Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Game 213: Dusk of the Gods (1991)

I'm ashamed to say I know more about the Thor and Odin in the Marvel universe than in actual Norse mythology, something that's going to change during my time with Dusk of the Gods, an original and (so far) fun RPG from the folks behind the previous year's DarkSpyre, using a modified version of the DarkSpyre interface. Almost half of the Dusk manual is dedicated to legends and stories about Odin, Baldur, Heimdall, and the rest of the Aesir, including a detailed glossary.
The backstory is covered in a long series of animated screens, with an accompanying musical score. It's not the first time we've seen this in a CRPG, but this one might be the longest. The story covers how, as a youth, Odin gave an eye to the Well of Wisdom so he might see the future. The vision showed him Ragnarok--the titular dusk of the gods--when all of Asgard's enemies will rise up and the world will sink beneath the ocean and be born again.
Odin makes a plan.
The coming battle will be heralded by the death of Baldur, Odin's son. I love the backstory here. When Baldur was born to Odin and Frigga, Frigga made all the objects of the world promise to never harm him. But for some reason, she didn't ask the mistletoe. Anyway, since he was invulnerable to all things, the gods would get together and chuck things at his head just to amuse themselves. I guess he was okay with this, but it's amusing to think of the poor guy always having stones bounced off his skull because everyone knows it won't hurt him. That's totally what would happen in real life.

Anyway, Loke has an arrow made out of mistletoe and slips it to Hodur, a blind god. Hodur, participating in the latest round of Baldur-pelting, accidentally kills Baldur. Now, everyone's after Hodur's head even though it wasn't his fault at all.
"Ha, ha! That's a good one, Baldur! Come on, get up!...Baldur?"
Thus, Ragnarok is imminent, and Odin is destined to be killed during the battle by Fenrir, the monstrous wolf, who keeps breaking his bindings. The Aesir will lose, and the forces of evil will be left to rule the new world.

Knowing he cannot prevent Ragnarok but seeking to change its outcome, Odin tasks one of the einherjar--fallen warriors resurrected in Valhalla--to make some preemptive strikes to "weaken our enemies, stripping them of any advantage they may have at Ragnarok." This einherjor is, of course, the character, and his first task is to fashion a new set of chains for Fenrir so the wolf will be safely imprisoned on Judgement Day.

It might devolve later, but I rather like the setup here. No obvious "big bad" to kill, and a reasonably original plot.
Available character portraits. None of them, alas, are bald.
DarkSpyre had a unique character creation process in which the various character attributes were woven into a story about the hero's life. Event Horizon shows the same originality in Dusk. After choosing a portrait, the player is taken to a map dotted with temples to four gods--Odin, Thor, Tyr, and Freya--schools, and the occasional battle or raid. A meter representing the character's life swiftly depletes at the bottom of the screen. The player has a limited time to click around the map, spending years studying, fighting battles, or serving the gods.
A selection that will increase my "sage" abilities.
When the time is up, a character screen indicates how much "warrior" and "sage" ability he developed and how much he is favored by the four gods. Thanks to a warning by commenter VK, I knew that the two skills are developed during the game by using them while the "god scores" never budge. Hence, I tried to develop a moderate amount in everything.
My character.
At some point after this creation process--the game doesn't tell you how--the character dies on the field of battle and awakens in Valhalla, where Odin explains the backstory and the character's mission. From there, he sets off to explore the place and complete his first quest to chain Fenrir.

As I said, the game uses a modified DarkSpyre interface. (DarkSpyre also had Norse themes, if you recall.) The graphics have been improved and the view is changed to an oblique angle from DarkSpyre's "top down" approach, but the basic mechanism is still map on the top, characteristics and inventory at the bottom. As with DarkSpyre, the border between the two panes is adjustable. Redundant keyboard and mouse options perform the primary commands: talk, take an item, unlock a door, lock a door, use an inventory item, and cast a spell.

This and DarkSpyre are the only games I know (so far) with adjustable windows like this.
The biggest addition from DarkSpyre is a large collection of NPCs who tell you more about the game world and your quest. You speak to them in Origin fashion by typing or clicking keywords. Dusk strikes a nice balance between clicking on keywords the game spoon-feeds you (Ultima VII) and having to write everything down (Ultima IV-V). Keywords that appear within the given conversation are listed for you to click on, but NPCs might respond to other words that you pick up from other NPCs. So you do have to engage in a bit of note-taking, which I like.
Selectable dialogue options plus an "other" box where you can type what you want.
There's an option to automatically print all conversations, but turning it on caused the graphics to glitch, and the printing didn't seem to work with my DOSBox settings anyway.

