|Summoning the right selection of allies makes all the difference in this game.|
Lords of Chaos
Mythos Games (designer); Blade Software (publisher)Released 1990 for Amstrad CPC, C64, and ZX Spectrum; 1991 for Amiga, Atari ST
Date Started: 30 December 2013
Date Ended: 2 January 2014
Date Ended: 2 January 2014
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 28
Ranking at Time of Posting: 58/128 (45%)
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 28
Ranking at Time of Posting: 58/128 (45%)
My first post on Lords of Chaos brought out its fans, and while I respect everyone's opinion and admit that this could be a fun game for someone with different preferences, there's no way anyone can convince me that it's a good RPG. (Admittedly, even the fans of the game only expressed support for it in general, not its RPG credentials.) It does technically meet my criteria, though: combat actions are based on attributes of the wizard and summoned allies; there is character development in between scenarios; and there's a rudimentary inventory within a given scenario.
"Scenario" games occupy a minority of RPGs. The others on my list so far have been Sorcerian, Paladin, Eamon, and SwordThrust, and I haven't been captivated by any of them. (I just realized that "Sorcerian" makes a near-perfect anagram of "scenario"; there's just an extra "r.") The structure of such a game--a persistent hero who can go on a variety of self-contained quests--actually entices me. It's the same thrill of reading a Philip Marlowe novel or watching an episode of Columbo: you have an unchanging character who serves as a solid core, and the fun is watching how he interacts with a new case or environment. Don't get me wrong; I like fiction with story arcs and games with main quests more--but I can see the appeal of the alternative.
Unfortunately, none of these scenario games have gripped me with their gameplay. First, they all feature a certain lack of thematic consistency. Each scenario serves as a self-contained world rather than another area in a common universe. In Sorcerian, you interact with Grimm creatures and Greek gods; in SwordThrust, you go from a medieval castle to an Arabic sultanate from the same adventurer's guild. In Lords of Chaos, this lack of consistency is hand-waved with a backstory involving the shattering of the world into smaller pieces. However it's done, I don't like it. I want Philip Marlowe in 1940s Los Angeles; I don't want him investigating a case in Renaissance Italy one week and Jazz Age Chicago the next.
Second, they all have little interface quirks that I found frustrating. With Sorcerian, it was its side-scrolling nature and unimaginative approach to combat. With Paladin, it was the tediousness of mincing across the landscape. With Lords of Chaos, it's really two related things: the time duration of the missions, and the limited amount of stuff you can accomplish in each turn. There's nowhere near enough time to explore the entire map before you have to hustle for the exit portal. I realize that the developers intended for the levels to proceed at a brisk, nail-biting pace and to require multiple replays to master--but they also made it impossible for a single wizard to repeat a level. With only three levels in the original game and five total, it makes it hard to approach the game as an RPG with a persistent character.
The game's approach to "stamina" adds an unnecessary frustration to a system that already has limited action points each round. Basically, your stamina bar depletes with every action and particularly depletes with combat actions. If it gets below a certain point, you only get half your action points for each round. This forces you to waste the game's already-limited rounds resting so that you get all of your action points back. (At that point, instead of being able to walk only four steps per round, you can now walk eight.) Low constitution also reduces action points. I wish the game had just left its action points independent of the other bars. A character with only 25% of his health has an extremely low probability of survival anyway without adding an inability to walk.
|My spectre starts his turn with only half his action points thanks to low stamina.|
The final bit of annoyance that I find with Chaos has to do with its mouse-only interface. Perhaps it's just me, but I keep screwing up a vital bit of navigation. When you have multiple creatures on the map (which is almost always), you select one of them by clicking on him. After that, whatever else you do applies to that creature. If you click on some part of the map, the game assumes you want to go there and expends all of your movement points in a rush to the location, no matter how remote. To de-select a character and select another one, you have to right-click twice and then left-click on the new one. I don't know what I keep doing wrong, but the game doesn't always "take" my double-right-clicks, with the result that I think I'm selecting a second character when, in fact, the game interprets it as me wanting to send the first character to the second character's location. I keep burning entire rounds' worth of movement points that way.
Despite all of this, I could see how the game could be fun if the player takes the time to experiment with the variety of spells. There are many RPGs that feature magic; there aren't many in which magic forms such a core of the gameplay. The right selection of spells--and the amount of mana necessary to cast them--makes a huge difference in gameplay, forming the game's approach to both strategies and tactics. The abilities to shape the landscape with fire and floods, and to destroy just about all of the objects on the map, are rare if not unique for a game of the era.
