|Morgan's castle is something out of Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings, not Arthurian literature.|
Perhaps one reason has to do with the non-fantastical nature of the Arthurian mythos. The core texts are more concerned with quasi-historical events and interpersonal relationships than anything to do with magic or the supernatural. Dragons rarely make any kind of appearance. There are no armies of goblins or orcs, no undead creatures. There are a few notable exceptions, to be sure--we have the enigmatic Questing Beast, the occasional giant, and a few other bizarre creatures in Welsh legend--but usually Knights of the Round Table are fighting each other, not monsters.
The nature of magic is also a bit underwhelming to those raised on D&D-style fantasy. In contrast to what you might see in some television and film adaptations of the Arthurian legends, the original texts rarely feature stark magic. No one waves a wand or shoots fireballs. Merlin is more sage than mage, and his abilities are either unobservable (e.g., precognition) or nebulous. The mechanism by which he changes Uther's likeness to that of the Duke of Cornwall, for instance, is never explicitly stated. He might have just made a really good mask. The few supernatural elements that do appear front-and-center are generally spiritual--explicitly Christian--and not arcane.
Magic items are also quite rare. Excalibur is just an awesome sword; it doesn't raise the wielder's strength or do fire damage. Again, there are a couple of exceptions. In some texts, Excalibur's scabbard prevents the wearer from losing blood, for instance. There's the love potion that ensorcelled Tristan and Isolde, plus a fun subset of legends in which some magic object--a drinking horn or cloak, usually--tests everyone's faithfulness. In general, though, magic items are unique artifacts and not something you just pick up in a shop.
Setting an RPG in Arthur's Britain, then, requires either going against familiar high-fantasy RPG expectations or forcing Arthuriana into them. Spirit of Excalibur does the latter. Nineve and some of the knights are capable of casting named spells, and there are fearsome beasts on the roadways. (Episode Five promises to have Morgan le Fay flooding Britain with demons.) There are magic items to find and wield (e.g., "Gauntlets of Power") and potions to drink. I realize that you almost have to do these things when adapting for an audience bred on D&D, but it does remove some of the gritty realism of the original stories.
|I'm pretty sure "gaunts d'poeir" isn't proper French.|
In terms of characters, the game cleaves to the legend in some areas but not in others. The list of knights that become available to the player as the game goes on are mostly drawn from Malory, they're mostly still alive at the end of the book, and Malory's sources, at least, include a brief episode in which they participate in the war against Mordred's sons. The whole episode doesn't seem quite as involved and dramatic as what's going on in the game, but the game certainly isn't non-canonical in its overall plot.
There are some violations of tradition that wouldn't bother most players but do jar me a bit. The distribution of knights among the cities of Britain is nonsensical. Most are allies of Lancelot and ought to be in France at the time the game begins, not ruling places like Dover. Peredur shows up as the head of Wroxeter; he's the Welsh version of Percival and either ought to be in Sarras or not in a game derived from French versions of the legend. The portrayal of Morgan le Fay is a little cartoonish in its villainy; in the legends, her character, while often antagonistic to Arthur and his knights, is not actually evil. In most of them, she is Arthur's half-sister, and dutifully bears his body to Avalon after the final battle.
But all of these pale in comparison to the worst offense: when the player encounters Lancelot in Episode Two, Lancelot is in the midst of seeking the Holy Grail. The Grail Quest, which occurred some years before Mordred's rebellion, absolutely ruined the Round Table, and the whole lesson of the quest was that the Grail could not be retrieved or possessed--in fact, it was taken into Heaven at the conclusion of the quest. I can't imagine why Lancelot is out looking for the Grail in Cardiff.
|I didn't just find the Holy Grail sitting on a table, right?|
Perhaps I'm talking so much about Arthurian lore because I don't really want to talk about the game, which I don't really like. Spirit of Excalibur is difficult and exhausting, forcing you to play each scenario multiple times to achieve an optimum outcome, and even then you might have lost a character, or forgotten to pick up an item, that turns out to be vital in a later scenario. At the beginning of a scenario, it has no compunction letting you send the wrong character off to the wrong side of Britain, with the wrong equipment. You do your best to complete a scenario only to realize two hours later that you were doomed the moment you left Camelot and sent Baudwin east instead of west.