As we're about to see, this might actually be preferable than having to type all the conversations myself.
Odin had a lot of dialogue about creating the fetters to bind Fenrir. To solve this quest, I need to take six items to the smith Thjasse-Volund: a mountain's root, a cat's footfall, the spittle of birds, a bear's sinews, a woman's beard, and the breath of fish. Aside from a bear's sinew, these objects sound either metaphorical or oxymoronic, but I'll see what transpires.

To me, NPCs are a core part of the RPG experience, and I prize games that have detailed NPC interaction. I like learning something of the game world from NPCs, and finding clues and hints that I can take to other NPCs. But even as late as 1991, developers were rarely including solid NPC interaction as a primary game mechanic. 73 games on my ratings sheet--over one-third--have a 0 for the NPC category, and around 85% rate below 5. Thus, when the rare game comes along that does have good NPC interaction--Ultima IV-VI, Starflight, Quest for Glory, Escape from Hell--I'm predisposed to like it.

As I left Odin's quarters, I encountered my first NPC, Reginlief. Based on the keywords in our conversation, this is what I wrote in my notes as a summary of his talk:
I'm currently in Idavoll, where the masters of Asgard gather to pass judgment. I should feel free to walk around, as everyone is welcome when there's no council in session. But I should be careful not to sit on the golden seats, including Odin's throne Hlidskialf. No one really knows the origin of Hlidskialf, not even Odin, but from it he can survey Midgard and the realm of giants. Frey made the mistake of sitting on the throne once, and he was cursed with love for the giantess Gerd as a result. Frey's shield man, Skirmir, is about to ride off to the giant's land and ask Gerd to marry Frey. He's bearing the Sword of Victory as a dowry gift to Gerd's father, Gymir. But Gyrmir is a sworn enemy of Asgard, likely to be on the opposite side at Ragnarok, so handing him the Sword of Victory could be disastrous. Anyone who wields the sword is all but invincible; it could even slay the greatest of giants, Surt, who carries his own magical flaming sword.
Wow, right? Considering this is a summary--the actual text of the dialogue is about 2.5 times as long--a single NPC in Dusk of the Gods has more text in his conversation than entire towns in Ultima V.

I eagerly moved on to discussions with Sif, Thor's wife, whose beautiful golden locks were crafted by Sindre the Smith after Loke (that's the game's version) sneaked into her bedroom and cut hers. Frigga, Odin's wife, was in mourning for the slain Baldur and wanted to be left alone. Fulla, her handmaiden, told me about Odin's friendship with the giantess Hyrokkin, and when I fed that keyword back to Odin, he went on about how cool she is and how few friends among the giants the gods have. Hermod traveled to Hel to see if Hela would release Baldur back to the world of the living. She said she would if all things on heaven and earth would weep for him, but a giant named Thokk (suspected by many to be Loke in disguise) refused, so Baldur is screwed. Spearskogul is the Valkyrie who "chose" me after my death on Midgard and carried me to Valhalla; she's upset because her sister Brynhild has been cursed by Odin into an eternal magical slumber because she helped a king named Erik Bloodaxe who had lost Odin's favor. Then there's Hrist and Ketil and...
I suddenly noted that my hands were getting cramped. My summary of the dialogues in Valhalla, involving more than 25 NPCs, stretched into five single-spaced pages. Coupled with my constant viewing of Wikipedia to see how much of this material comes from original myths, I spent more than four hours just wandering around the starting area. I started to understand why the original had an auto-print option and wished I could get it to work. I guess "be careful what you wish for" is the lesson.
Wow. Casting Rene Russo was definitely a kindness.
Among all the discussions, I got beads on several possible side-quests:

  • Thor's hammer, Mjollnir, was recently broken when it was struck by the Sword of Victory, wielded by Svipdag. Thor is hiding out in his house because he doesn't want Asgard's enemies, principally the giants, to know that his hammer is broken. If I can find the head of the hammer, Sindre the Smith can re-forge it. Otherwise, Thor will probably fall to Jormungandr, the World Serpent, at Ragnarok.
Loke seems to be behind everything.
  • Odin's brother Hoenir is hanging around. He's the leader of the Vanir (a group of gods that opposed the Aesir, led by Odin). He says the Vanir will join the Aesir at Ragnarok if they can drink of the Mead of Consequence, but Odin refuses to give them any. I might be able to steal some more from Surt, the giant that Odin originally stole his from.
  • Odin would probably look aside if I rescued Brynhild from her magic slumber, which would earn me the good will of the Valkyries.
I carefully avoid making a promise.
  • If I want to stop the Sword of Victory from going to the giants, I can trick Gerd into marrying Frey by using a Wand of Charming or Rod of Subduing on her. Both artifacts are held by Hela.
My character has some cojones.
  • If I can find the Star of Muspell, the smith Thjasse-Volund will make me a suit of armor from it. It's the only thing that would defend against the Sword of Victory.
  • Ketil, a guard, told me that there are huge bears in southern Asgard on the Vigrid Plain. I could probably get the sinews there.
  • Frigga's handmaiden Hlin suggested I help a good king named Nitheri whose daughter was abducted by a giant known as TreeSmiter. Odin refuses to help because the king isn't much of a warrior.

Odin doesn't much act like a king trying to win Ragnarok.

  • A number of NPCs thought I'd benefit from Sleipnir, Odin's enchanted eight-legged horse. Odin himself said he'd be happy to give him to me, but only someone of Odin's blood can ride it. I don't know if this is a throw-away or if there's some quest that will satisfy this requirement.
  • Everyone thinks I should talk to the giantess Hyrokkin in Jotunheim, but they won't tell me why.

There are several NPCs that will be useful throughout the game, including one who will heal me, one who will cast a limited-duration protection spell on me, one who will renew my torch, and one who will teach me the uses of any runes I find.

Some other dialogue highlights:

Even in Norse mythology, there are crazy cat ladies.
This should be a dialogue option in every game.
More dialogue that Marvel could just lift wholesale.
It took me a while to find any equipment. There are a couple of chests kicking around the rooms of Idavoll, but I can't figure out how to open them, and in any event Odin gave me this lecture about keeping my honor. Eventually, I ran into a guy named Inghen, who gave me my first spear, torch, and boots.

My character sheet towards the end of this session.
Before then, however, I encountered some wolves south of the main building. This reminded me of the Event Horizon approach to combat, which is like Dungeon Master in the third person. By clicking on your hands (or whatever's held in them), you initiate an attack. After this, you have to wait through a "cool down" period for that hand or weapon to be available again. The wolves killed me, and I was resurrected in Idavoll with all my stuff, so I'm not sure if there's any real consequence to death.
Chjestyr tries to Liam-Neeson the wolves.
My experiences so far leave me wondering about the overall nature of the main quest. Do I have to do all of the things on my rapidly-growing list, or just enough to tip the balance for Ragnarok? And if the latter, is it my choice which ones to solve? And what triggers the final battle, anyway? Is there a time limit? It's possible that this game is somewhat like Disciples of Steel where there's a time limit and you have to accomplish as much as possible, but not necessarily everything, within that time.

I also wonder if we'll see some of DarkSpyre's puzzles in this game or whether Event Horizon jettisoned that part of the interface.

My character at the front doors of Idavoll.
I have to do another loop through the area and make sure I didn't miss anyone before heading out to the larger world (I'm not even sure how I do that yet), and I'm thinking about changing my notes to be more "glossary-based" than NPC-based. Either way, I'm glad to have Autoduel to ease the strain on my hands in between Dusk of the Gods sessions.


  1. The Summoning from 1992 also have adjustable windows, as seen in this youtube video:

    1. That makes sense. Same company, and The Summoning is a sequel to DarkSpyre.

    2. Veil of Darkness also uses the same engine, though it's much less of an RPG. Same combat and inventory, but no mechanical character development; basically it's an adventure. Very good, IMO, for the era. And still playable to my standards (then again, I play Dwarf Fortress). I spent many hours in the Summoning, stuck on one particularly annoying puzzle. I'll leave it alone, since you'll be getting there soon enough.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I've played a lot of RPGs with a basis in Norse mythology, but few of those felt as well-researched as this. Most just crib from the sagas because they think valkyries are cool (though to be fair tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile is a fantastic series in its own right).

    I'm just glad that Too Human is off the table, being console-exclusive. That would've been rough.

    1. I liked Valkyrie Profile too but felt it too linear; especially when even the party members are strictly controlled if you wish to achieve the best ending.

    2. Heroine's Quest, the QFG tribute Crystal Shard put out recently, is probably my favorite RPG based on Norse myth. What other such RPGs do you like?

