Monday, July 15, 2019

Prophecy of the Shadow: Light Contrast

An Ultima game would have inscriptions on all these headstones, likely in runic, likely rhyming.
           
Prophecy of the Shadow has helped remind me that games often have momentary value that exceeds their inherent value. I think such a statement even applies to entire genres of games. I value RPGs significantly more than, say, first-person shooters, but there are times that a first-person shooter is exactly what the doctor ordered. I value PC games more than console games--except on a winter's evening on the sofa with the fireplace going and a drink on the end table.

In the case of Prophecy, while it's a decent game on its own, it has much greater value as a contrast to Darklands than when considered in isolation. I don't often deliberately engineer my "upcoming" list to create contrasts in approaches, but it's nice when it happens. Darklands is a good game, but it's long, and any long game eventually becomes a bit tiresome. On those days that I take a break from it, the last thing I would want is to play a second game that's exactly like Darklands. Prophecy, fortunately, is the near opposite. This makes me feel better about the game in a way that exceeds what will ultimately be its GIMLET rating.
         
Where Darklands is epic, Prophecy takes a more intimate, personal approach.
          
The Wikipedia entry on the game quotes The New Straits Times as saying that Prophecy is "the game Richard Garriott would have produced were he an SSI employee." (I have to hand it to that Wikipedia author for not only digging up this Malaysian newspaper article but also leading with it.) I, too, have noted what I see as the similarities to Ultima VI, or at least Times of Lore, which used a precursor to the Ultima VI engine. But I exchanged e-mails with author Jaimi McEntire, who said he was more inspired by MicroIllusions' Faery Tale Adventure (1987). This makes sense. While the row of icons recalls the Origin games, the nature of the axonometric graphics and wilderness exploration are more reminiscent of Faery Tale, albeit with many more things to find in a much smaller space.

Another element that Prophecy shares with Faery Tale Adventure is what I would call a "deceptively open world." That is, you can technically go anywhere (at least, after you leave the starting island), but you're mostly wasting time if you don't hit the locations in a specific order. For instance, even if you can get past the fireball-speweing "gazers" in the northern part of the continent this early in the game, there's no point visiting the city of Malice until you have an object from Granite Keep that will allow you to enter the temple. Prophecy, at least, gives you more clues as to which areas it makes the most sense to visit next.
          
These guys give you no quarter.
    
Many elements of the game that seem to suffer in contrast to Ultima are clear improvements if we consider Faery Tale Adventure as the base. NPC dialogue is more meaningful, the combat more tactical. Even the equipment system, which features no armor or other wearable equipment, is more advanced.
       
At the end of the last session, I had been warped to the main continent from the starting island with instructions to take the prophecy to the Guild of Mages in Silverdale. My attempts to stray from this path having been thwarted, I first visited the nearby village of Glade. There, I found an NPC named Chester the Great (no relation) who teaches "acrobatics" for 500 silver pieces. Functionally, this improves your agility score. Health and magic improve from using them.
          
Best NPC name ever.
          
Another of Tethe's mage hunters was coming out of the defunct ferry building, and I was forced to kill him. On his body was a "suspect list" that included "Gerald of Glade" and "Goren of Silverdale."

I eventually found their houses, but while exploring I stumbled into the abandoned silver mines east of Glade. A note in a miner's journal indicated that the mine had been attacked and overwhelmed by gnomes. I didn't get far in the mines because I kept getting attacked by "creeping oozes," which do unbelievably devastating damage. I was also running a full inventory again, and didn't see anything particularly obvious to discard. As we'll see in the next entry, it's a blessing that I decided to retreat instead of finishing this dungeon this early.
          
These guys are nearly impossible.
           
Garen and Gerald both turned out to be mages-in-hiding who had huts in between Glade and Silverdale. They both reacted with horror to the vellum scroll containing the prophecy, and told me they would gather the Council of Mages again in Silverdale. The guild is closed until you find these two NPCs, apparently.

Garen and Gerald, who were of course trying to remain icognito, pretended to be big fans of Cam Tethe, but other NPCs didn't hesitate to criticize. A man named Arian claimed to be the former mayor of Silverdale before Tethe abolished civil government. A few others whispered about a Resistance.
             
Sorry; I'm with the Oppression.
          
At the guild, the mages complained that they only had part of the prophecy, so as the next step, they sent me to the Great Library to obtain the whole thing. None of them knew where the Library was, but they related that Larkin had recently visited with someone named Urik of Glade. URIK became a new keyword, and one NPC told me that last summer, Urik had left the area to seek out Maia, a forest witch, and then go hunt a legendary boar along the coast.
        
If you return to the Guild before finishing your quest, the mages are mean.
 
