Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Game 195: The Ormus Saga (1991)

The Ormus Saga is a little Ultima clone, written by a developer named Mike Doran for the Commodore 64, and offered on diskmag by the German publisher CP Verlag. Unlike Antares, in which I am currently also mired, Ormus offers its text in English. I haven't been able to find anything about the author, whose name doesn't sound German. In any event, this game is the first in a trilogy, which continues with The Ormus Saga II: Guild of Death (1993) and The Ormus Saga III: The Final Chapter (1994).

If there was any documentation for the game originally, I can't find it, but it isn't very hard. It doesn't even use the keyboard (except to type the character name); all movement is through the joystick. Pushing the button calls up a list of commands that would be executed by keystroke in a better game, including attacking, casting spells, and using items.

I approach a village to the south while an orc party (or something like that) approaches from the north. I've hit the joystick button, so the game is showing me my various outdoor menu options. I'm very low on hit points.
The game is set in 1227 in the land of Beryland. The Ormus Cult has taken over the realm, and the PC has decided to do something about it. Character creation is just a name, at which point the PC starts on "the southwest shores of Beryland," next to a city called Remfield. He's got 60 hit points, 210 experience, 300 gold, 12 food, 9 strength, and wisdom.

The back story from the game's introductory screens.
Cities are just menus, where you can engage in conversation with a fixed number of menu NPCs; attack the same NPCs (haven't figured out why you'd want to do that yet); sleep at the inn to recover hit points; check your inventory; search the city for treasures (again, a fixed number); hire soldiers (more on that in a bit); buy and sell items; and visit the healer.

Conversation with NPCs is about as verbose as an Ultima game, although you don't get any dialogue options. NPCs tell you things about the world and give you clues about things to check in other cities. At least one NPC in each city offers the location of a treasure, measured in squares north/south or east/west from the current city. I haven't found any of these treasures yet, as all of the locations have had water in between.

Conversation with "a woman" gives me some intelligence on a "holy word."

There's not much to do in the outdoor areas except travel between towns, fight wandering monsters (as in Ultima, they show up on the world map and chase you around), and dig for treasure. If there are dungeons, I haven't found them, but then again, I haven't gotten a sense of the size of the game world yet. Progress is hampered by ocean, rivers, and mountains. There are probably multiple islands, since there's an option to buy a ship.

Combat occurs on a separate screen, but not in any way that makes sense. Enemies start some distance from you, but you don't close the gap. Nobody moves on the combat screen. Instead, you aim your weapon with a cursor, and if the cursor is in the same column as your foe, you hit him. Basically, it's as if every weapon is a missile weapon that fires in right angles.

Fighting two snakes. If I want to hit the "closest" one, I need to move the cursor one square to the right. Two squares will hit the "farthest" one.

There are 10 combat spells and 3 non-combat spells. They have arcane names (e.g., "EMPAR," "DEASPI," "VEROS"), so I don't know what all of them do. From experimentation, "ESCOB" allows you to disappear and escape combat and "CURAX" cures poison. The others generally fail; I don't know if it's because I'm using them in the wrong circumstances or because I need to achieve a higher level first.

Let's talk about the game's one major innovation: in addition to running around the land as a typical RPG character, you can hire troops and equip them. Troops are alternatives to regular combat--you can send them to fight wandering orcs and snakes and such--but they're mandatory for combats in which you try to seize or defend a city. Occasionally, as you explore, you come across a city that's "++OCCUPIED++" by the Ormus Cult, and to get in and take advantage of its services, you need to take the city. Army-based combat is pretty blunt--you exchange blows that kill a couple of soldiers at a time--and it mostly boils down to which side has more numbers.

My pathetically outnumbered troops attack the City of Dillingston.

Occasionally, Ormus Cult forces attack a friendly city, and for some reason, you control the defenders. To assist with this, you can garrison troops in each friendly city. During my first attempt at the game, I was no more than 30 minutes into it when the Ormus Cult attacked the king's castle and wiped out the defenders with superior forces. This caused me to lose the game. I thought this was horribly unfair, but I guess it was just a random occurrence, because it didn't happen in subsequent games.

Well, hell.

At odd intervals, the game will suddenly announce that you've reached an "End of Period" and will give you taxes collected from all the friendly cities.

Unfortunately, the game is either horribly bugged or the VICE emulator just doesn't treat it well. It freezes constantly, usually when transitioning areas. This coupled with a lot of disk-swapping and the overall primitive nature makes me want to cut this one short; the only thing that stops me is a reluctance to bail on two games in a row.
Other observations:

  • There is no sound in the game.
  • There's a day/night cycle in which night reduces visibility as in the last few Ultimas.
  • Resting for a night at the inn restores all hit points. It's considerably cheaper than the healer, so I don't know who would choose the latter option.
  • Each town sells an extremely limited selection of weapons and armor. Developing in equipment is more about finding new towns than amassing more money.

