Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Game 166: Crystals of Arborea (1990)


Crystals of Arborea
Silmarils (Developer and Publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, Amiga, and Atari ST
Date Started: 28 September 2014
Date Ended: 4 October 2014
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 23
Ranking at Time of Posting: 50/164 (30%)

Crystals of Arborea is a weird little strategy/RPG hybrid from the French developer Silmarils. The company would later become semi-famous for the Ishar trilogy. Arborea, which takes place in the same universe and has some links to Ishar's back story, is sometimes called Ishar 0. I found the entire series on GOG for $5.99, making this the third 1990 game I've legitimately purchased. I suspect this tendency will grow as the years pass.
  
I found Arborea extremely difficult to get into. I've remarked before about the slight tinge of the bizarre that often accompanies games from the continent, as if the creators were unaware of any RPG predecessors or unwilling to offer games that fit into a recognizable lineage. This has produced some innovative elements in games like Le Maitre des Ames, Dragonflight, and Drakkhen, but even when I admire the games for these innovations, on the whole they often seem a little "off." For the most part, this is less a criticism of the games and more a recognition of my own perspective as a U.S. player with a CRPG history made up almost entirely of U.S. games. In the case of Arborea, though, I think anyone would find it bizarre. The lack of actual use of most of the game features, the limited leveling, and the short game time make Arborea feel like a game engine in search of an actual game.

The game features a main character (Jarel) and six companions. You get to determine their classes and stats but not their names.

Arborea is an island on something called the "crystal world." Ages ago, when the gods created the world, they populated it with three races: orcs, Sham-nirs (elves), and black elves. Each race had a role: orcs were workers, Sham-nirs artisans, and black elves rulers. The world was held in balance by four crystals, each representing one of the four elements (earth, sky, water, and fire), each ensconced atop a tower.

Everything was cool until "Morgoth the fallen angel," in revenge for the gods' casting him out of heaven, "swept across the crystal world" and corrupted the orcs and black elves. (What a surprise.) When the gods awoke and saw what was happening, they "drowned the world in their fury," leaving only the island of Arborea, home of the crystals. Somehow during these events, the crystals became dislodged from their towers and scattered about the land. It is up to Jarel, last prince of the Sham-nirs, to find the crystals, return them to their towers, and restore balance to the world.

(To stave off comments relaying the obvious, Morgoth is the primary antagonist of Tolkien's The Silmarillion, from which of course the company Silmarils takes its name. For all I know, "Sham-nir" is somewhere in Tolkien, too. No, don't bother to comment. I don't care. Tolkien allusions are so trite, cliched, and tired by this point that it's just going to piss me off every time I see one. Seriously, developers: enough. Do something original for a change.)


As the game begins, you define Jarel's companions. In a weird inversion of the normal character creation process, the names of the characters are immutable, but the player determines their classes (warrior, ranger, or wizard) and allocates a pool of points to strength, constitution, life points, and agility. After creation, the characters plus Jarel start in a group in the lower-left corner of the island map. You can move characters individually or in groups across the map, looking for houses, towers, dungeons, and the titular crystals. At the same time, enemy forces also scatter across the map, looking to stop you.

The overland map. You can see a couple of discovered houses and towers. My party is represented by yellow squares; the purple square in the top middle-right is the main character, Jarel. The brown or red or whatever squares are enemy parties. Two towers have been discovered on the west side of the map and two crystal locations have been discovered on the east side. I have no idea what those circles are in the upper-left.

The game put me in a bad mood from the beginning by requiring a mouse for movement and almost all aspects of gameplay, but that would have been tolerable if the movement system itself wasn't so dumb. The game features two movement modes: map-based (top-down), where you click on the party, click "Move," and click the destination; and 3D view, where you click on compass pointers to advance one step, turn, and strafe. The obnoxious thing is that Jarel, the main character, who needs to be present to collect crystals and explore indoor structures, cannot move in map view. The other characters, meanwhile, cannot move in 3D view unless they're grouped with Jarel. Grouping them with Jarel, meanwhile, is a different process from grouping with each other--a very unintuitive one, I might add, that left me frustrated for the first few hours of gameplay.

Coming across a house in the woods.

Since Jarel needs to be present at every key interaction, the characters basically act as scouts. Once they find something, you have to move Jarel to the location to interact with the thing. But since Jarel is pretty vulnerable by himself--indeed, all small parties are vulnerable--the mechanic basically just encourages you to group everyone with Jarel at the outset and spend all your time exploring in 3D mode. This is what I did for my winning game.

The 3D view is rather pretty, and a cynic would think that the entire purpose of the game was just to show it off. As you explore, you see creatures moving about, navigate around obstacles, and find structures that you can enter. Day fades to evening and then nighttime, with the colors effectively changing to represent the time of day. I just wish the developers had mapped the movement commands to the number pad rather than requiring me to click on the stupid compass.

Jarel can actually see his companions in 3D view. To get them to join, you have to click on their faces.

The most important structures, at least for character development, are a series of houses occupied by various wizards and lords. Each has some bonus to offer you--the location of a crystal, a magic sword, the ability to see in the dark, and so forth--but each requires you to answer a riddle to get their boon. The funny thing is that the answers to the riddles are not discoverable in-game, but rather require knowledge of external literature. One wants to know what "Excalibur" is, for instance, and another asks you what the "silmarils" are. You choose from three answers, so there's a one-third chance of getting it right even if you haven't read the Arthurian legends or Tolkien.

Most games just annoy me with Tolkien references. This one actually wants me to have read the books.

The locations are at least partly randomized for each game. Every game has at least one dungeon--a series of tunnels that you explore in 3D view. I didn't like the graphics in the caves; it was very hard to determine when passages opened to the right and left. But the dungeons are small, and the one I fully mapped in my last game contained both a crystal and an armor upgrade for one of my warriors.
  
About to encounter a troll in the caves.
  
Combat comes along fairly frequently. You can flee from most of them, but you really need to build up experience for the endgame. The combat system is relatively original to this game. It takes place on a  6 x 7 grid on which you and your enemies can move in any direction, including diagonally. Warriors can only attack enemies in adjacent squares. Rangers can only attack enemies at least one square away, for whom they have a direct line-of-sight (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally) with no one in between. Wizards can cast spells and target enemies from anywhere on the grid.
  
