Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Prophecy: Won! (with Final Rating)

"Trinadon" turned out to be Emperor Krellane's castle. It did indeed fall.

Prophecy I: The Fall of Trinadon
Activision (publisher)
Richard L. Seaborne, Alan J. Murphy
Released 1988 or 1989 for DOS
Date Started: 14 April 2013
Date Ended: 15 April 2013
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 39
Ranking at Time of Posting: 71/92 (77%)

The game that was supposed to give me relief from Knights of Legend was over too fast to properly do its job. I won in about seven hours of total playing time, and even that involved a lot of needless running around, trying to figure out the solution to a vexing puzzle.

My first posting on the game ended with my arrival in the city of Nermon, where I was to return the goblin crown to the three priests who'd been helping me since the opening village. Nermon had a couple dozen screens itself, and it linked to the three other major areas of the game: the Helf kingdom (sort of like orcs), the tower of the Jedists, and the Gendorian Forest, where Krellane's castle was. After I returned the ring, the three priests charged me with recovering a magic wreath from the Helf kingdom. and after that I was charged with getting a silver cross from the Jedist Tower to assist against the Gendorians, and then ultimately to storm Krellane's castle.

Throughout these quests, more information began to emerge about Krellane. I learned that he originally hadn't been evil, but he'd made a deal with three demons to save his children; that he'd had a close friend named Lord Richard, who led a failed rebellion against him when Krellane turned evil.

Unfortunately, I missed a huge chunk of plot, as I was never able to ascend in the Jedists' Tower. At the base of the tower were a succession of doors, at each of which I was asked some kind of question about the game's lore. One of them asked me the name of Lord Richard's squire, and if I'd ever encountered that bit of information anywhere in the game, I forgot where and didn't write it down. I backtracked through every visitable location trying to find it, but the NPCs have a way of not repeating their entire spiels. There are no walkthroughs online that I could find to assist, and as the game has only one save slot, I couldn't go back to an earlier state and try to find the missing intelligence.

I tried literally every name in the game, plus the names of all of the games' developers.

Presumably, the tower would have produced some additional backstory as well as the silver cross that would have somehow made my battles in the Gendorian Forest easier. But it didn't stop me from winning the game. If any of you would like to play the game from the beginning and let me know what happens in the tower, I'll be grateful.

Throughout these adventures, leveling was steady. I ended the game at Level 39, and by then there were some creatures so tough that they would cause me to increase a level all by themselves. Leveling not only increased my maximum health and spell points, but also my attributes, each of which maxed at 20. As I'll discuss below, I never did get much of a sense for what some of the attributes actually did.

There were a lot of interesting-looking enemies in the game, but ultimately they came in two forms: mooks that died in a few hits, and bosses that were nigh-impossible to kill without either a) a "velocity vial" that increased my speed enough so that my vampiric "wraith dagger" could keep up with my foe's hits; or b) exploiting a glitch in the game by which, in certain positions, the enemy doesn't seem to realize he's missing you with every attack, allowing you to attack him with no retaliation. Otherwise, it's futile to fight "fair" against many of the game's foes, some of which have over 1,000 hit points and are only labeled as "HIGH" until you hit them enough to knock them down to 999 or below.

The final battle, against a "HIGH" character.

I never did much with spells, save the healing spell and "cure poison" and "cure disease" a couple times when they were needed. Some of the area effect spells damage you if you're not careful when you cast them, and otherwise-promising spells like "hold monster" ultimately proved too dangerous. (Plus, the enemies that I really needed them for were immune to spells.)

The equipment in the game was a little weird, too. There's no place to sell excess items (unless there was some place in the Jedist tower), nor any way to drop them. By the end of the game, I was lugging around dozens of weapons and suits of armor that I would never have used. But even more strange, it appears that the items you find in treasure chests are utterly random, and there's nothing stopping the best equipment in the game from showing up in the first chest. For the rest of the game, I never did better than the "Gendor full plate" I found in the first dungeon, and the "wraith dagger" I found early stayed in my left hand until the end.

