Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Legend of Faerghail: Final Rating


Legend of Faerghail
Electronic Design Hannover (developer); Rainbow Arts and reLINE (publishers)
Released 1990 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Date Started: 8 November 2013
Date Ended: 5 December 2013
Total Hours: 19 (unfinished)
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 32
Ranking at Time of Posting:  71/128 (55%)

It's time to accept that I won't be going back to Legend of Faerghail. I think I gave it a good chance: I tried both the DOS and Amiga versions and found them buggy in their own ways. I spent some time trying to solve the bugs in the Amiga version, then switched back to the DOS version to see if I could win it there, and finally just admitted that I didn't care enough about the game to keep trying.

The game is an interesting misfire. It starts with an interface and quest reminiscent of The Bard's Tale but adds some innovative features. The quest is original and intriguing, and the combat system blends some neat characteristics of games like Wizardry and Phantasie, along with some fun animations. It has excellent graphics and sound.

Unfortunately, almost everything it innovated, it screwed up. It introduced some new classes and made them irrelevant. It introduced a system by which the characters could learn to speak to every creature in the game, and then made it unnecessary to speak to any of them. It introduced food as a logistical challenge (and an associated morale system) and then loaded the characters up with so much that I eventually had to drop meals on the floor. It introduced NPCs who would join the party for specific reasons and then never say anything again. It set up an interesting combat system but made it so long that you almost always want to use "quick combat," and it made combat completely optional since every one (except the final, I assume) is escapable. It offered nice graphics for monster portraits and screenshots but screwed up the navigation graphics by not showing items in your periphery and by making every enemy sprite a ghost. It offered pocket-picking (and an associated jail system!) but didn't provide enough gold to make it worthwhile. It had a system by which weapons and armor become damaged but then made it a trivial process to fix them. In almost every way, it undermined its own positive contributions.

When I last blogged, I had uncovered some intriguing information about the history of Faerghail having to do with an ancient alliance between a demon and a dragon. They were defeated by a group of champions who banished the demon to another dimension and imprisoned the dragon in a cave. There was some suggestion that either or both had returned and had found a way to corrupt the minds of the good races--and was thus responsible for the elves turning hostile.

Let's fill in the gaps with a visit to Saintus's blog. He seems to have the most comprehensive discussion of the game on the Internet. Fueled by childhood nostalgia and a pile of maps that he created more than 20 years ago (speeding his re-play), he completed it over two months in the fall of 2012, though he had his own corruption problems.

Saintus played in a different order than me, but he discovered mostly the same things. From his blog, I learned that the gunpowder I'd been carrying could have been used to blast open walls or locked doors and find hidden places. But it's a one-time-use item, meaning I'd have to keep going back to the mines to get more if I wanted to use more. He smartly dumped his thief after a few hours (which I didn't), noting that the thief hardly ever successfully disarms traps, and anything else the thief can do is unnecessary. He mentions certain encounters in the elven pyramid that I didn't experience, but I managed to get through it anyway.

The castle turned out to offer a horror theme, complete with echoing steps, flashing thunder and lightning, and undead inhabitants.  The castle is ruled by a vampire lord, whom you have to trap with the mithril ball to escape. The one necessary item from the castle seems to be an emerald, which coupled with a ring from the dwarven mines and a staff from the Temple of the Dragon Servants merges into a key that opens the final area.
 
The final enemy, courtesy of Saintus's post.

I'll let you read Saintus's harrowing account of the final area if you want. Suffice to say that it has a lot of tough monsters and a crazy-difficult area where you have to navigate through trial and error and every wrong step kills you, much like the "mine" level in Wizardry IV. This would have had me tearing my laptop apart with my teeth. The mines emerge into a wilderness area that takes you to a volcano. A guardian poses a riddle whose answer is the non-word "iceflower" which also would have had me destroying walls and furniture. The sarcophagus from the monastery becomes necessary to sail across a river of lava. The level culminates in a battle against a dragon, upon whose death you throw the demon mask from the elven pyramid into his pools of blood to win the game. The closing screenshots talk about peace and accolades for the party but don't help you understand any better what the hell was going on in the game.

The closing shot, again from Saintus's post.
 
