Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Ormus Saga: Victorious in Spirit (with Final Rating)

I come across Lord Marox's castle, Magnar.

The Ormus Saga
Mike Doran (developer); CP Verlag (publisher) on Golden Disk 64; may have had prior independent distribution
Released either 1991 or 1993. Sources vary.
Date Started: 22 July 2015
Date Ended:
28 July 2015
Total Hours: 13
Reload Count: 12
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5), aside from not being able to win
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at Time of Posting: 50/193 (26%)

Well, after dedicating an absurd amount of time to The Ormus Saga over the last couple of days (time that I've been in New Orleans, I should add, to enhance the absurdity), I have declare defeat. Despite visiting, re-visiting, and re-re-visiting all of the game's locations, I still can't find the bit of information that gets me to the endgame.

On the positive side, I've effectively neutralized Lord Marox even if I haven't been able to kill him. First, I re-conquered all of the cities that he'd captured, and I used my funds to install garrisons that defeat all his attempts to re-take them. Second, I conquered his city and looted everything except what's behind a locked door I can't open. Third, I killed all his advisors. All that's left is an immortal old wizard grousing about how important he is.

Show, not tell, Marox.

The path to winning The Ormus Saga involves visiting the game's various menu towns, cities, cottages, castles, towers, and dungeons and finding a selection of information and artifact items that trigger subsequent stages in the sub-quests. So a visit to Harper Valley results in some information about the location of a treasure chest. Inside the chest is a book that must be gathered with four other books and given to an NPC to get a golden key. The golden key unlocks a door that has a scroll behind it--one of six scrolls you need to get the Amulet of Fire. And so on to the endgame. Naturally, you'd have to be awfully lucky to visit all the locations in the "right" order at the outset, so you have to backtrack a lot. Nothing in the game tells you the number of towns, towers, etc. (one NPC does tell you the number of dungeons), so if you miss one in your explorations, you're in trouble.

Exchanging one quest item for another.

Here's where I'm stuck: to get into the World of the Dead and smash Marox's Gem of Power, I need three amulets. One of them, the Amulet of Wisdom, is in the possession of King Argon, and he'll only give it to someone who brings back his crown, which Marox stole. The crown, meanwhile, is behind a locked door in Marox's castle, and a single NPC line says that I need the "Staff of Marox" to get through the door. I've received no other information about the staff, and I haven't been able to find it anywhere in the game.

Even then, we have the problem of the Amulet of Death, which is supposedly held by Marox's archdaemon servants. I've been told that I need to kill all three of them to get the Amulet. The problem? Marox only has two archdaemon servants. I've killed both, and nothing happens. I even killed some hapless villager, thinking he might be the third in disguise, to no avail. 

In a game where you can dig for treasure in the middle of the ocean, anything is possible.

Thinking I'd missed something, I revisited all the locations, talked to all the NPCs, and searched everything, but nothing new emerged. Googling, I found this one German site that lists all the location coordinates in the game, but I'd already been to all of them. So I don't know what to do barring a visit from the developer or someone who's won the game.

A few other things discovered since the last time:

  • Purchase prices for weapons, armor, troops, and other items are randomized each time you visit the merchant (within a set range, I guess). If you don't like the price, leaving and returning gets you a better deal.
  • Better armor seems to reduce damage rather than the likelihood of a hit. This makes sense to me, but almost all RPGs do it the other way.
  • Last time, I talked about weapons, armor, and shields breaking as scripted events. It's even worse than I thought. The game doesn't care which item breaks; it only knows that the next combat you fight, against whatever foe, #&*$ you, your weapon is going to break. That means that if you're unhappy that your expensive Death Sword just shattered, you can reload, equip some lesser weapon, fight your combat, and have that break instead.

That 22 gold wasn't worth a suit of magic armor.

  • You can "send troops" to any city at any time, and they arrive instantly. A player with low integrity might wait and see what cities Marox attacks, reload, and send troops to the city in anticipation of his arrival.
  • Sometimes the locations of chests aren't delivered in plain coordinates. One required me to solve an algebra equation.
  • If you attack and kill NPCs, really nothing happens except that you can't talk to them any more. Two towns allow you to purchase resurrection for any slain NPCs. There are a handful of NPCs that start the game dead, and you have to pay for the resurrections (or cast the spell yourself) if you want to talk to them.
  • Raising experience levels turned out to be a matter of visiting one of the game's three temples and praying. Leveling up is accompanied by +1 strength, +3 wisdom, and 30 hit points.

