I'm vaguely curious whether Elvira II, MegaTraveller 2, and Worlds of Ultima: Martian Dreams manage to improve on their predecessors, what HeroQuest (which forced a renaming of Hero's Quest) looks like, and whether Paragon does any better with Twilight: 2000 than the tabletop RPGs it adapted in 1990. There are a handful of games that I'm looking forward to for their titles alone, even though I suspect that some of them will turn out not to be RPGs: Bones: the Game of the Haunted Mansion, Dusk of the Gods, Heimdall, Jones in the Fast Lane, The Nine Lives of Secret Agent Katt, and Rescue of Lorri in Lorrintron. I know nothing about any of them.

If you had to guess a 1991 Game of the Year right now, what would you put your money on?

Game of the Year

It's Ultima VI. I mean...come on. Seriously. Did any of you read that list of nominees above and think that any other game even had a shot? Did you actually buy my nonsense about "the top-rated game doesn't  necessarily win the prize"? That isn't a lie; 1989's GOTY was the third-highest rated game. But when the top rated game is 12 points higher than its competition...yeah, it gets the prize.

More important, it deserves it based on all my criteria. Ultima VI technically ranks lower than Ultima V in my GIMLET, but they're so close that the difference doesn't really matter. I mentally think of VI as the better game. This is the first true "sandbox" game, with a wide-open world ready for exploration in any order you want, lots of side-dungeons and optional areas, NPCs and lore that aren't strictly necessary to win the game, items that do nothing but provide realism to the world, and spells that are good for nothing but messing around.

In this, Ultima VI not only exceeds every game that came before but also every game that I know about that came after except for its own sequel. Games like Skyrim and Fallout 3 might offer bigger game worlds to explore, but they don't equal Ultima VI in the depth of interactions with objects. As I wrote in my final post on the game:

As much as I love the last three Elder Scrolls games, do you know what I can't do in any of them? Destroy a chair. Play an instrument. Batter down a door. Throw a wine bottle across the room and have it shatter on the floor. Row a boat. Start or douse a fire. Lock a door.

I say "every game that I know about that came after" because of course I haven't played every game between 1990 and today. I will spend the rest of my CRPG career hoping for as much freedom to explore and mess around that I had in Ultima VI.

The game's story and quest are a little less impressive than its mechanics, but as I noted repeatedly, it's only because Origin offered such detailed back stories and game worlds that we're able to nitpick them and create nutty fan theories. There are other games, even in 1990, with better economies, combat systems, magic systems, character development, and equipment, but Ultima remains one of the few series that while not always doing everything best, never does anything really bad. I wish I could say the same about the Gold Box series and its economy or the Quest for Glory series and its combat, or Tunnels & Trolls and its character development.

Okay, it occasionally does something really bad. But such moments are rare.

Unfortunately, Ultima VI was over a year ago. Since then, I've worked through a dozen mediocre titles and handful of okay ones. Only a few--Lord of the Rings, Quest for Glory II, Secret of the Silver Blades, maybe Escape from Hell--felt more like fun than work.

At this point, I'm not looking for great things from 1991. I don't want some highly-original setting that turns out to be a little goofy. I don't want a game that thinks it's being clever by eschewing traditional experience and leveling. I don't want to play a pre-named character and act out a complex plot. I'm sure I'll do all of these things in 1991, and at some point I'll enjoy them, but right now I don't want to take a chance on whether an original-sounding game is good or awful. Right now, I just want to make a party, descend into a dungeon, make maps, find equipment, kill orcs, level up, find better equipment, and kill stronger orcs. Is that too much to ask? Can I hope for that from Eye of the Beholder?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Game 188: Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark (1984)

Lone Wolf looks a bit creepy, if you ask me.

Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark
Five Ways Software (developer); Arrow (publisher)
Released 1984 for the ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 17 May 2015
Date Ended: 19 May 2015
Total Hours: 2
Reload Count: 5
Difficulty: Easy (2/5), once you figure out the trick to combat
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

When I was around 14 or 15, I owned the entire set of Kai (1-5) and Magnakai (6-12) books in the Lone Wolf series, by British author Joe Dever. I loved them. At some point before I left home for college in 1992, I no longer had them. I don't remember why, but Occam's razor would assign the blame to my mother. Until recently, I had no idea that the books had been continued in the Grand Master series (13-20) and the New Order series (21-32), with the last book published in 1998.

