Monday, December 17, 2018

Game 311: Paladin's Legacy (1989)

         
Paladin's Legacy
United States
Independently developed; published by Sundog Systems
Released 1989 for TRS-80 Color Computer
Date Started: 12 December 2018
Date Ended: 16 December 2018
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

As we've seen before, the TRS-80/Tandy Color Computer was an under-served platform for both RPGs and games in general. To the extent that they marketed it at all, Tandy and Radio Shack marketed it as a primarily business platform. It is unique in that almost every RPG that existed for it existed solely for it; it received no ports of popular titles like Wizardry or Ultima. If you were a Color Computer owner and you liked RPGs, you suffered a lonely, frustrating existence. Only half a dozen RPGs were available to you, and half of them were Ultima clones.
            
Stretching out the introduction gives me space to show both title screens.
           
Paladin's Legacy is one of those Ultima clones, but it's a relatively competent game that feels like it was programmed by an adult. It avoids the mistakes common to many of its contemporaries (1987's Gates of Delirium comes to mind), tells a decent story, and doesn't try to be epic.

The story takes place in the land of Tarinth. The human, dwarf, and elf populations historically left each other alone, but a few hundred years ago, the land came under attack by a mysterious flood of monsters. When everything seemed bleakest, a hero--the titular paladin--appeared and drove back the hordes with his enchanted armor and blade and his mastery of the five schools of magic. The paladin died after a long, mortal life, and he left his equipment in the hands of a mysterious being known as the "keeper."
         
A noblewoman relates some history of the paladin.
        
In the wake of the attack, the three races unified under a central government with councilors and an elected king. Five cities were established to study the different schools of magic that the paladin had wielded. All was at peace. Flash forward to today, when the monsters suddenly appeared again, invaded the castle during a council session, and kidnapped the king. It's time for a new hero to arise and so forth.

It took me a while to get it running, and like most of the time I try to play a game on one of the rarer platforms, we have Adamantyr to thank for this entry. But even with his help, I couldn't get the color settings right. When you first launch the game, it asks whether you have an RGB monitor, and then gives you a color or black-and-white version of the game depending on your answer. All of the color settings looked horrendous to me, so I played the game in black and white. I've seen screenshots in which the color looks better, so I don't know what I had wrong. I apologize for the predominantly black-and-white screenshots below.

The beginning of the game in RGB mode. It makes me want to kill indiscriminately.
The same shot in black-and-white.
        
Character creation has you allocate 60 points to four attributes: strength, dexterity, wisdom, and intelligence. You can assign a maximum of 20 and a minimum of 10. The developer remarks on his web site (more below) that wisdom and intelligence aren't even used in the game. This is the title's only major sin, compounded by the fact that you can increase these values in the game, so an unknowing player may actually grind these useless attributes.
            
Character creation.
           
The last question asks whether you're a law-abiding person. Say yes, and you start as "Chester the Citizen." Say no and you start as "Chester the Thief." I'm not sure what difference this makes in gameplay. I tried both options and didn't notice any changes in dialogue or anything.

Gameplay takes place on an 80 x 80 map that I actually mapped, for no really good reason except that I was having trouble counting the squares otherwise. The MESS emulator (or the game) was inconsistent with my inputs, sometimes reading a single arrow press as two and sometimes not reading it at all. The land ultimately has nine cities, a castle, a cathedral, and a dungeon with two entrances. At the beginning of the game, only four cities, the castle, and the cathedral are accessible. Commands are easy to memorize: arrows for movement and obvious keys like (A)ttack, (E)nter, (G)et, and (T)alk for other actions. In an epic example of not reading the manual carefully, I overlooked the (R)estore command and, throughout this experience, rebooted the game from scratch on the occasions I had to reload.
          
The game world.
          
You start with meager resources--250 hit points, 20 gold, and 50 food--but fortunately the beginning of the game isn't so tough. After you buy an affordable weapon and suit of armor, the monsters that roam the land (e.g., orcs, sprites, jackals) are easily slain, and you just have to occasionally pop into town for more food, or into the cathedral for a healing potion. Things get even easier when you find a fairy in the city of Elm who will heal you for free--if you're "pure of heart." A number of things make you impure, including stealing a boat, purchasing thieves' tools, and perhaps starting as a thief, but this condition is easily curable by donating 10 gold pieces "to the poor" at the cathedral.
            
I love how the ankh cross became the all-purpose "religious symbol" of the RPG world.
         