  3. I'm getting a positive vibe here. For me personally, it looks like 1991 is where the graphics start to get pleasant.
    Game design also seems advanced enough now to give every game a couple of side quests.
    Plus, you have some mythological background with extra lore here. Maybe I should try to play it as well..

    1. The graphics are nice and the story seems very rich, but why did they have gray letters on brown background? I find it hard to read.

  4. "And what triggers the final battle, anyway? - Giving Heimdal his horn. It's actually written in the manual. ;)
    Generally, I believe, you should treat the quests given by the major gods as main, while those given by other creatures as side. I think you may get different endings depending on how many of gods' quests you do, but I don't remember exactly, it's been too long ago.

  5. I think Dusk of the Gods is a decent literal English translation of 'Ragnarok'.

    I'm not sure if Ragnarok is perceived to be an ultimately negative event in Norse mythology. It seems like your typical eschatological reboot - things were getting a bit wild and it was time to start again.

    Not that I mind a story that riffs on Norse mythology (or any other universe) as long as treats the source material with some respect. I think it's an interesting set-up, to skew Ragnarok as a 'bad thing' and to attempt to change the outcome. There are certainly a lot of plausible end bosses - going by the story you might expect to fight Fenrir or not, but I would be surprised if there wasn't a major showdown with Surtur (from whom D&D's fire giants unashamedly borrow from).

    1. Right. From what I read about them Norse stories (some are sordid as hell - like Loki coupling with giantesses, Thor masquerading as a woman & etc.), Ragnarok basically ends the Age of Gods to usher in the Age of Men; shifting the focus of the (known) universe from Asgard to Midgard.

      There are some theories that believe that Ragnarok had already happened in our timeline.

      One Biblically-linked theory believe that the Great Flood was Ragnarok.

      Some theories believe that Rangarok is a chain of ongoing extinction events; including Lake Toba eruption, the Ice Age and some (could be faked) evidences of modern men existing in prehistoric times.

      Also, Ancient Astronaut theorists who believe that Asgard is another planet and that Bifrost is a teleportation beam or something- basically how Marvel depicts the Norse "gods".

    2. The biggest problem with Norse mythology is that almost everything we know about it comes from Christian monks writing the stories down centuries later, so it's hard to know what's original and what's been added through association with those new beliefs.

      Was Ragnarok originally a part of the mythology, or a good way to end the story of this "false" set of beliefs? Did Loki originally turn bad, or did the monks make that up?

    3. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesMarch 3, 2016 at 12:30 PM

      You want sordid, try the Greek myths: They start with Uranus and Chronos, whose son is Chronos. Chronos kills Uranus, then marries Gaea and their children are the Gods and Titans. Chronos then eats his children, except Zeus whom Gaea hides in a cave. Zeus escapes, kills Chronos and frees his siblings. He throws Chronos's penis in the sea and Aphrodite is born from it. Zeus then marries Gaea, or in some versions of the story his sister Rhea. He eventually marries his other sister, Hera who is perpetually angry at him for habit of impregnating human women while disguised as animals.

    4. Oh, of course, I didn't even think about it. 'Dusk of the Gods' is the literal translation of the german word "Götterdämmerung", the Wagnerian term for Ragnarok.

    5. OHRG - Close, but the anal retentive classicist in me can't resist making a few corrections. If you follow most of the authorities, the first deity (or entity) is Chaos, whence spring the primordial deities. You're confusing Chronos (time personified, a primordial entity) with Kronos the titan, father of Zeus (yes, I know sometimes the ancients did the same thing). The castration was of Ouranos, by Kronos. Kronos threw the testicles into the sea, and from the froth was born Aphrodite (yes, there are other stories of her birth). You're also confusing Rhea with Hera. Rhea is a titan, consort of Kronos and mother of Zeus. Hera is Zeus's sister, one of the Olympian Gods and his wife. Yes, yes, I know there are variants, but the above is the one most commonly found in the classics.

    6. I believe a lot of the confusion arose from the damn Romans changing the names of the deities to those of their own pantheon. I personally believe that the Romans actually have a different Creation Myth but, because the Greek version is so damn insane yet awesome, they just up and stole the whole lot for their own use.

  6. I remember this game! I started playing it and it was a bit too much NPCs for me. Then I went out and was slain. Then I quit and played something else. The pacing doesn't fit my playstyle.

    It will be interesting to follow you, though!