Let's pause to consider the nature of NPC dialogue. It's better than most games of this era--which have no dialogue at all--and of course Faery Tale, where each NPC only had a single thing to say. Still, I'd rather than the author had pared down the selection of keywords and responses rather than allow me to ask every NPC almost every keyword in the game. Most NPCs only have substantive responses to one or two words, and a good portion (including the entire city of Jade) have no substantive responses at all. The NPCs give stock responses to most of the keywords, even when those stock responses are completely out of character for the specific NPC. For instance, when I meet a peasant in a town, it makes sense for him to say, in response to TETHE (the regent): "He's our ruler. Nice guy, huh? His indentured servant work plan has gone over real well with us peasants." It makes less sense when the same line is delivered by a forest nymph. And why do I have the option to ask so many NPCs about FOOD and DRINK and LODGING when they just stare at me blankly or tell me to go to the inn?
           
Why even offer me the keyword?
         
I headed for the coast, battling a new enemy called "torloks" along the way. I soon found a grave marking for Urik along with a journal that placed the Great Library in the forest south of a hunter's lodge. Intel in Glade had suggested that the hunter's lodge would be just south of Glade, so that narrowed down the area. I later met Maia but she had nothing new to offer.

Around this time, I stumbled into the city of Granite, where the innkeeper, in response to the keyword RUMOR, told me of a man who "came in with a pack that was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside." Unfortunately, he "disappeared beneath the city."
          
From the moment I heard of its existence, the Pack of Holding was my most important priority.
         
This is a classic CRPG moment. Friends, family, prophecies, the fate of the world . . . they all go out the window the moment you hear a Bag of Holding is nearby. I was soon wading through the sewers beneath Granite in search of this treasure, which I finally found next to the corpse of its previous owner. Sure enough, activating it gives you enough slots to just about quadruple your inventory space. That was a palpable relief. It's amazing how much something like inventory mechanics can ruin your experience of a game. After I found the bag, my only complaint was how using any item causes you to un-equip your active weapon, which means you have to remember to re-equip it or you end up fighting with your fists.

With the encumbrance issue addressed, I started looking for passages in the lump of forest that I had to circle around to get to Granite in the first place. I finally found a route that led to the Great Library, but not before passing by a cave of torloks first. I explored it and kill about a dozen torloks and wolves, culminating in the torlok chieftain. After he was dead, the game invited me to take his tongue. I took it, of course, because another unwritten rule of RPGs is that if a weird or unusual item appears, it will almost certainly be needed in a quest later. That's why I have a rotting head in my sack along with the tongue.
          
Winding my way through the Great Forest.
       
Eventually, I reached the library. The game does books well, imbuing each with a decent amount of text and lore. The "Gazer/Common Dictionary" presents gazers as an ancient race destroyed by their own pursuit of magic. Another book discusses how apprentice mages were sent to the last gazer, Bardach, who lives in a grotto on a small island southwest of the mainland.
            
Some of the books are quite wordy. No complaints, though.
         
Fighting through feral rats and more torloks, I made it to the second floor of the library, where I found the prophecy on a pedestal. "Seek ye the last of the High Gazers," it said. I headed back to the Mages' Guild, but they wouldn't even let me in the door. A terse message simply said, "The council instructs you to do as the Prophecy said." Well.
             
Searching the Great Library as a torlok wanders along.
          
The map doesn't show an island off the southwest coast, but there's room for one, so I headed in that direction after a failed attempt to enter Granite Keep to confront Tethe. (I apparently need a key.) The journey took me into the "Withering Lands," where I had to slay a few desert bandits. I got distracted by a hole in a cemetery leading down to "burial crypts," where I found the "Terrae Motus" spell (tremors) as well an earthen wand. Surprisingly, there were no enemies in the burial crypt.
          
Like many places in the game, the burial crypts had some evocative graphics.
          
There was no way to walk to the island (you can't swim in this game), but in the southern tip of the Withering Lands, I found a pair of side-by-side conical rocks, which indicated a teleporter location. I tried Larf's Rod there, and it seemed to take me to the southwest island. South of where I arrived, I found another pair of rocks, and using the rod there took me to the Gazer's Grotto.
         
Pairs of stones like this denote teleporter locations.
        
Although Bardach is supposed to be the "last gazer," clearly he isn't because there were hostile gazers wandering around the grotto. I don't know how you're supposed to defeat them without copious reloads since they immediately blast you with fireballs that deplete dozens of hit points. I had some luck killing them with a great bow that I found near the grotto entrance, but you have a limited number of arrows and I ran out after two gazers. After that, whether I lived or died was down to luck.