It's possible that players of a different bent will like the mechanic, with the campaign/scene dichotomy, but I don't. I didn't like it in War in Middle Earth, either. I don't mind fielding massive armies in epic battles outside London's walls, and I don't mind exploring castles and bribing individual peasants to give me keys, but I don't like doing both simultaneously.
|Melehan appears in the north and begins his slow march. Scrambling around to get everything in place before he reaches London is a key dynamic of Scenario 2.|
Scenario Two begins with a large army of Saxons on the march to London, which you don't yet control. A rumor of an army amassing in Scotland, though it starts the scenario, is less pressing than stopping this Saxon threat. Once you defeat the Saxons, Melehan's army begins its march in the north and starts burning cities on the way to London.
|Defeating the Saxons at London leaves it under Constantine's control.|
To contend with both, you must raise armies, send them to London, and unify them under a single commander. Two armies are already available at Lincoln and Leicester, thanks to the events of the first scenario, and two more can be found in Dover and Arundel (both relatively close to Camelot) by solving a couple of quick quests. These are enough to defeat the Saxons. To win the battle against Melehan, you need to find and rescue Lancelot.
|Hector rescues Lancelot. Hector is Lancelot's brother, not his "friend," though maybe Lancelot can't tell because of the visor and all.|
After you do, a bunch of armies belonging to his allies suddenly become available.
|I direct armies to London to await Melehan.|
This description sounds easy enough, but it took me about nine tries to get it right. The relentless march of the Saxon and Scottish armies imposes a time limit on the scenario, and you really have no clue as to what direction to go when the scenario begins. There are innumerable ways to screw it up. Some examples:
- Arundel's armies become available once you rescue an abducted maiden from a Saxon named Cynewulf. But he moves fast out of Arundel, so you have to choose one of your fast knights to catch up to him before he maxes it all the way back to the main Saxon army. After some experimentation, I was able to accomplish it with Lavain.
- Dover's quest is to defeat a demonic creature wandering around outside, which requires a particularly strong knight.
|Constantine fights a . . . something.|
(Dover is oddly ruled by Palomides, one of my favorite characters from the legends. As a Saracen, he's a out of place in Britain, but he still manages to find a seat at the Round Table. His story is characterized by his doomed love for Isolde. He was a strong, courageous, and noble knight, and in a fair world, he might have had a chance with her--if not for that pesky love potion, which of course he doesn't know about. He just has to sit there and watch the love of his life constantly and inexplicably pining for some vainglorious jock.)
- To find Lancelot, you first have to get a clue from a peasant in a hut (which requires some exploration, which you don't have time for). Then, you have to go to Glastonbury to speak to Sir Bors, only Bors (having thrown off his armor for friar's robes) is bitter at the Round Table and won't talk to a knight. Fine, I thought the first time; I'll send Nineve. But it turns out he won't speak to her, either. You have to send the priest, Baudwin, who is the absolutely slowest-moving character you have. You basically have to start him heading to Glastonbury from Camelot as soon as the scenario starts if you want to find Lancelot in time.
|I get it. It's 'cause I'm a woman.|
(Bors's piety is, perhaps, a nod to his status as one of the successful "Grail Heroes" in the Vulgate/Malory version of the legends. Galahad succeeds in the quest because he's basically Jesus Christ; Percival succeeds because of his innocence; and Bors succeeds because he passes a series of dogmatic tests. The Grail Quest culminates at Corbenic, where Galahad, Percival, and Bors participate in a mass while Lancelot is allowed to watch from a distance. Galahad and Percival go on to Sarras and ultimately die, while Bors returns to Camelot to recount the adventures.)
- But before the party seeking Lancelot can get to Glastonbury, a maiden pops up and asks for help rescuing her imprisoned sister. If you decline, you lose significant "nobility" points, so you have to accept. Only you don't want to accept with Baudwin, because he's useless against the evil knight and he doesn't have time to get all the way to Lyonesse and back anyway. Thus, even though your intelligence is specifically that Bors won't speak to a knight, you have to send a knight to Glastonbury first to run interference on the maiden's quest, then send Baudwin behind him.
|I certainly didn't mind killing this guy. What a jackass.|
- Bors tells Baudwin that Lancelot has gone to seek the Holy Grail in Escavalon (which, according to the game map, is southern Wales). To figure out where he is, you have to break into a study in Cardiff and study a map. To get into the study, you have to get the key from the castle's steward, who is inexplicably a few cities away in Caerwent. To get his location, you first have to bribe a peasant woman outside Cardiff. In both cases, you have to have thought to give the knight in question some money from the castle's treasury. It took me forever searching around Wales for Lancelot to think of bribing the woman.
|At this point, you can bribe the castellan for a key, or kill him and take it off his body. The latter results in a loss of "nobility."|
Once you reach the castle where Lancelot is being held, you have to fight consecutive battles with five guards and then a necromancer. I found that only the best knight could win this battle, and even then I needed some potions that I had to have brought from Camelot way back at the beginning.
Amidst all of this, there are a couple dozen other locations to visit if you like, some with clues, some with random combat against challengers, some with items like spell reagents to buy. Again, it takes a lot of experimentation, trial, and error to find the best path through the scenario, and the "best path" means sending the right people, with the right equipment, in the right directions as soon as you leave Camelot.
|Well, thanks. That was helpful. Glad I stopped.|
It is possible to win against Melehan without Lancelot and his armies, but given that the scenario is called "The Return of Lancelot du Lac," my guess is that it screws you up in later episodes if you do. Also, I couldn't do it without losing a bunch of named knights and characters, and my suspicion is that you generally want named characters to stay alive. I've been reloading if they die. The game is hard enough without that.