Fighting a bunch of bats in the caverns. The two warriors (three squares north and one and two squares east) can attack the bat adjacent to them. The ranger at 2 squares east, 2 squares north can only attack the bat two squares to his northeast. The mage on the far right can cast a spell at any bat, but he has to hope that the one adjacent to him doesn't interrupt his casting.
  
Each turn, each character can move once or attack. Casting a spell requires one turn to start casting and one turn to finish. If the spellcaster takes damage after starting the spell, he loses it. Every action requires a certain amount of "energy" from the character's pool of 99 points. Characters must periodically sleep to recover energy.
  
I found combat reasonably difficult, especially when multiple enemies attack at once. Most attacks miss your foes, while most of their attacks seem to hit you. Enemies aren't stupid, and they constantly move around so that your characters can't attack from too many directions at once. I found that, because of this, rangers were essentially useless. It was too hard to maneuver rangers into line-of-sight positions with no other characters blocking, and every time I did, the enemy would just move. I won the game with two of each class, but if playing again, I'd go with 3 warriors and 3 wizards.

Each enemy delivers experience points to the character who makes the kill. Somewhere around 100 experience points, characters make Level 2. The game is so short, though, that none of my characters got higher than Level 3, and even that included some grinding.
  
In combat, Jarel acts as a warrior and can fight and level up with everyone else. If he dies, however, the game immediately ends with an image of the triumphant Morgoth.

Congratulations. You rule a small island.

There are 9 magic spells: "Acceleration" (basically "Haste," granting extra moves per turn), "Force Field" (protects a character but prevents him from moving), "Teleport," "Ball of Fire" (one foe), "Lightning" (all foes), "Paralysis," "Blindness," "Regression" (drains enemy levels), and "Treachery" (causes enemies to attack each other). Only "Acceleration," "Ball of Fire," and "Force Field" are available at Level 1, though, and I don't know when some of the others become available because I never got them at all. I relied on "Ball of Fire" most of the time.
  
A wizard prepares to cast "Ball of Fire" on a creature on the other side of the map.
  
There are notably no "Healing" spells. Jarel comes with a stock of healing potions that go pretty fast. There's at least one place in the game where you can refill the potions, but I didn't find it in every game. Minimizing damage in the first place, rather than healing later, is a key to winning the game.

Jarel heals himself and some of his compatriots with potions.

There's no economy in the game, nor really any equipment, meaning it technically doesn't meet my rules as an RPG. Yes, you can get magic swords and armor and such, but these just provide boosts to your stats; they're not actual items that you can equip, un-equip, trade, and drop.

Winning the game means recovering the four crystals from where they're scattered across the landscape. I've read some places that monsters will occasionally find them first and move them. I don't know if that's true, but if so, I never saw the consequences of this. In my winning game, I found one in the caverns, got a hint where to find the second, and just stumbled on the other two while exploring the wilderness (the outdoor ones sit on huge pedestals, so they're hard to miss).

Finding a crystal in the woods. As you walk up to them, they float down to Jarel.

After you have them, you go around the four towers and restore them. This is accompanied by a graphic.

Approaching the tower.
And restoring the crystal. How was I carrying four of these around in my backpack?

At the final tower--whichever one you visit last--Morgoth himself is waiting outside and attacks. The first time I faced him, I was completely unprepared for his difficulty, and he utterly took my party apart. He's extremely hard to hit, gets 3 moves per turn, can make himself invisible, and takes about 1/3 of the damage that other monsters do from successful attacks and spells.

Morgoth awaits at the final tower.

To defeat him, I had to grind for a bit to improve my various scores, then sleep for a while to make sure everyone was at full energy. Even then, it took me several reloads to achieve a victory. I accomplished it mostly by having my wizards cast "Force Field" on Jarel. Morgoth prioritizes attacks on Jarel, and he ineffectively beat at the force field while my other characters slowly whittled him down.

The warrior Akeer sacrifices himself for the rest of the party.

When Morgoth dies, everyone gets 1,000 experience points--far more than they would achieve in a normal game up to this point--and a 10-point bonus to all attributes. Neither really helps, as the game ends the moment you step past Morgoth's corpse and into the final tower. You're then treated to an animation of the island of Arborea slowly rising out of the sea, exposing more of the land around it. The sense is that the gods' floodwaters have receded, but there's no textual confirmation of this.

The crystals glow in the four towers, and the island rises from the sea again.

I won in 2 hours, about 1/3 of it spent reloading multiple times to defeat Morgoth.

I don't expect a very high GIMLET rating:

  • 3 points for the game world. There's a sensible enough back story, I guess, reflected in the actual gameplay, which is more than most RPGs of the era accomplish.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. There aren't enough choices during creation, the characters barely go anywhere during gameplay, and there's no role-playing. I included a point for the encounter-based upgrades that you get from NPC houses.

The main character barely went anywhere in two hours of gameplay.

  • 2 points for NPC interaction, based on the limited interaction with the guys in their houses.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. There are only a handful of enemies in the game: black elves and orcs on the surface; trolls and bats in the underground; and Morgoth at the endgame. All enemies are melee-only and none except Morgoth have special attacks or defenses. There are no other "encounters" in the game.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The combat system feels half like an RPG, half like a board game, but it's reasonably tactical and engaging. The magic system is only so-so.
  • 1 point for equipment. I'm charitably giving this to the couple of upgrades you can find.

Finding some armor in a cavern--one of only a couple "equipment" upgrades in the game.

  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for having a main quest, but with no side-quests or role-playing decisions.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The graphics are relatively nice, especially in 3D mode. The sound is okay, consisting of occasional growls, screams, and clangs during combat. I didn't like the interface at all; it was all mouse-driven and not very responsive. I'm going to give an extra point in this category for the in-game documentation, which (though it lacks certain key pieces of information) is reasonably thorough. It's perhaps the first example we have, outside roguelikes, of extensive instructions within the game itself rather than a separate manual.

The manual is accessible from the main screen and has several sections.

  • 3 points for gameplay. It gets one for a certain amount of nonlinearity within a limited game world. It gets another for the randomness making it somewhat replayable, and a third for being at about the right difficulty level. But its short duration makes it feel more like a prologue for a longer game than a full game in its own right.