The game has an odd relationship with hit points and hit point regeneration. As long as you have food, you get one hit point and one magic point restored for roughly every 30 seconds. If you have no food, you suffer no ill effects except that you get no regeneration, which makes sense, but if you're already at maximum health and magic, the game still consumes a unit of food every half-minute. This means that food (which maxes at 99) lasts no more than about 45 game minutes and is mostly wasted unless you get wounded. At first, I was angry at this paradox, but then I realized that the regeneration benefits from food are dwarfed by those from resting--which restores 5-10 hit points and magic points, and you can do every 3 minutes, anywhere in the game. In short, it makes little sense to waste money on food, and if you're willing to wait around a while between combats, you can get your health back up to maximum with a few rest breaks and the occasional casting of "Curare." Perhaps that's why the game introduces so many enemies that can swipe away your maximum hit points in three blows. I'd mind more if combat or reloading took longer, but they don't. Reloading five times to defeat one gazer is still a shorter process than regular combats in some games.

In one chamber, tablets related the history of the High Gazers, who learned to mistrust the instability of magic and turned their attention to natural laws instead. They created less intelligent servants to do the work while the High Gazers studied and researched, bur their working class eventually came under the control of a mage named Abraxus, who incited the lesser gazers to overthrow their masters. When I finally met Bardach, he said that to stop the end of the world, I would need to "restore the gold stolen by the sorcerer Abraxus" (I am compelled to note that this name sounds like a household cleaner) and he gave me directions to an ancient ruin called the Hall of Mages to do this.
           
Learning the history of the High Gazers.
        
The Hall of Mages was the site of the last battle with Abraxus. There, documents discussed a couple of measures used in times past to deal with Abraxus, including a weapon that negates magic and a spell to discover the true name of Death, and thus compel him to kill Abraxus. The weapon, called the Sword of Power, was apparently a failure. But when the mages called Death, he killed the entire council after destroying Abraxus, so that plan went a bit awry, too. Other notes mention that "all the gold in the world is gone" and that the weakest catalyst, lead, is now "the only source of magic."

I couldn't find a way out of the Hall of Mages without trekking all the way back through the grotto, so I used REPETERE to return to Bannerwick--the last place I cast it. From there, I made my way back to Silverdale and, predictably, found all the guild members slaughtered.
         
I love how a primitive medieval society still apparently has a C.S.I. unit.
     
The game stopped leading me by the hand at this point, but I could tell from the map that the only places I hadn't visited were the Fell Swamp, the city of Jade, the city of Malice, and Granite Keep. In the next session, I ultimately figured it out and won the game. I was figuring that Cam Tethe must be some modern incarnation of Abraxus, and that the endgame would take place in the Keep, but it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that.
                  
My travels this session.
          
This deep into the game, its most disappointing aspect is the paucity of useful spells. For most of this session, the only spell I cast was "Curare," or the healing spell. The fireball spell, "Incindiere," really doesn't do enough damage relative to a melee weapon to justify it. Two others that I found--"Inlustrare" (light) and "Oculorum" (eagle eye)--both have replacements in inventory items, making it a waste of points to cast the spells.

More soon, but for now it's time to win Darklands!

Time so far: 12 hours

P.S. I'm not satisfied with the subtitle. I wanted something that would play on "Shadow" and perhaps the "Dark" of Darklands but still emphasize the contrast between the games (and the idea of contrast in general, since I was also contrasting it with Ultima and Faery Tale Adventure). I spend a lot of time on subtitles--more than really makes sense--and it irks me when I can't get one just right.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Darklands: Heaven Help Us

Praying to a saint causes direct damage to a demon.
          
If you were designing a real religious system from scratch, this wouldn't be a bad way for it to work. The world is governed by a large number of mini-gods, or "saints," each in charge of a different portfolio of existence. When you need to get something done that exceeds your normal abilities, you call for a saint's aid. But doing so requires that first you have been studious--that you have taken time to learn about the saint and his life, and the lessons that his biography has to impart. It also requires that you are virtuous, or the saint simply won't listen to your prayer. Finally, you can't over-rely on saints by calling for their help too often.

This is what people in the medieval period believed, and so it's what the game runs with--a system of divine magic entirely unlike anything presented to us in other RPGs. Perhaps the closest is The Dark Heart of Uukrul, which contrasted a system of deterministic arcane magic with a system of divine magic that basically put you at the god's whim. But things are more deterministic here. The saints operate on a specific formula. You have to have a minimum virtue to have any chance with them at all. Once you've crossed the threshold, your virtue determines the probability that the saint will act on your behalf for a specific amount of invested "divine favor," a statistic that is replenished largely by doing good deeds.

First you have to know about the saint in the first place. There are about 140 total saints in the game. Each town's kloster (most towns have one) teaches three or four of them, and your party can study in each kloster about once a week, imparting knowledge of a saint to a single character. You can also learn about saints at universities and from wandering hermits.
        
