Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Escape from Hell: Won! (with Final Rating)

Hopefully not for another 40-50 years.

Escape from Hell
United States
Electronic Arts (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS
Date Started: 26 March 2015
Date Ended: 30 March 2015
Total Hours: 12
Reload Count: 13
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 43
Ranking at Time of Posting: 146/179 (82%)
Ranking at Game #431: 377/431 (87%)

Escape from Hell was so damned close to being an authentically great game. The limitations and compromises that truncated the game to three levels are so palpable, I'm surprised I didn't run into an NPC who was an EA executive, consigned to Hell for insisting that the game ship on one disk. Crooked Bee's RPG Codex Interview with Richard Seaborne, posted in January, confirms the sense that playing the game provides: Seaborne initially envisioned 9 circles of Hell, multiple endings, more concrete themes, complex chains of events, and the use of an alignment system, but one by one, these dreams fell to the budget axe.

I thought this whole plot was going to be awesome, but it went nowhere.

The plans left vestiges in the game, maddeningly hinting at cut content. You defeat Al Capone, and a note threatens revenge, only he never shows up again. Hitler is organizing a revolt against Satan, and there's a suggestion that you could join his cause or help the Devil quash it, but nothing ever really comes of it. There are lots of interesting NPCs to join the party, but no reason not to just stick with the first couple that you find. A ton of interesting sounding items--a copy of Rolling Bone magazine, various pieces of jewelry, gold ingots, a crown, various capes--have no purpose. Several skills are never employed. There's a whole sub-quest that involves getting a consultant's badge, which you need to enter a special room in Satan's Palace, which contains a computer, which...does nothing. Solving an early quest gets you "Angelic Powers," which seem to have no use later on. (You can use them as a weapon, but they almost always miss.)

An encounter in Satan's fortress that has nothing to do with anything.

Perhaps most notably, the end of the game suggests that if you reach Hell's exit and haven't been "good" during your journeys, you won't be able to leave. Well, if there's any such alternate ending, I can't find it. I reloaded and killed dozens of friendly NPCs, and it still let me out. There really isn't any other way to be "evil."

The truncated content ends up completely wasting the game's mechanics, which let you solve puzzles in multiple ways (and choose among multiple puzzles to reach the same goal), force you to pay attention to NPC dialogue to determine what inventory items they need, and allow you to freely explore the three levels. There are hardly any "walking dead" scenarios: all items that you absolutely need have infinite duplicates. The NPCs are interesting and through-provoking when they're not (occasionally) goofy.

The capitalized "CARE" was a clue to give her a "care bracelet."

At the end of the last post, I indicated I'd be starting the game over to explore more carefully. I did, but I didn't find much beyond what I'd already posted about. The only things you have to do in the game are:

  • Get from Level 1 to Level 2, which involves finding a cassette tape to trade for a parachute
  • Defeat Al Capone on Level 2 and release Alan from his mind control
  • Enter Satan's fortress on Level 3, pick up Alison, kill Satan, and make your way to the exit
  • Grind your characters enough to survive the random combats along the way

All the other side quests resulting in training, equipment, and NPCs, many of which you don't actually need.

Arriving on the third level via a phone booth. It was complicated.

In my second attempt, I did pretty much what I did the first time. The one exception was giving a care bracelet to Juliet and getting "Angelic Powers" in return--which turned out to be mostly useless. The powers show up as an inventory item and serve as a mid-range weapon that misses 80% of the time but does significant damage when it works. Not as good as most of the ranged weapons in the game, although it does have the benefit of working in locations that some other weapons don't work.

On Level 2, I conquered Capone as before and got Alan into the party. I kept Horatio until the end mostly because there wasn't any compelling reason to let him go and it was a pain to try to transfer items between characters.

On Level 3, I explored a bit and found Hitler, Göring, Mussolini, and other Axis big-wigs in a replica of Dachau. They were going on about overthrowing Satan, and this would have been a fun, if slightly disturbing, plot and role-playing choice if it led anywhere. As Crooked Bee's LP demonstrates, getting Hitler into your party has absolutely no consequences for the rest of the game. I declined to have Hitler join my party for role-playing reasons. Part of me loves this game if for no other reason than I get to write sentences like that.

Hitler's office in Hell. He warmed to me when I found a copy of Mein Kampf on a bookcase.

You'd think if any NPC deserved a custom portrait...

Heinz Guderian was imprisoned nearby and wanted to join me in a resistance against Hitler, but I lacked enough "Lockpick" skill to free him. It wouldn't have mattered anyway.

A laptop computer and a "phreaker box," used at a phone booth, zipped me to a road leading to Satan's fortress. There was a long bridge and a string of nasty enemies, but I had a ton of weapons at this point.

