Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Demon's Winter: Final Rating

The font I could have been looking at for the last 13 hours. Thanks for trying, Stu.

Demon's Winter
is an unusual game that originally left me numb but grew on me over time. Despite the length of time it took me to finish it, it's actually a fairly short game--I probably would have covered it in two or three postings if it had been a normal month.

It is hands-down better than Shard of Spring, and it told a more compelling story with better plot twists. But it suffered the same problems with excessive linearity, and I thought there were a few character development flaws that rendered moot some of its originality in character choices.

The ending is surprisingly grim. Yes, you've managed to re-imprison Malifon, and this works out well for your party, since they all get to be kings or immortal, but Ymros has lost all its gods and towns and is now covered in permafrost. That's what passes for "winning" the game!

Let's see how it rates.

1. Game World. The world of Ymros itself is nothing special: a standard high fantasy realm populated with interchangeable towns and temples. The back story of an imprisoned demon seeking to wreak havoc on the land is also nothing new. A few times I made joking references to The Wheel of Time series; this isn't because I thought the game was copying the plot (the game predates the first book) but because the trope is so familiar. Nonetheless, it's done well, and the game is one of the only ones from this era (or indeed any era) to measurably change the game world as the plot moves forward. I made fun of how the developers gave away the plot twist in the title, but to be honest, it did come as a surprise: by the time it happened, I guess I figured it was a metaphor or something. Zink said it pretty well in a comment yesterday: "This game...actually manages to create a feeling that $&#@ is quite definitely going down."

On the negative side, the developers seem to have spent a lot of effort on a religious system that has no bearing on gameplay, peppering the land with temples that essentially just sit there. It was a good idea that could have been developed better. Final score: 5.

There are more than a dozen of these temples for virtually no reason. Then they all get destroyed.

2. Character creation and development. The game gets points for the inclusion of some interesting classes (scholar, sorcerer, visionary) with unique abilities, but then loses them again by making the abilities somewhat useless. There aren't enough traps in the game to justify the thief; I barely had enough call for magic at all, let alone the sorcerer's custom spells; and the ability to see around corners doesn't help much when enemies are unavoidable no matter what you do. Still, I found the game easy enough that I wish I had picked one of the custom classes just to see what it was like.

The skill system is also original--there's really nothing else like it in the era--but also somewhat poorly executed. Because the cost for acquiring skills outside your "class" is so high, you're effectively limited to a small selection until late in the game, when level increases have hopefully increased your intelligence. It was also needlessly difficult to acquire some of the skills. If you didn't start with Spirit Runes (which are the only really necessary spell class in the game), you have to trek all the way to the north pole to find the college. I just realized that I never found the school that teaches turn undead [Edit: turns out it wasn't a school but rather part of the priesthood skill.]

Leveling is satisfying because it happens infrequently and you get attribute upgrades when it does occur. I can't forgive the game for removing the ability to level up without any warning (or even with warning; the moment experience points cease to be relevant, battles stop being fun), although this is somewhat mitigated by the relative ease of the final dungeon. [Edit: I was wrong about this, too; I just didn't find the one town that survived.]

Finally, I liked that there were some class-specific encounters in one dungeon and class-specific end-game bios. Final score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. There are a couple NPCs, including the Ancient One and Eregore the high priest. Talking them is necessary to understand the plot of the game and advance the main quest. In the second conversation, we get actual "dialog options." Not the first in any CRPG, but still unusual in this era. But overall, NPCs are few and the interaction is mostly one-way. Final score: 4.

4. Encounters and foes. Maybe it's just me, but only a day after playing the game, I honestly couldn't name more than four of the game's many monsters. I never saw them as more than icons to be pummeled. I know that they had different attacks, strengths, resistances, and so on, but they just never stuck, partly because the game manual describes only a few of them, and very cursorily. There was only one encounter in which "role-playing" mattered, with Eregore, but that's one more than most games of the time. I really hated the lock-step regularity of combats (especially at sea), but it did help when level-grinding. The balance between regular and fixed encounters was good. Final score: 5.

5. Magic and combat. Physical combat is well done, and I didn't grow as bored with it as I did in Shard, although the game's insistence at starting your party on the other side of the room, facing away from the enemy, was continually annoying. You could really see the effects of high strength and speed scores in damage, initiatives, and extra attacks. There were tactics associated with positioning and whether to charge the enemy or wait for him to come to you.

