Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Game 98: Legends of Murder: Volume I - Stonedale Castle (1989)


Legends of Murder isn't much of an RPG, but it's a reasonably fun game nonetheless. There's always something pleasant about a simple game that knows what it's about and does a decent job within its limited goals. It's quick: I won in about four hours.

Developed by James Schmalz (I know because his name remains on the screen throughout the game), Murder was released in 1989 via the monthly magazine Big Blue Disk (1986-1991), which offered freeware, shareware, and demo programs for DOS. A second version was released in Big Blue Disk's successor, On Disk Monthly, in 1993. It's the second edition that I'm playing, and there aren't enough resources online to figure out the differences between the versions.

When first encountered the title, I was expecting a Holmesian tale set in the real world, but Stonedale Castle is, instead, part of a somewhat generic high fantasy kingdom called Erdwyn. The king has just been murdered, and his elven advisor, Ash, has summoned an inspector from across the sea to solve the case. The player controls the unnamed inspector as he explores the castle and collects clues. There's no character creation process: the game begins as the inspector enters the front hall of the late king's castle:


As you play the game, you wander room to room in the castle, collecting notes, speaking to NPCs (though there are no dialogue options), and occasionally (s)earching for a clue or a chest. There are hardly any commands; for the most part, events trigger when you walk to the right location.


The castle isn't terribly large--just one main floor, a mage's tower, some catacombs, and an upstairs set of chambers--but certain sections are initially closed off until you find the right password or object.


So far, it probably sounds like an adventure game, and it does have that feel. But it does have some definite CRPG elements. The inspector starts with a series of attributes: strength, agility, dexterity, and intellect, as well as a health condition and a "concentration" score (basically spell points). Throughout the castle, the inspector finds chests which contain various potions, dusts, and other magic items that raise and lower these attributes. Careful study helps tell you which to drink every time and which to avoid.

My character, late in the game.

The same chests and coffins and such will also contain weapons and armor to replace the starting robes and dagger. There's no information about what weapons or armor are better than others, but they're standard D&D fare, and I figured a long sword is better than a short sword and a broadsword is better than a long sword. I ended the game with an enchanted sword and enchanted plate.

Opening chests usually produces monsters, and there are fixed monsters in certain locations, particularly towards the end game. You don't have many combat options: just (F)ight and (C)ast whatever spells you've been able to find on various bookcases. (There are only about six, and they're standard magic missile and heal spells.)

One of the later combats in the game, with a troll.

Combat isn't very deadly. The worst that happens is you get knocked unconscious, at which point you can generally re-open the chest and re-engage the enemy, repeating until he's dead. Death may be more permanent in later sections of the game, but I never really found out, as by then I was strong enough--particularly with my healing spells--to survive each battle. The game is also quite easy that you can save and reload at any point.

The game's version of a "death" screen.

Winning the game was a process of carefully exploring each room, searching tables, beds, couches, and cabinets, and talking to NPCs. Most NPCs will tell you multiple things, and you have to keep walking into their squares to make sure you get everything. But they only say things once, so you have to be careful to record their notes the first time.

The wizard offers a key clue.

There were some light inventory puzzles and one password that I had to solve a cryptogram to learn.

I like cryptograms.

Slowly, I started to assemble a pack of evidence (in the top center of the screen) and notes about what happened on the night that the king was murdered. Eventually, when I'd learned everything there was to learn, I met my elf patron in the king's chambers and compared my notes with his to accuse a murderer.

The penultimate screen.

The game mechanic at this point is such that if you accuse the wrong person, the elf says "that doesn't match up with my notes," and asks you to go collect more evidence and try again. If you name the right person, the game ends.

I ultimately named the right person, but only through brute force--naming every named person in the game until I hit the right one. I have no idea why this person is in fact the killer. So I'm curious if any of you want to download and play the game and see if you can figure it out. Remember, it only takes about four hours. If you intend to do that, don't read any further. The rest of you can continue after the image below.

One of the more interesting rooms in the castle.

The main suspects in the game are presented as the king's four potential heirs, one of whom has to be elected by some council. They are Prince Morgan, his nephew; Lord Charron; Eric, the king's captain of the guard; and The Wizard (who is otherwise unnamed).

Other NPCs encountered include a jester named Sayor, a bishop, the king's general, a kitchen worker named Sascha, a lady named Rosylind, a dancing couple named Lord Talmar and Lady Nyshia, and the elf advisor, Ash.

Literally everyone openly admits to hating the king and being glad he's dead, as he was unjust and cruel. He kept a torture chamber, beat his servants, and heavily taxed the poor and infirm. It's a wonder anyone bothered to call me to investigate.