From the depths of Maurice Sendak's nightmares...

Satan's fortress wasn't very big and didn't exactly look like the capitol of Hell.

Satan stands in his office surrounded by...what?...refrigerators?

There were a couple of corridors that led to nothing but near-impossible combats, but there were hardly any enemies on the corridor that led to the exit, after passing by Alison's cell and Satan himself. I delayed replacing Horatio for Alison until I killed Satan.

They couldn't give my girlfriend her own portrait? Or some clothes?

Before the encounter with Satan, Alan had a little comment that suggests a meta-plot for the game: Richard and Alan are in Hell because Satan didn't want them to finish Escape from Hell.

"...we're gonna finish this game," it ends. I think Alan accidentally a word in that last sentence.

A few steps later, Satan had a little villain's speech.

I didn't want to "stop you." You would have been fine if you'd just let me walk by.

He was capable of killing party members in one round, but I had a "Holy Cross" from the beginning of the game that was capable of killing him in one round, so I used it here. From Crooked Bee's LP, it would have also been possible to kill him with anti-tank rifles or a "Book of Death," the latter of which I never found.

Satan killing me in one attack.
Me killing Satan in one attack.

There was one more corridor before the exit. As I stepped on the portal, a voice suggested role-playing possibilities that never materialized.

Whose voice is this? God?

After that, it was a message to "come back soon" and a vision of a generic city beyond the portal. No mention is made of why the trio was in Hell in the first place, or of the long-term universal ramifications of killing Satan.

Anyone recognize that skyline? I'm going with Boston. That's the Pru behind a row of brownstones.

This GIMLET is going to make me sad.

  • 7 points for the game world, perhaps the most original that we've seen so far in the chronology. Basing an RPG on Dante's Inferno was a brilliant idea, and it's too bad that the game could only sustain it for three levels. Only a lack of seriousness (and thus thematic consistency) keeps it from scoring higher.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. You can't create any of the characters--they come with fixed attributes. Leveling is a standard experience-based process that results on more hit points and changes to attributes. There's a skill system that's barely used and only supports one- or two-time increases to skills based on talking to the right NPC.

Eric the Red offers some character development. You need "Swimming" skill for like one place in the game, where you acquire it automatically anyway.

  • 6 points for a great selection of historical and literary NPCs, many of whom can join your party. If only the game had offered some dialogue options, and if only the gallery of joinable NPCs--which includes Dante, John Wilkes Booth, Mozart, "Sparticus," Blackbeard, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde--had any effect on later gameplay.

Note Dante's dialogue. This game isn't based on Inferno so much as a sequel to it.

  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The game's menagerie of hellbeasts is mostly original, and there are enough special attacks and defenses to keep them interesting. There aren't many encounters that offer role-playing choices, however.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The stripped-down Interplay approach to combat is okay for the length of the game; it would have gotten tedious if the game had really lasted nine levels. There's no magic system, which is too bad--the setting could have really had some fun with Latin invocations.

Some of the game's better artwork, I thought.

  • 5 points for inventory. A variety of weapons, armor, quest items, and special items keeps things interesting. The manual clearly annotates weapon and armor statistics and ratings, allowing easy comparison. Although you get some items in fixed places, a lot of the distribution is randomized. The only major problems are that a) a lot of the items have no purpose, but you end up carrying them just in case; and b) the limited inventory slots discourage swapping party members, since you almost always lose some items in the process.

Horatio's full inventory at game's end.

  • 1 point for the economy. I wasn't going to give it any, but there is kind of a barter economy where you can trade some items for other items with various NPCs. There's otherwise no money or shops.
  • 4 points for quests, which include a main quest and a handful of mostly inconsequential side quests. This could have been so much better with Seaborne's original plans.
  • 4 points for decent graphics and an unproblematic keyboard interface. It gets nothing special for sound, which is too bad. A modern take on the game would undoubtedly have atmospheric music and wails of the damned in the distance.
  • 5 points for gameplay. Somewhat non-linear, somewhat replayable, and the right difficulty. It's too short to accommodate all its ideas and thus feels a little unfinished.

The final rating of 43 puts it well into "recommended" territory (35-50) but not into "really good" territory. Based on Seaborne's descriptions of what he wanted the game to be, we would have been looking at a solid 55-60 if reality hadn't intervened. But despite its flaws, I'm grateful for a game that managed to get out of the 30s for the first time in half a year.

