Saturday, February 13, 2016

Disciples of Steel: Final Rating


Disciples of Steel
United States
MegaSoft Entertainment (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for Atari ST; 1993 for DOS
Date Started: 3 December 2015
Date Ended: 8 February 2016
Total Hours: 94
Reload Count: 52
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 57
Ranking at Time of Posting: 201/208 (97%)

Think about the different RPG eras in terms of the key questions of the time. In the early days (c. 1978-1983), that key question was, "How do we best adapt tabletop RPG mechanics to the computer?" Dozens of titles stood up and said, "Like this!" The best of them--the Wizardry series, the Ultima series, some of SSI's early efforts--advanced to the front of the class. Some of those that didn't make it to the forefront were a mess--fundamentally misunderstanding what was engaging about RPGs--and many introduced mechanics that simply didn't work in the long run.

In the late 1980s, the question changed to, "How can we improve upon the success of Wizardry (or Ultima, or any other previous successful title)?" And again, dozens of developers responded with their own answers. We fondly remember the best of them: Ultima's own sequels, Might & Magic, Dungeon Master, and Pool of Radiance. Again, there were a lot that we don't remember because their answers didn't make sense. We just saw that with Xyphus.

So what was the framing question of the early 1990s? Keep in mind that we've entered an era of hard drives, CD-ROMs, improved hardware for graphics and sound, and memory measured in megabytes instead of kilobytes. I think the key question developers faced was, "What are we going to do with all this extra stuff?" Consumers were demanding games that met the potential of available technology, and developers had a number of ways to respond, including greatly expanded content, better graphics, better sound, more detailed mechanics, and more complex artificial intelligence.

Disciples of Steel feels like a game in which the developers started with Wizard's Crown in mind (although I'm not ready to give up on the idea that they'd been exposed to Knights of Legend, Sword of Aragon, or both), asked the question, threw a bunch of ideas on the board, and tried to implement all of them at once with only the slightest coordination.

The resulting package is intriguing, excellent at times, but oddly disjointed and incomplete. We have fully-voiced audio for a few seconds in the opening screens (the first time I've ever seen this in a PC RPG, although I haven't played a lot of 1980s titles yet) and never again. We have high-quality animation for the opening, a nonsensical final scene, and a few shops in between, but never where it really matters. We have a fully-designed strategy game combat mechanic that hardly ever gets used unless you already know what you're doing. There are hundreds of evocative, atmospheric text messages as you explore--and hundreds of spelling errors. There are three ways to end the game--something you hardly ever see in this era--and yet no real ending.
Seriously, what was this about?
To be a fan of Disciples of Steel--and I am an unequivocal fan--is to forgive an awful lot of things that just don't work. There's a food and water meter that never budges, conversation options with NPCs that never tell you anything, a "search" function in the dungeon that never finds anything, "parley" options that never work, skills and spells that have no use, an unnecessary theft mechanic, an unnecessary haggling mechanic, a mechanism for setting the formation of your characters that doesn't matter because enemies are always scattered randomly when combat starts. As much as I liked the tactical combat, I was never able to get the hide/backstab mechanic to work, nor do I understand why there's a "search" option and the ability to pick up dropped treasure in the middle of a battle. I forgot until the end of the game that you can actually change which part of the enemy's body you target; it turns out that you have an equal chance of hitting each body part, so the head (the default) makes the most sense anyway.

And yet, despite failing in so many things that it tried to do, Disciples of Steel performs excellently in the core areas that make a good RPG: tactical combat, magic, equipment, character development, and quests. I'm hard-pressed to think of a single game previously in my chronology that gets as many things right as Disciples. Perhaps the Gold Box games come closest, but they lack the satisfaction of Disciples character development system, and they have a far worse economy.

Complete non-sequitur. I just like this image. The text makes it sound like "The Balor" is the name for this section of the hallway.
In content, Disciples also excels. I love that the game world is so open at the outset, allowing you to blunder into difficult areas before you're ready, allowing you to solve quests before they've been given (although this introduces its own problems if you don't know to keep the quest item). I thought the expedition-and-return quest system was excellent, as well as the way each kingdom had its own questline that integrated well with the backstory. I wish there had been more meaningful choices and more ways to role-play factions or choose sides in disputes, but you can't have everything. The game does offer you the option to just overthrow every kingdom--or ignore the kingdoms entirely and head right for the final dungeon--if you want to make an extreme choice.

The GIMLET is thus going to be a mixed bag. I expect that it will score high in the end, but let's see.

1. Game World. Disciples follows the lead of the best games of the 1980s by setting up the game world in a detailed manual and then following through with in-game events and characters that make sense given the backstory. It does a good job giving a different "character" to each kingdom on Lanathor and setting the events of the game in motion. I'm also giving credit here to all of the flavorful on-screen text descriptions that make the otherwise-bland dungeon corridors seem interesting.