Almost everyone claimed to be sleeping or away from the castle on the night of the murder.

"Can anyone verify that?"

Through my investigations, I discovered the following:

  • A couple days before the murder, there was some kind of bustle down at the docks in the city. Morgan, the king, and two others met a ship called "The Gold Sprite" and returned with two black boxes. I found the boxes during my explorations and retrieved a magic orb from one and a magic ring from the other. I have no idea what role they played in the murder.
  • The king had a queen named Raelle whose coffin is in the catacombs.
  • Lady Rosylind, sleeping nearby, said she heard some weird noises the night of the murder: a "snap," a scuffle, footsteps, a bottle breaking, and silence. I recovered evidence that suggests that someone tried to garrote the king but the ligature broke, so he then resorted to smashing a bottle of poison where the king inhaled it. This jived with the Wizard's theory that the king was killed by poison. Also, the king's corpse had a bruise on the back of his neck.

Collecting testimony from an NPC.

  • I found poison in one of the bedrooms. But I had no way of identifying whose bedroom it was.

This is like CSI.

  • On the same night, someone threw a sleeping potion in the castle's water supply, and most of the guards ended up dozing off while the murder was happening. 

Medieval CSI.
 
  • The kitchen maid said she saw a dark figure enter the dragon's room on the night of the murder and head up to the Wizard's tower.
  • There was evidence that a woman with blonde hair had been recently imprisoned in the dungeon.

Ash helps put it all together.

I frankly thought the game was setting it up that everyone conspired to murder the hated king, and that was my first (wrong) answer to Ash. But it turns out--and again I only figured this out by trying everyone's name--that it was the jester, Sayor. I have no idea how I was supposed to come to that conclusion. But when I accused him, he confessed and was exiled, Prince Morgan took the throne, and everyone lived happily ever after.

I don't remember the jester saying anything about his sister, either.

So this was a relatively quick one-shot. Let's give it a quick GIMLET:

  • 4 points for the game world, limited as it was. You understand where you fit in the world very easily, and the game gives enough information to get by. There were some books with tantalizing titles and tapestries hinting at various aspects of history and lore, none of which were really developed in this game. In this type of game, the "world" is the castle itself, and the game does a good job of thoroughly describing the rooms and giving the castle atmosphere.

The descriptions in the game are well-written and evocative.
 
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There's no creation but somewhat satisfying development as the game progresses.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. There are interesting NPCs, and it's vital to talk with them to complete the game.

 
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are mostly unmemorable. Some have special attacks, but combat isn't a big enough part of the game to really worry about it.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. There's a very limited selection of damage and healing spells, and the rest of combat tactics comes down to (f)ight or (r)un.

The game's limited magic selection.

  • 3 points for equipment. There are weapons, armor, and special items to find. The game does a bad job indicating the relative rankings of weapons and armor, though.

Declining to change my weapon.

  • 0 points for economy. There is none.
  • 3 points for the quest. It's an unusual quest for a CRPG, but I wish it made more sense and there were different potential outcomes.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are just tolerable. The interface is very intuitive. But there's no sound.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Brisk, but somewhat linear and ultimately too easy.

The final score of 24 is relatively respectable. I wouldn't have wanted to play a 40-hour game with such limited gameplay options and combat, but it was nice enough for a four-hour diversion.

Again, I'm hoping one of you will give it a try and see if you can figure out why Sayor is the killer. I must have overlooked some clue or inconsistency in his story or something. My feeling is that the jester's sister (referenced in the endgame text) was imprisoned by the king for some reason, and the jester killed the king in revenge and freed her. He must have sneaked into the Wizard's tower to steal the potion (accounting for Sascha's observation). I just missed whatever dialogue gave him the motive.

Developer James Schmalz would go on to work on a couple dozen other games for publishers like Epic MegaGames, Electronic Arts, and GT Interactive, including the Unreal series and the BioShock series. He currently runs his own company called Digital Extremes out of Canada. His only other RPG seems to be Legends of Murder II: Grey Haven from 1991; after that, it's all action, first-person shooters, and pinball games. I'll be curious in a couple of years to see what developments were added to the sequel.

Legends of Murder is one of several games from the late 1980s that have almost no remembrances online. There's no walkthrough, no reviews attached to its MobyGames entry, no Wikipedia entry. Google the name of the game along with the names of the NPCs in the game and you get nothing. I'm glad to have this opportunity to fill in a gap in CRPG history.

Back we go to Knights of Legend!

50 comments:

  1. Definitely one I had no idea existed. Looks very interesting. I like these kind of posts where you review and rate the much lesser known games all in one long shot.