In short, The Ormus Saga looks like a low-budget Ultima but plays more like a low-budget Sword of Aragon. I'm finding it hard to develop a strategy. I don't know if the best way to play is to hire troops immediately and take as many cities as possible or if I should try to build up my own character first. I suspect that I'm going to have to map, which is always a pain in the neck in a top-down tile-based game. Either way, it's clearly going to take a few postings. This looks to be one of the larger indie games that we've seen so far, so let's give it the full treatment.

Time so far: 3 hours
Reload count: 4


  1. Interesting title. I often wondered how many CRPGs would reject the trope that only five or six people are needed to take down an evil overlord and his armies. As a war gamer I like the idea of massed battles as well and individual combat, but as you pointed out, it looks simply like the side with more troops wins. It would be interesting to see a game that can incorporate both styles well: Goldbox engine for individual combat and Chris Crawford (of Eastern Front and Legonnaire fame) for mass battles.

    As a low budget looking Ultima the game looks mainly earth-tone in color. Is it really that dark on the screen?

    1. There are some games where you can enlist and hire troops, like The Magic of Scheherazade for the NES. Warsong may also count since troops are shown to attack the enemy in battles, but they're part of a unit's health and cannot be enlisted with currency (IIRC). Destiny of an Emperor has a system that lets you recruit generals as well, but the party limit isn't high enough to accomomodate an army, so that probably doesn't countr either.

    2. It really is that dark. Maybe I screwed something up again with the emulator. I couldn't get it to run with the regular X64 executable so I had to use the X64se. I keep meaning to look up what the difference is.

    3. It looks there's CRT/Scanlines emulation turned on. It's possible to adjust that or turn it off completely, which should brighten the picture a bit.

    4. My favorite quote from the Sword of Aragon review:

      "Instead, I've received a selection of standard RPG-style quests--kill a monster, rescue a child, find some treasure--but instead of setting out to complete them as a lone hero, I have a company of cavalry and a battalion of bowmen at my back. One frankly wonders why more RPG protagonists don't try this route."

      Looks like someone took the hint! Always good to see a practical hero, even if it is in an Ultima ripoff. Fantasy wargames don't get enough love.

    5. I actually like the color of the game and the top down perspective is always welcome.

  2. The option to kill the store keepers got me thinking: What if almost the only option to gain XP in a CRPG is to do bad things, i.e. killing good people or stealing their things, to eventually be strong enough to defeat some big bad boss. And then, at the end there is some kind of "what happened then" slide show like at the end of Fallout and the main conflict of the game is trying to beat it with the least amount of bad things done, that is, with the least amount of XP.
    I bet there's a JRPG with that idea already.

    1. No, I left the wrong impression. You can't kill shopkeepers, just the "conversation" NPCs.

      But you raise a good point. The problem with the "evil" option in most RPGs is that the results--more gold, equipment, experience--are perfectly achievable through "good" gameplay. A game that truly wanted to offer a compelling evil choice would make characters who took that path more powerful and better-equipped.

    2. Or, what if some of the NPCs are actually Ormus Cultists and taking out all of these treacherous bastards is the only way to obtain information on how to find & defeat Ormus?

    3. Actually, I find in RPGs that the evil path is always the better choice. RPGs rarely punish you severly for being too evil. Take Baldur's Gate 1. The best way to get the best weapons in the game is to kill a hero in cold blood and the penalty? 1000 gold to the Temples to get your reputation back up. Murder is cheap apparently. Its the same in Skyrim. It's easy to buy things and just steal your money back, making training a breeze for the unscrupulous.

      I'd love for game to show a real split between being good and evil. If your good, the game should be scripted well so you'd get to feel good about yourself for doing the right thing. If your evil, the game should give you better equipment and the like while make you feel like a real jerk for doing what you did. It'd make the choice more poignant.

    4. I agree. There are two things at work here. The first is that there's no compelling REASON to be evil. In real life, people aren't evil for the hell of it--they do it for money, power, status, etc. When these things are all achievable in the game without choosing the evil path, why take it? Why spend time burgling some farmer's house when you can go into a dungeon and get legitimate loot instead? Why kill good people for their gold when there are plenty of bandits in the forest? You can be a hero and STILL get all the rewards and power.