In a GIMLET, I give it:

1. Game World. The game sets up a reasonably unique world and scenario but doesn't follow through with enough detail. The core mystery--why have the elves suddenly turned hostile?--is compelling, but the game leaves you to piece together the answer with overly-cryptic hints, and I honestly can't say whether that's deliberate or just poor game design. There is some reasonably good lore in the form of books, and some very good prose during exploration of dungeons, but the two valleys seem small, constrained, and thematically inconsistent, and the game rarely distinguishes itself from other fantasy worlds. Score: 4.

2. Character Creation and Development. It deserves some credit for introducing classes not seen, or rarely seen, in other RPGs of the era (blacksmiths, healers, monks, illusionists, barbarians), then loses that credit for making the distinctions relatively meaningless. Character leveling is slow but satisfying with the increase in hit points, attributes, skills, and spells. I wish the game had done more with the language system. Score: 4.


3. NPC interaction. There are a few NPCs who will join the party, although they aren't necessary and their abilities are variable enough that it might be better just to use the slot for another player-created character. The disappointing thing is that they come along in specific places for specific reasons (e.g., the monk who wants revenge on the dwarves who sacked his monastery) but then never say or do anything when the quest is completed. I like that a few NPC monsters will join you if you ask. Other NPCs are one-conversation-only encounters in specific squares. Score: 3.

4. Encounters and Foes. Until you fight, every foe is technically just an NPC, and you have the option to trade, recruit, and negotiate a withdrawal. The problem is these options hardly ever work. When trade does work, you find the other party has nothing you want and won't buy your items--the one thing that would have made it worthwhile. You find yourself slaughtering friendly parties because it's faster than anything else.

The excellent monster portraits help distinguish the game's foes, but only a few of them have special attacks that require some kind of special tactic. For the most part, they just wallop you. Though you can clear dungeon levels, the enemies respawn when you return.

Beyond the regular encounters, there were a nice variety of special encounters in the maps, such as informants who offer intelligence for a price, a sword-in-a-stone, and copious riddles--though some of them are nonsensical in English, and some are nonsensical in any language. Score: 4.

I've got a $25 Amazon gift card for anyone who can tell me what he was looking for.

5. Magic and Combat. There are some good combat options with the different ranks and such, and the animations that accompany each attack are fun--a few times. Then combat becomes a rote matter of hitting (Q)uick combat over and over. It's also a bit odd that the party can simply (W)ithdraw from combat at any time with no penalty. The magic system offers too few spells too slowly to make much of a difference in the party, and spell points deplete too quickly. Score: 3.

The combat is rote, but at least it's quick.

6. Equipment. Underwhelming. Each character class can equip a different variety of weapons and armor, but upgrades don't come very quickly after your initial purchases, and there's no way to assess relative value except by the sale price. There are a handful of potions and scrolls and such, but I had trouble figuring out how to use some of the magic items. The weapon and armor condition score was a potentially-interesting twist rendered trivial with a smith in the party. Score: 3.

7. Economy. Utterly broken in a feast-or-famine sort of way. Most treasure chests in the dungeons offer only a handful of gold pieces, but a few offer thousands. Since they reset when you enter and leave, you can get all the gold you can carry very quickly, and it's never a problem again. Meanwhile, there's nothing in the equipment store worth buying, though you do need gold for training and skill development. Score: 2.

8. Quests. The main quest reveals itself in stages and isn't bad. There are no explicit "side quests" but there are a couple of "side-dungeons" that help build experience and equipment. Score: 4.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. (I'm rating the Amiga version here, as the DOS version has reduced graphics and absolutely no sound.) The character and monster portraits and cut-scene graphics are very well-composed, and the game did a good job with different lighting levels depending on time of day or the strength of the characters' light spells. I particularly liked the sound, which features some of the first ambient sound I've experienced in an RPG, including soft howling of wind and chirping of crickets at night, water dripping in the dungeons, and bird calls outside during the day.