In the castle, the queen will level you up every time you achieve 1000 experience points, which takes about 10 minutes of grinding on the surface and less once you start exploring the dungeons. Leveling up increases maximum hit points by 250. Slowly, you amass more gold, buy better items, and improve your ability to survive for longer periods.
           
A mid-game character sheet.
        
Combat is unfortunately the weakest part of the game. You simply sidle up to a creature and either attack it or wait for it to attack you. You then pass the rounds by mashing the SPACE bar, watching as you trade damage. There's no way to escape, no tactics, and no spells. It all comes down to your attributes and equipment.
          
Battling an orc.
       
Most of the game's length involves circling the land's cities and getting appropriate items and clues. The thieves' guild sells three items that are vital to this process: lock picks for entering the sealed dungeon, climbing gear for crossing mountains, and snow boots for crossing snowy mountains without sliding off in a random direction. With these items, you can cross the mountains in the northern part of the map and visit the remaining cities. A boat is necessary to reach one island town; you can buy one for 1,000 gold pieces or steal one in Tabor Slyth if you find a hidden passage. Late in the game, finding a magic carpet in the dungeon makes travel--which wasn't hard in the first place--a cinch.
           
Climbing gear lets me through the mountains. Note the two entrances to the dungeon.
          
Each city contains around 6-12 NPCs who impart valuable information. The NPCs are more verbose than their counterparts in, say, Ultima II or Ultima III, but there's no complex interaction. At best, you occasionally get a yes or no question. 
            
I get a clue from a thief.
         
The cities and major encounters are:
             
  • New Tear (a possible homage to the Wheel of Time series?), the human city. It has a weapon shop, armor shop, and food shop. An NPC named Bob tells you that trade has been stifled by all the roaming monsters. A thief named Tamara relates how she lost a magical elven torch in the dungeon. John, a sailor, relates finding the city of Optus on a western island.
  • Castle Tarinth. The guards and councilors are abuzz about the recent attacks. Heckel the Historian says that the same type of attack happened 200 years ago, but the paladin was there to defeat the evil creatures. The anguished queen offers to help any hero who will agree to search for her husband.
             
The unnamed queen takes Lord British's role from the Ultima games.
          
  • Elm, the city of elves. Like everyone else, they're upset about the king's kidnapping, saying that he was the only force uniting the lands. Someone saw the king being dragged towards the old dwarven mine.
          
The selection at Elm's weapon shop.
         
  • Gindle Frey, city of dwarves. They operated a mine in the mountains until a recent explosion brought evil creatures boiling out of the earth. The mine has six levels, the first four of which the dwarves call the Great Hall, Lake Town, the Maze, and the Treasure Room.
  • Tabor Slyth, the city of thieves. It lies in swamps to the southeast. It exists to sell you crucial items at the guild, and various NPCs give hints as to why they're necessary.
  • Pawn. Locals call it the "city of perfection." It is nestled in the mountains and reachable only with climbing gear. The inhabitants study the laws of magic. A Master Gulin created a teleportation ring but it was stolen by a thief. Master Reed gives the player the Scroll of Magic if he agrees to seek the king.
  • Mendoris, city of the Eternal Flame, also surrounded by mountains. The inhabitants study wizardry, which deals with the control of demonic beings. The player learns that he can control demons if he learns their names. A quick trial (involving stepping into flames) brings the player to Master Veltic, who offers the Scroll of Wizardry and gives the name of the evil demon threatening the lands as ASHTALAM.
          
A key piece of intelligence.
          
  • Tardis. The city is on the northeast coast, surrounded by snowy mountains. The player needs snow boots or a boat to reach it. The inhabitants study thaumaturgy and the manipulation of gravitational fields. The player learns of the magic carpet and receives the Scroll of Thaumaturgy.
             
Each of the scrolls can be read for hints about the endgame. You don't really need them, however.
          
  • Amber. On the northwest coast, also accessible only with snow boots or a boat. The citizens study alchemy and tell of a potion called Aqua Regia, which dissolves any metal. The player receives the Scroll of Alchemy.
  • Optus, the island city, where the citizens study the "maxim of inner sight." The player receives the Scroll of Sorcery and learns of the Sorcerer's Eye, an artifact that allows for seeing great distances.
           