But as with most things, it doesn't do it perfectly. In particular, "Variz" comes out of nowhere, and his relationship to Rathadon is unclear until the end. (The "forces of Rathadon" are given as the game's antagonists, but the king of Rathadon doesn't seem to be aware of Variz's existence.) Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. Simply excellent. You start with the usual race/sex/class templates, but through the skill systems, you can essentially define who you want your characters to be. For instance, you can load up your warriors with armor and put a lot of points into that skill or keep them lithe and put your efforts into "dodge." Mages can specialize in bows and hang back on the battlefield, or you can give them points in edged weapons and armor and make them battlemages. Any class can develop skills in any school of magic, and the different magic systems mean that each character has a stronger sense of role. The ability to dump experience directly into skills (and attributes, though I never did that) means that development is constant and palpable.

I'm also a big fan of the way experience is earned, by successful action rather than just kills. It's a joy to watch the effects as your skills increase: more attacks per round, more spells per round, more damage, increased frequency of critical hits and stunning, and characters who dodge and block attacks instead of getting eviscerated by them. Until the advent of games where classes really make a role-playing difference and we start to see perks and special abilities, I can't imagine a better system. I was disappointed when the game ended because I hadn't gotten all my characters to their target skills. Score: 7.

3. NPC Interaction. Alas, a weak spot. The various lords serve as NPCs, as do some of the shopkeepers, who will occasionally have a useless bit of dialogue. While some of these NPCs were unique and memorable, a couple of dialogue options would have gone a long way towards cementing Disciples in the "great" category. Score: 3.

I kind of liked this guy.
4. Encounters and Foes. In addition to NPC dialogue, a major deficiency of Disciples in encounters. While I appreciate the pre-combat dialogue that precedes many of the key battles, there really is never anything to do on these screens but fight or run ("threaten" sometimes works, but "be amicable," never). Except at the macro-level (do the quests or conquer the kingdoms by force), there are no meaningful role-playing options.
Monsters are about as varied as a Gold Box title but with fewer defenses ("Power Word: Stun" shouldn't work against everyone) and no descriptions at all in the manual. Score: 4.

5. Magic and Combat. SSI had the best tactical combat systems, and Disciples of Steel is the first non-SSI game that seems to recognize that. Throughout the entire game--nearly 100 hours of gameplay--I never got sick of the combat system until the final dungeon, where the sheer number started to overwhelm me. And right then, I got "Wrath of God."

The combats in this game are either easy--in which case your characters satisfyingly mow through the enemies and finish in seconds--or quite hard--in which case you have the satisfaction of plotting detailed tactics. The magic system is excellently balanced; there are extremely powerful spells, but you need time (or expensive mushrooms) to recharge after casting them. I think part of the satisfaction of combat comes from the skill development system; even when slaying the lowliest, most pathetic orc, you know that you just earned a couple of dozen points to channel into your favored skill.

A few days ago, I might have tried to argue that Disciples of Steel is the best game to occupy this category so far in my chronology. But upon reflection, I still have to give a slight edge to the Gold Box series. First, Disciples lacks the interesting buffing spells that are important to the combat tactics in other games. Second, while there are a small number of items to use, we don't have the more robust wand/potion/scroll/grenade options that SSI gave us in the Gold Box. Still, it comes awfully close. Score: 7.
You don't scare me, Air Elemental.
6. Equipment. As I pointed out in my post on the topic, I really like games that give you lots of items to equip and use, and Disciples offers more than most, with separate items for the head, body, arms, and legs, as well as melee weapons, shields, missile weapons, ammunition, rings, potions, and occasional special magic items like Phasecloaks and Boots of Speed. The "quality" and "condition" dynamics added an additional complexity.

Disciples is one of the earliest games to introduce us to a dilemma that we still see today: plenty of shops sell good gear, but it's so much more satisfying to loot it from the battlefield. And while the locations of artifact items are fixed, it's not impossible to find a Potion of Strength or some other major boon among the detritus from a random battle.

I wish there had been more weapons with special effects (e.g., nothing does fire damage or increases the odds of a critical hit), and better item descriptions, but in general this was a very satisfying part of the game. Score: 6.

Some of my warrior's late-game gear.
7. Economy. If there's one area in which Disciples blows past the Gold Box titles, here it is. The economy in the game is actually meaningful. You get money from solving quests, looting opponents, selling gear, and setting taxation rates in conquered cities. You can even put unused mage points into "Lead to Gold." On the "spend" side of the equation, we have a variety of equipment and transportation, item repair, healing, the all-important mushrooms, and...oh, yes...the ability to raise, equip, and field vast armies.

As I reported in my last postings, I didn't fully engage the economy and thus couldn't take advantage of the "army" options, but I'm glad it's there and it would be fun to go that way on a replay. Score: 7.