Part of the very long list of saints that one character has learned.
       
Once you know a saint, there are two ways to call upon him. The first is situation-specific. The game describes a situation and offers "call upon a saint" as one of the options, if you know any saints that might help. Hovering over this sub-menu gives you a list of saints that might offer something in the current scenario. For instance, St. Lutgardis might assist if you need to levitate over something, such as a city wall where the guards are looking to arrest you.
        
St. Boniface is a good one when you need to purify something Satanic.
        
But you can also call on saints at your own whim from the character menu, praying on behalf of one of your party members. For instance, the same St. Lutgardis will temporarily improve perception, virtue, and charisma for the prayed-for character. Every saint has a selection of attributes and skills that they improve.

I find myself using some saints repeatedly. If it's important that I visit a city's political leader without getting kicked out, I pray to St. Alcuin. He raises the "Read/Write" skill, intelligence, and "Read Latin." But he also makes noblemen more disposed to see you instead of kicking you to the curb. More important is St. Gregory Thaumaturg, who among other things increases the "Artifice" skill. It's only because of his help that I've gotten through the doors and chests in most of the indoor areas. None of my characters do well with this skill.
          
Praying to St. Gregory gives Bianca more "Artifice" skill.
        
I was frankly hoping for more from St. Crispin, whose day I know as sure as my own birthday. Every 25 October, patient Irene listens to me recite the speech from Henry V, though in the last few years, in the interests of time, I've taken to doing it in the shower. Anyway, I was disappointed to find that all St. Crispin does in this game is improve the quality of non-metal armor. 

In case you're curious, St. Edward the Confessor is the most laissez-faire saint in the game, responding to prayers from people with virtue as low as 5. He increases endurance, intelligence, perception, all the weapons skills, and "Riding." On the other side, St. Ita is the biggest prig. She won't give you the time of day unless you have a virtue of 85. She performs some pretty significant healing, but there are lots of saints who heal.

In my last couple of entries, I mentioned that I was trying to find information on St. Wenceslaus, to whom I needed to pray to end the constant aggravation of Wild Hunts. When I started this session, I made a list of all of the cities in the Empire and crossed them off one-by-one as I visited their monasteries and found no information about St. Wenceslaus. At first, I tried to thread these visitations with quests, but eventually I got so impatient that I abandoned all other pursuits and just ran from town to town. I finally learned about the saint at the kloster in Marienberg, in the far northeast of the map.
       
At last!
        
When I invoked Wenceslaus against the Wild Hunt, it had a satisfying ending--but an annoying promise of return.
           
That's all right: I know all the saints by now.
          
This occurred after about 6 hours of random adventuring, building my finances and my fame. I ended the session with the party's fame at 615, or "legendary heroes," which is the highest classification that you can get. Other than the usual--robber knights, artifact quests, Wild Hunts, boars, spiders, wolves, schrats, bandits, pilgrims, towns full of witches, and so forth--the only new experience was an encounter with a knight, where I had the options to challenge him to either a race or a joust. Since my characters suck in both "Polearms" and "Riding," the result was predictable.
         
A fancy game for fancy lads.
             
I solved another mine quest. This one involved a bunch of "vulcans"--basically, fire elementals--who had managed to open a gate on the lower level of the mine. I had to battle my way through them and close it. The creatures are particularly annoying because they degrade armor quality, and by the time I was done with the adventure, I basically had no armor left. If I'd had a few "Firewall" potions, the monsters would have been easier, but I just fought through them rather than leaving the mine to go buy some.
          
I want to call attention to the skillful use of dactylic octameter here. You can sing this verse to the same tune as "Out in the West Texas Town of El Paso."
         
During these experiences, I tested and confirmed my theories about armor. Specifically, I think it's better to have everyone wearing plate, top and bottom, accepting the consequences of over-encumbrance, than to equip lesser armor and remain below the encumbrance limit. With all my characters in plate, hardly any enemies do any damage at all, so it hardly matters if the characters are slower on the swing. To ameliorate the effects of encumbrance during tougher battles, I invested heavily in "Ironarm" and "New-Wind" potions, which raise maximum strength and endurance respectively.
          
My party hits new heights of fame and wealth.
       
In fact, I spent nearly every coin I made on potions, buying roughly three "Essence of Grace" potions to every one "Ironarm" and "New-Wind." I sold my ingredients and stopped wasting time trying to make my own. Yes, I know that you can theoretically make more powerful ones if you make your own, but it's easier just to buy two. 

I kept firing a couple of handgun volleys before each combat, and before long my characters all had near-99 skills in "Impact Weapons," "Edge Weapons," and "Missile Weapons." The handguns are a lot of fun. They're very slow, but they take the edge off demons and Templars nicely at the beginning of a battle. 
         