Each of the three "race" towns (New Tear, Elm, and Gindle Frey) sells special weapons and armor fashioned in race-specific ways. In New Tear, the humans are proud of their inventions of polymers; in Elm, the elves talk of wood from the rare Lormil tree; and in Gindle Frey, the dwarves fashion items from Galvamite ore. Ultimately, I think the best items are Synthetic armor from New Tear and either the Lormil Bow or the Galvamite Axe, but in all cases the items costs thousands of gold pieces and it takes several trips to the dungeon to finance an entire set. I should also mention that you can wear four pieces of armor: the main suit, a helm, gauntlets, and a shield, each piece found in different towns.
          
 A dwarf brags about his materials.
        
There is only one dungeon in the game--the aforementioned dwarven mines--accessible from either side of the central mountains with some lockpicks. The dungeon has creatures much harder than the surface, including balrons, pinchers, vampires, and stalkers, some of which can knock away 1,000 hit points in a single battle even with the best equipment. Carrying a stock of healing potions from the cathedral is vital when exploring the dungeon.
           
These guys are particularly hard.
         
The game gets a lot easier once you grow tough enough to penetrate to the dungeon's fourth level, where you find copious treasure chests. Chests can contain, gold, food, attribute increases, and artifact items--including the magic carpet, the elven torch (which allows you to see in a greater radius), the teleportation ring (which allows you to move two squares in any direction), the Aqua Regia, the Sorcerer's Eye, and an invisibility cloak. Chests (and enemies) respawn when you leave a level and return, so you can grind gold and attributes to epic levels.
          
Finding the magic carpet while a "stalker" waits to attack.
           
The endgame commences on Level 5 of the dungeon. I was able to win, just barely, at character Level 15, with strength and dexterity boosted to about 60 and all the best equipment. There's a water level where you sail a boat around and teleport through a wall (using the ring) to get the Aqua Regia. You then sail into Level 6, where there's a maze. The Sorcerer's Eye helps.
            
The levels are small enough that the Eye isn't strictly necessary, but it helps.
            
At the end of the maze is a battle with balrons and dragons that taxed my healing potion reserves. Once they're dead, an iron golem refuses to let you enter a building. The Aqua Regia takes care of him.
             
If Gandalf had carried acid at this moment, the entire film series would have gone differently.

Wow, I thought golems were non-sentient. I feel bad now.
           
On the other side of the golem is a maze with more balrons and dragons. At the end, you meet the "keeper," who will allow you to pass through the gate to the Nether Region if you have the five magical scrolls. He warns that you can't take any of your items (this is a good time to suck down the rest of your healing potions), but he gives you the paladin's armor and sword to take with you.
             
Yeah, I'd better reload and drink some healing potions first.
            
On the other side of the gate is a maze of fire, where you take damage if you step off the path and into the flames--which I did constantly thanks to the key lag problems I discussed above.
In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea to try to save there.
         
Eventually, you find the entrance to a "city."
              
Classic overlord smack talk.
          
As you explore the small city, Ashtalam's voice taunts you as balrons and dragons attack. It occurred to me that the invisibility cloak might have been useful at some point, but I never thought to put it on. Eventually, you make your way to Ashtalam's chambers. He tells you that he's killed the king and says he's going to do the same to you.
             
This was a blow.

      
You have to push your way up to him as he blasts you with energy, and once you're adjacent to him, you use "The Word" to say his name.

             
Chinese subtitle: "Do not want!" (Did I already make that joke somewhere? I feel like I did.)
            
The endgame text is such:
          
Thanks to you, the demon Ashtalam is no more. He presently resides in the eternal abyss. He was sentenced by higher authorities to spend several lifetimes in torment. His losses on this campaign were outrageous, and therefore much payment is due. Because of your great deeds, you have been chosen by the people to be the king and protector of Tarinth. The queen, though burdened with sorrow from the loss of her husband, has agreed to tutor you in the laws of the land. Once again the 3 nations are united. The people will undoubtedly prosper from new avenues of trade. You are the paladin king!
            
You're teleported back to the castle, and you get to wander the land with a fancy new icon. The queen has some new dialogue, but unfortunately no one else seems to.
              
My heroic new icon talks to the queen.
           
Paladin's Legacy earns a 31 in the GIMLET. The back story is solid and well-referenced throughout the game (4), it makes good use of Ultima-style NPCs (4), and it has a tight and continually-rewarding economy (5). It also does well in the "gameplay" category (5) for its moderate length, medium difficulty, and quasi-nonlinearity. The keyboard-based interface is easy to use (any game that maps each action to a separate key will always get a high score here), but the graphics and sound are only just adequate (3). Combat is the weakest category (1), particularly since the game has no magic system, and everything else is in the 2s and 3s.
           