The final score of 23 is well below what I consider "recommended." The engine isn't horrible, the graphics are nice, and the combat system is promising. It just needed a better-balanced game, with more RPG trappings. I assume this is what we get in the Ishar series starting in 1992.


Arborea was covered in several Amiga magazines, which predictably focused on the graphics, sound, and music rather than the actual gameplay elements. (The May 1991 review from CU Amiga begins by giving thanks that "the days [are gone] when a role-playing game meant little more than a great leap of the imagination, a plot with trolls and gameplay along the lines of a special maths paper." You want to know when RPGs started getting "dumbed down"? This is it, right here.) It got 86% from The One, 91% from CU Amiga, and 86% from Amiga Action. Oddly, it's Amiga Power, the magazine I just excoriated for its half-assed review of Secret of the Silver Blades, that comes to the rescue with one of the only sensible reviews, giving the game only 48%.

Crystals of Arborea can be quite pretty (especially at night) if not outstandingly so, but while it has a lot of screens, it doesn't seem to be blessed with a great deal of variety. Add to that a distinctly slug-like pace and rules that seem to have been picked at random . . . and it all seems rather pointless. I found it one big snooze.

This was around the seventh game from Silmarils, but the first quasi-RPG; all of their previous offerings had been action, sports, and racing games. Two years later, they published Ishar: Legend of the Fortress (1992), folowed by Ishar 2: Messengers of Doom (1993) and Ishar 3: The Seven Gates of Infinity (1994). Judging by screenshots, the games seem to use Arborea's 3D interface but eliminate the grid-based combat, which I think is too bad: I was hoping it would be improved, not dumped. The entire series gets mixed reviews.

The authors of Arborea and Ishar are listed as Pascal Einsweiler and Michel Pernot. They were active on Silmarils titles throughout the 1990s, with their last credits on Ashgan: The Dragon Slayer (1998) and Arabian Nights (2002). Both are action games. Silmarils went out of business in 2003. The owners of Silmarils (the Rocques brothers) and Einsweiler went on to found a new company called EverSim, which still appears to be around and has a small library of geopolitical simulation games.

Arborea seems little-remembered today except as the weird precursor to Ishar. I wasn't able to find any walkthroughs or FAQs online, nor even very many detailed descriptions. There are a couple of YouTube videos, but only of the first few minutes of gameplay. Once again, I'm glad to have filled the role of cataloging the obscure.

****

Next up is supposed to be Moria. I had first wanted to win it "honestly" before posting about it, but that's clearly not going to happen. Then, I decided I'd win it "dirty" so I could at least show the endgame, but even that is taking a long time. It may or may not be my next game. If it's not, the next game is going to be an even more obscure French game, this time actually in French, for the Amstrad CPC: Saga.

87 comments:

  1. I absolutely agree with you that the Tolkien nonsense has to stop. No idea why references keep cropping up regarding such a mediocre body of work; even in movie format Tolkien is a meandering borefest.

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    1. Why They Hate Tolkien.

      What is meant by the “literati”, these folks who consider themselves the arbiters of what English literature is? Shippey talks about this in the context of the critical reaction to the polls in the late 1990s that controversially named Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings the greatest book of the century. “These results were routinely and repeatedly derided by professional critics and journalists (the latter group, of course, often the products of university literature departments). Joseph Pearce opens his book [Tolkien: Man and Myth] with Susan Jeffreys, of the Sunday Times, who on 26th January 1997 reported a colleague’s reaction to the news that The Lord of the Rings had won the BBC/Waterstone’s poll as ‘Oh hell! has it? Oh my G-d. Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear’. This at least sounds sincere, if not deeply thoughtful; but Jeffreys reported also that the reaction ‘was echoed up and down the country wherever one or two literati gathered together’. She meant, surely, ‘two or three literati’, unless the literati talk only to themselves (a thought that does occur); and the term literati is itself interesting. It clearly does not mean ‘the lettered, the literate’, because obviously that group includes the devotees of The Lord of the Rings, the group being complained about (they couldn’t be devotees if they couldn’t read). In Jeffrey’s usage, literati must mean ‘those who know about literature’. And those who know, of course, know what they are supposed to know. The opinion is entirely self-enclosed.” (p. xxi)

      The literati are not just humble scholars of English literature. They want to control what is considered English literature, to some degree past literature, but particularly the present and future. The success of Tolkien’s books drives them crazy because it shows that they do not control what literature is. Readers do.

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    2. I used to love Tolkien. Then I grew up and got a literature degree. Then I went to graduate school and became a linguist. The obsession and the hate make equal sense to me.

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    3. My comments were not meant to prompt a discussion on the merits of Tolkien himself, only the constant fawning homages paid to him by CRPG developers. Even if Lord of the Rings was my favorite book of all time, I'd still get sick of seeing LOTR references in every other game.

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    4. I take it you're having a great time with Moria, then?

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    5. Been ages since I played Moria, but I don't remember there actually being much in the way of Tolkien references beyond the name. Oh, and I think there's a Balrog in there somewhere.

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    6. I wonder if there's more going on here in these early games.

      We see over and over again that our current assumptions about what CRPGs *are* can be slightly out of whack with what people thought while they were creating them. The earliest games feel sort of like a complement to other media rather than a thing unto themselves.

      Remember when it was "D&D on your computer!" and CRPG players were a subset of RPG players instead of the other way around? Sometimes it was like it was a toolset for running the real action with a group, or in your head. Or a simulator where you could act out a scene from a book. So much of what was happening was in the imagination instead of on the screen.

      Maybe the question is "Is this fiction?" Fiction has rules: You're supposed to make it up yourself, unless it's fan fiction. But there are also fairy tales and myths, that take place in a mythical space rather than a fictional space.

      Those places are supposed to be familiar and yet fantastic, full of names you recognize. Are parties made up of Gandalf, Hercules, Ali-Baba and Thor less common now than they used to be? Do we feel like we're co-writing a novel now rather than dressing up as gods?

      Yes, I know the real answers are lawyers and money. But it's fun to think about.

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  2. Yeah, I totally got that "weird, off" feeling from Euro games as well. They just did things that I found pointless, or off-putting. "Morgoth the fallen angel", for instance. I get if you want to copy Tolkien, we all did back then, but then why mate it with the Bible? Mouse-only controls were another thing I found baffling in the Euro-Amiga era. The computer has a keyboard, is it so much trouble to use it?

