ORIGIN Systems (developer and publisher)Greg Paul Malone II (creator)
Released 1989 for DOS, Amiga, Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and Macintosh
Date Started: 9 August 2013
Date Ended: 14 August 2013
Total Hours: 11
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 33
Ranking at Time of Posting: 54% (57/105)
Final Rating: 33
Ranking at Time of Posting: 54% (57/105)
Like its predecessor, Windwalker is a game with interesting ideas that doesn't take enough time to develop them. It's a simple action RPG masquerading as some kind of epic experience, and its uses of eastern themes are shallow and ultimately unnecessary to the gameplay. In this, it is characteristic of ORIGIN's 1980s "between-Ultimas" RPGs, almost all of which (Knights of Legend, Tangled Tales, 2400 A.D.) feel like half-hearted experiments designed to make the Ultima series look better by contrast.
Winning the game involved three major steps:
1. Defeating the Warlord in combat and sending him into exile.
2. Waiting until the night of a new moon and then "exorcising" the gate to the Astral Plane in the alchemist's house, trapping him there and ending the repeat possessing of the shrines.
3. Collecting a bunch of ingredients for an Elixir of Everlasting Life to awaken the imprisoned Emperor.
The first two steps are comparatively easy and could (I think) be accomplished by a knowledgeable player almost immediately at the outset of the game. The third involved exploring all the corners of the world.
|Well...yeah. Why are you so surprised?|
A key to winning the battle against the Warlord was finding the retired assassin on one of the islands. He told me a incense-burning chant that would double my speed for a few hours. With this active, I was able to defeat the two-bladed warrior with little problem (again using the analysis of the moves I'd made during training).
The amusing thing was that a single lost combat sent the Warlord packing. There was this whole animation in which he ran out of the palace, jumped into his ship, and fled the island. I suppose that's honorable and everything, but did it occur to him to just order his guards to surround me and kill me?
Oddly, the self-imposed exile of the Warlord doesn't change the disposition of the Palace Guards in the slightest. They still attack on sight and happily toss the character into the prison if he's defeated. Who do they think they're taking orders from?
Exiling the Alchemist was similarly easy. On the night of a new moon, I got a vision of him gloating that he'd summoned evil spirits from the Astral Plane to take over the shrines. I visited his house, learned about his plans (including the key fact that he'd paralyzed the emperor with a poison), went upstairs, and simply cast an "exorcise" fireball at the open gate.
|It was nice of him to offer such a thorough villain's exposition.|
Upon finding he's trapped in the Astral Plane, the Alchemist has an amusing reaction:
|It's spelled "VENGEANCE," jackass.|
The third step, collecting the ingredients, was by far the longest, but I had been doing it gradually throughout the game without realizing the purpose of what I was collecting. Probably the most complicated sequence involved visiting the Isle of the Dead during a full moon, navigating a series of caves, and speaking to the God of Luck to get a peach seed.
|If you visit during a non-full moon, you just get an unhelpful panda.|
The caves were full of "Oni" (a demon/troll from Japanese folklore) who the player cannot fight, only evade with magical protection. To get through the cave, I first had to bring my turtle shell and beggar's shoe to the shaman Ka Noh Bi in a nearby cave and get him to make an "invisibility" talisman, then use that to safely traverse the Oni cave. Bumping into an Oni or a wall removes the invisibility. The Oni can't kill the character, but if they strike him, he awakens in their cave, "confused" for a few rounds, surrounded by more Oni. I kept getting into a vicious cycle by which I'd get attacked by one, awaken in the cave, stumble around confused, and get attacked by another one.
|Trying to avoid the Oni while invisible.|
Perhaps the more annoying aspect was having to wait for a full moon. I ended up just sleeping days away until the right moon appeared.
|While sleeping, the sleep restores body points at the same speed that the resulting starvation depletes them.|
Another ingredient was some jasmine from Nubia, which I had to obtain from the imprisoned Princess. This was a multi-stage process of first learning some words of the Nubian language from a scroll in the monastery, then using them to convince the princess's guards that you're a friend, and then asking the princess for "pluumfir" (the jasmine flower). I learned the hard way that you have to talk to the princess while she's in her bedroom, not in her bath.