Thankfully, approaching the castle isn't this hard in-game.
           
Paladin's Legacy was written by Allan Chaney, who maintains a site devoted to the game. Although I said that the game "feels like it was programmed by an adult," Chaney was in fact in high school when he began writing the game--then called Quest for the King of Zandor--in BASIC. A classmate helped him convert it to assembly code. Chaney shopped the game to several publishers before Sundog Systems--a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company operating out of a residential address--agreed to sell it. Chaney reports that sales were good "for about 4 months and then the Color Computer market collapsed and sales stopped." 
              
Sundog had a small catalog of games, but no other RPGs.
           
Chaney cites Ultima and Richard Garriott as his primary inspirations, although some of the navigation obstacles make me wonder if he also played Questron. He notes he was "horrified to find that there were no games like Ultima for the Tandy Color Computer," and that he probably wouldn't have bothered making Paladin's Legacy if Ultima had ever received a Color Computer port.

I left a message on Chaney's site, and I hope it might draw him here for some further comments. Otherwise, we move on to another Ultima clone for the Color Computer, The Seventh Link. It's worth noting that with the completion of this game, all games that appear at the bottom of my "upcoming" list from now on will be from the same list. (Yes, I still have to go back and clean up some pre-1992 discoveries, but we'll talk about that when I get finished with Zerg.) I'm suddenly feeling all kinds of momentum.


Saturday, December 15, 2018

Legends of the Lost Realm: Out of Balance

The party is disproportionately rewarded for doing nothing more than stepping into a particular square.
            
There's a fine line between giving challenges to players and screwing with them, and I don't blame developers for not always getting it right. No one wants a game where all you do is wander hallways and fight monsters, at least not by the late 1980s. You want puzzles, special encounters, and navigation obstacles to spice things up. Plus, games like Alternate Reality showed that you can make the environment as much of a challenge as enemies, with considerations of hunger, thirst, fatigue, heat, and cold. I thus respect what the developers were trying to do. They just messed up subtle aspects of balance that make most of the difference between a challenge and a chore.

Take the issue of "dark" squares, which Legends of the Lost Realm features quite heavily, at least on the levels that I explored. An area resistant to light can pose an interesting navigational challenge. The player has to "feel" his way through the area instead of seeing it, and there are a number of strategies he might adopt for doing so. He has to be extremely careful, because one errant click or extra step can completely throw off his map. It's always a relief to get out of such an area.

So yes, the occasional dark area is fine. What we don't need are some squares that cause regular lights to go out and a separate set of squares that only cause magical lights to go out, and a third set of squares that will sustain any light you bring into them but won't let you re-light your spell or lamp if it happens to go out on its own. That's too much to keep track of.

To assist with navigation, the game offers "homing sticks" that you can buy at the magic shop. The shop sells two varieties: those that are pre-set to return to the barracks, and those that set their destination the first time you use them, then take you to that destination the second time. Together, they're extraordinarily useful, allowing you to zip out of dungeons, get squared away on the town level, and return to the dungeon without having to walk all the way. Except that they don't work in about half the dungeon squares. (Fortunately, trying to use them doesn't deplete their charges and cause them to disappear.) So what should be a useful tool becomes a chore as you wander around the dungeon repeatedly testing the sticks and hoping this square will be the one where it works.
            
"Setting" the homing stick.
         
The homing sticks obviate one of the game's core features: the food, water, and fatigue system. The developers expect the players to keep an eye on these three meters and then eat, drink, and rest accordingly. Except the mechanics for eating, drinking, and resting are so annoying, and the character's inventory so limited, that you'd have to be a true masochist to micromanage canteens and rations when the barracks (where all three meters are restored to 100% automatically) are just a homing stick away. All the logistics do, then, is set an artificially low cap on how long you can explore the dungeons before you have to zip out for sustenance.

There are a lot of other little ways that playing Legends of the Lost Realm feels like being nibbled to death by ducks. To cover a few:
          