The temple had multiple combats with multiple plate-clad Templars.
         
When I thought I was ready, I tried my assault on the Templar compound again. The building is large and multi-leveled, with about 20 battles against knights, soldiers, hell hounds, and bears. (The random battles with multiple enemies were much harder than the two "boss" battles, described below.) There were lots of chests with treasures, including three holy relics (I hadn't encountered any until now): St. Olaf's battle axe, St. Hubert's bow, and St. Raphael's water. Is it blasphemous to equip the first two as actual weapons? Are they particularly good weapons? I guess we'll see.

It's fun to reflect on the game's treatment of Templars and witches. The manual is unapologetic about basing its depictions on 15th-century popular ideas of witchcraft. It draws a distinction between this kind of witchcraft and benign neo-paganism of the 20th century. Similar, the idea that Templars were actually Satanists comes from 14th-century persecutions of the order by the Avignon Papacy. Hundreds of Templars were arrested, tortured, and forced to confess to homosexuality, Satanism, and the worship of a demon named Baphomet. The authors of the game of course knew that none of this was true, but the average 15th-century commoner didn't, and thus that's how the game treats the order.
          
The party comes across a gathering of evil witches . . . which is ridiculous 'cause witches they were persecuted, Wicca good and love the Earth and women power and we'll be over here.
           
The battles in the Templar headquarters were difficult, but I kept the party going on enough potions to have purchased my own kingdom. Eventually, I found the chambers of the order's Preceptor and heard him talking about the seals that protect the castle of their "Master." The Preceptor attacked me alone and died quickly, leaving a high-quality set of plate armor.
          
My first two characters fight the Preceptor in melee combat while my rear characters shoot him.
           
At the top of the fortress, I met a demon in a hot room full of smithy fires. I prayed to St. Dymphna ahead of the ensuing battle, and the demon was significantly weakened. He died very quickly, and afterwards we broke the seal on the holy book that we found in the room. "Suddenly," the game told me, "you know that your ultimate fate lies south of Salzburg." I already guessed that from having stumbled upon the castle when I was searching for the witches' High Sabbat.
          
Another step solved in this quest.
        
Miscellaneous notes:
           
  • I really enjoy the puzzle doors in the mines. Here are a few if you want to try your skill:
            
Hope you have a Bible handy!
Svir'f fgngrzrag vaqvpngrf lbh arrq na rira-ahzorerq snpr gb bcra gur qbbe. Guerr'f rafherf gung gur guerr rira ahzoref unir gur guerr anzrf. Bar'f fgngrzrag ehyrf bhg Qbbe Gjb, yrnivat Qbbef Sbhe naq Fvk. Fvk'f naq Sbhe'f fgngrzragf gbtgure zrna gung Qbbe Fvk vf Tbyvoreg, juvpu pna'g or gur evtug qbbe orpnhfr Gjb fnvq gb bcra vg. Gung yrnirf Qbbe Sbhe.
Snprf Bar, Gjb, naq Sbhe unir qrcraqrag fgngrzragf, fb gurl'er rvgure ylvat be gryyvat gur gehgu gbtrgure. Fvapr vs Bar naq Gjb jrer obgu ylvat, gur nafjre jbhyq or qvssrerag qbbef, gurl zhfg or gryyvat gur gehgu. Fvapr tbyq pnaabg bcra gur qbbe (Snpr Sbhe), Snpr Svir vf ylvat naq guhf fb vf Snpr Guerr, fb cre Snpr Sbhe, gur qbbe zhfg or fvyire.
             
  • I figured out the nature of the bug that has prevented me from collecting any robber knight rewards in Flensburg. It's not just Flensburg. If the town doesn't have a "town hall" and the only political leader is located at a separate castle or burg, he never acknowledges that you've completed his quests.
  • I haven't played an Infinity Engine game in over 10 years, but I constantly catch myself hitting the "equals" sign (=) because that was the "select all party members" key in those games. This game doesn't even have a comparable key. 
  • I started spending more time storming robber knights' castles in this session instead of just calling them out or sneaking in and fighting them one-on-one. You get more wealth that way.
  • Going into this session, Bianca was my character with the highest "Artifice" ability at about 25. Somehow, she lost all of it--her skill is at 0. I don't think there's a non-bug mechanism that would account for this. 
  • I found yet another witches' High Sabbat and again destroyed it, but I didn't learn anything new. 
  • You can tell when a town is full of Satanists. when they get something screwed up about Catholic doctrine. 
         
Basic Christianity: knowing good from evil is a bad thing.
        