The first book in the series.

In preparation for this post, I went on Amazon and ordered used copies of Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water from a bookseller in Maryland. They had warned me that the copies were only in "good" condition, so when they arrived a few days ago, I wasn't surprised to find the character sheet in Flight from the Dark already filled out. I was surprised to see a familiar odd mix of upper- and lower-case letters and unnecessary serifs on each n and x, something I used to do until another kid in 10th grade leaned over my shoulder and opined that my handwriting was "gay." I can't prove it--there's no name on the inside cover--but I'm 99% sure that I ordered my own childhood copy of Flight from the Dark. If this had happened with my first copy of, I don't know, Crime and Punishment, or The Grapes of Wrath, I'm pretty sure I'd take it as a sign from the Universe. But what do I make of the Universe wanting to reunite me with Lone Wolf?

"You were not meant for Great Things, Chet. Your legacy shall be mildly diverting writings about meaningless, geeky ephemera."
The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which I read for posts on The Citadel of Chaos and The Forest of Doom, had left me with the impression that gamebooks were always a little goofy and puerile--poor substitutes for an actual RPG. I figured that my memories of Dever's series were a little rose-colored and that I'd be similarly unsatisfied with them. I'm happy to report that is not the case. The Lone Wolf books are just as good as I remembered--probably the best anyone was ever going to do with an RPG in paperback form. You've got just a couple of attributes to juggle--combat skill and endurance--and an inventory sheet that tracks weapons, other items, meals, and gold crowns. You can only carry 8 items at a time, including meals, so you have to be careful with inventory. There are all kinds of wonderfully evocative illustrations, including a series of them that show you each type of weapon.

That "quarterstaff" is the laziest weapon in the world. You couldn't at least wrap some grip tape around it?

The best part of the gamebooks is the series of skills that you select for your character, called Kai disciplines. There are 10 of them, and you can select 5 in the first book. You get 1 for each book in the series you complete. Some of the skills are manifestly for puzzle-solving and getting out of tough situations (e.g., tracking, sixth sense, animal kinship), while others help compensate for low attribute roles (e.g., weapon skill, mind blast, healing). Healing is particularly well implemented; if you have the skill, you can restore an endurance point for every numbered section of the book you pass through. One skill, hunting, allows you to find your own food at mealtime and save backpack space for other items. More than you'd think is possible, the combination of inventory and skills really lets you roleplay different characters, at least in terms of logistics.

The Lone Wolf series is a real series, with the story progressing from book to book, so the reader keeps his attributes, items, and skills. The story is reasonably well-told, though full of familiar tropes. In the northern part of a great continent called Magnamund, Summerlund and the Darklands sit side by side. The Darklords of the Darklands are the eternal enemies of the good people of Summerlund.

In Summerlund, the land's great warriors traditionally send their sons to study at the Kai monastery, where they learn skills similar to a ranger in a standard RPG. The protagonist is a young initiative of the monastery named Silent Wolf. One night, when all of the Kai Lords of Summerlund are gathered at the monastery for a feast, the Darklords launch a blitz and kill everyone. Silent Wolf, out gathering firewood during the attack, manages to knock himself unconscious on a tree branch and wakes up when the battle is over. Re-naming himself "Lone Wolf," he vows to take word of the attack to the nation's capital. He sets off with only an axe, a map of the kingdom, a random number of gold crowns, and an item chosen from a random table, which may include other weapons, pieces of armor, meals, a healing potion, or even more gold.

(To roll random numbers, the book has you close your eyes and point to a random number table at the back. I didn't like that, and I remember purchasing a 10-sided die just to play through the books.)

I begin my titular Flight from the Dark.

Like a good computer RPG, the book is structured into "chapters" that offer some freedom of movement but ultimately funnel you to particular plot points. In the first chapter, no matter what directions you choose, you fight various darkspawn scouring the area after the monastery attack while trying to make your way through the forest. Ultimately, you come across a refugee train led by a column of solders and, assuming you don't run away like a coward, you fight a "boss" battle against a reptilian "Gourgaz" get a mission from the dying Prince of Summerlund to take a message to his father.