The 45 spells in the game are a bit daunting given that they're all available from the beginning. They occur in different categories and work slightly different ways. Summoning spells summon allies to fight for you, but their strengths and weaknesses are more complex than they seem. Undead allies cannot be hit by normal weapons, for instance. Some allies can be ridden and even flown. Only certain allies can open doors, and an even smaller number can pick up objects. You have to choose summoning spells with combat and exploration in mind.
|Flying characters make great scouts--though they can't see enemies and objects hidden in tall grass or trees.|
Potion spells are quite powerful but depend on finding reagents within the scenarios, something that's hard to guarantee during character creation. They also require a cauldron, but most of the scenarios have them plentifully and you can carry them with you. Summoning dragons involves both a potion and a spell, and I didn't bother to try to explore it. I've found the remaining spells--offense and protection--to be the least useful of all because they require the physical presence of a wizard, and I prefer to have my allies do most of the fighting, since an injured wizard has significantly-reduced action points and often can't limp to the exit portal quickly enough.
|Gideon prepares to drink a speed potion from a cauldron.|
Each spell can be selected multiple times to increase its level, which both increases its power and the number of times you can cast it in a single scenario. If I take "summon demon" at Level 2, the first time I cast it, it summons two demons; the second time, it summons one.
In addition to spell reagents, treasures, and keys, the player also finds various weapons scattered about the land. A table in the end of the manual provides the associated weight, combat, and defense ratings. Each character begins unarmed, so these weapons can significantly improve his chances in combat--but you can only hold one item at a time, so you have to make sure the weapon is in the active slot. In general, it's a minor part of the game, especially since I don't like to put my wizard in melee combat, but summoned creatures with hands also benefit from weapons.
The scenarios themselves are a combination of tactical combat and light puzzle-solving. The first, "The Many Coloured Land," is a fairly straightforward endeavor. There are four houses near a little castle with four treasure chests in the corners, but the only entrance is through an interior courtyard and a locked door. The rest of the map is road, forest, and swamp. The portal appears after 12-15 rounds and lasts for 12 rounds after it appears. The player has this short amount of time to find a gold door key and as many blue treasure chest keys as he can, use flying or teleportation to get into the castle courtyard, deal with the spiders guarding the castle interior, collect as many gems as he can, and get to the portal before it closes. In this endeavor, he's opposed by a computer wizard named Torquemada, any other player wizards, and a host of random monsters like apes, alligators, and lions.
|Ransacking a house for a chest key.|
As we saw last time, you can win without setting foot in the treasure castle, but winning isn't enough; you also want to get as many victory points as possible because they convert to experience points that you can spend on attributes and spells for the next map. Since victory points come from both treasure and killing monsters, it's in the player's best interest to linger on the map as long as possible, collecting and killing, before taking the wizard through the portal in the last couple of rounds. But this is rendered more difficult in that enemies--both independent and the other wizards'--start to gather around the portal once it appears. When I won in my last post, it was only because the portal appeared right in the path of my ailing wizard.
|Enemies crowd the portal as my character (mounted on the gryphon) tries to find a way past them.|
In a replay with a wizard named "Gideon," I did a lot better than the first time. In character creation, I focused less on attributes (I ignored combat and defense completely) and more on spells, and I went with some powerful summoning spells--demon, vampire, giant spider, gryphon--right at the beginning. Torquemada, my opponent, also had plenty of summoning spells but (with the exception of two vampires) involving much lesser creatures, and my demon tore through them nicely. As my wizard and vampire explored and collected keys, I sent my demon after Torquemada himself and killed him within a few rounds. Killing a wizard creates a fun "explosion" effect that I've been unable to capture in a screenshot.
|My demon comes upon Torquemada and two minions. I killed him in the next round.|
Torquemada's summoned allies continued to dog me and collect points for him, though. In the first 10 rounds, I managed to collect three chest keys but had trouble finding a door key until the last minute. When I had them, I brought my vampire and wizard together near the castle and swapped items so my wizard had all the keys. As Torquemada's two vampires finally killed my demon, my wizard hopped on the back of his gryphon and flew into the castle courtyard with my vampire (capable of flight but not carrying anyone) in pursuit.
|My vampire (off-screen to the right) holds off the spiders while Gideon loots chests. My gryphon waits in the courtyard to transport Gideon to safety.|
I'm glad I brought the vampire, because when I opened the door, I was confronted by two giant spiders. I sent in the vampire to occupy them while Gideon went the other way and started collecting treasures from chests. The portal appeared in the midst of all of this, and I only had time to open two chests before I had to return to the courtyard, get back on my gryphon, and fly to the exit. I won with 124 points to Torquemada's 0; I guess all the points his allies were amassing didn't mean anything if Torquemada wasn't alive to escape.