There were a few places, but not enough, to get rid of all the gold I had been collecting: a shop that sold exactly one suit of armor (worse than what I had), mages that would take 1,000 gold to return health and magic to full power (from any point in the game, it took so long to get back to them that it was easier just to wait), and a mage who took 2,000 to increase my spell point maximum by two. Technically, I could have unloaded everything with this guy and ended up with an extra 100 spell points by game's end, but as I just mentioned, I didn't have a lot of use for spells.

I made some use of this guy's services.

To enter the Helf kingdom, I had to answer a kind of passcode at the main gates by telling the guarding Helfs which of their leaders was known as the "Lord of Ertraxia." This information was found on a nearby statue.

To progress in the game, you have to pay attention to the game's lore.

The game gave me the option to not kill the Helf king, who regarded me as "beneath contempt" and refused to attack me after I defeated his guards. I have to admit that he had a point. Without exploiting a few AI tricks, I wouldn't have defeated him.

It's rare that a boss who's full of bluster knows what he's talking about.

To get to the Gendorian Forest and Krellane's castle, I had to take a boat, arranged by the Helfs' cook, who was apparently a Jedist agent.

The boat took me to an area of trees and ruins, where I ultimately had to recover four elemental keys to pass through the gates on the way to Krellane's castle. This was mostly a matter of just running around and finding them, though there was one mini-quest in which I had to retrieve a statue of Neptune for a water nymph and thus get the Elemental Key of Water.

Beyond the gates were the castle sewers. They presented me with a maze, and I got the impression that this "patterned floor" was supposed to help me navigate it, but I'll be damned if I can make heads or tails out of it. I just got through it with brute force, and it took a while.

There are too many squares for this to represent individual screens, so I'm not sure what's going on here.

On the other side of the sewers was a multi-level castle with several rooms holding 999+ hit point enemies. Most of these rooms were optional, though, and from the entrance to Krellane's throne room is only a few screens if you don't care about clearing everything.

Confronting Krellane in his throne room.

Krellane was guarded by a tough mook, but he didn't attack me himself. Once I'd taken care of his bodyguard, I spoke to him, and got the twist ending that the murals in the Jedists' tower had started to hint at. He told me that he was once a "kind, benevolent monarch" but that his children fell under a curse that slowly turned them into lizard-like Gendords. To stop them from dying, he made a bargain with the Three Demons of the Netherworld; they would save the lives of his children if he would enact their wicked laws across the land.

He soon realized he'd been duped, as in their Gendorian form, his children lost all ability to develop mentally and forgot their identities. Over time, he began to regret the deal and his slaying of his friend, Lord Richard, who had tried to oppose him. He lowered his defenses and gave me the opportunity to kill him.

I refused, and he frustratedly delivered the next twist: the three "priests" who had been aiding me were in fact the three demons. He told me that they had just entered the castle, and he had worked a magic spell to destroy the castle, thereby committing suicide and killing the demons. He told me to flee as quickly as possible and avoid the conflagration.

I ran out of the throne room and made a beeline for a chute to the sewers that I had discovered earlier. 

When I exited the sewers, I was treated to the screen that leads this posting, and the game ended on a nice graphic of a castle exploding.

Presumably, Krellane turned his entryway into a giant skull after he became evil.

Choosing to disbelieve Krellane and kill him gives an alternate, bad ending:

Krellane's life fades slowly...he speaks, "I am sorry I did not tell you that there was a curse on any man who killed me. The one who delivered the mortal blow would die the moment I fell lifeless. Although I will not see you dead, I will know that I won..." Krellane falls dead, as you collapse to the floor in a crumpled heap.

The Empire continues to be ruled by the Three Evil Demons from the Netherworld, and countless souls are forced to endure horrible injustices!

