I tell you, I haven't been keeping up well on my "upcoming games" list. Until I read an e-mail from reader RJ yesterday, I didn't realize that Demon's Winter was a sequel to Shard of Spring. You may recall that I didn't really like Shard of Spring. I could see it as part of the evolution between Wizard's Crown and the Gold Box games, but I found it trite and boring, albeit with a reasonably good combat system.
Shard of Spring had a group of adventurers recovering the title artifact from the evil sorceress (or troll, or dragon--there was some confusion at the end) Siriadne, whose theft had created an icy wasteland out of the island nation of Ymros. Demon's Winter is set 5,000 years later, and one hopes the island learned from its previous attempt at environmental tampering, as there is no mention of the fabled Shard. Instead, some demon named Malifon has shown up and unleashed armies of goblins and kobolds and whatnot on the peaceful towns of Ymros, and in some vague way that I haven't encountered yet, he's threatening to plunge the land into eternal winter. Honestly, what do these SSI people have against winter? I think it's kind of pretty, and you have lots of excuses for staying indoors and playing CRPGs.
Demon's Winter does have some innovations over Shard of Spring. First, the list of character classes is quite expanded. In the first game, you could just be a warrior or wizard. In this game, you have a choice of 10 classes: ranger, barbarian, paladin, monk, cleric, thief, wizard, sorcerer, visionary, and scholar. Your choice of class essentially determines how easy or hard it is to learn certain skills (and which skills are available initially). Shard had a skills-based system, too, but the selection of skills was so limited that by the end of the game, every character had pretty much every skill. This game is a bit more balanced. Fighter classes learn combat skills (sword, axe, karate, fencing, etc.) quite easily but spellcasters have to spend a lot of points. The schools of magic (fire, metal, wind, ice, and spirit) are unchanged from Shard but there are some new magic skills--illusion, summon, and possession--in which sorcerers excel. You get to select two skills upon character creation and you can buy more at "colleges" scattered throughout the land.
Some of the classes are intriguing. The "visionary" has special skills that let him see the surrounding area, and the "scholar" can identify weapons, armor, and potions. I experimented with both but ultimately found them too useless in regular battle, and their skills don't help that much anyway. RJ, who has a lot of enthusiasm for the game, sent me some hints (bordering on spoilers but not quite) which explained why thieves and sorcerers are a bit worthless. He recommended two paladins, a ranger, a barbarian, and a wizard. I went mostly with his recommendations but chose a paladin and a monk instead of two paladins.
Like Shard, there are five races: humans, dwarves, elves, dark elves, and trolls (dark elves replaces gnomes from Shard). My current party consists of:
- Mathamas, a human paladin
- Grendel, a troll barbarian
- Constans, a dwarf monk
- Triamour, a elf ranger
- Clinscho, a dark elf wizard
There's also a religious system in the game that's new. Characters who choose "priesthood" as a skill gain access to one of five priestly or shaman deities, each of whom does something different when you pray to him or her and he or she isn't feeling out of sorts. For my monk, I chose the god Illo, who offers a chance at resurrection--something that a no-reloading player often needs.
The game starts you with no equipment in what seems to be a random place. The first time I started, I was in a dungeon, and the second two times, I was in some part of the wilderness. In no case does the game give you much of a clue about where to go first or what to do, so I just started messing around. The first thing I tested was whether encounters spring up every 33 moves the way they did in Shard. I am happy to say they do not.
The basic gameplay has changed little in the two years. You move overland as a single icon, encounter various towns, dungeons, and colleges. Right away, the game world seems larger than Shard, and in much better detail (compare the above to this). In combat, which pops up randomly and at certain fixed positions, you switch to a tactical map in which each character has his or her own icon.
In combat, each character has a certain number of moves based on speed, which you can spend attacking, maneuvering into position, casting spells, turning undead, praying to your deity, healing other party members, using items, or just defending yourself. There are tactics associated with how you position your party members and whether you let them come to you or go charging at them.
I outfitted my party with daggers and wandered around until I found the College of Hunting, where I trained my ranger in that skill so food would be easier to come by.
In a town, I heard a tavern rumor that there was a band of marauding kobolds in camp to the south, led by someone named Uffspgot or Uffuspgot (consistency in spelling is not one of the game's strong points). I found their camp easy enough and within four or five steps, I was face-to-face with the kobold leader, who in an overheard conversation identified his master as someone named Xerxes.
Uff(u)spgot turned out to be a bit of a pushover. I made quick work of him and several of his minions in tents surrounding his. In one, I found a woman being taunted by some kobolds and freed her. In another, I found a note that said a cult worshipping Xerxes could be found in the catacombs under the Temple of Gamur and the codeword needed to enter is -X-.
So far, I'm not regretting taking the karate-skilled monk. He seems to be the only one who does a consistently high amount of damage, but of course most of my characters are fighting with daggers.
At last, I found a note that told me what the manual didn't make explicit: my group of adventurers is simply questing to find out what happened to the village of Ildryn, whose destruction is chronicled in a brief story at the beginning of the manual. They know nothing about Malifon and winter at this point. Now it makes more sense.
Not sure where to find the Temple, I decided to try to circle the perimeter of the map. Heading east to find water, I ran into a group of Level 4 mages and was almost instantly slaughtered by fireball spells. Much like its predecessor, the game does not reward off-the-beaten-path exploration.
That's good enough for a start. I remain a little uncertain how best to allocate my limited skill points, and I'm not sure how my characters level up, but I'm sure I'll figure it out tomorrow.