  • Many games feature thieves who have a chance of stealing things from the party. I hate this however it's done, but the games that do it "best" give the thief a relatively small chance. Legends' thieves inevitably steal from the party nearly every round. If you face party of 9 of them, 7 of them will pickpocket the party and then slip away, leaving them with no gold.
  • "Burglars" are worse--they can steal items from the party, not just gold. Fortunately, they only target characters in melee range. But this means that the three rear characters have to hold on to everything that the party actually wants to keep--quest items, lanterns, homing sticks, unidentified weapons, and so forth.
  • Between the thieves and the tax man, the party has to visit the bank frequently to avoid constantly losing their life savings. Incidentally, the bank only allows you to deposit and withdraw everything at once; you can't choose a specific amount.
  • Arrows come in stacks of up to 40. They deplete fast--maybe 3 or 4 per combat round. You occasionally find them post-combat in random stacks of between 1 and 40. There's no way to merge multiple stacks, so you're constantly juggling them and you have to equip new stacks every couple of rounds. And when a stack reaches 0, they don't disappear and the character's don't discard them automatically. You have to manually un-equip and discard the "stack" of 0 arrows.
  • The game requires you to equip a weapon before you can pay to identify it. Which means a character capable of equipping the weapon has to be carrying it. Since only fighters can reliably equip everything, you would generally want to store excess weapons with them, except there's an excellent chance they'll be stolen by burglars. So you have to store them with the rear characters and then shuffle them around come identification time.
         
But nothing has been more out-of-balance than the way the game rewards experience. Before I cover that, let's talk about what I accomplished since last time.

First of all, the game unexpectedly got a lot easier. The difficulty problems I related in the first two entries really just plague you for the first character level. Once you hit Level 2, and effectively double your hit points, enemy parties stop being so deadly, and you can afford to resurrect after the occasional character death. I've never seen such a quick pivot in game difficulty.

This relative ease continued as I started to explore the dungeons. I got it in my head somewhere that I wanted to start with the northeast tower--maybe it was in some of the material that someone linked. Anyway, I expected the dungeon to kick it up a notch in difficulty, but instead the enemy parties--aside from the occasional wandering party of 18 fighters and 18 archers--were easier than what I typically faced in the town. Exploring the tower was logistically annoying but I was rarely in any real danger. I often faced only a single enemy at a time.

The northeast tower is called the Tower of War, and like all four of the corner towers, it has two entrances. The tower consisted of two levels, both 20 x 20.
           
The first level. Shaded squares cause lights to go out. That got old fast.
            
The second level was mostly empty.
         
The first level had four squares in which the wall showed me some kind of line drawn on a map. A message on the town level suggested that I would find 16 map pieces, 4 in each corner tower. I figured they'd be spread throughout the tower, but instead they were all grouped relatively close together.
           
Finding the first map piece.
          
Other features of the tower included:

  • The first level had two stairways up, one of them only accessible after we found a silver statue on the dungeon floor. Having the statue in the inventory opened a secret door to the second staircase.
  • A message on the first floor read, "The third test, what is may not be, what is not may be."
  • Two squares on the first floor had encounters with "Flat Head" and "Flat Head's Mom." Both of them were completely immune to everything I threw at them, including unarmed attacks. I had to annotate them for later.
         
The game has mostly avoided this kind of goofiness so far.
       
  • There were two pits going down on the first floor. You need long ropes to travel them safely and I didn't have any. By dropping into them (and taking heavy damage), I found that they led to a long underground area called a "secret passage" with multiple ways up. I suspect all the towers connect to this area. But I had no way to get back up, so I had to reload.
  • In one chamber on the second floor, I found Bracers of Ogre Strength.
           
This is the first unique item I've found so far in the game.
        
Exploring both levels took maybe four or five expeditions from town, returning with a homing stick when I ran low on food, water, or light sources. As I explored, I kept track of how much experience I was earning, because I wanted to return to the Review Board when I was ready for the next level. It was a discouraging experience. My characters needed about 2,000 experience points to advance, and enemy parties were delivering an average of maybe 60 experience points--spread out among a party of 6. I was preparing to write an entry in which I would tell you that after 6 hours of dungeon exploration, I hadn't gained a single level.
           
One of the lamer enemies in the Tower of War.
       
Then, in the northwest corner of the first level of the Tower of War, I ran into a party of 8 guards. Nothing special. I'd fought parties bigger than that before. I killed them without too much problem. Then a message popped up that said, "You have done well! The brave fighters will be rewarded for their courage."
           
That didn't feel like a "boss" combat.
        
Rewarded they were--with about 3,000 experience points for each fighter in the party (somewhat less for the other characters). That was more than I'd earned in the entire game up to this point.

It gets worse. On the second floor, just by wandering into a square, I got a message that said, "Congratulations, you have completed the Tower of War. Fights among you will have gained much experience." Again, it wasn't lying. Each fighter got more than 10,000 experience points. (Again, the three rear characters got somewhat less.) By the time I got done with the Review Board, my fighters were Level 5 and my other characters were Level 3.
          