Selling all the equipment that I looted in the Templar fortress netted me nearly 300 florins, which is about as much as I need to restock my potions and go for the castle south of Salzburg. I've been assuming that the witchcraft/Templar/demon plot is the "main quest" of the game, but feel free to tell me if I'm on the wrong track or if there's anything I should do before heading to what I assume is the endgame.

As I came to the end of this session, I became determined to track down a dragon. I keep hearing rumors of dragons north of one town, east of another, but every time I've searched in the stated direction, I haven't found anything. This time, I started in Flensburg, where rumors around the political center said that there was a dragon ravaging areas to the south. I rode south to Hamburg and heard the same rumors, but this time to the southwest. In Bremen, I heard south again. 

A few klicks south of Bremen, I encountered a message that "the land is sere and lifeless," the trees nothing more than "blasted stumps," a ruined village in the distance.
            
Darklands segues smoothly into Fallout.
          
Not far away, I came to the destroyed village:
              
They shouldn't have killed Missandei!
          
But I found no sign of the dragon. In Osnabrück, they said it was south. In Soest, southwest. There, I got another message that the creature destroying the landscape had also poisoned the waterways. In Köln, rumors had the creature to the east, so I felt I was closing in. But I still found nothing, and suddenly I stopped hearing rumors of dragons when I visited nearby cities. I hope I get a bead on one again. I was looking forward to seeing what dragons look like in this game.
       
Time so far: 59 hours

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Game 335: Prophecy of the Shadow (1992)

              
Prophecy of the Shadow
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 24 June 2019
             
SSI began as a wargame company, and their best games--principally the Gold Box series and the Wizard's Crown series--have always reflected those roots. Nonetheless, by 1992, the company seemed to be on a mission to dominate, or at least compete in, every RPG sub-genre. Eye of the Beholder and its sequel were their answers to the first-person, real-time category, while Shadow Sorcerer took inspiration from British axonometric titles. Neverwinter Nights had virtually no competition online. The company's streak of 22 published RPGs between 1991 and 1994 has never been broken on the personal computer. 

Prophecy of the Shadow is so blatantly the company's answer to the Ultima VI that it's a wonder they didn't license the "look and feel" from Lord British the way they did for Questron. It's got the same mostly-top-down-but-slightly-oblique perspective, the same row of icons with keyboard backups (even most of the icon symbols are the same), the same targeting of enemies and objects with a cursor, the same keyword-based NPC dialogue, and the same continuous scrolling movement through a landscape that desperately wants you to think it's not just tiles but really is.
           
Character creation even has some Ultima IV-style questions.
         
But just like Ultima clones from independent developers with a lot fewer resources, Prophecy of the Shadow lacks a lot of Ultima's complexity. To start, you control only one character. The box puts an exclamation point after the game's single-character nature, as if that by itself is a good thing, as if other developers were sitting around thinking, "Gee, it never occurred to us to allow the player to control just one guy." It also greatly simplifies the inventory--the protagonist can wield one object at a time and can wear nothing at all--and it runs dialogue by feeding the keywords to you. (In many ways, it's more like Origin's Times of Lore, which used an early version of the U6 interface, than Ultima VI.) Whether by intention or limitation, it's clearly geared towards the RPG novice.
           
The game map shows a small world. I already explored the northwest island.
           
None of this means that it's a bad game. There's always a place for an easy, familiar title telling a new story. Here, the story is probably the game's best feature. It calls upon familiar tropes without being overly cliched or obviously based on a single source. Told mostly in the form of the naive protagonist's journals, the backstory casts the character as an apprentice mage in a world where magic is outlawed. In infancy, he washed ashore on the island of Bannerwick, which I gather is part of the larger kingdom of Ylowinn. This is a world in decline. Every season, the crops get smaller and plants go extinct. Mines are exhausted of ore. Civilization itself seems to be coming apart at the seams; when the local ferry to the mainland breaks down, no one bothers to repair it. A princess named Elspeth was supposed to take charge on her 18th birthday, but she mysteriously disappeared, leaving the land in the hands of the regent Cam Tethe, who blames a conspiracy of mages for the disappearance and spends more time hunting them than searching for Elspeth.
            
An NPC delivers part of the backstory.
        
The townsfolk distrusted a baby who managed to survive the sea unscathed, so it was left to the local healer, Larkin--himself regarded with suspicion--to raise and tutor the child. The child of course becomes you. You've had so little contact with the outside world all your life that when you head into town at the beginning of the game, no one knows who you are.
          
"Yeah! I hope you find . . . him!"
        
In the game's opening moments--so sudden as to be comical, particularly with the accompanying scream--Larkin is assassinated by a thrown dagger, leaving the protagonist to bury him in the back yard. With his dying breath, Larkin tells his ward to "get the text of the prophecy from Berrin," as "it must go to the council in Silverdale," which is on the mainland.
          