8. Quests. A truly fun set of individual quests of varying length and difficulty, all culminating toward a main quest with several options for ending it. I supposed technically you could ignore all the questlines and just go kill Variz in his dungeon, but to me this kind of flexibility only enhances the game. There are even a few side-dungeons with valuable items to explore on your own time. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The animated graphics on the encounter and shop screens are attractive. I thought the iconographic views were less interesting but by no means bad. Sound effects are sparse but well-composed and fun. I mostly had no problem with the interface, but I did have some complaints, including the inability to use the keyboard fully on some menus and the necessity of having to acknowledge every critical hit in combat. I give an extra point for the voiced introduction. The dungeon's automap works great--perhaps the first one we've seen that didn't make me feel like I also had to map things manually. Score: 6

Simple animations accompany most encounter and shop screens.
10. Gameplay. Back to "excellent" territory again. Vast, open, nonlinear, and challenging, I thought the game struck the perfect chord here. Yes, at the beginning, when I didn't know if it was ever going to get better, I found the combat a little too hard. But at the end, I don't really mind having gone through the experience. (Creating a patch to start characters with 1,000 experience points was a good idea.) It falls short of a perfect score by being a bit too long, but it scores high on the "replayability" scale; I'd enjoy trying it again with different class/skill combinations and making better use of the army options. Overall, it ties with other games for the highest score I've ever given: 8.

This gives us a subtotal of 59. That would be the seventh-highest score I've ever awarded, and the highest in almost two years. But what do I do with all of those bugs? What do I do with the horribly unsatisfying ending? What do I do with the manual, whose writer ought to have been quartered for failing to explain so much about such a complicated game? What do I do with the time limit, which was long enough for me but apparently was sprung upon many hapless players without warning?

On the other side, what do I do about the strategy game add-on? I managed to make it through the entire GIMLET without event talking about it. Disciples is a perfectly satisfying RPG without it, but we can't ignore that there's an optional strategy game lurking in the background, with the same sorts of considerations of equipment, training, and unit composition as excellent RPG-strategy hybrids like Sword of Aragon. (A lack of in-battle magic use makes Disciples not quite as good, but still.) That such large and complex mechanic is offered and made optional is almost baffling.
I barely explored this game-within-a-game.
(Aside: the basic problem with the strategic combat in Disciples is that there are no small battles. To overthrow any of the kingdoms, or even their ancillary cities, you have to raise, equip, and train a couple dozen units at no small expense. There is therefore no way to "ramp up" to this part of the game.)
In the end, the positives don't quite equal the negatives, and I've got to hack off a couple of points. Two should do it. A final score of 57 keeps it in my Top 10 but puts it between Might & Magic II (which I agree I liked more) and Champions of Krynn (which I agree I liked slightly less).
If the quality of the manual was part of my GIMLET, Disciples would get a 0. The army combat system and options aren't mentioned at all. It has a section called "World Inhabitants" that most games would use to list each monster, but Disciples only has a paragraph saying, "They're all dangerous. Be careful."
However much I subtracted, Disciples of Steel definitely does not deserve a place among the "worst RPGs of all time," and Computer Gaming World's designation in that category, without having published a preceding review, was shameful. It was a decision made by someone who played the game for a few minutes rather than a few hours. They didn't even get the facts of the game right; they list it as a 1993 title and give its publisher as FormGen, which was simply the Canadian distributor.

[Edit from 02/14/2016: I was wrong in the paragraph above. As covered in the comments, CGW did review Disciples of Steel, in the July 1994 issue. Reviewer Petra Schlunk wasn't able to finish the game in time for the review. She complained about the inadequate manual--a perfectly valid complaint--and the game's detailed logistics, which she compared to "micromanaging." Like me, she had trouble with combat at the beginning. She noted the similarities to the Gold Box titles but seems to have completely overlooked the Wizard's Crown base. The overall review is negative: "Statistics are the best thing about this game, but only those looking for a 'stat-o-matic' role-playing game will be satisfied with the assiduous attention to uninspiring detail in Disciples of Steel."]
I haven't been able to find a single contemporary review of Disciples, which makes me wonder how widely MegaSoft distributed or advertised it. [Edit: see the comments for a couple, including a positive one.] Judging by the company's appearance in some computing magazines in the mid-1980s, and its location in a retail area of tiny Webster, Texas, it appears that the company was a brick-and-mortar computer store that entered the publication business for this one title (although it's possible that there were other non-game titles).
The two principals on the game--coordinator Kevin Henderson and programmer Martin Kruse--have no other credits. Graphic artist Patrick Wilson appears later on Daggerfall and some 2000s action games, and game tester Sean Clark has a bunch of later titles as an executive. But these are common names and MobyGames has a way of conflating people with the same name, so I'm not entirely sure that it's the same Wilson and Clark on all the later titles. [Edit: By e-mail, Kevin Henderson told me that these must be different people; the Wilson and Clark from Disciples never worked on other games.] In any event, they're only credited on the DOS version. None of the graphic and sound artists on the original ST version have other credits.
If any game deserves a sequel that could build upon the lessons learned from its predecessor, it's Disciples of Steel, and the title screen, calling it "the first tale" of the Chronicles of CyHagan, suggests that one was planned. I'd love to find out what the developers had in mind for it. Kevin Henderson commented briefly on a "let's play" at RPGCodex a few years ago; his profile indicates that he was 22 when Disciples was published. I did some searching for both him and Martin Kruse, but I wasn't able to identify them among many other people of the same names, so I can only hope that they eventually find my posts the same way they found the RPGCodex thread [Ed. And, of course, they did!].
Thus ends our two-month journey into this flawed-but-amazing overlooked game--the very sort of game that I started this project hoping to find. But now I'm ready for a slightly shorter title; if Vengeance of Excalibur is the same scope as its predecessor it should qualify.


