Friday, February 19, 2016

Game 211: Vengeance of Excalibur (1991)

Neither the title, nor the graphics, nor the sentiment seem very Arthurian.
Vengeance of Excalibur
United States
Synergistic Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga and Atari ST
Date Started: 14 February 2016
Oh, let's begin by taking a look at a long passage from T. H. White's The Once and Future King. It is early in Arthur's reign--he has only weeks before pulled the sword from the stone--and the young Arthur is fighting an early war against some rebelling kings led by Lot and Uriens. He has been enjoying the battles, thinking them more as sport than combat. Merlin disapproves.

"Have you thought seriously about the state of your country...or are you going to go on all your life being like Uther Pendragon? After all, you are King of the place."

"I have not thought very much."

"No. Then let me do some thinking with you. Suppose we think about your Gaelic friend, Sir Bruce Sans Pitié."

"That fellow!"

"Exactly. And why do you say it like that."

"He is a swine. He goes murdering maidens--and as soon as a real knight turns up to rescue them, he gallops off for all he is worth. He breeds special fast horses so that nobody can catch him, and he stabs people in the back. He's a marauder. I would kill him at once if I could catch him."

"Well," said Merlyn, "I don't think he is very different from the others. What is all this chivalry, anyway? It simply means being rich enough to have a castle and a suit of armor, and then, when you have them, you make the Saxon people do what you like. The only risk you run is getting a few bruises if you happen to come across another knight. Look at that tilt you saw between Pellinore and Grummore, when you were small. It's this armor that does it. All the barons can slice the poor people about as much as they want, and it is a day's work to hurt each other, and the result is that the country is devastated. Might is Right, that's the motto. Bruce Sans Pitié is only an example of the general situation. Look at Lot and Nentres and Uriens and all that Gaelic crew, fighting against you for the Kingdom. Pulling swords out of stones is not legal proof of paternity, I admit, but the kings of the Old Ones are not fighting you about that. They have rebelled, although you are their feudal sovereign, simply because the throne is insecure. England's difficulty, we used to say, is Ireland's opportunity. This is their chance to pay off racial scores, and to have some blood-letting as sport, and to make a bit of money in ransoms. Their turbulence does not cost them anything themselves because they are dressed in armor--and you seem to enjoy it too. But look at the country. Look at the barns burnt, and dead men's legs sticking out of ponds, and horses with swelled bellies by the roadside, and mills falling down, and money buried, and nobody daring to walk abroad with gold or ornaments on their clothes. That is chivalry nowadays. That is the Uther Pendragon touch. And then you talk about a battle being fun!"

"I was thinking of myself."

"I know."

"I ought to have thought of the people who had no armor."


"Might isn't Right, is it, Merlyn?"

This is a pivotal passage in White's version of the tale, starting Arthur along the line of thinking that will eventually lead to the Round Table. I bring it up for a couple of reasons. First, the villain of Vengeance of Excalibur, or at least the first act, is given as Sir Breuse Sans Pitié, or roughly "Sir Bruce the Pitiless." He's an interesting character. He shows up out of nowhere in a series of French Arthurian texts starting in the late 1100s and is shared among so many that there's probably an origin story somewhere that we haven't found. He really is as bad as Arthur characterizes him in the passage; depending on the source, he's said to ambush other knights, rape peasants, and kill maidens for no reason. If some king is in rebellion against Arthur for selfish reasons, you can be sure Breuse (alternately Bereuse, Brehu, Breunis, Breusso, Breuz) is on his list of retainers. Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur is full of scenes in which some knight--Lancelot, Palamedes, Tristan, Dinadan, you name it--comes across Breuse trampling some hapless knight with his horse and then making a swift getaway as soon as he is challenged. I think some source has Lancelot eventually kill him for stealing a shield, but he's still alive by the end of Malory's version, having frustrated every attempt to stop his nonsense once and for all. Thus, I suppose it's not impossible that he could have shown up to plague Constantine, although he would have been pretty old at the time.

Secondly, note the appearance of "Saxon" in White's version, which seems a little out of place. (Not to mention "England" and "Ireland.") In most Arthurian sources, the Saxons are ruthless conquerors who Arthur fights, not helpless peasants that he's supposed to protect. But White does a weird thing with the Arthurian story: he moves it ahead in time nearly 700 years so that Arthur and his knights are Normans. Uther Pendragon is said to have conquered Britain, not William I; in fact, William is explicitly named as a fictional character in Arthur's Britain. Although jarring, this isn't uncommon. Throughout the history of Arthurian literature, authors have changed dates and settings to make better use of desired historical themes, whether it's Geoffrey of Monmouth establishing the Normans as the natural inheritors of Arthur's legacy to better bolster the rule of his patrons, Hector Boece making Mordred a hero to suggest a Scottish claim to the English throne, White using the Saxon/Norman conflict as a parable for ethnic violence, or the 2004 film King Arthur using the story to explore the waning influence of Rome in the British Isles.
Here, I'm using this caption to explore how little political rhetoric has changed in a thousand years.
In the case of Vengeance of Excalibur, I'm guessing, someone at Synergistic had just done a bunch of reading on Al-Andalus--the part of Spain conquered by Muslims in the mid-700s and held until the mid-1000s--and decided they needed to set a game there. If it was 20 years later and Synergistic had the license, it would have been a sequel to Assassin's Creed, but in this case, looking across the properties they owned, they quickly ruled out The Third Courier, Conan, and NY Warriors (brief consideration: "what if they found a portal through space and time?!") and were left with Spirit of Excalibur, never mind that this means moving the game forward 450 years from the date explicitly given in its predecessor, that most of the characters in the game are canonically dead, that the Arthurian period pre-dates the founding of Islam, and that Spain is mentioned maybe 6 times in thousands of Arthurian texts spanning 1,500 years.