You can also get a bad ending by not escaping the exploding castle in time:

The whole story reminds me a bit of Ultima V, with Krellane and the Three Demons providing an analogue to Blackthorn and the Shadowlords. Although Ultima V had a better story overall, I wish it had offered some kind of motivation for Blackthorn's tyranny.

I wasn't quite as enamored with the game in my latter sessions, but overall I still found it a fun diversion. Let's see how it performs in a quick GIMLET:

  • 5 points for the game world. It's not quite as epic as many series, but it does tell a decent story with a few twists. I particularly liked that you could find allies even among "monsters" and that you had the option to simply walk away from certain "boss fights." On the negative side, the world itself was fairly limited, and lacking any kind of map, I never had much of a sense of where I was.

Perhaps the best feature of the game is the little description of the environment that you get on literally every screen.

  • 2 points for character creation and development. This is perhaps the weakest area of the game. You don't have any options during creation--not even the character name. Although you have "attributes," they're a bit of a facade because you can't adjust them, they increase automatically with levels, and some of them (e.g., "charm") don't seem to do anything. The only positive is the swift leveling which makes backtracking and grinding quickly rewarding.

My winning character.

  • 4 points for NPCs, who are a vital part of the game. You can't advance if you don't pay attention to what they tell you about the story and directions, and the NPCs themselves are memorable. Unfortunately, you have  no dialogue options with them.

Finding an ally among the Helfs.

  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The enemies themselves are visually intriguing, although their AI tends not to differ much. They respawn, but not overwhelmingly so, and there are a few places in which you can do creative things like talking instead of fighting. There's a good mix between random and scripted encounters.

Battling some kind of chimera-dog.

  • 3 points for magic and combat. Another weak area. As with most action RPGs of the era, combat boils down to mashing an attack button. Although the magic in this game is intriguing, with numerous spells and the ability to adjust their power, I found the spells a bit worthless. I suppose it wold be possible to play as a "mage," jack up the max spell points, and spend a lot more time fine-tuning spell usage than I did.

Casting magic arrows at this game's version of a "kobold."

  • 6 points for equipment. There are a lot more useful items to find in Prophecy than in most regular RPGs, let alone action RPGs, including several types of armor, both ranged and melee weapons, and the ability to dual-wield. Various items have various powers to explore, and in terms of raw damage or protection, the game makes it easy to evaluate weapons and armor by simply listing them in the order of their power. I love that the equipment was randomized throughout the game, though this did create the oddity I described above, and it would be easy for an unscrupulous player to keep reloading at some of the early treasure chests. Only the inability to drop or sell excess stuff really mars the game.

Part of my final equipment list.

  • 2 points for the economy. There's virtually nothing to do with all of your gold except keep paying to increase max spell points. I ended the game with more than 100,000 gold pieces.

Finding a treasure room like this ought to be a cause for celebration.

  • 4 points for quests. There are only a few, and all tied to the main quest, but the game gets points for offering several different endings. It's especially notable that you'll get the "bad" endings if you're not paying attention to the developing lore.
  • 5 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are pretty, the sound was sparse but not painful, and the interface was relatively intuitive, including multiple keys that perform an attack so you can position your hands how you like. As a DOS-specific game, it made good use of the standard PC keyboard, such as ESC to exit a menu and HOME and END to go to the top and bottom of a long list. Perhaps my only quibble is that the game offers various options that you never use. I never typed (O)pen or (G)et because these things happen when you walk up to chests and doors, and the command to (L)ook for traps is useful, as far as I can tell, at only one point in the game.


  • 4 points for gameplay. On the plus side, it's brisk and reasonably challenging as a whole, although individual battles tend to be either too easy or too hard. It's not entirely linear, though it's a bit too small to be truly "non-linear." I wouldn't call it replayable, since until the very end there are no choices to make--though I have to admit that I'm tempted to replay it, just to see what I missed in the Jedist tower.

The final score of 39 is a very respectable rating that puts it above most of the other action RPGs I've played so far, and in the top 20% of all RPGs from 1988/1989. It's the first action RPG that I've truly enjoyed, and it does a good job of being not all action.