    And I think the Tolkien-hate is misplaced. People admired him very much, and wanted to make games where they could re-create his world. Bitching at them for it won't do any good, nor will longing for originality. Sure, Tolkien is played out today, in 2014, but back then it was the same as Game of Thrones is today, baby. "Game of Thrones game? Sweeeeet. And you get to play as the factions from the book, instead of some B.S. some dude just made up? Sweeeet."

    Interesting they put the manual in the game. Usually instructions on how to play were considered part of the copy protection. You could play the game for months and yet not know about subtle yet important effects on the game if you never read the manual. "You mean all those Dreadlord attacks at the beginning were because I grabbed the power points too soon, and you're supposed to wait until you're stronger? I didn't know that all this time!?"

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    1. Good point, Harland. I was thinking something similar, esp. since at that time, Middle Earth was probably one of the few fantasy properties (outside of King Arthur) that had something approaching widespread recognition and grudging respect outside of our nerd circles.

      One nitpicky note: Tolkien was actually the one to try to marry Middle Earth and The Bible--the first chapter of The Silmarillion is basically Paradise Lost with elves. :-J

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    2. I wonder if in 2099 when Chet is blogging about today's games from a ergonomic floating chair after having stepped out from his latest rejuvenation treatment to restore him to how his body was at age 20 he will be complaining about all the GoT refrences in late-tweens games.

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  3. Most Amiga games use a mouse because mouse back then was something special that no other computers had.
    PC has a mouse but only as a curiosity not as an actual interface device for the OS.
    Amiga keyboard was also somewhat clunky and lacked pressure feel to use and buttons 'sunk' pretty deep actually to make it worse, a far cry from these ergonomic PC-keyboards that we have today.
    Also A600 model lacked numeric keyboard all together but main thing is that for Amiga keyboard commands were just "not done" everyone expected a mouse and if the game did have a keyboard commands it was considered rather eccentric since why you need a keyboard when you could have a mouse and a joystick ?

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    1. See, I just never got that sort of thing. Why do you need a keyboard? Because it can control much more than a two-button mouse. With the mouse you've got left-click, right-click, and both-click (could the Amiga even handle that?) Pretty limited. The keyboard has dozens of keys that can be assigned to game functions.

      If Europeans used mouse-only interfaces because mice were trendy and they were in love with novelty, then that pretty much confirms what I thought the whole time. Use the right tool for the job, don't just overuse a tool because it's new. That's how lens flare got discredited.

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    2. "Most Amiga games use a mouse because mouse back then was something special that no other computers had.

      PC has a mouse but only as a curiosity not as an actual interface device for the OS."

      I don't know about pre-1990 (the date of Crystals but I bought my first PC in 1990 and it came with a mouse. I certainly used it with the games (e.g. Red Baron, Wing Commander, Ultima VI) I played.

      Also, I'd point out that the Atari ST also used a mouse so the Amiga was hardly unique in that respect.

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    3. A friend of mine had an Amiga and a Sega Mega Drive. We often used those knobbly joystick-pads for either system, and as the Amiga had a looot of arcade titles, it made perfect sense. The most popular games like Lemmings, Cannon Fodder etc. were mouse controlled, and Mortal Combat and scrolling shooters were better played with a gamepad with autofire, so there was not such a great need for the keyboard in a great portion of the then games market.

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    4. Harland pretty much said it all. I'm not persuaded by the Amgia's ergonomics. I'm not going to be typing a dissertation on the damned thing, just using "I" to bring up my inventory, "T" to talk to an NPC, and the arrow keys to move my characters. Although I can't come up with a better explanation, I find it ludicrous that Amiga developers' fetish for the newfangled "mouse" contraption completely dominated considerations of a decent game interface. It's not like the mouse is a joystick. You still have to be sitting AT the computer to use it. Did they not imagine that players might want to do something productive with their other hands?

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    5. Harland: "The keyboard has dozens of keys that can be assigned to game functions."

      That is honestly as much a bug as it is a feature. The massive advantage of mouse interfaces is that if they're done properly, they require no documentation to understand, no time spent trying to learn the controls - just pick up and play. With a keyboard interface of any complexity, you need to print out a list of commands.

      That said, I do think movement should be mapped to cursor keys/numpad at least, for the simple reason that it's something you do literally all the time, and clicking on arrows hundreds of times just to navigate can get annoying fast.

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    6. I admit much of my own interest in the game comes from nostalgia, as I had fun exploring it as a child. But I also have an advantage: An Amiga. Because all the criticism fails in one important point. There IS dual keyboard / mouse movement in this game! I made screenshots of the in-game manual explaining just that, under

      https://www.dropbox.com/sh/380g2mmut6o9004/AACZinO-EV8Z1QC6lDngzPgZa?dl=0

      German language only. I took some time looking for a working english version, but found none.

      Perhaps this would have worked (undocumented?) in DOS! It says to use ALT+number block keys for 3D-movement, F1 to F6 for the 6 characters there. In map mode, F1 to F10 activates the choices below the map.

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    7. Un-freaking-believable. Yes, you're right. The ALT key, in combination with the keypad, replicates the buttons. This makes no sense. Was there an ALT-lock on PC keyboards?

      The F-keys do work on some screens, but only on the ones where it's least necessary to have keyboard commands. Selecting what characters you want to make up a party is rarely done and easier to do with the mouse than to try to suss out what F-key corresponds with the characters on the second line.

      The movement thing is not a failure to RTFM. I didn't find a manual specific to DOS except what was in-game, and it doesn't mention this "feature" at all.

      I guess I owe the game a slight apology, but seriously, who wants to hold down the ALT key while issuing movement commands?

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    8. A quick question about France circa 1990:

      Were personal computers of any kind widely used in education or offices? I ask this because I know that U.S. businesses and schools were quick on the uptake for desktop computers. I think it's safe to say that by 1990, the majority of Americans were using keyboards more or less daily. Add to this the fact that many early RPGs were designed by computer scientists as learning tools for other computer scientists - these games established a core set of features (including keyboard commands) that have really stuck in CRPGs even until today.

