Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Game 135: Vampyr: Talisman of Invocation (1989)


Vampyr: Talisman of Invocation a 1990 shareware offering from two Virginia high school seniors, Brian Weston and Victor Shao. This is not an opening sentence that fills you with confidence as to the quality of the game, but I'm pleased to report that it's good. Not great, but good. If I could track them down, I'd send them their shareware fee. I'd even adjust it for inflation.

A player of Vampyr could be forgiven for thinking it was a lost Ultima title. It looks most like IV but plays like a combination of II and III, with only a single PC, NPCs responding in single lines of dialogue, and a separate combat map that takes place on a blank tiled floor, no matter what the original terrain. It has most of the same keyboard shortcuts as the Ultima games, including (K)limb and (Z)stats. The layout of the castle is almost identical to Ultima V, with a jester greeting you upon entry to a large courtyard, the king's chambers on the second floor, numerous locked and hidden doors, and the occasional treasure room. It does the whole bit where you can't see through walls or trees, and squares remain dark when they're so obscured. However, as we'll cover, the game does have some innovations that transcend its Ultima-inspired origins.

The opening area looks somewhat like Castle Britannia next to the city of Britain.
 
Unfortunately, I can't tell you much about the back story of the game. The brief document that accompanies the files only tells you:

Welcome to Vampyr: The Talisman of Invocation, an adventure game set in the world of Quilinor. Here, the monsters are very nasty, the merchants are stingy, and the citizens are just a bit crazy. You, as an adventurer, must travel throughout this world to save all these creatures from a certain destruction.

The authors of the game (fairly) expected the player to contribute $10 for the full manual and $20 for the manual and hint book. Unfortunately, their addresses are no longer valid. I think I've tracked them down, but I haven't been able to make contact just yet.
 
Character creation is a quick process. You specify a name and race (human, elf, dwarf, and "corantir") and get automatic rolls for physical strength, mental strength, dexterity, constitution, charisma, luck, life (hit points), and gold. The rolls are random, from 3 to 20, and it's hard to get a well-balanced character. You next spend 180 skill points among nine skills: attack, defense, offensive magic, defensive magic, miscellaneous magic, lock picking, climbing, stealing, and perception. You don't specify a "class" but rather define one for yourself based on the number of points you channel into fighter, mage, or thief skills. I found that the early game is very hard if you don't prioritize fighter skills.

 
You start in an outdoor area next to a castle and town, wielding a dagger and wearing cloth armor. The castle contains the land's lord, King Tevon, who immediately gives the player a quest:  to go to the forest to the northwest and find out what happened to a group of clerics he sent there to investigate a gathering of monsters. Presumably, if I fail in this quest, he'll send someone to find out what happened to me.


The dungeon in question wasn't too hard to find. It was small, with only one level, and after wading through some monsters, I found a the group of clerics huddled in a corner. From their dialogue, I gather they had been ensorcelled into to following someone named Dalagash. I stole some document from the head cleric, defeated him in combat, and ran off.

My "stealing" ability was 1 at this point, so I suspect this was a scripted encounter. Or maybe if I'd "passed," he wouldn't have noticed and attacked.

The king rewarded me with gold and experience points and bade me to go figure out who "Dalagash" is. I have no clue where to go for this, so I've just started exploring the land. It's quite large, and I think I'll have to resort to mapping. I'm guessing Dalagash is the "vampyr" of the title.

Could you maybe be a little more helpful?

But let me back up. Before I could complete this first quest, I had to defeat enough monsters to rise at least two levels. The opening parts of the game are horribly deadly. At Level 1, I lost about 80% of my combats and had to reload. It took me a couple of hours to get the necessary experience points for Level 2, then maybe half that to get to Level 3. You "level up" by visiting a trainer in the castle or one of the towns, at which point you have 45 points to add to your various skills. The twist is that each trainer specializes in certain skills, so you can't choose to increase every skill at every trainer. In any event, after I made Level 2 and put almost all my points into attack and defense, combat became a little more manageable.

You see enemies coming your way on both the overland and dungeon maps. Once they attack you, or you attack them, you're taken to a separate combat screen, much like Ultima III, which unfortunately offers no terrain options to funnel the enemies. Your only options are to cast a spell, move into them to attack, fire a ranged weapon, or swap weapons. You can flee by moving to the edge of the screen, but once you're back on the game map, the monster is still right there next to you, so you haven't saved yourself much (although you can use a save/reload trick described below).

Fighting three skeletons. I've just cast "magic missile."

There are a lot of other NPCs--jesters, guards, magicians, shopkeepers--hanging around the castle and towns, and each has a line of dialogue if you (T)alk to them. In a welcome departure from Ultima II, NPCs of the same type don't all say the same thing (e.g., "Ugh, me tough"; "Pay your taxes!"). Talking to the various guards in the castle produced a variety of responses, from "get out of my face" to "your mama says you're ugly--just kidding, little fella!"