The game takes place against a backdrop of Muslim and Christian clashes in Spain and Portugal.
Thus, as the game begins, Merlin isn't trapped in a cave for eternity; he's sitting at Constantine's side as an advisor. Lancelot hasn't retired to hermitage to live out his remaining years in penance and grief; he's right at the head of the Round Table. The other knights haven't journeyed to Israel to die in battle against the Saracens. The Holy Grail isn't a metaphorical object untouchable by human hands and drawn into Heaven after the conclusion of the disastrous Grail Quest, nor is Excalibur at the bottom of a lake awaiting the next True King; they're both just sitting in Camelot's treasure vault. King Æthelred the Unready doesn't exist, apparently, and the Saxons never conquered Britain at all.

Apparently, this "shadowmaster" is going to be the big bad of the game.
I mention all of this because a couple of commenters indicated they enjoyed my Spirit of Excalibur postings for how I analyzed the game through the lens of my Arthurian expertise. Unfortunately, I won't be able to do that here. We've left Arthurian legend far behind, bringing characters who shouldn't be alive (or even exist together in the same continuity) to a part of the world in which no Arthurian legend is ever set. I've said pretty much all I can say on it. We probably will learn a bit about Islamic Iberia, which is nice because that's something of a gray area for me.

Vengeance of Excalibur uses the same basic engine and approach as its predecessor (which had been previously used in 1988's War in Middle Earth). The game is organized into seven scenarios, each with its own specific objective. You select a small number from among a stable of knights to go to various places and complete quests. As you navigate the scenario, you switch frequently between "map level" and "scene level" and occasionally fight battles with armies rather than just individuals. The graphics and sound are state of the art for the time.

At the map level, I check out the composition of my party on the move.
I had a few problems with Spirit of Excalibur, starting with scant RPG elements. The only thing that remotely qualifies the games as RPGs is that your characters can increase their skills through use. That sounds good except that you have so many characters and need them so infrequently that such skill increases are largely unnecessary. Worse, success in later scenarios depends heavily on random things that you do in earlier scenarios, such as visiting some random city to buy a couple of herbs, or sending a particular character in the right direction. Every scenario, no matter how much of the map it uses, takes place on the entire game map, where various things are constantly happening--armies moving, NPCs getting attacked by bandits, raiders looting cities--and it's unclear how much you're supposed to care about them. Very often, you simply have no idea what to do or where to go. I don't know if Synergistic expected players to go through the entire game multiple times, taking notes on things they needed to do in earlier scenarios to complete later ones, but that kind of dynamic doesn't work for someone in my situation.
Only these attributes, which increase slowly based on combats and other events, qualify the game as an RPG.
Unfortunately, it appears to me that these problems are even worse in Vengeance than Spirit. Gameplay takes place across the entire Iberian peninsula. You can visit any city in any scenario, even though you don't need to visit 90% of them, and armies both Islamic and Christian are on the move regardless of what you're doing at any given time. Individual soldiers, messengers, gypsies, flagellants, and monks also constantly criss-cross the map, sometimes meeting up with the player's party, sometimes meeting up with each other, sometimes getting slaughtered by large groups of bandits. It sounds like a lot of fun, and it could be, but I find it more frustrating than fun when I have a vague goal like "find a way to cure Nineve!" and I'm set loose on a map with dozens of potential cities to visit and dozens of moving NPCs to talk with, and for one reason or another I might still miss the key thing to do (see below). The manual gives you some help with what you're supposed to accomplish in each scenario, but not much.
Some of the actions available when dealing with an NPC.
Vengeance lets you import a saved game from Spirit, which I guess potentially gives you more knights to choose from on the adventures. I forgot to check whether it made any difference in the starting skills.
If only I could remember who had what at the end of Spirit.
The game begins either 1 year after the events of Spirit or 451 years depending on whether you rely on the game's narrative or an actual calendar. Constantine, Arthur's successor, has been happily ruling a united Britain. Then, one night, a mysterious knight shows up at Camelot accompanied by a "shadowy form." When Constantine appeared to greet them, the shadow immediately turned him to stone, and the visitors proceeded to loot the treasury and to subdue and kidnap Nineve. As they left, a maid heard the shadow address the knight as "Sir Breuse."
Some poor text-background contrast sets up the backstory.
Missing are Arthur's helm and shield, the Gauntlets of Power, Excalibur, and the Holy Grail. Although Merlin takes over the kingdom as regent, he can't stop the ills that follow: plagues of rats, crop failures, foul weather, and a general sickening of the land. Nor can Merlin or Nineve cure the paralyzed king. In a kind-of repeat of the Grail Quest, knights begin to scatter across Europe, looking for a solution, while Baudwin goes to beg aid from the Pope.