Ship combat was stupid. There were virtually no tactics, and the experience rewards were overbalanced.

SSI invested a lot of time in the magic system--time that, as far as I'm concerned, was wasted. "Heal" and "Resurrect" are the only completely necessary spells. In the entire game, I only cast three or four others out of around 30 possibilities. Part of the problem is some of the area-effect spells. Some of them, like "fire storm," could theoretically be useful, but the game won't let you cast them until the second round of combat. By then, your characters are usually hopelessly intermingled with the enemy, and you risk fireballing your own people. Like Shard of Spring, I like that you can choose how many spell points to invest in each casting, though. There were possession and summoning spells I didn't even get in to.

Ultimately, all of the problems cited here boil down to the game being too easy. There's no reason to meticulously plot the battlefield if charging and pummeling almost always wins the day. Except for one time in which I entered a large dungeon too early, without enough food, and without having invested in quality weapons, I never felt in danger. Final score: 4.

6. Equipment. Another tough one. The difficulty in identifying weapons and armor was annoying, but then again it was I that chose not to have a scholar. I didn't even mention the game's vials and salves and miscellaneous magic items because I never felt any need to explore or use them. The process of identifying items and then later remembering what they were seemed overly complicated, and none of the items are ever well-described. The redeeming factor (although this applies better to "economy" was being able to enchant weapons and armor). Final score: 4.

7. Economy. Finding that I could spend all my money upgrading weapons and armor was a source of joy. Before that, I was using my money to pay for healing because I didn't know what else to do with it. I only wish I had discovered that dungeon earlier in the game. Its existence means that there's always a reason to get cash. Beyond that, I didn't love the process of buying and selling items. It took me hours of gameplay before I realized that merchants had multiple items; they just showed one at a time and you had to hit "c" to page through them. I never felt that "haggling" accomplished anything, and merchants bought my used stuff for a pittance. Final score: 7.

Every game should have this!

8. Quests. The game has a very clear main quest, and the fact that it's only slowly revealed is part of the fun. (Only complaint: why did Malifon reveal himself and draw the attention of a group of adventurers by having one of his minions attack some dinky little backwater?) There are a couple of different endings, but the decision is at the very last minute, and you can get the alternate ending through an instant replay. There are no side quests in the game. I like that one of the endings had character-specific epilogues, though not quite enough to see how the endings would change with different classes. Final score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. The graphics are tolerable but not memorable, except in a few special encounter scenes. The game notably declines to offer any nice end-game graphics, instead wrapping up with some lame flashes of light and an all-text finale. There are hardly any sounds in the game, and they're painful. The keyboard commands are intuitive and are offered in the on-screen dialogs, but the inability to move diagonally is a serious drag. I thought there were two many sub-menus; casting a healing spell requires the following sequence: (C)amp, (C)ast, (#)character, (4) for spirit runes, (F) for name of spell, type number of spell points, hit enter, choose character to cast on. The game also had unnecessary pauses in certain places, giving you 15 seconds to read three words of text. Final score: 2.

10. Gameplay. My biggest complaint is that the game is very linear while providing the illusion of being non-linear. It has a rather large game world to explore, but you really have to do the dungeons in a specific order or you can't finish them. On the plus side, I give points for the inventory puzzles which, while not complicated, are unusual in CRPGs. I did find the game a little too easy overall, but it was also paced well, with no sections that really dragged.

This might be the first game that I would really call "replayable"--not so much that I'm compelled to do it right away, but a party consisting of the characters I didn't choose--cleric, thief, visionary, scholar, and sorcerer--would have a very different game. It would be much more tactically challenging, you'd get different epilogues, and with a cleric the religion system might take a bigger role (e.g., you frequently "convert" to different gods to get different advantages). Any of you who say that you want to play it, try that and tell me how it goes. I recommend focusing on intelligence and speed during character creation: you'll need a lot of non-class-specific skills, and speed is vital for initiative and number of attacks.

Anyway, final score of 5 on gameplay for a final rating of 45. This is reasonably high; my median right now is 34.5. The game is strong on story but weak in logistics. I do recommend it, and if I didn't seem to enjoy it more while I was playing, it's probably because unrelated life stuff was creeping into the tone of my postings.