At the same time, NPCs don't impart quite the same volume of lore that you would get in an Ultima game. In an entire town, only one or two NPCs out of 15-20 might have something worthwhile to say, and even then it's pretty cryptic: "beware the false dragon's lair!"; "blue is for servants, hearing the call." Also, none of the NPCs are named.

A rare helpful tip from an unnamed brute.

Each town has a couple of stores, and I upgraded my weapon and armor almost immediately. You can only have one suit of armor at a time, but you can keep up to five weapons in your backpack and (S)wap amongst them in combat; the most common reason would be to switch between a missile weapon and a melee weapon. I haven't found any other types of objects (e.g., potions, wands, scrolls) so far, and I suspect they don't exist.

The magic system is a little weak. There are eleven spells available in combat--seven offensive and four defensive--and five non-combat spells. Oddly, the non-combat spells of "cure light wounds" and "cure critical wounds" aren't available in combat, when you'd most need them. Most of them have names that give away their purpose--"fireball," "spell protection," "iron skin"--but a few, like "mystical boost," are mysterious (I haven't been able to get it to successfully cast). You have all the game's spells available at the outset, but some of them require more magic power than a Level 1 character has. Success and power of spells, as well as (I think) how many points they eat up, are governed by the associated skills.


A few random notes:

  • Armor and weapons have condition statuses (excellent, good, fair, bad), and they degrade with use. Once a weapon gets to "very bad," it's only a few more blows before it breaks. This means you need to carry around several weapons. Fortunately, enemies often drop them.
  • You can (P)ick anyone's pocket if your "stealing" skill is high enough. If you fail, generally nothing happens, but occasionally an alarm goes off and you have to flee town or get attacked by guards. The same dynamic applies to picking locked doors in towns.

You see an ankh anywhere on this screen? I didn't think so.

  • I guess I'm playing this one a year late. Despite the MobyGames date of 1990, all of the files have summer 1989 dates, and the copyright notice says "1989, 1990."
  • You can (L)ook at enemies adjacent to you to learn a bit about the number of monsters in the group and their weapons and armor.


  • You can save anywhere in the wilderness, but you can't save in castles, towns, or dungeons.
  • Each town has a pub. If you buy a round of drinks for the pub, you get different dialogue lines from the NPCs than before you bought the round.

I have not. And without more to go on, that doesn't really help.

  • I'm not sure how much to trust this king. There's a torture chamber in his castle.
  • Some of the towns on the water have ships for hire, which will transport you to other port cities, saving you the walking time. This is a rare dynamic in games of the era. I don't think you get to board and man your own ships in this game.


  • As far as I can tell, time doesn't pass in the game. Any time you're outdoors, you can (R)est and recover hit points and spell points, but the game doesn't track days or time of day.
  • Character creation does not include a choice of gender. Enough people call you "fella" that I think you're supposed to be male, but I can't say for sure.

A confusing choice.

Perhaps the game's oddest contribution to the genre is what happens when you die. Instead of a "game over" screen, you find yourself in Heaven, sporting a pair of wings. There are angel NPCs to talk with and (quite naturally) a weapon and armor shop.

And the shops sell the best items I've seen in the game so far.

Eventually, you find your way to the "gods," who are, of course, Brian Weston and Victor Shao. They assess to see if you're worthy of being sent back to the world. I don't know what happens if you are, or how they even make the evaluation, but every time I've been assessed, they've said "you proved yourself to be unworthy" and I've been blasted to ash right there in front of them.

Didn't I already die? Do I go to "Heaven 2" now?

There are some in-jokes in this section. The janitor who sweeps up your ashes is the authors' computer science teacher. Elvis is alive and playing "Hound Dog." One of the angels asks if you've seen The Heavenly Kid, a (best-) forgotten film from 1985. Another angel references the old "Hans and Frans" skit from Saturday Night Live. You can attack and enter combat with either Brian or Victor, but I suspect they're invulnerable.

As I said, it's not a bad game, but there are a number of programming mistakes that put cracks in its professional veneer. The game often registers the wrong keypress, especially if you hit something unexpected. For instance, if you get a yes/no question and accidentally hit something like SPACE, you might find yourself in the midst of casting a spell. If you reload an old game after ending up in Heaven, your icon still has its angel's wings. Sometimes reloading doesn't return you to the hit points and spell points you had when you saved--just the position. Reloading always resets the enemies on the map, so if you find yourself approached by an enemy you don't want to fight, saving and reloading will make him go away. There are numerous typos in the conversations. Monsters sometimes don't disappear after combat, so you have to fight them multiple times in a row. However, just as I was wrapping up this post, HunterZ alerted me to a later version of the game that supposedly fixes some of these problems, so I'll be using that one for subsequent play.