The outdoor and corridor graphics have more detail than many games of the age, but the lack of the ability to see objects and passages in your periphery really screws up navigation. I liked that the interface offered a choice between easy-to-remember keyboard commands and the mouse, but not that simple acts like transferring gold required too much effort. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. The game is quite difficult during the first level, where every combat round can leave you with dead characters and insufficient money to resurrect them. It gets a lot easier later, when you can withdraw from any battle that seems to be going poorly and take a 24-hour nap right in front of your enemy, and loading up on all the cash you want is a matter of returning to a treasure room multiple times. I'd like to credit it with nonlinearity--all of the dungeons are open at the beginning--but you have to assail them in a specific order to fully complete them and get all the necessary items. Since the game gives you only a few hints as to this order, and since the dungeons reset when you leave and return, you could spend a lot of time bumbling around for nothing.

Also on the negative side is the size of the dungeons. They might have hundreds of squares per level and only one or two interesting things to encounter. You spend a lot of time wandering and mapping for no reason. Finally, I invested 19 hours in the game. If it hadn't bugged out on me, it probably would have taken another 15 to win. This simply wasn't a good enough game to deserve 34 hours of attention. Score: 2.

I do have to subtract 2 points for the bugs. After some online research, I'm convinced that these were present in the original versions and didn't just pop up during emulation. It deserves a third lost point for poor translation in parts of the game that, among other things, make two riddles essentially unsolvable without spoilers. That gives a final score of 32.


Contemporary reviews of the game were all over the place. The most positive is probably found in Amiga magazine from December 1990, which said that, "this is by far the best attempt at a roleplaying game to date." Not only better than the entire Ultima series or Gold Box series, mind you, but by far better. I think we can dismiss the rest of this review out of hand.

Zzap! had a more measured review in December 1990, praising its excellent graphics and sound (they particularly noted the ambient sound) and noting its innovations without discussing their downsides. The weakest score given by the magazine was in the "puzzle factor" category (78%), and I wonder if this has to do with the language issues. Few of the reviews mention this, and I have no idea how the reviewers got through the PLOUGH riddle before the Internet.

The reviews start to get worse in Australian Commodore and Amiga Review, which echoes the others in its admiration for the graphics and sound but bemoans the large dungeons and copious combats. Peter Olafson's review in the February 1991 Computer Gaming World comes closest to my "pan" of the game. Despite an initially-positive first impression, he found it "rough-edged in places and ill-thought-out or incomplete in others." As I did, he notes several features that had promise, like the languages, but ultimately "doesn't appear to have been fully implemented." He also comments, though not at length, on the "sloppy" translation from German to English.

Olafson also comments on something that I had to reload the game to verify. I utterly missed it the first time, partly because I must have assumed it was a random syllable and partly because I rarely fought without "quick combat." When you engage in regular combat (not quick) and watch each animation, when a character misses and enemy, he very clearly says "sh*t." I think this might be the first time there was a spoken obscenity in an RPG.

The worst review I've seen is a quick summary by Scorpia in the October 1991 issue, as she "surveys" all of the RPGs currently on the market: "German import that never should have crossed the Atlantic. Poorly translated manual has several mistakes. Graphics are ugly to tolerable. Combat is absurd: characters in the rear rank can be hit by opponents nowhere near them. There is nothing new or of interest in the game; a mediocre effort at best." Wow. I get what she means about most of these items, but the graphics are "ugly to tolerable"? Perhaps she looked at the DOS version.

Legend of Faerghail is one of only two games that MobyGames lists for Electronic Design Hannover; the other is Mit Jeans und Hellebarde ("With Jeans and Halberd"), a text adventure from 1989 involving a modern man in medieval times. But many of the personnel also seem to have worked for reLINE software (one of Faerghail's publishers), which produced a few other games, including the RPG Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991), which I hope is as good as it sounds.

For now, I need to wrap up with Lords of Chaos and start making better progress through 1990.

****

Over a year after posting the final rating, I offered an additional entry on Legend of Faerghail based on some excellent comments received from one of the principal developers.

48 comments:

  1. I was wondering how many points you'd subtract from the GIMLET because of the dodgy translation and the cartload of bugs :)

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  2. From what I understand, Fate is mostly notable for being the first "sandbox" RPG with a huge open world and NPCs that mind their own business. Some of Faerghail's problems (i.e. uninspired magic system) still persist there. It's also said to take several months to finish.

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  3. Happy new year to you, your family and all the readers of the blog.

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  4. Given the sheer magnitude of the game-breaking and save-corruption bugs (which even the guy who finished the game had to struggle with), I think you're being gentle with your final rating.