The main character's master dies in the opening scenes.
                  
In these opening moments and almost all the NPC dialogues that follow, we see that Prophecy of the Shadow was on the cutting edge of what would become the early- and mid-1990's worst trend: the use of full-motion video (FMV) instead of computer animation (or just static graphics). Naturally, the subjects of these animations were whoever was sitting around the developers' offices and not actual actors. Blessedly, it only seems to have been about five years before developers realized this was not the wave of the future, and I don't remember seeing FMV after about 1998, though of course there are a lot of titles I haven't played.
          
A little FMV upon entering the inn.
        
Character creation is a simple process of giving your name and sex. A few role-playing questions set your initial values for health, magic, and agility. Health and magic are both attributes and pools of points, and the maximum goes up with successful actions (swinging weapons and casting spells), which is a bit different than the Ultima titles. These attributes automatically regenerate, albeit slowly, as long as you have food. If you run out of magic points, you can still cast spells, but they draw directly from your health.

A row of icons--all, blessedly, with keyboard equivalents--defines how you interact with the world: look, attack, cast a spell, enter, drop, search, use, give, and rest. "Search" on Larkin's door mat revealed an iron key to his house, but all I can do there is spend the night.
             
Using the L)ook command--and learning a new piece of vocabulary.
          
As I began the game, the passages through the forest around Larkin's house naturally guided me to his neighbor, Berrin, who related that rumors have already spread that I killed Larkin. He gave me the key to Larkin's workshop but otherwise wouldn't help me (including giving me the prophecy) until I could prove my innocence. Behind Berrin's house, incidentally, are two gravestones--his wife and son--both "killed by guardsmen." I wonder if that bit of backstory will later come out.

Larkin's workshop was accessed through an underground hatch near the house. There, I found a book of spells and a "lead catalyst." You have to be holding a catalyst in your hands to cast a spell, and I guess lead is the lowest-level catalyst. The book had four spells: "Incendiere" is a basic fire blast that strikes one target; "Curare" is a healing spell; and "Memoria" and "Repetere" are a pair of mark/recall spells that let you designate a point and later warp back to it.

Using the game map as a guide, I eventually made my way to town, where I found about half a dozen NPCs, including some generic "peasants." You converse by selecting keywords on the left side of the screen. As the NPCs respond, more keywords appear. Today, the local news was that the sheriff had caught Robin One-Eye, a famed bandit whose gang lives in the woods north of town. I was able to visit Robin One-Eye in jail but he just taunted me.
         
Getting lore from a local. Where did a bunch of programmers get access to so many actors who look like unwashed peasants with bad facial hair?
       
I also heard some talk of Larf the Terrible, a gnome wizard who lives in a tower to the east. There was a note in Larkin's workshop that a circle of mages expelled Larf for necromancy. I suspect that either Robin or Larf is responsible for Larkin's death, and I'll somehow need to prove it to get off the island.

The local shop had some weapons and other items that were outside my price range, although the innkeeper was willing to pay me 10 silver for odd jobs. I repeated this option about 8 times before he finally said he had nothing more for me to do. I bought a sling and a torch but spent most of my money on food.

Outside of town, I started encountering bandits. Attacking is a matter of hitting "A" (or the attack button) and then moving the cursor to your foe. If you have a melee weapon equipped, you can only target the 8 squares around you. (Well, technically you can target your own square, but the game just admonishes you not to attack yourself.) If you have a missile weapon, you can aim anywhere in the visible window. Missile weapons are tricky because enemies will typically move out of the square before the missile reaches them, meaning that you really want to attack the square in the direction they're going. It strikes me that missile weapons are going to be mostly useless in this game. There simply isn't enough distance in the view window, and enemies close the gap too fast.

You can cast a spell instead of attacking by using the spell catalyst--or, if it's already equipped, hitting the M)agic button. At the outset, I only had "Incendiere," which kills most enemies in a couple of castings, but two castings cost 20 magic points out of the 45 I started with.

If you choose to fight with a weapon, your health occasionally goes up a point. If you cast spells, your magic pool occasionally goes up a point. This is the game's approach to "character development."
         
My health increases as I kill a bandit.
        
Slowly, I explored the rest of the island. It turned out there were two major indoor areas to explore: the bandit camp and Larf's tower. You need a rope from the former to access the latter. I needed a password to enter the bandit camp, which required me to trudge back to town and buy Robin One-Eye a bottle of white zinfandel before he would tell it to me: ZINFANDEL.
           
Why does zinfandel have such a bad reputation? I rather like it.
        