I have absolutely no sense of the game's size and scope--no indication whether it will take another three hours or another thirty. Hopefully, my inquiries to the two authors will be returned, and I can report on a manual next time, maybe have some idea what the titular "Talisman of Invocation" is.


40 comments:

  1. I always loved that text font. Makes it feel like a real adventure game.

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    1. I've always associated that font with Koei's strategy/RPG PC games.

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  2. Nitpick:

    "From their dialogue, they had either been ensorcelled into to following someone named Dalagash."

    Or ?

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    1. Thanks. That's what I get for editing. I originally had another option--"brainwashed"--there, but I later decided that it was clear some sorcery was involved. I removed the "or" without noticing the "either."

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  3. Yeah, I do remember this game. If there was no shareware version, I downloaded it from a BBS somewhere. I imagine the floppies are around here somewhere. I don't think I got very far; at that age, I probably had the patience to get to level 2 and lost interest when I was still getting killed. The trip to Heaven and meeting the creators rings a bell. I don't have much to add about this game, but reading your play through will be interesting.

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  4. This might be a dumb question, or one that cant be answered but how do individuals make games like this? Are they using a kit available to everyone. Do they do this all by themselves? Are they adjusting code to an existing game, kinda like modding skyrim today?

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    1. Most shareware games of that era were programmed from scratch using a generic programming language (most commonly C or Pascal or even machine language). That requires a lot of work and expertise even for simple games. Nowadays there are toolkits like RPG Maker and ready game engines such as Unity that make the work significantly easier but the requirement for polished graphics and content by modern gamers pretty much just move the emphasis of the effort to (graphical) design.

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  5. It's quite do-able, although you tend to end up with 'programmer graphics'. Clearly they played games like Ultima, so they knew the sort of end result they were aiming for, which is half the battle. That is not to take from the impressiveness of it being done by high school students, whose programming experience must have been limited.

    You start by making your little man walk around a map. Then you add monsters to fight. Then you add items etc. Then you (probably) start looking at a map editor. As time goes on the individual bits become more complicated.

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    1. There's a QBasic tutorial somewhere on the web that shows how to program a tile-based RPG. It takes you pretty far into the process. I've been toying around with the idea of making a tile-based game after I finish my Elder Scrolls Let's Play blog.

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    2. There is also code out there for various roguelikes, which are often more advanced in graphics etc. than RPGs of this era. Though roguelikes go more for procedural generation of maps (auto-generated random-ish but balanced levels) and less for scripting of NPCs, encounters etc.

      I think I saw source for one of Jeff Vogel's early shareware RPGs at one point too.

      Bear in mind that code written in tandem with inventing a game tends to be a horrific sight for delicate eyes ;-)

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  6. /semispoiler





    I remember something about getting a blue rose in heaven that gave you a different interaction with the "gods" in heaven. But the dialog was bugged and caused the game to loop endlessly. I don't think I've ever encountered a version where it has been fixed (I tried to pick up the game multiple times)

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    1. Do you remember where you even got the rose? I've explored every square in Heaven, talked to every NPC, picked their pockets, even killed most of them, and I haven't seen a word about a blue rose.

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    2. Ha. Never mind. Moments after posting that, I took another stab at it and found an NPC I'd somehow missed the previous 12 times.

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  7. Wow, I remember this one. I don't remember actually making progress in it (you've already done more than I have) but I remember that font and the "Heaven" sequence. Very interested to see where this goes.

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  8. In the Database on www.thelegacy.de the game is listed "Published in 1989". So if you like, explore this Site too, for published RPGs in certain years (using xxl-search).

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  9. Regarding NPC dialogue: I think NPCs may sometimes have more than one thing to say if you talk to them multiple times. I don't remember whether it alternates or if it is totally random. "Blue is for servants, hearing the call," for example, rings a bell as possibly being part of a multi-line song or poem.

    Regarding version 2.0 versus 1.1: The biggest difference I noticed is that (at least at low levels?) the "gods" will generally send you back to the normal game for another chance at least a couple of times before deciding to zap you into ash.

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    1. NPCs never seem to change their dialogue, but sometimes they do have a second line. In the case you quote, you're right: there was a second line to that verse. It wasn't any more helpful, so I just quoted the first one.

      I confess I've just been reloading when I get to heaven. The entire dynamic is senseless when you can reload.

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    2. Yeah. The only useful thing I can think of regarding heaven is that it may be a way to get some good gear at a point when you have the money for it.

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    3. I really appreciate when games do interesting things with dying, even if in this case it doesn't look too in-depth.

      Planescape: Torment's immortal protagonist made it so that parts of the game required dying, and some quests had dying as the optimal solution. I understand the new Torment game will do something similar with a unique dungeon only accessible upon death or something.