Next up: Dracula in London turned out to be not even remotely a CRPG, and I'm having issues with Eamon, which is actually a 1980 game that only received a DOS conversion in 1988, and a buggy one at that, so it's off the list until I can get it to run. Looks like Evets: The Ultimate Adventure.


  1. It sounds like a nice game that probably was not able to fulfill the ambitiousness of its makers. Some good features but also lots of stuff that probably was supposed to mean something but ended up not doing so for whatever reason.

    I'm looking forward to playing it now :)

  2. So I take it that you are not going back to Bard's Tale III? That is cool, you were not enjoying it.

    I spent so long trying to play BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception on my Dad's C64. It loaded once, but something I did now causes it to destroy any disk drive it is put into, so I now have more working C64s then disk drives (People keep giving us them, or finding them on streets for the trash...). (If anyone has extras....)

    Anyway, I'm kind of sad to see that one not being played, but I guess if it isn't a CRPG then I can't blame you.

  3. Oh, did you ever read a walkthrough? Was there an effect of religion on the game? I once played a game called Ogre Battle 64 were there were a bunch of things that seemed to do nothing, such as alignment. However at the end of the game it is revealed that they do have a major impact on the ending, and a bunch on what characters will join you, which is only be revealed if you play through several times (and get lucky at least once) or read a walkthrough.
    I eventually stopped playing as I knew I was going to get the bad ending despite using a walkthrough as the hidden factors were really hard to judge.

  4. @Canageek
    As I understand it, both BT3 and BattleTech have been pushed back in the schedule, not canceled altogether.

  5. No, I am going back to BT3, and I am going to play BattleTech. I just kicked them further down the 1988 list. My rules only say that I have to play in chronological order; they don't say that I have to play in alphabetical order in the same year.

    I read Andrew Schultz's walkthrough when I finished DW. I missed some puzzles in Xeres's dungeon, but otherwise he agreed with me that religion was pretty useless.

  6. Having just played and beaten this for the first time a few weeks ago, I can say the religion aspect was quite worthless. Glad you stuck with the game and made it thru. This game is a real GEM in my opinion. I didn't find it all that linear. There were several times I wandered around trying to figure out what to do next. (not sure if that's good or bad)

    Also, even towards the end, one city remains where there are docks and you can heal yourself and level up. It is the city of the Ancients!!! Can't remember it's name now tho, but it's still there up until the very end.

    I LOVE how you could enchant your weapons up to +10 and give them special powers. I've never seen that before in any other game. I also like the combination of dungeons and the puzzles inside of them. I think it all worked really well.

    I recommend this game to anybody who loves the Gold Box games or just wants to have some monster crushing fun. It has it's flaws, most of which you pointed out, but all in all I give it an easy "A."

    PS - I can't believe you didn't change that awful font tho! FIRST THING I DID!

    Nice work either way,

  7. Oh, I see, I never noticed that you were doing them alphabetically, I figured you'd gone and looked up the release dates like on Chrontendo... *cough*

  8. A great story. It sounds like you've stumbled over another gem from the past --- sounds like a game with bigger ideas than they could adequately express given the technology (and maybe schedule) of the time. I'll have to remember this one and try and check it out once I've waded through a bit more of my own personal CRPG backlog!

  9. I played this game quite a bit a while back. Its a certainly a decent RPG, if you can forgive its warts. A couple points I thought I'd throw out:

    - I'm a little surprised your Ranger wasn't better. Effectively, the Ranger is the game's version of the generic fighter. Most of the other fighting classes excel in a couple combat skills, but are much weaker in others. The Ranger is only 'good' at pretty much all of them. So, I suppose his strength is flexibility.
    - Another possible use for gold is donating at a temple - you get one extra experience point per gold piece donated.
    - There isn't a college for Turn Undead. If your character has the Priesthood or Shaman skill (it doesn't matter what religion), the option is available in combat.
    - As RJ said, one town does manage to survive. It just happens to have everything you could possibly need. I'm pretty sure a temple to the Ancients survives as well.
    - The skill system is nice and rather unique, but unfortunately, terribly unbalanced. Thus, several of the classes are seriously crippled.