Further reading: Check out my coverage of the game that inspired Disciples' character development system and combat mechanics: Wizard's Crown (1985).


  1. Well, that was an interesting ride...

    I would guess that the game creators had lots of different influences, they played quite a few of the games you also played on this blog, and tried to combine it all into a single game. It might have exceeded their capabilities here and there, but overall, they succeeded.

  2. This has been one of the few games that I have been tempted to boot up after reading your posts.

    "To be a fan of Disciples of Steel--and I am an unequivocal fan--is to forgive an awful lot of things that just don't work."

    I think that is almost the definition of a fan :) The vast majority of games have some combination of loose ends or bugs or strange design choices or strategic imbalances. To be a fan is to forgive these things and let ourselves be hooked.

  3. I noticed "Adventure" in your list. I was wondering how a CRPG'ed version of Colossal Cave could possible work, but it seems it's just an unauthorized version of Eamon:

    1. It's a complete ripoff. I've already written my review.

  4. MobyGames has a way of conflating people with the same name

    To be fair, anyone attempting the unforgiving feat has similar troubles. In the early days the site trend was for lumping; now it is for splitting unless you know with 100% certainty, which leads to an equal but opposite problem. Ultimately the only ones who know for sure are the employers and the employees, and not enough of them are bothering to help us set the record straight.

    1. Fair enough. I didn't mean that to be criticism. I've had enough trouble merging two datasets of people when I had dates of birth and other identifiers, so I can only imagine how hard it is when all you have is a first and last name--and half these developers had nicknames.

    2. The only smoking gun really is if they went on to work on more games for the same company 8)

    3. There's also UK Steve Jackson and the US Steve Jackson who experienced mistaken identity; since both worked with Ian Livingstone and are in the same gaming industry, until each grew to be giants in their own right.

  5. Love the insight early on in this update regarding what CRPG developers were aiming for depending on the period. It's one of my favorite aspects of chronological gaming projects like yours and others out there: by going through each year's releases so thoroughly, the author can clearly see what was trending at the time and have a decent idea why.

    Also, for as much as you ended up liking this game, I'm guessing you're a little relieved that it's finally over too? I notice it's made your "longest played" list along with "highest rated". Given the increasing length of RPGs in the 90s, I don't imagine it'll stay on there for long either.

    1. I could have stood another 10-12 hours. I'm glad it's over for the sake of my blog, but I wasn't "tired of it" by the end.

  6. This game would likely have been much better known if the Atari ST had sold better in the US. To port the game only to MSDOS (and too late, at that) from the Atari ST seems like an odd move. I wonder who made that questionable decision.

    1. I'm not sure what you mean. Hadn't DOS pretty much taken over by the early 1990s? I suppose they could have ported to the Amiga--it seems like the Amiga and the Atari ST shared almost every game in this era--but DOS actually seems like a logical decision to me, particularly in the U.S. market.

    2. It's not that the game was ported to MSDOS, its that it took so long to do it. In 1991 the Atari ST was a very niche platform in the US (not the case in Europe I think) to release an exclusive on.

      As you point out, MSDOS was dominant by 1991 and the three-year delay to port the game to MSDOS is the questionable part for me.

      I was just wondering what took them so long and by the time it was released I'm sure it was seen as terribly dated, hence the terrible reviews it received. A 1991-era game was a very different animal than a 1994-era game, as we'll all eventually find out once you hit that point.

    3. Ah, thank for clarifying. That makes sense. I hope I can eventually get in touch with the developers to clarify.

    4. It used to boggle me when I went into game and in the budget section I would see defender of the crown(1986) at the same time that diablo (1996) had made it to the budget shelves. That was certainly after diablo 2 itself had been released.
      As for Europe, imo amiga and atari were equal and ahead of the pc until about 1991, atari fell behind, then pc edged ahead in 1992, then pc killed off both irrevocably with doom in 1993.

    5. Very well put, I think. That was my experience. I played Doom, and my Amiga had to go (the slow death of Commodore had been a part of it also).

    6. Very well put, I think. That was my experience. I played Doom, and my Amiga had to go (the slow death of Commodore had been a part of it also).

    7. If I had to take a guess, if say it was written art home by one person without a good grasp of the overall industry.

  7. I may be slightly confused, but you mention not being able to find a "single contemporary review" and that Computer Gaming World excoriated it "without having published a preceding review." But CGW does have a full review in issue 120 (July 1994)--negative, certainly, but one that seems like a not-entirely-unfair take on the same game you describe.

    All of which brings up my real question: What was the release history of Disciples? You've got it down as a 1991 game, for what I assume are good reasons, but between that CGW review, the Mobygames listing, and even the copyright information in the manual of the first version I could find, it appears to have come out in the '93 or '94 period. Was that a rerelease by a separate publisher? This may have been explained already, but I appear to have missed it.

    (This release date, I think, also explains CGW's review to a large extent--in a post-Ultima VII, Betrayal at Krondor, Darklands, etc. era, I can see how Disciples might seem dated. We can look back now and assess what sorts of gameplay and what style of graphics stand the test of time, but context is important as well.)