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    4. That's a good point. It's always refreshing to get something more than a "game over" screen.

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  10. Holy nostalgia, Batman! I remember playing this, back in the "download every promising-looking shareware game from the local BBS" days. That goofy scene where the CS teacher cleans up your ashes is one of the few things I clearly remember. I think I got bogged down in a repetitive-looking dungeon level with a lot of secret doors. If you do manage to finish it, you'll be giving me a wonderful sense of closure :)

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  11. I guess I'm playing this one a year late. Despite the MobyGames date of 1990, all of the files have summer 1989 dates, and the copyright notice says "1989, 1990."

    a) Often works will list an earliest copyright date of project development, whether it was yet released or not.

    b) Mobygames will try to pin down a specific version to a date, but we always reserve the right to roll the date back to an earlier one if a solid source emerges to prove it. But in-game dates are notoriously unreliable; a game might list one year in-game, another year in the readme.txt and a third different year in the manual. (That would usually indicate a robust testing period and printing delays 8)

    PS, Mobygames is back as a reliable source for the ages; NEW new owners have rolled back the site-strangling changes and we're seeing a breath of hitherto forgotten fresh air. They've just announced support for arcade coin-op games, after people demanding them for only a decade.

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    1. Thank God. Now I can filter games to find ones with CMS support again.

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    2. See my comment to anonymous below. I'm not trying to disparage MobyGames. It's a great site and it's probably as accurate as any site is going to be with user-generated content. But in this case, the release date is just wrong.

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  12. Does being someone who never steal or kill non-evil enemies make you "worthy" of resurrection?

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    1. The game doesn't seem to have any sort of karma system. I think worthiness is determined by the number of quests you've completed.

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    2. Ah... I thought it might be a hidden one which you can only see if you type in ALT-K. XD

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  13. Release dates can be tricky, to add to Rowan's post, earlier copyright notes might appear ingame for a number of reasons (usually it's "making games takes time"). Sometimes you might see copyright for the game code that's several years older than the actuals game (because it's a sequel, conversion etc).
    To get the right release dates, I'd say Mobygames is your safest bet. Most places don't seem to bother researching dates at all (never trust gamefaqs!) and I wouldn't vouch for wikipedia either. It's a lot better than most other places, but Mobygames has the advantage that someone has to look over game entries before they are accepted. With wikipedia, you can only hope that the original author got it right or someone noticed a mistake, but you can never be sure. I'm not saying to blindly trust mobygames, but their standards have improved a lot since the early days. If you submit a game without a good source or explanation for the release date, it won't be accepted. If you see a badly written or very short description, that might be a sign that it's an older entry that hasn't been revised yet. In that case, it night be worth it to do some research of your own.

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    1. Gah! Spelling. Typing into a tiny box is hard...

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    2. I'm not saying you're wrong--MobyGames is generally reliable--but the release date for this game is manifestly 1989. The ReadMe file for version 2.0 is dated 12/28/1989 and it references comments from players of the first version, so it must have had at least limited release earlier that year.

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    3. I didn't mean this game in particular (I don't think I've even heard of it before). Just talking about release dates and MG in general. But you're obviously right in this case, feel free to submit a correction :) (Like this blog isn't enough work already).

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    4. For what it's worth, I've found MobyGames to be fairly accepting of corrections when submitted through their system.

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    5. Very well. I took the time to submit a correction.

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  14. This is one of the few I remember playing, downloaded from a BBS. I got pretty far but I got stuck at some point- wasn't very good at recording clues at the time, so who knows what I missed. I seem to remember thinking that going to heaven and acquiring a special item there was important, but I can't remember if it was actually true.

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  15. Was this game shareware only? never had any sort of official retail release?

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    1. I haven't found any evidence that it had any retail release, no.

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  16. I like that they spelled it "Thanx" so that they would have enough room for "!?!" at the end of the sentence. I wasn't really sold about the "TREASURE" after the first one, but the second exclamation point put it over the top. Is there a lot of creative English?

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    1. Tomorrow, when my final post goes up, check out the changes in tenses during the final narration. Also, they manage to spell the name of the land's king a couple different ways.

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  17. I definitely remember playing this game in Shareware format, back in the day, and enjoying it as a sort of discount Ultima. The only two specific things I remember about it are encountering the developers as NPCs, and being irritated that they'd misspelled “shield”.

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  18. I recall watching an older brother play this when I was a kid. I found it a couple years back and found an exploit that helps a lot when starting out. If you go to a castle and see the jester at the entrance, you can just pickpocket him over and over without fear of the guards attacking you by leaving and coming back in. This lets you build up your gold so you can buy all the expensive gear in quantities so you always have something good and can fight well too.

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