"Role-playing with all of the tedious details and none of the fun" is how Computer Gaming World, in its November 1996 issue, described Disciples of Steel upon naming it the 48th "worst game of all time." Based on my playing so far, this review seems a little unfair. Disciples is a somewhat derivative game, sure, but sometimes that's what you want. 1990 and 1991 are full of games that over-reached; that eschewed traditional RPG mechanics only to offer something worse in their place. Consider the recent Antares, where almost every original deviation from its Bard's Tale roots was also kind of stupid. We need--or, more specifically, my blog needs--games like Disciples of Steel to provide occasional anchors.
Disciples of Steel, the only game from Texas developer MegaSoft, is at least original in one regard: it is the first non-SSI game that I can identify that is clearly inspired by SSI mechanics. The Gold Box series had managed to field 8 titles through 1991, and I've been waiting for other developers to start replicating its tactical combat mechanics. (In contrast, we've seen dozens of derivatives of Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and Dungeon Master.) But Disciples isn't based on the Gold Box. It is instead a love letter to an early, more complex predecessor: Wizard's Crown (1985). I gave up on Wizard's Crown early because of its difficulty and because I didn't know what I was doing during my first year (I'll give the game another chance when I swing back through 1985), but I never stopped admiring its dedication to details and statistics, even when they became a little overwhelming.
|Graphics have significantly improved, but I'm convinced that Disciples of Steel (below) is based directly on Wizard's Crown (above).|
I'm still in the process of researching the origins of Disciples. By all accounts in databases, it was released for the Atari ST in 1991 before getting a DOS port in 1993 or 1994. In this, it is a bit of an oddity. Almost all Atari ST releases on my list also have Amiga releases, and by 1991 the platform was already waning in popularity, particularly among U.S. developers. (The majority of RPGs released for the ST after 1990 are from European developers.) One suspects that the company realized it had bet on the wrong horse after a lukewarm original release and scrambled to port the game to a more popular platform over the next couple of years.
|A warrior enjoys an open fire in his house as the game begins.|
I'm playing the DOS version even though the time between ports gave me a few pangs. When I fired up the game and saw the opening screens (YouTube link) with animated graphics and fully-voiced (if badly-acted) audio, it seemed more indicative of a 1993 or 1994 game than 1991. However, apparently these things were present in the 1991 version as well. This isn't quite a first, although it might be the first RPG with voiced audio of this length. It seems to be more common in 1991, and it's hard to say what titles were released first. In any event, I had trouble with the ST files, and judging by online video and descriptions, the gameplay elements seem similar enough to the DOS version that I'm still getting an authentic 1991 experience by playing it.
When I saw the game coming up on my blog, I assumed it would be futuristic or post-apocalyptic. I must have had the Brotherhood of Steel on my mind. In fact, it's set in a fairly generic high fantasy kingdom. A combination of the manual text and the introductory screens set up the story. The game takes place among the nine kingdoms of Lanathor, historically at war with each other. Twelve years ago, a greater threat emerged: a horde of orcs and goblins gathered in the Unthar mountains on the border to the kingdom of Rathadon. Three of the kingdoms united and commissioned a hero named Ustfa Nelor to deal with the threat. He, in turn, formed an elite army called the Disciples of Steel. His campaign destroyed the army and sent King Krighton Krigg of Rathadon fleeing. It was a Pyrrhic victory, as only 11 of Nelor's men survived, and all of them (including Nelor) disappeared on the return journey.
The manual casts the player as Nelor's step-son, convinced he is the Chosen One who will unite all the kingdoms and drive out the evil for good. His high opinion of himself is bolstered when, one night while he's at home polishing his sword, an old seer comes to his door. This part is animated and voiced in the game's introductory screens. "It is time for the Disciples of Steel to rise once again," she rasps. "You and those like you have been chosen. You must triumph where your ancestors have fallen!" With a "behold!" she shows an image of an army marching into the mountains to confront some sort of demon mage who either threatens the seer (DOS version) or proclaims that the world is his (Atari ST version).
