In a response to my first posting, a blogger going by the handle Gooberslot asked a good question: "Why only PC rpgs? You say you don't want to 'frig' around with emulators but dosbox is an emulator too. Plus, you're missing out on playing the best version in some cases. The PC sucked compared to some other computers until VGA came out and it still sucked in the sound department for a while after that."
Phantasie illustrates this quite well. Here, for instance, is a screenshot of the Amiga version of Phantasie:
Here, in contrast, is the same screenshot from my DOS port:
Yuck, right? Here's a nice shot from the Atari ST version in battle:
..versus my DOS version:
I am green with envy. Get it...green with...right. Moving on.
So, at least in the graphics department, the DOS version blows. And a couple of weeks ago, when I posed the question, you were almost all for me trying the non-DOS versions. So yesterday evening, I made an attempt. I Googled "Apple II emulator," "C64 emulator," "Atari ST emulator," downloaded some, and gave it a go. I'll spare you the rest of the details--which involve a difficulty finding Phantasie downloads for some of those systems, an unfamiliarity with their conventions, crashes and freezes (perhaps owing to my running Windows 7), lack of clear DOSBox-like frontrunners in the emulator departments, and so on--and simply announce my recommittment, as bad as the graphics are, to staying with a DOS/PC-only gameplan.
That aside, I like Phantasie so far. The story is simple: the island continent of Gelnor has been conquered by a tyrannical wizard named Nikademus, who maintains fear with a cadre of near-invincible Black Knights. Your party is composed of newly-arrived adventurers seeking fame and fortune, and liberating the land from Nikademus seems like a sure way to both.
Phantasie is notable as the first RPG from Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), which would soon gain the gratitude of CRPG fans everywhere by making the "gold box" Dungeons & Dragons games. That reminds me: how long is it until I get to Pool of Radiance? One, two, three, four....nineteen games. Damn.
The game is muti-party, allowing you to choose from fighter, monk, priest, ranger, thief, and wizard classes. It offers more races than any CRPG I can think of: in addition to humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and halflings, you can also play gnolls, goblins, kobolds, lizard men, minotaurs, ogres, orcs, pixies, sprites, and trolls. Wow. The monster classes all excel in at least one attribute (you have the standard strength, intelligence, dexterity, etc. in this game) but they pay for it in increased training costs. And the manual isn't kidding about this: it cost 24 gold to move my human ranger for level 2 to level 3; for my ogre fighter, it was 1,056 gold.
You move about the game world in a top-down perspective, with your entire party represented by a single icon, much like in Ultima III. The perspective changes a bit when you enter a dungeon. The dungeons look like paper maps in which you reveal passageways as you move. Special encounters are represented by little symbols and described in text at the bottom. It sounds primitive, but I actually rather like it.
Since you can save your dungeon progress when you leave, this makes Phantasie the first game I know to automap. The encounters have been fun and fresh so far: levers to pull, a sage with a ring, a door that locked me in a room until I found a secret exit, and a "pile of gold covered with a gooey substance" that turned out to be the honeycombs of a giant bee hive.
The combat system in Phantasie is unusual and, I think, rather fun. Statistically and tactically, I suppose it's little different than Wizardry or The Bard's Tale. Your six characters line up in a single line to face your foes, who can be in up to four ranks. Most of your characters can attack only the first rank, but your thief can dart into any rank and your spellcasters can target the entire field. Like Wizardry, you set an action for each character and execute them all at once. The unique thing is that the animation shows your characters leaping and thrusting when their turn comes, and their blows connect with a satisfying crunch.
The animation doesn't change the basic tactics, though. Each of your characters can attack, parry, or cast a spell. Attacks are split into thrust (more damage, only one attack), attack (moderate damage, two attacks), and slash (minimal damage, three attacks). You also have the macro options to avoid combat by greeting the monsters, threatening them, fleeing, or begging for their mercy (and giving over your gold).
In between adventures in dungeons and wilderness areas, you return to towns to rest, level up, and buy and sell equipment. When you enter a town, the game asks how you want to divide your accumulated experience points among your characters. I can't think of a single other game that does this, allowing you to channel everything into one character for quick development or spread it evenly among your group. The former options means that if a character dies, you can train a replacement in fairly short order. Man, do I wish Wizardry had that option.
I created a party consisting of a human range (Aodin), an ogre fighter (Ghalar), a dwarf fighter (Yalgar), a halfing priest (Sanctavia), a gnome thief (Slissk), and an elf wizard (Arcanius). In my first couple hours of gameplay, I've explored one dungeon and collected a series of scrolls that tell me more about the land and Nikademus. This is actually a pretty cool way to slowly divulge more about the game world and the central quest.
|The scroll goes on to say that nine wizards forged nine magical rings to combat Nikademus, but he perverted the power of the rings and used them to turn the wizards into Black Knights. This is starting to sound vaguely familiar...|
Finally, I'll note that the game has been challenging so far. I've lost a few characters, and there's no temple in the towns (at least, not the first town), so I've had to create new ones. Gold looks like it's going to be a problem; I have a few characters ready to level up but not enough money to pay for it. You can only save in towns, but at least (unlike Wizardry and The Bard's Tale) you have the option to quit without saving if the battle goes badly.
In short, Phantasie has tactics as deep as Wizardry, stuff in dungeons as varied as Telengard, a lore as rich as Ultima III, and a difficultly level as pleasing as The Bard's Tale in its early stages. I hope the rest of the game lives up to its beginnings!
(If you're interested in a video of the gameplay, including the combat, here's one on YouTube, albiet for the Atari ST version. Hopefully I'll finish setting up my new laptop soon and I can make my own.)