It's hard to find reviews of the game from 1990. It doesn't look like Computer Gaming World considered it. MobyGames cataloged two reviews that put it in the "C" range, basically calling it a minor game with interesting ideas. But the game has received more modern ink than most forgotten titles from the early 1990s, and they sound a lot like mine. Whether you read Richard Cobbett's retrospective on PC Gamer, Nick Zverloff's coverage on "Hardcore Gaming 101," or Crooked Bee's LP, you see reviewers desperately wanting to like Escape from Hell for its setting, themes, and NPCs, but ultimately forcing to conclude that it doesn't quite come together.

As quarex pointed out in a recent comment, practically every site in existence says that Escape from Hell uses the Wasteland engine. But Richard Seaborne denied this claim in his interview with Crooked Bee:

I wrote Escape from Hell entirely from the ground up, using no code or tools from Wasteland or any other game. Although there’s no shared ancestry with Wasteland, I have to say that I’ve never minded the comparison because it was a great game.

It's hard to know how to respond to that. I don't doubt that Seaborne wrote the code from the ground up, so perhaps it's disingenuous to say that it "uses the Wasteland engine." Does programming convention call it "using the same engine" if it's reconstructed rather than built off the same code? I honestly don't know.

But it's also silly to say that "there's no shared ancestry with Wasteland." A comparison of the interface, game screens, skill systems, and combat systems shows too many similarities to suggest that Seaborne developed them independently and just happened to take the game to the same publisher, and end up with the same executive producer, as Wasteland--and in the same year that EA released another game (Fountain of Dreams) also "using the Wasteland engine."

Even the screen proportions are about the same.
Whatever the case, I think that's it for Wasteland-related games until we hit Fallout in 1997.  I'm glad I played this game after Fountain of Dreams, and thus could leave with mostly positive impressions. This is a game that someone needs to remake, not games like Ultima IV or Baldur's Gate that are already fine in their original forms.

Next up, as I continue to work towards the end of Tunnels & Trolls, we'll look at 1984's Dungeons, Dragons, & Other Perils and get started perhaps on Worlds of Ultima: Savage Empire. We're down to only 5 games left in 1990!


  1. Congratulations on another step in your quest! Now that I think about it, Henry would not be in Dante's hell, but in his heaven, I would think. I wonder how many other games are crippled by budgetary concerns. Secret of the Silver Blades seems a good candidate for this treatment.

  2. I believe it does "count" as a separate engine if it's constructed from the ground up. Of course Escape from Hell is clearly heavily influenced to the point of being a bit copycat, so it's kind of a moot point.

  3. Chet, did the lack of original NPC portraits / reused art not end up being a significant annoyance? You didn't mention it or dock it in the GIMLET, but I found it tedious and repetitive while reading the posts on the game.

    1. It's definitely a negative. I don't put a lot into graphics on the scale, though--2 or 3 points at the most--and it doesn't seem fair to take away 50% or 33% of the graphics score for that one thing.

  4. Escape From Hell is one of the last games people would think "desperately needs a remake" and that's exactly why it does, I think. It would be nice if the original plans and design documents were out there to work from.
    Those multiple endings (hey, why not stay and RULE hell? You just bumped off the main other candidate.) could particularly be a delight to write.
    Ah well. Congratulations! I'm glad you found your way to that LP.

    1. You're not alone, sexysquirrel. I had a lot of fun with the short game and was awaiting for a goddamn sequel of it for... an eternity.

      If Seaborne finds himself on Kickstarter to remake this game with all its content in his vision, I'd burn my pubes and shove my money into their gaping maws in a heartbeat.

  5. Speaking as a game programmer:
    Typically "uses the same engine" means started with some shared existing code. If he wrote it from scratch, including looking at the game of Wasteland but not any of its code, then it isn't using the same engine, even if he tried to reproduce it faithfully.

    Note that that's independent of whether a game takes art assets or is a blatant ripoff of another. It can do both of those and still not use the same engine.

  6. I noticed in the interview, Richard states he changed the swastika flags. I wonder if this happened after initial release, or if you have a pre-release copy.

  7. A truly fascinating little game, I enjoyed your posts on it immensely. Interestingly it's the first game of 1990 to fall between 36 and 46 on your gimlet scale, which is rather odd.

    Why is Tunnels & Trolls taking so long? Is it just hard to get into?

    1. It's a huge pain in the neck for reasons that are hard to pinpoint. Mostly because every step runs the risk of a completely arbitrary outcome that leaves your characters dead or permanently damaged. And combats scale in difficulty with character levels, so you never feel like you make any progress. I think I'm actually almost done.

  8. Now that I think about it: If the God of the old testament is an authoritarian who consigns those he deems unworthy to Hell, it sounds like Hitler belongs in the other place.

  9. The voice at the end seems to be making a minor Boy Scout joke. The Boy Scout Law is: "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent."