Leveling up in a temple.

  • I never did much with spells in the game, save CURAX ("cure poison"). Most of them simply duplicate items in the game, like maps and torches, and the more powerful ones cost a lot of money.
  • A couple of enemies--wizards and demons, at least--can cast spells, which absolutely waste you (like -75% of your hit points) until you find the Mystic Helm, at which point the spells do nothing at all. Annoyingly, enemies who cast a spell still get a physical attack following the spell. It feels like the spell ought to have been their entire turn.

Ha, ha, demon!

In the last post, I had talked about the difficulties associated with methodically exploring a top-down, tile-based game world. This became a lot easier once I bought my first ship. Ships in The Ormus Saga don't work like they do in Ultima, in which you have to remember where you left it. Instead, ships here are just inventory items that you "board" any time you need them and apparently pocket the moment you hit land. Maybe your troops are meant to be portaging them or something. The upside is that once you have a ship, you can explore the map in fixed ribbons, occasionally having to move around a mountain peak.

Boarding a ship near an island temple.

Ships have a damage rating that doesn't have anything to do with actual damage (which doesn't exist; you can't fight ship battles in the game) and seems more like a simple counter of how many times you've boarded them. Every time you board, the condition goes down by 1. Eventually, you have to "repair" them in one of the harbor towns, which costs the same amount whether you're repairing 1 damage or 99 damage.

Let's see how she rates:

  • 2 points for the game world, which mostly clones Ultima. It's not hard to see Mondain in Morax or Mondain's Gem of Immortality in Morax's Gem of Power. I did like some of the little allusions in Ormus, such as the deceased hero Lord Thorn or the Dragonwars, but it never came to much. There might have been more in the original documentation.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There are no choices during creation. You have some traditional experienced-based leveling, but I never really felt that the character was getting more powerful from these level-ups.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. Talking with NPCs is a vital part of the game, but also a bit boring since you have no dialogue options and they're all menu-based, so there's no joy of finding that obscure NPC hidden behind a secret door.

Marox's counselor demonstrates a poor understanding of the term "secret plan."

  • 1 point for encounters and foes. Enemies in the game vary only by icon and hit points. A couple can cast a single damaging spell.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Both combat systems are just silly and offer no tactics whatsoever. The magic system is...there.
  • 3 points for equipment, a decent selection of weapons, armor, and shields of increasing benefit. There are other utility and artifact items that are fun to find.

Some of the special items in my late-game inventory.

  • 4 points for economy, a strong point in the game. With the need to constantly replenish troops, broken equipment, and spells, you never feel too rich. Rewards from exploration and combat seem pitched just about right.
  • 2 points for a main quest of multiple stages, but no side-quests or role-playing.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. I can't forgive the joystick-only interface, especially on a game designed for only one platform. The graphics are poor even for an Ultima clone, and there's no sound at all.
  • 1 point for gameplay. It gets that bit of credit for non-linearity, but the game is way too long for the experience that it offers.
I've declined to subtract points for the crashes and freezes just because I think those are more likely emulator issues than original programming issues. That gives a final score of 21, which seems a bit high to me, but then again, I did play it for 6 hours straight the other night, so it must have some appeal. The more important thing is that it's 13 points lower than the original Ultima from 10 years prior.

Online databases offer contradictory information about the game, and it's unclear where they're getting all of it. For instance, most sources give 1991 as the release data, but the only sure mechanism of publication that I've found is the August 1993 issue of Golden Disk 64. It's possible that the developer released it through independent channels before the diskmag release.

Everyone seems to agree that Mike Doran wrote the game, but some sources give a co-developer as Andrea Metzner. I haven't been able to track down either of them. I don't even know what nationality they are. The more important news from the online databases is that The Ormus Saga is actually a remake: Doran's first game seems to have been Ormus (1990), a more primitive, all-text version of The Ormus Saga. It offers dialogue via keywords, as in Ultima IV, rather than just an information dump. In the same way, Ormus II (1991) seems to be an earlier all-text version of The Ormus Saga II. There are other games, for which I've only seen pictures of the box, called Stories of Beryland I and II; I have no idea what the dates are on these, but they may just be compilations of the Ormus games.