    My #1 concern with trying any new or old CRPG, and the main reason why I mostly switched to console RPGs long ago, is the eternal conundrum, "Will this game actually run and be finishable?"

    As for the guardsman, well, if I were playing World of Warcraft I'd type /hail. :)

    Happy new year to everyone! May all your RPGs be bug-free.

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    1. This is one of the reasons I was so comfortable with my "DOS-only" rule in the first place. I've only had one game (Heroes of the Lance) completely fail in DOSBox. Even now that I understand the Apple II, TRS-80, and Amiga emulators, I utterly can't trust the save options in the games and have to rely on save states to make sure I don't lose my progress.

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    2. Save states have a problem of their own: it's as if you played for days, weeks, months without turning off your computer or even resetting the game, which was really not done with Spectrums, C64s, Amigas and so on. This may well expose memory leaks and other problems that people at the time would never encounter.

      I certainly rely mostly on save states, but, if I'm going to be playing a game for a while, I start by testing the emulated save-to-disk option, as it's good to use it (and reset the emulation) once in a while.

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    3. If I were playing in Skyrim, I'd type "an arrow to the knee".

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  5. "Iceflower" maybe came from a too literary translation of german. The frost pattern on windows are called "Eisblumen".

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    1. I figured it was something like that. It probably would have been better to create new riddles that made sense in English rather than simply translating the old ones. I don't understand how players of 1990 kept from ripping their hair out, but I couldn't find any accounts of such online.

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    2. I don't know, Chet, a lot of people I know now who were gamers in 1990 are bald or balding. Could be a correlation there.

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    3. Yes, also the bad translated poem as riddle covered in an earlier post is weird. Translations in early video games were always very shaky. I knew from my job that a good translation is very expensive. I think with a limited budget they let the guy in the company who knows the language best do the work and never let a native speaker even read that creation. (this happens also today quite often ^^)

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    4. As a German "Iceflower" was an obvious translation of "Eisblume" to me, plus I knew the riddle from outside of the game and earlier. But at least "Ice flower" seems to be valid:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Window_frost#Window_frost

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    5. I'm not saying that in English, nobody uses "ice flower," but I am saying that in 40 years, I have never heard anyone use it.

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  6. Sh*t! I remember this :)
    Fate is a very long game, I liked but never finished it. Mainly because of the somehow annoying Amiga emulator performance problems. But I read the original Amiga game had annoying performance problems too.

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    1. Since this was my first experience with an Amiga emulator, it's hard for me to determine how much is due to the emulator and how much to the original game.

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  7. I'm really glad I removed this game from my own chronological play list.
    Should be interesting to see how Fate: Gates of Dawn compares. I removed that too from my play list, but it sounded more interesting than LoF.

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  8. Why do you think the Amiga version was released later than the others? That's certainly not true for the original German release.

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    1. That's what MobyGames says, and I didn't have anything to contradict it.

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    2. Yeah, it says 1991 for the US release...which was contributed by me, so I guess I'm partly responsible for you stating it as such, haha. I have to look up what my reasoning was for moving it into the next year and possibly get the DOS US date corrected as well.

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  9. Here's to another year of RPGs.
    I don't like the look of that upcoming games list, though. So many mediocre and bad ones lumped into one, I hope you don't get burned out by those...

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  10. I doubt the reviewers in the Amiga magazines you mention played much of the game. I use to have an Amiga and I read some of these magazines. I got the impression at the time that the reviewers would play the games for a few hours at most. Review scores were often absurdly high. I guess we have the same problem currently with reviews on the internet, in particular for AAA titles.

    Computer Gaming World was the only magazine in the early 90's where a reviewer would make an effort to finish the game they were reviewing. Scorpia was the best in my opinion. Even when I didn't agree with a review written by her I knew she had played the game a lot and had probably finished it. In it's last few years of existence CGW became like all the other computer game magazines and I stopped reading it.

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    1. One other thing I note about the early issues of CGW is the relatively leisurely pace of the reviews. It's not uncommon for a game to come out in July of one year and not receive a review until February of the next. Today, reviewers are expected to have reviews on opening day, or soon after, and it must make it really difficult to play the game in its entirety before press time. I imagine game publishers have arrangements with the biggest sites, much like pre-screenings of films for reviewers.

