Well, it was so important to you that I finish Shard of Spring that I spent the entire week winning it. I was so eager to plow through it that I neglected to post anything Wednesday or Thursday, which I should have done, because this one is going to be pretty long.
Shard of Spring ends up being a pretty linear game. You know how I feel about that. As you move across the landscape, you encounter towns and dungeons in a very specific order, and while you can blow past them and jump right on to harder dungeons, it's very inadvisable to do so, because 1) you need objects that you get in previous dungeons to fully complete subsequent ones; and 2) they're too hard if you don't do them in order. There are five or six dungeons plus a bunch of little tombs, and most of them are quite small and uneventful. Once I found the towns that had training academies and allowed me to level up, I got through all but the last one (the evil sorceress Siriadne's castle) very quickly. A bunch of random notes, comments, and screen shots:
- Most of the wilderness is very empty except for the occasional battle. Unfortunately, you don't see your enemies coming--they don't have a little approaching icon as in, say, Ultima IV. The game just throws you into battle.
- For most of the game, I assumed that the battles were random. But I began noticing that if I got into a battle and died, when I reloaded I would face another "random" battle in the same number of moves. I realized that instead of being random, the game throws a battle at you every 33 moves (moves include saving, walking, and turning). I discovered that the only way to avoid a battle was to quit on the 33rd move, right when it would have normally hit you with one.
- My internal role-playing rules do not allow me to quit and reload just because a battle goes badly. I can only reload when my entire party is wiped out. This meant I spent a lot of time and money resurrecting and healing characters, and progress was slow-going, especially in the final dungeon.
- Towns where you can get training are in far-flung locations that require a lot of hiking and combat. This is an odd decision because you effectively cannot win these combats until you get trained. It took me a long time to get my wizards off Level 1. Training is pretty satisfying, though. You get attribute increases, hit point increases, spell point increases, and the option to purchase new skills. By the end of the game, all my characters had all their available skills.
- The maximum character level in the game is 20, but eventually it becomes virtually impossible to level up any more. As it was, I spent hours fighting random battles just to get my characters up to Level 10. Your experience point rewards for some of the toughest battles in the game, especially towards the end, are paltry. You also don't start getting heaps of gold until the final few battles, when it hardly does you any good.
- Enemy spellcasters suck. They can kill your party members with a single spell starting at Level 4. When you encounter them, you basically have to pray that they choose not to cast those particular spells. Again, a lot of time and money spent healing.
- The magic system is actually fairly original. There are a lot of unusual spells organized into five schools or "runes": fire, metal, wind, ice, and spirit. Each has a mixture of single-enemy attack, mass attack, healing, and protection spells. For instance, fire has COLUMN OF FIRE (single attack), FIRE STORM (mass attack), MELT (contradicts a FREEZE spell), and FLAME SHIELD (protection). Each spell has a minimum number of spell points needed to cast it, but you can channel more points into it if you want to increase its potency. I can't think of any other games that let you vary the amount of magic power you put into a single spell.
- There were piles of rings, rods, and other magic items in the various shops which I a) was never sure what they did; and b) never bought because I never had enough money what with all the resurrection.
- A walkthrough I consulted after winning the game tells me I missed an entire dungeon called "The Tunnels." I looked for it, but I don't see it. Maybe that's a difference in the DOS version of the game.
So winning the game involved, as I said, visiting each dungeon in sequence, collecting items, and writing down clues. Each dungeon had a "big bad" somewhere in it, and these got progressively harder, but oddly enough, random encounters within the dungeons were usually more difficult than the scripted battles. This remained true all the way up to the final battle with Siriadne. I got slaughtered by a party of 6 greater dragons right outside her door, reloaded, skipped by the dragons, and the final battle against her only featured two such dragons.
The game wasn't very unique in its monsters, featuring the usual selection of bats, snakes, kobolds, orcs, fighters, wizards, elementals, gargoyles, and so on. One exception is the mysterious "Bugem," which seems to be an anthropomorphic ant capable of carrying weapons.
Each dungeon featured a selection of scripted encounters with foes, but only a couple of puzzles, no dialog options, and no opportunities for role playing. Just a few random screenshots from scripted encounters:
Ultimately, of course, I made my way to Siriadne's castle, which (predictably) was surrounded by lava.
It was by far the longest dungeon in the game, with about 10 levels and numerous fights against elementals and demons.
There was one puzzle that required me to touch a series of gems in a specific order based on a throwaway clue from a previous dungeon. I'm glad I wrote everything down.
I also had to use a two-part password (each part obtained from a different dungeon or town) at a gate, and it took me forever to realize that I needed to "cast" the password. That really wasn't intuitive at all.
Finally, I reached Siriadne, who gave me a standard "villain speech" (there's a special topic in there) before attacking me with two greater dragons.
Oddly, Siriadne herself (bottom of the next screenshot) has the icon used in the game for kobolds and orcs. If there was an in-game explanation for this, I never saw it. It took me a long time to beat her. At one point, I used a teleport spell to escape the dungeon, fought some battles until I leveled up again, and re-assailed the tower. Even then, my party was nearly wiped out by the time I reached the final battle and it took me four tries to win it.
But when I did, I got a somewhat mystifying endgame write-up: A cool breeze blows through the huge arched windows of the tower room. On an ivory pedestal lies the object of your quest: a knife-shaped piece of green crystal. As you hold the shard and look out over the landscape of Ymros, it looks beautiful and peaceful;more peaceful than it has looked in a very long time.
You watch as a graceful dove flies up from the balcony below up into the blue sky. As you turn to go back into the room, you see a black bird out of the corner of your eye, moving swiftly upward. As you re-enter the room, an old man who you recognize is standing near the dead body of Siriadne. His face shows a mixture of serenity and contentment. He speaks: "The true springtime shall now return to Ymros because of what you have done today. Your names shall be remembered as long as men exist to sing of you." He makes some mysterious motions and everything begins to swirl about you. His voice speaks to you out of the dizziness: "Evil is personified in the form of dragons, but borne in the hearts of men..."
Okay, huh? First off, who is this guy? I must have missed something obvious in my race to finish the game, because it says my characters recognize him, but I sure don't. Second, wouldn't a "mixture of serenity and contentment" look pretty much like either one by itself? Finally, what is that last line about dragons? It's not like they played a big role in the game.
The mysterious man's banishing spell (thanks for that, by the way; I didn't want a parade or anything) stuck me back at the starting town, where I promptly headed to the pub and bought a drink. Mixing with the fellow townsfolk, I heard:
Now, I know that we're well before the era when games actually acknowledge you winning the game within the game, but this is just discouraging. How hard would it have been to overwrite the "tavern talk" file or something?
Finally, another tavern tale in another town promises a sequel:
I can't wait. But in the meantime, it's off to the final judgment on Shard of Spring and then Starflight.