I'll spare you the details about finding the alchemists necessary to assemble the ingredients into a potion. Once I had the potion, I had to beat up some guards, sneak by the jailer, enter the Emperor's cell, and administer it to him. Once again, it's a bit baffling that the guards and jailer were still doing their jobs even though the Warlord was gone and the Alchemist banished. It sounds like the Emperor needs to do some serious housekeeping after he gets back on his throne.
|See, "benevolence" is what got you in trouble in the first place.|
Anyway, administering the potion resulted in the endgame and the closing screens seen above, including one by Greg Paul Malone's smiling face, telling me how proud he is.
|Some part of me suspects he actually thought he had "disciples" out there, joyfully playing the game and absorbing his philosophies.|
After winning, I consulted a couple of walkthroughs and realized there were aspects of the game I missed. I had been wondering why the training screen has you fight with a staff but a staff never appears in the game. It turns out I needed to join a monastic order to get both the staff and a robe that presumably would have offered some protection. I did find those monks, but I lost honor when I tried talking to them, which the game interpreted as me trying to force them to break their vows of silence. I didn't realize there was one monk that it was cool to engage in conversation. Anyway, no big loss: I preferred fighting hand-to-hand.
You can apparently enter the Astral Plane instead of closing it, though I can't find a description online from anyone who's done so, or what happened. I declined to keep returning to Ka Noh Bi with turtle shells and other ingredients to get talismans other than "invisibility" (immortality, water walking, levitation), but as we've seen, I didn't really need them. There are some water beetles scattered about the game from whom it's apparently possible to get some reagents, but I never figured out how to kill them before they attacked me. I probably needed to use "invisibility."
Before we get to the GIMLET, I need to rant about one aspect of gameplay that was so bafflingly stupid, I can't understand how someone didn't kill it in the production phase. As you explore the islands, the game occasionally comes to a halt to show you a storm. Rain comes pouring down and there are between one and five lightning strikes, spaced a couple seconds apart. You can't do anything--move, check your inventory, sleep--during this animation; I guess you're just meant to contemplate the majesty of the graphics. Late in the game, these storms come along with such frequency that you find yourself moving three or four steps, then having to stop and wait 10 seconds for a storm to pass. In the final hour, the ratio of playing to watching the storm animation was probably around 3:1. The whole sequence is horribly annoying and utterly pointless, and I have no idea what the developers were trying to achieve with it.
I also want to talk about the "honor" system a bit, because it was a good idea, poorly implemented, that anticipates the "karma meters" of later games (though of course Ultima IV did it first). It's vaguely fun to find all the different ways you can lose honor in the game: the ones I experienced were fleeing from combat, stealing from the houses of townsfolk or shrines, failing to liberate shrines seized by the forces of darkness, talking to monks who've taken a vow of silence, talking to the princess in her bath tub, and trying to slap the emperor awake.
The problems with the system are twofold. First, despite showing up as a "meter," the honor system is basically binary. If you have anything less that perfect honor, people won't speak to you and certain plot sequences won't work. Second, there's no way to incrementally gain honor. You have to get it back all at once, either by leveling up (which restores all the meters) or by burning incense and saying "restore my honor." If honor is so easily regained, it's not really all that valuable in the first place.
Oh, and all that I Ching nonsense spouted by the manual has absolutely no bearing on gameplay or any role in the game's plot.
Okay, on to the GIMLET:
- 4 points for the game world. I can fault the game and its manual for a lot of things, but it does set up an interesting world and back story. It just doesn't implement them very well during gameplay. Consider the "three religions" explained in detail in scroll I found in the monastery: shamanism, idolatry, and Khisanism. It sounds like the game is trying to set up an interesting system of balance and conflict among the three approaches, but in practice your interaction with them is extremely limited: talking to alchemists to explore "shamanism," doing the "tantric dance" in front of stone idols to engage "idolatry," and burning incense to reflect "Khisanism." The manual is full of philosophies and asides to suggest a depth to the game world that never materializes. The world also doesn't respond well to the actions of the player. After I defeated the Warlord, there were a few NPCs who commented on my victory, but in general things continue as if he were still on the throne.
|The game does offer some interesting in-game text to flesh out the game world.|
- 4 points for character creation and development. Leveling is swift and satisfying, and I ended the game well short of the top level ("DRAGON"). There are no attributes and no way to customize the character beyond the name, but I like the way every NPC actually uses the name, which is an odd rarity in RPGs. I also give a point for the intriguing (if flawed) honor system.