After other assorted paths and adventures, you reach the outskirts of the capital, which is under siege. You have to choose from several paths to avoid the attackers and enter the city. Once inside, you have other assorted adventures before winning a final battle against some spies and getting in to see the king. He immediately gives you a quest to go Durenor to retrieve the Sommerswerd, an ancient artifact that can defeat Darklords. Segue to Fire on the Water.

A bit of the endgame text. Note the icon indicating the appropriate entry number in the physical book, where the text is about 5 times longer.

As I re-read the book, I tried to remember what I did, as a youngster, if I lost one of the many combats. Some of them are absurdly difficult, especially in the later books when it's assumed that you've loaded up on magical gear from the earlier ones. Certainly, I didn't cry out to the heavens in despair and start the entire series from the beginning. But neither did I simply assume that I won and go on to the next entry: I remember meticulously making all the rolls and fighting each combat. As I was already schooled in the conventions of computer RPGs, perhaps I simply allowed myself to "reload" if I died and to fight the combat again.

The ZX Spectrum cassette versions came out the same year as the first two books. That's pretty fast; Dever must have negotiated the rights to a computer game at the same time he was signing his publishing contract. Unlike the adaptations of the two Fighting Fantasy books we saw earlier this year, the CRPGs of Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water take a few steps to distinguish themselves as games. Your combat skill, mostly unchanging in the books, increases in the games with every successful combat. (If the games hadn't made such a concession, they wouldn't be CRPGs under my definition.) Instead of choosing 5 of 10 disciplines, the character is assumed to have all of them, but at different "levels" (hidden from the player). The use of skills is binary in the books--either you have the needed discipline or you don't--but in the game, they have associated probabilities, and rolls are made behind the scenes when indicated.

Lone Wolf makes a successful "Sixth Sense" roll.

Combat is quite a bit different in the game. It occurs in real time, with the ability for the player and foes to take steps forward and back in between attacks. Weapons have various reaches associated with them, with longer ones able to often damage creatures who can't come close enough to hit you. There are three attacks--chop, swipe, and thrust--some of which are ineffective for some weapons (e.g., a "swiped" spear and a "thrusted" hammer do little good). The "Mindblast" and "Mindshield" skills are activated with keys, rather than passive as in the books.

Fighting this setting's version of an orc.

But while combat may be more "advanced" in the game than in the books, it still isn't good. You get no feedback about whether your attacks are successful or not, and no indication of your enemy's total health. The two "boss" combats in the game were laughably impossible until I figured how to just spam the same attack over and over, killing the foe before he had a chance to react.

The game, meanwhile, degrades plenty of aspects of the book. There's no way to pro-actively use items or eat meals, so the game simply dispenses with most of the inventory, including the pieces of armor the book lets you pick up. There are plenty of places that offer choices in the book but the game forces you to take one path or another--it reduces player choice in travel instead of doing what a decent CRPG adaptation would do and increase it.

Wait...what? Why would I go the longer way? The book lets me make a choice here.

The interface is awful, with non-logical keys (the game came with a keyboard overlay to help with this). In places where you have options, you have to unintuitively scroll through the options with the "1" key and then hit "9" to select one.

A late-game choice. I have to hit "1" to see the next one--to follow the riverbank.

Even worse, the game reduces most of the book's text. I can't imagine why; the game certainly wasn't shy about forcing the player to read paragraphs of scrolling text. Yet there isn't a single entry as verbose in the game as in the book. A typical example:

Game: You descend the rocky slope towards the graveyard. Wicked briars tear at your cloak and cut your legs. The haunting murmur of distant voices fills your ears.

Book: As you descend the rocky slope towards the Graveyard of the Ancients, you are aware of a strange mist and cloud that swirls all around this grey and forbidding place, blocking the sun and covering the graveyard in a perpetual gloom. A chill creeps forward to greet your approach.

Towards the end, it gets nuts. In the book, once you reach the city of Holmgard, you're given a choice whether to keep following an officer or take off on your own. Either choice leads to a bunch of adventures before the ending. The game has you automatically "lose" your guide, go through one battle against some enemies, and then shoot right to the ending text.

You may notice in the screenshots that the game continually references the associated entry in the book. This is because the cassette came with the book, and I guess players were meant to keep it in hand if they wanted to read the full text of each encounter. Given that, I can't think of a single reason that a player would want to play the game.

The sequel is selling on eBay for only $5.66.