      I suppose the French market would have been different though. The Amiga was really perceived (and marketed) as a game oriented machine. If you didn't use computers very often, and you just wanted to drop into a game and experience it, a keyboard may have presented a barrier to entry that a mouse did not.

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    9. A keyboard interface is a bug? Buh? Complex games require complex controls. Otherwise you're stuck in a situation like this, with a control system that is easy to learn but irritating to use. If you're going to spend hours using a system, spend a few minutes learning how to use it. It pays off handsomely in the hours and hours you spend subsequently.

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    10. Honestly, a lot of classic RPGs (and not so classic, with RL games being a huge offender) would have been improved if somebody'd taken the keyboard away from the programmer. Ludicrously overcomplicated non-standard keyboard controls are a bad thing, (just as an example, virtually all of the controls in the earlier Ultima games could have been consolidated into a very few buttons, and games such as Nethack and *band are even worse, with multiple buttons assigned purely to equipping/unequipping gear). In a real sense, the huge number of buttons is a "bug" in the sense that it allows a lazy or inexperienced programmer to get away with a shoddy interface that someone programming for mouse or controller simply couldn't manage.

      More succinctly, there are no good input methods, and no bad ones. Only good and bad implementations.

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    11. "Also, I'd point out that the Atari ST also used a mouse so the Amiga was hardly unique in that respect."

      Pretty much every system had a mouse available, Apple II, PC, even c64, just game devs didn't put them to good use very often until later on when they were more widely adopted.

      Of course then you had early Macintoshes and the IIGS that relied heavily on the mouse, making Amiga even less unique.

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    12. Keep in mind that most of us, Amiga users, upgraded from the ZX Spectrum. In our minds, keyboards were primitive things while the mouse was sexy and new. Back in those days i don't remember ever thinking "What this game really need is keyboard shortcuts".

      I played through Ishar 2 with mouse only, and never complained about having to click on the movement arrows, which seems ludicrous now.

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    13. Harland: "A keyboard interface is a bug? Buh?"

      Not what I said. I said a keyboard having dozens of keys is a bug (as well as a feature). Consider the fact that a keyboard has 102 keys, labeled not with in-game functions, but with letters and symbols that have nothing to do with the game's actions and options. No game in existence uses every key, and it's impossible to know which ones are used and what they do, unless you read the manual, or there's a constant reminder text on screen. And if there are a lot of keyboard commands, reading the manual isn't even enough - you need to print out a keylist. All of this is a huge bother that a mouse based interface can easily sidestep by simply having all the relevant actions on-screen as icons, labeled with in-game concepts, so that the player can look at the screen and know what actions are available to him and what he needs to click to make them happen. What it loses in speed of execution under optimal conditions it makes up in ease of reaching those optimal conditions, ie. ease of use.

      Complex games require complex controls.

      Not necessarily. That's a matter of design. Chess is a fairly complex game, but has trivially simple controls. As an extreme opposite example, QWOP is a very simple game with nightmarishly complicated controls.

      Delete
    14. Have you ever tried to play a GUI of Nethack using only the on screen controls? It is slow as pants. You just have to learn the commands, and then you never forget them if you play enough. I can sit down an play a game of nethack, which has a boatload of commands today without any trouble, and have to look up very, very few of them unless I'm playing something obscure. Also, in most modern games I'll just remap them to the same thing for every game, or close enough, so that once you know one layout, you know all of them.

      Delete
  4. My knowledge of the series is Ishar 2, and it looks like the only thing it has in common with this is the graphics and the fact that you have to click the arrows to move (I think). It is basically a fairly nuts and bolts tile based RPG with good graphics, one which I have a sneaking suspicion you won't like or rate very well once you get there (low scores for NPCs and Encounters for starters).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In Ishar 2 you can use keys to move.

      The game has "deathtraps" (missed an item in a specific place at a specific event? reload or the game is unfinishable) though, which is its lowpoint.

      Delete
    2. The Ishar games do have the option to use the keyboard for movement (though I found the layout slightly counter-intuitive). One quick thing regarding the keyboard for when you get there. On the menu screen you need to press numbers to make selections - make sure you use the num pad keys, not the actual number keys on the top of your keyboard. I thought my copy of the game was broken until I worked that out!

      Delete
    3. It is always strange to me when that happens, I've seen it a couple of times. I guess the game is scanning for keypresses rather then input value? :S

      Delete
  5. Thank you for this entry.

    As already mentioned your blog is now probably the only English-speaking place in the network, in which the title is described as comprehensively. And most importantly is based on the completion of the game and not just on the basis of experience with a few moments and nice graphics.

    Many times once I was looking for a variety of information about the game and never could find nothing of interest. Nowadays, I'd probably hit on your blog :)

    Give way interesting are those high marks in old magazines. Did the reviewers were so unreliable that would describe the game without them explore (complete)?

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    Replies
    1. Amiga power and one of the other mags would give low scores to some games (sometimes incorrectly of course). There were at least 2 other amiga magazines at the time which were infamous for practically never giving scores below 80%. So with the trolling reviews of some and the sycophantic reviews of others, it's probably best to take reviews of the time with a pinch of salt.

      Delete
    2. The problem with the Amiga magazines--and this might be the problem with ANY magazine for a specific platform--is that they're more in love with how the game uses the specific platform than how it performs, in general, as a game. The writers seem to lack any awareness of other platforms, as well as the general history of CRPGs and the precursors to the games they're reviewing.

      Delete
    3. Some German magazines had more appropriate scores. "Amiga Joker" rated it at 58% saying it lacked substance and "Power Play" rated it at 52%.

      Delete
    4. It's the UK mags.
      While there surely was a stronger bias in single-platform publications, the UK stuff (especially from future plc) was simply bad, review-wise. They didn't care much for "research", blatantly pandered to their demographics and put style waaaay over substance.

      Delete
    5. Chet, i think it’s easy to look back at these old games and enjoy them purely on their mechanics and gameplay elements.
      And while I do agree that Pool of Radiance objectively is a better game than this one, try telling that to 12 year old me.

      The graphics and sound of the game was very helpful in setting up a convincing atmosphere and giving that suspension of belief. A game with EGA graphics and minimal sound was enough for me to drop it with disgust.

      The Amiga was probably the biggest step up in technological terms when it comes to graphics and sound. The first time I saw one in action, and it was the not so impressive looking screen of the tavern keeper in Pirates! my jaw dropped in awe.