- 4 points for NPC interaction. This aspect is considerably improved from Moebius and involves the ability to speak to a large number of NPCs for keywords about people, places, and things. Doing so is absolutely necessary to advance the game's plot and find necessary clues. There is no flexibility in these dialogue choices, and no role-playing, but still better than most RPGs in this era. I found no value in the I Ching fortune-tellers, but others might.
- 3 points for encounters and foes. Like Moebius, the game offers only four different unique enemies that you face in combat, though there are a few additional non-combat enemies that you have to navigate. Unlike Moebius, these enemies behave fundamentally different from each other in combat, and you have to study their strategies to find the best attacks and defenses. Still, there's very little depth to the game's encounters, and no challenging puzzles.
- 3 points for magic and combat. Although I grew to master it after hours of study, I never found the combat "fun." I give it some credit for the turn-based "concentration" mode and the ability to re-watch combats when they're completed, but it's simply not RPG combat. The "magic system" consists solely of burning incense while chanting one of half a dozen restoration or buffing prayers.
- 3 points for equipment. I missed out on the one weapon and one bit of armor the game provided. Beyond that, "equipment" consists of food, incense sticks, healing potions, magic talismans, and a few special items.
- 2 points for the economy. The game has one, but it really couldn't be simpler. You get money randomly from combats and can spend it at merchants' shops for food, incense, and ink and parchment necessary to make permanent copies of scrolls. I always had whatever I needed, and I ended the game with the maximum cash possible (99).
- 3 points for quests. The main quest is vaguely interesting, though with no role-playing options. There are quasi- side-quests in the liberation of shrines from the forces summoned by the Alchemist. I didn't cover these in my description of the game because they're so simplistic (cast "exorcise" at a possessed priest).
- 4 points for graphic, sound, and interface. The graphics look okay in these screen shots, but in general I think the attempt at quasi 3-D failed, especially in the limited game window. I never got used to the floating heads and remain astonished that anyone thought it made sense to keep them from Moebius. The interface was intuitive enough--I got used to the many combat options surprisingly quickly. The sound was much better than Moebius, particularly in combat, and definitely worth hearing.
- 4 points for gameplay. Though the game world isn't very big, it does exhibit some limited nonlinearity: you can approach the islands in any order, and I suppose it doesn't matter whether you defeat the Warlord first or banish the Alchemist first. The difficulty level is about right, perhaps slightly too easy (though most players won't spend hours analyzing combat the way I did) and it doesn't linger.
I can't help but subtract one point for those stupid storms, giving us a final score of 33, considerably higher than Moebius's 24, but still lower than the threshold I'd use to suggest a game is "worth playing."
In the March 1990 Computer Gaming World, reviewer Dennis Owens completely disagrees. He calls it an "excellent" game and praises every one of its aspects, including the damned storm animations! He loved the "honor" system and says that "Origin's writers should be praised for their attempts to instill codes of conduct in their games." This is the third time I've consulted an Owens review after disliking a game only to find that he loved it. I'd like to know if he ever gave a bad review.
I don't know anything about how well the game sold, but I think it's telling that we never saw a third game in Khantun despite what seemed to be a setup for one.
The two walkthroughs I found are both lackluster and devoid of real fondness, encouraging the player to just get through it as quickly as possible. And the one user review on MobyGames (worth reading as a complement to mine) summarizes it as a "poor sequel to an average game." I'd reverse the two adjectives--I do think Windwalker is a better experience--but otherwise it basically describes how I feel.
And, of course, despite Mr. Malone's best intentions, waves of teenagers did not suddenly, at the turn of the 1990s, develop a craze for the I Ching.
With that, we're one step closer to the end of the 1980s. Next up is an RPG-adventure hybrid called The Third Courier.