  7. I put a ton of time into The Summoning back in the day, I was wondering why these screens shots looked vaguely familiar.
    Funny, never even realized it was a follow-up. Either I glossed over it in the game or it was never mentioned. I remember it being fun and tough as nails, at least in the opening areas.

    You at long last approaching the era of pc games I had access to, I've been looking forward to this!

  8. The game looks interesting (in a number of ways) and I enjoyed this introductory post--but I'm also filled with a mild dread, given the posts on Darkspyre. Will a promising start go terribly wrong? I'm really hoping not. (I seem to recall a lot of positive sentiment toward The Summoning, so maybe it's an example of a company learning with each iteration?)

    1. It looks like they perhaps overcompensated for lack of npc dialog in DarkSpyre with this game. It definitely seems like a fascinating game though, I just hope the combat isn't as tedious as it sounds.

    2. Dusk is very different from DarkSpyre - it has a lot of story and an open world instead of linear sequence of levels. Puzzles in Dusk are more Adventure-style - i.e. using the right item/spell in the right circumstances. The Summoning is kinda mix between the two - it has both NPCs and DM-style puzzles, and is set in a dungeon, but the dungeon has a more horizontal layout with many possible ways through.

  9. Q: If Baldur has a house, would the door to it be called Baldur's Gate?

    Q: If Achilles is barred from using Mistletoe-based weaponry but allowed to wear an Adamantium heel-guard in a duel against Baldur, would both die from exhaustion instead?

    Q: Is the God of Mischief actually Cantonese?

    Regarding spittle of a bird, I believe you can find it mountain caves.

    1. Speaking of game intros, nobody really did an awesome job on them until 1996 with Soul Edge on the Playstation.

      After setting a standard for that, cinematic intro scenes became staple. Basically, if you don't have the urge to press the Start button after watching the intro, the people making the intro are doing it wrong.

    2. I love the joke in the Zero Punctuation review of Too Human - "Huge repetitive environments only exasperated by the toe curlingly slow movement speed. Or perhaps I should call it Baldur's Gait..."

    3. > Speaking of game intros, nobody really did an awesome job on them until 1996 with Soul Edge on the Playstation.

      I'd say you never played System Shock.

    4. Sorry, most epic game intro ever award goes to Emperor of the Fading Suns:

    5. Nope, nothing can beat the Epicness of Zero Wing

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. @Anonymous & erik - I did play both games and System Shock was awesome while EotFS (released AFTER Soul Edge) was passable. The intros were okay in telling me what happened but definitely didn't form a welling urge in me to press "Start Game".

      That's the thing about intros before Soul Edge; they were all more informative as prologue than not. I might be a little harsh here seeing that Soul Edge was an video arcade game that's supposed to cause gaming hunger to earn coins versus that of PC games.

  10. Agree regarding System Shock, great intro.

    I don't think Soul Edge compares particularly favorably with two others from '96, namely MW: Mercenaries (action-packed, the cockpit fmv was mind-blowing, and it sets up the story with a brutal slice of self-interested behaviour) and C&C: Red Alert (helped along by one of the most well-regarded VG songs of all time - 'Hell March')

    1. I dunno, mate. I've always felt the FMVs in 90s PC games were extremely tacky and cheesy; even if Tia Carrere, Christopher Walken or Jeff Goldblum were acting in it. But hey, I guess from all these comments, to each their own.

    2. Obdurate Hater of Rhtyhm GamesMarch 10, 2016 at 6:34 PM

      I was never a fan of Full Motion Video games either: Most of them were nothing but QTEs and button mashing, the most tedious of video game activities; and the stories were usually awful. I was always disappointed with the PS1 and Sega CD compared to previous systems like NES, SNES, Turbografix 16 and Genesis, although they did have some classic non-FMV games like Crash Bandicoot, Final Fantasy 7 and Popful Mail, and the PS2 and 3 were excellent.

  11. Gotta say, love your norse-style spelling of Chester. Also looking forward to more of this game, it looks good and the setting is fairly unique.

  12. Pulling down the window like that to see what's "underneath" is how the Amiga did multitasking. It's not stated which platform this is on, if it's not the Amiga then it will have been the first time I've seen this effect on another OS.

  13. Note: I happened to grab a compendium of Norse Mythology off of Librivox a few months ago, and the ingredients for the chain are straight out of the story. If they stick with it, it'll be a very thin, light chain when it's done, and everyone will laugh at the idea that it could work.

  14. The print option makes me think of the sound of a dot matrix, running constantly. I still have to use one at work.


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