My vampire never defeated even one, let alone both, of the giant spiders, so back in Limbo I added them to my summoning repertoire. I spent the rest of my experience points on stamina, constitution, and mana.
|Starting the second scenario.|
The second scenario is called "Slayer's Dungeon." It takes place entirely indoors, and in addition to random gold and gems, there's a magic sword called the Slayer hidden somewhere in its depths. The computer-driven opponent is named "Elbo Smogg." The moment the scenario began, I summoned my demon, my vampire, and three spiders and fanned out, keeping my demon with my wizard as a bodyguard.
|My demon and spider take on a dragon while my wizard waits in safety.|
Two of the spiders encountered Elbo Smogg, traveling with his own demon, fairly quickly. As in the last scenario, I was able to engage him and take him out within the first few rounds, leaving me to just deal with independent creatures and his few summoned minions for the rest of the scenario. His demon killed both of my spiders after they killed Smogg, so I only had a few allies for the rest of the trip.
|My demon eventually dealt with his demon.|
It was longer than the first scenario but still not long enough. There were too many doors that required door keys to open, including one series of three of them. I wasted a bunch of time finding keys for the first two and then was never able to get through the third.
|Lots of swearing here.|
There was also a room with four pressure plates that, in various combinations, closed some pits to get to a treasure chest on the other side. The problem was two enemies capable of ranged attacks, and I didn't have enough allies to close all the pits fast enough to protect my wizard from the attacks.
|I needed more than one character to step on those plates and close the pits.|
Reluctantly, I fled the room and exited the portal with just a few gems. I won with 174 points, mostly from kills. I never found the Slayer sword, but there was a large section of the dungeon I never got to explore.
This descriptions sound tense, brisk, and fun, but as I've said repeatedly, the low number of actions per round makes actual gameplay a lot longer. Both scenarios about 90 minutes of slowly mincing around.
The third scenario is called "Ragaril's Domain," named after a "devious wizard [whose] main pleasure in life comes from luring unsuspecting wizards to his place in order to torment them." Unlike the other two scenarios, it supports only a single player. He competes against Ragaril's minions, some of whom arrive in the starting area via teleporter. It's a frustrating dungeon of traps, keys, doors, and navigation and object puzzles, for which I often have low tolerance even when the interface doesn't punish me for every wrong move.
|A room full of objects encased in ice that I can't touch.|
I didn't finish the dungeon. There's a little object navigation puzzle at the beginning of the level, where you have to find a sun, a moon, and an ankh and place them on appropriate pedestals. It would be annoying enough to run around and collect the items, but the ankh was trapped in a block of ice, and it seems I needed some fire-based spell to melt it and get to it, and I didn't have any. None of my physical attacks worked against it. Based on a walkthrough, I gather that solving this puzzle would have granted me a key I needed to open another door. The only other way out of the area was through a flashing corridor that killed every creature I sent down its path. A lot of games put you in "walking dead" scenarios; I don't know of any others that put you in "starting dead" scenarios. Judging by this site, at least, "there are certain points where it is essential to have at least one fire spell and one water spell."
I couldn't have reloaded my saved wizard in Limbo and selected a fire and water spell because I had already spent my experience points and the game doesn't let your replay earlier scenarios to get more. I would have had to start a new wizard. Even if the site is wrong and there are other solutions to Scenario 3, I don't really care. I gave the game a fair chance, found it's RPG credentials questionable, found the interface frustrating, and didn't like it overall. Since there's no main quest to finish, I don't feel compelled to see it to an end.
In a quick GIMLET, I give it:
- 4 points for the game world. The manual provides a threadbare framing story and a basic setup for each scenario. There's no history and lore, but there are some themes consistent within each scenario, and the game creates some interesting landscapes. I also give it a point for the ability to "destroy" objects in the landscape, though this doesn't often serve much of a purpose. I guess it's possible for a fire spell to end up burning down an entire forest, which would be an interesting dynamic in a different game.
|A fire destroys a garden.|
- 4 points for character creation and development. The game gives you a ton of points to spend on spells and attributes at the outset, and it basically allows you to create whatever kind of wizard you want: a summoner, a potion-maker, an eclectic spellcaster, or even a fighter. I'll charitably assume that all of these are viable options and impart different experiences to the gameplay. If I liked the interface more, it might be fun to create a wizard with extremely jacked up combat and defense stats, make "strength" and "speed" potions my only spells, and see what he could accomplish on his own. I also like that the number of skill points you get between scenarios is dependent on how much you accomplished within the limited time within each scenario.