Scenario 1 begins as a group of four knights come ashore in Bayonne, France, hot on the trail of Sir Breuse. For some reason, we have to get from there to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, which means crossing the Pyrenees and contending with hostile Basques. (Why we didn't just sail to the coast of Galicia is unexplained.) Once we arrive at Santiago, we'll need an army to take the city, which is going to be interesting because our party currently consists of four poor knights.

Much has changed in the last millennium.
You begin by choosing the four knights. I went with Lancelot and Bedivere because I think they ended Spirit in the best condition, Palomides because he's my favorite knight, and Amadis because he's supposed to be from Gaul anyway. Since the game doesn't give you any clues as to the knights' statistics or inventory before the game begins, this is as valid a method as any. It turns out Bedivere and Palomides are pretty weak, but Amadis is strong and Lancelot is perhaps the best character in the game.

Selecting the party that I guess I'll have for the entire game.
Santiago is far to the west-southwest of the starting area, but you can't just go directly there. Trying to do so means running into a force of hundreds of Basques that four individual knights can't hope to defeat. (If your small party of knights runs into an army, the game doesn't even give you the dignity of trying to fight. It just reports everyone's inevitable death.) There are also wandering parties of rogues that you have to avoid.
All these little icons move about the map and interact with each other.
Soon after the opening, a messenger found my party and brought a message from Merlin, imploring me to "find an armed band to travel with you." A wandering monk suggested I talk to the pilgrim at Pamplona for the latest news and, after I bribed him with some gold, that I could find "untold riches in the tunnel through the Pyrenees."

The only thing nearby that qualified as a "armed band" was a group of 40 knights led by Sir Roland. He agreed to join me for 5 gold pieces per week, which was just about what I had. While he wasn't enough to defeat the 500 Basques waiting along the road to the west, he was enough to defeat a couple of smaller parties to the south.
Thankfully, Roland was cheap.
Army combat in Vengeance is just about the same as in Spirit. Multiple groups of allies and enemies clash on a battlefield where you can issue some basic orders to particular units or knights (e.g., to "withdraw" if their hit points drop too low), but for the most part you're better off letting the game fight for you automatically. I won both battles with Basques handily.
Watching the action on the battlefield.
A few steps south of the second battle, I ran into an NPC named Diego Garcia who I haven't been able to tie to any historical figure. He offered to show me his "secret path" through the mountains if I would agree to give him an unspecified reward when he later showed up to claim it. Lacking other viable options, I agreed. He told me of a series of caves inhabited by "robber dwarves."
Oh no! Not "all the dwarfs!"
Spirit of Excalibur had offered a few indoor areas of a room or two each, but the dwarf caves were the first time in this series that I've seen anything resembling a traditional RPG dungeon. There were maybe a dozen screens to traverse before the exit. As I entered, a dwarf warned me not to steal any treasure. I could go on about how dwarves really have no place in this setting, but that ship already sailed in the last game with dragons, demons, and the use of the Grail as a weapon.

Trying to role-play the noble Lancelot, I ignored piles of treasure and headed right for the exit to Pamplona, even though some kind of wolf spirit warned me I was leaving a lot behind.

A talking wolf! Seize him! We'll sell him to a carnival and buy an army!
In Pamplona, I got some intelligence about Santiago de Compostela, where a Moorish force is hiding Breuse. Knowing that I would need my own army to take the city, I began scouting for one. I met a "Don Jaime" on the road who offered his services, as did Duke Lupo of Leon, but both wanted hundreds of gold pieces and I had like two.
And then there were guys like this.
After futilely trying to find another solution, I concluded that the only option was to reload and loot the dwarf caverns this time. It did the job. Among the multiple treasure piles, I found more than 400 gold pieces, but man was it a blow to serious role-playing. If there was another way to raise money that I could have explored, someone chime in.
Lancelot closes his eyes and thinks of England.
The dwarves, unhappy that I was stealing their treasure, attacked on several screens. This re-introduced me to the engine's approach to individual combat. The party leader automatically attacks--you can select "reckless," "normal," and "cautious" approaches--but you can substitute him with another character at any point. Other than that, the game just fights for you.
At least we're honorable enough not to all gang up on the dwarf.
The results of individual combat often seem arbitrary. I would have a dwarf cut down three of my knights in a row, reload, and have him die without doing any damage to a single character in the next battle. In any event, the victorious knight generally increases by 1 combat point for each successful fight (from a starting base of 15 or 20).