My GIMLET gives it:

  • 2 points for the game world. The backstory is good, but the game doesn't offer much of a "world" since you're stuck on a linear path.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There are no options at all creation, and the only development is an increase in combat ability.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 2 points for foes that are a bit original to the setting, but don't really have any particular strengths and weaknesses. Games based on gamebooks ought to be stronger in encounters, but while Lone Wolf is a better-written gamebook than most, it still doesn't offer puzzles, role-playing choices, or even logic in its various flip-the-page options. At least, not in the first one.

I don't know...this might be the earliest game where I fight something riding something else.

  • 1 points for a godawful action combat system with no magic except "Mindblast."
  • 2 points for equipment, consisting primarily of a bunch of weapons that you can swap in and out and some quest-related items.

Checking my inventory.

  • 1 point for an economy. You find plenty of gold here, but you can't spend it anywhere except to buy passage in a couple of places. Fire on the Water offers more options for spending accumulated gold.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 1 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Graphics are bare-bones but at least try to flesh out the scene. There are a few scattered sound effects, but the music is so piercing you mostly want the sound off. The interface is pretty bad, consisting of non-logical keys (e.g., although you usually fight on the left side of the screen, you hit "E" to advance and "R" to move backwards). Even though the game is short, it's annoying to have to wait while some animations and music play.

The game at least made an attempt at cobwebs.

  • 1 point for gameplay that is extremely linear, too easy, and extremely brief. The 1 point is for replayability since you might want to try different paths.
That's a final score of 13, which still seems kind of high. I think I enjoyed Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash more. I found one contemporary review, from the March 1985 Crash. The author, Derek Brewster, makes the same points I do: basically, why play the game when it offers a more limiting experience than the book?

The Spectrum versions of both Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water were written by Five Ways Software in Birmingham, England. They received only a U.K. release. Five Ways' c.v. shows them mostly creating Spectrum ports for other company's games, none of them RPGs.

This wasn't the end for Lone Wolf computer games, however. 1991 saw Lone Wolf: Mirror of Death by Mr. Micro, a non-canon action platformer. It's not an RPG, so it won't be on my list. In the 2000s, we saw an aborted MMORPG and then an aborted first-person computer game. In 2013, an iOS game called Lone Wolf: Blood on the Snow was released. It seems to take place after the books (at least the first series). It has excellent graphics and some ability to move around areas, although it has the verboseness and general linearity of a book. I'm in the midst of "playing" it now, and I generally enjoy it.
I fired it up Fire on the Water for a few minutes, but nothing had changed in the interface and I'd rather just read the book. Look, we've been here a few times now; can we all agree that a literal computer adaptation of a gamebook, even with some RPG elements, isn't really an "RPG"? I don't know how many more of these I can take.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire: Final Rating

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, 1992 for PC-98, 1993 for Sharp X68000
Date Started: 11 April 2015
Date Ended: 16 May 2015
Total Hours: 18
Reload Count: 8
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I end mostly where I started, thinking that The Savage Empire is a perfectly serviceable little game that makes adequate use of a good game engine but would have been better if the creators hadn't tied it to the legend of the Avatar. Said legend is, of course, already hopelessly muddled, so when we get revelations in this game about the ancient Kotl race and the ability of a moonstone to somehow power an entire civilization, we don't even try to mentally work it in to Ultima canon. We just shrug and keep playing.

I couldn't think of any other thematic issues to cover after the "won" posting, so let's get right into the GIMLET.

1. Game World. The Lost World-style setting of Eodon, the various tribes, and the revelations about the lizard-like past civilization are somewhat common fantasy and sci-fi tropes, but they're relatively original among RPGs. In this, the game deserves a lot of credit even if the execution was a little goofy at times. While Empire didn't always make the best use of the Ultima VI engine, it kept the open approach to the game world that the Ultima series has been rightly famous for. Empire arguably does a better job than any previous Ultimas in having the game world respond to the player's actions, with NPC dialogue changing substantially depending on various plot statuses. Score: 6.

The Avatar prepares to start the endgame on the Hill of the Drum.