    All that said, this was a fascinating series and I'm genuinely pleased you found a gem. You were sounding a bit jaded for a while, so if Disciples revives your enthusiasm, then we can be grateful for its existence! Looking forward to your take on Vengeance of Excalibur.

    1. Ah, okay. I'm an idiot. It says right at the top of the page: Released 1991 for Atari ST; 1993 for DOS. So it's the original Atari reviews that seem to have faded from history...

    2. Damned, you are right. There _is_ a review in CGW, and I earlier wrote that they didn't review it. I must have missed it since I treated the game as a 1991 game, and CGW didn't review it until 1994.

    3. 1993 for DOS? The only review I know as well is from German magazine PC Player, also mid-94, stating that "the program would have been quite exciting 6 years ago on the C64"; Freed has said all there is to say about context. As I only knew about Disciples because of that review, I did not exactly expect your reports to be so favorable. Well, yet another discovery which likely would not have been made without this project. And it would appear that some of its unusual design decisions might be worth to take a second look at...

    4. Yeah, I was completely wrong about CGW not having covered it. I made a correction in the text above.

      I don't understand the quotes that found the game "dated." The cut-scene animations are as good as anything else I've seen through 1991, and the rest of the graphics are on-par with the Gold Box titles. Reviewers are just jerks sometimes.

  8. Sorry, posted in the wrong spot, then deleted the wrong response...

    When I played DOS way back in 1994, I thought it had a better, more flexible class system then the Gold box games, held back by a interface that I felt was inferior (Possibly unfair, I had played every Gold box game to that point and knew it by heart.) a useless manual, and then ruined by running into the time limit.

    I will add that while the tactical system was good, one advantage of the Gold Box games was the thought that went into the nature of the specific combat scenarios. For example, decades later, I still remember the Kobold fights vividly in POR, I don't remember anything similar in DOS. Imagine if the enemies were randomly distributed in the map in any classic gold box game.

    But...Now if I were to try this game again, (And I will, I'm curious if the time limit found here is the same, I could have sworn I had less time.) a LOT of the problems in the game would be eliminated. The reviews at the time were harsh, but in fairness to them I suspect had the Addict been playing back in 1991 before the internet as we know it was around he might well have got stuck and been unable to complete the game. (Having said that, it seems no contemporary review ever got that far.) In any case, this series of reviews should prepare those who want to give this game a fair shake, maybe even try some of the strategic options he did not have time to do.

    Well done.

    1. I'm a little baffled by the time limit. Time passes SLOW in the game. I ended it with at least 6 months to spare and I didn't really do much to save time: I trekked all around the continent, kept forgetting to cast that horse spell, spent a lot of time waiting in dungeons for spell points to recharge, and repaired my own equipment. Maybe they extended it from the original version or something.

    2. That thought occurred to me, there are definitely different versions out there, some with the 1000 bonus xp points, apparently they have a functional food and water system etc. Increasing the time limit would seem to be trivial, so its possible. I may pass time like you did to see if I get the same result.

    3. Back in the day, I wasted a lot of time travelling to places I should not have gone. Taking in the non-scripted freedom, as it were. There was no hint of a time limit until it was too late. Easy to avoid, if I only knew.

    4. For future players, a thing to watch out for w/rt the time limit is haggling. I built a (blacksmith) char with haggle and dutifully used her 2 to 3 times when selling loot, but then I got the "whisper" warning that I had less than a year left; after that, I watched how/when time advanced and saw that haggling could end up costing you a lot of time (one time, selling around 60 items took over a week(!) in game time).

  9. Well done on Disciples of Steel! It sounds like a little more polish would have made it a truly epic adventure. It's too bad the source code for the game isn't available to fix those few issues. The multiple unique endings make me want to play it (having a toddler, there's no way I can devote 100 hours to a game though, so at least I was able read about it!).

    Concerning the ending scene, perhaps that knight outside the castle wall shot made sense if you waited for the army to attack? And the developers just ran out of time to make 3 different ending sequences?

    It has been a while since I last commented but not because I haven't wanted to! I was perpetually 2-3 posts behind, which meant the conversation had long moved on by the time I could comment. You had said several posts ago that you would slow things down a bit so posts could be more consistent, to keep the blog from becoming a chore, and to have discussions last longer. Others may feel differently but the change will help me (and I'm sure others with young kids) be a bigger part of your commenting community.

    1. Glad to hear it. Though I haven't noticed the number of comments increase appreciably since the change. Comment quantity overall hasn't recovered since my fall hiatus.

    2. I think the post quantity has gone down owing to the recent games being a bit more esoteric. Most people whose searches point to this blog will know Ultima or Wizardry, but I've never heard of Disciples of Steel before you covered it, so I don't have a lot to constructively say.

    3. Could be right, can comment generally but not on specific parts of a game if we haven't played it. The last game I played on the list was death knights of krynn back in august (about my 45th game i've played out of addicts 211 so far). Disciples is possibly only the 3rd game I've wanted to play just because of the addict, the others being omega and star command.