Incidentally, full-party death is accompanied by a grisly scene of slaughtered corpses. The end-game text notes that Camelot is eventually conquered, England a "wasteland," Iberia "bathed in blood," and eventually "darkness covers the Earth." So I guess the stakes are quite high.
With the money, I hired Duke Lupo and his army of 700 soldiers and 100 knights. I took them west to Santiago and conquered the Moorish force without many problems. Once the city was liberated, I was able to enter the church, where someone named Domingo told me that his master, Bartholomew, was hiding until Breuse was dealt with.
This time, I'm the "pitiless" one!
Breuse was in the second enterable building in Santiago. I killed him in one-on-one combat, only to have him boast that what I killed wasn't really him but "a spectre that [his] master created to delay [me]." Whether it was him or not, he left behind the Gauntlets of Power and a bird. Taking the gauntlets ended the first scenario.
The second scenario opened with Bartholomew offering me 600 gold pieces for a church bell that the Moors had stolen and "taken south." (Historical note: the Muslim general Almanzor, discussed below, was hated by Christian kingdoms for stealing cathedral bells and melting them down to make lanterns for the Great Mosque of Cordoba.) He also offered the opinion that the bird I'd just acquired was "no ordinary bird." Well, the manual explained explicitly that the bird was Nineve and the objective of the second scenario was to restore her to human form, then find the stolen bell. As I was trying to figure things out, Lupo kept demanding 100 gold pieces every week, so I told him to go home.
This is one of those moments I was talking about above. With the vague goal of curing Nineve, I had literally the entire map to explore and no clues where to go. Thus, I consigned myself to having to play the scenario multiple times, trying different places and routes, before figuring out the optimal path. I fanned out my knights and had them basically start hitting every city on the game map, entering every building, talking to every NPC they could find along the way, offering bribes, and so forth. If one of them died, I didn't sweat it--I had a saved game from the beginning of the scenario. It was a faster process than I imagined, since many cities have (Muslim) armies that attack you as soon as they see you, and other cities just won't let you in.
How rude.
Eventually, in the city of Evora, I met a leper. When I gave him a handful of gold pieces, he told me of a lamp I could take in a nearby hospice. Rubbing the lamp predictably released a djinni who granted me five wishes. There's no obvious "wish" mechanism, but the djinni has a bunch of spells that I assume serve that purpose. I didn't know what any of them did--the manual gives you no indication of spell usage whatsoever--but I saved the game and started with the first one, "Rara Avis." The djinni said that "there's no bird here," and I knew I had the solution.
The game gets the whole djinni/djinn plurality right.
I dropped the bird on the table, had the djinni cast the spell again, and soon Nineve was standing before me. After shaking off the effects of the transformation, she told me that the Moors had taken Santiago's bell to Alcantara.
In Alcantara, I had to defeat a couple of "Saracens" in combat, one immediately upon arriving in the city and one inside a nearby chapel. They kept killing Lancelot, so I had Nineve fight them with a barrage of spells, and they dropped quickly.
Finding the bell was a bit of a puzzle. There was an obvious bell-shaped object in the room being used as a table for candles, but the game wouldn't let me do anything with it. Again, I looked to my companions' spells, and it turns out Nineve has one called "True Sight." Casting it revealed the bell in its true form, and I was able to pick it up.
At this point, every rogue band in the area made a beeline for my party, and they were much faster than me. They kept slaughtering me before I could get back to Santiago or even any fortified city. I tried leading them into the path of Muslim armies, but they were too smart for that. I guess maybe I should have kept Lupo with the party, but I don't think I would have had enough gold.

Lancelot (white shield with red stripes) tries to avoid rogue armies approaching from the southwest and northwest by leading them into a Muslim army on the road to the northeast. Regrettably, it didn't work.
Eventually, I gave up and reloaded from the beginning of the scenario. Now that I knew exactly what to do, it took me only about five minutes to re-visit Evora, the hospice, and Alcantara (as opposed to about three hours on my first attempt). When I received the bell this time, the rogues were much further away on the map, and I was able to make it back to Santiago in safety. I traded the bell to Bartholomew for 600 gold pieces, and the second scenario ended.

The third scenario opens with Bartholomew telling me that Breuse has "escaped with Al-Mansur to the City of Brass in the east of Spain" and that Breuse may have the other treasures with him. "Al-Mansur" is in this case Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, often stylized as "Almanzor," a general serving Caliph Hisham II. As Hisham was only 10 years old when he inherited the caliphate, Almanzor was his regent and de facto ruler of Islamic Iberia. Anyway, I end this post having just started to explore this scenario.