Character creation is fairly boilerplate, although the game errs on the side of plenty in the number of races and classes. You pick from human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, gnome, halfling, ogre, and troll races, all with the typical strengths, weaknesses, and class restrictions. Classes are warriors, knights, priests, mages, illusionists, rogues, monks, rangers, and blacksmiths. Attributes are strength, intelligence, wisdom, intuition, constitution, charm, and luck. (The manual insists that "dexterity" is important for warriors and knights and then doesn't offer dexterity as an attribute; I assume this was changed to accuracy late in the game.) The party allows for eight characters, so you can have one of every race but not one of every class. I eschewed the monk. I like finding and upgrading weapons and armor too much to support someone who fights without them. This is the first game in my chronology (I think) to emphasize "illusionist" as a gnomish specialty.
Attributes are on a scale of around 40-110; the lowest roll I saw was 42 and the highest was 103. The game rolls these for you, although you can re-roll indefinitely. One thing I noticed is that the game randomly sets the character's age before rolling the stats. The manual notes that certain races only live to certain maximum ages, and if you weren't paying attention, you could easily end up with a character just a few years shy of that age. Unfortunately, to reject an age you have to discard the character and start over.
|Rolling a character. The game has made my human priest 98 years old, meaning he's likely to just keel the moment I create him. I'd better start over.|
After you accept the attributes, "a complex relationship between various statistics and the disciple's class" determines where he or she stands in 11 skills: armor, shield, dodge, edge weapons, crushing weapons, axes, spears, bows, open hand, tracking, and hiding. You finish by selecting the portrait. The overall character creation process is quite long and took me almost an hour for my eight-character party:
- Simoana, a female human knight
- Boanergo, a male ogre warrior
- Didymus, a male half-elf ranger
- Steuermann, a male elf rogue
- Nialphe, a female halfling mage
- Thaddaeus, a male gnome illusionist
- Fanatica, a female human priest
- Octavianus, a male dwarf blacksmith
|The new disciples.|
Finally, before you embark, the game has you arrange the characters in a default formation, including both position and facing. I did my best, but naturally I'll want to edit this as I discover more about combat.
Characters start with no gold and a small selection of basic weapons and armor suitable to their classes. Gameplay begins on a road near a castle.
|The party embarks.|
I spent quite a bit of time wandering around the castle trying to figure out how to actually get in--more on that in a bit--and in doing so triggered my first combat with a group of "jabberlings."
|Has any player ever chosen "beg for mercy" on a screen like this?|
I'll naturally have more on combat when I have some more experience with it, but in brief terms anyone familiar with Wizard's Crown or Shard of Spring, perhaps even the Gold Box titles, would understand it with little problem. Each character and each monster moves according to an initiative order and can do things like attack, defend, and cast. If you cast a spell, you choose how much power to put into it; I can't remember if this was an option in Wizard's Crown, but it was by the time of Shard of Spring and Demon's Winter.
Each body part has an individual armor class and takes individual damage; it appears that attacks that overcome the armor will then cause injury and "bleeding" damage that characters must heal (each character has a different first aid skill level). Actions like moving, attacking, healing, and casting expend movement points, which are dependent on attributes and encumbrance. SSI is the only other developer I can think of (so far) to feature this "movement points" system in combat, and they got rid of it for the Gold Box games to adhere to D&D rules.
|Attacking in melee combat.|
|And casting a spell.|
The fight against the jabberlings took surprisingly long. At first, it looked like there was only one of them, but later I realized there were a lot more off-screen. A few of my characters were wounded and their armor damaged, but after combat I found a few silver and copper pieces and a handful of armor pieces that lent upgrades to my characters. I only got 13 experience points for the combat, but even that's enough to add a point or two to some of my skills.
|One of a small number of games where you spend experience points directly on skills. The second column has my current level and the first has the number of points needed for the next level.|
Something became clear in combat: the controls are going to be a bit of a nightmare. The game theoretically supports an all-keyboard interface, but the way the commands work is inconsistent. In some places, you hit the initial letter of your choice (e.g., [V]iew character), but in others you have to arrow through commands and hit ENTER to activate them. Even using the mouse, the choice of commands isn't always clear. It was late in combat before I realized that you could right-click on characters to get a full list of commands. In the wilderness, right-clicking on the party ended up being the mechanism to enter a city.