Exploring Remfield in the original Ormus (1990).

I admire Doran's dedication to developing his setting, but I can't claim to be overly enamored with the result. I give a pass to independent games for not featuring the same quality of graphics and sound as their commercial counterparts, but there's less of an excuse for such primitive gameplay. The thing I expect most from independent games--from any games, really--is a sense of self-awareness. If you can only program menu towns (hell, menu dungeons), primitive combat, and half a dozen monster icons, fine--but you don't have a 10+ hour game. You have a 4-hour game. Don't give me Ultima I's complexity (less than that, really) and Ultima V's size and length. John Carmack is a good example of a developer who had this self-awareness and designed games (Shadowforge, Wraith, Dark Designs) that were about the right length, difficulty, and complexity given what he was able to program. The developers of Dragon Sword and The Ormus Saga are something of the opposite.

It's clear that The Ormus Saga II: Guild of Death (1993) and The Ormus Saga III: The Final Chapter (1994) are more advanced games (they seem to have explorable towns, at least), so in that sense I look forward to seeing how the games progress. In the meantime, perhaps someone will come along and tell me what I missed to win this one.

Time to devote myself entirely to Antares for a while.


  1. Heh. Is there any CRPG player out there who has never had this dream: some idiot NPC is about to send you to another superimportant (and super tedious) quest (this time to rescue his beloved pink underpants maybe) because he otherwise will not give you the fabled orb of dullness you need for whatever...and you, the player, simply decide to punch him in the face and take the ?!*%! thing from his corpse.

    I simply LOVE RPGs that allow this approach.

    1. I wish that were true here, but it's not. Killing NPCs doesn't reward you with their items. That would, I agree, be pretty cool.

  2. Ah, Golden Disk 64... I had a couple of those... It was very expensive for a boy back then.

    1. 19.80 DM. Considering inflation, that's about 15 € today. Crazy.

  3. Man. I'd like to play SOME of these older ones :) Not this one tho, but maybe... I'm so busy lately what with my youtube channel (almost 500 videos in 8 months :) I haven't played an old game in a long time. Thank you again for continuing to play these- I've been reading your blog for God knows how many years now and I would DIE without you!!

  4. The Ormus Saga II manual which I've linked to earlier lists Andrea Metzner as a co-creator of that game. It also has a German address for Mike Doran, though it looks like it's no longer valid. It says the game was in development for two years, so a publication date of 1991 for the first game seems likely. Perhaps they republished it on a disk mag to serve as promotion for the sequel.

    I found Stories of Beryland I (or at least its first disk), and it's the same game as Ormus I. The disk label says "Beryland Stories", the title screen "Ormus". They probably just relabeled that game to avoid confusion with The Ormus Saga.

    German distributor Data House was still advertising these games in May 1998 (!). Here's a image from the Go64! issue of that month: (I tried but failed to find an earlier mention. Whoever scanned 64'er magazine removed all advertisements...)

  5. The original Fallout games do armor both ways: a damage threshold stat determines how much damage an attack has to do in order to be able to penetrate, and a damage reduction stat determines how much of the damage is absorbed by the armor.

    1. AND a defense bonus on top of that.

    2. Oh yeah, it's been too long since I've read my own FAQ:

      There are actually 3 components, applied in order:
      1. Armor Class, which is the ability to completely deflect an attack (a la D&D).
      2. Damage Threshold, which reduces a non-deflected attack by a fixed amount.
      3. Damage Resistance, which further reduces a non-deflected attack by a percentage.

      What's also interesting is that ammo has various modifiers to some of the above, so they were able to implement things like armor-piercing ammo that is really good at punching into your armor but that otherwise does lower damage than conventional ammo.

    3. Kudos to writing your own FAQ. I could never muster that much dedication. Drop a hint or two, maybe. But a wholesale spread of information? I'd probably choose to shag a ghoul over that chore.