      But I agree that there's a second dimension: difficulty. There ought to be consequences to evil actions. You want to be a vampire? You can't run around in sunlight. You want to steal things? Your name gets on a list and guards pursue you. Kill innocent people? Every where you go, people curse your name.

    5. This is the reason I liked KOTOR to be evil (dark side) you couldn't just be mean, you really had to plot in the conversations to get maximum dark side points.

    6. KotOR has way too much 'For the evulz' in my book. It's just not believable evil.

      At least there's a compelling reason to be evil - In the first game, dark side powers are simply better (and cooler).

      I'm playing the second at the moment as it happens - it just got an official update and the restored content mod was added to the steam workshop.

      There are quite a few games where it is significantly harder to play piously. Fallout 2, Geneforge, Deus Ex, This War of Mine, Dead State.

    7. KOTOR is a good call, in my opinion, because playing evil should also be a quicker way to win the game, like the Dark Side is easier and quicker. Often, "good" and "bad" are represented by opposite factions (NCR or Caesar's Legion) or by a final choice in a dialogue and an inconsequential animated sequence (Mass Effect) and then the consequences are mostly different gear or getting attacked repeatedly by the opposite faction. They're not all that different.
      Not that the way it is done is necessarily bad, but there's probably some potential left, and it would require lots of programming skills, because if playing evil gets you ahead quicker, one should either have to really feel (or being offered the choice to ignore) the consequences of one's own evil deeds, and/or the leveling and scaling process needs to be adjusted so that playing evil still results in a satisfying game experience.

    8. Well. I don't want to spoil too much. There will be some occasion where a fight between the player and an NPC is inevitable.

    9. I think the difference in gameplay between good and evil should be that being good is harder. Evil can be the path to easy power- it is tempting and seductive. But have the two paths converge eventually. Either way you wind up president, just one of you has more skeletons in the closet, etc.

  3. Mike Doran seems to have loved the Beryland setting: The Gamabase 64 lists, besides The Ormus Saga, also two text-based RPGs simply called "Ormus" and "Ormus II":

    And this Ebay auction includes Stories of Beryland 1 and 2, which no online database seems to know of:

    1. This site has the manual for The Ormus Saga II. It

      I'll attempt a rough translation / summary:

      Level 1
      - Curax: Cure Poison. (1 MP)
      - Pordi: Teleport. (2 MP)

      Level 2:
      - Venura: Regain health. (2 MP)
      - Dor Amir: Light. (3 MP)
      - Empar: Weaken enemies. (3 MP)

      Level 3:
      - Veros: Position of Player. Gives the exact location of the players. (3 MP)
      - Halcur: More attack power. Increases attack strength for the duration of a day. (4 MP)
      - Delcur: Better defense. Increses defense for the duration of a day. (4 MP)

      Level 4:
      - Garmur: Create food. (5 MP)
      - Deaspi: Death spell. Instantly kills an enemy in battle. No effect on townsmen (?). (6 MP)
      - An Pulvis: Disappear spell. Makes smaller enemies or obstacles disappear. (6 MP)

      Level 5:
      - Maruon: Blast spell. Destroys all doors. (7 MP)
      - Foremis: Negate force field. (8 MP)
      - Lor Venura: Regain full health. (8 MP)

      Level 6:
      - Lor Empar: Great weaken spell. Greatly weakens all opponents. (9 MP)
      - Lor Amir: Great light spell. Works longer than the regular one. (9 MP)

      Level 7:
      - Vitaere: Revive spell. Revives a dead townsman. Can only be used shortly before midnight. Does not always succeed. (12 MP)
      - An Vis: Invisibility. Makes you invisible for a while. You lose hitpoints for every move while invisible. (8 MP)

      Level 8:
      - Dol Gandor: Underworld spell. Teleports the caster to the world of the undead. This spell has special requirements. (10 MP)
      - Quas Cor: Mass kill spell. Instantly kills all enemies, except for the black dragon. (11 MP)

    2. ... It contains a lot of details on the game's mechanics, including a description of the spells (and probably also a lot of spoilers for the story of the first game) ...

    3. If anything, this game is pretty forgiving about poisoning as compared to other CRPGs. Just 1 MP at Level 1 without reagent requirements?

    4. Thanks, Peter! That helps a lot. I Googled the names of the spells and nothing showed up, but I didn't count on a manual existing in a .zip file somewhere. Based on your warning, I won't read the rest of it, but I'll sure use the spell list.

    5. Theres pictures of Stories of Beryland here:

  4. One other question. Can you upgrade your soldier's equipment to make them superior to enemy soldiers? Can quality trump quantity?