A fighter goes up two levels at once.
         
The end result is that almost 90% of the experience points I've earned in this game have come from those two squares, and only 10% from the many, many battles I fought to get there. This is pretty nuts. If this continues, there is essentially no purpose to the average combat.
           
Yay! 0.16667% of the way to the next level!
        
As I close, I've begun exploring the Thieves' Tower in the southeast. It's composed of a bunch of small rooms connected by locked doors that my thief has to pick. You'll recall from the last entry that the thief uses his abilities (like all classes do), by "casting" them. Somehow, this actually depletes from his pool of "spell points," and so eventually you run out of points, can't pick any more locks, and have to leave to rest. It's taken me four trips to map one-third of the first level, although I've already found two more map pieces.
            
A repeated message in the thieves' tower.
         
Despite the odd imbalances, the towers have intrigued me just enough to keep me from wrapping up the game with this entry. There are three things the game has me curious about. First, I want to see what kind of puzzle the map pieces are leading to. Second, I'd like to know when and how I can switch to the prestige classes. None of them have been available so far when leveling up, but my attributes are increasing with each level-up, and I imagine it's just a matter of time. The prestige classes have some interesting-sounding skills.

Third, I'm very curious about the uses for some of the game's many spells. So far, I haven't done much with spells. My shaman has put almost everything into "Cure Light Wounds." He has some minor offensive and protective spells beyond that, but nothing I've been eager to sacrifice healing for.

The mage has been less useful than mages in other games. Level 1 mage spells are mostly offensive, but they hardly do anything. "Magical Arrow" is good for a few hit points' damage--far less than a fighter's melee attack. "Hold," "Pain," "Slow," and "Weaken" all sound more useful than they are. They have a minor impact on enemies' stats. "Hold" doesn't even really hold; it just "causes a group of enemies to hesitate."

Level 2 mage spells are almost all about navigation: "Compass," "Lantern Glow," "Mapping," "Determine Location," "Detect Secret Doors," and "Locate Treasure." They'd all be more useful if the dungeons weren't set up to cause the spells to fail in about half the squares you cast them.
            
I'm also curious what some of these items will be used for.
          
But what really has me curious is some of the spells coming up, as well as some of those available if I class-change to witch, healer, wizard, or enchanter classes. Plus, the sorcerer class somehow has the ability to create their own spells based on the characteristics of others in the game. This might be a "first" for CRPGs. It just seems like it's going to take me a long time to get there.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Game 310: Le Maître Absolu (1989)

        
Le Maître Absolu
"The Absolute Master"
France
Ubisoft (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 9 December 2018
Date Ended: 9 December 2018
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I don't often like to repeat myself, but I can't imagine improving on the way that I started my review of Le Maître des Âmes a year ago:
        
Like most French games of the era, including Ubisoft's prior two titles (Fer & Flamme et L'Anneau de Zengara), Le Maître des Âmes ("The Master of Souls") offers a sense of the bizarre that goes beyond the simple fact that it's in a foreign language. French RPGs of the 1980s feature weird combinations of plot elements from mythology, fantasy, and sci-fi, NPC dialogue that makes little sense even in its original language, vague quests, and odd in-game asides. It's as if their developers felt that RPGs were the next frontier for the Surrealist movement. Like the British ZX Spectrum games from the same era, they stand out for their originality in game elements and interfaces. In contrast to Germany, where RPG development was immediately influenced by The Bard's Tale and a few other U.S. titles, France built everything from scratch. More often than not, I hasten to add, the results were weird and unsatisfying rather than praiseworthy, but at least I never look at a French RPG and say "this again?!"
            
Such is true even when a game uses the same engine as its predecessor. Le Maître Absolu is a more colorful sci-fi follow-up to Le Maître des Âmes, and if anything it manages to out-outré the first game. Unfortunately, it maintains many of the same flaws, including a combat system that depends entirely on luck, all-but-invisible character development, and commands that don't seem to do anything.

The box actually subtitles the game Le Maître des Âmes II, but there's no thematic connection between the titles. The near-incomprehensible backstory sets the game in 2523, when a "Terran Alliance" ship discovers the Octopus III, a research vessel that had gone missing 57 years earlier while charting extraterrestrial activity. A squad from the Galactic Intervention Group (GIG) boards the station to investigate.
         
Part of the in-game backstory.
        