2. Character Creation and Development. Probably the worst part of the game. In contrast to the multiple races and sexes offered by Ultima VI, the player has no choice but to play the Avatar as a Great White Hunter. Even worse, the backstory removes any sense of self-identification with the Avatar that previous Ultimas (IV in particular) took great pains to build up. A brief character creation process helps define starting attributes, but there's nothing else. Because the game starts you at Level 5, there is essentially no character development (barring a lot of grinding, which is unnecessary anyway) for either the Avatar or his NPC companions. There are no role-playing opportunities, no karma meter. The game barely qualifies as an RPG in this category. Score: 3.

Jimmy becomes the only character other than the Avatar to level up.

3. NPC Interaction. Always strong in Origin titles, a little weaker here because so many NPCs say the same things. Basically, every tribe has a chief, a shaman, and one or two other key NPCs, and then about 6-10 interchangeable men and women with the same dialogue. Still, the quality of the dialogue is pretty good, and you learn almost everything of importance about the game world and quest through these discussions.

I like that you have so many party members to choose from--including a Neanderthal, a lizard man, and an automaton--and that they don't cease to be individuals just because they've joined the party; you can still talk with them. Some of them have unique skills, like Triolo's magic, Rafkin's ability to make certain items, and Jimmy's notebook.

Finally, the game gets points for offering the first player-optional romance in the game. (Other games have seen a romance between the PC and some NPC, but always part of the main plot, not something that the player can choose.) There's not much to it: you just say LOVE to Aiela or Tristia, which causes their dialogues to change, and you get a couple of endgame screens. Still, it's always nice to find a "first." Or am I forgetting an earlier game?

I could have done without the unresolved Shamuru/Dokray/Triolo mystery. Score: 7.

4. Encounters and Foes. Getting through the game involves solving a variety of item-based and navigation-based puzzles, none of them terribly hard, most with multiple solutions. While the selection of enemies (giant apes, dinosaurs, sabre-toothed tigers) is original and appropriate to the setting, I never got over the sense that fighting dinosaurs should have been a bigger deal. Like all Origin games, the manual does an excellent job describing each enemy. Score: 6.

Because of course we can't just walk through the waterfall and into the cave, Gideon prepares to block the river by blowing up the boulder next to it. Don't ask.

5. Magic and Combat. The tribal magic system, with its collection of 9 spells, is thematically creative but tactically underwhelming--particularly since there's only one spellcaster. I didn't find combat particularly strong in Ultima VI, and it gets worse here with poor enemy and NPC AI and a general sense that combat is a minor part of the game. Score: 4.

6. Equipment.  The sandbox nature of the game means that there's a ton of stuff lying around with no reason to take any of it, including jars, baskets, pots, tools, extra totems, rocks, sticks, and so forth. I don't mind this. It makes the world seem more real. The selection of armor and weapons is less interesting, particularly since the game doesn't tell you the relative damage of weapons or the relative protection of armor, and since combat isn't hard enough to bother with upgrades anyway. Towards the end of the game, I just equipped my new companions with whatever was most convenient, and they did fine. I didn't care for all the unused equipment slots.

A lot of the items are for solving puzzles, and many of these work together in creative ways. Tar can be collected in a bucket, then applied to strips of cloth (themselves made by putting scissors to whole cloth) to make "tarred cloth," which can then be wrapped around branches (pulled from trees) to make torches or used as a fuse in a bomb. Dropping a tree branch onto an open fire makes charcoal, which can be combined with phosphorous (scraped from crystals) and sulfur (screened from sulfur pits) to make gunpowder. Using a knife on a slain mammal gives you a pelt and some meat. There are a lot of these types of interactions, and they'd be a lot more fun if they were more helpful. Score: 5.

I think using a knife is the only way to do this.

7. Economy. There are plenty of valuables to find in the game, but only a couple of places to spend them, and essentially no reason to spend them in those places, since everything you need can be picked up for free. A very under-developed part of the game. You could argue that it's not necessary for The Savage Empire, but I still like my RPGs to have an economy. Score: 1.

8. Quests. Empire has a multi-staged main quest. It's interesting, but it doesn't offer choices, alternate outcomes, or really anything that qualifies as a "side quest." I did think that the "uniting the tribes" plot was a bit fun, particularly since (just like the map-piece-finding quest in Ultima VI) it offered such a variety of difficulties and lengths to the individual tasks. Score: 4.