I guess I won't be raising an army for this one.
A few other notes:

  • There is no sound in the game, only music. The music is good, but I don't like listening to music while I play RPGs, so I have the sound off.
  • As you do your own thing, dozens of individual NPCs and armies are wandering around the map. The game notifies you every time someone arrives in a city or gets into a fight. I'm not sure how much I should care about such notifications.
I wasn't even involved in this battle.
  • I'm having a persistent emulator problem. The keyboard stops working if I leave the game (to take notes for my blog, for instance) and return to it. Reloading doesn't solve this; I have to kill the emulator and restart. Most of the game can be controlled from the mouse anyway, but the game occasionally throws a copy protection question at you that requires the keyboard.
  • Like its predecessor, pathfinding in this game is terrible, especially over long distances. But it keeps screwing me even over short ones. I might be trying to avoid an army to the northeast, so I send my party northwest. The game decides that the best way to get to that point in the northwest is to go northeast first, and it runs me right into the army. At that point, I have to wait while the game informs me that each of my characters has died, in turn, and then see the hellish death screen before I can reload.
This happens a lot.
  • If the game came with a map, I haven't been able to find it. I used Google Maps to find some of the cities I was supposed to visit.

In my final posting on Spirit of Excalibur, I wrote:

Spirit of Excalibur...underwhelms me in just about all of its areas. It manages to combine three genres--adventure, RPG, and strategy--without being good at any of them. The battles are too scripted, with not enough tactics or logistics, to be a good strategy game; there aren't enough puzzles to be a good adventure game; and there isn't enough character development to be a good RPG. The game really has only one narrative line, and the player has to figure out how to best adhere to it, rather than make his own role-playing choices and crafting his own path to the end.
So far, it looks like Vengeance didn't learn any lessons from Spirit. The only thing that has really changed between the games is a couple of minor interface improvements.

Here's a nice shot walking into a city. The graphic backdrops are really quite well done.
I want to like Vengeance of Excalibur just as I wanted to like its predecessor, but unfortunately both games, while beautiful and original, feature confoundingly different interfaces than the typical RPG, and I simply can't figure out an effective way to navigate the games without feeling like I'm wasting a huge amount of time. I'd really be curious to hear from someone who played the game new and liked it: how did you figure out what you were supposed to do?


  1. I kind a lost track after "cure Nineve"...
    And Arthur's successor is "Constantine"?

    1. You didn't read my series on Spirit of Excalibur? Arthur being followed by Constantine is one of its few acknowledgements to actual Arthurian tradition.

  2. I hope ignoring the wolf didn't put you in a walking dead state.

    1. In case it wasn't clear, I reloaded and DID loot the caverns later, and the wolf didn't appear that second time.

  3. Interesting review, it seems in trying to be three things at once, it fails as a game, or some such thing. I may have mentioned it before, but there was a strategic Arthur game that came out in 1984 called "Excalibur". It was an Atari game, if I remember correctly. It uses the combat engine of Chris Crawford, who created "Legionnaire" and "Eastern Front". The game is considered merciless and I have to agree. You keeping having to replace fallen knights who are the only ones who can lead vassals into battle. Crises come up too quickly and your status starts to fall. Like one review put it, you felt less like Arthur and more like Hitler in his last days in Berlin. I wonder if anyone has ever successfully translated either the Arthurian legend or Tolkein into a good solid CRPG?

    I think perhaps that D+D's gumbo approach to creating worlds works better as a setting for multiple parties. Though some settings may work better than others, according to taste. The same thing happens in the Gold Box titles. I find that the ones based on books, such as Curse and the Krynn games are the weakest in terms of plot.

  4. As a basque myself it has been quite entertaining to read about your problems with them. The town backdrops look very nice and they resemble quite well towns in Castilla.

  5. Could Diego Garcia be a referenze to Zorro? (Diego+Sergeant Garcia?)

    1. It is also a US military base in Indian Ocean. :)

    2. Could the US Military base in the Indian Ocean be a reference to Zorro? (Diego+Sergeant Garcia?)

  6. Quite an enjoyable read for what sounds like it may be another frustrating (though very pretty!) game in this lineup. Appreciated the Arthurian background, as before.

    I wonder what they were going for with these open-ended hopeless quests. Is the idea that you're really supposed to mess about fighting armies, doing a lot more of the 'strategy' stuff than strictly necessary for the questline, and thus kind of stumble on the key quest points along the way (rather than *trying* to find them and being frustrated)? That doesn't really make sense with some of the mechanics/balance involved here, but I'm just trying to imagine when they playtested this, what they *thought* a person playing this would spend their time doing and in what way it would be enjoyable.

    Boy is it pretty though.

    As for why they don't sail to Spain, I have no idea - when exactly is this supposed to be set again? Maybe they're on bad terms with the local leadership, aren't sure if they'll get a good reception, and have a better contact in Bayonne. Or something. It does seem silly to start with this business of getting through the tunnel but maybe that's meant to constrain the game a little at the outset while you learn the interface and so on...

  7. Perhaps the game is referencing this Diego Garcia:

    The fact that he's mentioned in Don Quixote (as "an example of a real hero about whom one should read rather than about the lies in the tales of chivalry", no less!) seems like a tip-off.