Hey, that must be the three-headed thing I was fighting!

If my review seems positive, it's an absolute pan compared to what Dennis Owens had to say in the May 1989 Computer Gaming World. He calls it "the most exciting role-playing game [he had] ever played on the home computer" and says that it kept him up for three nights in a row (I honestly can't imagine what he was doing for all that time). He has the same complaint I do about gold and inventory, and he also mentions the superfluous (L)ook command, but he concludes that it's "a terrific game, a classic, and maybe the best around." That's a heck of a superlative given that Pool of Radiance, Might & Magic II, and Ultima V came out the same year. But he wasn't the only one with high praise. The June 1989 QuestBusters called it a "resounding success" that "plays unlike anything [the reviewer has] experienced before."

The advertisement's heading refers to the name of a spell in the game.

However much more tempered my review, I will say this: the game deserves to be better remembered than it is. To me, the game is far superior to the better-documented Faery Tale Adventure and Times of Lore. The MobyGames entry has no user reviews; there isn't a single walkthrough or fanpage to be found anywhere; and Wikipedia's entire summary of the plot is "the main story of the game is that the main character would awaken to hear a loud scream, and his adventure would begin." The only thing I was able to find online is a pair of video reviews on YouTube from user dfortae, and they're worth watching if you want to see the game in action.

Lead developer Richard L. Seaborne went on to have a productive career at Electronic Arts and then Microsoft, where he currently works. But almost all his credits are on sports and racing games; his only other work on an RPG is as a programmer for Keef the Thief, which I recently shelved until later in the year. [Later Edit: I somehow overlooked Escape from Hell, which comes up in 1990, and Tower of Myraglen, which I didn't play on my first pass because it was Apple II-only.] Graphic designer Alan Murphy also mostly eschewed RPGs, again with the exception of Keef and the Wasteland-inspired Fountain of Dreams (1990).

I spoke briefly to Mr. Seaborne yesterday and invited him to visit and comment. He did confirm that, contrary to what several web sites (including Wikipedia) say, SSI had nothing to do with the development of the game.

With that, I return to Knights of Legend full-time for the now.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Game 97: Prophecy I: The Fall of Trinadon (1988)

Activision's market research department: "Our studies show that RPG players really want to play pre-teen heroes with girls' haircuts, bare, hairless legs, and little furry bootees." Activision CEO: "Well, get on it, then!"

I was looking for something different to occupy me in between Knights of Legends's interminable battles, and I found it. Prophecy is the opposite of Knights: a fast-paced action RPG with relatively rapid advancement, limited tactics, and the ability to save anywhere, any time.

The game takes place in the Gendorian empire, ruled by a tyrant named Krellane. The unnamed hero's father was part of a resistance movement called the "Jedists," but he ran afoul of Krellane's forces and was forced to flee into the forests, where he founded a hidden town called CrissCross. The hero was raised with martial and magical training, in hopes that he would one day fulfill a prophecy and destroy Krellane. Just as the game begins, Krellane's forces have found the village. The hero awakens to the shrieks of his fellow townsfolk being butchered in the night and soon discovers he is the last survivor.

Left unmentioned anywhere in the game's documentation is who or what "Trinadon" is. The only time the word appears in the manual is in the name of a monster, a "Gendor of Trinadon."

You get no choices during character creation. After the splash screen, the game displays your characteristics, and you're launched into the middle of your village, weaponless, to meet the attacking hordes. There's only one attack option (employed with the SPACE bar), but as with all action RPGs, maneuvering is half the battle. Quick use of the number pad can help you outflank the opponent, dodge his attacks, and attack him from behind.

Taking on a goblin near the opening screen.