The player creates a party of four from six class types: captain, terminal (robot), genetic, special agent, android, and "cybern." The default team is android, terminal, cybern, and special agent, but I went with captain, terminal, genetic, and special agent for my first party. Each is created after rolling scores in vitality, strength, intelligence, wisdom, agility, and charisma on scales of 1 to 100. You get no chance to re-roll or even discard the character during character creation, so you're pretty much stuck with what you get unless you want to reboot the computer. Attributes increase (erratically) with experience, but I'm not sure they play much of a role in the first place.
        
Selecting the class after the attribute roll.
         
You then spend a randomly-rolled number of credits on weapons and armor, including both melee weapons and futuristic ranged weapons. As in the previous game, you can have only two items "active" at a single time, so there's no point in getting more than one weapon and one piece of armor. You want to save some money because many of the NPCs demand credits for advice.
          
Selecting equipment. I'm not sure what the bracelets do.
        
The game begins after you step through the airlock and onto the Octopus III. The characters are shown on the left side of the screen, and an immediate goal is to get weapons and armor equipped. There's a fifth slot for an NPC. The row of icons in the middle is the same as Le Maître des Âmes, just updated to be techy. The actions, from top to bottom, are party arrangement, look, listen (this one never seems to do anything), eat, sleep, use, open door, dialogue, attack, and disk options. The top of the screen shows a compass, an "up in the air" inventory slot, and a face that occasionally has reactions but I otherwise have no idea what it's about.
           
The game begins!
             
The controls, alas, are annoying. As you begin the game, it asks you whether you want keyboard or joystick control, but so-called "keyboard" control mostly consists of moving the cursor with the arrow keys and then hitting SPACE to activate it. There are no easy keys corresponding with the row of icons, for instance, which is mostly unforgivable. You do at least move with the keyboard--specifically the XCV cluster.

As in the first game, the party can be split, but there are no puzzles that require it. Its primary use is to keep the weaker characters (specifically, the terminal) out of combat.

The game consists of 13 small sections connected by elevators. Among the sections, you find enemies, NPCs, food, weapons and armor (though rarely anything much better than your starting equipment), and most importantly, security passes. You find about 8 passes throughout the game, and they're necessary for opening key areas.
            
The different sections of the game.
           
Enemies are unnamed. They're mostly bestial, with the suggestion that the research station was doing experiments on aliens and they escaped. There are giant toads, insect creatures, monstrous plants (looking like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors), lizardmen, and aliens that look a lot like orcs repurposed from Le Maître des Âmes II. When you enter combat, you just keep hitting "attack enemy" until someone dies. Enemies never drop anything; the primary reason to fight them is that they're standing in your way. Sometimes you can blow past them if you're fast, but rarely can you say, enter a room with an enemy, pick up the valuable item in the room, and get out.
            
"I'm just a mean green mother from outer space, and I'm bad."
          
There are 11 NPCs in the game, four of whom will join the party. You have to be careful because you need some of the NPCs (or their items) in particular places, but once they're replaced by other NPCs, they never appear again. The NPCs include:
           
  • Three "dialogue robots" who tell you things about the station.
            
The first hint that the "big bad" is a black stone.
         
  • A giant insect named Crapounick of the Pabo species. He was a prisoner on the station who fled in the confusion.
  • An unnamed researcher who just woke up from hibernation and doesn't know what's going on. He will join the party.
  • Leonihr, ambassador from the Titus Nebula, who took refuge on this ship when her shuttle crashed.
  • Tel, a telepathic blob from Gloubi.
           
Here he is, looking like a Spemin.
          
  • Imos, son of Xeron from System Ega. His system was absorbed by a black hole, and he has come seeking revenge. He will join the party, and he has a security pass necessary for the final door.
  • Hathy-Hen, a G.I.G. agent hiding from pirates. He has a shield that provides protection against the titular Absolute Master and he will join the party.
  • A maintenance robot who helps to repair the central computer.
          
Dialogue with each of the NPCs is through a series of questions: "Identify yourself"; "Who sent you?"; "What are you doing?"; "What do you know?"; and "Give some advice." Some NPCs demand credits for the advice.

Through these dialogues, it becomes clear that the Absolute Master is some kind of black crystal named Tinaus. Tinaus is somehow capable of generating black holes and thus swallowing worlds. It wanders through space until it finds a system to victimize. It has lately attached itself to the Octopus III and is slowly destroying it. This is represented by some fun graphics that show cracks and holes in the bulkheads of some sections, as well as a number of doors that simply open to space and kill the party instantly. You want to save a lot.
            