    The creators of this series like to grab stuff liberally from Arthurian texts with little context, perhaps they did the same to Moorish Spain?

    I fully expect Rodrigo Diaz Vivar (El Cid) to show up, and perhaps Ferdinand the Great and his three warring sons (Sancho, Alfonso, and Garcia). If you are placing a narrative in Moorish Spain, their story is too good to pass up!

    1. I found that Diego Garcia, but I couldn't believe the developers would combine someone from the 15th Century into a game set in the 10th Century. But El Cid does indeed show up, so I guess the developers just didn't really care.

  8. First - As someone with an appreciation of Arthurian folklore and retellings, do you find The Once and Future King at all jarring, or do you enjoy the way White handles the source material?

    Islamic Iberia is a pretty interesting part of history - though like everything about this game, it doesn't seem to have been done much justice. I wonder who the developers were intending to reference with 'Saracens' - It sounds like 'Moors' is intended to mean the armed forces of the Caliphate - whether they be Arab, Berber or Iberian converts. AFAIK no one ever identified as a Moor or Saracen, they were kind of the racial epithets of the day.

    What the heck is the City of Brass doing in Spain? Isn't the whole point that it's been lost in the Northern Sahara since the time of Solomon?

    The backgrounds are great. VGA knocked my socks off when I first saw it (our family never had an Amiga/Atari, so all I knew was blocky EGA graphics and the NES).

    1. How many of us self-identify as dirty kaffirs? Perspective...

    2. I do not understand the relevance of that comment.

    3. The Once and Future King remains my favorite book. Aside from moving the action forward in time, White clings pretty closely to Malory's version while giving the characters more depth than writers knew how to do in the heyday of Arthurian literature.

      "Saracens" are found commonly in Arthurian texts, basically synonymous with "Muslims." (There were no Muslims during Arthur's lifetime, of course, but medieval Arthurian writers didn't much care.) The term goes back to the 2nd Century, when Greek and Roman texts referred to part of the Sinai peninsula as "Sarakene."

      The game isn't really clear in its distinction between "Moors" and "Saracens" and perhaps other synonyms (accurate or not) for "Muslims." I half-wonder if the authors weren't influenced by Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with its line about a "curse on Moors and Saracens."

      I think anonymous's point, however crude, is that no one needs to "self-identify" as a category for others to identify them with the same category. "Moors" and "Saracens," whether the terms were used by the people they described, were used extensively by European writers to describe those people.

    4. I thought Moors were Muslims from Iberia while Saracens were Muslims from Sicily? Could be wrong but history is seldom what it really is since;
      a) it is written by the victors and,
      b) influential historians can omit and/or reject certain historical evidences if these "anomalies" invalidate certain points of their theories.

      In any case, I was wondering why Synergistics didn't invoke the Myth of Avalon and just have Arthur resurrected to star in this game since it's based on the Medieval Crusades which happened long after his death.

      This is basically a parallel universe game. Which reminds me of the terrible Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader. Very interesting concept and background, very horribly planned and executed.

    5. Regarding identity - I don't have issue with the Christians using that label to describe their foes, but I was wondering whether or not moors/saracens in-game ever referred to themselves as Moors/Saracens (which would be kind of silly, unless the character was doing it ironically).

    6. No, I don't think anyone ever walks on-screen and says, "I'm a Moor!" They're labeled as such by the game.

    7. From what I understand, Saracen was a generalized term for Muslims. It wasn't intended to be a slur, although I'm sure it was used with contempt more than once in the past.

    8. I'd thought that it'd be something like "Nazis". A group of people identified with it until something so nasty happened that they had to distance themselves away from it as far as possible.

    9. Originally "Saracen" (spelled somewhat differently, but the same term) was the Roman term for people from a specific region of Arabia. Pre-Muslim early medieval scholars eventually applied folk etymology to decide that "Saracen" was chosen by Arabs to signify that they descended from Abraham's wife Sarah instead of his concubine Hagar, and this labeling transferred to Muslims as a whole as the new religion began to spread throughout the region. As enmity between Muslim and Christian (and ignorance of Islam) grew, Saracen became synonymous with "Enemy of Christendom" in most European's minds.

  9. I've had issues with Alt-Tabbing out of, then back into, programs myself. Have you tried double-tapping the Alt key? It might be thinking that's being held down when you tab back in.

  10. I used to play spirit on an Amiga 500. Music was glorious! Later found a PC version on CD where there is voice over for all the spoken text. It also included a hints button the original was lacking to guide you through the game. The thing I remember most from being 8 years old and first getting this was all the extras. A huge map of England used for copy protection. And an extremely hefty manual filled with odd bits of artwork and atmosphere.

  11. What an uber strange game. I hope you are relentless playing it.

  12. Such a shame that this (and Spirit) are a bit lacklustre in the quest and some of the design. I really like the promise of it, the potential of those big maps with so much to do.