  6. Thanks for preserving with this one. I actually like the graphics, but not the gameplay. Funny that. I think you nailed it right on the head that the game has Ultima 1 complexity but Ultima 5 size.

    I have never understand games which give only one way to defeat an enemy. It seriously reduces replay value. If you have retaken all of Morax's cities and slaughtered his troops and looted his capitol, then he should be killing himself off like Hitler in the bunker. But maybe I am missing something...

    1. He's immortal. He can afford to just wait until you get bored and go home and then start it all over again.

    2. Or just wait until everything else around him dies and win the game.

  7. "Better armor seems to reduce damage rather than the likelihood of a hit. This makes sense to me, but almost all RPGs do it the other way."

    The reasoning for this in D&D (which most WRPGs simply lifted directly) is that the armor isn't making the enemy miss, it's causing them to bounce off harmlessly, meaning that it reduces the chance of an *effective* hit.

    Interestingly, most JRPGs (except for at lest one where armor just adds more HP/MP) have armor adding to the Defense/Magic Defense stat that reduces damage, and has a different set of items that increase misses.

    1. The reasoning for this lies in D&D's wargaming roots where it was enough to make just one roll on a table to see if anything happens. Hundreds of such rolls would happen in a single battle, so keeping it simple was paramount. The rationalization came later.

    2. Every version of the game I've ever touched (as far back as AD&D 1e) had this explanation in the DMG. It's possible that it wasn't present on OD&D, but I think it's older than you're implying.

    3. It's just game mechanics trying to ensure fun. Most medieval armor was more or left all or nothing, a single sword blow through a coat of chainmail and you were out of the fight. D&D modeled this, then added mounds of HP to enable heroes to get stabbed all day. Damage reduction enables the same. The trouble comes up in more modern settings where JRPG heroes tend to tank rounds from giant mecha where WRPGs tend to be more "dodge or get splattered".

    4. "Interestingly, most JRPGs (except for at lest one where armor just adds more HP/MP) have armor adding to the Defense/Magic Defense stat that reduces damage, and has a different set of items that increase misses."

      Right. In Squaresoft games, it tended to be armor reducing damage, while shields increase the chance of evading. If you have a character dual wielding weapons, he/she won't be evading much at all.

    5. Thinking about it, the "armor as damage reduction" not catching on in tabletop (and by extension WRPGs, which tried to hew very closely to the tabletop model as a marketing tool (CRPGs in the west were, after all, saw TTRPG players as natural market in a way that wasn't really obvious in Japan, where the hobby didn't root as well (as far as I know, anyway)) for a very long time) despite being a published variant is because the need to keep combat math as simple as possible kept the system from getting too complex (and thus stayed rather clunky); while games that divorced themselves from their tabletop roots and embraced the computer had no such need, and could make the system as granular as they wanted it to be without sacrificing playability.

    6. In Warhammer TT you have weapon skill (vs. armour) and strength (vs. toughness) that determine whether you hit and if you do any damage at all when you hit.

    7. Either WHFB changed a lot in the most recent edition or you're misremembering.

      WH compares weapon skill to weapon skill to determine hits, strength to toughness to determine whether the hit did damage, and then an armor roll (modified by attacker's strength) to determine whether the armor protects against the blow.

    8. The D&D approach makes a little more sense than damage reduction: a sword hitting plate armor shouldn't do 50% of a direct hit, it should do 0%. Not a perfectly realistic but good enough, and even in a video game where the computer does the dice rolling, it's nice to have simple, easy-to-understand numbers.

      D20 also makes some distinctions between AC from dodging vs AC from armor: armor provides no protection against certain attacks, but they can still be dodged, for example.

    9. @anonymous: But what if it's a mace? Even if the armor helps, you're probably still going to get a bruise.

    10. @Tristan Gall
      You're right I misremembered the rules as I haven't played WH for ages

      @HunterZ that would be entirely dependant on the type of armour worn, a plate mail would protect well against blunt weapons but not so well against pikes (Lucerne hammer etc.) or crossbows.
      A chain mail wouldn't protect against blunt or piercing at all for instance while both armour types would be somewhat equal against slashing weapons.

      However one must also take in to account that armour doesn't protect equally well on all parts of the body so hitting to chest with a mace would likely do nothing serious but arms or legs could be different.