    1. Or is there any possibility of tactics (enemy troops will have to take down friendly cities at key choke points before reaching the King's Castle)? Espionage (finding out where the enemies will hit next)?

    2. You CAN equip soldiers. There's an option to buy weapons in town in the same place that you buy soldiers. I don't know if, when you choose it, you're outfitting your entire army or just buying one weapon at a time.

      Kenny, I don't think so, but I don't know yet. I don't think the game is sophisticated enough to actually track enemy troop movement across the map. I think that they just attack random cities, and I was unlucky enough for the king's castle to show up the first time. In subsequent games, other cities have been attacked instead. I could be wrong; I'll know more after another few hours.

    3. Does the character lead the troops in battle? I did not notice your character icon on the battle screen?

    4. No, the main character doesn't show up on the group battle screens. If you lose the battle, he continues on unscathed.

    5. Thanks again for showing us these relics from the past.

    6. Aww, that's a darn shame. Half the fun of fantasy wargames is getting to be on the battlefield personally! A field general's job is in the rear, but a hero's job is up front getting personal with the enemy.

    7. It could be that the "troop weapons" are siege weapons (and required to attack cities). I could be wrong, though. Quite somke time has passed since then.

      Back in the day there existed a few magazines that sold on a discette only. This particular game was published on "Golden Disk 64" 01/1993. Along with the magazine came a tutorial to the game.

    8. @Harland - In ancient Asian and Mediterranean cultures, generals ARE heroes. XD

    9. There's something that greatly appeals to me about picking up endless suits of chainmail, swords, helmets, and so on and instead of selling them at the nearest Dungeons-R-Us, using them to equip an army of your own troops. Even 30 or 100 armed men can be quite influential in local politics.

      Eh, I suppose this is the ancient D&D thinking of "gain power, build a stronghold" that isn't practiced any more in favor of the "become a movie-style superhero" style of the new editions.

    10. I'm telling you - Adventurer Manager 2015.

      Gather the chainmail, equip your 50 lvl 1 fighters.

      Fallout Shelter lets you do this, although the game gets samey very quickly.

  5. "Death Knights of Krynn" has showed up on the list! But I am not sure that I will play along. I got bored of Crusaders after the first town and haven't picked it back up. Does it get better? It just felt like battles with under-powered characters made exploration so slow, plus I just didn't level up or find new equipment often enough that I felt like I was really improving.

    Maybe I'll give it a second shot so I can play the sequel...

    1. I think Death Knights is by far the best of the Krynn series. I won't say anything else but I would encourage you to try it at least. I confess to preferring the Gold Box games set around the Moonsea i.e. Pool of Radiance and its successors, but Death Knights was a surprisingly good.

    2. I agree, Death Knights has the best locations of the Krynn games and the spans the most interesting character levels. Plus that evil dog scared the crap out of me when i was 11.

    3. It's better than Blades, but I could definitely understand someone preferring Poolrad, Curse and Pooldark.

    4. Storywise Death Knights is the best of the Krynn games, and it also scores high on the openendedness, but for sheer tactical combat fun I found Dark Queen the superior game. It also has two of the most fun dungeons to map in the GB games.

  6. The look at this game kind of reminds me of a 90's shareware game called excelsior. I suppose all of them are inspired by Ultima IV, a game that me, suprisingly, never played.

  7. Let's talk about the game's one major innovation: in addition to running around the land as a typical RPG character, you can hire troops and equip them.

    FWIW that "excruciating pseudo-RPG" (that description still makes me smile!) for TRS-80 Model I/III, Quest for the Key of Night Shade, did the same thing. It had castles, rather than cities, that were occupied.

  8. I don't know if the game uses some kind of fast loading mechanisms / modifies drive settings. That's something that might mess things up with an emulator. It's been too long since playing this game.

  9. If you're not using True Drive Emulation, that has a high chance of causing problems - just use Warp Mode (Alt+W, runs the emulator as fast as the host machine can handle it) if (period-accurate with TDE on) load times become onerous.

  10. Hard to imagine people played stuff like this free willingly. But then, those were desperate times.
    And now the monster is back, torturing CRPG addicts...

  11. I loved this game, unfortunately I can't find any emulator version for it (I still should have a diskette but no hardware for now).

    1. If you want to e-mail me, I"d be happy to .zip you the C64 disk images. I'd love if someone won it and told me where I went wrong.

    2. Have you asked the author himself? He's apparently on Facebook at

    3. I don't have a Facebook profile myself, and I'm not really willing to make one just for this purpose.

    4. Sent him a message, hopefully he responds :)


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