    There's a bit of a bonus if you translate some of the stuff though, such as "Rara Avis" meaning "Rare Bird" in Latin. I wonder if the other Djinn spells can be translated to see what they might be useful for? (of course, why they're in latin, I don't know).

    1. The other djinni spell names are:

      -"Stupefactus." Damages enemies.
      -"Salubia." Heals a character
      -"Higamus Hogamus." Also damages enemies.
      -"Flying Carpet." Creates a flying carpet

      So, some actual Latin, some plain English, some nonsense. You mostly have to experiment.

  13. Reminds me of Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance, in that it tried to be three things at once too (first-person RPG/RTS war combat/turn-based empire-sim). I think that'll make for a fun review once you get to 1997.

    You'd think Arthurian lore would be a rich vein for RPGs, but there aren't that many that use it. There's a Capcom brawler and a Lemmings-style strategy game for SNES that I thought was a lot of fun at the time, but few RPGs I can think of. Of course, Excalibur's in everything...

    1. "Reminds me of Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance, in that it tried to be three things at once too (first-person RPG/RTS war combat/turn-based empire-sim)." - Which is little wonder because it was also developed by Synergistic.

    2. I must be the only person on the Internet that actually enjoys playing Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance.

    3. Uh, according to Mobygames, their last game was Diablo: Hellfire expansion pack.

    4. I liked Birthright's strategy bits. Role-playing - not so much.

    5. @Raifield - Me and another lurker have already told you that you're not alone many times.

      Anyway, Stronghold (from SSI) also did a hybrid and it was excellent.

    6. I remember the map sections of Gorgon's Alliance being entertaining, if convoluted. The adventure sequences were horrendous though. Ugly and awkward. However, I'm a big fan of the Birthright setting itself for tabletop D&D.

    7. Birthright being a hybrid makes sense. That setting was developed as a setting for kingdom running level D&D. Don't know much else about it, other that what I've read in the novels.

  14. Always interesting to read your take on a subject you know so intimately. I may have asked this in your Spirit postings, but do you feel that the game is hampered by your knowledge of the subject matter (like a comic book geek reviling at a movie adaptation due to a fell accent/casting choice) at all? I'll clarify that it doesn't read thus, but I'm curious nonetheless.

    1. I, myself, did. I was happily spoiling the Harry Potter movie for my friends and every audience in earshot when *BAM* something different happens. I was HUMILIATED! How could they make an unfaithful adaptation and cause me so much embarrassment!?

      No, seriously, I was more pissed at some Chinese movies based on the Three Kingdoms period. Those filmmakers know that this setting is extremely popular globally with a large group of fans. But they were so damn liberal with the context that only the names of the characters bore any resemblance with the original works and/or history.

      So, for myself, getting worked-up over different adaptations of a fictional work in another media? Not so much. But gross historical inaccuracies and trying to portray itself otherwise? No, f*ck you.

  15. Combining Arthurian legend with Reconquista is bizarre. I was recently reading about the recapture of Lisbon by crusaders in the 12th century, at the same time as the second crusade 1143. I guess it would have been a stretch to send Arthur's knights to Palestine? Combining history with legend can create some weird stuff. The "Song of Roland" for example, does not mesh well with the history of Charlemagne, who seems more a model of a true great king than Arthur ever was.

  16. In case you hadn't picked up on it, "rara avis" is Latin for rare bird, a pretty good hint when/how to use it. I'd guess the other djinn spell names provide similar hints.

    I recall from Spirit of Excalibur that the collective scenarios ended up having what was more of a adventure game feel (thinking SpaceQuest, maybe), where multiple replays were necessary to perfect the exact order and type of moves, requiring one optimal path to complete properly. Seems like this one is angling for the same thing.

  17. If your small party of knights runs into an army, the game doesn't even give you the dignity of trying to fight. It just reports everyone's inevitable death.

    That's awesome. I actually like that feature a lot.

    I also like that the map is moving and things happen that have nothing to do with the player. That's verisimilitude. It makes the world seem alive. I always wanted games that didn't revolve around me as a player and just put me in an environment that I could interact with. It always irked me that cities didn't exist until I visited them, NPCs didn't move around unless they were on my screen, etc. Today's gamer looks at the feature and wonders, "if it doesn't involve the player, then why is it even there? Take it away and make the game simpler."

    I think the game has more of a Wagnerian feel to its dwarfs. This makes earning their wrath a more dire effect. In fact, I detect the definite odor of Darklands emanating from this product. There is also a subtle hint of Arabian Nights. I think the secret to enjoying this game is to throw away the Arthurian story as nothing more than a contrivance for the 80s player to have a connection to the main characters, and play it as a medieval adventure story. Of course, that's gonna be difficult with a hardcore Arthurian fan, but there it is.

  18. I played the hell out of this game on my Amiga 500. Like War in Middle Earth is very silly that a game that looks so open ended forces you through a very linear path.

    It was the only time that my country, Portugal, was featured in an RPG, so i took great joy in that, also because i was learning about the Islamic period of the Iberian Peninsula at school.