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    1. And it looks like Jamie or Jamje Schmalz.

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    2. That's an AKA, but he's on LinkedIn as James. I sent him a message to see if he'd visit.

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    3. Ah, Isn't that odd? I guess Garriott did it too... trying to think of anyone else who had used an alias in the credits. I would have put my real name there, but I'm also fairly vain i suppose :)

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    4. Chuckles? Dr. Cat? The Fat Man?

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  2. It's not a thorough walkthrough, but I found this blog entry about the game from 2009 after about 5 seconds of googling: http://wastedseconds.com/?p=141

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    1. Explain to me how this contradicts anything I said in the posting.

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  3. From what I remember playing this game some years ago, I also had to bruteforce the answer.
    LoM was a huge disappointment for me - it mixes my favourite game genre (rpg/adventure) with my favourite literary genre (fantasy murder mystery), but does both aspects in such a lackluster way, that I couldn't help feeling somewhat betrayed ;)

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  4. Your troll .gif is way too fast.

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    1. Yes, you're right. I created a new one.

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  5. "I ultimately named the right person, but only through brute force--naming every named person in the game until I hit the right one. I have no idea why this person is in fact the killer. So I'm curious if any of you want to download and play the game and see if you can figure it out. Remember, it only takes about four hours. If you intend to do that, don't read any further."

    -- challenge accepted, although I'm sure someone else out there has pieced the plot together.

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    1. If so, they hid it well. Google "Legends of Murder" and even one of the named NPCs, like "Charron," and you get only my blog entry.

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    2. It truly does seem undocumented. Nevertheless, I'll try my hand at it within the month and report back. Right after I finish up Wizardry and Star Saga Two.

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    3. I'm suddenly seized with the idea that the murderer changes every time you play the game. Now I'm thinking *I* might play it again.

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    4. I remember a game called Sleuth, which seems to have similar themes. More like Clue though, where if you guess wrong it's game over; plus the murderer is still in the house and hunting you down.

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    5. SPOILERS

      I scoured the game, and I can't say it wholly makes sense either; however, Sayor was my third true suspect (fifth guess). After trying the two likely of the four (Morgan and Charron), I tried Talmar and the Wizard even though I had a lot of doubt about them. Once I knew it could be someone other than the four, I knew it was Sayor.

      The blond hair is a key clue. This I thought narrowed it down to Lady Nyshia (Talmar's wife), or Rosylind. Since Talmar and his wife share a bedroom, I doubted him.

      I considered the room with the poison, crossed off who was in each bedroom and decided it must be the Prince's even though the clothes looked common (they were expensive). This led me to accuse Morgan first, not him. Really? Where the heck does he sleep?

      I wasn't quite sure the brusk man was Charron, and that the room I found him in was his. I considered the possibility that he was searching the prince's room. This would mean the room with the poison was Charron's.

      The reason I suspected them was a hunch that the story Rosylind told was fabricated. I knew her room was filled with magic, which could make her an accomplice. She could inform the murderer about the magic poison and sleeping potions.

      Not Charron... well, might as well try Talmar. Nope. Couldn't be the wizard. Nope. Alright, I need to consider Rosylind's story as true. I remembered she also mentioned hearing weeping before she went to sleep, about an hour after the murder.

      Well, I started going down the list. The jester popped out. He had a sister, who was absent from the castle. She could have blond hair. Maybe the expensive yet plain clothes were his. The bedroom next to him covered in a thin layer of dust, yet a worn bed, suggested some use that ended some time ago. Maybe his sister was put into the dungeon.

      The comment Eric made about 2 dark figures leaving the castle after midnight makes some sense; he mentioned one was supporting the other. One of those dark figures is probably the same Sascha saw the night of the murder heading towards the wizard's tower (could have been that suspicious friar as well).

      The timeline is a little confusing. At first I thought I arrived the morning after the murder, but the Jester says he died two days prior. This suggests The black boxes were brought in the day of the murders, and the two figures left right after the murder was committed. So, someone was rescued, which was already sort of obvious by this point.

      The black boxes seem to have nothing to do with murder. The orb allows access to the wizards side room, and the gold band when taken to the wizard becomes charged to give visions in the crystal ball. Those visions tell you the location of the key and sleep vials.

      Anyway, I've rambled enough. I don't understand what the Bishop's amulet does, why the friar was so crazy, what the strength ring is used for, why there was a thin knife near the king's body, or how the king's body got into such an awkward position.

      Honestly, I could see anyone one of Talmar (rescues his wife), Charron (rescues Rosylind), Morgan (rescues Rosylind), or Sayor (rescues sister), committing the murder given a slight change (location of the poison). I've played through a second time though and didn't get anything different. I think the ending is set.