The game invites comparison with Origin's Times of Lore from the same year, but there are a lot of differences that ultimately make Prophecy much more fun. Prophecy has, in my opinion, better graphics and sound. Where Lore only allowed east/west and north/south movement, Prophecy uses all the keys on the number pad. Prophecy has a much greater selection of weapons and armor. Lore's enemies continually respawned and attacked in hordes, but Prophecy's respawn slowly and unpredictably, and generally attack one-by-one or in small groups. In Lore, there was barely any reason to fight, since you didn't gain experience levels, but in Prophecy you have lots of reasons to grind. Lore had more NPCs to talk with, and it used the Origin-patented keyword system for engaging in dialogue, but Prophecy takes pains to give more descriptions in the world itself, as you transition from screen to screen and walk up to various objects and signs. These add a lot of flavor to the game.

Note the detailed descriptions and attractive graphics.

Perhaps most important, while Lore was continuously-scrolling, Prophecy is organized into discrete screens, with much less freedom of movement among them. You can't just stake out in a random direction; strategically placed trees and rocks funnel you along a relatively linear path in wilderness areas, and walls constrain movement in dungeons and castles (though I allow that the game may open up later). Enemies don't follow from screen to screen, meaning that fleeing and waiting for hit points to regenerate is a viable strategy, especially since enemies don't regenerate during the same time. Modern players can speed up regeneration by jacking the DOSBox CPU speed. but rather than do that, I've been using this waiting time to write my postings and play Knights of Legend in another window.
So far, I've found the game fast-paced and addictive, with an intriguing story developing. The only thing I absolutely don't like is the action-oriented combat, in which you have to dance around trying to get on the same plane as your opponent. The difference between swings that connect and those that miss might only be a few pixels, and plenty of times I've been in situations in which my enemy could hit me and I couldn't hit him. (This has happened the other way around, though, too.)

Action combat in Prophecy is about getting into the right position.

Slaying foes rewards you with gold and experience. After 1,000 experience points, you move from Level 0 to Level 1, after which the number of experience points needed to move from level to level increases by 3,000 for each level (it takes 4,000 to go from 1 to 2) before maxing at 32,000 per level. There appears to be no maximum level. 

There are 31 spells in the game, with effects including damage to one creature ("Fireball"; "Harm"), damage to multiple creatures ("Air Wall"; "Rock Wall"), buffing your statistics ("Battle Fury"; "Hit Point Hype"), reducing enemy statistics ("Weakness"; "Slow"), healing ("Heal"; "Cure Disease"), and incapacitating or turning enemies ("Enrage"; "Amnesia"; "Fear"). They cost anywhere between 2 and 12 spell points to cast, and all are immediately available at the beginning of the game, although you can only have 10 in "memory" at any given time (each keyed to a function key). To "memorize" a spell, you open your spell list and type the spell's "code word" into the appropriate slot. For instance, "heal" is "Harlok" and "harm" is "BaeHarlok." The neat thing is that while typing in the code word, you can add one of four prefixes to the spell's name to increase its power (and, thus, its spell point cost) by various magnitudes. So while "Millmeta" (blade missile) normally does 1-10 points of damage and costs 3 spell points, "Parmillmeta" does 2-20 points and costs 6 spell points, and "Sunmillmeta" does 16-80 points of damage and costs 24 spell points. This system allows even base spells to continue increasing in power as character levels increase.

Adding to my list of memorized spells.

After starting the game, I explored the devastated town and found no one alive, nor any equipment or treasure left.
That's an abrupt transition to the final sentence.
The path forced me to go south and defeat a sentry guarding a bridge. My unarmed attacks were nearly useless against him, but some "magic arrow" spells took care of him. Beyond him, in front of a church, was the "boss" of the opening area: a fighter named "Guthgore," who was well-armored but fell fairly quickly to my magic missiles.
In the church, I found three priests who survived the massacre and hailed me as the prophesied one. They told me to pray in the alcoves nearby. In one, I was given a quest to find the "goblin crown of mind absorption" and return it to the church; in the other, I found a teleporter that whisked me to the goblin capital city of Gobar.

