Escape from Hell isn't going to be the best game of my chronology, or even 1990, but I suspect it will be the only game on my list in which Josef Stalin joins my party and starts shooting the minions of Satan with a nailgun. If I can't have a high-quality CRPG, I'm at least grateful for one that shows me something I haven't seen before.
It's also the only game I can think of in which your PC is modeled on the game's author, Richard Seaborne. We previously saw his work on Prophecy I: The Fall of Trinadon (1988). His co-designer, Alan J. Murphy, later appears as an NPC. The setup is told in a few brief paragraphs in the opening screens: one day Richard goes over to Alan's house and finds a weird note stuck to the door with an unknown phrase on it. Alan is gone. Later, recounting the story to his girlfriend, Alison (named after Richard Seaborne's wife), Richard says the phrase and Alison disappears in a "poof!" Moments later, Richard gets a call from "the Divine Phone Company" who warns him his friends have been sent to hell because of the "powerful magic incantation."
"You must be joking," Richard protests. "I just said..." and repeats the incantation. In a split second, he finds himself in a small room in the midst of fire and brimstone. His goal, as indicated by the title, is to find his way out--ideally with Alison and Alan in tow.
This is the kind of game that could be fun and interesting or cringe-worthy and stupid depending on the quality of the narration. So far, it's doing a good job walking right on the line, but it could go anywhere.
|This was reasonably funny.|
The second 1990 game developed by Electronic Arts using the Wasteland engine, Escape lies somewhere between Wasteland and Fountain of Dreams in quality. The story so far is better than Fountain and the graphics are better than both preceding games, but it doesn't have the puzzle or role-playing complexity of Wasteland. As such, it's been an amusing little diversion, not unlike Seaborne's Prophecy.
|The party navigates fire, brimstone, and pitchforks.|
There's no character creation as such--Richard has fixed statistics for strength, intelligence, piety, agility, and stamina. Like the other games using the engine, there is a selection of passive skills (e.g., fist fighting, rifle combat, archery, acrobatics) and active skills (e.g., bluffing, lockpicking), all of which increase with use and with occasional NPC trainers. Leveling is through a standard accumulation of experience.
|The main character after a few hours. He started at Level 0, so I have risen one level.|
Combat uses a variant of the system developed way back in The Bard's Tale and used by almost all Interplay games to date. Each character chooses to attack, defend, hide, or run in any given round. Each weapon has an effective range, but unlike some of the other games, enemies can only attack from three (long), two (medium), or one (short) squares away. They can attack in multiple groups of multiple enemies each, and if attacking, you have to target the chosen group. The character who makes the kill gets the experience and whatever valuables the enemy was carrying.
Some of the combats are pretty hard. I doubt there's any way to resurrect dead NPCs, so I've been reloading when they die. If Richard dies, the game ends with a note that you've died. I don't know why the game didn't just have you wake up in your room in Hell again. That seems obvious.
|Do I go to Hell's Hell now?|
The basic gameplay experience so far has been to explore Hell and its various divisions, talk to NPCs, collect puzzle items, and fight random combats with fiends along the way. There's one large main cave (a map is helpfully provided in the manual) with entrances to smaller maps like Limbo, the City on the Edge of Eternity, and the Hell Guard Recruitment Center.
|The game paraphrases quotes from real historic figures.|
|The game features the second use of nudity that we've seen in my list in a western RPG. I don't know if this one or Wizardry VI came first. All the female NPCs seem to look like this.|
I started in small room with a chest, a sign, and a phonebooth. I don't know if the phonebooth was supposed to have come with me; that wouldn't make sense because the opening screenshots showed me at home when I got the call. Either way, the severed telephone handset was in my inventory along with a knife and a book of matches.
|The opening room.|
The chest held a cross, a silver flask with a healing elixir, and a pouch of fairy dust. A note warned me to save the cross and elixir for "when the powers of Hell are about to overtake you" and to use the fairy dust only in "dire need."
A skeleton blocked my way into the caverns and I wasn't strong enough to defeat him by myself, so I started by going the only direction I could, to the City on the Edge of Eternity. In this sub-map, I started meeting a bunch of random NPCs. A guy named Brad gave me a free laptop, which I honestly forgot was a thing as early as 1990. Stalin joined my cause because he believed that "capitalism is the wave of the future" and we needed to "overthrow the red devil" for "our right to vote for a free democratic Hell."
|A skeleton blocks my path. I needed Josef Stalin and Genghis Khan to defeat him.|
In an alley, we grabbed a couple garbage can lids to use as shields. In Hell's Waiting Room, I got a ticket that promised me an audience with Minos, the ruler of this level, on April 1, 3024 "plus or minus several decades." A receptionist attacked me when she scanned me for identification and realized that I was alive. That didn't seem to otherwise have long-term consequences.
Genghis Khan joined my party at some point, armed with a broadsword. A guy named Melrose Amber, after hearing my story, gave me a pair of shades that would protect me against psychic attacks. A clown gave me a smiley face button.
|Exploring a building in Limbo. Some foresaken souls apparently get their own rooms and beds.|
When I'd finished exploring, I returned to the outer area and used my two new friends to kill the skeleton and escape into the caverns of Hell. I was attacked frequently by "stench beasts," Hell privates, Neanderthals, and--oddly enough--Indians.
|This was not a good year for Indians in RPGs.|
The presence of Indians in Hell is probably a reflection of the game's Catholic theology. One of the sub-areas off the main cavern is Limbo, or the "Place for Virtuous Pagans," where all the decent people went before Jesus Christ redeemed mankind and opened the way to Heaven.
|Pity the poor Neanderthals for existing 40,000 years before the birth of Christ.|
I met Virgil, Cleopatra, Nero, Aristotle, Socrates, Tamerlaine, Helen of Troy, and some Roman soldiers there. Oddly, Benedict Arnold and Shakespeare were there as well. Shakespeare gave me Yorick's Skull. I later gave the skull to Hamlet, who joined me (I dumped Stalin 'cause he was...you know...Stalin) with a dueling sword.
|I find the Prince in "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."|
Hamlet isn't the only fictional character here: I ran into Horatio and Juliet, too (the latter in Hell for her suicide).
It was the Athenian philosopher Thucydides who gave me the rundown of the stucture of Hell. Originally one level, Satan has over the years expanded it to three. Various NPCs told me that Alan went to Level 2, which is apparently ruled by Al Capone. The hole from Level 1 to Level 2 is quite deep, and I need a parachute to descend. So far, I haven't figured out how to get one.
|An NPC recognizes that I'm alive, and gives me some useful information about my friend.|
A few NPCs imparted training just for talking to them, raising my skill level with the bow and rifle. The scores also go up occasionally in combat, just as in Wasteland. NPCs often give you quest items or things that might be quest items--it's hard to tell--and between that and the weapons you loot from combats, it's a constant struggle to shuffle inventory and make sure you have a few clear slots. Weapons break, so you need to carry some backups. There's no ammo--firearms and bows just run out of shots and become useless. There also appears to be no economy.
|The game's approach to skill development.|
As we wrap up, I'm exploring the Hell Guard Recruitment Center, hoping to find that parachute somewhere. I assume the levels get bigger and more complicated as you descend; if not, we're looking at a short game. My big question right now is whether the game is truly going to resolve its story--whether there's any interesting mystery behind the incantation that brought me here--or whether it's just an excuse for silly setpieces.
Time so far: 3 hours
Reload count: 4