  10. Webster, Texas is right next door to Interstel, which in 1989 under Trevor C. Sorensen was creating one of the greatest real-time open-world games of all time: Star Fleet II: Krellan Commander. For all its brilliance, much like Disciples of Steel, there were bugs and whole parts of the game that never worked. For instance, you could never do an intruder defense scenario because the Starfleet marines would never board you, even if you lowered your shields and signaled surrender. I suspect that there is some relationship there between the two companies, the dates and location can't be a coincidence.

  11. I found only this review from 1992.

    Its from UK magazine ST Format issue 33 - April 1992.

    1. Thanks. I'm glad you found this, because it lends credence to the 1991 release date for the ST version. A generally positive review.

    2. I was curious about the debate on the game never being reviewed (except once above, and once by CGW) so I checked for France in Tilt, Generation 4 and Joystick (the 3 leading magazine) and ... nothing. Nothing even assuming they translated the name of the game : nothing for just "disciples", nothing with "acier [steel]"

    3. The link has died, but here's another, for however long it works:
      It's a pretty cursory review, suggesting an equally cursory overview before the deadline.

  12. On that box shot; did they just kill Lion-O, lord of the thundercats

    1. That really is a terrible cover. Something about that woman just seems wrong. I don't know if it's the angle she is drawn, the ridiculous clothes she is wearing, or what, but she just looks ridiculous.

    2. I realize Our Addict has plenty of other stuff to do, but I'd actually love to see a retrospective post on game covers, manuals, and other marketing materials--trends, best and worst so far, whatever. I find the games-as-objects stuff kind of fascinating; surely I can't be the only one?

    3. I'm surprise someone hasn't archived all the original artwork for magazines and games. In development the artwork gets covered with writing and cut a bit. MOCAGH (museum of computer game history) has a very nice Legacy of the Ancients and a few others. The ultima works are on a few other sites. I once had a link to the Kadash original cover but lost it. I think MOCAGH has shard of spring as well but those are still a scant few of the hundreds or rather thousands of arts. I like to see artists past/present/future get more credit on their paintings and where they were used. Pity licensing and rights tend to keep somethings in the dark. But Art, I love game art. (Box, Manual, and in-game).

    4. I'm not sure I'm the right person for such a task. Perhaps partly because of my color blindness, I'm not very visually-oriented. I tend not to notice a lot of details in box art and screen images, and I certainly don't appreciate visual arts the way most people do. Every once in a while, I'll make note of some box or manual art that's particularly good or bad, but that's always a fluke.

      I subscribe to the "movies" subreddit and people are always posting new movie posters there. "Who cares about a friggin' poster?!" I always want to say. I guess a lot of people do, just like they care about game box art.

    5. Never underestimate the numbers of kooky-visual-art aficionados. I mean, look at Andy Warhol. Basically reprinting the same image with different colors. To you, it probably looks like 4 copies of the same picture in a larger picture. Yet it's selling for millions.

      Speaking of old box arts, I guess it's not really easily available nowadays because you'd need:
      1) A digital camera/scanner
      2) Internet connection

      Those 2 things are in very short supply and costly before the year 2000. And boxes, being boxes, are used to ward off damage of its contents. After a couple decades of beatings and/or weathering, most wouldn't be in mint condition by the time you have both the above technologies.

      My "Shard Of Spring" (the box with a kinky lady in leotard holding a crystalline phallic object on a cliff) was already discarded back in 2002.

  13. I don't know, but it's a good thing that female fighter is wearing that mail on her arm, because otherwise she'd be vulnerable.

  14. This game would benefit greatly if it gets a reboot or fans whom are skilled/willing to patch it back to greatness.

    It looks like a really great drink being trapped in a lousily designed bottle that allows you to only extract 30% of its content.

  15. I just wanted to pop in and say that posts like these are what make this blog so interesting. I love reading about all the forgotten and strange computer games that have been lost to time. I didn't have ky own computer until 1997 but read PC magazines religiously from 1989 on, learning about all the games I could only dream about playing. There is tons of stuff written about games like Ultima and Wizardry online but Disciples of Steel? That's something thank you for that!

  16. LotR has two major plots. One being about Frodo destroying the ring, the other one being about the war in Middle Earth.

    Maybe DoS was supposed to be played in a way similar to this? A player would either follow the plot about the individual heros facing the antagonist, or the one about assembling an army and attacking the antagonist's force.

    1. That's not a bad theory. It's not well-implemented if it was supposed to be the case, but then again, many things in the game aren't well-implemented.

    2. Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge had a similar system: either control a party of heroes to defeat the Big Bad or rally armies to your cause and claim victory upon the battlefield. Lords of Midnight also allowed you to accomplish both simultaneously. Very Lord of the Rings.

      I've always wanted to play the two games, but haven't had the time to really sit down and start.

  17. Considering the game is pretty obscure, yet it's received quite a bit of praise, it's possibly worth mentioning that someone did a playthrough of the game a few years ago over at the RPG Codex.

    Now I know the resident Addict and RPG Codex are kinda like oil and vinegar, but it may still be worth a look at that LP just for the sake of comparing notes. It's not like there's a long list of people that have finished the game AND have written about it.