      Also, most people here either used Spectrums or Amiga’s, so we had our own references that were very different from the rest of the world. Here, Sensible Software, the Bitmap Brothers and Amiga Power were kings, not Mario or Sonic . I wrote about these matters when writing about Sensible Soccer for my blog, which happens to be the game that had the biggest impact that I can remember.

      Delete
    6. I don't think that most Europeans here used a Spectrum - after all, the Speccy was mainly a british thing...

      Delete
    7. The ZX Spectrum was hugely (hugely) popular in Spain, Portugal and Italy, and later in all East Europe and Russia in the form of clones. In Germany, the C64 was very popular, and in France the Amstrad. Thinking that the Spectrum and its software was restricted to UK is a dead giveaway that you are American :).

      Delete
    8. The thing about UK computer magazines back then is that the majority of games coverage was intended to be entertaining first and foremost, but never taken that seriously. Although many magazines covered the more "serious" aspects of the industry in some detail, games themselves were still considered to be mostly frivolous, a fun distraction. There just wasn't the same analytical approach to games criticism that exists today.

      Of course, many mags of the time had a reputation for running "reviews" that were so bland they might as well have been revised press-releases, because they scared that any negative coverage would sour their relationships with games publishers. Only a handful(like Amiga Power) ever bucked the trend and said what they *really* thought.

      Delete
  6. Regarding the strange vibe from European games:

    European CRPGs have their own textual traditions and American CRPGs have theirs. A core feature of American CRPGs is protagonists which are ciphers - canvases upon which players sketch a character or project themselves. I imagine this is probably one more feature that can be chalked up to D&D, Chainmail, and war gaming roots.

    European CRPGs, on the other hand, seem to have much stronger ties to medieval and fantasy literature. Players are tasked with guiding pre-made characters through the story. I think all of the European CRPGs you've covered here so far have worked out this way, but the trend continues into the future with series like Gothic and The Witcher.

    In this light, a number of the oddities of E-CRPGs make more sense. The larger, more detailed, face-focused portraits convey more information about the characters' personalities. Choosing your characters' classes, but not names allows you some tactical freedom in combat, but makes sure that the same personalities exist in every new play through.

    Anyone else? Other examples? Anyone disagree?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tristan Donovan's book, Replay: The History of Video Games, has an interesting chapter on the French game industry at that time. It started with a clear focus on culturally French games for the French market, and then evolved into more mainstream games with the 'French Touch' that set them apart. They very much wanted a French game to be a recognisably French game, and in that respect they succeeded admirably...not sure if it contributed much to the actual games themselves, though!

      Delete
    2. That seems like a reasonable explanation, Daniel. Clearly, I'll be getting more experience with European titles over the coming years, and we'll see how well it holds up.

      "I imagine this is probably one more feature that can be chalked up to D&D, Chainmail, and war gaming roots." I wonder if overall culture and history don't have something to do with it, too: American emphasis on powerful individuals blazing their own paths through the world, from rags to riches, versus a European focus on tradition and common welfare.

      Delete
    3. The Thalion RPGs are a classic example for this.
      Interestingly, the Dark Eye games do give you full customization, but still with a very strong focus on character (archetypes!).

      Re: French Games - oh yes, those were definitely...different throughout. Exxos/Cryo (Cpt. Blood, Kult, the weird FMV adventures later) and Coktel Vision (Gobliiiins!) especially have stuck in my mind. :)

      Delete
    4. @Ben Renow-Clarke

      I keep meaning to get a copy of that book. It sounds well researched.

      @CRP Addict

      The special-individual-saves-the-world trope is definitely a popular one for American designers. Virtually every FPS employs it and I imagine we'll see it a lot more as RPGs make the transition to first person, 3D worlds. I know very little about French culture, however. It would be interesting to learn anything anyone has to add.

      @dahauns

      I'd forgotten about the Dark Eye games, but they were (IIRC) based on a table top role playing game that was itself sort of a German take on D&D.

      Delete
    5. Cryo made the slightly eccentric first DUNE game for Amiga and PC. Great, great music and graphics, and a funny little mixture between adventure and strategy game.

      Norths & South is another popular example, is it not? Basically a board game with the little combat-sequences thrown in.

      The Dark Eye I think Chet will enjoy, as they offer a lot of actual role-playing and depth of back-story, although often a bit on the hammy side. Also a maybe over-implemented tabletop system with a ton of attributes like swimming, that hardly ever get a check and make levelling and character creation take a while.

      Delete
    6. 'Slightly eccentric', hehe. I loved it, but then I loved everything about Dune, as long as Kevin J. Anderson wasn't involved.
      As a German, I also recognize french games as something different, while american games are the mainstream. I'd call almost every french game "eccentric". I don't know if german games also have their very own specific touch, Simply reading text in my native language already distorts my perspective so I can't judge them solely by their gameplay. But I get the impression that german CRPGs mainly wanted to be "serious", i.e. dry, complex, detailed, "realistic".

      Delete
    7. I remember Arkania (Dark Eye) as overly complex with too much skills, items and annoying stuff to happen (like several illnesses) and awful travelling. I have still beaten the 2nd and 3rd part because I somehow stuck to them regardless.

      Not sure if that is typical for a german crpg, though. Amberstar fails in exactly (and only) the parts you'd think germans would do right: class balancing and economy.

      I don't remember too many other german crpgs of that time. Later, there's Gothic and Sacred, but I somehow never played them too much.

      Nothing as unique as french games. ;)

      Delete
  7. I always meant to play this one since I kinda liked the Ishar series. I never got around to it though but maybe that was a good thing.

    Silmarils always struck me as one of those companies that had a lot of good ideas, but no designers who could implement them well. They certainly had no lack of good artists though.