      I spent a bit more than four hours pouring over the evidence, and I couldn't find the pass for a good hour (no walkthrough online either, as previously noted). I was thinking it might be possible to beat the game without getting into combat, but I have yet to determine what triggers the elf asking for a name. If it's the blond hair, then you'll at least need to beat the troll.

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    6. Good analysis. Thanks for giving it a shot, Zenic. I think Geoff had it right: if we assume the killer stole the poison from the wizard's tower, it's telling that the jester had the password to it. All the other stuff--black boxes, two figures staggering out of the castle at night--were red herrings. But overall, it's too bad that a) it's so difficult to figure out; and b) the game allows you to force-guess the answer.

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  6. Wow! Impressive Chet! You are quite the Speulunker! You remind me of A.N. Bernshtam - my favorite Soviet Archaeologist.

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  7. Why on earth does a game which was released in 1993 use a four-colour CGA palette?

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    1. I'm guessing it didn't change much after the 1989 original.

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    2. For what it's worth there are EGA era rpgs that look worse than this. Good use of the palette.

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    3. To be honest, it's a lot better than many CGA games I've seen.

      On the other hand, it doesn't change the fact I absolutely abhor this video standard.

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  8. I played it through and I'm likewise at a loss for how any solid conclusion can be reached. The reference to the Jester's sister happens very early on, when Lord Talmar first tells you to talk to "the Joker" -- Lord Talmar suggests that the Joker will go on about his past spent adventuring with his sister.

    I assume you got the information about Raelle and the bruise on the King's neck from the two leftmost sarcophagi in the catacombs; no matter how much I searched around those I was not able to get a reaction. The searching was annoyingly pixel-precise in places.

    The garrotte theory seems pretty plausible; I don't see how the thin knife fits into the picture, though.

    With respect to the sleeping potion, I don't think that pool was the water supply (which would be rather oddly placed if it were, being only accessible via the torture chamber); rather, I think it was a convenient place to attempt to hide the empty potion bottles.

    My theory for some of the events was that the King had been torturing Lady Nyshia (although Lady Rosalynd might also have long blond hair -- it's a bit hard to be sure); Lord Talmar got Sascha to put a sleeping draught in the guard's food and then went and freed her that night. They were the two figures seen leaving (one supporting the other), presumably intending to travel away from the King's influence, but they returned once they heard that the King was dead. The bald man (presumably Lord Charron) figured some of that out and accused Sascha.

    If we assume that the figure seen heading to the chapel/dragon room was the assassin sneaking into the Wizard's chambers to get the poison, then the Jester is the standout candidate -- he's the only one (aside from the Wizard) who has demonstrated knowing the dragon's name. It's pretty thin, but that's the only item I can think of that points at him at all.

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    1. Glad to hear it's just as mysterious when you already know who the killer is! I think your theories hold up much better than mine; I figured the sleeping spell was to help with the murder, but I like your theory better that they were unrelated events. I forgot about the whole "one supporting the other" thing.

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  9. I never understood in locked-room mysteries why the detective doesn't use your method and just accuse everyone in turn. Eventually one alibi will have some holes, and BAM, murderer. Plus there is humor value in there! "It was ... YOU!!! Oh, no? The dining room? You sure? Well, then... it must have been... .YOU!!!"

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    1. In real life, detectives essentially DO operate this way.

      I remember reading a mystery once--I can't remember the name or author for the life of me--in which the detective reasoned that based on the evidence, none of the suspects could have committed the murder separately; therefore, they must have committed it together. I thought this game was going in that direction.

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    2. Murder on the Oriental Express by Agatha Christie?

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    3. I just read the description. It does seem like a similar theme, but that's not the one I was thinking of.

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    4. There is a Steven King short story among those lines, starring Sherlock Holmes.

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  10. I had the Big blue Disk with Legends of Murder 2 on it. I must have played that game a lot!

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  11. I played this back in the '90s. I probably got it from a BBS or something like that. I never did finish it, but as an adult, it took FOREVER to find. I couldn't remember the name to save my life; I thought it was "Stonekeep" or something like that. I guess I managed to remember the name of the location, but not the game.

    Anyway, I did finally find it by searching lists and screenshots, but never got very far. I was focused on the "solve the mystery" and not the combat. I thought if you lost combat, you could get "stuck" without enough health to win a battle.

    Maybe I'll give it another shot.

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    1. You're not entirely wrong. If you lose a combat, you'll be revived at "near death," so you go down pretty quickly in the next one unless you heal or find a potion in the meantime.