- 0 points for NPC interaction. They don't exist.
- 4 points for encounters and foes. The enemies in the game are all standard fantasy fare, but the game does do a good job giving them a variety of strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. Moreover, the AI is pretty good. Enemies don't indiscriminately charge at you or fight hopeless battles. They play like human players trying to meet the victory conditions, not just slaughter everyone in sight.
- 5 points for magic and combat. I think I'm being generous here, but the variety of spells does impart a real strategic feeling to the game, as does the ability to shape terrain (if you selected the right spells).
|My vampire and spider wade through mud to reach a couple of keys--and the giant worms guarding them.|
- 3 points for equipment. Most of it consists of keys or puzzle-based items, though there is a limited selection of weapons and shields (shields are used instead of weapons rather than with them), and the manual gives you stats for each one. There are occasional magic items and scrolls that give you hints as to the level's puzzles.
|My character's inventory at one point in Scenario 3. The club is the only weapon I've found. The moon and sun are for a puzzle, and the "sulph" is a reagent for creating speed potions.|
- 2 points for economy. Strictly speaking, there isn't one, but collecting treasures translates to experience points later, so I suppose I should give it some acknowledgement for that.
- 1 point for quests. There's no main quest. Each scenario has some objectives, but for the most part the only "quest" is to reach the portal alive; everything else just affects the number of experience points you get, and I feel like I already rewarded that in "character development" and "economy." You don't get any special acknowledgement at the end of each scenario for having killed the enemy wizards or anything else.
- 3 points for its decent iconographic graphics and its limited sound effects. I offer nothing for the interface which consisted of only two mouse buttons and still managed to screw me up most of the time.
- 2 points for gameplay. Its replayability is its only good feature here, which the game hurts by disallowing replays with the same character. I found the scenarios small and short, and yet paradoxically too large and too long thanks to the handful of steps and actions you can take during your turn.
I want to spend one more minute complaining about the mouse-only interface, because I think it made a huge difference for me in Lords of Chaos. If the game had supported intuitive keyboard use, perhaps by allowing TAB to switch characters, the keypad to move characters, the "I" key to bring up the inventory, "C" to center the map on the main character, "M" to show the big map of the level, "E" to end the turn, and so forth, it would have helped enormously, and perhaps I would have felt a lot different about the length and size of the scenarios, and thus wouldn't have minded repeating them with multiple wizards to find the best strategies. A bad interface can frustrate attempts to enjoy even the best games, and to me, sole reliance on a mouse in a game that has no need to rely only on the mouse is an unforgivably bad interface.
The final score of 28 puts it below the threshold (35-40) at which I really recommend a CRPG. I again want to emphasize that this game's primary purpose is not to be a CRPG, and thus it isn't the developers' fault that I'm playing it as part of a pathological quest to hit every game tagged as such on Wikipedia or MobyGames.
Coincidentally, developer Julian Gollop offered his own review of his game a year ago, playing it for the first time in 22 years. Like me, he praises the character development and combat, but I'm more interested to note that some of his criticisms--a slow pace, too many spells at the outset, the stamina statistic--mirror mine. He doesn't mention anything about the interface despite playing the Atari ST version, which I think is also mouse-only. Anyway, it's good that he recognizes that the game isn't perfect, and his post goes on to explain how he's adapting its better elements for Kingdoms of Chaos. I wish him best of luck.
In "master list" news, I've rejected Time Traveler as not being an RPG. It's an extremely amateur text adventure that does have some random combats, but not based on attributes. There's no character development or inventory, and the only action is menu-driven. Quest 1 is another diskmag game, but I can't find a compiled copy. The best I could have done was take the BASIC code from SoftSide magazine and type it into my TRS-80 emulator. The only copy of it I could find had been OCR'd from SoftSide so it had a lot of text artifacts and would have taken too long to clean up for a game that wouldn't have been much of an RPG in the first place. Thus, Apventure to Atlantis--the fourth and final game in Bob Clardy's "campaign" series--gets elevated to the next position.