The one-on-one combats depend far too much on luck. Sometimes, one of my knights will enter combat and die instantly, only to defeat his enemy without taking a single wound on a reload. My battle with the necromancer holding Lancelot was the hardest. He casts spells continually, preventing you from getting in an attack. Basically, I had to keep reloading until my knight was able to shrug off the first barrage of magic missiles and actually get close enough to hit him.
Army combats are a little more deterministic. As you fight, the game scrolls methodically through each of the individual units on the field, determining how much damage they take or how many soldiers they lose. I've seen very little variance in these figures no matter what tactics I adopt in battle (and there really aren't that many). After each round, you're given a chance to withdraw, at which point the attacker marks time for a few turns before attacking again. Even though I could have defeated the Saxons the first time, I used the option to withdraw three or four times to prolong the invasion so I had more time to find Lancelot in advance of Melehan's march.
|My huge army takes on Melehan's forces in the final battle of the scenario.|
As I found out the hard way, having multiple armies in the same city accomplishes nothing if they're not unified under the same commander. Otherwise, only one of them will fight in the battle. Unifying them is harder than it sounds. When you bring an army to a city where another army already sits, it gives you the option to "join" them, but only if you don't "stop and talk" first. If you do the latter, then you have to send the army out of the city and re-enter to join it to the first. Second, some knights always challenge each other to a duel, so you never get the "join" option. This was especially true of Bors. I wanted his army for the battle against Melehan, but he wanted to fight practically every knight in London. I spent a long time juggling various armies around, sending them in and out of London--all while Melehan was marching relentlessly towards me--before I gave up and decided I needed everyone else more than Bors. Overall, the process of managing parties is too annoying.
|Dammit, Bors! We have bigger fish to fry.|
Scenario Two ends with Melehan's defeat. Even though he "dies" on the combat screen, the game notes cryptically that his body isn't found among the dead. The scenario ends with a cutscene in which Morgan le Fay, I guess the "big bad" of the game, upbraids Melehan and Morgolon for their failures.
|Really? A bare midriff? The woman has to be about 75 by now.|
A few other notes:
- Characters gain "combat points" for successful one-on-one combats, "nobility points" for doing good deeds, and "faith points" for spending time in abbeys and churches. These are the only methods of "character development" that prevent me from designating the game not-an-RPG.
|Lavain gains a nobility point and a combat point rescuing the maiden from Cynewulf.|
- If Constantine dies, the game immediately ends. Anyone else can die, and the game continues, although I suspect this can place you in a "walking dead" scenario for later chapters.
|If Constantine dies, Britain enters the "Dark Ages." I'm pretty sure this happens anyway.|
- You can search defeated knights for a few bits of gold. I haven't found much use for gold except bribing people for information.
- I haven't experimented much with magic. Nineve is capable of spells like "Defend Spell," "Charm Spell," and "Shield Spell," but these use up reagents and magic power (of which she only has a limited amount per scenario). I've found it most useful to keep her with the main army and cast "Healing Spell" on heroes that suffer wounds. Each hero can suffer four wounds before dying.
|Casting a spell in the midst of combat.|
- Some of the cities just feature outdoor screens where you can talk to a resident. Others have castles, monasteries, or other buildings you can enter and perhaps explore a couple of rooms. Usually, they're empty except when required by the plot.
- The armor the knights wear is colored based on their "nobility" rating. The lighter the better.
- The scenarios end when you've accomplished the main goals. You can't linger and explore after the main threat is over.
|Episode 3 begins, whether I want it to or not.|
- In this (DOS) version, the music is okay, but it's so relentless and repetitive that I've been playing with the sound off. I don't think there are any other sound effects.
- I'm not in love with the controls. The mouse is extremely sensitive, and clicking in slightly the wrong area can cause you to lose whatever submenu you're in.
Scenario Three opens with the arrival of a giant at Camelot. He stands outside and challenges anyone who wants to come out and fight him. This is a common Arthurian trope, most notably in the "Beheading Game" series of stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As I soon discovered, he's unbeatable (he has magical protection and won't take a single wound), and unlike the Green Knight, he doesn't just laugh and go away. He keeps standing there demanding victims. The only way I've found to spare my knights' lives is to withdraw immediately at the beginning of combat, but this makes them lose nobility points. Meanwhile, Lancelot and Nineve are approaching Camelot from one direction and Bedivere and Dinas from another (I don't know why they were even away). Anyone who reaches Camelot immediately dies at the hands of the giant, so I have to send them somewhere else.
|Nineve ineffectually casts spells while Lancelot lies dead in front of the giant. I think I need to reload.|
Melehan has arrived from the north with another huge army, and he immediately sacks and burns York before starting a march south. And a party of bandits is raiding and pillaging the east. None of my knights can leave Camelot and go command their armies until I deal with the giant. I can tell I have a long session of trial-and-error ahead of me before I can figure out how to navigate this one.