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    2. Yeah, the world of game reviews is wacky. I wrote some reviews for a friend's site before, and being a developer I've seen both sides of the fence. You are correct that the accelerated pace of news has sped things up and made things more complicated. Many publishers will send pre-release code to reviewers, especially at the bigger sites. For consoles, these sites often have developer versions of the consoles to run pre-release code.

      Another common thing is to have the developer demonstrate the game for the reviewer. Or, they might give the reviewer a bunch of save games so they can play through the highlights. It's actually pretty rare that a reviewer will play through a game entirely like a normal player would.

      One problem with pre-release code is that some things can change between review and release. The most common example is that the game might be a bit rough in pre-release, so the reviewer will assume that bugs will be fixed, performance will be enhanced, etc. And, if it's not, then the review doesn't really reflect the quality.

      The sheer quantity of games also means that reviewers will sometimes look for reasons not to pay attention to a game unless it's "known" it's going to be a hit. So, an RPG from an unknown studio is much less likely to get attention than a sequel to a hit franchise.

      I could delve into other murky waters, like the different tiers of sites and how the publishers treat them, or the whole wonderful world of "embargoes" and how it really screws over the little guys. But, yeah, let's just say it's a pretty odd situation.

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    3. I hear the biggest red flag for a bad game is when they don't send out review copies, as they know that will delay reviews going up for a few days after release, as the reviewers will have to go stand in line for it, then play it and then write a review.

      No press release is even worse: Have a look at the game that 'just appear' on Steam. Jim Sterling plays a number of them blind on his YouTube channel, giving commentary as he goes. There has yet to be a good game in the bunch that hasn't reached out to at least some review sites.

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  11. Following up on Scorpia, she stated that she could only review games on the Apple II and IBM PC as she didn't own any other computers. So she had to go by the DOS version for her review/statement. And after Russel Sipe and Johnny Wilson left Computer Gaming World, it suffered and it was the new editors that fired Scorpia after she gave a not so flattering review to an RPG.

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    1. Do you know what that game was? It would be interesting to hit the archives and see the fatal review.

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    2. http://www.gog.com/forum/baldurs_gate_series/scorpias_review_of_bg1_from_1999

      More on the topic in this thread: http://www.quartertothree.com/game-talk/showthread.php?28150-Scorpia-is-back

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    3. More than anything else I'm struck by how many ads that issue of CGW has. Six ads (twelve pages) before the Table of Contents, then another five (and ten pages) after the ToC, but before any articles.

      I was only ever a Nintendo Power kid and the magazine never needed ads, thanks to being bankrolled by Nintendo. That eventually changed, but I had grown out of the habit by then.

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    4. Well, I read the review. I disagree with it, of course. I thought the combat system was a nice balance between turn-based combat and action combat. I find her comments on the dialogue the most baffling of all. What the hell was she playing in that offered better dialogue and more role-playing options?

      "There's no question that BALDUR was designed from the first with multiplayer in mind." Seriously? A game that features a single main protagonist? A game in which the plot makes no sense to have a full party at the beginning? I never played it in multiplayer, so I'm not qualified to comment, but in 15 years, I've never heard of anyone praising this aspect of the game besides Scorpia.

      [Spoilers in this paragraph] "Unfortunately, what starts as [a rather interesting plot] later fizzles out." Towards the end of the game, you find out that you're the CHILD OF A GOD. She thought doing errands in Candlekeep was more compelling?

      As baffled as I am with the review, I have to say that her writing quality improved dramatically between 1990 and 1998. I'd suspect it was better editing, but I've read some articles on her web site and it has the same quality. I wonder if she did anything special in the intervening years or whether it was just an accumulation of experience.

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    5. It's especially hilarious considering I remember the multiplayer being unstable and buggy at release and some time after. Using Gamespy might have had something to do with it, I have no good memories of that product.

      And I just went to their website to find they were shut down last February. Another bit of my childhood (even hatefully remembered) now gone. Sad.

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    6. Regarding the story in BG, I think it is that in the beginning, the plot shows some promise to be good, but later it turns out to be pretty boring. It's the side-quests that make BG good.