The manual doesn't document the commands, or anything, very well. The "combat" section lasts two pages, and the actual mechanics of combat, like moving and attacking, are described in general terms in just two paragraphs. Perhaps there was some additional document that came with the game that I haven't discovered.
|Equipping some new items.|
Anyway, after combat, I had my blacksmith fix my damaged armor, equipped the new armor I'd picked up, and then headed into the city of Farnus, capital of the kingdom of Farnus, one of the nine kingdoms. The others, I should mention, are Tobruk, Rathadon, Delinor, Constantium, Denias, Sesserna, DeMata, and...Serbia. (Serbia was still part of Yugoslavia in 1991, and rarely mentioned in American media before 1992, so perhaps it sounded archaic and exotic to the creators.) Anyway, Farnus is named in the manual as the most powerful of the kingdoms, although a lot of people seem to think that King Leonidas Krassus is too old and too benevolent and his son, Aaron, is weak. Farnus has been at war with Serbia for some time, with both countries trying to control the Mithril-rich Sellenist River. Attempts to ally with Constantium have failed because the emissaries keep getting assassinated.
|Getting the first quest.|
In the palace, the king--who didn't look very old to me--gave me my first quest: find a survivor of the Battle of Unthar, rumored to be living in the city of Teal to the southeast. I'm to find him and any information about the fate of Ustfa Nelor.
The largish city also included a shipwright, a weapons shop, an armor shop, a temple, and the Disciples of Steel guild. In the latter, you can store and retrieve money, food, and water; rest; and get "spy reports" indicating the population and military composition of the current city. This is fairly cool, although the report for Farnus alone, detailing each unit, was 40 pages. The manual promises a whole mechanic by which you can raise armies and attack cities, assassinate leaders, and otherwise bring kingdoms under your control, and I assume this intelligence will be important for that purpose.
|Couldn't I just have them all in one spreadsheet or something?|
The screens that accompany each location are animated, and some of them include sound. For instance, at the weapons shop, an animation shows a blacksmith pounding a weapon on an anvil, with accompanying clangs. We've seen animation in shops going all the way back to The Bard's Tale, but it's still pretty rare and better done here than in any game I can remember.
|The animation even has the glow level of the sword increase and decrease|
There were no NPCs or any special encounters within the city--probably true of all cities--so I did wish after a while that the developers had just made it a menu town instead of requiring so much walking. At least you can leave the town by just right-clicking on the party and choosing "Leave."
|Wandering around the large city.|
I didn't have enough money to dramatically increase my equipment, so I decided to rely on what I had and head southeast in search of Teal. Within four steps, I came to a large body of water, so it's not going to be as easy as I'd hoped. About two steps after that, I got surprised by a group of assassins and thugs who killed my entire party in the first round. Wow. I guess the jabberlings had let me a little complacent.
|How am I fighting enemies of this difficulty this fast?|
Upon full-party death, the game gives you "a glimpse of Hell," which seems a little unfair to my nobly-intended party. Then it returns you to the game screen, but you can't move or do anything because everyone is dead. You either need to reload or dump party members and make new ones.
|Adding to the confusion, I have no idea what the things in the lower-right corner are telling me.|
I think I'll close there, but there are a lot of game elements that I haven't covered that hint at a deeper game. I'm not sure how spell points work, exactly--each spellcaster seems to have a pool, divided into "karma" (priests), "essence" (mages), and "power" (illusionists), but they also seem limited in the number of spells they can cast per combat round. There's a food and water system, and the whole business of controlling cities that I don't yet understand. Dungeons apparently use an entirely different, first-person interface. Disciples of Steel promises to be a fairly large, long game.