    BTW, that chapel made of human bones in Évora where you met the leper really exists, and it's creepy as fuck (crazy catholics!). First time i was there i think I was about 6 and i didn't realized those were real human bones, so i was playing with those (i.e. sticking my fingers in the skull's noses and so on)

    1. "Like War in Middle Earth is very silly that a game that looks so open ended forces you through a very linear path." That's basically the gist of my final review. Since I really like open-world games, I feel particularly betrayed when they turn out not to be.

    2. There's actually more than one chapel like that. The most famous one is in the Czech Republic.

    3. "Like War in Middle Earth is very silly that a game that looks so open ended forces you through a very linear path."
      A contemporary non-RPG example will be XCOM2. Same problem as this game; time-sensitive missions force you to approach the game in the speediest (but might not be safest and/or efficient) way possible.

    4. I went to the one in the Czech Republic last year- I was rather disappointed. I suspect it would have had more of an influence years ago before it was lot with construction lights, had cages around all the bones to protect them and became filled with loud American tourists taking selfies.


    Here is map on ebay :)

    Btw, according to this picture; there is ingame map

    1. That's funny. I got through the entire game without ever finding a way to bring up that map. I wonder if it doesn't exist in the DOS version.

    2. Hm, strange. I noticed that on right side there is 7 icons; and according to video from yotube; world map is presented after you click on third icon.

    3. Just checked MS DOS version; and yes; the world map is in game :)

      Its third icon on right side,

      You must just click on it :)

    4. That takes you to the large-scale, zoomed-in world map that you see in the screenshots. I don't think there's any icon that takes you to a map that shows the entire game territory like the one in your link above.

    5. Strange :O

      Here is another picture from beginning;

      As you can see; small red square is showing current position of your knights.

    6. @Chet, maybe you need to click that icon again from the zoomed-in map?

    7. Well, that's interesting. Clicking it while I'm already on the map causes emulator to crash. I assumed it was a bug caused by clicking the map when you're already on the map, but perhaps it's supposed to show a smaller-scale map, but something's going wrong.

      In any event, I already won the game without the map, so not a huge deal either way.

  20. One of your screen shots has Ruy Lopez speaking. That's likely a reference to Bishop Ruy Lopez, a 16th Century chess master. The popular Ruy Lopez chess opening bears his name.

    1. Thanks. I was wondering where that one came from. Apparently, the creators regarded any Spanish figures throughout history as fair game in this setting.

  21. Re: your keyboard problem, there might be a compatibility issue with DosBox and alt-tabbing in Windows 10. See

  22. "There is no sound in the game, only music. The music is good, but I don't like listening to music while I play RPGs, so I have the sound off."

    Please don't do this to "Planescape: Torment" or I'd be forced to seek you out and murder you with a thousand gimlets.

  23. It slightly irks me that whilst the game uses the correct plural "dwarfs" your review uses the somewhat less grammatical "dwarves" as popularised by Tolkien. But I guess that's just a sign of how popular his books are.

    1. I guarantee that it doesn't irk you as much as it irks me that you felt the need to make such a pedantic comment.

  24. I don't understand why they didn't just make a game about the Song of Roland if they wanted a mythical knight game set during the Crusades. Anybody whose played the previous game or even knows anything about King Arthur is going to know they screwed with the dates. You could even keep the title. Just have Merlin give Roland Excalibur or even have the leader of the Saracens use it, and Roland needs to reclaim it. You could even have some of the old characters be sent into a mystical sleep until they are needed again, like King Arthur was in some versions of the original story. Plus they could say they're the first game to tackle the second greatest French legend, after Jeanne D'Arc.


I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) This also includes user names that link to advertising.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters. I will delete comments containing profanity on a case-by-case basis.

3. NO ANONYMOUS COMMENTS. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. If you don't want to log in to Google to comment, either a) choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank, or b) sign your anonymous comment with a preferred user name in the text of the comment itself.

4. I appreciate if you use ROT13 for explicit spoilers for the current game and upcoming games. Please at least mention "ROT13" in the comment so we don't get a lot of replies saying "what is that gibberish?"

5. Comments on my blog are not a place for slurs against any race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or mental or physical disability. I will delete these on a case-by-case basis depending on my interpretation of what constitutes a "slur."

Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

I read all comments, no matter how old the entry. So do many of my subscribers. Reader comments on "old" games continue to supplement our understanding of them. As such, all comment threads on this blog are live and active unless I specifically turn them off. There is no such thing as "necro-posting" on this blog, and thus no need to use that term.

I will delete any comments that simply point out typos. If you want to use the commenting system to alert me to them, great, I appreciate it, but there's no reason to leave such comments preserved for posterity.

I'm sorry for any difficulty commenting. I turn moderation on and off and "word verification" on and off frequently depending on the volume of spam I'm receiving. I only use either when spam gets out of control, so I appreciate your patience with both moderation tools.