I forgot to show the lizard guys last time, so here they are.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics are well-drawn, but from my colorblind perspective, the palette used by Empire was awful. I couldn't discern a lot of objects, NPCs, and enemies against their backgrounds. The day/night cycle was a constant annoyance. On the other hand, I liked the frequent use of full screen graphics at key parts of the story--there were more of these in Empire than any Ultima game I can recall. There were some fun sound effects but no way to separate sound from the incessant music, so I left it off. (The music, I should add, is good--creative and thematic--but I still didn't want to hear it all the time.)

The giant Avatar prepares to trample a company of puny villagers.

The interface is generally excellent. Like any good game of this era, it offers the ability to move flexibly between keyboard and mouse, with major commands mapped to a single letter. The ability to designate an "active" character is essentially unique to this game and Ultima VI, and it's just what this type of RPG needs. One drawback to the interface: my characters kept getting stuck on things, and I didn't notice for a long time. This required a lot of effort to reunite the party. Score: 5.

10. Gameplay. Nice and non-linear. Even the major quest stages can be done slightly out of order (e.g., you could reunite most of the tribes before rescuing Aiela). The non-linearity and availability of different NPC companions makes it slightly replayable, though not very. The overall pacing is good--neither too long or too short--but like Ultima VI, it suffers a bit by being too easy. And despite using the same engine, it doesn't offer quite the same "screwing around" possibilities of its parent. Score: 5.

I don't often discuss a game's packaging and manual, even when they're good, but The Savage Empire deserves a couple extra bonus points for going the extra mile. The manual (may the MOCAGH never die) is presented as an adventure magazine written, in part, by the Avatar, Jimmy Malone, and Dr. Rafkin after their adventures in Eodon. It's full of clues hidden in sections like "Letters to the Editor" (one gives a hint about the importance of a fire extinguisher; another discusses bomb-making) and advertisements.

The "pulp manual" is part story, part instruction, part description, and part fun.

The manual also has one of the best and most obscure Easter eggs I've ever seen. In a (fictional) advertisement for an upcoming Savage Empire film, the cast is given as Richard Corlane, Bryan Swade, and Faith Selburn. You would have to be the most incredible film geek to know that these are the three (fictional) stars listed for a (fictional) Broadway musical called A Day in New York, featured in a single screen in the 1949 Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra film On the Town.

All in all, fantastic work by Aaron Allston (credited for both the overall game story and the game manual) and worth an extra 2 bonus points for a final score of 48. That's considerably lower than the 68 I gave to Ultima VI, but still in the top 10% of 1990 games, and the third-highest rating I've given in the past year.

I started my series of posts on The Savage Empire praising Origin for re-using a great engine instead of discarding it after a single use. Thus, I was a little surprised and annoyed to find Dennis Owens complaining about the same thing in his March 1991 Computer Gaming World review. "Although once upon a time, Ultima stood for innovation and surprise," he grouses, "[they] seem to have devolved into copies of themselves--all requiring that worlds be explored...monsters be bashed, and objects be found." I mean, Jesus, Dennis--you could reduce all RPGs to such trite phrasing. Ultima hasn't lost its innovation just because the creators re-used one engine. Frankly, if they hadn't, we'd be waiting until Ultima VII for the next game. Would that have been better?

While he does have some positive things to say, his conclusion is mixed: "Compared to any except its own brothers and sisters, The Savage Empire...must be considered dazzling and successful. Compared to its peers, however, the game presents what may be a disturbing view of a possible trend in the Ultima line: caricature."

In her 1993 "survey" of RPGs on the market, Scorpia was a little more positive, concluding that it was "good for filling in the hours while you wait for the next real Ultima," with which I completely agree.

For the next Ultima game, I thought I'd have a choice between Martian Dreams and Ultima Underworld, but I was disappointed to see that Underworld is a 1992 game (really looking forward to that one), so Martian Dreams is definitely the next outing as the Avatar. I know people usually rate that one nigher than The Savage Empire, but the backstory seems a bit stupid to me. Maybe everything else will be better.


And that pretty much wraps up 1990! Technically, I still have Operation: Overkill to finish, but that's proving to be a boring slog, not unlike Dragon Sword but without the same ability to cheat. If I do finish it, it will probably be several weeks from now, after playing an hour here and an hour there in between other games. That means we'll be moving on to the 1990/1991 transition posting. I look forward to writing it.