      RP like D&D represent abstraction which is represented by HP and armour class, other games like role master or Hârn have pages on pages of extremely detailed rules and tables.
      Your call which type you prefer; realistic or abstract main difference is that in realistic games you favour ambushes and guile a lot more while abstract games favour "charge of the light brigade" type of approach to combat situation.

      Mainly because everyone hates losing characters prematurely unless it's part of the game.

    11. I think in this case we can attribute the different approach to cultural preference: the by far most popular Pen&Paper-RPG in Germany is "Das Schwarze Auge", which has armor working as damage reduction. Whether you hit an enemy or not depends on your attack action and his defense action (you must pass and he must fail).

    12. In early D&D different armor had different AC vs. slashing, piercing, and bludgeoning attacks. This was dropped as too complicated in play very quickly as you constantly has to reference a table.

  8. "Better armor seems to reduce damage rather than the likelihood of a hit. This makes sense to me, but almost all RPGs do it the other way."

    I think, nearly all of the RPGs with realtime action-based combat do it that way. TES series, "Mount & Blade" and others like them.

    1. Pretty sure that, up through Morrowind, armor reduced the chance of hitting as part of the famous "swords and arrows phasing through somebody because the attacker failed the attack roll" system that they got rid of for Oblivion.

    2. Well, hack & slash RPGs like Diablo are yet another category.

  9. I've started reading "The Eight-Bit Bard" based on a mention here. I didn't like it at first - the beginning seems too contrived, and the main character was a bit of a schmuck. However, as I'm getting farther into the book, I'm enjoying it. I expected a "laugh out loud" parody of classic RPGs, or maybe a Ready Player One with an RPG emphasis. The latter isn't too far off, but the writing is less subtle.

    I'm now reading it as a light-hearted treatise on developing memorable characters, whether for books, tabletop RPGs, or computer RPGs. The character development is great, the hero becomes much more likable after a while, and I like the central concept of RPG characters being real people and not just pawns of the player.

    There's also that cute CRPGAddict mention, along with something I didn't know - CanaGeek's secret identity, oh my!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Corey, I have a few questions:

      What do you think of the new King's Quest: Is it worthy of your company's best games, like Quest for Glory, Space Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Freddy Pharkas and the first Gabriel Knight, or the worst ones, like the King's Quest and Phantasmagoria series?

      Have you played the games I mentioned here: I think they have style and humor that should to fans of those old games, though they are definitely unique and original.

      How is the Two Guys from Andromeda's Kickstarter going? I love the Space Quest series and I want to see a modern version.

      Have you played the fan games Space Quest: Incinerations and Vohaul Strikes Back? They are worthy sequel that conclude the plot of the series, especially in the awesome ending if you get 100% in Incinerations. You worked on a couple of the old games according to Wikipedia, and I would like to see what you think of the fan games.

    4. For me and my non roleplaying wife there were quite a few laugh out loud moments. But also a nice mirror / magnifying glass to conventions and practices both as a game and a player that don't make much sense or are not very "heroic" if seen through a character's eyes. "Tryouts" anyone? - guilty as charged... :) (going through several first level characters and taking their starting equipment for an early boost, I remember that I did that in BT I and Wasteland for sure :) )

    5. Hi Obdurate. I haven't played the new King's Quest, probably won't get to it (about 20 or 30 games in my backlog, and I'd feel guilty spending much time on them when Hero-U is so far behind the original estimated release). I also have not played any of the other games you mentioned, sorry!

    6. The author, Mike Doran has a Facebook page here.

  10. Hi.
    As far as 'The Ormus Saga' is concerned, maybe I can clear up a few things.
    First, thanks to all you guys that played or are still playing the game after so many years and the interest and time you spent.
    I gave up programming RPGs a long time ago and I haven't played any rollplaying games in 15 years. I just didn't have time anymore.
    I never considered myself a professional programmer and TO series was never intended to be a game like other RPGs like the Ultima series.
    However, in late 80S there was a competition held by a German publisher and the best programs would get the programmer to win some money, so I offered them the game and it made it to the finals. After it had been published, the publisher asked if there was a second game available and we started to quickly program a
    sequel. So that's how ORMUS SAGA 1-3 were created.


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