    ReplyDelete
  8. What this game needs ? I´d vote for ´contend´.
    This is the Paris Hilton of crpgs.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I seem to recall that this game was highly rated in 1990. Certainly the graphics must have been above average. But there really doesn't seem to be much of a game there. I played a couple of Silmarils games back in the day. The intro screen with the Silmarils logo was very memorable. While their games were interesting, they never were 'really' good. Though I remember one game in particular, Storm Master. You were the leader of a nation in perpetual war with another nation. Each on one big island. The game was basically a mix of several mini-games, every task you had to fulfil as a leader was another mini-game. And the whole technology of that world was based around wind energy. One of your tasks was to complete rituals to ensure good winds, basically pressing keys at the right time. You also had to construct your own weapons, different kinds of air ships and either they were able to fly or not. It was a really unique game.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2A_d68j_RNo

      Good god,

      this a) looks awesome
      and b) the interface and graphics totally remind me of Dune

      Delete
  10. I appreciate you going through these European games. It's great to see the stylistic differences, especially in the art. It makes me a little sad and wistful that more countries weren't producing such games. Even if you just stuck to Europe, what would a Portuguese RPG look like? It really seems like a fairly small pool of cultures having produced these games, which is everyone's loss. Even if such games wouldn't be amazing, they'd introduce new ideas.

    The Tolkien dependency is tiresome, for sure, but I am glad that you seem to be moving out of an era where slap-dash, goofy, lazy and derivative writing was the norm. This is probably because we're getting into games with actual dedicated writers rather than coders with more enthusiasm than writing talent, simply doing their best.

    That said, even some of the newer, better games still seem to cling pretty hard to literary fantasy. The writing in Dragon Age: Origins was pretty good, but still kind of obviously just George R.R. Martin warmed over, with some generic elves and dwarves thrown in as filler.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's really hard to avoid duplicating someone's themes. What you find "obviously just George R. R. Martin warmed over" strikes me as something not deliberately based on Martin at all but sort-of inevitably overlapping some of his tropes. Similarly, you could argue that almost any game featuring a "big bad" amassing power and threatening the peace of a quasi-medieval world is Tolkien-dependent. Perhaps this is true, but it doesn't bother me much as long as the story is told well.

      I'm more annoyed by specific homages made to a source that EVERYONE ALREADY KNOWS. It's not clever if every reader or player knows exactly where you got the name. When Babylon 5 named one if its main villains "Alfred Bester," that was clever. If it had named its main character "Kirk," that would have just been groan-worthy. If it had named its main character "Kirk" and EVERY FREAKING SCI-FI FILM AND TV SHOW FOR THE LAST 20 YEARS had also featured a character named "Kirk," it would send me into the same fit of apoplexy that "Silmarils" does.

      Delete
    2. If you don't see it, it's because they botched the job. I think they even admitted in interviews that this was their attempt to do Martin. The subtext from the promos was "A Bioware game, but dark and edgy like Game of Thrones and The Witcher!"

      Unfortunately, Bioware is about power fantasies, and Martin is about power realities.

      Delete
    3. To be fair, the series has gotten a lot lighter since the first game (Also, they toned down the blood. Seriously, they put in what I imagine was a realistic amount of gore, so everyone was splattered with the stuff.) They really went whole-hog into the grimdark with that one.

      To their credit, they started the series before GoT was huge.

      Delete
    4. I liked Dragon Age: Origins and I never read or watched Game of Thrones, but even by American fantasy standards, Dragon Age: Origins was a blatant ripoff of Lord of the Rings. I refuse to believe that the similarities between Alastair and Boromir; the ring wraiths and the fade; the dwarves, the elves and the mines; the final confrontation; the invasion of the afterlife and the creation of the orcs; the guy who finds all the heroes; and the original Gandalf from the Hobbit--there are just too many similarities.

      Delete
  11. Amiga game design philosophy was of the gaming consoles: You have a controller, not a keyboard, and you need to dumb down games for the controller. Later this lead to JRPGs and Civilization V. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like having prejudices against things that don't really matter, like soft-serve ice cream, straws, and Old Fashioneds made with bourbon instead of rye. Lately, I've been cultivating a nice, irrational prejudice against the Amiga, so I'm going to ignore your smiley face and choose to believe this 100%.

      Delete
    2. Add the use of "ppl" to this list.

      Delete
    3. I bought an A1000 with the 256 KB RAM expansion (the 256 KB it came with was large eaten by the 190 KB fully multi-tasking OS and yet, that 60 or so KB was enough to write some AMAZING games), followed by an A500 that cost much less and had way more RAM. While I harbor deep feelings of love for my memories of the old Amigas it too drove me crazy that everything was joystick or mouse. Never keyboard. The A500 came with a keyboard with the 'puter inside, like the C-64 so why not USE it?

      Delete
    4. Chet: I have those! Apple users and people who use vim instead of emacs! Also people who do layout in Word. Wait, that isn't irrational....

      Delete
  12. So, the backstory is that they had a perfect society where elves were in charge of ruling and making art and orcs did all the manual labour, until some troublemaker came along giving the orcs a bunch of wild ideas and ruined everything? And now you have to sweep through the land killing orcs to put right the natural order of the races?

    *tugs collar, looks nervously offstage*

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's funny that the ideal world has a strict caste system. This is naturally a strong reflection of French culture.

      Delete
    2. They seem to have been inspired by Plato's description of Atlantis.husbandmen,artisans,warriors and rulers.
      Except in this game everywhere else sank.

      Delete
  13. It's a shame that this game is scheduled back to back with Moria. That's more Tolkien homage than anyone can handle.

    Moria is seriously long. I've won Nethack, but while I enjoy Moria and it's variants (esp. Zangband), I've never had the patience to actually win. Good Nethack games are measured in weeks. Similar Moria games take months.

    Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're thinking of Angband, which came out later. Moria isn't Tolkienesque at all other than the name and the fact that the final monster is a balrog. Not many Metallic Green Centipedes and Spotted Mushroom Patches in Tolkien.

      Yeah, Moria is just so damn long, and so featureless. Every level disappears as soon as you leave and you never make an impact on the world. I hated the fact that the way you have to kill dangerous monsters is "find a pillar and let it chase you around endlessly while you hit and retreat in a circular fashion." It has too much of the JRPG-style grind to be fun. You just never *do* anything other than wander in featureless dungeons killing monsters and hoovering up equipment. Once in a while you'll get a vault or something but that's about it.

      Delete
    2. I've already been playing Moria on and off for a year, so it's already done its damage. Plus, as Harland says, the name of the game and the "balrog" are about it.

      Moria shares a lot with Dragon Sword in having a decent gameplay mechanic but not having any sense of decency in length. It's depth of gameplay is sustainable for 10, maybe 20 levels, not 50.