The bandit camp was one small level and one large level. I had to kill a bunch of bandits. I rather like the game's search function. If you wander over to a chest, a dead body, or just an interesting area, you hit S)earch, and the game tells you what you find. It's rather tolerant in its distance allowance, so you don't have to hit the command every step. A lot of what you find are notes, journals, and other writings that flesh out the game's lore.

The bandit camp held a few healing potions, a rope, a rapier (better than the starting dirk), a magic potion, and several black potions. The black potions are acid that damage you when you drink them, so I'm not sure what good they do. Late in the dungeon, I fought and killed a "mage killer," who was carrying a "death warrant" for Larkin.
             
The "T," of course, probably stands for "Tethe."
           
A book called The Joy of Pies held a treasure map that directed me to a specific square from one of the stone heads on the island. There, I found a chest with several pieces of jewelry.

By now, I was running up against the inventory limit, which dogged me the rest of the session. It became clear that you want to drop most items as soon as their utility is done, including keys and notes. Actually, a better idea is probably selling them to the general store, because the store keeps sold items in their inventory and will re-sell them to you in case you made a mistake. The problem is that you constantly have to leave locations and trudge back to the general store. I ended up selling most of the black potions because I couldn't find any use for them and they were preventing me from picking up other things. I also sold all the jewelry I found, assuming it was for that purpose.
             
A few too many things in my backpack.
          
Showing the death warrant to the sheriff cleared my name, and showing it to Berrin prompted him to give me the prophecy on a vellum scroll. I read the prophecy. Larkin's notes indicted that "most of it has already come to pass."
           
And it shall come to pass that in the day, the end of all days, a Shadow will come forth from the wilderness. The Lord of the Shadows, the Bringer of Darkness, the Master of Death. At his hand, Evil will arise anew. Green fields will wither, and a plague will smite the land. Cry mothers for your children, for when you see these things, know ye that the fate of the world hangs in the Balance.
             
It's probably going to turn out that Cam Tethe is the Lord of the Shadows, but it would be nice if the game had some kind of twist on the standard template, like maybe it's me (I did kind-of come out of the wilderness). Either way, I had to get off the island. Since the ferry was broken, I turned to the only place I hadn't explored: Larf's tower. It sits in a ruined heap on the coast, near a graveyard where a ghost wanders. I tried talking to him, but it didn't work.
          
Maybe later, I'll find a "Seance" spell.
        
A rope gets you into the basement of the tower, which turned out to consist of five levels. Every one is dark, so you need a light source. The game keeps track of torches as a statistic, along with food and silver, rather than as inventory items, but you need a flint and steel in your inventory to light them. An alternative is to purchase a lamp and lamp oil, the latter of which is also tracked as a statistic. It would be a waste of inventory space, I gather, to have both a lamp and flint and steel.
          
Arriving in the dungeon.
        
The levels of Larf's tower were full of evidence of Larf's macabre experiments, including zombies that I had to kill. His notes indicated that he was more than a necromancer: he was a serial killer, having captured living subjects for many of his rituals. These notes also said that he eventually created an undead butler to serve him, but the creature went insane, stole something called a "translocation rod," and hid it in a lower level of the tower. Larf was apparently making plans to destroy the creature when it attacked him in his bed at night, killing him and leaving his severed head behind.
           
Later, I killed the butler, Jeffers, with fireballs.
         
This scene is graphically illustrated, and it's worth making a note that the graphics are detailed enough that they can show rather than just tell evocative stories like this. This hasn't been true of many games up until now, but it's good to see it becoming more common. We'll of course see another murder scene with the same level of gruesome detail in the upcoming Ultima VII.
        
The gruesome scene.
        
I eventually killed the butler--the hardest creature in the game so far--with a few "Incendiere" spells. I recovered the rod, which allows transportation to the mainland when used between a couple of stones northwest of the tower. I also had the option to take Larf's head. I have it for now, but I 'm not sure if there's any long-term use for it. Other treasure included a better catalyst (platinum), a magic weapon called a "Dirk of Sharpness," and a scroll that gave me the "Inlustare" (light) spell.
            
Now I guess I can eschew both lamps and torches.
         
I used the rod in the right location and found myself transported to the mainland. I explored a while before concluding that I was in the northern part of the map, near the town of Glade. Larkin insisted that the prophecy had to get to Silverdale, to my southeast, but I'm tempted to go to the northern tip to the town of Malice and work my way systematically down to Silverdale.

So far, it's been an inoffensive little game, but I wonder if there was really much of a market for a "lite" RPG. Were there legions of gamers in 1992 thinking, "I'd really like to play role-playing games, but they're just too complicated"? I guess we'll see when we check the reviews. I can't imagine this one will take more than three entries, but perhaps it has some tricks up its sleeve.

Time so far: 4 hours