    1. I was aware of that and should have mentioned it in my review. I scanned through it after I completed the game and didn't find anything that my review didn't highlight--he even won the game the same way--so I didn't have any particular thing to cite. I've linked plenty of times to the RPGCodex before. It's a valuable resource for lots of things. I only have a problem with them to the extent that they have a problem with me.

    2. Fair enough. It's not as if you should track down or mention every person that has ever said anything about these more obscure games. It's just that in this case I personally found it interesting that, unlike most old reviews of this game, the person in question seems to echo much of what you've said about Disciples of Steel.

    3. They don't have a problem with you. Do you have a problem with constructive criticism?

    4. Nope. I just have a problem with being called a "f@@@@ing idiot" for thinking that Pool of Radiance is better than Wasteland or that Skyrim is a decent game. If you call that "constructive," I'm not sure what your definition of regular criticism is.

    5. PoR is better than Wasteland and Skyrim is a perfectly cromulent experience!

  18. "We have fully-voiced audio for a few seconds in the opening screens (the first time I've ever seen this in a PC RPG, although I haven't played a lot of 1980s titles yet) and never again."

    I'd be interested to know if you come across any examples in your "backtracking" posts - audio from early video games is somewhat of a fascination of mine. One can certainly find examples much earlier in other genres: on the computer front, Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple II, which dates back to 1981, has a few brief voiced samples, and you can find meatier stuff in titles by Access Software like World Class Leader Board, a golf game which played its in-game commentary through the internal PC speaker using some weird trickery. Might be similar to the trick used for the sounds in Dungeons of Daggorath, but I'm not entirely certain...

  19. Hey Chet
    I know it's been said a dozen times in these comments already but I have to echo what a fantastic series of posts this was on DoS and how much I've enjoyed this journey of discovery through your blog. Like most it seems I had not heard of this game before starting to read along here, and I have been totally swept up reading your take on it.

    This entry and your coverage of it really do claim territory in the "lost gem" realm and really scratch a history/nostalgia/"what could have been" itch that I think many of your readers have for crpgs. Knights of Legend got close but this was better. I really want to play this game based on your coverage, but in a surreal and hard to describe sense I think I have already enjoyed it more reading your take on it than I would playing it myself. I am sure that sentiment is subconsciously reinforced in my mind by the fact that I barely have time to read your blog let alone find a hundred+ hours to play along, no matter how good or "lost" the game is.

    I have an equal fascination with the troubled history of the Amiga and Atari ST and their tormented path alongside the emerging juggernaut of MS-DOS. Maybe that scratches the same itch as the discovery of games like this through your blog - in this case poetically magnified by the fact that this game was exclusive to the troubled little ST and then bombed with a too-little-too-late port to the juggernaut...

    Anyway keep up the fantastic work. I'm a lifetime fan now and greatly looking forward to all the fantastic future stuff on your list.

    P.S. You need to come up with a way for readers to financially support you (notwithstanding your response to this comment before - I understand your sentiment). However you're better reading than most of the stuff I actually pay to read and I would like to support your work.

    1. Seriously, I get enough comments criticizing or correcting me for some trivial detail, so I never get sick of comments that say, "good post." Thanks for tossing yours in.

      I'll think about the financial thing. Maybe I can offer some t-shirts.

    2. Some ideas for you if you're printing them. XD
      I only enjoy it if there's more than 40 of 'em."

      "Shut up already about SMT"

      "Truth - I play games
      Love - I love playing games
      Courage - I'm wearing this shirt"

    3. Here's what I want: an ankh cross that's almost complete but lacks a small piece. Underneath, it says:

      "#@&*ing humility"

  20. I would buy a t-shirt sight unseen. Put an ankh and a wizardry dragon on them and offer them in wee sizes and I would buy them for my kids.

  21. I've been retrying this game. I have a new appreciation for how long you must have grinded without the 1000 bonus XP points, I started the game vanilla like that, and its been agonizing. Its one thing to grind, its another to need to fight 5 times just to win once. I finaily patched the game.

    The game makes character development fun, if frustrating at times. One thing I've noticed, I was using my blacksmith to fix all the gear I looted before selling it, and I actually went through a entire month before I noticed how much time was passing, this was before I completed my first quest! I suspect that is how I ran out of time back in the day. I dropped my blacksmith and fix gear at the store now, although the interface is really clunky for that. I'll see how much time this version of the game gives me.

  22. Thanks to Mr. Addict's favouable review I gave this game a New chance after being horrified by the UI (towns and shops) in my first attempt.
    Although with all crap Blogger is giving me just to post one message it may not be worth the toruble.
    Boy, was I wrong about this game being one of the worst CRPGs ever! Some of the design Choices are laughably bad, but the things that really matter are rock solid, like the character system, combat system, encounter design, items and quests.

    I'm probably 3/4 trough the game, and thought I'd make some comments on your review.

    First of all I disagree with only 4 for Encounters. The encounter design is very good. The game is area scaled and not scaled to Level at all, which IMO is how it should be in an open world CRPG. You can meet everything from one creature to an army of several different kinds of creatures. The only thing lacking is enemy spell caster.