      Delete
    3. I have beaten Moria several times with save-scumming and also experienced the endgame to be very streched. While you could explore basically endless and without too much danger, levelling up or getting one of the elusive [HA]-weapons took hours after hours. Also the Balrog or Evil Iggy were far, far stronger than any other creature in the game. Basically, it was an endless grind.

      Delete
    4. Ug, I am not a fan of non-persistent level RLs. Sadly, other then Nethack their do not seem to be many of them.

      Delete
  14. "Congratulations. You rule a small island."

    I laughed.

    Fair shake for Arborea. It's a shame the Ishar games adopt a mash-the-mouse-button combat instead of building on even the most rudimentary turn based system that one could at least hope for some balance to have been implemented by the designers.

    Honestly, the Ishar games are a mess, they fail as adventure games and as rpgs at the same time and by the time you get to them, there's no excuse because Quest for Glory and other hybrids had shown how to do it. But did Silmarils play any other videogames aside from the ones they developed? Doubtful.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Wizardry 3? It's like 2010 all over again!

    I have been thinking of playing Wizardry 1, but I just cannot bring myself to do it. I have a bit of a completion fetish and while I know I would want to play some of the later games I do not think I want to play through 2-4. Regardless of how unlike the later games they are, I just cannot do it. I'm still peeved at myself for playing "Silver Blades" before "Champions of Krynn".

    (Okay, that isn't true. I can. I played Oblivion and Skyrim without ever knowing the older Elder Scrolls games existed, and Fallout 3 without the original Fallout. But I do have a problem about doing things in order. Perhaps that is one of the things that brings me here.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You may want to consider running through Wizardry 1-4 on a console port. The SNES version is very good, as is a ps1 version. The idea is that those versions keep the layout, puzzles and some of the good encounter design ideas from the original apple II games, but they fix certain problems in balance and UI for ease of use, as they came out 10 years after the original or more.

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    2. As I "clean up" these older titles, I'll probably use the occasion to re-visit games I didn't give a decent shot the first time round. I won't replay games I simply didn't like (e.g., Faery Tale Adventure), but W3, Autoduel, Alternate Reality, and a few others deserve a second look. If I win W3, I'll have won every winnable game through 1983.

      Delete
    3. As a fan of Autoduel I think it was a really good game but not such a great CRPG. So it will probably produce some good blog material if revisited but the GIMLET will not change much. It is definitely winnable.

      Delete
  16. I think the bias comes from decades of gaming. If you were playing the games as though the 1st game in this blog was actually THE 1st game you had ever played in your life, you might not be as disenchanted with the Tolkien references nor would the European takes on CRPGs faze you.

    I, personally, felt that the way the CRPGs from Europe and Taiwan rather refreshing on how they built their game engines and how they handle the RPG systems in their products back then.

    Of course, if I had been used to a certain (say, the D&D system) format of games for years and suddenly exposed to a totally different beast altogether, I might have reacted even more vehemently than you did.

    That said, I think this game has a lot of room of improvement. Which they did in its sequels.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I suppose the game does not have an autommaping option, does it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No. I mean, the main interface for the above ground area IS a map, but it doesn't show you where you've been. No automap for the dungeons.

      Delete
    2. Shame.

      I love CRPG's but I must confess that I lack the patience to draw maps.
      I bought Eye of the Beholder when it was released (it was my first RPG) and I loved the game. Unfortunately I only had the patience to draw the maps until I reached the dwarf levels. Then I quit.

      Thanks for the info. And thanks for your wonderful blog.
      Some gave developpers should follow this blog in order to learn certain gameplay options that were already available in the past and are sometimes forgotten nowadays.

      Delete
  18. A question unrelated to the game itself: You said you would be playing PC ports of JRPGs. But You are playing other cRPGs on emulators. So, if you stumble upon a jRPG, would you play it on emulated machine? 'Cause most console-to-pc ports are horrible.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Quite untrue. Most porting disasters are caused by controls that the PC doesn't handle well (analog sticks being a prime offender), refusal to allow keyboard+mouse in favor of requiring a controller, or failure to take the wide variance in PCs into account. Even then, if you can get around the error, they usually work well enough.

      The primary jRPG ports at the moment are Final Fantasy III, IV, VII, VIII, and VIII. III and IV are ported from the Android version, which was designed to be portable and run on a wide variety of hardware, so those should be quite good, and XIII was done very recently, well after Sqaure got the hang of doing PC software, so that should also be fine. As for VII and VIII, even the original PC releases were quite playable, and the RE-releases are, by all accounts, near-perfect. Not only is there no reason for the Addict to use an emulator (unless he decides to play the original console releases), the play experience would be worse if he did.

      Delete
    2. Emulator lets you play at 200% speed, which to me makes up for pretty much everything else.

      Delete
    3. I will not officially be playing any console emulators, so yes, I'll go for the PC ports. If they're "horrible," then that will give me something to blog about.

      Delete
  19. This seems pretty standard for a Silmarils game. Good graphics and sound, rudimentary uninspired gameplay.

    ReplyDelete
  20. If you took the time to read the whole manual (which you clearly found, you posted screenshots) you'd notice they let you move using the alt key and the numpad in 3D mode

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, we already covered that above. I'm sorry I missed the option, but you don't have to be a dick about pointing it out. I have a list of 2,000 games and somewhat limited time. Sometimes I miss things.

      Delete
  21. Your comments about Tolkien are pretty awesome. I also extend some of that ire to the "fantasy England" setting or as Yahtzee Croshaw said in reviewing The Witcher:"[it] takes place in the same time-locked period of medieval England that all fantasy takes place in, as inevitably as the fucking tides"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Which makes sense, except that The Whitcher is based off of a Polish novel series, which in turn is based on Polish folklore, and is rather far removed from Tolkien from what I've seen of the game. Now, when I was in The Old City section of Krakow it was more brick then the architecture of The Witcher, but you know.

      Delete
    2. Witcher based not only on Polish folklore, but eastern european folklore in general, with a good deal of slavic and germanic. Read some Brothers Grimm fairytales and Russian fairytales or you will likely notice some similarities.

      It's no wonder what outside of Poland Witcher novels become popular in Germany and, especially, in Russia long before they came to recognition elsewhere.

      Delete

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