      Also, I dislike the Infinity Engine because I find it very hard to control the characters in a good way (i.e. I need to micromanage all characters so that they don't do stupid things with path-finding etc.). Turn-based would have worked better (note: I don't say RTwP cannot work, but BG:s implementation does not work particularily well).

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    7. You don't f*ck with BG and expect to get away with it.

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    8. Railfield: You mean EVERYTHING was unstable and buggy on release. I played it on the original 6 disk version, unpatched (What was a patch?) and man. I had to turn off weather or it would crash, save after every fight or major event in case a crash pushed me backwards, etc.

      Chet: Good editing, possibly. On the other hand, if you are writing every day for years, you should be improving. I improved a lot when I had to write a two page essay every week for a history class I took in my final year of uni, discovering I was using a lot of redundant words and so on.

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  12. Well, I don't feel so bad for never completing this one. I do remember being totally surprised when the PC's would say "Sh*!" after a miss, my Amiga buddies and I were greatly amused at the time. Perhaps that was the most memorable aspect of LoF when I think of it, the swear word. I wondered at the time how they slipped that in, but I guess this was pre ESRB, so it was probably not even an issue. ESRB has not had much effect anyway, 6 yo's are still playing GTA in all it's adult glory.

    Cheers

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    1. I just finished playing Assassin's Creed II with Irene. The last words of the game are "What. The. F**k." I was thinking that probably upsets mothers more than the senseless massacres of a bunch of guards just doing their jobs.

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    2. Yes, we will always remember that game for its sh*t.

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    3. It's not just the swear, but the effete Mickey Mouse voice, that had me laughing.

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    4. Slightly apropos of the subject, my ad feed is featuring a video ad for a game called League of Angels that's one step away from straight-up porn. I'm not marketing expert, but it strikes me that with actual pornography so freely and easily available to any teenager in mere seconds, these browser-based MMORPGs would do better focusing on gameplay and less on elves in bikinis.

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    5. Can't fault the League of Angels for its enthusiasm though. January 2nd and the website already proclaims it as 2014's leading browser game.

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    6. Tell me you at least clicked on the ad on my site to get to theirs.

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    7. Sorry, my corporate laptop utilizes a hefty HOSTS file to block pretty much everything under the sun, including the ad provider Blogger uses. I do wish there was some other way to support this site, I really cannot see any ads at all.

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    8. Their main draw is skanky, half-dressed bimbos, yet it looks like you can't even get a good look at your character during game play. well, at least they actually have women: Evony has all those racy ads, but not females in game at all. If I were male, I might be insulted by a game that said 'Our game sucks, but we know you'll play it anyway because tits.'

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    9. The best (worst) I've seen is the one with the "No women allowed!" ads. Someone checked, and yes, the first question in character creation is your sex. So, either women are allowed, or all the female characters are played by guys. Um.....

      Also, is the 13 year olds and sexists demographic really that large? o.0

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  13. I think this game was meant only for german or german-speaking Amiga players. The translation and the DOS-port are bad. And I think the game is built too much from the very personal tastes of the developers (Tons of features that the devlopers thought were good ideas, but no idea how to implement them, and the Schiller riddle). "Mit Jeans und Hellebarde"... that sounds cringe-worthily nerdy. Also, in the end, what IS the Legend of Faerghail?

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  14. I wonder if there's any archive of reviews for the game in the German gaming press, I'm curious if it was received better in its native land than overseas.

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    1. Yes and yes:

      http://www.kultboy.com/testbericht-uebersicht/716/

      Trivia: The Powerplay review prompted the developers to write a letter due to the (in their opinion) too low score. It should be noted that 66% was still regarded as solid at that time in the magazine.

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    2. Thanks! And wow, I can only assume that the German version had a lot fewer bugs in it than the English versions to get such high scores.

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  15. Happy New Year, Chet! I look forward to the games that you're gonna play, and or rereading old posts; no pressure. As for my own gaming I'm going to try not to play any Civilization this year. It's almost 20 years since I bought that game, time has come to move on, hard as though it can be.

    Your blog is the most eloquent gaming blog on the internet, your "voice" is vivid and sometimes humorous, and always entertaining. I always read your blog, even if I don't comment often; I don't have much to add.

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