    Regarding some of the skills and spells:
    Search enables you to find enemies that Hide on the Battlefield.
    Backstab skill increases your weapon skill when attacking from flank or behind.
    Spells that lower morale (that includes Turn Undead) are quite useful, since an hard to hit enemy who is Superior or better may be impossible to hit even if Stunned. Lowering morale makes enemies much easier to hit, and they in turn don't hit so hard anymore.
    Annihilate is exellent against powerful enemies since it works like the AD&D Harm spell. Follow up with a 1-5 point Magic Bolt and that Fire Giant is dead.

    I'll probably write a longer post when I have completed the game.

  23. Heh it's a blast from the past to read this discussion. This is Kevin Henderson - yes we were same place as Interstel. Trevor visited us a fair amount and we even tested games like Empire. Like Trevor a lot of worked for NASA either full or part time in those days. I also had a small chain of computer stores during those days.

    It's true we didn't have a lot of money, we did try to do Disciples of Steel 2 but we all went our separate ways by then. FYI the early reviews were version .9 as they got advance copies. 1.0 and later had many improvements. The reviewers promised to revisit it with the upgrades but unfortunately never did. Today I'm ceo of Westinghouse Security just never got back around to making further attempts in the gaming industry. FYI something like 5 times more hint books were sold for Disciples of Steel than the total number of games sold. Myself Sean Clark and Martin Kruse are still avid gamers just not in the gaming industry. If anybody has a question i'll keep an eye on this, maybe I can answer it.

    1. Kevin, I have a million questions for you. Any chance you can e-mail me at I'd love to post an addendum to this series of entries that clear up some of the game's mysteries.

    2. Hey did you ever actually get in touch with Kevin? I'm super curious to know what, if anything, came out of that...
      Also, thanks so much for your excellent blog! Am backtracking old posts while waiting for new ones and enjoying it immensely!

    3. Yes, we exchanged several e-mails, and he gave me a lot of good material for an upcoming post.

    4. YAY for that! Looking forward to it already.

      Keep on keeping on!

    5. Did that "upcoming post" ever get posted? Inquiring minds want to know.

    6. Hmmm. Come to think of it, no. I DID use Kevin's comments for an article that I wrote about DoS for an upcoming RPG book, but I guess I never included them in a blog entry.

      We're nearing the end of 1991 and DoS is clearly going to be at least a NOMINEE for "Game of the Year," so I'll try to include Kevin's comments then.

    7. Apparently that didn't happen either. I think we'd still love to see that bonus blog post about Disciples of Steel if you still have the material.

    8. adding my voice to the list of people who are still curious about hearing more from this particular developer.

      if you ever find the inclination/time [and still have the notes regarding this game], it would be very intriguing to read his thoughts on it/your exchanges [if he's interested in making those public, of course.]

  24. An excellent series of posts that I think has done a great service in rescuing this game from undeserved obscurity.

  25. I've just gone through my party and set the blacksmith to repairing each and every item. What drudgery! Item repair seems like a chore with very little redeeming in-game value.

  26. While I'm enjoying the game, my biggest problem with Disciples can be summed up in one word: variance. The volatility is too extreme: I seriously doubt anyone could play the game without frequent reloads. To provide one example, I had developed my warrior to the point that he could deliver an average of 30 or 40 hit points damage to a Jabberling. Yet in one random combat, I noticed him hit a low of 9 points damage and a high of over 200 points damage. This same variance occurred in enemy attacks as well, to the point that even well-developed characters could occasionally be slain by a Jabberling in one turn. Even giant bats, the very starting mob, could deliver a rather shocking surprise now and then.

    SSI Grognards' long experience with wargame probability and statistics served them well in the Gold Box series, leading to mostly reliable progression with relatively rare statistical surprises.

    On the other hand, if you believe scum-saving is a sin, you will not be happy with this little gem, which, by design, will deliver sufficient variance to demand the occasional reload. If instead you go with character replacement, expect the new ones to progress fairly similarly.

    This design feature may in part explain some of the more hostile reviews.

    1. Hmm...I don't remember experiencing that.
      But I do remember some areas being deadly, which is how I like it. Area scaling is so much better than level scaling.

      Initially I was rather hostile to this game myself, due to the empty towns that really should have been menu towns, and the very cumbersome shop interface.
      But after a bad first impression I grew to really love this game. Great open world exploration, with good combat system and encounter design.

    2. I can see why the towns killed your interest the first time. They should have been 1/10 their size or just menu towns. There's no excuse for them.

    3. The complexity, equipment, tactical combat, and character creation and development options are very nice features that make this game attractive. On the other hand, the early challenge is simply punishing. Anyone can eventually win by scum-saving, but where's the challenge in that? Grinding XP (with many scum-saves) eventually develops skills and characteristics to mitigate the crap shoot to a manageable level.

  27. this was such a great find.

    thank you for your postings regarding this game and thank you also for your gimlet of it, too.

    i appreciate this sort of thing in your blog a great deal - uncovering a hidden gem of a game that no one really talks about at all [warts and all, in this case.]


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