    Seems too close for coincidence.

    1. Yeah, I noticed that as well. Weird reference if it's intentional.

    2. Satan's speech is a reference to the Seven Virtues. I wouldn't be surprised if the scout law drew on the same material.

    3. I'm going to have to disagree with you there, ware. The Seven Virtues are: Chastity, Temperance, Charity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, and Humility. That bears little resemblance to "Kind-hearted, trustworthy, loyal, reverent, courteous, obedient, brave, and clean," which is the boy scout code verbatim, just in a different order.

  10. Funny thing is, I parsed that character portrait as an image of an emaciated, Munch's The Scream-ified Hitler.

  11. I'm not sure it needs a remake, but a modern successor, set in hell (maybe with jaunts to heaven, nirvana, the underworld, valhalla, asphodel fields etc), full of literary references and figures from history would be cool. Get Neil Gaiman to write it - have you read the Sandman series, Chet?

  12. Congratulations! At least, a game like this is more fun to play than artificially long and empty games. A kickstarter for a remake of this game will probably lack interest, but you're right, the whole concept deserves revisiting.

  13. This game piques my interest, but oddly enough, I don't think I'd be interested in a modern remake or a modern Inferno themed RPG. The problem with setting a narrative of any kind in hell is that there can't be any consequences for death or failure. You're already consigned to the worst possible fate. With stakes that low, the tension evaporates. Worse yet, evil always becomes a caricature of itself when you're rubbing elbows with Stalin and Hitler. How bad can a villain be when they're suffering exactly the same fate as literally every other character in the game. And how can an antagonist threaten you when you're already in hell? Boring.

    1. Sure you could. Posit your character is generally a good guy: death would mean consignment to heaven or some such, rendering the main character unable to continue his quest. Or they could go by D&D logic where an outsider killed in its native plane is dead for good: if you belong in hell and die there, you're just dead.

    2. Or worse, cease to exist at all. Hitler was a genocidal maniac but he still exists in our textbooks. The most terrifying thing to happen is to have one's existence be totally erased.

    3. Torment didn't have failure in the traditional sense. In fact, dying was important from a content standpoint. There were a handful of locations where you could genuinely lose, but the majority of the game didn't feature a programming mandated pass/fail.

      I think the best way to avoid caricaturing 'evil' is by completely letting go of the concept. People are either approved by God or not, whatever that means.

    4. I'm not convinced. The "Good guy in hell, screws up, goes to heaven" scenario doesn't strike me as much of a punishment. As for total oblivion, I'm sorry that doesn't sound bad at all. It certainly sounds a lot better than an eternity of torture.

      Torment did hell Planescape style and it was great, but I was referring more to the traditional medieval/renaissance Catholic hell.

      Again, letting go of the concept of 'evil' doesn't really solve the problem. How can a villain earn your antipathy when there's nothing they can possibly threaten anyone in hell with that is worse than what hell itself has in store? It's just... boring...

    5. "Boring" is such a terribly subjective concept. Personally I find the idea of an RPG set in the universe of or inspired by Dante's Inferno to be fascinating and potentially enthralling. :)

    6. It's easy. If you're alive, escape or lessening of torment is possible. Once you die, it's not. You're stuck there.

      Replace "death" with being captured if you like. I can think of a bunch of game dynamics that could be based around that.

    7. Getting kicked out of hell and consigned to heaven might not seem like a punishment, but in a scenario like this where you're trying to rescue people from hell, you would have failed that rescue and that would be pretty awful.

  14. Indeed, this seems exactly like the sort of RPG that could use a remake. It's a game that I've never heard of before, but from what I read it's become part of my long list of games that I'd like to get around to playing some day, if simply just for the experience. The setting alone seems worth the time.

    However the only way I'd see a remake of this work would be to have it made as an independently released and/or crowdfunded game. I'm pretty sure publishers would shy away from funding a game with this sort of theme and overtones. Hell *excuse the pun* even if they didn't finance it, I'm sure a lot of publishers would be weary of even putting their name on it.

    Even done right, it has the potential to offend a lot of people and after what's happened recently in gaming that's exactly what you'd want to avoid.

  15. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-3XT_fROLNmQ/VRnNNm7hgJI/AAAAAAAAb0Y/ZuIRuEM9Rhk/s1600/escape_300.png

    "The big D"...

    This sounds oddly inappropriate considering the slang term "the D" ( http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=The+D ).

  16. This was my least favourite game of its era. The inventory issue and other flaws took the fun away before I got very far.

    My favourite game of its era was Seven Spirits of Ra (game 41 in your chronology). Take from that what you will.


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