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  12. Interesting find!

    When I started to read this post I hoped that it would be a game where you use your skills and attributes only for peaceful things. Then there was monsters to kill, unfortunately.

    And my guess when coming to your spoiler warning was that he was killed by a monster.

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    1. There's always a slight disconnect in generic fantasy RPGs when it comes to issues like law and murder. In Baldur's Gate II, it's weird that the inspector general (or whatever his title is) cares about a couple of killings enough to make them quests, when I've been indiscriminately slaughtering mages, slavers, thieves, and assorted blowhards on every street. In Stonedale, it's a wonder that the default response to "the king is murdered!" isn't "Well, duh. We have orcs and trolls and stuff just wandering around the castle."

      You COULD conceivably construct a good mystery CRPG, involving no combat, using attributes and skills to solve various puzzles. I've never seen it, though.

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    2. Closest I can think of are the Sherlock Holmes Solo Gamebooks.

      http://www.gamebooks.org/show_series.php?id=389

      I believe at least the first one has been converted to electronic form, but without the dice-rolling it doesn't come off as well.

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    3. "You COULD conceivably construct a good mystery CRPG, involving no combat, using attributes and skills to solve various puzzles. I've never seen it, though."

      Sounds like playing QfG as a pacifist.

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    4. That's true. One of the few RPGs that you could get to he end without killing anyone.

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    5. Only if you're a thief. Unless you can skip saving the baronet.

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    6. I believe you are able to finish or almost finish the three deus ex games non-lethally, if not nonviolently.

      You might be able to finish New Vegas without firing a shot in anger. I suspect 100 stealth and 100 speech will get you there.

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    7. Huh. It just occurred to me that you could probably finish Skyrim without killing anyone. In almost every place where someone HAS to die to progress, you have NPCs fighting alongside you.

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  13. Here's another brief writeup

    http://www.old-games.com/download/3988/legends-of-murder

    Interesting that it's an entirely assembly-language game; pretty late in the evolution of programming for something like that. No comment as to the plot, however.

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  14. Seeing this game reminded me of another CGA Softdisk CRPG of a couple of years later, the Dark Designs series by the future kids of iD Software. Comparing screenshots dissipated that vague association in my hazy memory, but I felt maybe I should step in here and mention it regardless in the event that it might have slipped your net. (Just discovered this blog, while Googling Braminar of all things -- a unique strategic RPG arranged around judicious use of Hobson's Choice, which I actually completed on one occasion -- and now have to catch up on your entire back archives. Hats off!)

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    1. Glad to have you with us, Rowan. I didn't overlook Dark Designs; both games are on my list for 1990.

      Did anything particularly interesting happen at the end of Braminar? I can't say it's been keeping me up nights, but you never know when a game is going to dramatically level up in a late act.

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    2. Oh hey, I missed this one. Braminar has an endgame which is entirely different from everything that came before: the player's total assets are liquidated and converted into an army, which then sallies forth against the Evil Foozle's armies (with what looks much like a Progress Quest bar playing tug of war in the middle of the screen). The endgame basically plays itself (and you hope you ducked the precondition that sets up duh duh daaaa... the BAD ENDING) and then it's supposed to print out a certificate of completion on your dot matrix printer!

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  15. I must be an idiot. I never could figure out the dragon's stupid name. I managed to solve the jester's stupid cryptograms, but couldn't understand them. It was fun, though. We had a subscription to BBD and I got all of my games through it.

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  16. I'm in the same boat. I've been playing the game off and on since '93 and I still can't get it. I can solve the cryptogram easy, but I've been hoping that my maturing mind would get wiser and I'd figure it out the riddle. 22 years later and I still can't get it. I wouldn't hate a spoiler here.

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    1. Here's a hint:
      When the message mentions a name found within "this code", "this code" is not the coded message itself, but rather the substitution method you used to get the message. Try to find the significance of "A to E" in the code.

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  17. Have you tried playing Legends of Murder II: Grey Haven yet? I see it's been a couple of years since your original post. I tried the game again, recently, and got further than I did in 1991, but I'm still stuck and can't complete it. I would love your insights into this game. It's been nagging me for nearly 25 years.

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    1. Not yet. It's coming up fast on my list, though.

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  18. I love this old game. I have made it numerous times to be a level 14 with the enchanted sword and armor, however, I have never been able to enter the correct "Identification Code" to access the chamber that leads up toward the water supply. When I enter the number clues that I have found in the game, it just brings up symbols as I type the numbers, and none of them are correct to allow me to access that part of the castle. Any help would be appreciated as I would love to play the game to completion after many many years! THANK YOU, if you can help!

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