The master computer warns me that Tinaus is destroying the Octopus III.
The party accidentally spaces themselves by opening a door.
                  
Incidentally, full party death is accompanied by a neat visual:
          
I guess that's a black hole sucking up the Earth's crust. So maybe not so "neat."
           
And some dire text:
         
The last sightings were terrifying. Octopus seemed to draw around it a fog of whirling matter. Suddenly, in an infernal ballet, the Earth left its orbit to go towards this whirpool that had become the ship. It took no more than an hour for the globe to be digested, and less than a week for the solar system to disappear forever.
            
To win the game, you have to first assemble all the security passes to get to the various parts of the ship. One of the passes is held by a giant insect with a single eye that can't be defeated in regular combat; you have to find some poison (or defoliant) spray on the same level.

You have to get the maintenance robot to join the party and then access the central computer, which provides instructions on reaching Tinaus and tells the party to find an item called an Energy Absorber first. This item is in an armory on Level 2, protected by a giant insect who is one of the game's toughest foes.

You have to free Imos from the prison level to get his security pass, and get Hathy-Hen's shield. Once you've assembled the items, you find the right airlock on Level 3 and head out to face the dark crystal. As long as you have the Energy Absorber equipped, he dies quickly. If you don't have it, he doesn't take any damage at all.
             
Very few games bring you face-to-face with a giant space crystal.
          
The endgame screenshot shows the Octopus III returning to Earth:
           
       
You get this final text:
          
This black crystal was indeed the most strange and hostile spacial phenomenon that humanity had the chance to encounter. Traveling for millennia in the form of a common pebble, this titanic life suddenly awoke with a hunger colossal when it created around it a tornado of matter, aspiring galaxies, before returning to its dreams macabre.
            
A winning game takes less than an hour once you know what you're doing. After my first party was depleted exploring the base, I rolled a second party of tougher characters (I didn't need any robot to talk to other robots since I already knew the dialogue) and won it with them.

Miscellaneous notes:
          
  • There is no sound in the game.
  • It's tough to tell which items are interactable and which aren't. Every room has panels, telephones, sinks, and other decorations that look like you should be able to do something with them, but you can't.
       
None of this is interactable.

         
  • A lot of the rooms are dark and require a character with a flashlight to navigate.
  • Some of the characters come with special abilities, but I didn't really find any use for them.
           
The game doesn't GIMLET well. Character creation is very limited, and there's hardly any development. Combat involves mashing a button and hoping for the best. There are few equipment rewards after character creation, and the only "economy" is bribing people with your leftovers. It does best in the overall story and NPCs (3s), but even they're not very good. The final score comes to 19, quite a bit lower than the 30 I gave to Le Maître des Âmes, which was longer and more satisfying although still possessed of many of the same issues.
               
           
Le Maître Absolu has a couple of features that I've come to associate with French games, and Ubisoft's early titles specifically. First, it features a party that degrades throughout the adventure. Most RPG parties start weak and get stronger through character development, their hit points replenishing through healing potions and spells. With this game, and a few others like it, the characters are strongest at the beginning. Their pool of hit points is expected to to last the entire adventure and never really gets replenished. Food and sleep staunch the bleeding but don't really restore much.

Second, the plot seems cobbled together from various fictional sources. I don't know what they are and don't know for sure that this is the case, but it feels like a mélange of characters and themes rather than something created specifically for this game, much in the way that Ubisoft's L'Anneau de Zengara was based on a variety of Conan stories and the themes of Tera: La Cité des Crânes came from the novels of Michael Moorcock and other British sci-fi authors. Perhaps my readers will find something familiar in the plot and proper names described above. It certainly doesn't make much sense that a crystal capable of creating black holes is called "the absolute master."

This was the last (known) game from the minds of Eric Doireau and Christophe Le Scoarnec. (Other than the two Maitres, they worked on a 1988 erotic game called Teenage Queen.) Doireau may have become a sculptor; at least, there is a relatively well-known sculptor of that name and approximately the right age.

1989 was really the last year of the âge d'or of uniquely French RPGs, which started in 1985 with Mandragore and continued with titles like Fer & Flamme (1986), Les Templiers d'Orven (1986), Tera (1986), Inquisitor: Shade of Swords (1987), and the two Maitres. (I still have to check out 1986's Omega: Planete Invisible and Sapiens.) French developers made RPGs after this, of course, but they lose a lot of their outré characteristics in favor of a more conventional western RPG experience. Those will rate higher, but they'll never be quite as interesting as the batch we saw in the late 1980s.