    Most of the item identify skills are nearly worthless (you're probably lucky to find 3 potions throughout the game; hardly worth devoting an entire skill to). Plus, being able to identify only one item per day makes the skills completely unusable.

    Possession is theoretically interesting, but it requires too many spell points for a success, and the creature possessed is gone at the end of the combat.

    Illusion and Summoning suffer the same problems as Possession - in order to summon anything useful, you pretty much have to use all your spell points. You may as well just replace the character with someone who would be useful in every combat, rather than someone who is occasionally useful. Spell points just recover much too slowly.

    View Land is vaguely interesting, especially given how quickly night falls, and the limited view area. As I recall View Room lets you see the special items you can find. It may also indicate set encounters and traps, but its been far too long since I've tried using the skill to remember for sure.

  10. RJ, I'm glad you liked it and grateful for all your tips. I'm not sure that not knowing what you're supposed to do next is the same as nonlinear gameplay, though. There really is no way to complete the dungeons except in a specific order, and nowhere else to go in the meantime. That's what I call "linear."

    Canageek, can you find me a site that has actual release days for CRPGS instead of console games? If so, I'll use that. Seriously. Sometimes a six-month difference is an eon in terms of techology, and I'd love to be able to play these by release date. I suppose I could figure out a rough order based on ISBN...

    Anon: wow. I really did miss a lot. I would have given the temple-donation-for-experience a positive review if I'd known, and I don't know how I mentioned the surviving town. I made an edit above to reflect the error. I agree about the identify skills: if they were unlimited in use, that would be a seriously powerful class.

  11. No, I take it that they are much harder to find? That should get easier with time though, as there will be press releases and websites and launch events for large titles.

  12. As people have mentioned, the enchant items area was probably the best part of the game, and why it wasn't used in other hames is a shame. I mentioned it somewhere else, but I remember praying to the air god in battle and getting a speed spell put on me so it can be useful as a possible help, each god giving a different bonus

  13. "Maybe it's just me, but only a day after playing the game, I honestly couldn't name more than four of the game's many monsters."

    This was definitely not my experience. I thought the enemies were varied enough, from spell casters, to slow brutes and fast rogues. And unlike the Gold Box games each individual of a specific foe will have different stats and weapons. The monsters that comprise a groups also make logical sense to be together, which is always a plus in my book. So I think the game deserves better than 5 in this regard. The main problem with the foes are the same as in the Gold Box games - hardly any AI.

    I agree on the ship combat - easily the most banal and boring part of the game.

    I don't agree about magic being useless, though. It is your only means of ranged attacks (apart from Leech magic) against spell casters who can insta kill one of your guys. I hardly ever used the Heal spell myself, instead I bought healing in towns. Most of the spell points was used on spells to kill enemy mages outright or to hold tough melee enemies. I agree that not being able to cast area effect spells in the first round was a bad idea, since it seems the enemy are not restriced by this rule.

    As for the game being to easy, I think that depends on how much you level up before entering the main quest dungeons. When I followed the main quest stricktly my party was too weak for Xerxes' dungeon, but after restarting and exploring the main continent and the nearest islands before facing Xerxes I felt the difficulty was just right. Explore the whole map first and things get too easy.

    My main complaint in the Equipment area (aside from the cumbersome way of ID'ing stuff) is that nearly all the good stuff comes from merchants or from buying upgrades from the dwarves. I think I never found a drop that was better than a Morning Star +1.

    As for the religious system I think the idea was that you would pray to your god in battle or camp, then "re-charge" at the nearest temple to gain back the favours of your god.
    But it fails because you have to _pay_ to pray. Money is scarce in the beginning and you'll rather spend it on something you know works, like better weapons and armour, and healing.

    I liked the game despite its flaws and I actually enjoyed it more than its contemporary heralded classics like Wasteland and Ultima V. For me it's usually the combat system and encounter design that makes or breaks a CRPG. Demon's Winter has a better combat system than those two and the random encounters are much better.

  14. It seems that you managed to complete the game because it failed at failing. There's no area where the game does especially bad, so there's no reason to stop playing. Or maybe your tone of writing was a tad more pessimistic than you actually felt. The game does sound neat.


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