Gobar was full of monsters and treasure chests, and before long I had a long list of different weapons, helms, armors, and magic items.
I died a few times and discovered that the chests didn't hold the same items as before; treasure is randomized in the game. The equipment interface in the game is fairly intuitive: you scroll to the item and choose to equip it in your right hand or left hand, as armor, as gauntlets, or on your head.
Moebius taught me that a "YinYang Symbol" is properly called a "Taijitu."
Some of the monsters were willing to talk to me (there are no dialogue options; you just read what they say); a few suggested they were part of the Jedist resistance. It's nice to play a game in which not all "monsters" are immediately chaotic evil.

I defeated some jail guardians and talked to the prisoners, several of whom--despite looking like monsters--were clearly good guys. One of them told me to listen carefully to what a Jedist says, "for the answers to your questions are likely to be spoken, hidden deep within the pattern of his response." The next mentioned that "The Answer Lies In Someone's Mental Astral Needs," which clearly spells TALISMAN, although it didn't seem to have any applicability to this area.

Most of the enemies in the city and palace gave me little trouble, with the exception of a wicked-looking monster guarding some treasure (the game bafflingly calls it a "kobold") and the goblin king himself, both of whom had several hundred hit points. My fortunes improved significantly when I found a "wraith dagger" in one of the chests; fighting with it transfers hit points from my enemy to me. With it, I was able to stand face-to-face with the kobold and strike fast enough to replenish my hit points even as he wailed on me.
I don't think this is what a "kobold" is supposed to look like.
But the goblin king was capable of devastating physical attacks that I couldn't keep up with using the dagger. I had to resort to hit and run tactics to defeat him.
Note that I'm facing three enemies here, and there are three sets of enemy hit points in the bottom right.
In a treasure chest with his chamber was the crown, and his bedroom, aside from additional treasure, held a letter that he had been writing to Krellane, warning the emperor of the danger of the Jedist cause.
Hmmm...the "Jedists" oppose the "Emperor." I can't imagine where they got this idea.
After I reached the exit with the crown, I received a message telling me to return it to its "rightful owners."
Soon I was teleported to the city of Nermon and immediately beset by guards. I killed them and knocked off for the evening.

I just noticed from this screenshot that I got diseased somewhere. I guess I'd better cure that.

Some other notes:

  • There doesn't seem to be a way to drop equipment. I've got a lot of armor I don't think I'll ever use. I hope there's a way to sell it later.
  • On the other hand, I have no idea what to do with all the gold I've been amassing--more than 10,000 so far. No place to spend it has yet emerged.

There'd better be a store at some point.
  • The game may scale the difficulty of encounters based on the PC level. I noticed that as I increased levels, tough monsters started appearing on screens on which there had been peons before. 
  • Enemies can damage each other by accident, especially if they're firing missile weapons or spells. You still get the experience if they do.
  • There are a lot of magic items--potions, rings, necklaces, wands, bowls--that seem to duplicate the game's spells. You have to figure out what they do through trial and error, which is dangerous because some of the items damage you.
  • The game brings up a copy protection screen in between each teleportation; to pass, you have to identify a creature from its silhouette in the pages of the manual.

  • Although the main screen gives the copyright date as 1988, the manual is copyrighted 1989, and almost every online source uses the latter date. My general policy is to regard the title screen as canon, which means I'm playing this a year late.
  • The date isn't the only thing hard to nail down: the publisher wasn't even consistent on the title. The game box, disk images, and manual all refer to the game simply as Prophecy; it's only in the game itself that we get The Fall of Trinadon subtitle, accompanied by a I after the main title, as if the developers were planning a series of games. Meanwhile, all of the inventory, spell, and status screens in the game have the subtitle without the Roman numeral; this is the way the game is almost always represented online.

All told, Prophecy is a satisfying action RPG that provides a nice contrast to the plodding pace of Knights of Legend. It surprises me that I've never heard of it before. I look forward to playing a bit of it in between Knights battles.