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.
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.